Monday, October 31, 2016

Faith is More Than Being a Fan

Every Saturday during the fall, millions of fans crowd America's
football stadiums. But the commitment level of fickle fans can waver.
If you’re into spectator sports, chances are you’re a fan of a particular team, maybe several. How did you choose which teams to cheer for?

Sometimes being a fan is “inherited,” as in “my family has always rooted for XYZ team, so I do, too.” Maybe it’s because of where you have lived. Growing up near New York City, I became a Yankee fan, and later I also rooted for the Mets. Or perhaps it’s because of your alma mater – the high school or college you attended. My family and friends know I’m an avid Ohio State fan, and I’ve been one from the time I enrolled in 1967 and later received two degrees there.

Not everyone’s a big sports fan, of course. But chances are you’re a fan of some entity  – it could be an actor or artist, some other kind of celebrity, a political party, or even a car manufacturer. And in all likelihood, if you’re a fan you feel very strongly about it.

The point is, being a fan, supporter or advocate of someone or something is largely a matter of choice. Even though I’ve live in SEC country for more than 35 years, I’m not a big fan of the Southeastern Conference. Even though I lived in the Northeast as a boy, I didn’t have to become a fan of any of the New York sports teams. And there are particular entertainers I really like, and others I don’t, but no one is forcing me to give them my unquestioned allegiance.

In some ways it’s similar spiritually. Geography might play a role in what we believe. If raised in the Middle East, one’s definitely going to be exposed more to Islam than any other religion. People in the Far East are more typically oriented toward Buddhism, Shintoism or Hinduism, again depending on the nation and culture in which they live. But since faith is a matter of the heart, as well as the head, no one can coerce a person to believe one way or another.

This, however, is where the similarity between sports fandom and spiritual faith ends. Because if my beloved Buckeyes win, I’ll feel happy, and if they lose, I’ll feel sad. I could even choose to no longer root for them. Nevertheless, their successes and failures don’t define who I am or how I live. My faith, on the other hand, does.

Kyle Idleman wrote a book called Not a Fan, in which he explained the difference between being a nominal, once-a-week “fan” of Jesus Christ and being a committed, 24/7 follower. As we survey the contemporary church scene across America, it appears there are many fans of Jesus, but not nearly as many true disciples. This is one reason He cautioned, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

A “warm fuzzy” form of faith, one that’s not too demanding and doesn’t require much of us, has a certain appeal. We can check into the sanctuary periodically, even spend a few minutes in the Bible once in a while, as long as we’re not asked to alter our lives or priorities too much.

But “warm fuzzy” is anathema to the calling God places on each of His children. We see this repeatedly in the Old Testament, when superficial belief – being a “fan” – is dismissed. Deuteronomy 6:4-5, for instance, says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

As his leadership of the Israelites was coming to an end, Joshua declared to the people, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

The world around us presents a multitude of “god” options – possessions, power, status, careers, ideologies, hobbies, family, even sports teams. Any of them can consume our lives and thoughts.

So we have a choice. We can be a fan of Jesus, turning to Him in times of crisis or when seeking specific blessings, while continuing to conduct our lives independently, or choose to follow and serve Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). Because as God instructed the Israelites upon giving them the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3)

As Joshua and his family did, we also must choose this day whom we are willing to serve.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lessons from a New Bathroom

The annual arrival of autumn leaves remind us
of the orderly nature of our world.
It’s interesting what we can glean about eternal truth from everyday life circumstances. This came to mind recently while reading a newspaper columnist’s musings about building a new bathroom in his home. Frankly, I admire the guy – because even though I also spent part of my career as a newspaper editor, the only thing I can accomplish with my hands is type words on a keyboard.

This fellow explained about installing a subfloor, outlets and switches that actually worked, wiring, drywall and other elements required to make his bathroom functional and attractive. He ended his column with the observation, “I know what it took to get it to the shape it’s in now.”

Imagine him proudly showing the new room to visiting guests. They comment, “Wow! It looks great. Who built it?” and he replies, “You know, that’s the funny thing. No one built it. My wife and I always wanted a master bathroom, and then one day, voila, there it was! It just appeared.”

They might chuckle at first, but if they thought he was serious, they would either check him for a high fever, call 911, or slowly move toward the front door. Because we all know that something doesn’t come out of nothing. For every effect, there must be a cause.

