Monday, October 30, 2017

Getting a Hollow Feeling from Halloween

Halloween has its tame, fun side, as with festive pumpkins, and
silly characters, but also a more sinister side.
Halloween is an interesting holiday of many faces – literally. On one hand, it’s a time for little kids to don silly costumes, go door to door visiting neighbors and collect a stash of candies and other treats. We see everything from fuzzy animals to cartoon characters to celebrities to the traditional ghosts and witches. Adults sometimes get into the act, attending their own grown-up, Halloween-themed costume parties.

It’s a time when we can revisit Washington Irving’s classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with its “headless horseman.” (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t a very cerebral thinker.) Or watch Charlie Brown conduct his annual search for the Great Pumpkin.

Then there’s the other side of Halloween, featuring elements of the occult and macabre. Popular TV shows devote episodes to things that go bump in the night, replete with ghosts, goblins, and even darker aspects of the supernatural. Theaters often schedule releases of the latest, most gruesome movies for this frightful season. There was even a series of “Halloween” horror films – not to be confused with non-Halloween horror films.

As an avid reader growing up, I became well-acquainted with scary stories. Fittingly, since I grew up on Poe Avenue, I loved reading Edgar Allan Poe’s work, including tales like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Telltale Heart.” Even into my early adult years, I maintained a great affinity for novels in the horror and occult genre. I embraced authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King. Imagine converting blood and gore into multimillion-dollar incomes.

Then in the late ‘70s my fascination with the occult was challenged. My pastor gave a message on the subject, explaining how even dabbling with the so-called paranormal could result in bad spiritual consequences.

Convicted about that, I met with him soon after to explain my interest was solely for entertainment. He didn’t preach to me, but left me with a simple observation: “When you read those books, are they pointing you toward the Lord – or away from Him?”

I didn’t have to think deeply about the question, because I knew the answer. They certainly weren’t serving to enhance my spiritual growth, and I realized that even though I was reading fiction, I had already learned far more about the occult and its practices than anyone needed to know.

That moment I resolved to put aside my “fun” reading and slam the door on influences, some very subtle, that could draw me away from my faith, still in its infancy. In Romans 12:2 we’re told, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Even though the surrounding culture was telling me – and still proclaims today – that there’s nothing wrong with a little scare now and then, I knew it could be an obstacle to the transforming work God wanted to do in my life.

Another passage elaborates: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). It’s been decades since I gave up reading a scary book or viewed any horror movies that Hollywood is so fond of pumping out. But I still remember they contained little, if anything that was true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy.

So, let me suggest: This Halloween, if you plan to take part in any festivities, I hope you’ll be doing as some of my children or grandchildren have done – dress as a banana, or a monkey, or even as a pancake syrup bottle. That way, you’ll have no ghostly idea how more sinister elements of the day could affect you.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Focusing on the Do’s, Rather Than the Don’ts

The question has often been asked, “Can Christians dance?” The real answer to the question is, “Some can, some can’t.” (Just like any other group of people!) Having been a churchgoer for most of my life, and a follower of Christ for nearly 40 years, I’ve often heard debates on the do’s and don’ts of living out our faith. These range from going to the movies or doing any kind of work on Sunday to whether drinking alcohol, even in moderation, is an absolute taboo.

We also find disagreement on a wide range of traditional practices, like baptism, communion, forms of worship, who are qualified for church leadership roles, and which version of the Bible to use.

Commandments in the Bible speak more about
what to do, rather than what not to do.
You could probably add other topics to the list. Most of these are subject for discussion – sometimes, even bitter dispute – because the Scriptures aren’t absolute on them, leaving room for interpretation and personal conviction. It seems a lot of time and energy is expended seeking to resolve the seemingly unresolvable, while failing to devote nearly as much attention and effort to indisputable matters.

We become so focused on the “don’ts,” we forget about the “do’s.”

For example, the Bible says we’re all responsible for telling others about Jesus, that it’s not just the job for paid professionals. However, studies indicate in the typical church, less than 10 percent of its members have spoken to even one person about Christ in the past year.

This despite the clear admonition, How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15). Nowhere does this suggest it applies only to pastors and missionaries.

Just before Jesus ascended to heaven after His resurrection, He gave His followers one final, ironclad mandate: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And yet, every year new books and sermon series address the why’s and how’s of discipleship and disciplemaking, as if it’s a newly discovered, 21st century concept. We have Sunday schools and small groups, but relatively few congregations place emphasis on what Jesus commanded: to make disciples – devoted followers, learners and spiritual reproducers.

