Thursday, July 12, 2018

Reaping Positives from Life’s Negatives

Sometimes we learn more from life's gutter balls than from its strikes.
I hate to exercise. But I love to have exercised (past tense.) Even though I’ve maintained a steady exercise routine for a couple of decades, more often than not, I conduct a brief debate with myself over whether to work out that day. Why exert today when you can put it off until tomorrow?

Yet, most times I relent and go anyway. The first few minutes are like trying to push a wet noodle up hill, but after I’ve warmed up it becomes a bit easier. Before I know it, the 45 minutes or hour I’ve designated for working out have passed. Then I’m very pleased I went to exercise – because it’s over.

I know a consistent workout is good for me, and even with the passing of years, I’m much healthier today than I would have been if I’d chosen not to go through the pain and strain. So in retrospect, I guess I don’t really “hate” exercising as much as I claim.

This principle applies to everyday life as well. Who among us would eagerly line up for financial struggles, family discord, work challenges, or health issues? We want our lives to be a smooth ride, kind of like sliding rapidly down a bobsled run – except without the precarious twists and turns. But in reality, it’s the difficulties that shape us, building character, perseverance, confidence and faith.

I don’t know who originated these thoughts, but they ring true: Pain leads to patience; hurt leads to humility; and suffering leads to strength. 

We find this affirmed in the Scriptures. Romans 5:3-6 tells us, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

To assure us that’s not a misprint or mistranslation, James 1:2-4 declares, “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.”

Walking or running on a treadmill, riding an exercise bike and lifting weights produce a good physical workout that tones and strengthens muscles, builds stamina and enhances our overall physical well-being. Circumstances in life can do much the same, challenging our resolve, helping us to build determination and, if we’re willing, strengthening our trust and faith in the Lord. For whatever reason, success and good times – those moments when we can revel in carefree living – can’t do that for us.

So, like exercising, I have hated going through money struggles, career uncertainties, family conflicts, some serious health challenges, even times when I’ve questioned my faith. But I’m thankful to have gone through each of them. They taught me a lot about myself – and even more about the Lord and the absolute confidence I can have in Him.

At the same time, I know the adversities haven’t ended. Just when we complete one stage of life and think, “Phew! Glad that’s over with!” along comes another one with its own menu of difficulties. But I’m okay with that, because as the anonymous writer said, pain leads to patience. Hurt leads to humility. Suffering leads to strength. And who among us couldn’t use a little more patience, or humility, or strength?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Wading into the Waiting Game

Whoever enjoys waiting, raise your hand. Next, tell us how long you’ve had problems telling the truth! I doubt any of us has much use for having to wait, although I suppose some can tolerate it more than others. 

I hate standing in line at the grocery store, especially behind someone whose casual conversation with the cashier indicates they have nothing to do for the rest of the day. And don’t get me started on my propensity for selecting the slowest-moving line. Sometimes I think traffic lights are programmed with a pernicious capacity for testing our patience. “Come on! Turn green already! What’s the holdup?”

By all accounts, however, waiting at a doctor’s office is the worst. Whether it’s for a wellness visit, sickness, or we’re there for some kind of treatment, we already hate being there. Having to wait only adds to what ails us. Recently I was scheduled for a medical procedure at a local hospital. My wife, who had to drive me home afterward, and I arrived promptly at 8:30 a.m., as instructed. Before long we were guided to a short-stay treatment room and told my case was next. The medical staff should be ready for me a little after 10. So, we waited.

As the clock approached 11, we asked what was going on. “Very soon,” we were told, but noon passed, then 12:30. Apparently the doctors and staff went to lunch. Everybody’s got to eat, right? Except for the patient who hadn’t eaten since 9 the previous evening. “Either get this procedure going,” I thought, “or bring me a cheeseburger!”

They finally took me into the treatment lab just after 1 p.m. The procedure was completed and I awoke from the anesthetic around 3, but we had to stay another eight hours before I was fit to leave! By the time the nurse signed my release, I wanted to run out of there – although they warned that wouldn’t be wise.

