Monday, April 29, 2019

Reassurance for a Time When We Need It Most

Whenever I hear people assess the Bible as being ancient, archaic, outdated, irrelevant, or any of the numerous other negative terms used, I shake my head in amazement. Because in studying the Scriptures, I realize with wonder how contemporary and down to earth its truths are.

With unvarnished candor, the Bible exposes the common flaws of humanity. Its stories recount murders, adultery, lying, stealing and every type of malice we can imagine. The destructive emotions of lust, envy, deceit, jealousy, hatred and greed are found on full display. Despite modern-day advances in technology, communications and various forms of scientific discovery, little has changed. By nature, we’re not much different than people were thousands of years ago.

But what sets the Scriptures apart from the holy books of every other religion is its overarching message of hope, mercy, grace and love extended from God to His creation. In troubled, divisive times such as we’re in today, we desperately need assurances that no matter how bad things seem to be – or how much worse they threaten to get – God is still present, sovereign, and ultimately His good will prevail.

I was reminded of this while reading my favorite psalm, Psalm 37. As we peruse the newspaper, watch the day’s news or spend more than a few minutes on social media, we can easily conclude Chicken Little was right – the sky is falling. But the opening verses of this great psalm declare that even though the world may seem upside-down and out of control, God guarantees, “Do not fear. I’ve got this!” Here’s the passage:

“Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath, do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (Psalm 37:1-9).

The rest of this psalm’s 40 verses are just as powerful and reassuring. Originally written by King David under God’s inspiration during a time of great opposition, it would not be a stretch to believe the crises are just as dire in our times today. Every word of this passage is infused with hope and confidence in God’s great compassion, love and mercy for His people.

There’s much we could say about each of these verses. They are worthy of much meditation and reflection. But I think it suffices to sum them up with words of assurance and promise that appear later in the psalm: “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread…. Wait for the Lord and keep his way” (Psalm 37:25-26,34).

We can rest assured that no, the sky’s not falling. And even if it does, it’s all part of God’s plan.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Finding Unity in a World Divided

Five men from very different backgrounds united by Jesus and a common cause.
Almost every day we’re reminded of how divided our nation has become. At least, how divided the mainstream media, educators and politicians seem to think we are. Whether the dividing lines are race, gender, politics, economic status or worldview, these divisions are beyond healing.

Or so we’re told.

Several weeks ago, I attended a weekend retreat where such claims were debunked massively. Five men from Minnesota – guests speakers for the gathering – served as living examples that the supposed divisions our society not only can be transcended, but are in fact being transcended. Through the healing, redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

These men included Tom, a trauma and acute care surgeon, accompanied by his son, Jack; John, a former gang leader and drug dealer; Dennis, a longtime drug addict, dealer and member of one of the most notorious motorcycle gangs in the country; and Jesse, a man in his 30’s whose life had spiraled from drinking alcohol to using prescription drugs to methamphetamine to selling meth. 

John, Dennis and Jesse all had spent considerable time in jails and prisons. However, at one time being convicted felons was the only thing they shared in common. Then they each, through very different circumstances, came to know Jesus Christ and began to see their lives transformed. 

An African-American who has overcome “four generations of father absence,” John admitted that before Christ he would never have associated with any of the other men. The only way a black gang member would get to know a surgeon, he said, was by being shot and treated in an emergency room. Dennis said the men he once ran with in the motorcycle gang would have had nothing to do with inner city gang members. The same was true for Jesse. For Tom, the only time his life intersected with people like his now-companions was at the trauma center when he typically would be using his medical expertise to make life-and-death decisions.

Yet there they were, meeting with 16 other men in a cabin alongside a lake near Dunlap, Tenn. They came as brothers in Jesus Christ and co-laborers in a vital mission field. Drawing not only from skill but also personal experience, they are praying for – and receiving – many opportunities to show drug addicts, gang members and ex-offenders that there’s a path to a better life. A path that’s only possible through the life-changing power of Jesus.

The stories of how God is working through their lives and ministries to redeem lost souls often border on the unbelievable. Except they’re true. But the way the Lord has taken such diverse individuals and molded them into kindred spirits is just as incredible.

How such unity, such brotherly love, is possible in a world that insists that it isn’t is described by the apostle Paul in the Scriptures. It’s uncomplicated really, no rocket science required: 
“If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4).

