Thursday, June 30, 2016

Power of Complaining vs. Power of Prayer

We certainly have a lot to gripe, moan and complain about, don’t we? Whether of the liberal or conservative persuasion politically, or somewhere in between, we all can find ample causes for grousing about how things are going in our country today.

Looking at social media, we find ourselves awash in criticism of the President, senators and representatives in Congress, so-called “presumptive” Presidential candidates, and the various wannabes. If we can’t say something bad about someone, then don’t say anything at all!

I confess to often being tempted to add my own two cents to the “discussion.” But in all honesty, do we really “discuss” on social media, with minds already firmly made up and a goal only to find others to reinforce our prejudices? Civil debate and dialogue seem anathema to contemporary discourse.

Realizing this, I’ve begun to wonder what good I’m accomplishing when I choose to “Like” a derogatory comment I agree with about a particular individual or group of people. As someone has wisely observed, if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.

So what are we to do? We could all produce a laundry list of complaints, issues well-deserving of our self-indulgent mumbling and grumbling. But what if we did something different? Something, dare I use the word, radical? What if we chose instead to channel the energy we use for complaining into . . . praying?

What if we did something radical - like praying?
What if, every time we saw a critical or derogatory post on Facebook, Twitter or other social media about Obama, Hillary, Trump, Sanders or some other public figure, rather than nodding in agreement, clicking "Like," adding comments, or hitting "Share" – so everyone else knows our views – we decided instead to pause and pray for those individuals?

I suspect none of our elite leaders and would-be leaders cares one whit about what I think, and they’re not losing a wink of sleep over whether I support their policies and platforms. But what if I invested my energy in praying for God to work miraculously in their hearts and lives, as well as our nation? And perhaps, in my own heart, too?

In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, the apostle Paul exhorted, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be offered on behalf of all men, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Are we not enjoying peaceful and quiet lives these days? Maybe it’s because we’re not praying and interceding as God has instructed.

Perhaps someone is thinking, “Yeah, but those people don’t represent what I believe – or what I think God expects of us!” I hear that “yeah, but.” However, here is what Jesus said about that: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Doesn’t that make you want to say, “Aw, come on now, Jesus. Really? Seriously?”

I know a man who a few decades ago declared that he prayed daily for the leaders of the U.S.S.R., long before the Iron Curtain fell and the Communist powerhouse splintered into a number of independent countries. Did that occur because of my friend’s prayers? Probably not – but his prayers were in fact answered.

Do we believe in the power of prayer? Do you believe in the power of prayer? The Bible speaks effusively about prayer – its power, its importance, its urgency. One of the first verses I learned tells us to, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

By comparison, the Scriptures say very little about grumbling and complaining. In the Old Testament we do see the ancient Israelites doing a lot of that, but all it accomplished was getting them into trouble.

What the Bible does command is this: Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15). Seems like it’s saying the less complaining we do, the brighter the light of Christ can shine through us.

It’s often said, “When all else fails, pray.” Will praying – instead of moaning and groaning, mumbling and grumbling – make a difference? God’s Word says it will.

It seems the polarizing posts on our various social media sites have done little more than provide an opportunity to let off steam. The Beatles used to sing, “Give peace a chance.” What if we got serious and earnestly decided to give prayer a chance? It could make a difference far beyond our wildest dreams.

“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” (Philippians 4:6-7).

Monday, June 27, 2016

One Way, Or the Highway?

When I was a boy, my family occasionally ventured from suburban New Jersey to the “concrete jungle” of New York City. We had relatives living in Manhattan, and my dad was brave enough to drive into the city.

Once, without GPS to assist, Dad made a turn in Midtown only to discover he was going the wrong way on a one-way street. Realizing his error, he found a place to change direction before one of the NYPD’s finest could penalize him for his mistake. After correcting his course, my father quipped, “Well, I was only driving one way!”

In this instance it was no-harm, no-foul, but we’ve heard about drivers who, whether confused or impaired, have driven down the wrong side of a freeway with tragic results. As much as we’d like to think we’re free to choose any route we want, it’s obvious that in many cases the correct way to go isn’t multiple-choice.