The other day my wife was preparing to leave for a day of babysitting with the grandkids when she discovered a tire on her vehicle was flat. She took my car instead, and I called for roadside assistance. Since changing a tire these days has become more complicated than solving a Rubik’s Cube, I willingly endured the 50-minute wait for the repair service to arrive. In this case, the wait was worth it. So I’ve had my share of waiting of late. It’s not fun, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Waiting is integral to the spiritual life as well. Many times God has said “Go!” and I’ve eagerly gone, but sometimes He’s said, “Wait!” I haven’t been as thrilled with that. Only in hindsight could I discern why I needed to wait – and why the Lord knew exactly what He was doing by keeping me in His “waiting room.”

Reading the Scriptures, it’s amazing how often God requires His people to wait on Him and the fulfillment of His plans. Abraham and Sarah were promised a son, but had to wait years for son Isaac. Joseph was central to the Lord’s plan to save the people of Israel from famine and relocate them to Egypt, but he had to suffer a series of seemingly unjust waits to prepare him for that role.

When time came for the Israelites to be freed from slavery in Egypt, God handpicked Moses to lead the way. But first he had to withstand 40 years in exile. The apostle Paul, following his dramatic conversion on the road to Emmaus, was placed in God’s waiting room for years, “marinating” him until he was ready to serve as a key leader of the early Church.

Faith is an important part of waiting, whether it’s anticipating the nurse calling you back to the examining room, or going into “pause mode” while God carries out His will – His timetable, not ours. When we take to heart God’s promises and accept them by faith, the waiting becomes easier.

For instance, Psalm 46:10 admonishes, “be still and know that I am God.” The only way we can do that is if we trust the Lord’s character, know He’s in control, and is after our best interests. For someone dealing with a terminal disease, that’s easier said than done. But not impossible, as several of my friends have demonstrated.

Psalm 37 presents both an action plan – and an advisory to wait: “Trust in the Lord, and do good…. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.... Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:3-7). Then, in case we missed it the first time, the psalm adds, “…those who wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth” (verse 9), and “Wait on the Lord and keep His way” (verse 34).

The trusting, delighting and committing aren’t too bad. At least they feel like we’re doing something. It’s the resting and waiting that cause me difficulty.

Through the years, God has taught that if I’m willing to wait, even if reluctantly, He will indeed “do exceeding abundantly beyond anything we could ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). Not so sure about that? Just you wait!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Canyons, Conceptions – and Cocoons

Imagine all that was involved in forming the Grand Canyon.
Have you ever seen one of those gossip magazines at the grocery store with a cover photo of a beautiful actress, except she’s not wearing any makeup? Who knew so much work went into making someone look gorgeous! 

Beauty, of course, isn’t restricted to the realms of Hollywood. We find it all around us: spectacular sunrises or sunsets; scenery right after a snowfall; the pallet of colorful leaves in the autumn, or another of nature’s myriad wonders. We have manmade beauty: inspiring works of art; stirring  and complex musical compositions; a poem that grabs hold of the heart, or a stunning work of architecture. 

Occasionally, as I’ve written before, I even encounter something that seems truly deserving of the term, “Awesome!” But to my shame, rarely do I feel appropriate appreciation for all that was involved in bringing about that awesomeness. 

This exquisite porcelain creation in
Herend, Hungary took many hours
of painstaking artistry.
Take the Grand Canyon, for example, or other wondrous vistas around the world, even if they don’t quite match the famed Arizona landmark’s grandeur. We can’t begin to conceive the factors and forces that combined to create them. Years ago I visited Herend, Hungary, where I viewed exhibits of rare and exquisite porcelain and china treasured by collectors around the world. Painstaking artistry has gone into creating those pieces, some dating back to the 1800s, but we see only the finished product.

When we admire paintings or sculptures from art’s grand masters, we hardly fathom what went into each work’s conception or the years of preparation that led up to its execution. We can enjoy compositions by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin and many others, but can we fully comprehend the inspiration – and perspiration – expended to complete such majestic works?

Even the simplest things manage to escape my understanding. As the late author and poet Maya Angelou wrote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

As a butterfly flits from flower to flower, do we stop to ponder its prior journey from caterpillar to cocoon – the struggle it endured before arriving at such delicate beauty? There’s perhaps no more compelling symbol of rebirth in nature.

