Monday, September 30, 2019

Missing the Mark – By a Country Mile

Growing up, for some reason my right eye became a target. I remember numerous times when objects struck it – metal toy gun, wiffle ball, tennis ball. As a result, I never excelled at activities that required keen eyesight. When your vision is something like 20/400 in one eye without corrective lenses, you don’t earn the nickname, “Eagle Eye.” So I avoided competitions that involved targets, like archery. However, you don’t need to be a skilled archer to understand the principles of the sport.

The target has a series of concentric circles, with the small one in the middle called the “bull’s-eye.” (I understand most archers prefer the term “the gold,” since that’s the color of the central circle on the target. But since I’m not an archer, I’ll stick with bull’s-eye. The objective is to shoot the arrow as close to the bull’s-eye as possible. If you hit the bull’s-eye, people might say you have a “good eye.” If you can hit the bull’s-eye multiple times, you’ll probably win the competition. 

Do you know what they call an expert archer? A “toxophilite.” Remember that for the next time that question is asked on a tough crossword puzzle. Why do I mention this? Because, according to the Bible, no one is a toxophilite, spiritually speaking. 

The Greek word “sin” literally means, “to miss the mark.” So when we read in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God,” it means because our actions, thoughts and words consistently miss God’s “mark,” we can never succeed in life on our own. In terms of personal performance, the only people who could earn their way into heaven would be those who hit the bull’s-eye every time, from their first breath to the moment they breathe their last.

When we sin – miss the mark – we start earning our “wages,” but these wages aren’t good. Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin is death….” Uh-oh. Bad news, right? If we stop there, we realize there’s no hope for us. The Bible teaches good intentions aren’t good enough. As someone has said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I try to love my wife as Christ loved the Church, and sincerely intend to do so, but I’m not always successful. I’ve made good progress at controlling my temper, but sometimes I fail. I definitely know I should be kinder, more considerate, more compassionate than I am. Do I wish I were better? No question. But too often when I take aim with my spiritual bow, the result is a resounding, “Sin!”

Fortunately, there’s a second part to Romans 6:23. After defining sin’s wages as death – eternal separation from God – it offers good news: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Like any true gift, we didn’t earn it or deserve it. Nevertheless, it’s offered freely. All we have to do is receive it.

What if someone thinks, “Hey, I’m not a bad person. Quit talking about this sin stuff. Maybe I do sin, but not that much!” Our pastor recently gave an example putting this into perspective. He said suppose you’re a super-good person – people can find little fault with what you do. Let’s say you sin only three times a day. The rest of the time, your thoughts, words and deeds are, as they say, pure as the driven snow. Pretty good, right?

Well, do the math: Just three sins a day. Over the course of a 365-day year, that’s still well over 1,000 sins. And who do you know who truly sins only three times a day? Remember, Jesus said all the commandments boil down essentially to two things: Loving God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind; and loving our neighbor as ourselves. How are you doing with those? 

When the gravity of this truth finally hits home, there’s only one proper reaction: “Lord, have mercy!” Again, there’s good news. He does have mercy – and grace. Two foundational passages from the Scriptures tell us this. Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” And Titus 3:5 states, “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.”

Entire books could be written about this central, biblical doctrine. In fact, many already have. Just as my imperfect eyes prevented me from ever becoming an expert marksman – or toxophilite – our brokenness causes us to repeatedly miss the mark of God’s perfect standard. 

Thankfully, His love and favor aren’t based on our capacity for hitting the bull’s-eye. Jesus did all that’s necessary: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We don’t need to hit the “bull’s-eye,” because Jesus has done it for us.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Gaining from the Grit and the Grind

One of football’s unique appeals is that teams play only one game a week, which means players have six days to prepare and fans have just as many days to anticipate, analyze and agonize. To build excitement for the next game, a lot of universities have their media departments produce “hype videos” showing clips from practices and games recently played.

My team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, create their own hype videos, filled with athletes sweating during training sessions, making spectacular plays, and participating in celebrations afterward. One recent one carried a tag line I liked: “It’s not the swag and the shine – it’s the grit and the grind.”

