Monday, December 30, 2019

Resolving Not to Make Any More Resolutions

We’ve nearly reached the end of the year, and across the country millions of people either have or will be making resolutions for the New Year. These will range from losing weight to getting their anger under control to whittling down debt to spending less time on their smartphones. The problem is, resolutions rarely work.

Say, for instance, you resolve to lose 15 pounds. After the first of the year you start working out, cut back on eating “the good stuff,” and actually make a lot of progress, shedding maybe 10 pounds. Then you have a close encounter with the Cheesecake Factory or a similar establishment, and almost overnight find you’ve gained back five of those lost pounds. The biggest problem with losing weight, after all, is that it’s so easily found. In frustration, you mutter, “Well, forget that!”

Or you resolve to become an advocate for world peace, but then have a loud argument with your spouse. Rather than a peacemaker, you show yourself to be a peace-breaker. “Stick it in your ear, world peace!”

My solution to such resolution failures is simple: Don’t make resolutions. Instead, I set goals. For example, years ago a friend gave me a one-year chronological Bible, and last year I set a goal to finally get around to reading it through. I started the year off well, keeping pace with the daily readings, but then fell behind a week or so for some reason. If it had been merely a resolution, I might have said, “I quit!” 

But since it was a goal for the entire year, I pressed on, reading an extra section or two from time to time, and got caught up. At some points I even got a few days ahead in my readings. There were a couple of other setbacks along the way, but now I’m just a few days short of reaching my goal. Next I’ll have to decide how to structure my Bible reading and study in the New Year.

Years ago, I learned three things about goals: They should be 1) realistic, 2) measurable, and 3) attainable. For instance, even in my younger years I was too big to be a jockey, so aiming to ride the winner of the Kentucky Derby would have made no sense. But I can set a goal of doing vigorous cardio workouts at least three times a week. Realistic. Measurable. Attainable.

Let’s shift our goal focus to the spiritual realm. The Scriptures speak a surprising amount about goals. For instance, the apostle Paul said, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). His life’s focus was on Jesus Christ, and his consuming goal was to remain faithful to His call.

Paul, who had a penchant for using athletic metaphors to teach spiritual truth, told believers in the ancient church in Corinth, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Okay, his goal was to win the race – essentially to be the last man standing at the end. But how did Paul intend to accomplish that? Discipline.

He proceeded to write, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever…. I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). Like a well-trained athlete, the apostle determined not to let physical desires and lusts sidetrack him from fulfilling his goal of pleasing and honoring his Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

How we pursue a similar goal is up to the individual. It’s like the question, “When is it best to have a quiet time?” – setting apart a portion of the day for Bible study, prayer and meditation. The answer is, “whenever works for you on a consistent, daily basis.” The point is, personal time alone with God is a worthwhile goal; how and when to do it is up to our discretion.

One worthy goal mentioned in the Scriptures is one that seems woefully out of step with our noisy, turbulent times and culture. Paul exhorted Christ followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica, “Make it your ambition [goal] to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

There’s a lot we could unpack from this passage, but basically the goal is to live in a respectful, God-honoring manner that proves attractive to those outside the faith. After all, God did command us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), not only physically but also spiritually.

So, while the making of resolutions seems a popular pastime at this point in the year, I’d suggest that setting reasonable goals are a far better approach. That way you can pursue them year-long, and if you mess up or unwittingly take a detour, you can stop, dust yourself off and reset your course, keeping the ultimate goal in sight: to please and bring glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, who achieved His own goals to teach, die on the cross, and rise from the dead so that He might offer a new life to us through His Spirit.

Start formulating your realistic, measurable and attainable goals so that by the end of next year you can be like the soccer announcers who scream, “Goooooooooal!”

Thursday, December 26, 2019

A Time for Giving and Forgiving?

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring – except for those who continued to grouse.

Gifts have been unwrapped, given and received, and for some it’s permission to shed their festive holiday facades and resume their miserable pre-holiday moods. Their inner bah-humbug can finally re-emerge into the open. As if there had been no times for glad tidings and good cheer at all. But does it have to be this way?

Leading up to Christmas we had Black Friday, then Cyber Monday, followed by Giving Tuesday. But why does the giving have to stop with Dec. 25? Perhaps there’s a need to continue giving, long after the ooh’s and aah’s of Christmas have silenced, unwanted gifts returned, and retailers resume scheming about what the hot products will be for next Christmas.