Since each man had come to faith as an adult, they could boldly attest to the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Watching and hearing from these men, there was no question this had become reality in their lives. These “new creations” now are united, mutually devoted to serving others and pointing them to the only real solution for escaping the chains of their past, their addictions and wrongdoings: Jesus Christ.

Is our world divided? In many respects it is. But it doesn’t have to be. Two of these men have even written books to share their stories in detail. As our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. argue and battle over secular answers for society’s ills, perhaps Dr. Tom Blee’s book, How to Save a Surgeon, and John Turnipseed’s book, Bloodline, should be required reading for them. Maybe they’d come to realize they’ve been looking for answers in all the wrong places.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Let’s Not Give Up Meeting Together

How many times have you heard someone say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian (or, a follower of Jesus).” Maybe you’ve said or thought this yourself occasionally. I have. A few times I’ve gotten frustrated about something and told myself, “Who needs church? I have my Bible, and I can pray and talk to God any time I choose to do so. You don’t have to go to a place of worship to do that!”

To a degree this is true, but in the words of the sage college football commentator Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Years ago I knew a strong believer who pointedly stated he didn’t attend church. He felt it gave him more credibility with non-believers – he could better relate to people with little or no church affiliation. Since he had no denominational axes to grind, he believed not-yet followers of Christ would feel more comfortable discussing spiritual matters with him.

My friend did regularly attract non-believers, able to vividly recall the days when he was among them. Declaring he didn’t attend church services regularly deflected accusations that he was “religious.” This man truly loved the Lord, studied the Scriptures diligently, and saw God bring many people to faith.

And yet, while this individual wasn’t connected to a specific congregation or denomination, he had many Christian friends with whom he interacted throughout each week. He didn’t “go to church” – a house of worship – most Sunday mornings, but was surrounded by strong believers to support him in his faith. 

Someone like this, however, is rare. Most of us, left to our own devices, won’t take the initiative to seek out other followers of Jesus without some kind of structured, formalized way to do so. This is one reason, I suspect, once-fervent believers fall away from the faith, becoming ineffective as Christ’s disciples or even abandoning their faith. Trying to sustain their faith in isolation, they find it’s very difficult to do. 

To illustrate the importance of remaining connected to other Christ followers, the apostle Paul used the metaphor of the human body: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). The passage then proceeds to cite some of the gifts and responsibilities assigned to people within Christ’s church, showing how they should work together.

Just as my heart needs my lungs, brain, liver and other organs to continue to function and remain healthy, we can’t be faithful, fruitful Christians apart from the body of Christ: fellow believers with whom we spend time in a consistent, meaningful way. 

I came across a somewhat humorous, but accurate anonymous quote about this: “Sure you can be a Christian and not go to church. Kind of like a zebra separated from his herd getting eaten by cheetahs is still a zebra.” It’s not just unhealthy to fail to pursue time with fellow believers regularly; it’s dangerous.

Hebrews 10:23-25 sums this up so well: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

This “Day” refers to the Second Coming of Christ. No one knows the day or the hour when He will return, but the Scriptures assure us that He will. We’re certainly one day closer to it than we were yesterday, and some authorities on the “end times” assert that biblical prophecies about Christ’s imminent return are being fulfilled during our times.

So as the passage from Hebrews admonishes us, let’s cling to our hope, endeavor to spur one another on to live in Christ-honoring ways, and seek to encourage one another even in the face of news and events that seem very discouraging. And we can do this best as we assemble together regularly.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Easter: Where Sunset and Sunrise Intersect

Sunset, captured by Amy Tamasy.
With Christmas memories quickly fading, we’re entering a new season of holidays that soon will include Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Independence Day. This Sunday we’ll be observing what I believe is the most important of them all: Easter.

There’s no holiday like it, marking two events upon which the past and future of humanity pivot – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which we commemorate on Good Friday; and His resurrection, which is what Easter is all about. It’s almost like a moment when sunset and sunrise intersect.

The magnitude of these two days is described in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in which he focuses on the impact not only of Jesus’ death on the cross, but also His resurrection the following Sunday. He declares, “…if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins…. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20).

These were some of the crosses on display 
in Assisi, Italy. The favorite cross 
of St. Francis, however, looks like 
a plain T.
Last year my wife and I joined a group touring many interesting places in Italy, including Rome, the Vatican and Assisi, home of St. Francis. Crosses were in evidence just about everywhere. Many of them displayed the crucified Christ. But the good news is that Jesus is no longer on the cross, nor is He in the tomb where His body was taken after the crucifixion. 

