Thursday, October 29, 2020

Gloom and Doom Need Not Dominate This Holiday

Another annual celebration of ghosts and goblins and witches and Jack-o-lanterns is upon us. I’m not among them, but there are some people for whom Halloween ranks as a favorite holiday, surpassing even Christmas and Thanksgiving. Interesting.


Driving around – yes, you can still do that even in these COVID days – I’ve noticed several yards when the homeowners have devoted a lot of time making their yards look as scary as possible. Several TV cable networks have scheduled Halloween-themed movies all month. And civic leaders are deciding what social-distancing guidelines are best for trick-or-treating.

The Bible says nothing directly about Halloween, unless you accept the little girl’s misinterpretation when she was asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, Halloween Thy name….” For many folks, Halloween is nothing more than a fun day for wearing silly costumes and passing out candy. However, it does have its dark side, as depicted by gory horror movies that make it a focal point. Death is a recurring theme, and throughout history there have been those for whom All Hallow’s Eve has been a sacred rite.


Much is said in the Scriptures about the inescapable reality and specter of death. For instance, the book of Romans tells us about the problem,“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), as well as its consequence and its remedy, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).


Referring to Christ’s atoning death for our sins, another passage offers these words of assurance: 

“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin…. 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 6:5-11).


James Ward, who for many years served as music director and worship leader at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, composed a wonderful song affirming that for the follower of Christ, death need not conjure the grim images we often see at Halloween. Instead, one’s passing from this life can indeed be a time for joyous celebration.


This upbeat, inspiring tune, called “Death Is Ended,” is based on 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, which declares:

“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”


If you’re observing Halloween this year – in some respects, it seems all of 2020 has been one continuous enactment of Halloween at its worst – I hope for you it’s funny costumes and tasty candy treats. But if you find yourself dwelling on the sobering, gloomy aspects of the day, please take to heart this glorious promise:


“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57). 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Keeping Our Hopes and Dreams in Perspective

A few days ago I saw a furniture truck that bore the motto, “A Hope to Dream.” It seemed pretty clear the message being conveyed was that the truck’s contents would soon be the answer to someone’s hopes and dreams. 

I’m all in favor of hopes and dreams. They often provide the motivation we need for moving through life. We might hope and dream about the best school to attend to receive the education we desire, or the person who will become our life partner. Thoughts about our career might be filled with hopes and dreams – landing the right job, earning the promotion we’ve been working diligently deserve, or receiving the substantial pay raise we’ve been expecting.

Nearly all of us had hopes and dreams at the start of this year that never became reality. Some of us were anticipating going on a once-in-a-lifetime international travel tour, or even a trip to a part of the USA where they had never been. Then came COVID-19, putting the kibosh on their expectations. Those places? They still haven’t been there.


Small business owners just starting up, or others finally turning the corner toward profitability, saw their hopes and dreams go down in flames due to the virus shutdowns, reluctance of many customers to return even when restrictions were relaxed, and in some cases, destructive rioting. And, of course, there were hopes and dreams shattered when loved ones contracted the disease and died.


It's been a tough year for hopes and dreams, despite what furniture trucks might want to tell us. So how do we respond?


For some, sadly, their answer has been to simply give up in despair. Isolation, forced time away from friends and loved ones, and inability to continue familiar routines – all have taken a serious toll in the lives of many. Experts have focused primarily on the spread of the virus, but many of the uninfected have been stricken in other ways: depression; suicidal thoughts; increased alcohol and chemical abuse; intensifying strife within marriages and families, leading to domestic abuse and divorce. It’s a terrible thing when hopes and dreams are stripped away.


Again the question: How should we respond when our hopes and dreams are dashed?


One suggestion is to put them in the right place – don’t build our hopes and dreams on things, even people, that can suddenly be taken away or destroyed. Furniture, the latest technology, cars and houses. These all are things that can suddenly be taken away. If they comprise the substance for our dreams and hopes, sooner or later they will be lost. 