There’s a practical, fiscal reason to start with. Non-profit organizations are preparing to close their annual budgets, hoping to settle into the black as a new year begins. So, having enjoyed the blessings of material giving as both givers and recipients on Christmas morning, it might be good to designate the day after as a time for giving to noble causes we believe in, as well as rack up some last-minute tax deductions.

My wife and I make charitable donations throughout the year to entities whose services we value. These include our local church, a variety of ministries, and several agencies devoted to assisting the poor and needy. But I find it fun to give a little extra just as another calendar is ushered out. 

When Jesus said, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), He wasn’t uttering an idealistic platitude. Being able to share from our resources to enhance others’ lives benefits not only them, but ours as well. This practice helps to shift our attention from ourselves and our wants, responding to the legitimate needs of others.

Can you imagine how God felt when He looked upon a broken, sin-riddled, hopelessly wayward humanity and sent His own Son to serve as the atonement for their grievous sins? I don’t think there’s any way we can fully comprehend what this meant for Him, but we do know, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16). Among the many wonderful things our Lord is, He’s a giver. And perhaps we never look more like Him than when we ourselves are giving, freely, unselfishly, even sacrificially.

But there’s another kind of “giving” that many of us would be wise to pursue and apply that could be revolutionary. How about engaging in some healthy, life-changing for-giving? Almost every day we hear about someone who suffered harm of some sort, whether it was inflicted physically, psychologically or emotionally. The damage might have resulted from neglect rather than overt action. Regardless of how it came about, in its wake we find resentment, bitterness, anger, even hatred.

Sometimes wrongs committed seem beyond forgiveness; other times unresolved conflicts fester, escalating far beyond the level of the original damage. Either way, lack of forgiveness has a way of destroying the unforgiver, as well as the unforgiven.

Contrast this to the image of the young man in the news whose unarmed brother was unwittingly killed by a police officer who somehow confused his apartment with her own. Upon her conviction, the surviving brother, rather than spewing words of rage and hatred, actually stepped forward to embrace the clearly distraught woman in a grand and wonderful act of forgiveness. 

This did not bring his brother back to life. Nor did it erase the grief he felt in having lost a beloved sibling. But like chains taken off a prisoner, the young man’s willingness to forgive freed him of the burden of bitterness that was certain to remain if he didn’t.

On the cross, Jesus in the throes of deadly pain, said an incredible thing: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Those who had wrongly convicted Him of crimes He had not committed knew they were ridding themselves of a “problem,” but hardly realized the magnitude of their murderous scheming: That they were seeking to kill God incarnate, who had come to redeem fallen and unreconcilable humanity.

In 1 John 2:12, the apostle declares, “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his (Jesus’) name.” In His so-called Lord’s Prayer, Jesus provided an example when He prayed, “and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). When God has forgiven us for so much, who are we not to forgive others – no matter what they have done?

So if, as echoes of Christmas frivolity begin to fade, you find yourself wallowing in unforgiveness, give yourself one more gift: the gift of forgiveness. Not only for the one who has offended or harmed you, but also for yourself. This world is so filled with pain – why inflict yourself with more of it? After all, we might rightly say that Christmas is for giving and forgiving.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Celebrating an Incomparable Combination

This painting by artist Gaye Frances Willard,
“Every Knee Shall Bow,” captures the message
of Jesus, the Christmas story and the cross.
Some things just seem to go together: peanut butter and jelly; salt and pepper; Mickey and Minnie Mouse; sunshine and flowers; eggs and bacon (or ham, if you prefer); Lewis and Clark; Laurel and Hardy (I know, I’m dating myself).  However, there’s one important combination that doesn’t receive nearly as much notice, even though it should: Christmas and Easter.

Christmas, with Santa Claus, seems to overshadow Easter and its bunny. And a festive tree surrounded by brightly wrapped gifts has lots more impact than colored Easter eggs and chocolate rabbits. But in reality, without Easter there would be no Christmas.

Except for those offended by just about everything these days, the annual Nativity scenes we can see displayed in homes, churches, and even some public areas have a warming effect on our souls. Sweet little baby Jesus. Even filmdom’s “Ricky Bobby” had a soft spot for Him. But why the fuss over a baby born in a stark, unsterile setting in an obscure village in the Middle East? Why celebrate that now?

It's not a spoiler alert to observe that infant grew to become a man with an unsurpassed worldwide impact upon countless millions around the world, even though His radius of earthly travel was probably well within 100 miles. How do you accomplish that? 

