Thursday, January 31, 2019

There are ‘Friends’ – and Then There Are Friends

How many friends do you have? If you’re on Facebook, as so many of us are, you might have hundreds of Facebook “friends.” If you’re in the workplace and on LinkedIn, you may dozens – even hundreds – of more connections. If you engage in other social media, like Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, you might have myriad other “friends” as well. But are they really friends?

Friends come in many different varieties.
Recently on his radio program, Dr. David Jeremiah noted most of us can classify our “friends” into one of four categories: 

  • Contact friends, people we say hello to at the gym, grocery store, or neighbors we see only in passing; 
  • Casual friends, those we might join for a round of golf, a school project, or even a Bible study; 
  • Close friends, perhaps those we collaborate with at work or go to lunch with, close enough to share some personal information we don’t care to have widely disseminated; 
  • Committed friends, folks we can depend on in good times and bad. Especially the bad times when they’re needed most.

We have some family members who have never met a stranger and seem to be friends with just about everyone they meet. Most of us, however, are more discriminating in our selection of friends – at least the close and committed ones.

Since I’m basically an introvert, and seem to be more introverted the older I get, there’s only so much room in my life for real friends. Yes, I’ve got lots of the Facebook variety, whether old school chums or people I know from church or places I worked, or those with whom I trade puns. (Only the highest caliber people engage in plays on words, don’t you know.)

There are a number of men that I stay in touch with that I was in discipling/mentoring relationships with over the years. After meeting weekly or at least a couple times a month, seeing one another grow in our walk with the Lord, it’s pretty common to develop bonds you want to maintain long after the scheduled meetings have ended.

But friends of the close and committed variety, I’ve got just a handful. And that’s okay. I’ve only got so much emotional capacity to go around, and once it’s been expended on my family members, it’s in kind of short supply.

So who – or what – should we be looking for in choosing our close and committed friends? I have some opinions, but as with many areas of life, I’ve found biblical wisdom a much better guide for making such important selections. There are sound principles regarding friendship in the Bible from front to back, but the book of Proverbs alone gives us enough to consider:

To begin with, we’re told who not to select as close or committed friends. In fact, we’re to run, not walk from unsavory company: “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way” (Proverbs 4:14-15). Another verse presents a similar warning: “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26).

Wisdom can be contagious – along with its opposite. So if we’re going to “catch” something from our friends, wisdom is always the better alternative: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). “Stay away from a foolish man, for you will not find knowledge on his lips” (Proverbs 14:7).

The same holds true for people who possess characteristics we wouldn’t put on our wish lists. The less influence they have on us, the better: “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Proverbs 22:24-25). “Listen, my son, and be wise, and keep your heart on the right path. Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rage” (Proverbs 23:19-21).

There are other passages we could cite from Proverbs alone, but here are two that distinguish between “close” friends and “committed” friends: “A friend loves for all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

So if you were to assess your friends today, which categories would you have the most? We all need friends, but being selective in who we spend most of our time can make a big difference.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Living a Solid State Lifestyle

You’ve probably heard the story of the parent who remembers walking six miles to and from school in knee-deep snow, uphill both ways. My childhood wasn’t that colorful, but I do remember things that most Millennials would never believe. For instance, TVs without remotes, with three channels – and tubes.

There was nothing solid about
the state of TVs like this one.
Our television sets (that’s what “TV” stands for, lest we forget) were prehistoric by today’s standards. At first we had just three channels: ABC, CBS, and NBC. In only black-and-white, no less, How did humanity survive such deprivation? Eventually, the channel options expanded to as many as 13. Apparently the “techies” of the day didn’t realize or believe the number 13 was considered by some to be unlucky. We could never have envisioned then the hundreds of channel choices we have today.

A remote control for the TV was unheard of. To change channels, we had to make the dangerous trek through deep shag carpet, reach out and turn a circular dial. Oldsters will recall we had another dial for adjusting the picture. One good thing about having just a trio of channels was we didn’t have to get up that often. Sometimes after so much turning, the channel changer would wear out, making it hard to tune in, but that’s another story.

