Monday, November 28, 2016

Don’t Let a Defective Digit Defeat You

Because the lower left bar in the hour digit on this clock didn't
illuminate properly, it wasn't dependable for telling the correct time.
My mind had to be playing tricks on me! When I glanced at the digital alarm clock at the hotel, it read “5:58.” A few minutes later I looked at it again and it read “5:03.” I knew we were changing to Daylight Standard Time later that day, but was the clock programmed to reset itself?

Later in the evening when I checked the time it read “7:46.” But when I looked at it less than a half hour later, it read “9:10.” What in the world? I compared the time with my watch, as I had earlier in the day, and it was off by an hour. Was I hallucinating? Maybe the toll of travel in the Northeast was more than I had expected?

Then I realized the problem: The lower left bar in the digital numeral for the hour wasn’t properly illuminated. Unless you looked very closely, the 6 would appear to be a 5, and the 8 seemed to be a 9. Not a big deal, unless you needed to get up at 6 a.m., looked at the clock and thought it said 5 a.m., so you went back to sleep for an hour.

Isn’t it funny how the failure of one part can undermine the effectiveness of the whole? We’ve probably all had the experience of enjoying a nice, smooth drive down the highway when a flat tire suddenly spoiled the ride. Everything was great with the car – except for one tire. Or you’re finally about to finish that beautiful 500-piece puzzle and then discover one piece is missing. For some reason, having assembled a 499-piece puzzle isn’t nearly as satisfying.

We see this principle in the sports world all the time: An offensive lineman misses a key block, causing the running back to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage. In basketball, the point guard makes the perfect pass as his teammate glides toward the basket for the game-winning shot, but he drops the ball as time expires. How successful would a rowing team be if one of its competitors lost an oar?

Perhaps nowhere is the significance of every single part greater than in the body of Christ. The choir seems well-rehearsed for the Christmas cantata, but if Phoebe insists on singing off-key, the result will be the choral equivalent of finding a fly in your soup. Pastor Glutz might have prepared the most stirring sermon of his life, but it’ll be for naught if Herbie in the tech department doesn’t properly control the sound system.

Even more important is what transpires in the name of Jesus outside of what we typically call “the church.” As the apostle Paul wrote, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…” (1 Corinthians 12:12). If you read a powerful book by your favorite Christian author, think about all the people who were involved in bringing the book to reality – the editors, graphic designers, proof readers, press operators, distributors, etc.

I’ve known people who were gifted evangelists, possessing unique abilities for communicating the gospel message to receptive, listening ears. But before they could speak at outreach meetings, it took other individuals to handle many details, ranging from selecting a venue and planning the event to inviting guests and preparing for follow-up on those who responded.

Stories from foreign missionaries stir us, hearing about God at work in various parts of the world, reaching men, women and children in different cultures. But without the help and support of many people in the United States, the missionaries couldn’t do the work they’ve been called to do.

We admire those with spiritual gifts that put them in the public eye, whether it’s a speaker, singer, author or denominational leader. But we’re all part of the “puzzle,” and without each one of us, the task would be incomplete.

As Paul wrote, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor…. But 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…” (1 Corinthians 12:21-25).

So even if you feel you’re laboring in obscurity for God, that no one notices or cares about what you’re doing, remember that He notices and cares – and that’s all that matters. Don’t be like the missing bar in the digital numeral. Each one of us has an important role to play; without us, the mission could fail.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Coping With Crisis – and Crises

With the arrival of Thanksgiving Day, we’re officially in the midst of the holiday season. Time for fun, frivolity, family and friends, we’re told. But what if this time of the year only magnifies feelings of frustration, failure, and even fear? When it seems you have little reason for giving thanks?

Recently I heard a description of the human condition: It seems there are three kinds of people – those who are in crisis, those who have just gotten out of a crisis, and those who are about to get into a crisis (whether they know it or not).

There’s good reason the term “crisis mode” is so widely used. Just when things seem to be going smoothly, and we’re about to proclaim, “life just can’t get any better than this!” some not-quickly-resolved dilemma decides to pop up, placing unavoidable bumps and ruts in the road.

Suddenly, rather than reveling in the ease of living, we’re more apt to agree with Mr. Murphy, whose law insists, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” If this describes your frame of mind right now, when the prevailing holiday mood of “happy, happy, happy” seems to have escaped you, take heart. You’re not alone.

This is why apostles Paul and James felt led to write we’re to “rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4), and “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

In the midst of the struggle, particularly in a season when we’re supposed to feel overflowing happiness, it’s not easy to “rejoice” or “consider it pure joy.” Not quite the words that come to our minds. But if we trust in God and His revealed Word, we’re assured this is exactly what we should do – and can do.

But again, we’re not alone. We’re not the only ones suffering pain inwardly, even if, like us, they force their faces to display happy smiles. And we shouldn’t have to endure our trials and hurts alone, either. We can turn to others for comfort, and thank God as we’re doing it. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:2-4).

