Thursday, April 29, 2021

Hearing Some ‘Nice’ News For a Change?

Remember the old saying, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all”? Well, these days there’s a parallel observation: If it weren’t for bad news, we wouldn’t have any news at all. But wait! There is some good news on the horizon – I think.


Recently I came across an informal, non-scientific survey that asked the question,
How nice of a person do you consider yourself to be?” An astounding 93% of the people that responded said they would describe themselves as “Very nice” (42%) or “Somewhat nice” (51%). Not one person said they would fit into the “Not at all nice” category. Gee, isn’t that…nice? Apparently Ebenezer Scrooge, Ivan the Terrible and Oscar the Grouch weren’t among those surveyed.


Isn’t it good to get some nice news? Or rather, nice to get some good news? Maybe. It depends on how you define “nice.” Does it mean someone who loves babies and puppies and kittens? One dictionary says it means “pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory.” If that’s the case, most of the 93% nice people must be staying off Facebook and Twitter, because many posts we see there, by that definition, aren’t exactly “nice.” Or pleasant, or agreeable.


To me, being nice doesn’t mean being a milquetoast individual with a perpetual smile and nary a harsh word escaping from his or her mouth. The best synonym for nice in my perspective is to be kind and considerate of others. Qualities we see all too rarely in our world, whether on social media, in news and talk show exchanges, or in angry protests.


Interestingly, we don’t find the word nice in the Bible. We’re not told as followers of Jesus to “go therefore and be nice.” However, it does speak much about kindness and compassion and love – the kind of love that puts others ahead of oneself. 


For instance, one of the qualities of knowing Christ is exhibiting what the Scriptures call “the fruit of the Spirit." Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Kindness, goodness and gentleness – those are three traits we would expect to find in a “nice” person.


Even more to the point is the admonition from Philippians 2:3-4, which says we are to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” If you spent time with someone who acted in that way consistently, wouldn’t you consider them nice?


Many of us read that and think, “Yeah, that’s a nice ideal to strive for, but how do I succeed at doing it?” It gets back to what Jesus said when someone asked how to be assured of eternal life. Jesus responded by asking another question: “What is written in the Law?... How do you read it?” To which the inquirer replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with 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’ reply was simple: “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).


When we read this, we’re inclined to react, “Oh, that’s all? Well, no problem then!” Yeah, right! But in a nutshell, this sits at the center of living the so-called “Christian life,” as well as the secret to being a “nice person.” If we love God with everything we have, so that His character – His very life – can be manifested through us. Only then can we truly succeed at loving others as ourselves, as well as being able to put the interests of others on the same level as our own.


Everyone has a “god” of some sort. If it’s not the true God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, we’ll worship something else. And almost like a default setting on a computer, the god we’re most inclined to worship is ourselves.


When Jesus said, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the apostle Paul declared, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), they both were talking about the power to be, and to become – through Him – what we cannot apart from Him.


If we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we can demonstrate His love toward others. Will that make us “nice”? It depends on how we and others define the term, but we will be able to exhibit kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. And that’s not bad!

Monday, April 26, 2021

Immediate Opening for Well-Seasoned Ambassadors

Can you imagine being an immigrant trying to master the English language – at least as it’s spoken in the U.S.A.? The grammar isn’t easy. Spelling can be confusing. Proper pronunciation can be a real stumbling block: Consider the words through, tough, bough and cough. If I were teaching an English as a Second Language class, the first thing I’d do would be to distribute complimentary head-scratchers.


Then there are the words will multiple meanings, some of which are totally unrelated. The word “season” comes to mind. All of us in the Northern Hemisphere are now experiencing the season of Spring, with life all around us emerging from dormancy. Then we refer to the “seasons” of life, such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, teenage years, adulthood, retirement, old age. 


Similarly, we speak about going through a “season” of growth, a season of waiting, or some other season of endeavor. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes declares, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Yet another use of the word relates the experience someone has gained, such as a “seasoned” executive, athlete or educator.


Last but not least are the herbs and flavorings we use to “season” our food, things such as pepper, oregano, cinnamon, sage, dill, and my personal favorite, salt. We like to salt our meat, vegetables, corn on the cob. Some folks even salt their watermelon. But just as the term “season” has numerous meanings, salt can be put to a variety of uses.