What I remember most were the tubes that populated the back of the TV set. They came in all sizes, serving all manner of functions. Brightness, vertical and horizontal controls, contrast. The biggest one was the main TV tube with the screen. When that went out, it meant time to buy a new TV. But there were many smaller tubes; when the TV started having problems, the trick was to figure out which was the culprit.

Then, thanks to the space age, “solid state” circuitry was invented, making TV tubes obsolete. Satellite technology was applied to many household devices, opening exciting new vistas. No more replacing burnt-out tubes; they were replaced by transistors and circuit boards. Exploratory forays to the back of the TV became unnecessary. TV repairmen became collateral damage, but that was the price of progress.

Solid-state design also revolutionized radios. Fear of jostling an appliance, rendering it unworkable was eliminated. Bulkiness became a thing of the past, and we no longer had to fret over delicate handling of the devices. No more fragile tubes to jiggle around and loosen.

In Jesus’ day, of course, solid-state technology wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination. But He did address the importance of what we might term, “solid-state spirituality.” Sitting on a mountainside one day, in the midst of His “sermon on the mount,” Jesus told a parable about two builders, one wise and one foolish (Matthew 7:24-27). The first chose to use a solid, rock foundation for the house he built; the other elected to build a house on sand. 

Both houses seemed stable until a storm came, bringing torrential rains and strong winds. Predictably, the house on solid rock stood firm, while the house on sand fell with a decisive, resounding crash. This story marked the culmination of Jesus’ message, summarizing His expansive admonition for people to submit to God and place their faith in Him for every aspect of life. 

We don’t have to ponder too long to arrive at an application for our own lives. Storms in life are rarely predicted. As someone has said, life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans. Illnesses, financial setbacks, broken-down cars or appliances, calamities of many sorts. All have a way of turning our world upside-down. That’s when solid-state spirituality matters most.

Faith in God doesn’t insulate us from adversity. But it enables us to weather those storms, even if it means sometimes hanging on by our fingernails, until the calm returns. Those without faith have only their own resources to call upon, and often those are woefully insufficient. But our trust in the Lord enables us to pray, as the psalmist did, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly” (Psalm 102:1-2).

Often in times of trouble I’ve turned to the Psalms and found both comfort and reassurance. One of my favorites is Psalm 118:14, “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” This verse is true even in quiet, peaceful times, but when the tumult returns – as happens in each of our lives, ready it or not – it serves as a reminder that God has enabled me to build my “house,” my life, upon the Rock. Anything else we turn to in life is shifting, unstable sand.

A life founded on the solid Rock, Jesus Christ, might be shaken up from time to time, but we don’t have to fear a permanent, cataclysmic crash. As I write this, a beloved member of our family is dealing with a serious health challenge. But knowing she’s in the Lord’s hands, we can trust in Him, as King David did when he wrote, “In the day of my trouble I will call to you, for you will answer me” (Psalm 86:17).

What’s the state of your spirituality? Is it solid?

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Considering Covers and Contents

One of the sayings I often heard growing up was, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I was reminded of this recently while watching a remake/sequel to the film classic, “Mary Poppins.” The main character, Ms. Poppins, still delightful in every way, told the offspring of the kids in the original movie, “A cover is nice, but the cover is not the book.”

To me this serves as a wise warning to not rely on first impressions and outward appearances, favorable or not. Being the author, co-author and editor of numerous books, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of designing a strong, appealing cover for a book. Living in a highly visual world, we can all understand that a book might have great content, but if the cover doesn’t capture us as potential readers, it most likely won’t merit our time or financial investment.

On the other hand, I’ve seen books with covers so graphically compelling that I couldn’t resist picking them up. However, after reading a page or two, I couldn’t wait to put them down.

