Thursday, September 29, 2016

Choose Your Builder Carefully

Being a writer, my idea of manual labor is placing fingers to keyboard and letting them build words and sentences and paragraphs on the computer screen. But as I’ve mentioned before, I have great appreciation for craftspeople and skilled workers, whether they’re building a house, replacing a roof, pouring a driveway, or redesigning and renovating rooms.

As a dutiful husband, I sometimes join my wife in watching that wonder of TV magic, HGTV. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be “Fixer Upper,” with Chip and Joanna. They have a down to earth, folksy way of transforming residential wrecks into heartwarming homes. I don’t flip over “Flip or Flop,” and “Love It or List It” seems way too contrived, but the “Property Brothers” make a strong statement for sibling cooperation rather than rivalry.

If I’ve learned anything while watching any of these HGTV offerings, it’s that if you don’t know what you’re doing, or lack the skill, don’t try it. It takes the right blend of artistry and craftsmanship. More often than not, prospective buyers visit an assortment of fixer-upper homes that to untrained eyes look like nothing more than candidates for demolition. But because of their experience and expertise, the designers and builders can collaborate to turn domestic eyesores into showcases.

My wife and I have witnessed this firsthand while endeavoring to spruce up the home we’ve lived in for years. An expert in tile installation turned our bathrooms into sights suitable for a beautiful homes magazine. An interior designer took our vague ideas and changed several rooms into real eye-pleasers.

The key is simple: Whether you’re building or rebuilding, you want to use someone that definitely knows what they’re doing.

This is why, in my view, attempting to build a marriage, family, career, or an entire life makes little sense without consulting and relying on the Master Builder. Psalm 127:1 declares, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is in vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.”

Any structure – whether a single-family home, apartment building, shopping mall, or skyscraper – requires a solid foundation. And for one’s life, there can be no stronger, sturdier foundation than what God offers through the truths and principles He’s presented in the Scriptures.

Through the years I’ve gotten to know many business and professional people who have learned the best path to a successful, fulfilling career is following guidelines the Lord has put forth in the Bible. Marriages have been established, rekindled and saved through the power of Jesus Christ and biblical teachings. Parents have discovered there is no better pattern for being a mom or a dad than the example of God the Father revealed in the Scriptures.

As Jesus told His followers, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Moral of the story: Use the right Builder, and build on a solid, proven foundation, and you can endure any storm in life. Without the right Builder, you’re constructing only sandcastles.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The REAL American Idol

Do you miss “American Idol”? TV’s classic reality-talent show came to a relatively quiet ending earlier this year, culminating 15 years of good, bad, and occasionally ugly singing by eager and ambitious young men and women. From the show some real stars were born, and it inspired a horde of similar programs, such as “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent.”

But from the start, they got it wrong. Because the real American idol is still very much with us. It just doesn’t sing. It’s adorned by images of Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson (for now – soon to be replaced by Harriet Tubman), Grant, Franklin, and others. Yes, it’s Money.

It’s ironic that our currency and coins bear the motto, “In God We Trust,” because judging by our materialistic, consumerism-driven society, if there’s anything we really trust in, it’s not almighty God but the “almighty dollar.”

A couple weeks ago we commemorated the 15th anniversary of what we all now identify as “9/11,” when terrorist-commandeered commercial airliners targeted the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, turning them into infernos. Perhaps you recall the days after the horrific events, when then-President George W. Bush sought to restore calm, promising “we will rebuild,” and that the entities responsible would be punished severely.

Do we carry our "god" in our wallets?
Toward the end of his speech, Bush offered a subtle reminder: “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop….” He also urged Americans to continue traveling without fear, taking family vacations, and maintaining their spending practices.

Without question, the President was seeking to offer reassurance that life as we knew it wasn’t coming to an end. But he also was acknowledging the wheels of the USA are greased by free spending; to cease doing so would have lasting, disastrous effects on the economy. Fifteen years later, nothing’s changed.

I’ve been participating in a series called “Gods at War,” examining false gods or “idols” that compete with the true God for allegiance. Money – or wealth – is one of those “gods.” Thinking about idols, we envision people worshiping icons or statues in various forms and sizes. But idolatry requires no religious context. To venerate money, we need only go to a bank, an ATM, a card-swiping machine at a retail checkout counter, or even a computer where we enter credit card numbers to buy what we need – or think we need.