It’s because unlike any other religious leader in history, Jesus Christ not only went about teaching and serving as an example, but also claimed to be God in the flesh, willingly suffered cruel execution on a cross and then, as He promised, rose from the dead and empowered a rag-tag but zealous group of followers to continue the work.

He was the Messiah whose birthplace was prophesied in Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

This same Messiah was spoken of in many other Old Testament passages, including Isaiah 53:5, "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

After He had fulfilled these and hundreds of other prophecies, Jesus was convicted at a mock trial, and with the approval of the Jewish leaders hung on a wooden cross, crucifixion being a unique form of capital punishment invented by the Romans. But that stopped neither Him nor His soul-saving, life-transforming ministry.

When devoted women arrived to anoint Jesus’ body on the third day following His death, they were greeted by an angel who declared, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6). Then He appeared to and met with His closest disciples and was seen by hundreds of other eyewitnesses.

Before ascending to heaven, as the Scriptures report, Jesus gave some final instructions:“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). He was leaving, but also sending His Spirit in His place to live in them and work through them.

So as we hit our annual pause button to celebrate Christmas and the birth of the Christ Child, let’s not forget the cross, without which there would be no need to commemorate and rejoice in the birth.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Terrifying News for a Young Woman

Can you imagine what it must have been like for young Mary, probably barely a teenager, to carry the unfathomable, incomprehensible burden of being chosen to become the earthly mother of the incarnate Christ? She had recently been betrothed, and suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce, “”Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). 

The Scriptures don’t record Mary’s response, but I suspect her first thought was, “Uh, okay?” They do inform us she was “greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (verse 29). Ya think? Then the angel dumped the whole load: 
“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:30-32).

Again, the passage doesn’t offer her immediate response, but I bet it was the Hebrew equivalent of, “Say what?!” It does tell us she asked an obvious question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (verse 34). Can you blame her for asking? After briefly describing the divine process that would soon come about, Gabriel finished by declaring, “For nothing is impossible with God” (verse 37).

To her credit, Mary didn’t prolong the discussion, asking if the angel could repeat what he had just told her. She simply responded, “I am the Lord’s servant…. May it be to me as you have said” (verse 38). Then Gabriel, as you might say, left the building.

I don’t mean to make light of this holy moment, but the Bible is nothing if not a very honest, very human book – yet divinely inspired. This definitely wasn’t what Mary had in mind in beginning preparations for her wedding. Who to invite? Yes. What kind of meal to serve? Probably. But the prospect of carrying the Son of God – God in the flesh – in her virgin womb? Not a chance.

Keep in mind that, unlike today when hardly anyone blinks anymore if we hear of a woman having a baby out of wedlock, it was a shameful state in Mary’s time. Women typically were regarded as second-class citizens, even property, in those days. They were expected to toe the line in laws and customs. This was why the Bible tells us her fiancé, Joseph, upon learning the news, “had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19), being a righteous man, despite his feelings of embarrassment. 

Then an angel of the Lord, perhaps Gabriel, also appeared to Joseph and interceded: “…do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins” (Luke 1:20-21). Also a man of great faith, Joseph did as the angel instructed.

So can you understand the conundrum, the exciting yet terrifying news that first Mary, and then Joseph, had to absorb and deal with?

I think about this because, in one respect, it seems a biblical statement about abortion. I don’t know if abortion was even practiced in the days of Jesus, but surely being unwed and pregnant was more than an inconvenience for Mary. What would people think? What would they do? Thank the Lord her betrothed husband was willing to follow through on his marriage commitment.

Do you think Mary even for a moment might have thought, “How can I get rid of this baby? I didn’t volunteer for this!” And yet, the massive, world-changing Christmas story we’re soon to celebrate found its inception in the lives of these two young people.

Fast-forwarding to today, we find many in the “pro-choice” abortion camp declaring “it’s a woman’s body,” and “it’s about women’s reproductive health.” I know, being a male, I’m not supposed to know about such things. But my wife has borne five children, and together we have 12 grandchildren and soon, six great-grandkids. So I do know at least a little about women getting pregnant, having babies and starting to raise them in this world.

At its heart, a decision to have an abortion is not just a “personal choice.” It affects far more than an individual woman troubled by a tiny, growing human being in her tummy. It’s a decision that affects many people, perhaps countless. How many lives have been touched – and changed – by the life of Jesus Christ through the centuries?

