Thursday, February 27, 2020

Learning to Go Faster By Going Slower

Someone has said a definition of an athletic contest, whether a football, soccer or basketball game, is thousands of spectators in desperate need of exercise watching skilled athletes in desperate need of rest.

That sums it up well, especially for couch potatoes in comfortable couches and chairs, snacks and drinks close by – cheering for favorite teams and grumbling if they fail to meet expectations. Never mind all the effort expended by players leading up to the game; all that matters is whether they win or lose.  

But for many of us, overwhelmed by our hectic lifestyles, the scenario shifts dramatically when it’s not game day. Then we’re the ones running to the point of exhaustion, disregarding the need to take a breath and get some rest. We try to defy physics by proving we can be in several places at one time. Overuse of technology has turned frenetic “multi-tasking” into a hideous art form. 

However, the problem of “rush, rush, and more rush” is hardly new. And not unique to American society. Mahatma Gandhi, the revered human rights activist and leader of India’s non-violent independence movement in the early 1900s, said, “There is more to life than merely increasing the speed.” He said that long before anyone knew anything about smartphones, email, texting, Siri and Alexa! 

Author and contemplative David Steindl-Rast offered another global perspective about humankind’s fascination with busyness: “The Chinese character or pictograph for ‘busy’ is composed of two characters: ‘Heart’ and ‘Killing.’” How’s that for a graphic image?

Any lumberjack worth his splinters knows a key to efficient tree cutting is pausing at times to make certain the axe is always sharp. Chopping fast with a dull blade is counterproductive. Some of us, enamored with jam-packed, stress-filled schedules, have little time to pause to “sharpen our blade.” Before we can appreciate one event or achievement, we’re sprinting off to the next one. You know the adage about taking time to smell the flowers? We’re moving so fast, we don’t even notice any flowers to sniff.

This is one reason God places emphasis on rest, including the designation of a sabbath day. Following the Creation account in Genesis 1, we read in Genesis 2:2, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing, so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

Imagine: After creating the entire universe, including the world in which we live and everything in it, God Himself called a timeout. Being all-powerful, it wasn’t because He was tired. But it was a good time for smelling the flowers He had made, enjoying a sunrise and sunset, and listening to His creatures flying and frolicking everywhere. Why exert so much effort and creativity if you can’t enjoy it?

The Lord found it so refreshing, He decided to include rest-taking as one of His commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20:8-10).

For some, the Ten Commandments are restrictive, archaic rules established by a spoilsport God who doesn’t want us to have any fun. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus offered some clarification when legalistic religious leaders challenged His disciples’ activities in the Sabbath day. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, the Lord established a day for rest as a gift, not an imposition. 

Somehow, many of us in our society have lost the appreciation for rest, for healthful relaxing that’s not immersed in just another form of non-stop activity. That’s probably why we repeatedly find admonitions in the Scriptures to “be still” and “rest.” As Isaiah 58:13-14 tells us, “If you call the Sabbath a delight…then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes, who allowed himself to experience every human pleasure imaginable, including material abundance, understood the pointlessness of endless human endeavor: “Better is one handful of tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6).

And King David, who had plenty of demands to occupy his days and nights, also learned the virtues of peace and rest. “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone, my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (Psalm 62:5-6). 

Do you sometimes find yourself “weary and heavy-laden,” as the old hymn expresses it? Perhaps even right now? Maybe consciously, deliberately choosing to take time to rest, rather than adding one more item to your already overflowing to-do list, is what you need. 

The place where you find that rest, to make a much-needed “pit stop” in the midst of your race, is up to you. But make sure not to leave God out of the process. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Because after all, Father knows best.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Being Neighborly Has Become Increasingly Difficult

One of the better known passages from the Bible is “love your neighbor.” The statement appears at least seven times in the New Testament, and once in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). But for a number of reasons, this is one of the commandments that’s easier said than done.

For one thing, it’s hard to love someone you don’t even like. If we pay attention to what’s going on in our divided society these days, it doesn’t seem as if there’s a lot of loving our neighbors going on. Epithets and curses being exchanged by opposing sides, lots of shouting down and very little listening. This is one reason Jesus, in discussing the command, made this seemingly outlandish admonition: 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may sons of your Father in heaven…. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:41-46).