If you’re hiking and find a chasm spanned by a rope bridge, you may feel wary about crossing on a contraption that swings under your feet. But to get across, it’s the one way. If you want to see your favorite team’s biggest game of the season in person, there’s only one way to get in. You’ll have to produce a ticket to gain entrance.

To become a medical doctor, it won’t suffice to enter a local pharmacy and buy a stethoscope, go to a uniform shop and purchase some scrubs, then declare yourself “Doctor.” There’s one way to become a certified physician: College, medical school, then extensive professional training.

If you need a blood transfusion, a pint of the purest tomato juice, or red Kool-Aid, or red grape juice will not do. Or blood from an animal. Only human blood will do the job, and even at that, it must be the right type. As your physician or attending nurse will affirm, there’s just one way.

And yet, people bristle when followers of Christ declare that Jesus is the one and only way to know God and spend eternity with Him. “How intolerant!” Others argue, “Who are you to judge?” Still others respond, “There are many ways to God. All that matters is that you’re sincere.”

I’m sure most drivers traveling the wrong direction on the interstate, crashing head-on with oncoming cars, were “sincere” in believing they were going the right way. They might not have seen the “One Way” or “Do Not Enter” signs on the roadway.

But saying Jesus is the one and only way isn’t my call. He’s the one that said it.Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). Again, His words, not mine.

Talking to a crowd of people, Jesus informed them it’s His way or the highway. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Some vehemently disagree, convinced all belief systems lead to the same destination. Or simply being “good enough” is sufficient. However, a thoughtful reading of the Scriptures doesn’t reveal such alternatives. However, this doesn’t mean those who affirm the biblical view are narrow-minded, “haters,” or lacking in tolerance.

My friend, Randy Nabors, explained this on his own blog as concisely and truthfully as anything I’ve ever heard. He wrote, “Truth is not hateful, but truth is intolerant of non-truth, and may feel hateful to those who don’t want to hear it or deny it.”

The good news is, as Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He’s saying there truly is only one way – but it’s available to all willing to take it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Resisting and Rejecting the 80:20 Rule

Have you heard of the so-called “80:20 Rule”? It’s the notion that in nearly every organization, about 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. Meaning, of course, the other 80 percent of the folks perform only 20 percent of the work. I suppose some consider it their labor-saving strategy.

Apparently this has been documented by statistical methodology, but it’s also evident by casual observation. It’s commonly practiced in churches, volunteer organizations like PTAs, sports teams and community clubs, and various charitable groups and ministries. It happens in lots of businesses as well.

This guideline serves as the basis for the saying, “If you want to get something done, find a busy person to do it.”

Like it or not, that’s often the case. When a project needs to be undertaken, whether organizing a picnic, participating in a strategy group, or offering help to people in need, we’re likely to see the same folks stepping up to do the work every time. There can be any number of reasons to explain why this is so, but should this be the rule?

Consider the human body as an example. It’s designed in such a way that each part plays a valuable and indispensable role. My heart can’t do what the pancreas does, and my brain, as important as it is for directing the entire body, isn’t intended to do what my feet do. There’s no 80:20 rule in the human body – each organ performs its role. If they all do so properly and in harmony, we have what’s called a healthy body.

Years ago I met an unforgettable man, Ivan Brown, who became a highly respected law enforcement leader in Jamaica. The unusual thing about Ivan was that for much of his life, he had no hands. Early in his career as a police officer, he’d been pursuing a fugitive criminal through the Jamaican jungle. The machete-wielding felon attacked Ivan, cutting off both of his hands when Ivan raised his arms in self-defense.

Miraculously, Ivan survived the attack and after healing from his wounds, received prosthetic hands and forearms he learned to use with limited effectiveness. But they were never a suitable substitute for his real hands.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Ivan relied on others – especially his wife, Monica, and an assistant assigned to him – to serve as his hands. Even limited as he was, with their aid, his strong determination and even stronger faith, Ivan ascended the ranks of law enforcement, eventually rising to the rank of constable.