In our family, we are the beneficiaries of three women who made truly courageous, unselfish decisions not to terminate their pregnancies. One, more than 50 years ago, gave birth to a baby boy in times when being pregnant while not married was still regarded as a taboo. Today, he employs about 60 people in a thriving small business that’s making a difference in his community, and many customers benefit from the services his company provides.

Best of all, a few years ago, he was reunited with his birth mother and soon afterward met siblings he never knew existed. What an image to see him, his birth mom, and his loving, adoptive mother who raised him from infancy getting together for the first time!

We also have two adopted grandsons, wonderful, engaging little boys whose impact on our entire family is beyond measure. In both cases, their birth mothers courageously chose to go through the trials and challenges of pregnancy to give them life – and surrender them to a loving home that was ready to care for and nurture them, when they were not.

Recently, a brief segment during a college football game told about a young woman about 20 years ago who initially went to a facility to have an abortion, but then left and chose to give birth to her baby and raise him. Today, he is a stellar athlete and a young man of great character. Countless millions have enjoyed his athletic prowess and will continue to do so for years to come.

So to say that abortion should be solely a woman’s choice is wrong, when in fact it’s taking the life of a little human who is not yet ready for life outside the womb. Each new life, famous or not, has the potential for influencing and having an impact on the lives of countless others.

I get it. Having an unwanted pregnancy is a daunting, even terrifying prospect, as it was for Mary some 2,000 years ago. But in God’s sight, no life is without reason or without purpose. As Psalm 139:13-16 tells us:
“For [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well…. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

As you contemplate Mary and the Christ Child this Christmas season, please think about that.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

How do you feel when your favorite entertainer wins an award, like an Emmy or Grammy? Or when your favorite team or a star athlete you admire wins an honor – like a National Championship or Heisman Trophy?

Even if we’ve never met that person or players, and probably never will, we thrill to watch them being honored and swell with a vicarious sense of pride in their accomplishments. We even speak of our teams’ successes in terms of “we.”

This time of year, Nativity
scenes are everywhere.
I feel kind of like that at Christmas, only much more so. Amidst – and perhaps, despite – all the holiday glitz, the sappy and Santa movies, focus on gifts and gift giving and other holiday revelry, Jesus Christ sometimes gets the credit for this time of year that He so absolutely deserves.

Recently I watched one of those annual celebrity Christmas specials, the kind where people you’ve heard of – and some you haven’t – show up and belt out happy holidays tunes. At least sort of; not all singers are created equal. For most of the show, “Frosty the Snowman” was as spiritual as the Christmas selections got. But then a country music artist, wouldn’t you know it, got up and sang “The First Noel.” Acapella, no less. Hooray, Jesus! Warmed the cockles of my still busily beating heart.

And even better than sharing the joys of favored celebrities and athletes we only know from afar, people we truly don’t know at all – just know about – we can truly KNOW the Jesus of Christmas.

Not long before the events leading up to His mock trial and crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “I am the way and the truth and he life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).

Later in the Scriptures, we read the apostle John's assurance for followers of Christ, “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you have known the father…. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you…” (1 John 2:13-14).

This is where we get the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus.” The term can’t be found in the Scriptures, but it’s affirmed that we can know Jesus just as well – perhaps even better – than we know a spouse, child or family member, or best friend. When the birth of the Christ Child is celebrated, whether in a sanctuary, a TV special, on a billboard or a Christmas card, we can rightfully rejoice inwardly. Because that’s our Savior, our Lord, our King!

It's been said so often that it’s become a cliché, but indeed, Jesus truly is “the reason for the season.” And as His followers, it’s our awesome privilege to be a part of it as members of God’s divine and eternal family. As my friend Gib used to say before God called him home last year before Christmas, “That’s my Jesus!”

Best of all, as we’re told, the knowing is going to get even better: "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Appreciating the Gifts We Already Have

When I was a boy, going to bed on Christmas Eve was always a frustrating experience. I was eager to fall asleep so Christmas morning would arrive sooner and I could unwrap the wonderful surprises under the tree. But my anticipation made sleep almost possible.

Many of us are in a similar mode right now. We’re either fretting over what gifts to buy for family and friends – or whether what we’ve already gotten is the right gift – or looking ahead to the gifts we’ll be receiving. The trouble is, all of this future expectation often makes it hard for us to appreciate the gifts we already have.