How would you rate yourself in doing this? I’m afraid I wouldn’t get a passing grade on this, at least at times. This is one specific area where I’m still very much “working out (my) salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Another factor is how we define the word “neighbor.” In Luke 10:25-37, an “expert in the law” decided to confront Jesus about how to attain eternal life. The questioner summed up the Mosaic law in two commands, “‘Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.” But then the religious leader asked for more clarity. “And who is my neighbor?” In response, the Lord told the parable we know as “the good Samaritan,” a term we commonly use still today to describe a stranger’s act of kindness toward someone else in need. 

In the story, Jesus was saying our “neighbor” is anyone to whom we might have an opportunity to provide an act of service, whether we know them or not.

Recently, however, I was reminded of a reality that also impedes our ability to love our neighbors. It was “Wave All Your Fingers at Your Neighbor” Day, and one of those online questionnaires asked about familiarity with neighbors, the folks who live right next door or across the street. The survey asked a simple question: “When was the last time you interacted with a neighbor?” The results were interesting:
21% of the respondents said “within the last 24 hours.” 
22% said “within the last couple of days.” 
16% said “within the last week.” 
20% said “it’s been awhile,” and 2% said they don’t have any neighbors.

As a boy growing up, we had front porches for catching the evening breeze, and it was rare when we didn’t see and interact with our neighbors. We didn’t have air conditioning to keep us huddled inside to keep cool. We didn’t have a plethora of TV channels, not to mention apps on smartphones and tablets to keep our eyes looking down instead of outside to see what the neighbors were up to. We were much more inclined to have occasional neighborhood get-togethers.

It’s not unusual today to have neighbors just down the street whom we’ve never met. And it’s not just our own reluctance to take the initiative to socialize; the neighbors seem equally reticent. So we spend many of our days without seeing or hearing from our neighbors; how can we love our neighbors when we don’t even know who they are?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, so I’m not preaching – unless to lecture myself. Somehow, despite societal pressures to isolate, we need to do a better job at reconnecting with our immediate neighbors, as well as “neighbors” we might happen to encounter during the course of a typical day. 

Mr. Rogers said, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” but how can we know unless we look out the window or step outside our doors to confirm it? 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mice, Mousetraps and Free Cheese

Who doesn’t like free stuff? Every week I scan through the local grocery store flyers for the “buy one, get one free” deals. If what I’m looking for isn’t among the store’s offers this week, I usually wait until it’s available on the two-for-one sale.

Of course, it’s not really “free.” The store had to pay for the extra item I receive, and its cost is absorbed by profits generated by the regular-priced other items they hope I’ll buy during my grocery store visit.

We’re often told “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” but during my business career there have been numerous times I received a free lunch. But it wasn’t completely free, because someone else paid for it. It might have been a friend, or my host while I was traveling. A restaurant might have offered free lunches to customers as a promotion, but at minimum, they had to cover the cost of the entrĂ©e, side items and my beverage. Free to me, yes, but not completely free.

I try to avoid getting political in my posts, because my mission when I write is solely to exalt my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, and communicate the practical relevance of the Scriptures for everyday life. But I have to admit to getting annoyed when I hear elected officials debating “free stuff.”

For instance, Social Security and Medicare benefits are often regarded as “entitlements,” when in fact most Social Security beneficiaries and Medicare recipients have had funds deducted from each paycheck for years and years. We’ve even gotten annual statements to report just how much we have paid into those Federally controlled accounts. The benefits we receive aren’t free and never have been. If they’re entitlements, it’s because we’re truly entitled to get back what we’ve paid in.

Yet we still hear about “free” college, “free” healthcare, and lots of other freebies. Payday everyday – and no work on payday. (Okay, I made up that last one, but don’t be surprised if someone proposes it. Maybe during the Presidential election campaign.)

Recently, I came across an anonymous quote that illustrated the “free stuff” myth that so pervades our society today: “Mice die in mousetraps because they don’t understand why the cheese is free. Same applies to socialism.” Chew on that for a few moments – that’s what the mice did.