We as fans only get to see the finished product, our team performing on Saturdays and hopefully, capturing a victory. But as the video reminds us, big moments and gamesmanship are only possible because of hard work – the blood, sweat and tears we so often hear about – throughout the year and every week before each game. 

I can’t help but think there’s a lesson in this for each of us, even if we have never donned a football helmet, shoulder pads or the colorful uniform of good ole State U. Because as much as we like to revel in our accomplishments and life’s successes, most of the time they’re not the result of “luck” but rather the “grit and grind” of striving toward a cherished goal.

Take marriage, for example. On the wedding day, bride and groom are glowing, grinning from ear to ear, eager for the ceremony and reception to end so they can enjoy their first moments of “happily ever after.” Unfortunately, honeymoons don’t last and the sometimes grim realities of every day start to set in. Now the hard work begins.

When God declared, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), He didn’t guarantee a perpetual picnic. When they vowed to stay united “for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health,” they became destined to experience some of both. And for the guy, the admonition, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), at times seems like the impossible mission. Maybe the words “grit and grind” should be added to the vows to inject a measure of reality.

For many of those couples, sooner or later children will be added to the equation, bringing grit and grind into a whole new dimension. In an age when some parents regard smartphones and tablets as technological babysitters, God’s calling for mom and dad is to teach them, lead them and guide them so they will grow up to become responsible, fruitful adults. 

Deuteronomy 6:6-7 tells us, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Parenting isn’t supposed to be a passive, easygoing experience. Often it amounts to hard, intentional work – but work looking toward a positive outcome.

Finally, there are the three other major areas of our lives – personal, professional and spiritual. The Scriptures have much to say about these, but its teachings could be summed up in two passages.

When a Pharisee, a Jewish religious leader, asked Jesus which of the commandments was the greatest, He responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself”” (Matthew 22:37-39). Pretty simple, huh? Just follow those two commandments perfectly and all will be well. Yeah, right. Easier said than done! That’s where the grit and grind part comes in.

The other passage concerns everything we do, whether we’re on the job, digging in the garden, talking on the smartphone or spending time on the computer: 
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:17, 23-24).

There you have it, in a biblical nutshell. Understand now what I mean by the grit and grind of everyday life? Part of us wants to cry out, “But I can’t do that!” That’s why it’s so reassuring to read what the apostle Paul wrote, about himself and us: “I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). 

We can’t – but He can, through us! If we’re willing to put in the hard work, empowered by the Lord, it’s bound to show for others to see.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Called to Pastor – Or Called to Pasture?

From time to time over the years, because I worked for parachurch ministries, I would hear from people believing they had been called to vocational ministry as well. “I’ve been called to preach,” they might say, or, “The Lord is calling me to be a pastor (or a missionary).”

Those are noble pursuits, without question. And if God is calling someone – perhaps you – to any role in vocational ministry, woe to you if you choose to ignore it. Look what happened to Jonah! If the Lord doesn’t provide a huge fish, He’s perfectly capable of using some other means for getting your attention.

But suppose you receive such a call. When He says, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and like Isaiah you respond, “Here I am. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8), what if nothing happens? What if there you are, eager to go, but you have no guidance from God as to where to go, or when, or even why?

Sometimes, when folks are called to pastor, the Lord first chooses to send them to pasture. He wants them to marinate for a while, or to mature, so they’ll be ready and equipped for use when He needs them.

The Bible is filled with examples of this. There was Abram, who was promised that one day he would become “a great nation…. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). Abram – whom God later renamed Abraham – was 75 years old when he was instructed to leave his familiar home in Haran; it wasn’t until 25 years later that he began to see this promise coming to fruition.

Then there was Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, then wrongfully accused and imprisoned by Potiphar. It was years later when Lord opened the door for him to become the most trusted advisor to Pharaoh. Ultimately, Joseph became God’s instrument for bringing the nation of Israel into Egypt where they multiplied and started becoming that great nation.