Author Kyle Idleman states money becomes an idol when it shifts our focus from God. Or when we assess our value based on our valuables. Money – or the things it can provide – takes on god-like proportions when it becomes one’s purpose for living, as has been the case for many men and women. You might know some of them.

Materialism and greed aren’t unique to the United States. Even in primitive societies, the person with the straw-topped hut will envy someone with a tin roof. But in America, where most of our poor would still be regarded as affluent in many Third World lands, money has dominating influence.

Part of the problem is our inability to answer the question, “How much is enough?” Because most of us, if we’re honest, would respond, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I don’t have it yet.”

We can blame the media, advertising, or our “I’ve got to have it, and I’ve got to have it now!” culture. But ultimately we must confess that too often we’ve let money and its offspring command the throne of our hearts.

So what’s the solution? Maybe we simply need to get back to basics. When Jesus declared, “You cannot serve both God and money (mammon)” (Matthew 6:24), He wasn’t speaking idealistically or euphemistically. He was saying we should recalibrate our priorities. Who or what are we going to serve? Which gets our worship and adoration?

The gospel of Mark tells of a rich young man who approached Jesus asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). He told Jesus he had faithfully observed the commandments throughout his life – at least he thought he had. Jesus responded with what we might call “tough love.” He said, “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21).

If you’d been in that situation, how would you have responded? It’s easy to declare, “My money and my stuff have no hold on me.” But if someone insisted we demonstrate our loyalty – God or possessions – which would we choose? God, the Creator of the universe, or money, the designer of our particular “universe”?

In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus was straight-forward: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Do we worship gods that moths and vermin and thieves can take from us? Or do we worship and obey the God who provides treasures this world can’t touch or snatch from us?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

It’s All in the Name – or Is It?

Have you noticed the recent surge in the use of hyper-aggressive, vicious-sounding names? (I’m not referring to the Presidential race, by the way.) We hear them on TV, the radio, newspapers, the Internet, in conversations in the break room at work. Because we’re immersed in another football season, when Giants and Titans roam the land, Bears and Bengals snarl at foes, Cowboys ride the plains, Panthers and Jaguars stalk their prey, Broncos run wild, Steelers flex muscles, and Buccaneers and Raiders gather the spoils.

The Rams, in case you’ve been wondering where they went, have changed addresses from St. Louis to Los Angeles, poised to challenge fearsome opposition on the West Coast. Yes, it seems names are all important if you’re engaged in a hard-hitting, violent activity like football.

Would you root for the Los Angeles Lambs?
Would you expect a decisive win from them?
Is it any wonder, then, that no teams have adopted nicknames like Puppies, Guppies, Kits…or Lambs? Being called a Lamb isn’t likely to strike fear in an opponent’s heart, right? Imagine this announcement: “The Wolves are taking on the Lambs in Sunday night’s featured clash!” Any idea which team would win that one?

And yet, that is precisely one of the names ascribed to Jesus Christ: the Lamb of God. At first glance, that doesn’t sound very imposing, does it? The Bible does refer to Him as “the Lion of Judah,” which sounds much more forceful. But other than Jesus’ proper name, “the Lamb” is the most common reference for Him in the Scriptures, being used more than 25 times in the book of Revelation alone.

How come? Why is the One the Bible proclaims as the victorious, all-conquering Son of God called “the Lamb of God,” since we know – or have been told – that sheep are fairly stupid creatures that can’t keep out of their own way when trouble comes near? Lambs are even more clueless. Hence the need for an ever-watchful, ready to respond shepherd.

Not that the term “lamb” is necessarily negative. Occasionally we hear someone describe another as, “he’s such a lamb,” meaning gentle, unimposing, perhaps even harmless. But somehow that doesn’t seem appropriate for Jesus, also known as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, and the Word of God.

But from God’s perspective, Lamb couldn’t be more fitting. In the Old Testament we see numerous examples of lambs being central to ceremonial sacrifices, designed to vividly demonstrate the need to atone for the sins and rebellion of God’s people. As Hebrews 9:22 states, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

A part of us wants to say, “Poor lambs! They didn’t do anything. Why should they have to pay the penalty?” And that’s exactly the point. Even when they repented, the people of Israel had no means for atoning for their own sins. Specially appointed priests performed specific rituals to represent the process for forgiving the people’s egregious sins.

But even those sacrifices were merely a picture, an illustration, of the ultimate sacrifice the Lamb of God would perform. Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Like the little sheep that had done no wrong deserving death, in an even more profound way the Lamb of God willingly gave His life to pay the price for wrongs He did not commit.