Lest this be perceived as a political rant, I’d like to shift gears to consider the “free stuff” we’re promised in the Bible. Because the Scriptures do use the term “free” a lot. One of the most foundational passages, Romans 6:23, informs us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

In another context, we’re also told, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). This freedom is referring to becoming freed from the tyranny of sin, but even in this case, the freedom did not come to us without a price. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). 

Incredibly, it’s easy to take the gift of eternal life for granted, almost as if it’s an entitlement. Doesn’t John 3:16 say, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life”? Yes, God loved us – and still does. And He wanted us to experience eternal life – and still does. But it came at a cost: Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross. Dare we not underestimate that cost.

The humbling part of this is we couldn’t pay it even if we wanted to. “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In case we missed that, another passage affirms this truth: “…our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purity for himself a people that are his very own…he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 2:13,14, 3:5).

So the next time someone offers you something free – a lunch, a vacation trip, a college education, health care…or eternal life – remember: Nothing is free. Someone must cover the cost. It just might not be you or me. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Things Kobe – Even in Death – Can Teach About Life

One of the imponderables of life is why some people die while still young or in their prime. It doesn’t seem fair. When older people breathe their last we mourn their passing, but can take comfort in knowing “they lived a good life.” Untimely deaths, however, are hard to reconcile.

When it happens to a famous person, the impact seems somehow magnified. The most recent example was that of Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter, Gianna (Gigi), and seven other people who lacked his claim to fame. Each was grieved by family and friends, but Kobe was an internationally known treasure. He was a stellar, world champion professional basketball player. 

And upon retiring from the sport, he had begun the process of refocusing his life to other endeavors, even winning an Academy Award for his animated short-feature film called “Dear Basketball.” That honor, no doubt, in his mind was just the beginning. One of the few superstars instantly identified by his first name, he had many goals and dreams yet to fulfill.

Then in a helicopter crash, Kobe’s “next chapter” came to an abrupt close. His daughter, according to many reports, had the potential to carry on his basketball legacy. That, too, came to an end. Tributes poured in from all points of the globe for the athlete whom some regarded as the greatest of all time. The “Why?” many have asked will never be satisfactorily answered.

But perhaps, even in death, the legendary Kobe can teach us much.

First, a disclaimer: I’m really not an NBA fan; it’s not a sport that has captured my fancy – super-tall, super-talented athletes consumed with throwing oversized balls into hoops suspended 10 feet in the air. But I do admire someone like Kobe who not only fulfills his potential, but also works hard to maximize it.

By all accounts, Kobe’s work ethic was unsurpassed. Despite being the best player on his teams over the years, he was typically the first to arrive for practice and the last to leave. He was driven not just to be great, but to be the best. Some of his most famous quotations reveal his motivations. Here’s a sampling:

"When we are saying this cannot be accomplished, this cannot be done, then we are short-changing ourselves. My brain, it cannot process failure. It will not process failure. Because if I have to sit there and face myself and tell myself, 'You're a failure,' I think that is almost worse than death."
“Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.”
“I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.”
“From the beginning, I wanted to be the best. I had a constant craving, a yearning, to improve and be the best. I never needed any external forces to motivate me.” 
“If you want to be a better player, you have to prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.”

Perspectives like these helped Kobe become the player he was. Many talented people, regardless of their chosen profession, never achieve greatness because they’re not willing to put forth the effort to achieve it.

 After his death, a number of articles appeared stating he was a man of faith. No one but God knows a person’s heart for certain, but perhaps faith was a factor in making Kobe the man he became. Because many of the principles he espoused are supported by biblical truth.

For instance, in regard to failure, the Scriptures exhort us to “keep on keepin’ on,” as they say. In 1 Corinthians 15:58, for example, we’re told, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

Galatians 6:9 presents a similar exhortation: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” For followers of Christ called to be a part of His global mission, failure is not an option.