The problem with spotlights:
They don't reveal what's on the inside.
The same holds true of people. We’re probably all familiar with TV shows like “The Voice.” Some of their most memorable moments have come when someone whose outward appearance was nothing to write home about suddenly opened his or her mouth and wonderful melodies burst forth. Without intending to sound disparaging, discovering these hidden talents was akin to finding a diamond necklace or bar of gold in the kitchen trash can.

We see the opposite as well. The media takes great pleasure in hyping people with very attractive exteriors, whether it’s an entertainer, business person, athlete or politician. They give these pretty, personable individuals exorbitant amounts of coverage, hanging attentively on their every pronouncement, as if their outward appearances lent credibility to what they have to say. The problem is, many of these celebrated personages are superficial, beauty-is-only-skin-deep types. All icing and no cake. As Mary Poppins observed, a cover is nice – but the cover is not the book.

In the Scriptures we see the classic example of this in the opening chapter of 1 Samuel, after God has lost patience with excuse-making, buck-passing King Saul and determines Israel needs a new leader. The Lord directs Samuel the prophet to go to Bethlehem so He can identify Saul’s successor from among the sons of Jesse.

Almost immediately the prophet sets his eyes on Eliab, a very striking, imposing figure of a man. Samuel thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands before the Lord” (1 Samuel 16:7). We’d probably have reached the same conclusion. But God essentially responds, “Not so fast, Sammy. Let’s not go judging books by their covers. He’s not the guy. I’ve got someone else in mind.”

His actual words were, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Mary Poppins couldn’t have said it better herself.

One by one, Samuel examines the sons Jesse has assembled, but each time God declares, “Nope, not him. Not that one either. Uh-uh, him neither.” After checking out each of the seven sons Jesse had brought, the exasperated prophet asks the father, “Are these all the sons you have?” I think the original Hebrew reads, “Is this it? These are all you’ve got? That’s the best you can come up with?”

Then Jesse admits there is one other son, David, but points out, “he is tending the sheep.” As if to say, “You want him? The young one that smells like stinky sheep, sweat and stuff?” But Samuel insists, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives” (1 Samuel 16:11).

So Jesse summons David. When he arrives, the passage tells us Samuel sees a fellow who is “ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features.” Not a bad-looking guy at all, but most important, he is definitely the one God has chosen to succeed Saul as king. “Rise and anoint him; he is the one,” God tells Samuel.

If you’re familiar with the story of David, you already know he turned out to be a pretty good king. Yes, he committed some grievous sins. He committed adultery with another man’s wife, then to cover up his wrongdoing, arranged to have the hapless husband to die in battle. Murder, secondhand. But he was also described as “a man with [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22). That didn’t mean he always did right, but when he did wrong, David was willing to own up to it, unlike his predecessor, Saul. His heart was right.

The Scriptures speak about this in many places, such as Proverbs 21:2, where we’re told, “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.”  Another verse, Proverbs 16:2, makes a similar observation: “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives (the heart) are weighed by the Lord.”

These should caution us whenever the spotlight shines brightly on the latest and brightest celebrity or star on the political scene. Spotlights are good for displaying what’s on the outside, but from God’s perspective – and it should be from ours – what’s inside is what counts. Remember, covers are nice, but a cover is not the book.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Wonders of Adoption

Within the next couple of weeks, two of our grandsons will be celebrating their birthdates just days apart (separated also by about seven years). My wife and I have been blessed by a dozen grandchildren in all, and each is unquestionably very special to us. But these two little boys – brothers – are unique to our family. Because they’re both adopted.

Mac and Cam, in some ways very
different - but in the most important
way, very much alike.
Whenever I see Mac and Cam, I marvel for several reasons. First of all, even though they don’t carry any of our DNA, they are definitely as integral to our family as any who share in our bloodline. The court and legal papers say so – and even more important, our hearts say so. They belong to us, and nothing they could ever do can change that.

Second, they are part of our family because their birth mothers made selfless, courageous decisions to let them be born and then find a loving home for them where they enjoy a mom and dad who love them unconditionally. The birth moms were “pro-choice” – they chose to reject abortion and then chose a couple to provide them with a secure, nurturing home.