In the Old Testament we find Ecclesiastes, hardly the most optimistic book of the Bible. For instance, it tells us, “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 5:7). Then it adds, “Therefore stand in awe of God.”


Elsewhere the writer, assumed by many to be King Solomon, reputedly the wisest man of all time, says, “when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Considering that Solomon had wealth and experiences beyond anything we could imagine, this puts matters in perspective.


In another part of the Bible, likely also written by him, we find another sober truism: “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 23:5). We don’t have to have great material wealth to understand how quickly circumstances can change, taking our hopes and dreams with them.


The New Testament’s epistle of James is another book filled with wisdom, offering a practical look at life’s often harsh realities. For instance, the apostle wrote:

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).


Jesus Christ gave perhaps the greatest perspective about our dreams and hopes. Speaking in a message commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).


It’s about not placing our hopes – and our dreams – in things tangible and temporary, but in the eternal. I think the apostle Paul summed it up well in saying, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24-25).


Who knows what the coming year will have for us? We all hope it’s better than the current year. But the Scriptures promise that if we build our hopes and dreams around what God has for us, rather than an unpredictable and fickle future, we won’t be disappointed or disheartened.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Exuding a Fragrance, or Creating a Big Stink?

A story is told about Charles F. Weigle, an itinerant evangelist and gospel songwriter whose compositions include, “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus.” Weigle was in California to speak at a conference center and had spent some time in the center’s popular rose garden.

During a reception time, person after person came up to him and inquired, “Did you enjoy your time in the rose garden?” After more than a few had asked the same question, Weigle wondered, “Why do they keep asking that?” since he had not seen many people in the garden while he was there.


Finally, when another person asked about his rose garden experience, Weigle posed a question of his own: “Why do people keep asking me about the rose garden?” The answer was simple: because he was carrying with him the fragrance of the roses he had just visited.


The Scriptures say we should have a similar effect as followers of Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 we read, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?”


Can you imagine that? Like Weigle in the rose garden, if we’re diligent to spend time with Jesus, we unknowingly exude His fragrance to those we encounter throughout the day. Perhaps this is why we get different reactions from people, especially those who are fellow believers vs. those who are not.


Some people we meet, even as strangers, are drawn to us. It may be our incredibly magnetic personalities and charisma – or it might be the presence of Christ in us that they are recognizing subconsciously. Other people seem repelled by us, not by anything we have said or done, but simply by our proximity. They too may be detecting the presence of Jesus in us and sadly, they don’t like it.


We have a son-in-law who loves anything made with cabbage – sauerkraut, coleslaw, cabbage soup, stuffed cabbage. Another son-in-law, however, has a strong aversion to the smell of cabbage. If he knows my wife has made pork and sauerkraut for a special occasion, for example, he will politely excuse himself from even being in the house. Same aroma, very different reactions. 


Maybe it’s the same spiritually. On many occasions I’ve met people for the first time and felt an immediate bond with them. When I learn they also are followers of Christ, I understand why. But there have also been times when I sensed an almost instant tension between myself and someone I’m just meeting.


If we believe what the passage says, that we’re “spreading everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him,” there’s nothing we can do to control that. Our challenge is to ensure if people are repelled, it is due to their aversion to Jesus, not because through offensive behavior on our part we have created a big stink that reflects negatively on the Lord.


This fragrance or aroma is something that should consistently be manifested through our interactions with our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Proverbs 27:9 states, “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel.” Whether we’re interacting with fellow believers one-to-one, or in a group, we should be provoking them to ask, “So, did you enjoy your time in (Jesus’) rose garden?”

Monday, October 19, 2020

Even When We Know the Truth, Do We Tell It?

Being an old-school guy, I still spend time listening to the radio when I’m driving. I’ve not yet made the switch to iPods or MP3 players – guess I’m still waiting for the next best thing to arrive. Kind of like going straight from the old 8-track tapes to CDs and skipping cassette tapes, even though that’s already an obsolete comparison.