As an infant, Moses was spared another Pharaoh’s murderous wrath. As an adult, adopted into Pharaoh’s family, Moses interceded after he saw an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave. Realizing his act had been witnessed and realizing his life was suddenly in jeopardy, he fled to Midian. There he literally was put out to pasture, becoming a shepherd to his father-in-law’s sheep. He continued in that role, the Scriptures tell us, for 40 years before God appeared to him from a burning bush and gave him the orders to be His instrument for freeing the Israelites from 400 years of slavery.

Then there’s the apostle Paul, once known as zealous Saul who took delight in persecuting followers of Christ. After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was converted but again, God didn’t put him into ministry for years. Finally, Barnabas was sent to Tarsus to find Saul and essentially tell him, “Okay, the Lord says it’s time for you to get to work.”

The first time God guided me into vocational ministry, I wasn’t even discerning enough spiritually to realize it until I was offered a position. All I knew was that for about a year I remained in my newspaper job, waiting for the right door to open. The other two times I knew the Lord was leading me to a new assignment, but both times I had to wait more than a year before He made clear to me where He wanted me to go.

In truth, we all have a call from God to serve Him. It’s wherever we happen to be at the time. A couple weeks ago I talked with a banker on the West Coast who had thought he wanted to become a pastor, but the Lord made it clear that his ministry would be to his customers and colleagues at the bank. Today he’s having an impact on many people who would never venture into a church on their own.

Moral of the story: Even if you know you’re called to become a pastor (or some other type of vocational Christian service), don’t be dismayed if God first puts you out to pasture. In the meantime, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might”  (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Should It Be Eye-to-Eye, Or Ear-to-Ear?

Recently I wrote about how the Bible uses the human body as a metaphor for the body of Christ, the Church. How all parts are equally important, even if we give some more appreciation than others. This prompted me to take a closer look – literally – to some specific parts: eyes and ears.

Eyes tend to get more notice. Physicians say that even for newborn infants, as soon as they are able to focus, the first thing they seek is another set of eyes to lock onto. To enhance outward appearances, women – and some men, I guess – invest time and money in eye makeup. There’s not nearly as much effort to make ears look good, except for earrings.

In debates or disagreements, we talk about being able to see eye-to-eye. Or at least that used to be the case. These days it seems few people care to work toward agreement and mutual understanding. Which is sad. Maybe what’s needed is not striving for eye-to-eye accord, but “ear-to-ear resuscitation.”

Our eyes enable us to assess outward appearances, which we usually use for judging. Or, alas, for prejudging. In other words, “prejudice.” When using our ears to hear what people are saying – if we’re willing to really listen – we gain a much better sense of what’s going on inside, within their hearts.

One of my favorite verses in the Scriptures tells us, “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). We all have the capacity to make ourselves look presentable, but what’s in our hearts isn’t as easily discerned. God is uniquely equipped for doing that.

This is why I think we need to work harder at communicating ear-to-ear. Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.” 

We need look no further than the Lord Jesus, who even as a youth understood the importance of “ear-to-ear” communications. When He was 12 years old, His parents had taken Him to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival. When time came for returning home, Jesus’ earthly parents presumed He was with relatives or friends. However, after a day of travel went by and they had not seen Him, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem to find Him. 

Luke 2:46 states, After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.“ After being a respectful, attentive listener, it says of Jesus, Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47).

I’ll never forget the day I met my friend, Gary. A mutual friend had connected us, telling me Gary had been trying to write a book about his life without much success. He needed a professional writer to help in shaping his notes into publishable form. 

When I arrived at the local coffee shop where we had agreed to meet, Gary was wearing overalls and looked more like a farmer than the successful businessman I understood him to be. His choice of attire was purposeful – it was Gary’s litmus test for determining whether I was the kind of person he wanted to work with. 

I’d like to think I’m “no respecter of persons,” as the King James Version translates Acts 10:34, so I gave no significance to his “un-businesslike” outfit. We had a great conversation and as a result, spent a number of months together shaping Gary’s rough manuscript into a heartfelt book he has used for developing a non-profit that’s having a powerful impact on young people in our area.