Quick question: How many sins had you personally committed by the time Jesus died on the cross as the once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice for sin? Of course – none. You hadn’t been born yet, and wouldn’t be for a long time. So if you ever wonder whether there’s a sin you could commit that could not be forgiven, the answer is, there is none.

As Romans 6:10 states, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” But that’s a deep theological topic, perhaps for another day.

Getting back to why Jesus is referred to as the Lamb, we are told He was the complete fulfillment of God’s divine requirement for forgiving sins. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we see the principle being expressed this way: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

If God had so chosen, He could have taken the football approach, acting as a militant Spartan, or Knight, or Trojan, or Fighting Irish. Instead, in the person of Jesus Christ, He came as a Lamb, humbly and without complaint taking on a debt He did not owe to pay a price we could not pay.

As incongruous as that might seem to our limited, human capacity for understanding, that’s exactly what He did – as the Lamb of God. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Monday, September 19, 2016

The ‘How-To’ Book That Teaches We Can’t

Self-help and how-to books promise help for just
about anything, except what's most important.
Have you checked out the self-help section at the local bookstore lately? On those shelves we can find “how-to” books on practically everything: Becoming a millionaire. Growing prize-winning flowers. Finding lasting happiness. Redesigning a house. Taking eye-catching photos. Starting a successful business. Achieving greater intimacy.

We all would like to know how to excel in our favorite pursuits and passions. And if by reading their how-to books we can learn the secrets of others who have already excelled at them, it can save us lots of time and effort. At least that’s what the books promise.

But there’s one book you won’t find on most self-help shelves, because it stresses how not to do something. In fact, it emphasizes that what we might yearn to do is exactly what we truly can’t do. What’s the book? The Bible.

And what is it the Bible teaches that we can’t do? It tells us emphatically that we can’t live the so-called “Christian life.”

We’ve all heard the saying, “God helps those that help themselves.” Well, you won’t find that adage in the Scriptures. Maybe it’s in 2 Opinions, but not in the 66 books of the Bible. In fact, what we find is quite the opposite. During one of His discourses, Jesus declared, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

In terms of accomplishing things of eternal value, Jesus didn’t say there are only some things we can do. No. He stated we’re unable to accomplish anything of lasting significance apart from Him.

The apostle Paul affirmed this when he stated, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Later he added, “I can do everything through him (Jesus Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

Recently I spoke at a men’s breakfast on, “How Do You Live the Christian Life?” I explained the process God began in my life in 1981, enabling me to understand with increasing certainty over the past 35 years that the answer to this question is simple: I can’t. The Christian life isn’t hard. It’s not difficult. It’s impossible to live, humanly speaking.

This is one of the truths that set Christianity apart from any other belief system or religion. Religions essentially stipulate, “This is what you must do – and what you must not do.” In the Scriptures we find that in Jesus, what must be done has already been done. Once and for all.

The Bible’s Old Testament shows the people of Israel had plenty of laws of follow. They just did a miserable job of following them. As someone observed, “Before Moses got to the bottom of Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the Israelites had already broken every one of them!”

But the fact we can’t possibly live the perfect, holy life God requires doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to being “sinners saved by grace.” Because through the power of Christ, we can live the life we can’t possibly live in what the Bible calls “the flesh.”

We all have struggles; some of them seem insurmountable. Deep-seated anger, or anxiety, as I’ve dealt with for much of my life. There might be addictions or other compulsions we can’t control. Inability to forgive and bitterness are particularly problematic for some. But in wrestling with such “besetting sins,” those who have truly been “born again” in Christ can’t opt for the excuse that comedian Flip Wilson’s character, “Geraldine,” often used: “The devil made me do it!”

Because if we scour the Scriptures, doing as the ancient Bereans did, who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what (they heard) was true” (Acts 17:11), we discover sin no longer holds mastery over us.

In the 6th chapter of Romans alone, we find numerous passages declaring we have “a new life,” that “we should no longer be slaves to sin,” we are “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” and we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” If we can grasp such truth, believe it, and act according to it, rather than depending on our feelings at any particular moment, the impact can be transformative.

As Galatians 5:1 declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free….” Years before the apostle Paul made that assertion, Jesus gave this promise: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32-36).

We’d do well to heed the oft-repeated words of the late Wayne Barber, beloved pastor of a church in Chattanooga, Tenn. who recently passed from this life: 
      “I can’t. God never said I could. He can, and He always said He would!”