Anyway, while scanning the radio recently, I happened upon a song that caught my ear. I don’t even know the artist who sang it, but the lyrics said, “Truth be told, the truth is rarely told.” Wow! Just eight words, but it’s a real mouthful. 


There are lots of directions we could go with that thought, but it occurs to me that sadly, this happens even within the Church. Even when we’re not plagued with a global virus that prohibits, or at least inhibits, our assembling together. You would think as groups of admittedly flawed and fallen people gather to be reminded of the love, grace and mercy of God, we’d feel free to be transparent, even vulnerable with each other. Too often, this isn’t the case.


I rarely hear the term anymore, but years ago they used to have “come as you are” parties. Often spur of the moment, these involved invitees attending just as they were when the party was announced – wearing pajamas, bathrobes, or whatever. Maybe the downfall of come-as-you-are events was people deciding that no matter where they go, they’ll come any old way they want.


Imagine a church marquee announcing, “Come as you are!” with members of the congregation following up on that, welcoming visitors however they are, no facades or pretentions. Maybe some churches are like that, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Yes, it’s become more and more acceptable to ditch the ties and sport coats in favor of jeans, untucked shirts, shorts, sandals, even no shoes. But come as you are – on the inside? 


A friend wrote a book called, Behind Our Sunday Smiles, its title derived from our inclination to display false expressions on Sunday mornings, even if we’ve had the argument of all arguments driving to church, or if our personal lives are crumbling. We reason, “If I tell them the truth when they ask, ‘How are you?’ they won’t like me - or won't want to hear it anyway.”


Instead of being able to confidently ask, “Can I be perfectly honest?” it’s as the song says, “Truth be told, the truth is rarely told.”


Which is sad, because Jesus Christ was particularly drawn to the come-as-you-are kind of folks: 

  • Matthew, the much-despised tax collector, who was viewed by his fellow Jews as a sellout to the Romans. 
  • The man with leprosy, a social pariah through no fault of his own, who approached Jesus and said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). 
  • The woman who for years had been plagued with a chronic bleeding problem (Mark 5:24-34). 
  • The paralyzed man whose friends carried him to Jesus on a mat, asking that he be healed (Luke 5:17-26). 
  • The Samaritan woman at the well whose disreputable past caused her rejection by other women in her town (John 4:4-26).


There were many others, but each of these saw something in Jesus that enabled them to let down their guard, to cast aside their shame, and approach Him just as they were. Why shouldn’t it be the same in today’s Church, which the Bible describes as the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-32, Colossians 1:24)? God never intended for the Church to be a showcase for spiritual giants, but a hospital for sinners desperately in search of healing and recovery. 


Isn’t it about time that those outside the Church could no longer say, to borrow the phrase from the film, “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth!” Because as Jesus declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He also promised, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).


As His followers, we shouldn’t only be truth-seekers; we should also be truth-tellers, ones who encourage others to do the same. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Not Made For the Mountaintop, But For the Valley?

A few weeks ago, my wife and I drove up to a restaurant on McCloud Mountain in Duff, Tenn. The food, we were told, is tasty but the main attraction would be the view. The food was pretty good, but the view? Not so much – because clouds had descended over the mountain that day, obscuring what would have been a spectacular scenic vista. At least the mountain lived up to its name.

It wasn’t unexpected because the entire day had been slightly overcast, even in the lowlands below. Still, we were sorry to miss this mountaintop experience. Instead of beautiful, rolling hillsides, everything was shrouded in fog.


This was in sharp contrast to what many of us have encountered spiritually. Perhaps, like me, you’ve had one or more “mountaintop experiences,” whether while attending a conference or other special event, or just having moments of inspiration atop some lofty peak. They leave us energized, even super-charged, feeling like we can conquer the world. Even if we’re not mountain climbers.


We often wish life in the 
valley could be as clear
as views from the mountain.
That is, until we descend to the valley below – or emerge from the comforts of our spiritual cocoon and run smack into a heavy dose of harsh everyday reality. Talk about having a balloon deflated!