Because we both were willing to hear ear-to-ear, we found we also could see eye-to-eye. Maybe it’s time we all quit overworking our eyes and gave our ears more of an opportunity to exchange ideas in productive ways that can strengthen relationships, rather than destroy them.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Wonderful Words of Life

Much of life is mundane, uneventful. We get up in the morning, prepare for the day, perform appointed tasks and pursue chosen goals, eat a couple of meals in the interim, maybe chill out a bit in the evening. Then we head for some sleep so we can do it all over again the next day. Sound familiar?

But there are moments in life, exceptional moments, that stand out. Ones that really make life worth living. We could call those the times when we hear “the words of life.”

For instance, when the doctor or nurse looks up from the ultrasound and with a smile announces, “It’s a boy!” (Or, as happened for us several times, “It’s a girl!”) Or that exhilarating moment when the surgeon appears in the waiting room and informs the anxious family, “We got all of the cancer.”

Perhaps it didn’t involve surgery, but you went to your primary care physician (didn’t PCP used to be some kind of hallucinogenic drug?) for an illness or troublesome pain. You described your symptoms, he or she undertook a thorough examination, and then assured you, “It’s nothing serious.” Or there might have been a time when some calamity occurred and you feared loved ones might have been involved. After hours of waiting and wondering, the phone rang and you heard the good news: “They’re safe!”

Those in truth are words of life. It’s nice when we hear our favorite team won the big game, or receive a much-hoped-for raise or promotion. But when it comes to matters of life and death, health and safety, we’re desperate to hear the words of life.

We see something like that – even more profound – when we read in the gospel of John after many among the adoring throng that had been following Jesus suddenly turning away. Addressing to His closest followers, the ones known as the 12 disciples, Jesus asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” In response, Simon Peter quickly said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69).

“Life” is a word Jesus used a lot during His earthly ministry. After stating our spiritual enemy “comes only to steal and kills and destroy,” Jesus declared, “I have come that they might have life – and have it to the full” (John 10:10). I like the translation that says we can have life “abundantly.”

Sometimes Jesus meant physical life: Lazarus being summoned from the dead after several days in a tomb. A little girl restored to life after a distraught centurion in faith asked Jesus to help his ailing daughter. A blind man given sight, a leper made clean, a crippled man raised to his feet, a woman cured of her long-term “issue of blood.”

But more often, Jesus’ words of life concerned not earthly existence, but the life that comes after it. One of the best-known verses in the Bible tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

Later Jesus described Himself as “the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Moments later, in case anyone missed His meaning, the Lord declared, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

The best thing about this offer of eternal life – the ultimate words of life – is that it’s not a matter of hope-so, or maybe. We have this assurance: 
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

Numerous other passages could be cited as well, but the Scriptures make it abundantly clear: We live in a world in which our physical lives are threatened at every turn. And we know that for each of us, one day our days on earth will come to an end. But for followers of Christ, that is only the beginning of real life. 

At any moment, in the blink of an eye, we will step onto the other side of eternity. We will be greeted by our Lord, and He will welcome us with the words of life – eternal life. So, as we press on in this life, we would be well-advised to heed the admonition of Proverbs 4:11-13, “I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths…. Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Old Testament, New Testament: Saying the Same Thing?

I’ve heard there’s a movement – even some popular preachers – to diminish, if not flat-out discard, the Old Testament from common Bible teaching. “Let’s forget about God’s dealings with the Jews and let’s just focus on the good stuff, the Jesus stuff,” they seem to be saying. What a sad state that would be!

This came to mind just this morning as I was reading in the Scriptures. I’d never noticed it before, but foundational passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament – Genesis 1:1-5 and John 1:1-5 – say virtually the same thing.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the two passages together:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waves. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day” (Genesis 1:1-5)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1-5).

It’s hard to miss the many parallels. The first three words of both passages, of course, are “In the beginning.” But then they go on to introduce the first moments of Creation, and in John 1:3 we discover that the Orchestrator of it all was “the Word” – which John 1:14 later explains, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It was Jesus, way back when God created a wonderful “something” out of absolute nothing, and when the Lord took on human flesh – came to bring light and life – to rescue humankind from the prevailing darkness and death.