In an age when many in our society seem to view abortion as an option of no greater consequence than taking out the trash, adoption is the viable – and ultimately, Scriptural alternative. Interestingly, the words “abortion” and “adoption” are very much alike if you simply transpose two letters, a “d” for a “b” and a “p” for an “r” One represents death; the other stands for caring, merciful life.

Whenever the topic of adoption comes up, I also think about how intrinsic that term is for the heartbeat of the Christian faith. For instance, Ephesians 1:4-5 makes this intriguing declaration: “…[God] chose us in Him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.”

That passage alone could provide the grist for a number of sermons, but for our purposes here, it’s interesting that it says God “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Clearly the basis for this was Jesus’ death on the cross as atonement for our sins, and His resurrection, giving us access to God the Father. 

But this isn’t the only place the term is used. In Romans 8:22-23 the apostle Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Earlier he states,For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). Then in the next verse Paul adds, The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” This speaks to the assurance we can have as followers of Jesus, the unchanging, eternally secure relationship we have when God welcomes us as members of His divine family.

So as we prepare to wish them both a very happy birthday, I’m so thankful that in these two sweet little grandsons we have an everyday, visible reminder of two things: a very practical, humane solution for unwanted pregnancies, and the eternal truth of our relationship with our Lord. 

In human terms, our boys are both secure in the love and unwavering acceptance of their mom and dad, as well as our extended family. And even more, as disciples of Christ we have all the privileges of adoption into God’s everlasting family – a choice He made on our behalf. The Lord reached out to us because He desired to have a relationship with us. This was something we did not and could not initiate, but one we can and will appreciate. Forever.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Reasons for Not Losing Heart

Do you ever have a day, even for a fleeting moment, when you wake up and think, “I’m not getting out of bed today”? You’re tempted to pull the covers over your head and pretend, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, that if you can’t see the world, the world can’t see you.

Maybe you made the mistake of watching the evening news before going to bed, absorbing the daily gloom and doom reports, receiving assurances by smiling commentators that yes, the sky is indeed falling. Or you’ve learned a family member or close friend has received a devastating diagnosis and you feel at a loss, wishing there was some way you could help. Financial woes might be plaguing you.

Perhaps it’s just the stress of everyday, unrelenting demands and problems that either refuse to go away or when they do disappear, are succeeded by dilemmas even more daunting. Some mornings – or moments – staying in bed and disappearing beneath the blankets seems awfully enticing.

Maybe this doesn’t describe you. Maybe you’re an eternal optimist, maybe a Pollyanna type, fully convinced everything’s going to be okay. Or you’re able to summon up a daily dose of courage and strength, determined not to let even the most dire circumstances deter you from your plans. If so, congratulations. Enjoy your minority group.

Dark moments as I’ve described above don’t strike me often, but admittedly I’ve experienced them now and then. I think back to the blissful oblivion of my childhood. Things seemed so much simpler then, even though in reality they weren’t. I was born just a few years after the end of World War II, but there were still the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War to come. Bad news has always been with us.

Even though we hear well-meaning sentiments like “all we need is love” and declarations that world peace can be attained, we see little evidence to support such contentions. Protesters hoisting placards promoting love spew hatred toward those who don’t share their worldviews. Advocates of tolerance demonstrate great intolerance for anyone that disagrees with them. The only “middle ground” in Congress, it seems, consists of the physical aisles that separate the opposing parties.

So why shouldn’t we retreat beneath the bedclothes, burying our hearts and thoughts from the nasty, strife-filled world surrounding us?

We can adopt a “just gotta do what you gotta do” attitude, muddling through each day with gritted teeth and bulldog determination. Or we can turn to the Scriptures and trust in the promises and assurances we find there.

In my wallet I carry two verses that always lift my spirits when everything else seems intent on doing the opposite. “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!” (Psalm 27:13-14).