I began thinking about this in 2006, immediately after my open-heart surgery. Until then I was probably like most folks: I’d start each day either excited about what I planned to do, or dreading what I would be facing. But I never regarded a new day as a “gift.” Upon awakening from the surgery, despite expected pain and soreness, I realized God had given me the gift of a new day. 

This kind of surgery is among the most complex and serious, and patients don’t always survive – strokes, heart attacks, occasionally the heart that was stopped to perform bypass grafts doesn’t restart. So everyone who survives open-heart surgery, or any similar kind of procedure, should recognize just the act of waking up is a gift.

My recent encounter with brain surgery, having a mass removed from my pituitary gland, served as a vivid reminder of this reality. One day you’re cruising through life, experience what seems to be a minor headache at first, and a few days later you’re consulting with a neurosurgeon on unavoidable surgery. 

Even without having to undergo surgery, we can be grateful for the gift of good health if we have it – because many do not, as I know so well. If we’re able to move about with a minimum of aches, pains and limitations, that’s a gift. No question. Because not everyone has that gift.

The list of our present gifts could go on: Family members we love. Friends we enjoy being with. Enough money to pay our bills. A job that supplies enough money for paying those bills, especially if you can find some measures of satisfaction and fulfillment in that job. The capacity for pursuing and appreciating favorite hobbies and pastimes. 

Eyesight for witnessing a sunrise or sunset. Hearing to listen to babies giggle and birds chirp. The gift of smell to revel in the aromas of the holiday season. Tastebuds that enable us to enjoy the flavors of this season – or any season – whether it be ham, potato salad, pecan pie, or the menu item of your choice. Touch for hugging loved ones, petting a puppy, feeling a warm shower.

In the Scriptures we read a lot about gifts. James 1:17 tells us, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” After reading about humankind’s plight – our separation from God by sin for which we can no way atone – we read the Good News, that God is offering the greatest gift of all: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

No wonder the apostle Paul doesn’t mince words when he writes in 2 Corinthians 9:15, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

So as we’re fretting over what gifts to give and building expectancy for gifts we might receive, let’s be sure to do one thing: Not forget about the gifts we’ve already got!

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thanksgiving

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to write a series of perspectives on Thanksgiving Day. As it happened, the one I posted the Monday before the holiday was titled, perhaps a bit prophetically,  “Thankful, Yes – But for Everything?” Then a funny thing happened on the way to Thanksgiving: I got a headache.

This was not a run-of-the-mill, take a Tylenol, Advil or aspirin type of headache. No, it was industrial-strength, one that wracked every bit of my head, in the back, on the top, sides of my face, above my eyebrows. Even my eyes hurt. It started on a Saturday, and at first I dismissed it as a sinus headache. When pain relief medication didn’t affect it, I thought perhaps I had some kind of virus. Wrong.

Unable to find a suitable appointment time with my regular physician, my wife drove me to see a doc-in-the-box on Tuesday afternoon. Based on symptoms I described, he diagnosed a migraine headache, gave me a shot and a prescription, and sent me on my way. Wrong again.

Wednesday arrived and the headache was more intense than ever. Finally, resigned to the fact it wasn’t about to go away on its own, my wife drove me to the nearby hospital’s ER. By this time I was noticing double vision in my right eye. Thankfully the wait there wasn’t too long, and a CT scan identified the source of the problem: a mass on my pituitary gland inside my brain.

Without facilities for treating such a problem, a hospital ambulance transported me to the ER of a hospital downtown. The medical staff couldn’t promise how quickly they could get me to the MRI machine, but thankfully that wait also was much shorter than expected. I forget how long I had to lie still on the machine – they did the imaging in two segments – but the MRI confirmed the tumor. I’m told that after the MRI, when I tried to stand up, I passed out. I don’t recall that, since I was unconscious.

Soon we were discussing my situation with a neurosurgeon who recommended surgery as soon as possible. By this time my right eyelid was drooping and had almost closed. As my headache continued to pound, I had to agree. There was no time for “second opinions” or evaluating which surgeon to use, since it was already Thanksgiving morning. So, suddenly my holiday had shifted from the prospect of a turkey dinner with all the requisite trimmings to brain surgery. Not exactly as I had anticipated the day unfolding.