Remodeled bathrooms
don't just "happen."
My wife and I experienced the same thing when we had two bathrooms remodeled in our home. Unlike the columnist, I had nothing to do with the projects except moving a few items in and out. But we had a very skilled craftsman, a specialist in flooring and tile work, who did the remodeling for us. When friends visited, they would always ask, “Who redid your bathrooms?” They knew somebody had done it.

Yet there are many strident, stubborn proponents of the so-called Big Bang theory, which asserts that one day (before there were days, or hours, or even minutes), an extraordinary event occurred for no reason, with no purpose, all on its own – bringing something out of absolutely nothing. No only that, but this “something” has turned out to be phenomenally orderly, generally functioning in very predictable ways that can be studied by various scientific disciplines.

But, they claim, there was no first cause, no intelligent design, no meaning or purpose behind any of it. It just was, and is, and supposedly, always will be.

I get it: If you reject God, if you refuse to believe or accept the idea of a divine Creator, you do have to come up with some alternative explanation. So the “Big Bang” seems to do the job, even though its original premise flies directly against everything we know and have observed, even though the eyes of science.

Our magnificent world, not to mention the entire universe, operates in wonderful harmony and amazing order. Even though the natural course of things – according to various theories and laws of physics – if left unmanaged, is to move toward disorder. (I could offer my desk as proof; I straighten it up, and seemingly within moments, it’s already turning back into a mess.)

Whenever we walk into a restaurant and admire the d├ęcor, or sit in our car and it predictably starts when the key turns in the ignition, we know this didn’t happen by accident. There was a “creator” and a “builder,” armed with plans for how things should look and operate. We don’t need to be convinced of this.

So with leaves turning colors and then falling with the advent of autumn, and temperatures dropping as winter approaches, these serve as reminders that the orderly creation we observe is the result of the exquisite mind of the Creator God, who informs us, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8).

If there was a Big Bang, and perhaps there was, it’s the one described in Genesis 1, when God spoke everything into being: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light…. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…” (Genesis 1:3-31).

If you need proof, you don’t need to look any farther than someone’s refurbished bathroom.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Faith of Opposites

My father used to have a saying, “More hurry, less speed.” In other words, sometimes the more we rush around, the busier we get, the less progress we make. A whiz at fixing things, he’d learned the folly of hastening through a repair job and then having to go back to correct mistakes.

I’ve seen this in business when someone makes the decision, “Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong.” The problem with that is most of the time we later have to undo what we could have avoided, if only we had taken the time to evaluate the plan before initiating it.

During the days when I was an avid NASCAR fan, I heard the commentators explain that at times the fastest way around a track is to slow down a bit in the turns. I never tried it but suspect that’s probably true, even though it seems counterintuitive. The fable of the tortoise and the hare affirms this principle.

Some of us discovered that in the realm of romance, even though we might think it should be the opposite, sometimes the best way to get someone’s attention is to ignore them. We used to call it, “playing hard to get.”

Nowhere do we see this “rule of opposites” more clearly than in the Christian faith. Jesus was the champion of counterintuitive belief in action. For example, in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, He devoted considerable time to this concept, saying in essence, “If you think you know what to do, do the opposite.” For example:
  • “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).
  • “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).
  • “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic” (Luke 6:29).
  • “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).
Then He said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). These were radical words for Jesus’ time, and they remain just as radical today. Typically, our attitude seems to be, “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Jesus went on to elaborate, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32-33).

With His hearers chewing on such curious food for thought, Jesus concluded by saying, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).

When you read those words, what’s your reaction? Do you think, “Sure, Jesus, no problem”? More likely we’re inclined to respond, “But Jesus, You have no idea what kind of people I have to put up with.” Then we remember, “Oh wait, He does!” His enemies, those that accused, cursed and mistreated Him, were the ones that refused to rest until He was crucified. We haven’t had to deal with hostility to that degree.

His response to them was exactly the opposite of what we would expect, the flip-flop of how we would have reacted. But Jesus should be our model, not some human leader that lashes out in vengeance when wronged. In fact, Hebrews 12:3 urges us to remember His example: Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

There are many other examples of our “faith of opposites” throughout the Scriptures. Jesus declared, “Whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Even being God incarnate, He stated, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus taught, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The apostle Paul, in contrast to his brash, self-righteous, forceful behavior before his encounter with Christ, affirmed, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Think on that for a minute.