Always positive, and rarely without a smile, he never complained about the disability or circumstances that brought it about. But until his last day on earth, Ivan was a living testament to how important each part of the body is for fulfilling its intended function.

So this 80:20 “tradition,” with a minority within each group doing the majority of the work, seems sad – and unfortunate. Collectively we possess such talent, so many abilities, skills and such breadth of experience and interests. Why should a handful of people do all the work – and in truth, have all the fun – while the rest of us look on passively like spectators at a ballgame?

The Bible presents this view: “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body…. If they all were one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-20).

What this means for us as followers of Jesus becomes clear when the apostle Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). As he noted earlier in the passage, “God has combined the members of the body, and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25).

That doesn’t mean everyone should sing in the choir, or teach a Sunday school class, or serve on a board of elders or deacons, or work in the nursery. We are all different. But rather than standing by watching a handful of people juggle their schedules and try to manage multiple responsibilities, we should each evaluate our strengths, as well as those specific areas where we sense God is directing us to serve – even outside the walls of the traditional church building.

If we hope to one day hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23), from our Lord, it might be wise first to determine exactly where He desires for each of us to serve as His “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13).

Monday, June 20, 2016

Living Under New Management

In a little more than four months, Americans from coast to coast will stream to the polls to elect not only a new President and Vice President, but also U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives. There are those who support the course our nation is on today and are looking for more of the same. Others are eager for the country to be “under new management,” hoping the direction the United States has taken will shift drastically.

Fresh starts often foster high hopes.
The idea of new management can be very appealing in many situations, whether for a once-popular restaurant, a retail store, or a major corporation where profits and consumer confidence need a strong boost. It’s the hope that under new management, necessary changes will take place, along with major improvements.

Sometimes even congregations could benefit from being under “new management,” especially in circumstances when it appears to be the senior pastor, and not God, who’s calling the shots.

Bringing it down to an even more personal level, has there ever been a time when you sensed a need for your own life to be “under new management”?

I remember years ago, as a fairly new believer, wrestling with a variety of issues – anger and anxiety being among them. How could a Christian think and act the way I was? I remember praying, asking God for “help” in overcoming these struggles. Despite my best efforts, however, I was making no progress. The “bolt” of spiritual strength I was anticipating from on high never seemed to come.

At the time I was also trying to come to terms with two verses I was memorizing. One was Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The other passage was 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

“How can this be?” I wondered in frustration. “How can Jesus live in me spiritually with all this anger, my short temper, and the constant anxiousness I feel?” And I certainly did not feel like a “new creation.” I seemed like the same old flawed, troubled knucklehead I’d always been. I began to question whether I genuinely was a follower of Jesus Christ, or whether I was just fooling myself – and perhaps everyone else – just going through the motions, saying the right words.

Thankfully, around that time God put a man into my life who encouraged me to dig deeper into the Scriptures. He urged me to discover not who I felt I was, or who I thought I was, but what the Bible truly said about me and who I was in relation to Jesus as one of His followers. The key, I learned, was not relying on ever-shifting feelings, but instead starting to act upon God’s revealed truth.

For instance, Romans 6:4 states, “We were therefore buried with (Christ) through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” For me that meant if I believed and appropriated that promise, I could indeed be living “under new management.”

Another verse, Romans 6:11, expands on that idea: “In the same way, count (consider, reckon) yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  A bit later the apostle Paul added, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:12). What I’ve learned this means is that while the influence of sin is not dead to me, I am no longer enslaved or in bondage to it, as Paul explained in Romans 6:15-23.

This, frankly, is heavy stuff, biblical truth I’m striving to trust in and act upon to this day. It sounds too good to be true. In reality, it’s good – but not too good. And it is true. I’ve discovered many of the revered giants of Christian history – people like Saint Augustine, A.W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, Oswald Chambers, Fanny Crosby, Hudson Taylor and countless others – have found freedom and great joy as they came to understand their identity in Christ, instead of who they sometimes felt like they were. In fact, years ago someone wrote a book called They Found the Secret, accounts of people who experienced the transforming impact of grasping what it means to be “in Christ.”