Thankfully, after my Thanksgiving morning brain surgery, I awoke in the Neuro ICU. The headache that had plagued me for five days was…gone! Not even a twinge. There was no post-op surgical pain, either. Looking to the left, my vision was clear, but looking toward the right my double vision was pronounced. This, the medical staff surmised, would subside over time. They could not offer a specific timetable. I couldn’t read twice as fast, but I definitely could read twice as much!

Over the next several days I was poked and prodded, had blood drawn, and my “vitals” checked every few hours. As I had learned previously, you don’t go to the hospital for a rest. There’s an unwritten rule against patients getting sleep. But the doctors, medical staff and nurses were reassuring, extremely competent and caring.

Apparently there was no nerve damage from the pressure of the pituitary mass, since my double vision rapidly improved. I was even able to watch the traditional Ohio State-Michigan football game on TV from my hospital room – a first for me. That’s not recommended, since I was still hooked up to blood pressure and heart monitors at the time, but I handled the stress pretty well. And the machines survived.

The Monday after my surgery, I was discharged, armed with pages of post-op instructions. My double vision had disappeared, and I had successfully walked the hallways and even navigated some stairs to ensure I could handle my return home. Brain surgery on Thursday morning, heading back home just after noon on Monday. Wow!

I don’t recount this experience to point to myself. I know many people have gone through – and continue to go through – far worse. But it gave me more opportunities for thankfulness. Philippians 4:7 speaks of “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.” We never really know what that means until we find ourselves in circumstances that would seem to defy having such peace. I and my wife both had that. We trusted that God knew my situation, even better than I or the medical team did. We also trusted that He had guided us to the right place and the right hands for treatment.

Having learned a lot about sheep over the years from my friend, Ken, who raised them, I’ve long loved Psalm 23, the “shepherd psalm.” Many of us are familiar with the verse, “though I walk through the shadow of death.”This doesn’t necessarily refer to imminent death, but shadowy areas where shepherds in the Middle East guide their sheep to new pastures. The sheep trustingly proceed, aware predators might be lurking in the dark. I sensed God’s presence in the “shadow of death,” even when my headache was at max force.

And I could be thankful because, even though the outcome for me was uncertain on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I knew from God’s point of view my life and circumstances were right on schedule. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11). Nothing is beyond His control.

Do you have this trust, this confidence in the Lord? I hope you do – because I don’t know how we can successfully navigate the stresses of everyday life without it. Because, as my friend Albert often says, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good!”

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Why Having Talent Usually Isn’t Enough

Have you ever wondered why some talented people manage to achieve so much, while others with considerable talent seem mired in mediocrity? Sometimes less-talented individuals rise to levels of accomplishment that more-talented peers can only envy.

We see this in every area of life: “Most likely to succeed” high school graduates who never amount to anything out of the ordinary, while largely overlooked classmates rise to prominence. Sometimes even becoming nationally or internationally known in their chosen fields of endeavor. We see this with school teachers, physicians, authors and artists, business executives, military leaders, musicians, athletes, scientists and innovators.

So what’s the difference? What separates the truly accomplished person from talented ones who never fulfill their potential? There can be many contributing factors: finding the right environments for using their talents; inner motivation; effective training and mentoring. Maybe you can think of others. But there’s one factor we usually don’t hear about.

Brian Kight, a noted business consultant and motivational speaker, explained a key reason he has observed for the difference.“Talent is common. Discipline is rare,” he said. “The combination is elite. Discipline produces what talent promises.”

Among Kight’s clients are sports teams, an ideal place for seeing how wide is the gap between talent and achievement. Take, my favorite sport – college football. Every year during the pre-season, pundits study the various rosters – returning starters, four- and five-star recruits, caliber of coaching – and submit their projections for the coming season.

These so-called experts have done their research, devoted many hours to their respective analyses, and submitted their best-educated guesses. Invariably, some of their prognostications fall short, sometimes stunningly so. One reason is that you can’t judge on-field performance based on talent alone.

As Kight has suggested, a key factor for determining success is discipline. Athletes maximizing their talents by spending countless hours in training and conditioning programs; focusing on their respective responsibilities; preparing diligently for upcoming opponents, and working together effectively. Their names also don’t appear on the police blotters for doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.

Discipline is a recurring theme in the Scriptures, as well. When we read about “discipline” in the Bible, it’s not speaking about punishment for wrongdoing, but rather God’s method for correcting and training His children. For instance, Proverbs 3:11 admonishes, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves as a father the son he delights in.”