So whenever we’re wondering what we should do – how we should act in our quest to live out our faith in Jesus Christ – it might help to ask ourselves, “What does impulse say that I should do?” And then, do the opposite.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Peace: Pursuing the Elusive

There's something peaceful, serene about a sunset.
If only all of life were so filled with peace.
Peace. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Seems peaceful just to say the word. “Peace” – aaaahhhh! If only finding and experiencing peace were so easy, right?

When was the last time you truly felt at peace? Maybe you’re an easygoing, glass-is-half-full type of person that’s seldom ruffled. If so, congratulations. Your “peace meter” probably registers a lot higher on the scale than for most of us that find peace to be a highly desired, but very elusive commodity.

There are all kinds of factors that can disrupt our sense of peace: Family conflict. A large, unexpected bill that appears in the mailbox. A major repair required for the home or the car. An adverse health diagnosis.

It seems everywhere we look, there are
warnings of impending calamity.
If you suspect you’ve been feeling too peaceful of late, just turn on the news. That will remedy that. Between the natural disasters, acts of terror, traffic mayhem, unsettling economic forecasts, reports of violence and senseless killings, not to mention unrelenting, polarizing politics, you’d find more peace putting your hand into a tank of starving piranhas.

So where can we find peace and fill our longing for calm in the midst of life’s constant storms? We could just close our eyes, stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “La, la, la, la,” until we run out of breath. We can adopt a Pollyanna attitude, insisting on concentrating only on things positive and determinedly avoiding everything negative.

Or we can turn to the only true, uncompromising, ever-dependable source of peace, Jesus Christ. He promised, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Amazingly, Jesus said this fully aware of what lay ahead for Him: rejection by adoring followers, ridicule, torture and crucifixion. As unspeakable horror for Himself loomed in the near future, Jesus spoke confidently of peace.

The apostle Paul, no stranger to persecution – both as the inflictor and the victim – offered similar assurances. He wrote, “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).

Recently a friend was telling me about his open-heart surgery, when the heart is literally stopped for a period of time while coronary bypass grafts are performed. He spoke about the incredible sense of peace he felt, which truly transcended human understanding, even knowing there was a possibility of a stroke during the procedure, or even death if his heart did not restart. That was my experience as well nearly 10 years ago. Peace in the face of uncertainty.

Peace, in large measure, is a choice. We can focus on the chaos and turmoil in our lives and around the world, and our stomachs will be in a continual churning cycle. Or we can concentrate on Christ, trusting Him for peace in the midst of the storm.

That’s why I so appreciate the refrain from the old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”

Are you longing for peace today, but lacking it? Could be you’re looking for it in the wrong places.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Finding the Diamond in the Rough

You probably know that diamonds, as magnificent as they are, started off in very humble form – carbon which has been compressed under extreme pressure and high temperatures for a long time. Amazing what you can make out of a lump of coal.

As with most gems, it’s necessary to dig into mines to find diamonds. In a sense, life’s a lot like that – whether it concerns people or prized possessions. Sometimes you have to look hard and deep to discover the surprise below the surface.

We see this in business – an employee that initially seemed unremarkable, through hard work and perseverance, proves to be a prized staff member. Dedicated teachers are adept at finding hidden gems, students with special talents and affinities for particular subjects, if only they’re encouraged to develop them. Most sports teams thrive because, along with the obvious “star” players, athletic diamonds in the rough emerge.

When I applied for a job with CBMC, a ministry to business and professional people, I was asked to take an extensive psychological profile. The subsequent evaluation described me as “a diamond in the rough.” My prospective employers were advised if they were willing to be patient with me, I could prove to be a valued team member.

Patient they were, and I enjoyed 20 years with the parachurch ministry. I’d like to think I made some valuable contributions, not only to CBMC’s organizational mission but also for eternity. But that’s not for me to assess.

Studying the Bible we find God specializes in identifying and using diamond-in-the-rough types of people. This is basically how David, a humble shepherd boy, was chosen to be king of Israel. The prophet Samuel was sent to the house of Jesse to find the successor to the headstrong and disobedient King Saul. Jesse – the father – proudly presented all but one of his sons, each of whom seemed impressive. God, however, was not impressed.