Sometimes I’m more successful in living out this truth than other times. What the Bible calls “the flesh” is stubborn, and old habits don’t die easily. But if we read, study and apply what the Scriptures teach, we’ll realize we can in fact be “under new management” spiritually, realizing Acts 17:28 – “For in him (Jesus) we live and move and have our being.”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Does God Always Beat You?

For a time, these signs were everywhere.
Right in the middle of a department store, the little boy said, “Mommy, don’t beat me when we get home.” Puzzled and perplexed, the mother looked at her son and asked, “Honey, I never beat you. Why do you say that?” “Yes you do, Mommy. All the time. You always beat me to the front door.”

I heard this story at a recent men’s breakfast and we all chuckled. Ah, from the mouths of babes.
Obviously the child wasn’t talking about being paddled or abused, although the casual bystander might have jumped to that conclusion. He just didn’t like the idea of his mom, a grownup, always beating him to wherever he was going.

There’s humor, but also some truth, to this little exchange. Most of the time, we enjoy being the first – unless we’re confronted with something unpleasant, like having to get a shot at the doctor’s office, taking some vile-tasting medicine, or going to the dentist. Then we’re perfectly fine with, “Please, by all means, after you!”

In a sense, that’s also true for us spiritually. There are the times when we’re dead-set on having things our own way and follow whatever path we’ve decided to take. When we get there, we find God has arrived there first – and often we don’t like it. Especially when we know our “destination” doesn’t meet with His approval. That’s when we feel guilt, or conviction, and conclude God is nothing but a divine spoilsport. “He doesn’t want me to have any fun.”

But that’s the problem we sometimes have in knowing God is “omnipresent” – He’s everywhere. In one of his psalms, King David wrote, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).

When we’re in trouble, in distress, or confounded by life’s circumstances, it’s reassuring to know God is in every place, that wherever we go, He’s already “beat us” there. At times He may be silent or seem unresponsive to our complaints or pleas, but as Jesus promised His followers just before ascending to the heavenly realms, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

But when we’d rather be left alone to pursue our desires or plans without having to wonder what God thinks, it bugs us to know He beats us. And not just some of the time, but all of the time.

Recently billboards around my city of Chattanooga, Tenn. carried only one word: “UBIQUITOUS.” This word we rarely use in casual conversation is defined as “the property of being present everywhere…most commonly used in a religious context as an attribute of a deity or supreme being.” We’ve just learned these ads are part of a Coca-Cola marketing campaign to promote the idea that the soft drink can be found almost anywhere, even remote parts of the world.

But as God is described in the Bible, the term ubiquitous seems suitable – although the word “omnipresence” gives understanding of this divine attribute an even more universal scope. You might not find Coca-Cola atop Mount Everest or in the depths of the ocean, if you happen to go to such places, but you will find God there.

So, how does that work? How can someone be busy working at their desk in a place like Chattanooga and acknowledge God, then fly to a destination out of the country on business or for a vacation, maybe to China or South Africa, only to find He’s there, too?

Some of my most profound spiritual experiences have involved traveling to places like Brazil, Jamaica, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Venezuela, where I discovered that despite geography, language and cultural differences, the same God I serve is at work there as well.

Sometimes life seems to be moving smoothly, no bumps in the road, no significant problems to address. At times like that we can shift into cruise control and enjoy the ride, giving little or no thought to the Lord. Then there are times when difficulties confront us no matter where we turn. Those are the times when God’s omnipresence, His ubiquitous nature, means the most.

It might be in a hospital, where we or a loved one awaits surgery for a serious, even life-threatening malady. It might be sitting at the kitchen table confronted by a stack of bills and a checkbook lacking the funds needed to pay those bills. It might be in the boss’s office, about to receive bad news about our job. No matter the circumstances, isn’t it a source of comfort and reassurance to know that whatever we’ll have to face, God has already beat us there?

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). In other words, God is saying, “Fear not, My child, I’ve beat you there. Now watch how I work things out for you.”