Another passage, Hebrews 12:5-7, says much the same:
“… ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.’”

Obviously these passages refer to our being disciplined by the Lord, rather than self-discipline. But again, to use the football analogy, a successful coach will discipline players in a variety of ways. At the same time, he expects them to implement discipline in their own lives as well.

Writing to his protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul instructed him to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the worth of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). He’s saying that to be a genuine, fruitful follower of Jesus Christ, we can’t be passive. We must be consciously striving, working diligently and with discipline to become the men and women God intends for us to be.

As another passage tells us, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to all who love him” (James 1:12). To persevere means much more than to simply endure or withstand difficult times; it means to courageously face adversity, working through it and seeking to remain true to the goals and purposes we believe the Lord has provided for us.

Paul also liked to use sporting metaphors. Referring to athletic competitions that were common in his day, he wrote, "Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable" (1 Corinthians 9:25). Or as the New Living Translation expresses it, “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.”

The Scriptures don’t use the word “talent” as much as they do “gifts,” but it’s clear that every believer has at least one spiritual gift that God intends for us to use for His glory. Through devotion and discipline, we can use those gifts in such a way that we will one day hear Him welcome us with, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25:21). Just to hear this will have made our discipline more than worth any sacrifice it required.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Still Marching, Christian Soldiers?

I find any discussion of music intriguing, but especially within the local church context. In some churches or denominations, it’s traditional, time-honored hymns only. Anything written after 1899 need not apply. Other churches emphasize contemporary praise music. There are even those, it seems, that favor songs written only within the last month.

There are the slow, reverent hymns that focus on God’s character and draw lyrics from the Scriptures. Then there are the oft-repetitive praise choruses derived from “Me Generation” philosophy. “Me and God, God and me….” As much about “me” as they are about God. To each his or her own, as they say.

I didn’t become a follower of Jesus Christ until my adult years, but grew up in a church tradition that favored classic hymns like “Faith of Our Fathers,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and the Doxology. Do you remember, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow…”? 

One of my all-time favorite hymns was “Onward Christian Soldiers,” with its cadence that conjured up images of soldiers “marching as to war.” Years ago, one denomination banned the hymn for what its members considered a belligerent, war-like message. Christians are supposed to be people of peace, they argued, not war.

I could understand their reasoning, even though I didn’t agree with it. In light of violent acts perpetrated in the name of religion, a hymn about believers going into battle definitely has the ring of political incorrectness. But it’s also a denial of biblical truth. We are involved in war, the Scriptures assert, although it’s of a spiritual nature.

The last chapter of the book of Ephesians makes this clear: 
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Then the passage proceeds to describe that, like soldiers involved in military combat, we also are to be well-equipped:
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…the gospel of peace…the shield of faith…the helmet of salvation…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:14-17).

Reading this, some of us might shrug and respond, “I don’t want to engage in any kind of spiritual battle,” but the Scriptures make clear we don’t have that option. Writing to his protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul admonished him, “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:3-4).

Writing to believers in the ancient city of Rome, Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered’” (Romans 8:35-36). So much for peace and tranquility and “can’t we all just get along?”

And the apostle Peter warned, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Recounting the hardships he had to endure during his missionary journeys, Paul described how he employed resources for survival “in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left…” (2 Corinthians 6:7).

It doesn’t require a prophet to recognize there is indeed a spiritual war being waged all around us. In particular, Christianity has come under attack on many fronts. Public expressions of biblical faith are sometimes denounced as if the Constitution were calling for a separation of church and daily life. 

This rise in hostility, some observers believe, indicate the prophesied “end times” are fast approaching. One thing for certain: this is no time for laying down our spiritual armament. In Romans 13:12, the apostle Paul admonished believers not to become complacent, even if they sensed the end was drawing closer. He wrote, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).

Clothed with and protected by the full armor of God, we’re commanded to persevere as “salt and light,” as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5:13-16, and also instructed to encourage one another, “all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). Are you willing to march onward, Christian soldier?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving Prayers That Are Powerful and Effective

I’m not sure where or when I saw it, but I vaguely recall a movie scene in which some not particularly religious character was asked to pray over the meal. After awkwardly folding his hands and bowing his head, he uttered, “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Not the most eloquent expression of thanksgiving!

Then I think of persons asked to pray at public gatherings who reach into a coat pocket, unfold a sheet of paper and proceed to recite a prayer they had composed in advance. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. None of us would want to stumble with our words in such a setting. But I believe the prayers God loves most are those expressed spontaneously, from the heart, without pomp or circumstance, as led by the Holy Spirit.