The cross – and the tomb – are empty. And because of that, Christ’s followers also have the assurance that death is not the end, our final destination. As Paul wrote later in the same chapter, “…Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’…But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Recently I heard an interesting statement from a man who had been raised in a religious tradition in which the crucifix is a prominent icon: “Every time I went to pray, the dude never came off the cross. I never knew who Jesus was.” Later this individual had a truly life-changing encounter with Jesus, the living Christ who offers new life to all who receive His gift of forgiveness and salvation. 

This man had realized that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Unlike leaders of other belief systems who died and remained dead – Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, and others – only Christ overcame death and offers eternal life to those who believe in Him:
“The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11).

Because of this, believers all around the world can celebrate Christ’s resurrection and rejoice in the blessed hope – the confident assurance and earnest expectation – that only He can provide. Just as Paul wrote, we too can rest in this promise: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Happy Easter – happy Resurrection Sunday!

Monday, April 15, 2019

There is Power in Potential

Even though words have been my tools of trade for decades, there are still times when insights into the terms we commonly use still surprise me. The most recent is the word “potential.”

During a visit with my friend, Clarence, who’s also got some writer DNA, we were talking about what potential is all about. I studied Latin in high school for two years – does anybody do that anymore? – but had forgotten the word comes from the Latin “potent“ or “potens,” which means “power.” So basically, when we talk about someone’s potential, we’re referring to the individual’s untapped, unused or underdeveloped power.

I remember as a boy, being a would-be athlete, I sometimes asked my kids’ league coaches if I had “potential” to be good at the particular sport. I was more of a wouldn’t-be athlete. But my coaches were kind enough never to concede I possessed little power to be tapped athletically.

Thankfully, some people saw potential in me as a writer and affirmed innate abilities they had observed. Even today I’m still trying to tap into that potential, recognizing the power of the written word in a book, an article, blog post, or even a letter.

What about our potential spiritually? In the sense of power, what does God expect of us?

The amazing thing is, as I understand the Scriptures, the Lord sees much potential in all of us – skills and natural bents we’re born with, interests we develop and refine, and the spiritual gifts He entrusts to us. But unlike body builders that enjoy flexing their muscles, it’s not our own power that interests God.

Rather, He delights in His power being expressed through us. The apostle Paul wrote about his “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan” that he pleaded three times for God to remove (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). No one knows for sure what this “thorn” was. We do know Paul reconciled himself to the reality that the Lord had a purpose for it:

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Perhaps if this handicap or malady, whatever it was, had been removed, the apostle would have been inclined to serve God on his own terms rather than rely on His sufficiency.

I’ll never forget the one time I met Kenneth Taylor, author of the acclaimed The Living Bible paraphrase. When he spoke, it was a great struggle for Mr. Taylor to get the words out. It was somewhat painful even for his listeners. Despite consulting with numerous physicians, a physiological cause was never identified.

This problem had manifested itself after he was well along the way in completing and publishing The Living Bible, which grew out of his desire to give his young children a version of the Bible they could understand, since the King James Version was the only one available at the time. He established his own book company, Tyndale House Publishers, to publish the unique interpretation of the Scriptures. 

Mr. Taylor’s own conclusion was that with his Bible paraphrase’s incredible success, he might have become puffed up with pride had it not been for his speaking disability. Perhaps he had come to agree, along with Paul, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, He gave His followers some final instructions, words that summarized what He expects for each of us to do. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus commanded, “All authority (power) in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….” He wasn’t saying, “Work as hard as you can and try to get people to become faithful followers of Me.” The authority – the power – was to come from Him alone. The role of His followers then, as well as today, is to serve as conduits for that power.

That our “potential” as Jesus’ followers is wrapped up in the power He provides is explained in His statement recorded in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem [where we live], and in all Judea and Samaria [neighboring cities and our nations], and to the ends of the earth [the world].”

Considering that the work of Jesus Christ after He left the earth was entrusted to a rag-tag bunch of folks with limited education and little status, it’s miraculous how Christianity has spread into every continent and most countries. This clearly wasn’t the result of human ingenuity and effort. Yes, we can engage in the “work for the Lord,” but the many stories of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus underscore that those astounding transformations have been His doing – His power acting through us.

What a privilege it is for each of us who profess the name of Jesus Christ to fulfill our “potential” – His power flowing through us in ways we don’t even understand.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Freedom Found in the Most Unusual Places

When you hear the word “freedom,” what comes to mind? Some people would say it means you can do whatever you want. Others might envision a bird soaring on high, free to fly wherever it chooses to go. For centuries, freedom has been one of the hallmarks of the United States, although there seems to be a push in some quarters to redefine what that means.