Years ago a ministry founded by Dr. Bruce Wilkinson, called Walk Thru the Bible, made its mission to teach the Bible and to show how Jesus is presented in each of the 66 books of the Bible. Wilkinson later authored a book, Talk Thru the Bible, to help readers capture this understanding. Even in the least known of the Old Testament books, we can find Jesus there.

So it puzzles me – and perplexes me – when I hear of those who would seek to set aside the Old Testament as if the God it portrays is no longer the God we seek to know, worship and serve today. As Hebrews 13:8 assures us, “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.” He hasn’t changed over the vast span of time since this world – and the universe – were created. Why would we disregard how He is represented in the Old Testament, just because its emphasis seems to be on the law, our need to be obedient, and God’s righteous justice for those who insist on disobedience and rebellion?

Recently I’ve been working my way through the “major prophets” – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. And I have to admit, it’s sometimes difficult trudging through the chapters filled with gloom and doom. It’s more fun reading Jesus’ teachings about love and grace and forgiveness. But as Genesis 1 and John 1 clearly communicate, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same. He hasn’t changed; He doesn’t have a split personality.

We worship and serve a God of love, grace and mercy. But that same God is also one of justice and judgment, hating sin every bit as strongly and perfectly as He loves His children. It’s not multiple choice. We don’t get to choose which characteristics or attributes of God we want and ignore the rest. 

The same God who said, “I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations will see the punishment I inflict and the hand I lay up on them” (Ezekiel 39:21) is the same incarnate God who said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Is this easy for us to comprehend? Perhaps it is for you, but it’s not for me. Nevertheless, it’s right there, in black and white (and red, if you have one of those Bibles). If we’re to believe the Scriptures we must believe ALL of them, not just the parts that make us feel comfortable and unchallenged.

As 2 Timothy 3:16 instructs, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” If we need any reminders about why we need rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, all we need to do is turn to the Old Testament and read about how hard-headed and wayward were God’s chosen people, the Israelites. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that those of us who have been grafted into the tree of Israel (Romans 11:23) aren’t much different from them.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Celebrities and ‘Normal Folks’ – We’re All Part of the Same Body

We have a curious human tendency to accord high esteem to society’s “celebrities.” These are people who, either by virtue of fortune or fame or position, are deemed important, deserving of greater status and respect than “normal folks.”

Musicians, movie and TV stars, elite athletes, politicians – these are the “E.F. Huttons” of our day. When they speak, we feel compelled to listen, giving credence to what they say. Even when it’s outside of their areas of expertise. This can be good, but also can be bad.

This happens within Christian circles, too, when attraction to noted speakers, authors and musicians sometimes borders on idolatry. Most of the “superstars” of the Church today are very different from those that received lots of attention when I was beginning my faith journey decades ago, but the glorification given to them is the same.

It's as if there are two classes: the “somebodies” and the “nobodies.” As if people like you and me don’t matter. We’re just here to fill pews, undertake odd jobs no one else wants to do, applaud the “special” folks’ performances, and put money into the offering plates.

Reading the Scriptures, we discover this isn’t a new phenomenon. Using the human body as a metaphor, the books of Romans and 1 Corinthians both talk about the Church, comparing it to the body which has made parts that perform a wide variety of functions. For example:
“The body is a unit, though it is made of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they are one body. So it is with Christ. For we are all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we are all given one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

The problem occurs when we start thinking that one part is more important than another, as the passage goes on to explain with tongue-in-cheek imagery:
“If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:15-17).

Our pastor recently illustrated this in one of his messages. He observed that at business meetings, when seeking a consensus, someone might request, “All in favor, raise your hands.” No one says, “All in favor, raise your feet.” Does this mean hands are more important than feet? Try walking on your hands all day and see how that works for you. Or attempt to compete in a 100-yard dash using your hands.

