Monday, August 29, 2016

Keeping the ‘Main Thing’ the Main Thing

Starting this weekend, millions across America
will resume a focus on their "main thing."
Well, it’s that time of year again. Football time! (I understanding that not everyone is cheering – some groan at the prospect. Sorry ‘bout that.) But if you’re a college football fan, someone who prefers the NFL, or a person who enjoys both in equal doses, it’s nearly time to get on that game face. In some cases, literally. Annual fantasy football “drafts” are under way, and the seasonal religion of football is poised to open its hallowed cathedrals to devoted congregants.

For some fans it will be a fun diversion, watching a game or two for several hours on a Saturday or Sunday, and then returning to the realities of daily life. For others (and I used to be among them), it becomes what’s most important and will remain such through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and maybe beyond New Year’s. Even during the week, they’ll be agonizing over how their teams will do the next weekend, real and fantasy.

Which raises a question that transcends the gridiron: What is most important? Or to put it another way, in your life, what is the main thing?

Recently I heard a speaker discussing this very topic. Noting how the question of “what’s most important” can elicit a wide range of responses, he wondered, “Can there be multiple ‘most importants’?”

It would seem so, based on how some people act, but by the law of superlatives – I really don’t know if there is such a law, but if there isn’t, there should be – there can only be one entity that qualifies as “most.” All the rest fall in rankings of lesser importance.

Many people have expressed it (or something similar) through the years, but the late Ted DeMoss was the first I ever heard say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The problem, he would explain, is we don’t always keep “the main thing” paramount. Even worse, we fail to identify what the main thing is, resulting in a very disjointed, conflicted life.

For some people, starting later this week, football becomes their main thing. For others, it’s work or career. The main thing can range from family to a favorite pastime to having the perfect house. It can even be training for a marathon or a triathlon, or working out to sculpt that perfect physique. The definition of “the main thing” can differ from person to person, but for those of us who follow Jesus Christ – or recognize the need for a deeper, more fruitful spiritual life – can there really be more than one main thing? Not really.

Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul stated, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). He was determined not to get sidetracked by tangential matters. He resolved to keep the main thing – Jesus – the main thing, no matter what.

I like how the Amplified translation of Philippians 3:10 describes the apostle’s devotion: “(For my determined purpose is) that I may know him – 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….”

Without question Paul had a singular, unwavering goal: to keep Jesus Christ the main thing in his life, and to challenge others to do the same.

“Yeah,” some might argue, “but that was then. This is now.” Perhaps, but from the beginning God has sought to find single-minded people who understood He is, and always should be, the main thing. “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9).

Because being a follower of Jesus – a Christian, if you prefer – isn’t a part-time pursuit, a spiritual activity for which we parcel out an hour or two every week, then proceed through the rest of the week as if there is no God.

As the speaker asked, can there be multiple “most importants”? Can there be more than one real “main thing”? Looking at your life, and how you pursue it from day to day, what’s your main thing?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Confronting Our ‘Mountains’

Mountains are beautiful, unless
they're standing in the way of our lives.
Mountains. They’re majestic, magnificent, massive. Among of the joys of living in the Chattanooga area are scenic wonders like Signal Mountain and Lookout Mountain, both of which figured significantly during the Civil War, as Confederate troops kept watch along the Tennessee River for approaching Union soldiers.

I’ve also gazed at the Great Smoky Mountains, just a short drive away, and had the opportunity to take in spectacular vistas of the Rocky Mountains on numerous occasions. I’d never consider trying to climb Everest or Kilimanjaro, but viewing such celebrated peaks via cinematic media always provides a vicarious thrill.

Sometimes, however, the “mountains” we encounter aren’t nearly so awe-inspiring; they’re agonizing instead. These emerge as formidable, seemingly immovable obstacles to our quality of life, our hopes and dreams. As the Rev. Anthony Evans described them recently, “they’re too tall to climb, you can’t go around them, and you can’t go through them.”