When I think of freedom, an image emerges that I’ve often seen while driving on the interstate through Kentucky: A thoroughbred horse cavorting in a sprawling meadow, at liberty to run as fast as it wants to within the confines of the pasture fencing. It’s free, but not so free that it can run onto the nearby interstate highway, putting itself and drivers passing by at risk.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this is because of a segment I caught recently on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” It was about a highly successful prison reform program; I tuned in late, so I didn’t get the name of the initiative or where the prison was located. But a comment from one of the prisoners, serving a lifetime sentence, stuck with me.

Not all prisoners are behind bars.
This inmate had begun mentoring other prisoners, teaching them how to make positive changes in their lives, anticipating their day of release from incarceration. The interviewer asked the lifer what he gets out of investing in fellow prisoners, since he has no hope of becoming freed from prison himself.

His response was simple: “Redemption. I don’t want to die a waste.”

It’s interesting that someone many of us would regard as the least free of all people would essentially being saying that this program has given him the freedom to find meaning in life. Describing himself as having “a Ph.D. in wrong choices,” the inmate saw his involvement in mentoring as giving him the freedom to make a difference in the world, even from behind bars.

The portion of the segment I saw made no mention of a Christian or biblical basis for this approach, which was dramatically reducing recidivism among ex-offenders that have been released. But I suspect there had to be a spiritual element to it. How often have you heard the word “redemption” used in connection with someone imprisoned? 

Can it be that, like the thoroughbred horse given great freedom within safe boundaries, it’s possible to find freedom even in prison? Certainly Jesus Christ promised that. He said to those sincerely seeking to know eternal truth,“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Even within prison walls, beyond any expectation of ever venturing outside them, this inmate was experiencing freedom.

Perhaps, through Christ, he had been freed of the burden of sin and its guilt, exchanging it for blessed, eternal forgiveness. He was free to discover the joys of Jesus’ promise, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). After a lifetime of making wrong, self-centered decisions that led to his conviction and imprisonment, the inmate had become free to give, to invest himself, in others. And he was freed to start building a lasting, positive legacy despite the confines that restricted his physical movement.

It's interesting that some who have never seen the inside of a prison can actually be less free than this fellow. They might be held captives by the shackles of sins they can’t seem to overcome. Maybe they find themselves enslaved to cancerous emotions of bitterness and unforgiveness. Perhaps they’re bound by the consequences of ill-advised decisions that have dashed cherished dreams.

But the Scriptures offer us the assurance that no matter who we are, no matter where we happen to go, freedom can be ours through Jesus Christ. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Are you free? Or are you – or someone you know – being held captive, enslaved, by feelings or circumstances that keep you from becoming the person God has intended for you to be all along? Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). Do you believe that? And are you willing to act accordingly?

Monday, April 8, 2019

A White Stone and a New Name

Have you ever arrived for a major concert or sporting event, approached the theater, arena or stadium, and suddenly started searching your pockets? “Where are the tickets?!” You turn to the person accompanying you and ask, “Do you have the tickets? What did we do with the tickets?!” 

Images of tickets lying at home, on the kitchen table or your dresser, flood your increasingly desperate mind. Where are they? Then, as a last resort, you reach into a pocket inside your jacket – and there they are. Whew! Crisis averted.

We’ve probably all been there at one time or another. Maybe you have a painful recollection of a time when you actually did forget the tickets. Whenever I’m going to an event like that, I find myself checking and double-checking where the tickets are, just in case. Because no one wants to be on the outside looking in.

Maybe right now you’re eagerly anticipating an upcoming concert featuring a favorite entertainer, or have already purchased seats for one of your team’s football teams games next fall. Do you know where the tickets are? Are you sure?

I raise these questions because of a significant Scripture verse one of my friends brought to my attention recently. It’s not obscure, but I’ve never heard the passage mentioned in a sermon or radio message, so it’s probably one many of us have overlooked.

It's found in the second chapter of Revelation, the final book of the Bible. In the apostle John’s vision, Jesus Christ addresses the seven churches in Asia Minor, recounting their strengths and shortcomings. At the close of His message to the church in Pergamos – described by some as “the compromising church” – Jesus declares, “…To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).