The late Oswald Chambers, whom I regard as a friend since I’ve read his classic devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest,and other writings for decades, writes about this in several of his meditations. For instance: 

“We have all experienced times of exaltation on the mountain, when we have seen things from God’s perspective and have wanted to stay up there. But will never allow us to stay up there…. It is a wonderful thing to be on the mountain with God, but a person only gets there so that he may later go down and lift up the demon-possessed people in the valley…. The mountaintop is not meant to teach us anything, it is meant to make us something" (from October 1).


In the next day’s meditation, Chambers writes, “The height of the mountaintop is measured by the dismal drudgery of the valley, but it is in the valley that we have to live for the glory of God…. It is in the place of humiliation that we find out our true worth to God – that is where our faithfulness is revealed.”


Over the years I’ve a number of mountaintop experiences, in the most literal sense – atop Lookout Mountain in Georgia, the Smokie Mountains near Asheville, N.C., and Dayton Mountain in Tennessee. Time spent there launched me into a spiritual high, but then, returning to the valleys below, I spiraled into a spiritual funk. “What was it that had me so excited?” I’d wonder as nasty now-and-now moments crowded out the “the sweet by and by” reveries I’d felt less than a week before.


Can you relate? Those exhilarating moments when we want to shout, “Hey, Lord, it’s You and me, all the way!” followed by a period of near depression once we’ve descended again into daily ruts and routines?


If so, we need not feel badly. Because that’s how Jesus’ disciples felt as well – and they hung out with Him in the flesh, nearly 24/7 for about three years. The classic example is called the Transfiguration, when the Lord’s inner three – Peter, James and John – joined Him atop a lofty mountain and witnessed Him being transfigured in appearance. Then Elijah and Moses, themselves no strangers to mountaintop experiences, supernaturally appeared to them all.


Peter, ever Mr. Impetuous, was so taken by the experience that he declared, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:2-6). He and the other disciples hadn’t yet figured out who Jesus really was. Up until then they just considered Him an enthralling, charismatic religious leader.


Coming down from the mountain, it says, “Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant” (Mark 9:9-10).


Can you imagine what these eager followers must have thought and felt? Perhaps in the days leading up to Jesus’ betrayal, trial and crucifixion they might have even wondered, “What was that? Did that really happen? Or were we just dreaming?”


I’m grateful for my mountaintop moments, because the residual effects helped to shape me into who God wanted me to become – and provided a lasting vision for what He intended for me to do. But at times, however, it’s still been tough trying to plod through the drudgeries and discouragements of everyday life, when inspiration seems in short supply.


That’s when I need to remind myself of what Chambers said more than 100 years ago, that “it is in the valley that we have to live for the glory of God.” And that, “the mountaintop is not meant to teach us anything, it is meant to make us something." Here in the valley, we must discover what that “something” is and pursue it with all our heart.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Taking Advantage of Spiritual ‘Muscle Memory’

One of the best decisions I made in high school was to take a class in personal typing. Back then we had to learn to type on real typewriters. Not even the electric kind. To press the keys, we had to use actual finger power. 


I remember the repetitive exercises we had to do: ASDF space, ASDF space. Learning the “home row” and later, the remaining keys on the keyboard. At times those exercises seemed monotonous and meaningless, but little did I know I was exercising a technique we now call “muscle memory.”


Over time, as my fingers learned to find their way around the keyboard, I discovered how to quickly write penetrating thoughts such as “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – a phrase designed to use every letter of the alphabet.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was preparing for my career as a writer – first a newspaper reporter and editor, then magazine editor, and ultimately writing in many different forms, including this blog. I remember my first journalism newswriting class, learning to write an article on a tight deadline. While my fingers breezed across the keys, some of my fellow students utilized the law firm approach: Hunt & Peck.


Today, more than 50 years later, muscle memory enables me to record my thoughts very quickly. If you were to ask me to recite a specific key is, in all likelihood I couldn’t tell you without looking. But my fingers know. It’s all about muscle memory.