Sometimes, in the midst of our own adversity, the best remedy is offering comfort to someone else. It can take our minds off our own troubles. We might discover our difficulties aren’t as bad as we thought. And we may find that giving comfort to another is the greatest Christmas gift we could give, one that gives both ways.

Lastly, and most important, we can turn to Jesus. We’re told, For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Having taken on human flesh, enduring all of life’s challenges, He can say, without hesitation, “Child, I understand. I truly do.”

So if Thanksgiving for you is just the beginning of weeks of festive celebration, enjoy it! But if, like many others, the happiness of this season only serves to heighten your personal pain, look to the Lord with hope and confidence, knowing He is using this time in your life – no matter how hard – for your and His ultimate good and purpose.

Believing God is in control, and trusting that He genuinely has your best interests at heart, you then can do as 1 Thessalonians 5:18 exhorts us to do: “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

Unity, Without Uniformity

Despite discord, Times Square displays signs of unity.
My wife and I had the opportunity to spend some time in New York City just days before the Presidential election. As a boy growing up in New Jersey, I used to get into “The City” often, but hadn’t been there for more than 10 years. As we walked and toured around Manhattan, I was impressed once more by the incredible diversity that characterizes the “city that never sleeps.”

A tour bus guide commented that only 2 in every 5 residents of New York City is American-born. This bore itself out as we heard people talk. There were times when it was rare to hear an actual “American” accent. (Even of the “New Yawk” variety.) We saw people of virtually every ethnicity, and as for fashion, it was clear that in the Big Apple, anything and everything goes.

Yet, in the midst of the diversity there were unifying factors. American flags hung from many buildings, often more than one. In the heart of Times Square, a brightly lit flag gleamed in its red, white and blue. We made our initial visit to the Statue of Liberty, and its symbolism of freedom and liberty seemed strong.

This poster at a 9/11 memorial museum
captures the spirit we need.
Going to Ellis Island, also for my first time, scenes and photographs reminded us of the countless thousands of immigrants who were processed there sharing a common goal – to experience a better life, one much better than they’d known in their homeland. All of my grandparents had passed through those halls early in the 1900s, so it was a poignant time for me.

So now, with the 2016 Presidential election campaign mercifully over, hopefully along with much of its rancor, vitriol and antagonism, it’s time for people across America to refocus on who we have been – and who we should continue to be – the UNITED States of America. We seem to have become “Untied” for too long.

At the same time, we must understand that unity does not, and should not, mean uniformity. With the blessed diversity we can observe in our nation’s great cities and increasingly, even our small towns, it’s important to recognize we can be different and yet celebrate spirit of genuine unity.

This applies especially for those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote powerfully about this to the church in ancient Philippi: If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).

I purposely highlighted the words “if” and “then” in the passage, because it’s what is known in the world of grammar as a conditional statement – if certain things are true, then a specific conclusion should follow.

An enduring symbol
for liberty - and unity.
Within the body of Christ that we affectionately call “the Church,” there is great diversity. Not only in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and other demographics, but also doctrines, traditions, worship styles, music, and other factors that shape our beliefs and practices. But as Paul also wrote, it’s important not to let those differences create wide, uncrossable divides. He wrote to the church in Corinth, For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Don’t major in the minors.

As followers of Jesus, we can fall into the trap of participating in the continued stoking of the fires of division and discord. Or we can strive to find and nurture bonds that make for unity, while acknowledging we’re not asked nor called to insist on uniformity.

This does not mean sacrificing our convictions or compromising our faith, but it does involve recognizing there is beauty in diversity – a quality Jesus knew so well. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And it’s one big, wonderful, diverse world.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Procrastination – and Fear

Like many writers, I have a special gift for procrastination. It might be news to non-writers, but the act of writing professionally is hard work. Whenever I hear someone declare enthusiastically, “Oh, I just love to write!” I can’t help but think, “Yeah, you probably don’t write for a living.”

One writer aptly described writing in these words: “All you have to do is sit down at your computer, put your fingers on the keyboard, and stare at the screen until beads of blood appear on your forehead.” So can you blame writers for being prone to procrastinating, doing just about anything to avoid or delay the intense concentration that eventually will give birth to words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, articles and books?

Of course, procrastination is hardly exclusive to writers. In one way or another, we’ve all at times nodded our heads at the admonition (or excuse), “Why do today what you can easily put off until tomorrow?”

It might be a time-intensive task like cleaning the garage, doing a household repair, or sorting through junk accumulated in the attic. It could be a project at work that will demand undivided attention once you start. Or perhaps there’s an unpleasant interaction you must have with a family member or friend. You able to think of all kinds of things to do to escape doing the difficult or undesirable.

But sometimes there’s another factor behind our procrastinations: Fear. It might be fear of going to the doctor to address a health problem, suspecting it’s more than something a prescription or two can resolve. Or the fear of going to the dentist to have that achy tooth checked out, having an idea it might require a drill – or even an extraction – to correct.