Reading this passage, several questions come to mind: What’s “hidden manna”? And what’s up with this “new name”? But the question my friend asked concerned the “white stone,” and its significance. Until then I had glossed over the mention of this stone, so I had no idea what it meant. This sparked my curiosity, and I’m glad it did, because it provides an interesting parallel to misplaced tickets.

Seeking the “secret” to the white stone, I consulted some resources. One of them, the MacArthur Study Bible says it relates to a common practice of biblical times: “When an athlete won in the games, he was often given as part of his prize a white stone which was an admission pass to the winner’s celebration afterward. This may picture the moment when the overcomer will receive his ticket to the eternal victory celebration in heaven.”

Another resource, the NIV Study Bible, offered a similar explanation: “Certain kinds of stones were used as tokens for various purposes. In the context of a Messianic banquet the white stone was probably for the purpose of admission.”

Yet another reference, the Ryrie Study Bible, gave a somewhat different view but confirmed the same outcome: “The white stone may refer to the custom of voting for the acquittal of an accused person by using a white stone (indicating the believer can be assured of acquittal before God).”

We’ve all heard speculative scenarios about what will transpire when we’re standing at the entrance to heaven. There is no shortage of opinions. What if, upon arrival in front of the so-called “pearly gates” there’s someone, perhaps Jesus Himself, passing out literal white stones – the tickets of entry – for everyone who’s being granted admission?

The Scriptures typically use the term white to represent purity, and that is exactly what Jesus did on our behalf on the cross. A verse instructing how husbands should care for their wives describes what Jesus Christ has done for His Church: “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or winkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

We’re told our salvation – the ticket to eternal life – cannot be earned: “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

Isn’t it interesting to envision Jesus Christ reserving a white stone – one with a new name written on it – for each of us willing to accept this “ticket” into His everlasting kingdom? Wouldn’t it be a grievous thing to arrive at heaven’s door and discover there is nothing waiting for us, no white stone bearing our new name? 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

‘The World Needs More Cowboys’

At the risk of giving folks a hint at just how old I’m getting, I recall that as a boy one highlight of my week was Saturday morning when I would watch the cowboy shows. There included Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickok, Hopalong Cassidy, Annie Oakley, and the Cisco Kid. Do you recall any of those?

Then after school and on the weekends when we had run out of TV shows to watch, we’d often engage in games of “cowboys and Indians.” There were no video apps or cable in those days, and the only tablets were what the doctor instructed us to take two of, then call him in the morning. So we actually had to go outside and play. However, growing up in suburban New Jersey, we really knew little about what cowboy life was really like. 

So I was intrigued when I happened across a promo video produced by the University of Wyoming, whose mascot is the Cowboy. The video, part of a broader promotional campaign, is called “The World Needs More Cowboys,” and it’s been seen by at least half a million viewers. Actually, it created a bit of a stir because a couple of professors denounced it as being “racist” and “sexist.” Isn’t everything racist and sexist these days?

The university’s female president strongly disagreed. She wrote, “The campaign takes [our] strongest asset – our iconic bucking-horse-and-rider mark and the Cowboys mascot – and modernizes it to reflect today’s challenges. It redefines what it means to be a Cowboy in this day and age…the inner spirit of curiosity and boldness that all who call themselves Cowboys and Cowgirls can identify with – no matter their race or gender….”

I’m not advocating for the university; I’ve never even been to Wyoming. And if you’ve read my blog long enough, you know I’m a Buckeye that bleeds Scarlet and Gray. But I enjoyed the metaphor. 

In the video important questions are raised: “Restless curiosity. Whatever happened to that? When did we stop thinking up new questions and daring to chase down their answers? Should we blindly follow predetermined paths when they never take us anywhere new?...when there’s still so much to explore off the beaten trail? The world needs more wonder, more outside thinkers hungry for a challenge. The world needs more cowboys…. It’s a shared spirit…the spirit of the underdog, the trailblazer, the kind of spirit that longs for something to prove. The kind that emboldens those who possess it to stand on the perimeter and howl on the unknown with unbendable optimism.”

There wasn’t a Christian undercurrent to this message. But what it proclaims could easily apply for those of us who follow Jesus. Because today, the culture seeks to dictate for us what we should think, what we should say, how we should act. The one-time Judeo-Christian consensus that served to undergird our nation is evaporating before our eyes. As a result, every day we’re becoming more like cowboys than entrenched “settlers.”