The Lord prompted Samuel to inform the father, “The Lord has not chosen these….” Then he asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” To which Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest…but he is tending the sheep” (1 Samuel 16:10-11). Why bother with “Squirt,” right?

The prophet informed Jesse the selection process wasn’t done, so he should send for the overlooked shepherd boy. Upon his arrival, young David was immediately chosen as the king-to-be: “Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; he is the one’” (verse 12).

There’s a simple reason behind this. Earlier, God had informed Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). We tend to evaluate people according to the “look test.” God prefers the heart test, judging who the person really is on the inside.

Repeatedly in the Scriptures we find the Lord choosing the unlikely, the improbable, even the despised for His work. Jesus chose lowly fishermen, a hated tax collector, just plain ordinary people to be His followers – and after His crucifixion and resurrection, when He ascended to heaven, Jesus entrusted His eternal mission to this collection of characters people of the time viewed as rabble.

This should serve as encouragement for each of us. Maybe we don’t have the glowing resume or credentials of other people; we're certain they’re more qualified than we are, especially for the work of God’s kingdom. But human qualifications are often among the least of His concerns in the selection process.

As Proverbs 21:2 tells us, “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Then it adds, “He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend” (Proverbs 22:11). To God, if your heart’s right, you might be the diamond in the rough He intends to use! And if we’re paying attention, He might send some diamonds in the rough our way to help in what He’s called us to do.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Requirements . . . and a Request

Have you ever thought about how many requirements we must meet just to get through everyday, ordinary life?

For example, before we can drive solo, we’re required to have a driver’s license – and for that we’re required to take a driver’s test. Most states require drivers to buy auto insurance. In the United States we’re required to drive on the right side of the road; in Great Britain and in some other countries, the requirement is to drive on the left. Various laws set forth other requirements, ranging from how fast we drive to where we park our cars – and for how long.

What about getting married? Before exchanging “I do’s,” we’re required to produce a marriage license. Some churches require premarital counseling before the pastor performs the ceremony. A good idea, since most prospective brides and grooms simply don’t know what they don’t know.

Requirements are everywhere, whether it’s working and paying taxes, applying for college, or becoming certified in specific professions. To participate in elections – at least in theory – we’re required to be U.S. citizens, residents of a city and state, and registered as a legal voter.

But what about God? Have you ever thought about what He requires?

In response, some people would cite to-do lists of varying lengths, describing the behaviors, attitudes and actions they believe the Lord expects of His people.

Others might approach the question differently, citing Bible passages that emphasize salvation and the privilege of walking with God are predicated upon His grace – His unmerited favor – not performance.

To some extent, they would both be right. We have the Ten Commandments and other laws God has ordained, essentially telling us, “This is the way My people should think, sound and conduct themselves if they’re truly seeking to follow Me.”

At the same time, passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 assert a relationship with God, being “justified,” isn’t based on anything we do. Some theologians express this as grace alone (sola gratia), faith alone (sola fide), and Christ alone (solus Christus).

So which is it? Does God require anything of us, or not? In Christianity, we’re inclined to make things more complicated than necessary. We find a brief, matter-of-fact answer to what the Lord requires in the Old Testament book of Micah, one of the so-called “minor prophets.” (I don’t think “minor” means Micah was underage of anything like that. Although the way Israelites responded to his warnings might have tempted him to drink.)

The passage says, He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That’s it. Pretty easy, right?

But what does it mean to “act justly”? Or to “love mercy”? And exactly what does it look like to “walk humbly with your God”? As simple as these questions are, their answers are profound.

Who do you know that is doing these three things with any degree of consistency and success? How are we doing, individually, when it comes to acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God? Do we even think about it?

Lofty ideals and standards such as these are easy to verbalize, but extremely challenging to execute. Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering how different our world might be if we all got serious about these three things.

One other passage is worth a look as we ponder this divine requirement to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Except it’s not a requirement, but a request. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 says, “…what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”

God will never coerce us into obedience. That’s why we’re requested to love and serve Him with all our heart and soul. If we have this relationship with the Lord, observing His commands and decrees isn’t burdensome, but rather an act of reverence and love. Especially knowing they have been given “for your own good.”

Put together, His requirement and His request offer a clear, unwavering guideline for what the people of God should look like. The question is, do we want to look like that?