Nevertheless, His mandate is unquestionable. In 2 Timothy 2:2, the apostle Paul told his young protégé, And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Later, while in prison, toward the end of his life, the apostle also wrote, Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:9). In other words, be a disciple…and make disciples.

The Scriptures present numerous other “to do’s,” ranging from “love your neighbors as yourselves” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, James 2:8) and “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), to numerous exhortations in both the Old and New testaments to serve and minister to the poor, the needy, widows and orphans, and the helpless.

We’re told to make others a top priority – Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). As well as to be “salt and light,” to provide savor and illumination for an increasingly embittered and darkened world (Matthew 5:13-15).

These just scratch the tip of the Bible’s “iceberg” of positive commands. What if we spent as much time (or more) focused on the things we know without a doubt we should do, as we do commiserating about what we shouldn’t do? Perhaps more people would realize what we already know: That the gospel of Jesus Christ truly is Good News.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Maintaining Integrity When Conditions Change

When we hear about integrity – especially the lack of it – what comes to mind? Many of us would think first of politicians. On both sides of the aisle. Neither side has cornered the market on this dismal deficiency. We also hear of scandals in the business world, so we’d have to add top executives to the list. Sadly, some members of the law enforcement profession get failing grades when it comes to integrity. This list could go on, but clearly, integrity should appear prominently on the endangered species list.

The question is, what is integrity? Consulting the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I found several definitions: 1) “Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” 2) “An unimpaired condition.” 3) “The quality or state of being complete or undivided.”

Does integrity matter if
our fingers are crossed?
I have no quarrel with any of those definitions, and have also appreciated this very practical perspective on integrity: “Who you are – and what you do – when no one is looking.” Recently, however, I heard a definition that hits home when we consider the depths to which everyday integrity has fallen. As speaker and writer Dr. David Jeremiah defines it, “Integrity is keeping a commitment after the circumstances in which the commitment was made have changed.”

Getting back to politicians, it seems we see this in action every day. They make bold campaign promises, yet once in office renege on their commitments. Either they never intended to keep those promises, or circumstances have changed so they feel free to disavow or compromise on their commitments.

In the work world, we see this as well: Commitments are made to secure a sale or win a contract, or assurances for professional advancement are given, yet later those commitments are forgotten – after circumstances have changed.

But integrity isn’t a matter that applies only to people responsible for major decisions. Our own integrity hangs in the balance every day.

A simple example is what happens on the wedding day. A man and woman vow their love and eternal devotion to each other – before God, attendees at the wedding, and everyone who views their beautiful video capturing the special moment. And yet, statistically half of all marriages end in divorce, even among professed followers of Christ. Why? One big reason is simply that circumstances have changed. “Yes, we said, ‘for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer,’ but we didn’t know it would get this worse!”

A parent promises to take Johnny or Joanie on a much-anticipated outing, but when the day finally arrives, they cancel because a pressing matter has come up. Then they further damage their integrity in the child’s mind by making another commitment they probably won’t keep.

Someone asks us for help over the weekend and we promise to do so. Or someone asks us to meet them for lunch and we agree, setting the time and place. When asked, we had nothing conflicting. Then a better, more appealing opportunity comes about and we beg off the commitment with an excuse – we’re not feeling well, we forgot we had made a prior commitment, or some other rationalization.

We’re approached to give financial support, perhaps to a missionary or an important church project, and make a promise to give. Later, however, circumstances change so we either cancel the commitment or drastically reduce it.

We see a powerful example of the latter in the book of Acts, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira committed to sell property they had and give all the proceeds to support followers of Christ in their city. “With his wife’s full knowledge, [Ananias] kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:1-2).

The passage doesn’t explain why they did that. Maybe the property sold for more than they anticipated. Ananias and Sapphira reasoned they would still give what they had promised and keep the surplus for themselves. No one would be the wiser, right? The problem was, God knew. His response was drastic and dramatic. He took their lives, not because they hadn’t given the property’s full value, but because they had lied about giving the full amount.

Even in the early days of the Church, the Lord was underscoring the high importance of integrity. As Proverbs 11:3 declares, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.”

God demands that we be truthful and wholehearted in our commitments. Jesus said, as one translation expresses Matthew 5:37, But let your word 'yes be 'yes,' and your 'no be 'no.' Anything more than this is from the evil one.” In other words, He’s saying, “If you’re not willing to keep a commitment, don’t make it in the first place. But if you make a vow or a promise, I expect you to fulfill it – even if the conditions in which you made it have changed.”

As we’re tempted to condemn politicians, business leaders, entertainers and others for their lack of integrity, maybe we need to take an honest look in the mirror. We can’t control the integrity of their actions, but we are responsible for our own.