Obviously this passage was written by the psalmist thousands of years ago, but in my experience – and that of countless millions of other believers up until the present day – God hasn’t changed since then.

There’s another verse that I’ve also found heartening for our faint of heart moments. Isaiah 40:31 declares emphatically, “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Go ahead, hide under the covers if you like. Stick your head in the sand if that makes you feel better. But I’ll choose instead to look the unsteady present and uncertain future in the eye, knowing that even though I might be helpless to change or fix anything, I serve and worship the God who can. And does.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Greatest Ability

Have you ever observed someone excelling at a skill or talent and thought, “Gee, I wish I could do that!”? Maybe it’s a gifted speaker who holds audiences captivated. Or a wonderful singer whose music stirred your soul. Perhaps an artist whose work spoke deeply to you. It might have been a craftsman or handyman whose ability to build something beautiful or to execute a difficult repair left you amazed.

In high school, I played drums and percussion in the marching, concert and dance bands, and had the good fortune to be a part of an exceptional musical organization that went on to win many honors. But my personal abilities as a not-little drummer boy never advanced beyond average. Wishing I could have done better, I’ve always been mesmerized watching drummers’ sticks fly across the tom-toms and cymbals. 

We’ve probably all at times wished we had some ability that we lacked, but did you know that the greatest ability of all is something we each can possess?

You might have already heard it from other sources, but as a friend of mine used to say years ago: “The greatest ability is availability.”

Even the most celebrated ability has little value if the possessor is unable or unwilling to use it. It’s sad if God entrusts us with a gift or talent and, when opportunity knocks, we wait for someone else to open the door. Oswald Chambers writes a need does not constitute a call. However, if the Lord has indeed called us to do certain things, it’s more than an obligation to respond – it’s our privilege, and our joy.

Back in the early ‘80s, I was introduced to the strategy of one-on-one discipling, following Jesus’ command to “go into all the world and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19). Most of my own spiritual training to that point had come through hearing sermons, reading the Bible on my own, and participating in a small discipleship group that consisted of about a dozen men and women.

All of those were very beneficial, but I could imagine how helpful it would have been to meet regularly with another man, more mature in his faith, who could help me – perhaps as a mentor – to grow into the person I knew God wanted me to become. 

So I started praying for the Lord to send just one man my way, someone I could invest time and energy in to assist in his growth. Since I had never done anything like that before, I had no idea how effective I could be at it. But I was willing to give it a try. Basically I was telling God, “I don’t know how much ability I have for this, but if You want me to do it, I’ve available.”

Within two months of starting to pray this way, He led me to two men. I met with both of them individually for more than a couple of years, and one I remain in contact with today, more than 30 years later. And in the years afterward, God has brought numerous other men into my life to disciple, some for relatively brief periods of time, others for years.

Perhaps discipling someone else, even a younger person, is what God would like you to do as well. It doesn’t matter how much ability you have. The question is, are you available?

On the other hand, maybe engaging in making disciples one-on-one isn’t what the Lord has put on your heart, but I guarantee there is something – even some things – He is calling you to do. God can easily give you the ability. But do you have the availability?

In 1 Peter 4:10 the apostle writes, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in various forms.” What are you good at? What gives you joy when doing it in conjunction with others? What opportunities does the Lord seem to be sending your way? What enables you to bear spiritual fruit when you do it?

Even if you’re not certain about how much ability you have for doing something you’re feeling called to do, that’s of small consequence. What matters is whether you’re willing to say, “Lord, I’m available.” Or as the prophet declared, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Reflecting on Restorations

Once in a while as I’m driving around, I’ll spot an antique car on the roadway that someone has restored. It might be a classic, high-finned 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, an iconic 1967 Mustang Coupe, or maybe even a stately 1929 Pierce Arrow. Even though I’m not mechanical, I have great appreciation for people adept at taking an old car and painstakingly bringing it back to its original glory. Perhaps even better.