These mountains take many forms – overwhelming debt, whether due to unplanned expenses, emergencies, unwise spending, or a combination of all three; serious health problems with no sure or simple remedy; life-controlling addictions that afflict either ourselves or loved ones; or crucial, difficult junctures in life when none of the possible options seems acceptable.

Sometimes the tallest, biggest “mountains” we must face come in the form of people, whether, a difficult marriage, struggling children, an impossible boss, pesky neighbors, or even divisive folks at church. In any case, the problems are easy to identify, but solutions are not.

So how do we handle these mountains if it seems we can’t get over them, around them, or through them? Our first reaction might be to shrug our shoulders in resignation and despair. We can always curl up into a fetal position and hope somehow the dilemma will disappear on its own. Or we can turn to the One for whom no difficulty is insurmountable.

In the Scriptures we see repeatedly how apparently impossible situations for God’s people were turned into great triumphs. Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers, then wrongfully imprisoned, but rising to a lofty position of authority in which he was able to intercede for his family – even the traitorous brothers – and ultimately, the nation of Israel. The Israelites literally caught between a seemingly impassable Red Sea and an army of vengeful Egyptian soldiers. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego strolling through a fiery furnace, carrying not even a whiff of smoke when they emerged. Daniel tossed into a den of lions that turned as docile as kittens.

The list goes on and on, but the point is simple: No mountain, physical or circumstantial, is too high or broad for God to overcome. That’s why He can offer promises like, “do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

A bit earlier, through the prophet Isaiah in the same book, the Lord also declares, “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint!” (Isaiah 40:31).

At those times when we survey our circumstances and determine, “I can’t do this!” the Lord responds with, “I know, child, but I can – and will.” As the apostle Paul, who had gone through more than his share of impossible situations, stated, “I can do everything through him (Jesus Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

What “mission:impossible” confronts you today? When you conclude, “I can’t do it. I just can’t!”, believe it or not, you’re in a great place. Because then you can turn to the One who CAN.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Are Your Role Models Still Living?

Most of us have role models, people we greatly respect and even would like to emulate. After watching the Olympics, athletes like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles no doubt gained many thousands of new, ardent admirers. We might have someone at work, a very accomplished veteran, whose abilities and traits we’d like to see in our own lives.

Students often have favorite teachers, people who made learning not just fun, but truly an adventure. “I want to be like her (or him),” is a common reaction when we’re in the presence of an inspirational educator. As a writer, I’ve had a number of authors who in one way or another served as role models as I forged my own journalistic and literary career.

But have you ever considered that perhaps the very best role models are…no longer living? I started pondering this recently after hearing someone on the radio state emphatically, “All of my role models are dead.”

Think about it: How many times have we read sad reports about some supposedly upstanding citizen – an entertainer, athlete, politician, business leader, even a pastor or ministry leader – a revered role model for many, who was exposed for scandalous moral or ethical behavior? What happens when those we place on a pedestal tragically fall from grace, so to speak? We become disheartened, disillusioned, even devastated. How could those we held in such high esteem stoop so low?

So perhaps it’s a good idea for our role models to be from a different place and time. A local pastor for years has led a weekly discussion group called the Dead Theologians Society, in which men and women review the writings of Christian leaders from centuries past. Part of the reasoning is that eternal truth never has an expiration date. But there’s also no danger that sage spiritual minds of the past – like Augustine, Charles H. Spurgeon, St. Francis of Assisi, Andrew Murray, Martin Luther, A.W. Tozer, Teresa of Avila, Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, John Bunyan, and many others – will become the subject of disgraceful headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper, on the Internet, or the nightly news.