When we read the Scriptures, we see this trait in Christ’s disciples. Yes, they were fishermen, tradesmen and even a tax collector. But I doubt any of their mothers ever heard the musical refrain, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”

At a time when society and culture are insisting on conformity in the name of “tolerance,” we read the admonition from Romans 12:2, which tells us “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” or as a popular paraphrase expressed it, “don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” The passage doesn’t say, “be more like cowboys,” but it could have.

Speaking to a multitude that had gathered to hear His teaching, Jesus warned, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Being a follower of Christ doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions or even wrestle with doubts about our faith at times. Rather, we should strive to be more like the noble Bereans who, examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). At the same time, we should be conducting our lives in such a way that we raise questions – among those we encounter: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Another trait cowboys possess, even with their curiosity, boldness and willingness to blaze new trails, is unwavering commitment to the task, to what they’ve been called to do. Similarly, in a world described as post-Christian, post-modern and increasingly secular, it seems our responsibility before God involves becoming more the exception and less the rule. 

This doesn’t mean we must forsake our beliefs, or the principles and truths by which we live and formulate our faith. To the contrary, we should remember what Joshua told the Israelites as they were preparing to venture into the Promised Land for the first time. There they would encounter a variety of false gods, pagan gods formed of wood and stone. So Joshua exhorted them, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

How about it? Are you willing to become a bold, curious, unwavering cowboy for Christ?

Monday, April 1, 2019

For Some, April Fool’s Day is a Year-Long Observance

As I started writing this new post, it occurred to me that it would appear on April Fool’s Day. My first thought was that I wish folks were fools only on April 1. But all we need to do is watch the news, read the papers, see what people say on social media – or just go to the supermarket – to find confirmation that’s not true. They’re everywhere, and at times I’ve been counted among them.

Fools and foolishness aren’t inventions of the 21stcentury, of course. The attraction toward folly and aversion for wisdom are as old as humankind. The Bible, with its unvarnished candor, cites many examples – including many of its “star” characters.

Even King Solomon, reputed to be the wisest man who ever lived, was no stranger to foolishness. God clearly commanded kings of Israel not to “acquire great numbers of horses for himself…take many wives for himself…[or] accumulate for himself great amounts of silver and gold" (Deuteronomy 17:15-17). So what did Solomon do? He collected many stables full of horses; he had 1,000 wives and concubines, and he became renowned for his material wealth. Each contributed to his less than stellar finish as king.

Nevertheless, in his collection of proverbs, Solomon wrote repeatedly and eloquently about the foibles of fools. Perhaps he was humbly drawing from personal experience, as well as astute observation.

He doesn’t take long to get to it. In Proverbs 1:7, the king asserted, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Later in the same chapter Solomon warns, “For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them” (Proverbs 1:32). He contrasts that fate in the very next verse, declaring, “But whoever listens to [wisdom] will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

After proceeding to cite many of the benefits of pursuing wisdom in the succeeding chapters, Solomon composes a verbal image of how enticing foolishness can be: “The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way. ‘Let all who are simple come in here!’ she says to those who lack judgment” (Proverbs 9:13-16).

I still remember a literal portrayal of this while traveling in Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago: “women of the street” shouting to get the attention of motorists as they drove past on the highway outside their city.

Solomon writes about foolish speech and behavior: “He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool…. The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment…. A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct, but a man of understanding delights in wisdom” (Proverbs 10:18, 21,23).

The Israelite king devotes nearly an entire chapter of Proverbs to exposing the futility and fatal consequences of foolishness. For instance, “The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down” (Proverbs 14:1). Do you know of anyone who could fit that description, whether it applies to their own home and family, or the enterprises in which they’re involved?

A stern warning appears verses later: “Stay away from a foolish man, for you will not find knowledge on his lips. The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception” (Proverbs 14:7-8).

Then we see a contrast between those who strive to do right and make amends when wrong is committed versus those who have no interest in doing so: “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright…. A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil, but a fool is hotheaded and reckless. A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated” (Proverbs 14:9,16-17).

Wisdom goes a long way toward achieving prosperity, according to Solomon, just as foolishness can shipwreck one’s aspirations: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. The wealth of the wise is their crown, but the folly of fools yields folly” (Proverbs 14:23-24).

The ancient king has lots more to say about the human blight we call foolishness, but you get the point. Fools delight in wallowing in their own foolishness, while those seeking to be wise diligently pursue wisdom, which starts with humble submission and reverence for God.

So while it’s April Fool’s Day, have fun pulling harmless pranks on your friends. By the way, your shoelace is untied. But if you desire to gain the most from this life, make wisdom a paramount goal.