There also might be fear of failure, or fear of starting something you can’t finish. I’ve spent my entire career writing non-fiction, first newspaper articles, then pieces for magazines and later, books. But I’ve always wondered about writing fiction. I have a couple of good ideas for novels, but feeling apprehensive about whether I’m creative or imaginative enough to write about make-believe people in not-real settings doing things I conjure in my mind, I’ve yet to commit myself to the pursuit of attempting to become a novelist.

Maybe that day will come, but my point is that if fear’s the basis for our procrastinating, one antidote would be to turn to the One who keeps telling us, “Fear not.” That’s what the angel told Mary in declaring in essence, “Guess what? You’re a virgin, you’ve never been with a man, but you’re going to become pregnant by divine conception. And even better, the baby you’ll carry and deliver will be the Son of God.” Do you think Mary, confronted with that startling revelation, might have preferred to indulge in a bit of procrastination if given the choice?

The good news for all seasoned procrastinators is the God of the universe constantly reminds us not to let fear get in the way of doing what we know we should do, whether it’s something as tame as deciding whether to expand our horizons professionally or as serious as dealing with a very troubling personal matter.

Trusting in His love, we’re told, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

Through the prophet Isaiah, God assured, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). Whatever we find necessary to do, He’s with us.

In striving to live out our faith in an increasingly faithless world, even “giving an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15), we’re admonished to not worry about how they will respond to what we say. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

So if you’re finding yourself in the procrastination spin cycle, reluctant to undertake whatever God is urging you to do, don’t let fear be the obstacle that keeps you from obeying Him – and experiencing the joy, and maybe relief that will result.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Could Your Convictions Convict You?

This is my 700th post since starting this blog late in 2008. I remember writing several in advance back then, in case I ran out of ideas. Didn’t want to be a one-week blogging wonder.

To commemorate this “milestone” (hopefully you don’t see it as more of a millstone!), I debated what to write about. For whatever reason, the subject of “convictions” came to mind. Our local newspaper is unusual in that it features two facing op-ed pages – the one on the left appropriately taking a liberal slant, the one on the right holding to conservative views. It’s amazing how they can discuss identical topics and espouse totally opposite convictions.

But having convictions isn’t strongly encouraged anymore. In deference to “tolerance,” people with strong convictions are often shouted down or ridiculed as narrow-minded, bigoted or worse. So I have two questions: What convictions do you strongly embrace? And based on what you say and how you act, would there be enough evidence to convict you for having those convictions?

I write from the conviction that the Bible isn’t an antiquated, irrelevant book with no meaning for 21st century life. To the contrary, I’m convinced that just as the owner’s manual shows how a car should be operated and maintained, the Scriptures comprise God “Owner’s manual,” designed to tell us how to live and act.

Years ago someone became the first to proclaim, “There are no absolutes!” Which is ironic, since that statement sounds absolute. And if that’s true, couldn’t something else be equally “absolute”? These days there’s a strong trend away from matters of conviction, absolute beliefs. Instead, we’re told, “live and let live,” and “to thine own self be true.”

Churches and even denominations have acquiesced, abandoning the Bible as unquestioned foundation for what they believe and teach. In many quarters, ministerial leaders utter more palatable messages in their quest for a larger “market,” or to enhance their “brand.” Instead of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not offend” has become the edict of choice.

But the Scriptures present many examples of unwavering, uncompromising conviction. It starts in the very first verse of the Bible’s first book, announcing, “In the beginning God….” Then it tells how He created all we see and know.

When Moses encountered God in the burning bush and was instructed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he asked who he should say sent him. The Lord responded, “I AM who I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). He didn’t say, “I was,” or “I might be.” He said, “I AM,” declaring His omnipresence and timelessness.

Jesus announced, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), He spoke with conviction – and unwavering certainty. He addressed His followers with authority, as if to say, “To know God and have an eternal relationship with Him, there aren’t multiple options.”

We see a similar level of conviction among those who carried on His work. The apostle Paul, whose persecution parade ended when he literally “saw the light” en route to Damascus, later said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Paul also explained his motivation: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (to our old life)” (2 Corinthians 5:14). His conviction was to tell everyone about what Christ had done for them – and the importance of receiving His gift of forgiveness and salvation.

Today we seem like the ancient Israelites, described in Judges 21:25. It says, “in those days there was no king is Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Having dispensed with the Judeo-Christian consensus that helped to shape American society, now it seems everyone’s intent on doing what’s right in their own eyes.

But this doesn’t negate the Bible’s claim about itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

If this isn’t true, we have every reason for doing whatever’s right in our own eyes. But if the Bible is indeed God’s Owner’s manual  entrusted to us for teaching, training and guidance – then we should study to understand what it says, not just for religious or spiritual gatherings, but also for any and every setting in which we find ourselves: Work, play, family, community, even the world.

Because as Colossians 3:17 admonishes, “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus….” It becomes a matter of conviction.