This is one reason Hebrews 11 is such an important chapter in the Bible. Here we find men and women of faith – starting with Abel and continuing with other Old Testament patriarchs like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets. As Hebrews 11:13 states, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”

Later the chapter talks about individuals “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised…” (verse 33). But it also points out that others, “were tortured and refused to be released…. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison…stoned; they were sawed in two, hey were put to death by the sword…” (Hebrews 11:35-37). Could we face that and remain true to what we believe?

The chapter concludes by stating, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:39). In other words, they still were looking for the promised Messiah, clinging to the hope of redemption and life everlasting. And they didn’t have a local Christian bookstore, or a handy Internet website to go to for encouragement. All they had was faith, which the first verse of Hebrews 11 declares to be, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

One of the hardest things in life is finishing well, whether it’s pursuing a college education, competing in an athletic event, forging a career, building a healthy marriage and family, or walking with God. It’s too easy, too tempting, to quit or take a detour along the way.

Many of our personal role models have started well. But how will they finish? Will we become disappointed to see them decide it’s not worth finishing their marathon? Will we discover their talk was a lot larger than their walk?

So maybe the guy was right – it’s best to have role models that are dead. Especially godly ones. We can study how they lived and try to discover how they succeeded in finishing well. Much like the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Is It Your History – or His Story…in You?

Do you enjoy reading biographies? I’ve found them instructive and inspiring. Especially in discovering the many obstacles that famous, accomplished individuals had to overcome to achieve greatness. Things that matter, things that last, rarely come easily.

I considered writing the story of my first car, but didn’t want to do an auto-biography. If I were to write my own biography, I fear its only value would be as a sleep aid. The kind of book that, once you put it down, you can’t pick it up. So I stick with other people’s biographies.

Essentially a biography tells someone’s history: Where and when they were born; if they’re deceased, where and when and how they died; and most important, what happened to them in between. The exciting ones captivate our attention. But considering our personal stories – our histories – from God’s perspective, they become His story in us.

While serving as publications director for CBMC, a marketplace ministry, one of my jobs was writing and editing a magazine. Many of the articles were profiles, kind of mini-biographies. I enjoyed learning how God had worked in the lives of the people I interviewed, including their marriages, families, and professional careers. Each time it became evident it wasn’t just their story – it was God’s story being worked out through them.

One was Gerald, an African-American whose encounters with racial discrimination ultimately shifted from bitterness into an attitude of thanking God for the adversity he had gone through. He became pastor of a prominent church in the South. Then there was Albert, who experienced the horrors of World War II while growing up in the Netherlands. He endured many other hardships, all of which eventually drew him to Jesus Christ, transforming him into a man whose life has become an inspiration for thousands.

And there was Jerry, whose history with God involved a very personal, amazing link with the World Trade Center towers leading up to the events of 9/11, twice finding his life spared through very unusual, providential circumstances.

Biblical accounts tell us God’s story in the lives of many men and women, starting with Adam and Eve, progressing through the likes of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, David, Daniel, even a prostitute named Rahab. In the New Testament we see His story becoming Jesus’ story, manifested in the lives of Joseph and Mary, Peter, John, Barnabas, Paul, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, and many others.

The 11th chapter of Hebrews presents a magnificent parade of people of faith, including many listed above. But we don’t have to search or look too far to see examples of God’s work in someone’s life. All we have to do is look in the mirror.

Most of us aren’t famous, and even if our stories aren’t particularly dramatic, we should each be able to recall examples of how the Lord has worked in and through our lives and circumstances, especially during times of difficulty and adversity. It seems that every minute of every day He is busily molding and shaping us into the men, women and young people He wants us to be – and tough times are often His tool of choice. He has a unique plan and purpose for us all, which He intends to fulfill. In the throes of hardship, we tend to pay closer attention.

Philippians 1:6 sums it up this way: “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” A bit later, the apostle Paul observes, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). This means He knows what He’s doing, He’s going to get it done, and He’s doing it very, very well.

Recently I finished editing a book that a friend has written on God’s faithfulness. He’s compiled stories from men and women recounting an incredible variety of ways the Lord has worked in their lives, including many times when if He hadn’t responded miraculously, just in time, all hope would have been lost.