This leads me to consider the even more profound phenomenon of spiritual rebirth. Jesus told Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Then, for emphasis, Jesus restated, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

One way of understanding this powerful declaration is that becoming a part of God’s eternal family doesn’t involve making improvements – it requires total transformation, far more wondrous than what butterflies go through. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” 

Most often, however, this “instant” transformation has been a long time in the making. In my case, even though I had an intellectual belief in God, it took more than 30 years before I was willing to embrace Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord. And yet, that was just the beginning. Ever since, God has been to work in and through my life, continuing to mold and shape me into the person He desires for me to be. I have been engaging, sometimes unwittingly or even unwillingly, in what Philippians 2:12 describes as, “working out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” In other words, discovering how to work out what God has already worked in.

In terms of “beauty,” the Christian life is a bit of a mixed bag. At times we might strike others as splendid new creations, but at other times we slip back into the old forms of our past life, almost as if a butterfly could slip back to being a caterpillar. Maybe God should slap a sign on our backs reading, “Work in Progress.”

The good news about the Good News is that, indeed, God isn’t finished with us even after we become “born again.” As Philippians 1:6 affirms, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

At that moment we will realize the fulfillment of the assurance given to us in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Perhaps then, more than ever, we’ll appreciate all the work that’s required to create a thing of true beauty.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Proud to Be an American, Prouder as a Citizen of Another World

American flag adorn a pier on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tenn.
We’re about to celebrate another Independence Day. Yes, in England they also have a July 4th, but from what I hear, they would remove it from the calendar if they could. To which all patriotic Americans can say, “Nah, nah, nah-nah, nah!”

Speaking of “patriotic,” nearly 70 years ago the spirit of patriotism grabbed hold of me and to date, hasn’t let go. Born on the Fourth of July, I still get chills when I see our Star Spangled Banner waving above. I delight in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” regarding myself as one, and have yet to hear a John Philip Sousa march that I didn’t like. Someone had a good idea when they recorded Kate Smith singing, “God Bless America,” even when it’s played in its scratchy, non-digital form.

My grandparents immigrated from Hungary to the USA, passing through Ellis Island, even though I doubt they could speak a word of English (or American) upon arrival. But they settled into homes in Pennsylvania and became contributors to their communities. My grandfathers provided for their families by performing hard labor for long hours in steel mills, and became proud, naturalized Americans.

While World War II was being waged, my father bravely fought in the midst of it, collecting wounds in Europe and Northern Africa as he served as an officer in both armored and infantry divisions of the U.S. Army. Later, he gave more than a year of his life while stationed in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, and wrapped up his military career commuting to New York City, where he was assigned another role. He even worked many years in the U.S. Postal Service.

In light of all the above, I admit it miffs me when disrespect is directed toward our nation, its flag, and those who served courageously so that today we’re not under Nazi, Communist, or even Muslim rule. Our beleaguered Constitution still guarantees the rights of free speech and dissent, but I sometimes wonder whether misguided protesters aren’t actually biting the hand that has fed them so extravagantly.

Certainly, bad things have been perpetrated in the name of the red, white and blue, but show me a nation where that hasn’t been the case. If there is one, maybe the dissatisfied should move there if the United States doesn’t meet their lofty standards.

Even in writing this, however, I recognize, as the old spiritual tells us, “This world ain’t my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” Speaking of our tendencies toward sin, the apostle Peter wrote, Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Why submit to earthbound temptations, he was saying, when heaven is our real home?

Hebrews 11:13-16, speaking of biblical predecessors whose lives were characterized by great faith, often in the face of formidable opposition, expresses the same sentiment from a slightly different angle: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Even in the Old Testament we find the affirmation that for every follower of Jesus Christ, our true citizenship is not in this nation, or even this planet.For we are foreigners and sojourners in Your presence, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope” (1 Chronicles 29:15).

So as I nod in assent to the words of the Lee Greenwood song, “Proud to Be an American,” I’m far prouder to know I’ve been chosen to be a child of God, a citizen of a Kingdom I’ve yet to see, but look forward to with great anticipation, by faith. As Philippians 3:20 declares, For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”