Sunday, February 25, 2018

Succeeding at Finishing a Life Well-Lived

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

These words were penned by the apostle Paul toward the end of his life, sent to his young protégé, Timothy. But they could just as easily have been authored by Dr. Billy Graham, who last week passed from this life into the next at the age of 99. It’s hard to think of another human who had as much influence on as many lives as did Dr. Graham during his ministry of more than six decades.

Dr. Billy Graham, faithful to the end.
Even though his evangelistic ministry came to an end years ago, and before then had been curtailed sharply because of declining health, there remain millions of men and women around the world who can trace the beginnings of their spiritual journey to attending one of the Billy Graham crusades. Through those meetings, his TV and radio broadcasts, and many books, Dr. Graham was steadfast to the end in affirming that Jesus’ declaration was true when He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The revered evangelist cut through denominational, social, cultural, ethnic and even political boundaries, remaining true to his call to preach the gospel to peoples in all nations, a mission he began in the 1940s. For many years Dr. Graham ranked at or near the top of lists of the most-admired people in the world, but it wasn’t an honor that affected him.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Graham once, in the early 1990s. He was a guest speaker at a convention of the Evangelical Press Association in Asheville, N.C. As a member of the EPA board, I had joined other directors at the head table and we greeted him as he arrived, one at a time.

What impressed me most about Dr. Graham was not his stature, although he was a tall man, nor his resonant voice. It was his humility. As a journalist for many years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many famous people. In the majority cases, I’ve had the sense they were thinking, “What a pleasure it is for you to meet me!” But not with Dr. Graham. He and I talked perhaps for two minutes, but he looked straight in my eyes and for that brief moment, showed genuine interest in me, not simply shrugging me off as one of the countless millions with whom he had shaken hands over the years.

Billy Graham, of course, was just a man, not some superhero. But perhaps more than anyone I have encountered in life – more than most of us might encounter in life – he exemplified what the apostle Paul declared to an eclectic bunch of Greek listeners at the famed Areopagus, “For in him [Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

One of the most difficult things, if not THE most difficult thing, for followers of Jesus Christ to accomplish in their lives is to finish well. Anyone can get off to a good start, doing and saying the right things as they embark on their walk with Christ. But many fall by the wayside – some quickly, others many years later. Dr. Graham, however, succeeded. He finished well.

In another letter toward the end of his ministry, the apostle wrote, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Dr. Billy Graham has reached his goal and won the prize; he didn’t stop before reaching the finish line. One day, may the same be said of us. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Cure for a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Whenever I want to get my day off to a bad start, I have a fool-proof strategy. I turn on the morning news and hear about all the awful things that happened yesterday, or while I was sleeping. It’s kind of like the guy who said, “My day was going just great. Really well. Then I got out of bed, and it spiraled down from there!”

Like Alexander in the book, we
all have terrible, horrible days.
Reminds me of the classic children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. If you’re not familiar with this award-winning story, poor little Alexander finds that from the moment he wakes up, things seem determined not to go his way. Things get so bad, Alexander wishes he could move to Australia, where he feels certain things would go much better for him. (In an Australian version of the book, Alexander expresses a yearning to move to Timbuktu.)

You might not face the same set of setbacks that Alexander does, but we’ve all had our own version of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, haven’t we?

Sometimes circumstances we encounter are beyond our control: Someone backing into our car in the shopping mall parking lot; dropping an egg or bottle of milk on the floor while preparing to make breakfast; not noticing that icy spot on the sidewalk; or having one of the kids get sick just before we’re heading out for a special evening with our spouse.

But what we can control is our attitude. As my friend used to say, “We can’t keep the birds from flying overhead, but we can keep them from building a nest in our hair.”

It’s not about becoming a Pollyanna, or insisting on wearing rose-colored glasses – or drinking out of only half-full ones, for that matter. It’s about understanding what we can rely on even when a day serves us with its worst.

The Scriptures talk about maintaining a right perspective even in the midst of negative news and circumstances: “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 hard to remain pessimistic when we surround ourselves with reasons for optimism.

We also can escape negativity when we concentrate on God’s assurances. For instances, in Jeremiah 29:11, He promises, “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Several chapters later the Lord instructs us to “Call on me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). In the midst of difficulties, big or small, it can be extremely hard to see or understand the big picture. Sometimes we need to drive through mud to reach the paved road.