This is true for many other skills, whether it’s playing a musical instrument, knitting, competing in a sport, driving a car, even everyday tasks. Use repetitive motor skills enough times and our muscles become trained to somehow remember what they should do without our conscious instruction. Almost seems like they have little, individualized brains to control their actions.


Recently I was talking with a young man I’ve started mentoring, discussing what we might call “spiritual muscle memory.” In other words, training ourselves through practice to think, speak and act in desired ways, without having to always stop and wonder, “Now, should I do this…or not? What would God want me to do in this circumstance?”


The question is, how can we build spiritual muscle memory, so that living the way we know we should doesn’t always require an intentional decision? 


A passage from Proverbs, one of my favorite books in the Bible, offers some insight:

“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1-5).


This isn’t referring to something we do once in a while, an occasional impulse while we’re navigating through life. This is what is known as an “if-then” conditional statement – if something, then something else logically follows. In this case, if we do the things specified in these verses – store up God’s commands, and seek wisdom, insight and understanding – then we can expect to discover the fear of God (reverent awe) and gain knowledge from Him.


Psalm 119:9-11 makes a similar declaration: 

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”


The way I understand this, as we consistently pursue a lifestyle of right living – empowered by God’s Spirit and guided by what we have learned from the Scriptures – we develop good habits (spiritual muscle memory) that enable us in times of uncertainty, crisis and stress to “default” to right thinking and living.


But this isn’t something that happens overnight. The adage tells us, “Practice makes perfect.” However, years ago I heard someone offer this clarification: “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Poor practice never leads to perfection. Learning how to live right requires thinking and doing the right things, over and over and over, until they become second nature. 


Spiritually speaking, they become part of our new nature: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Is this easy? No. But is it essential? No doubt about it! 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Fear Always Ranks High Among Top 10 Emotions

 If you were to name the emotions you’re most familiar with, what would they be? Love? Happiness? Anger? How about fear? Does that one rank high for you?

Fear – along with its kissin’ cousin, anxiety – both are emotions that stir in all of us more often than we’d like to admit. Especially this year. If it hasn’t been the pandemic – and so often it has been – it’s been the economic consequences, social unrest and riots, along with severe weather, such as hurricanes, extreme heat, fires and other natural calamities. Then there’s been the constant political drama, with both sides frantically pointing accusing fingers at each other, assuring us that if their opponents are elected, that’s the end of the world as we have known it.

I’ve become exceedingly weary of the boy who cried wolf anchoring the evening news on one network, along with Chicken Little on another channel constantly announcing that the sky is falling. One notable news commentator stated off camera not too many years ago, “Our job is to scare the h--- out of our viewers.” And they’ve been doing a good job of it.


Is it any wonder the Bible speaks so often about fear? I’ve not taken the time to count, but according to experts on such things, the Scriptures command us to “fear not” a total of 365 times in the Old and New Testaments. One for every day of the year!


We don’t have to search far or long to find biblical references to fear. With the Israelites poised to finally enter the Promised Land, God reminded Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).


Why this admonition? Because earlier, Moses had sent 12 spies, representing every tribe of Israel, into Canaan. Most of them came back with fearful, pessimistic reports of fortified cities and huge, well-armed people. Joshua and Caleb were the only ones returning from the spy mission who didn’t see a problem. Theirs was the original “minority report.”


In fact, Joshua said, “If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into the land and give it to us, a land which flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land…their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them” (Numbers 14:9). But the Israelites chose instead to accept the majority’s conclusion. As a result, they wandered the next 40 years in the wilderness.


Centuries after the people of Israel finally passed victoriously into the Promised Land, their fear problem persisted. So in Isaiah 41:10, God offered this promise: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”


The fear dilemma is not limited to a nation, region of the world, or even an era of history. In his first inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt boldly declared, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Many of his hearers probably thought, “That’s easy for you to say, FDR,” with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression and World War II imminent.


Remembering the horrific moments of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, fear was palpable. Complacency and apathy dispersed. Without warning, an enemy had struck; we wondered what was next.