Vintage cars like this 1956 Chevy
Bel Air can't help catching our eyes.
I feel the same way about those who enjoy restoring old furniture. Some folks can go to a garage sale or antique store, find something most of us would dismiss as junk, and transform it into something of beauty and renewed usefulness. It takes skill – and tender, loving care – to take something that’s become old and worn and turn it into a new thing.

A friend of mine in Kansas City has spent much of his life in professional photography. In recent years he’s developed a business of restoring old photographs. Some of these date back to the early 1900s, and he delights in serving his customers by restoring faded images into treasured, high-quality pictures of beloved family members, distant ancestors, or historical settings.

Since we’re still in the glow of the new year – before we get a sobering reminder that for the most part, not much has changed from 2018 – I’ve been thinking about another kind of restoration, perhaps the best kind: personal, spiritual restoration.

I will never forget the epiphany I received more than 30 years ago that helped me to understand how much God loves making new things. We can look to the creation story in Genesis, or the account of Noah when the Lord decided He needed to start all over with humankind. But in the New Testament, we see a different kind of “new,” one that He performs from the inside out.

At the time of my revelation, I had been determinedly trying to “live the Christian life,” and doing a miserable job of it. When I encountered 2 Corinthians 5:17, I reasoned it couldn’t possibly apply to me, because I felt I was nothing like what it described. It declares,“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” At that time, that hardly sounded like me – I felt like the same old knucklehead I had always been.

A key to understanding this is the preceding verse, which states, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Like many people, particularly in our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, “I did it my way” culture, I had been attempting to change myself, to fix my flaws. That, I discovered, is not how God works.

For instance, Romans 6:4 informs us,“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” The Lord has no interest in tweaking our old life; He wants to undertake a complete transformation, restoring us into the people He’s always intended for us to be – in Christ.

This is occurring all over the world, regardless of nationality, culture or dialect. God is aggressively working in each of His children to make them into new creations (another translation calls us “new creatures”). And this won’t be ending soon. In fact, the Scriptures tell us it will continue through the end of time as we know it.

In Revelation 21:1-5 we read, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’…” 

So the next time you see a vintage automobile or truck tooling down the road, admire a chair or chest of drawers someone has refurbished, or study a restored photograph, let that be a reminder that God is the expert at that, making old, broken things new, works of art for His eternal pleasure.

The Lord wants to do that in each of our lives. He desires to take us “just as I am,” as the old hymn says, and embark in a lifelong process of restoring us into the people He wants us to be. For His glory.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Gotta Have Faith – But in What?

“You’ve got to have faith.” How many times have we heard someone say that? We’ve probably all said it ourselves at least once or twice. At times, when circumstances seem most bleak, we need faith to believe the light at the end of the tunnel is really there. Tears ago, singer George Michael even had a hit tune called, “You Gotta Have Faith.” Although its lyrics had nothing to do with real faith – at least not in the sense the word is commonly used.

We exist in a material world, but deep down the vast majority of us have a sense there’s a part of life that transcends what we can see, hear, touch and smell. Particularly in difficult times. That’s where faith rolls into the equation. As Hebrews 11:1 declares, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

So the consensus is that we need faith of some sort. The question is, faith in what? For instance, applying the verse above, imagine an attorney walking into a courtroom, striding toward the bench and telling the judge, “I’ve got evidence, your honor, but you can’t see it. And you can’t hold it, because it’s based on hope.” What kind of response do you think the lawyer would receive?

When we say, “You’ve got to have faith,” what kind of faith do we mean? I’ve seen obituaries that said Mrs. So-and-So was “of the Methodist faith” or “the Baptist faith.” Does that mean her faith was based on being affiliated with a certain denomination? Personally, I’ve connected with a variety of denominations over my lifetime, but none of them had the power to save me or resolve my problems.

We might have faith in a certain person, or group. But experience has taught us – or should have – that people will sometimes fail us, even those we trust the most. No political party, no church, no charitable organization, or even any branch of the military can reward our faith with 100 percent consistency.