On the day recognized nationally as Thanksgiving Day, perhaps this is especially significant. In some households, a traditional “saying of grace” before meals is rare. So a show of sudden spirituality might seem daunting. How should we pray? And what should we pray for?

I don’t have a formula – or “recipe,” if you will – for a Thanksgiving Day dinner prayer. But the Scriptures do offer many helpful suggestions. Perhaps one of the best was given by Jesus when He warned against what I’d call “ostentatious religiosity.” In giving examples of persons who liked to parade their piety, He said, 
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men…. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

This doesn’t mean if someone asks us to pray for God to bless the food, that we should retreat to a room, close the door, and then pray. That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? But we don’t need to try to impress anyone listening, either. Jesus continued, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).

What’s most important, I believe, on this Thanksgiving Day, is that before enjoying the food that’s been so lovingly prepared, that we pause to enjoy and praise the One who has so lovingly provided for all that we need. I like what the apostle James said about prayer, words that could be applied even to the simple practice of “saying grace”: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Recently I was reminded of how the ancient Israelites sometimes expressed their gratitude in a call-and-answer manner. The worship leader would voice a phrase of thanksgiving, and then the congregation would give a repeating response: 
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good...His love endures forever. 
Give thanks to the God of gods...His love endures forever. 
Give thanks to the Lord of lords...His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1-3).

Maybe it’s because it reminds me of my early church days when we had a responsive reading each Sunday, but that seems like a cool way of giving thanks. Amen!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Thankful, Yes – But for Everything?

As we look toward another Thanksgiving Day celebration a few days from now, we can usually think of things for which we can be thankful: A car that runs, if we have one. A roof over our heads, especially if it doesn’t leak. A selection of clothes to wear, hanging in our closets. A job that enables us to pay the bills. Loved ones and close friends that mean so much to us. But what about things we can’t feel thankful for?

This presents a bit of a problem for those of us who follow Jesus Christ, because three consecutive verses in the Bible seem to assert that when it comes to thankfulness and gratitude, there should be no exclusions, no exceptions.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we’re told, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The words “always,” “without ceasing,” and “everything” seem all-encompassing. That’s because they are. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement. Nor does it mean they should be.

I think of a book I helped my friend, Mike Landry, to get published, called Advancing Through Adversity. In it he recounted a series of trials he and his family endured over an 18-month period some years ago. The hardships they faced were difficult – and unwarranted. They suffered through many sleepless nights. Answers to their “why” questions weren’t forthcoming. 

Ultimately, the problems were resolved and they could look back at the circumstances and realize how God’s presence had never left them alone in their circumstances, even when they seemed most dire. Through this time, when they had no choice but to turn to Him and trust that He would work things out according to His perfect purposes, they found Him unflinchingly faithful.

If we had the option, we probably have something (or things) we’d like to eliminate from our lives: Serious financial pressures. Severe health problems that have lingered and appear without remedy. A difficult marriage. Struggles a family member is going through that are beyond our capacity for bringing any relief. Grieving over the loss of a loved one. The day-to-day realities of aging. The list could go on. Does the Bible really mean we’re to be thankful for these?

I’ve mentioned him before, but my friend, Albert, is no stranger to adversities. He lived through the horrors of World War II. From childhood he has wrestled with health problems. And he’s survived major business setbacks. And yet, he’s been steadfast in trusting God and remaining grateful for the life He has given him. Albert even wrote a booklet about his life called “Saying ‘Thank You’ Even When You Don’t Feel Thankful.”

The overriding lesson he has learned – and has helped many who know him to grasp as well – is that regardless of the challenges we face in life, we can still embrace hope. We can define hope as earnest, confident assurance that God will use even our worst circumstances to carry out His plans. In the process, He will refine us, transforming us into the people He desires for us to become.

That’s why, in Romans 5:3-5, the apostle Paul could write, “…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.”

The apostle James seemed to second the motion when he wrote, “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).

Although they do not use the words thankful or grateful in these passages, they’re clearly implied when the writers admonish us to “rejoice” or “consider it pure joy” when we have to deal with various trials God allows in our lives. So, when Thanksgiving Day arrives and we pause to give thanks, let’s be sure to express our thankfulness to the Lord – even for the things for which we don’t feel thankful.