Fast-forward to the present – and looking ahead to the future – fear again has become a nearly constant companion for many of us. And with both the mainstream media and social media serving a steady barrage of negativity, the fear impulse doesn’t figure to subside any time soon.


What are we to do? Just grin and bear it? Anesthetize our anxieties with booze or drugs or whatever else we can find to numb our minds?


Recently in a small group Bible study, someone asked us to listen to the praise song, “No Longer Slaves.” It reminds us, “I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.” This is an important reminder, especially since it’s an assurance we forget so easily. 


Jesus often addressed the subject of fear with His followers. Speaking about the prevalent plague of worry, Jesus told them, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:22-32).


Another time, Jesus and His closest disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when an unexpected storm sent huge waves surging over their boat. He was asleep when the storm struck, so the panicked disciples cried out, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” To which Jesus replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” and He proceeded to command the wind and waves to cease (Matthew 8:23-27).


When that happened, the passage states, the men were amazed. Duh! And yet, every day we see God doing amazing things in our lives, or in the lives of others. The key, as Jesus pointed out, is faith: Not only intellectual belief, but also confident assurance and trust that no matter how dire our circumstances, the Lord is present and poised to respond to our prayers.


In fact, His last recorded words prior to ascending to heaven were, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).


This year has seemed like one unending storm, one surge after another. Humanly speaking, we have every reason to fear. “What’s next?” But times like these serve to strengthen our faith, causing us to dig deeply to determine in what – and in Whom – it really lies. 


Rather than collapsing in fear, we can follow the admonition of Philippians 4:6-7, which says: “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 minds in Christ Jesus.”

Monday, October 5, 2020

Today: The Gift That Gives More Than We Imagine

 I don’t know who originated it, but some punster came up with the observation, “Every new day is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” But when we’re young, and healthy, it’s easy to take each new day for granted. We make plans weeks, months, even years in advance, with utmost confidence those plans will be fully realized.

However, as we get older – especially after encountering health setbacks, or simply the reality that our bodies are aging – we discover tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. This teaches many of us to appreciate the dawn of another day, the chance to arise from a night’s sleep and eagerly face the opportunities and challenges of the next 24 hours.


In recent months, two of my friends have undergone open-heart surgery. Now they’re engaged in cardiac rehab programs to help them to resume their active lifestyles. Other friends have confronted various forms of cancer. Then there are coronavirus survivors. Each of these now understands, more clearly than ever, that each new day is truly a gift. We couldn’t earn or deserve it. We just received it.


The question becomes, what do we do with that gift? How do we use it? Should we try to squeeze every ounce of sensory experience out of each day? Go skydiving, or hang gliding? Ride the fastest, steepest rollercoaster we can find? Travel to exotic locales? Spend our money on the glitzy “stuff” we’ve seen advertised? “Grab the gusto,” as the old commercial slogan used to tell us?


We find two very different perspectives in the Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes, which most scholars believe was written by King Solomon, offers a fairly pessimistic view. For instance, the king admitted:

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure…. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).


Bummer! He was the richest man in the world, at least for his time, yet experienced frustration and futility in pursuing any and all tangible things and experiences the world could offer. Solomon discussed this throughout the book, but ultimately arrived at one conclusion: “Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot” (Ecclesiastes 5:18).


In the New Testament, however, we find a more optimistic outlook, one that focuses on eternity rather than this temporary world in which we exist. 


Jesus exhorts His followers, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in an steal” (Matthew 6:19). If we stop there, He seems in agreement with Solomon. The things that catch our eye, the earthly treasures we work so hard to acquire, slip away. We don’t see hearses pulling U-Haul trailers.


But then Jesus offers an option, explaining there is a way of investing for our long-term future: “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21).


We might respond, “This sounds good. But how do we do it?”


Jesus gave us a good starting point in responding to the question from a Jewish religious leader, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Without hesitation, He replied, “’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 22:36-37).


Loving others, God first, and then our “neighbors” – whomever the Lord brings into our lives – is a key to a meaningful, rewarding life and one way to ensure we don’t squander the gift of each new day. Ted DeMoss, whom I had the privilege of working with from 1981 to his passing in 1997, used to say that when all is said and done, only two things will remain: “the Word of God and people.” 