During my dating days, when my friends and I spoke about girlfriends or young ladies we found interesting, we would say things like, “She has beautiful eyes!” But never once did any of my buddies say to me, “Man, she’s got beautiful ears.” That might work for rabbits, but for humans, the eyes have it. 

Taking this comparison a step further, we also talk about trying to see “eye-to-eye.” Interestingly, I’ve never heard anyone suggest, “We really need to try to hear ear-to-ear.” Even though, with all the division that exists in our society today, maybe that’s what we really need. (More on that in a future post.)

Concluding his discussion of the similarities between the human body and the Church – the body of Christ – the apostle Paul writes, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be…. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that are unpresentable we treat with special honor…" (1 Corinthians 12:18-23).

We tend to take many parts of our bodies for granted, especially things like knees and feet. But try tweaking your knee while your running, or stubbing your toe while making a nighttime trip to the bathroom. Then we suddenly realize how important those parts are.

In the kingdom of God, the preachers do play an important role. As do the worship leaders, soloists and musicians. Along with the gifted authors of books that touch our hearts and challenge our spirits. For those of us who rarely if ever find ourselves in the spotlight, however, this doesn’t mean we’re not a critical part of the Lord’s eternal plan.

The Scriptures tell us that whoever we are, whatever we do, we matter to God. We’re exactly where He wants us to be – at least for the moment – and if we’re willing to be used by Him, we’re serving exactly as He desires for us to serve.

Years ago I suffered under the misconception that there were two categories of Christians – the “A team,” consisting of pastors, missionaries, evangelists and performers, and the second string, we could term them the bench warmers. I’ve even seen people shrug with resignation, “Well, I’m just a layman.” Today I would respond, “Just a layman?! Do you have any idea what a layperson can do for the kingdom of God? Are you kidding me?”

Looking back, I can see at least 10 “lay people” God has used to make profound impacts in my life for every professional, vocational Christian worker. I could fill this blog with their stories for the next year if I chose to do so.

As the Scriptures say, those individuals that are “unpresentable” – that for whatever reason aren’t asked to bask in the spotlight – should be treated with special honor. They are the ones who, if they weren’t there to fulfill God’s calling on their lives, would be sorely missed.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Appreciating the Kind of Comedy That's Truly Funny

Do you remember when humor was funny – because it was funny – and not disparaging and degrading? When comedians gave us a perspective on everyday life that tickled our funny bones, even brought to our eyes tears of laughter?

I love to watch old videos of comics like Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Carole Burnett and her entourage of Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Corman and others. Humorists like Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin (at times) and others gave side-splitting routines. We could laugh because they could shine a spotlight on humorous circumstances we shared in common.

Not so much these days. Most modern-day comedians seem to confuse legitimate humor with ridicule, sarcasm and condescending arrogance. On top of that, they don’t think they can be “funny” without  liberally lacing their monologues or skits with crudeness and profanity.

I was reminded of this difference when a young comedian did a stand-up routine at our church. His name was Andrew Stanley, which sounded strangely familiar. And it was, because his father, Andy Stanley, and grandfather, Charles Stanley, are both respected pastors. We would expect a G-rated comedy act from the son and grandson of pastors, and that it was. Very funny. Hilariously so.

Andrew poked fun at himself, as well as the silly stuff of daily living. He served belly laughs on a platter, and his audience had a happy feast. There wasn’t a mean, ill-spirited moment in his entire performance, and it provided a delightful diversion from the angst and antagonism that pervade much of our world today.

We often hear the cliché, “what the world needs is love.” Maybe what we need just as much is a good laugh. Back in the mid-1960s, journalist and author Norman Cousins contracted a crippling disease. Physicians gave him a grim prognosis, but Cousins embarked on a unique treatment regimen: massive doses of vitamin C coupled with self-induced bouts of laughter as he watched an assortment of comedic films. 

"I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," Cousins reported. He overcame that sickness and other maladies, which he recounted in his book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. 

The Bible would never be confused with a jokebook, but there’s much more humor in it than we might think. Without using the word “laughter,” several passages in the wisdom book of Proverbs affirm the power of a positive, uplifted spirit: A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, but when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). Another translation terms it a “happy heart.”