Then there’s one of my all-time favorite promises, that we can release whatever burdens us to God’s attention: “Cast all your anxiety of him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Take heart – it will pass sooner than you think. And trust in the Lord who’s expert at turning terrible, horrible, no good, very bad stuff into something really good!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Are You Willing to Be a ‘Fellow Worker’?

Have you ever tried to imagine what it would be like to work with someone you greatly admire?

Maybe you love motion pictures and think it would be fun to experience working alongside a legendary director like Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas. If you’re a baseball fan, and with spring training starting up, perhaps you think it would be cool to assist the manager of your favorite team. Or maybe you could suggest offensive plays to your team’s head football coach.

My wife’s a big fan of the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” so she’d get a big kick out of tagging along with Joanna Gaines sometime and pitching in as she does her designing thing. “Shiplap here, rip up the carpet there, put in hardwood floors, get rid of that popcorn ceiling!” I’ve thought it would be interesting to observe my cardiothoracic surgeon do open-heart surgery, maybe handing him a scalpel or clamp – just as long it was someone else, not me!

You can probably think of lots of other work-alongside scenarios; maybe shadowing a police detective investigating a high-profile crime, or accompanying a celebrated writer as she gathers material for her next novel. But let me suggest one that might not have occurred to you:
Working with God.

At first you might be wonder, “What are you talking about?!” But it’s not a suggestion – it’s a biblical declaration. Reading 1 Corinthians 3:9, we’re told directly, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

Lest we consider this a random statement taken out of context, we see the “fellow worker” concept presented elsewhere. Ephesians 2:10, for example, states, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The apostle Paul also writes, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing…. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-3:6).

I remember having lunch years ago with a friend, a financial planner, who suddenly blurted out, “I’d do anything to go full-time for God!” I looked him in the eyes and replied, “What makes you think you haven’t already done that?”

Noticing his surprise, I explained there’s no such thing as a part-time Christian (being born again isn’t a switch we can turn on and off), and we’re all called to serve God and His people. By definition, then, we’re all in “full-time Christian service,” whether that means vocational ministry – as in a church, a parachurch ministry, or some mission field – or employed in a so-called “secular” job.

When Jesus ascended to heaven, He entrusted His Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), to a small band of devoted followers, not to angels or even people who would have been in the “Who’s Who” of that day. Later Paul wrote to believers in the city of Corinth, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God(2 Corinthians 5:19-20). 

The Lord has lots of work to get done in this world, and He offers us the opportunity and privilege to be His “fellow workers”! The question is, are we willing to join Him?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Overcoming a Big ‘Wait’ Problem

Nearly every week new reports surface about America’s growing weight “epidemic.” They speak about the alarming percentage of men, women and children tipping the obesity scale. It’s a problem, without a doubt. There’s another pressing issue that sounds the same, but looks very different: Our collective “wait problem.”

Our troubles with “wait” are magnified by our fast-food, microwaved, gotta-have-it-now mentality – as is its weighty homonym. Despite technological and cultural changes, the problem with waiting has plagued humankind ever since there was a…humankind. History shows us repeatedly the dire consequences that can result from inability to wait. The Scriptures offer many cases in point.

God had told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but when the tempter suggested there would be no harm in sampling the tree’s fruit, the very first couple didn’t wait to ask for permission. They disobeyed God for the first time, setting in motion chains of sin dominoes that continue falling to this day (Genesis 3).

God had promised Abram and his wife, Sarai, would have a son, but they tired of waiting. Sarai told Abram to take her maidservant Hagar and have a child through her. Their plan succeeded, and Hagar presented Abram with a son, Ishmael. The Bible stated he would become a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Genesis 16:12). We still see ramifications of that ill-advised choice today.

After fleeing from Egypt, the Israelites repeatedly demonstrated their reluctance to wait, much to their subsequent dismay. Other examples too numerous to mention appear throughout the Old and New testaments. It’s clear unwillingness to wait for whatever we happen to be desiring is hardly a 21st century phenomenon.