Kobe spoke much about determination and hard work, admitting he could not relate to people unwilling to put forth the effort to attain the desired results. We see a similar conviction in the Bible. Writing to believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica, the apostle Paul declared, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat’” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

We see this expressed a bit differently in the Old Testament: “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs 26:15). Another is even more sternly expressed: “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys” (Proverbs 18:9).

It would seem, based on his own statements, that Kobe Bryant would be in full agreement with each of these. Hopefully as time passes, he will be remembered not only for statistical accomplishments on the basketball court and memorable performances, but also for the underlying principles that helped him become the incomparable player that he was.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Valentine’s Day: Good Time to Revisit What Love Really Means

Valentine’s Day. It’s about that time again. When the holiday comes around, what do you think of? Hearts, flowers, boxes of candy, sentimental cards, romantic dinners? LOVEBut what do we mean when speaking about “love,” anyway? What comes to your mind when you hear the word?

If we’re to believe Hollywood, it’s about being all starry-eyed, hearts a-fluttering, and uttering profound words like, “You complete me” or, “You had me at ‘hello’.” (Yes, I’ve seen the movie, “Jerry Maguire.”) TV, commercial films and books insist it’s about animal attraction, “chemistry,” or believing “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.” Right? Even super-sappy Hallmark movies preach, “You’ll know it when he/she is the one!” 

But is that what love’s really about – being all mushy, gushy toward each other? An emotional state that’s so easy to fall into – and fall out of, when the novelty wears off?

I’d like to think not. After more than 45 years of marriage, through the good and the bad, sickness and health, poorer and richer (comparatively speaking, that is), we’ve discovered that for love to last, it’s going to require lots more than fickle feelings.

So, getting back to the earlier question, what is love really all about? To put it another way, what should love be all about? To find the answer, there’s no better source than a very familiar passage from the Bible’s New Testament, one you’ve probably heard more than once at weddings you’ve attended. You might even have used it at your own.

The passage? It’s 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, particularly verses 4-7. 

It opens with a description of what our actions might look like in the absence of love: 
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Those words alone are convicting. For instance, I might believe I can recognize the truth of a situation, but when I offer my perspective, I’m lacking the sensitivity, compassion and love needed for conveying my message.

Are you old enough to remember “The Gong Show”? Contestants on that show knew the resounding gong wasn’t the sound they wanted to hear. And having performed in the percussion section of my high school marching and concert bands (as they say, “back in the day”), I learned a thing or two about clanging cymbals. ‘Nuf said!

But the next several verses really get to the crux of the true meaning of love. These are the words that will probably ring a bell with you: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Wow! Each of those descriptors deserve an entire chapter in a book: Patient. Kind. Not envious. Not boastful or proud. Not rude. Not self-seeking. Slow to anger. Doesn’t get “historical” by refusing to forget past wrongs. Shuns evil. Cherishes the truth. Protects. Trusts. Hopes. Perseveres.

Do these sound like the qualities emphasized in our culture? Probably not. Because our culture insists, “It’s all about me.” Being patient, kind, humble and trusting requires being focused toward the other person.

Being rude, self-centered, quick to become anger, suspicious, and eager to give up when the going gets difficult are easier to do, because we’re doing what comes naturally. But if we keep in mind the one Person who embodied love, maybe we can resist the natural impulses.

As Hebrews 12:3 instructs us, “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” And Jesus Himself, before putting these words into action, underscored the sacrificial, selfless qualities of genuine love: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It can’t be said any better than that.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Desperate, Universal Search for Worry-Free Living

Can you believe it’s been more than 30 years since many of us found ourselves singing the catchy words, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? It was 1988 when that lilting, uplifting tune by Bobby McFerrin perched atop the Billboard Hot 100 list for two weeks. 

"Hakuna Matata, anyone?"
Then, six years later, we were singing “Hakuna Matata,” the memorable little song from the original animated Disney film, “The Lion King.” Remember? “It means no worries, for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy, Hakuna Matata!”

Perhaps just mentioning these simple, infectious musical ditties has caused them to again dance around your mind. To this day, when I offer an apology for an oversight – like running a bit late for an appointment or failing to send a promised email – I’ll hear the other person respond, “No worries.”