I don’t know if Cousins ever considered the Bible as a resource, but it speaks to his conviction that laughter can have marvelous healing properties. Proverbs 17:22 declares, A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Similarly, Proverbs 16:24 states, Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” 

When the Israelites returned from exile back to the holy city of Jerusalem, it was as if a stand-up comedian were leading the way. In one of the “psalms of ascent,” it recounts, Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:2).

Two other passages address the way laughter can burst forth once painful trials have ended. At the age of 90, having endured the humiliation of childlessness, Sarah gave birth to her son, Isaac. Almost immediately she declared, God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). 

Job is definitely not a book we’d associate with frivolity as the lead figure suffers a series of tragedies. Nevertheless, Job’s friend, Bildad, prophetically said of God, He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy” (Job 8:21). At the end of the book, that’s exactly what happened.

Fast-forward to today, a world filled with anger, strife, pain and despair. Sometimes, as a friend told me years ago, we have to laugh to keep from crying. Maybe the Great Physician would prescribe an antidote for what ails our society and world these days – a belly filled with laughter, from humor that's truly funny.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

We Need a New Perspective About Labor

With another Labor Day upon us, perhaps it’s time not only to recognize the value of laborers – workers whose services we all benefit from – but also to hit the “refresh” button for what we think about labor (work) itself.

These days much of the conversation seems centered around compensation for work: What the guaranteed minimum wage should be, if there should be a guaranteed minimum wage at all. I won’t wade into that debate, but I’m concerned that we’re greatly devaluing work if all we’re concerned about is how much we’re paid for doing it, along with benefits like health insurance and vacation time.

Because from the start, God ordained work. He placed humankind here on earth not to spend all of our time stopping to smell the roses. He had things for us to do. In the opening chapter of Genesis, it says:
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living creature that moves on the ground…. I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food'” (Genesis 1:28-20).

Later, Adam and Eve committed the fatal sin of eating from the one tree in the garden of Eden whose fruit was taboo for them. One of the consequences was that from that point on, work became hard: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you…. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…” (Genesis 3:17-19).

Imagine, before their fateful fall from temptation into sin, Eve would ask Adam at the end of his work day, “Hi, hon! How was your day?” and he would respond, “No sweat!” Then they went and ruined everything.

Yes, work became difficult, challenging, even frustrating. But that didn’t make it bad. One of my favorite passages in the Scriptures concerning work is Colossians 3:23-24, which admonishes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” As if the nameplate on the boss’s desk were to read, “The Lord,” or “Jesus Christ.”

The book of Ecclesiastes, which has a lot to say about work and its role in our lives, says similarly, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might…” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). We work to earn a living; there’s no question about that. But ultimately, if we believe the Bible, that livelihood also comes from God. 

James 1:17 says, 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.” This assurance applies to many things, but we can be assured that work and the provision for our needs that we derive from it are included among these “good and perfect” things.

An interesting New Testament verse, 2 Corinthians 5:20, declares, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” One of the best places to serve as an ambassador for Jesus Christ is where we work, where we daily encounter and rub shoulders with people who need to hear about the Good News of Christ and see what faith in Him looks like when lived out on a daily basis.

At the same time, we can – and should – value the work and efforts of people who serve us. The apostle Paul exhorted believers, Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). While the context for this exhortation concerns pastors and spiritual leaders, the principle can easily be applied for anyone whose work enhances our lives, whether it’s the server in a restaurant, the plumber who comes to fix a persistent leak, the law enforcement officer who strives to keep lawbreakers at bay, the teacher who instructs and encourages our children, or the trash collector who hauls away our garbage.

What we get paid matters. We need money to buy food for our tables, clothes for ourselves and our loved ones, gas for the car, and for rent or the mortgage payment. Along with some of our “wants.” But to view work solely by how much compensation we receive is to greatly diminish the value of work and the dignity we receive from doing it. Work – using our abilities, gifts and experience – is a very special privilege and should be a source of joy. Let’s keep it in the right perspective.