Maybe we should just faith – in faith? You know, the “everything happens for a reason” variety, even though that still doesn’t answer why things should all happen for a reason – or who makes sure that’s the case. Ultimately, even though we might agree we need to have faith, who or what should serve as the object of our faith?

If we believe the Scriptures, there’s only one unfailing focus for our faith: God. We see Him in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The human mind is incapable of comprehending that completely, but that’s part of what faith is all about. 

Many passages in the Bible discuss faith, what it is and what it means for us. But perhaps none is more explicit and concise than Hebrews 12:2, which states, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” 

Jesus Christ is to be the focus of our faith, because our hope, trust and relationship with God all are based solely on Him and what He has done for us.

The previous chapter of Hebrews, often called “the hall of faith,” cites numerous examples of our spiritual ancestors who lived according to faith, without the revelation we now have in the Scriptures. Starting with Abel, continuing through people like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab (a prostitute!), and the prophets, it states, “These all were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

So it’s true, we’ve got to have faith. But it’s important to know for sure what that faith is in – or Who it’s in. According to the Scriptures, it’s not multiple choice. And as was the case with the biblical patriarchs and prophets, the culmination of our faith may be a while in coming. 

That’s why we’re told, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Following Christ is indeed a walk of faith – but it’s a faith that assures us, it’s well worth the wait.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Goal Worth Pursuing for a Month – or More

Have you made any New Year’s resolutions yet? Have you broken any yet? Perhaps, if you’re like me, you formulate goals for the new year instead. I much prefer goals over resolutions, since once they’ve been broken, resolutions are done. Finis. Kaput. Finito. Goals, however, can be ongoing – works in progress.

If you’ve procrastinated and are still in the process of goal-setting or resolution-making for this year, I have a suggestion: How about aiming to read one chapter of Proverbs, the number of which matches the day’s date, for a month? Better yet, for at least two months? 

By doing that – for instance reading chapter 1 of Proverbs on Jan. 1, the second chapter on Jan. 2, and so on – you’ll be reading the entire book from the Bible twice. I guarantee, you’ll discover a fountain of wisdom that might leave you in amazement.

While writing this, I was reading through the 17th chapter of Proverbs. It was filled with pithy statements that are deserving of being taken to heart and letting them guide our thoughts and actions. Here are some examples:

“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Proverbs 17:1). Living in an environment with continuous conflict does more than unsettle one’s stomach. It would probably be better having humble provisions with tranquility than to possess lavish provisions amid great turmoil.

“The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3). Just as precious metals are refined by intense heat, sometimes God turns up the “heat” of our circumstances not only to see what’s in our hearts (innermost motivations), but also to shape them into what He desires for them to be.

“Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children” (Proverbs 17:6). This gives us a double-pronged view, noting the joy grandparents can feel once their own children have grown and they can enjoy the next generation of offspring. At the same time, the godly influence of parents who have espoused lofty virtues but strived to live up to them leaves an indelible impact.

“He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9). When we were kids, no one liked a tattletale. This holds true even for our adult years, when we confront the temptation to talk negatively about others even to the point of tearing them down in the presence of others.

“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14). We live in a time when everyone seems eager to give a piece of their mind they can’t afford to lose. Arguments seldom resolve problems, so a calm spirit and well-controlled tongue can do wonders for preserving the peace.

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). We hear so much about social media “friends,” as well as people whose friendships are restricted to certain activities. It’s a true blessing to have genuine friends we can count on during tough times as well as happy times.

“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). The problem with everyday life is that it’s so…daily. It can be discouraging and disheartening, especially when hopes, dreams and aspirations remain out of reach. Rather than adding to the gloom, we can do others a good service by offering words to encourage and uplift them.

“Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:28). As someone has observed, it’s better to be quiet and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Words well-chosen and used with discretion are preferable to abundant words without substance.

These are just eight of the verses from a single chapter. And every chapter of Proverbs is packed with similar wisdom. If you’ve never tried it, I’d recommend reading one chapter from this book every day for a month. Then repeat the process for a second month. You might decide to make it a habit.