Waiting, regardless of the reason,
isn't easy for many of us.
What have you been waiting for that has tested your patience? On the work front, it might be a new job, pay raise, or promotion. If you’re single, it might be finding Mr. or Miss “Right.” For some couples, it’s yearning for that first child – as was the case with Abram and Sarai, along with other women in the Bible like Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah, and Elizabeth.

Sometimes it’s something as inconsequential as a slow-changing traffic light; anticipating a much-wanted item to go on sale, or waiting for the new coach at State U to restore the alma mater to glory on the gridiron or court.

A wait problem can be frustrating and disheartening. The much-hoped-for objective seems just out of reach, and impatience sets in. This might be why essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

Over and over the Scriptures assure us that having to wait is not a problem, but an opportunity. Psalm 37, after encouraging us to trust in the Lord, delight in Him, and commit all that we do to Him, admonishes, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7). Later in the same psalm, it reaffirms that instruction: “Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt you to inherit the land…” (verse 34).

After observing how dangers and turmoil around us might prompt us to leap into action, moving ahead of God’s plan, Psalm 46:10 tells us to patiently wait: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).

Waiting receives added emphasis in Psalm 27:13-14, in which King David recalled how he learned to avoid headstrong acts: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!”

One of my favorites, Isaiah 40:31, cites a particular benefit of waiting: "But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

We can find many other passages in which the virtues of waiting on God and His timing are highlighted. In our days of short attention spans and instant gratification, waiting seems a lost art. But it’s one well-worth recapturing. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Finding Love…By Getting Lost

As another Valentine’s Day approaches, and many of us reflect either on the love we have or the love we desire, I think of an intriguing statement a young woman made about how to find that right person. She said, “A girl should be so lost in the Lord that a guy has to seek Him to find her.”

Today, as has always been the case, people look for the love of their life in a variety of places: In class, if you’re a student, at work, the gym or other athletic activities, in bars, the supermarket; and increasingly, online. Searching, searching, desperately hoping and expecting Mr. or Ms. Right to suddenly pop up out of nowhere.

It's time again to consider
the "affairs of the heart."
But could it be that most people are, to borrow from the Johnny Lee tune featured in the film, “Urban Cowboy,” are “looking for love in all the wrong places”? Perhaps, as the young woman suggested, we all would be well-advised to get “lost” so we can be found?

I didn’t hear how she elaborated on her meaning, but suspect she meant that as we grow more deeply committed to – and in love with – God, men as well as women, He will bring us together with the person best suited for us, one who shares the same beliefs, convictions and motivations. Someone whose life is grounded in the person of Jesus Christ, who enables us to love beyond anything we could imagine.

Most of us are familiar with the biblical declaration, “God is love” (1 John 3:16), but it’s important to understand this within its context: And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” This says to experience true love – not the superficial forms of love we see depicted in the entertainment media that are either sappy and sentimental, or solely sensual – it must be drawn from the Lord, the author and source of love.

Psalm 37:4 offers the assurance, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” In Jeremiah 33:3 we’re told, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” And Ephesians 3:20 declares that God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

All these tell me that if we’re sincerely seeking love, not the counterfeit we often see portrayed, we’ve got to look to God first. Otherwise we’re indeed looking for love in all the wrong places. This applies to the individual still looking for that right person, because ultimately that right person is the Lord Himself. But it also applies to people caught in a difficult or loveless marriage, as well as those who would consider themselves happily married, but yearning for an ever deeper, more fulfilling love with their mate.

My wife and I are closing in on our 44th anniversary, and the path hasn’t always been smooth. Lots of bumps have impeded our progress at times. But I can say without question the love we have today far surpasses what we had during those early, euphoric days of “being in love.” The love we have for each other truly is, as Ephesians 3:20 states, immeasurably more that all I could have asked or imagined.

Delighting ourselves in the Lord has in no way diminished our love for one another. It’s deepened and enhanced it, in ways we could never have dreamed.

So, on Valentine’s Day, if you know you’ve succeeded in finding the love of your life, congratulations. But don’t take it for granted – keep working at it to make it even stronger. If you’re still looking, make certain you’re not looking in all the wrong places. As the young woman proposed, get so lost in the Lord so that he (or she) must seek Him to find you.

After all, as the Scriptures tell us, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9).