Ah, if it were only that simple: Don’t worry, be happy! No worries – Hakuna Matata! Because when worries set it, we want to shout, “That’s easy for you to say!” We do worry, don’t we? A lot. 

We worry that it might rain; we worry that it won’t. We worry about not having enough money; if we have enough money, we worry we’ll lose it. We worry about getting sick, losing our jobs, the car breaking down, or growing old. We worry about what people think of us; we worry if people don’t think about us. We even worry if we don’t have anything to worry about, certain something will emerge to worry about. We just don’t know what it is. And that worries us.

This is a universal human problem, and hardly a new one. Jesus Christ devoted considerable time talking about the futility of worry in His “sermon on the mount”: 
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?... Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:25-34).

Another time, Jesus was explaining how worry can prevent responding positively to the Gospel’s life-changing message. In His “parable of the sower,” He described one such category of folks: “The one that received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). 

Can you imagine settling down somewhere, surrounded by thorns? This was the metaphor Jesus used. Whenever we allow worries to overwhelm us – and I admit, I’ve been guilty of this at times – we’re treading into thorny territory.

Recently I read about something called a “friendship bench.” It was introduced in Zimbabwe, a war-torn, economically depressed African nation where despair has been rampant. The idea was for people beset by hopelessness to visit a friendship bench where trained elderly women would listen to them. 

The concept spawned the Friendship Bench Project, dedicated to establishing places where troubled individuals can engage in “a warm conversation with someone who cares.” They can now be found in London, England, New York City, and other parts of the world.

It's definitely sounds like a good way to at least provide encouragement for people who find themselves at wit’s end in dealing with their life’s circumstances. But did you know God already has a “friendship bench” for us? In Hebrews 4:16 we’re admonished, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Through prayer, God waits eagerly to hear from us: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about our lives. We oversee our children so they don’t run out into busy streets. We create budgets for handling our finances wisely. We make sure our vehicles are properly maintained. But as Jesus said, needless worry can choke all the joy and peace out of our lives.

So the next time worry starts consuming our thinking, let’s boldly approach the Lord’s throne of grace, His “friendship bench”: “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Sitting on an Unopened Treasure Chest

Have you seen any of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, starring Jack Sparrow? Or perhaps you can recall other pirate films from years past, featuring characters like Blackbeard or Long John Silver (not the restaurant). How about “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Indiana Jones? A common theme in each of these movies was the search for a legendary treasure chest, despite encountering great obstacles. 

What if, once the heroes had overcome great odds and discovered the long-lost treasure, they simply chose to carry it around, or hide it somewhere else, without inspecting the contents of the treasure chest. Wouldn’t that be ludicrous?

And yet, many of us possess a storehouse of treasure, often within an arm’s reach, yet we never open it up to see what’s inside. What I’m talking about are the Holy Bible, which one passage describes as “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4;:12). 

For many millions of people around the world, the Scriptures aren’t so readily available. They can’t take advantage of God’s Word because it hasn’t yet to be translated into their own languages, whether in written or oral form. And in some cultures, including Communist China and many Middle Eastern nations, possessing even portions of the Bible is forbidden. Believers in these lands face opposition most of us in the Western world couldn’t imagine. 

We don’t face such obstacles – at least not yet. But perhaps because the Scriptures are so easily accessible, in many versions and an ever-expanding assortment of formats in print, online and even apps, we take them for granted. Like the air we breathe, it’s there but we rarely notice it.

This is sad. Because just as pirates would eagerly open a long-sought treasure chest to examine its content, we should be just as enthusiastic about plumbing the depths of the Bible’s treasures. Especially since, as I’ve discovered, the Scriptures aren’t like the average treasure chest: Even if we spent a lifetime exploring them, there would be so much more to learn. Here are just several of the passages upon which I have built my life and faith:

More than 40 years ago I adopted Proverbs 3:5-6 as my “life verse,” and it’s provided great encouragement through the twists and turns life has taken since then. It states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and learn not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” 

One day at a conference I heard someone quote Philippians 3:10 from the Amplified Bible, and it soon turned into my personal “mission statement”: “[For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him – that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding [the wonders of His Person] more strongly and more clearly.” What greater purpose could anyone have than to strive to know and understand God through every aspect of life?