As we go through life, we’re inclined to think it’s all on us, that as poet William Ernest Henley wrote in “Invictus,” we are “the master of my fate…the captain of my soul.” But the Bible reaches a very different conclusion. Because as Ephesians 2:10 declares, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

He’s got a great story to tell through us, and He won’t stop until the last paragraph, the final sentence has been written.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Finding Security in an Insecure World

“Someone call Security!” Have you ever wanted to shout that? Even when you weren’t in a public place, like a store or a parking lot?

If there’s anything these days where the demand far exceeds the supply, it’s security. If Walmart or Target created a “Security” aisle and products displayed could guarantee the desired results, their stock values would soar.

From the moment we’re born to the time we die, security continues to be an important concern. Infants instinctively seek out Mommy. Toddlers rush to a parent’s side when they’re separated at the grocery store. Many tots wouldn’t consider going to bed without a favorite “blankie” or stuffed animal to make them feel safe.

Following the events of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was created to join other law enforcement agencies in safeguarding against terrorism. Shopping malls, schools, businesses, even churches now employ security guards. The ongoing debate over gun control legislation involves not only curbing violence but also citizens wanting guns for their own security.

This chart from shows
Abraham Maslow found security a vital need.
But security fears are hardly new. More than 70 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow recognized security as a foundational part of his “hierarchy of needs” pyramid. In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow ranked security and safety second in importance only to physiological needs like food, clothing and shelter. Security overshadowed other human needs such as love and belonging, self-esteem and respect, and self-actualization.

Social Security was created in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and today millions of Americans rely on it for their retirement years. Many of us maintain insurance policies to provide security for our homes, cars, loved ones when we die, and protection against disability. We can even purchase identity protection plans. Home security systems, designed to safeguard personal possessions and thwart would-be intruders, have turned into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Perhaps a perceived lack of security has even contributed to the decline of marriage. Dr. Willard Harley Jr., alluded to this in his best-selling book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage.

In counseling thousands of couples, Harley discovered the basic needs for men and women in marriage are very different. Three of the essential needs for most women, he stated, are related to security – honesty and openness; financial support, and family commitment. Why get married – or remain married – some women might reason, if men won’t provide the security they need?

Security also factors strongly in spiritual belief systems. We long to know that God’s not fickle or capricious, that our relationship with Him isn’t like pulling flower petals, “He loves me…He loves me not…He loves me…He loves me not….”

One of the basic tenets of evangelical faith is the “security of the believer,” the idea that we should be able to know that we know our relationship with God is secure, and need not harbor doubts about where we will be spending eternity. And the Scriptures offer many passages giving that assurance.

Security with God is a recurring theme in the Psalms, describing Him in terms such as a “shelter” and “my refuge and my fortress” (Psalm 91:1-2), and “a strong tower against the foe (Psalm 61:3). King David calls God “my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior (2 Samuel 22:3).

But what does God say? In the midst of a turbulent, chaotic, often disheartening world, what assurances does He provide that in Him we are indeed secure? Actually, the Lord has much to say. Here’s just a sampling:

In the Old Testament we read, The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Letting us know He hasn’t changed His mind over time, that assurance is repeated in Hebrews 13:5, when He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Can any circumstance sever followers of Jesus from an eternal relationship with Him? The Bible says no. Jesus told His disciples, My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand(John 10:27-29).

And lest there be any doubt, near the end of the Old Testament, the apostle John presented this promise: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life(1 John 5:13).

Do we live in an insecure world? Yes. Do we have loved ones and friends who sometimes fail to offer the security we need? Yes. Does it often seem calamity is lurking just around the corner? Again, yes.

But in the midst of turmoil, surrounded by many things that can stir great fear and anxiety in our hearts, we can trust in the security only God can give. I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).