Jim Elliot, a missionary who lost his life in 1956 while participating in Operation Auca, attempting to evangelize the Huaorani peoplein Ecuador, made a similar observation: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” He also said, “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”


I hope you woke up this morning fully realizing you had received a true gift – the gift of a new day. So yes, by all means, grab the gusto. Go for it! But in so doing, grab the gusto for God and His people.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Recognizing We’re Engaged in a War for Our Minds

During this tumultuous year, has your mind felt like a wrung-out washcloth at times? Evening broadcasts no longer report bad news – they’re now reporting even worse news. Between COVID-19, shutdowns, endless political wrangling, hurricanes, social unrest, shortages of stuff like toilet paper, deli meats and even canned foods, we’ve been stressed to the max.

I’ve kept expecting a recall notice on 2020, but apparently that won’t be happening. So as we limp toward the end of the year, we cling to hope that 2021 will be a marked improvement over its predecessor.


What’s a person to do? How can we cope with such a barrage of bad tidings? I’m glad you asked.


Tim Kight’s a popular speaker, consultant and leadership trainer. I’ve never met him or communicated with him directly, but have appreciated his concise, thoughtful posts on social media. He caught my attention when he started consulting with the Ohio State football team, and I've admired many of his insights on leadership and life.


Now Mr. Kight is putting his own advice into use in a crucial way. Recently he posted on Twitter, “Here is something very powerful I have learned from having cancer and going through chemo: I cannot stop it from affecting my body, but I must not allow it to affect my mind. The mindset I bring to this battle is enormously important.”

I had no idea Mr. Kight is dealing with cancer in some form, but our family understands what that’s like. He has my prayers, and we can all benefit from his wisdom – even if our challenges differ from his.


Some years ago, he offered a simple equation that applies to work and everyday life, as well as sports: 

E + R = O. 

That stands for Event + Response = Outcome. In another social media post, Mr. Kight explained, “I do not control events. I do control my response.”


What profound observations, especially as we shake our heads in amazement at developments that have virtually turned 2020 into a B-rated horror movie. The many chaotic events – not to mention unique challenges in our own lives – have the potential to be devastating. The question is, how do we respond to them? Because, as Mr. Kight has pointed out, our responses shape the outcome.


Our minds hang in the balance. When hardships strike, we can have a meltdown, or we can strive to build upon the adverse circumstances to benefit from them. The Bible speaks about this in many ways.


For instance, in writing to believers in the ancient city of Philippi, the apostle Paul reminded them that inevitably, difficult times come. How were they to respond? “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). But wait. What? Always? How can we do that?


Paul quickly elaborated: “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). When faced with adversity, we’re to turn to the Lord, entrusting those circumstances to Him. As we pass our burdens over to God, we can experience His peace, comfort and assurance – even beyond anything we can fully understand.


A key to doing this successfully, according to the apostle, is to determine to pursue right thinking even before bad times arrive. Then we can be confident that whatever the Event may be, our Response will be appropriate, assuring the best possible Outcome. He wrote:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).


In a letter to a different group of believers, Paul gave an admonition to beware of allowing our minds to be improperly influenced by the world around us. He told them, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Or as another translation puts it, "Don't let the world squeeze you into its mold."


When we go to the car for an important appointment and discover a tire is flat, how will we respond? If we turn on the evening news and – as they are wont to do – the commentators tell us once again that the sky is falling, all hope is gone, how will we respond? 


I’ve learned through experience that the best time to determine our response is not after something has occurred, but as the Scriptures tell us, long before the bad stuff happens. That way we can be proactive rather than reactive, thus ensuring the best possible outcome.


When an army goes to war, it has already undergone training and is properly armed for battle. We’re in a war for our minds. But it’s a war we can win – if we prepare our minds and “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11), which includes an unwavering faith, a close walk with the Lord, a strong grasp of His Word, and prayer.