Then years ago I came across another passage, Psalm 45:1, that captured my ultimate desire as a writer and journalist. It reads, “My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King; my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.”

Three passages that have aptly described my life, my mission, and my career. But there’s been so much more. For instance, numerous declarations in the Scriptures have underscored the importance of making Jesus Christ central to the believer’s everyday life. A friend, Ted, often quotes Acts 17:28, which says, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Another verse, Colossians 1:27 points out it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

I could go on and on, but I’ll cite just one more passage that helped to clarify what I desired for God to do through my life. In 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 we read about a seemingly obscure individual: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers…(he) cried out to the Lord God of Israel, ‘Oh, that You would bless me and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested.”

Nowhere else in the Scriptures do we read anything about this fellow, Jabez. He’s not included in Hebrews 11’s “hall of faith” or anywhere else in the Bible. But I believe this very brief account was included for a very specific reason – that if our heart’s desire is to serve God and have a greater impact for His eternal glory, God will gladly answer such a prayer.

Have you discovered any “buried” treasures in the Bible? I hope you have. If you haven’t, perhaps you haven’t really been looking. As the apostle Paul prayed for believers he was writing to, that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).

Monday, February 3, 2020

Masterpieces of Our Own Making

Works of art, such as these statues and the architecture in St. Mark's Square
in Venice, Italy, are not just the result of artistry, but also devotion to God.
Have you ever stood in front of a painting and just marveled? It might not even be a world-famous masterpiece, just some artwork an amateur painter created. But there’s something about it that captures your eye.

Or maybe it’s a musical performance that lifts your spirits and makes you smile, leaving you humming the tune long after the presentation has ended. Again, it might not involve a world-class musician, and yet it sparkles, deeply touching the spirits of those listening.

What is it about the painting or the music that evokes an inner thrill, while another might do nothing more than cause its audience to respond with a collective ho-hum?

Perhaps John Ruskin had it figured out. A writer, painter and art critic in the 19th century’s Victorian era, Ruskin said, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

If someone insisted that I build a birdhouse, for whatever reason, I might manage to fashion something vaguely resembling a birdhouse. But it wouldn’t be anything about which even the kindest person in the world could find any nice words. Because first of all, my mechanical ability on a scale of 1-10 is a minus-3. But also, the task of constructing a birdhouse is something I would detest, not love.

But if one of our little grandkids were to do a little art project at school for Grandma and Pop, even with limited skill, it would be a masterpiece because it was made out of a heart filled with love.

One of my favorite hymns is “It Is Well With My Soul,” composed in 1873 by Horatio Spafford after his four daughters perished when the passenger ship on which they were sailing, Ville du Havre, collided with another vessel and sank into the icy Atlantic Ocean. The hymn’s first verse begins, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrow, like sea billows roll.” It is concludes with the refrain, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

How could this hymn – which lacks the upbeat rhythms of today’s praise music – remain a favorite today, even a masterpiece, nearly 150 years later? I suspect it’s because, as Ruskin stated, love and skill were working together as the grieving father clung to his faith, devotion to a sovereign God who works all things together according to His perfect purpose (Romans 8:28). Even when we don’t understand why.

However, that pales in comparison to the wonders we see everywhere by the Lord Himself, starting with the first acts of creation described in the opening chapters of Genesis – light, the universe, the earth, living creatures of all kinds, and finally, mankind. After each stage of His creative work, God declared it was very good. Love and skill working together, creating an unimaginable masterpiece.

And it continues to this day. As the psalmist writes in words that could apply to every one of us, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14). Whether it’s a glorious sunrise or sunset, a delicate flower, or a wonderful newly born baby, there is no limit to masterpieces the Lord continues to create.

Because of this, we have the wonderful privilege of joining in what God is doing, serving as His “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13). The Lord has entrusted each of us with skills and spiritual gifts, to be used in bringing honor and glory to Him and also for serving others. Motivated by love for our Savior, we can utilize our skills to create works that He will no doubt appraise as masterpieces.