As we’ve already mentioned, salt can enhance the flavor of food. Throughout history, salt has been used as a preservative, to “cure” meat (even when it’s not sick). If you’ve ever gotten salt into a wound, you know about another of its functions – it stings. Salt can create thirst, as any of us who has eaten buttered popcorn can attest. And anyone who’s lived in colder climates knows salt can also be used to melt ice.


Perhaps Jesus had each of these applications in mind during His “sermon on the mount,” when He told His followers, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13).


What did Jesus mean when He said we’re to be “the salt of the earth”? I think we can tie this in with another declaration made by the apostle Paul, that we are “therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).


How are we to connect being Christ’s ambassadors with being salt? There are many ways. As His ambassadors, we’ve been entrusted with the Good News – the gospel for becoming reconciled to God. However, if communicated improperly, it can create a sour taste for the listener. That’s why Paul warned, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). We need to present a palatable message.


It's been 2,000 years since Jesus ascended to heaven following His resurrection, yet this gospel message endures. Perhaps its saltiness has helped in preserving it.


Have you ever talked with someone about Jesus and seen them respond negatively, as if they were stuck by something sharp? The message of Christ can have that effect on people, even those who later will find themselves drawn to it. As with salt in a wound, hearers might initially recoil in pain for many reasons, including bad encounters with “religion,” as well as grievous life experiences that leave them wondering how a loving God could have allowed them.


Then again, if we as Christ’s ambassadors accurately represent Him not only by our words, but also by our actions, God can use us to create a thirst that only He can quench. As the apostle Peter wrote, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).


Finally, most people don’t respond immediately to the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. It takes time, much like melting ice on a sidewalk. It might take a while, but eventually the coldness goes away and hearts are warmed to the invitation to receive forgiveness, healing and transformation.


The question is, how “well-seasoned” are we? When we try to communicate the truth of Christ to others, can we do it in “good taste”? As someone has said, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink – but you can salt his oats.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Needed: A Hefty New Supply of True Grit

Years ago, not long after a friend of mine had relocated to the South, he went to a local restaurant for breakfast. “Would you like some grits?” the server asked him. A bit puzzled, my friend responded, “I’ve never had grits, so I don’t know if I’d like them. Could I just have one grit?”


Suffice it to say, this wasn’t a fellow who had experienced a gritty lifestyle. At least in the Southern sense of the word. But there’s a vast difference between grits and grit. These days it seems grits are in much greater supply than grit.


One of the classic western films, at least for John Wayne fans, was the original “True Grit,” released in 1969, about a rough-and-tumble U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn and a determined orphan girl, Mattie Ross, who wants Cogburn’s help in apprehending her father’s killer. Over the course of the film, both Cogburn and Mattie display an amazing amount of “true grit” in overcoming many difficulties.


What is grit, anyway – and why do we need it? One dictionary says grit is “firmness of character, indomitable spirit; pluck.” Wikipedia defines it as “…an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state…the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie on the path to accomplishment.” 

When we think of individuals who have made the greatest contributions to our world, whether through invention and innovation, leadership, or other forms of exceptional achievement, the presence of grit has typically been prominent in their lives.


Recently I saw the film “Greater,” about Brandon Burlsworth, a former walk-on whose grit and determination resulted in his becoming a three-year starter and All-American for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Although he died in a car crash just days after being drafted by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, Burlsworth’s life remains a source of inspiration to this day.


Grit has been a singular American trait throughout its history, but judging from what we see in some segments of our society, it has become conspicuously absent. College students fleeing to “safe zones” to avoid being confronted with ideas that don’t align with their own. People expecting handouts rather than expending the necessary effort to get what they want. Individuals consistently playing the “victim card,” refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions.


Who’s to blame for this? Speaker and leadership coach Brian Kight points to adults failing to teach and model gritty qualities for younger people. He says, “Want ‘grittier’ kids? Show them grit. Show it to them in all your actions. They’re watching you. Teachers expect grit from students, but then complain about changes from the school district. Coaches expect grit from players, but then complain about refs calls. Parents want grit from kids, but then complain about taxes, traffic, and their boss. If grit is so powerful, prove it.”


We can’t find the word “grit” in the Scriptures, but its qualities are expressed in many ways. The apostle Paul probably had grit in mind when he wrote, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-3). Having experienced more than his share of adversity, Paul knew about this firsthand.


James 1:2-4 offers similar sentiments: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” 


There’s a tendency for us to choose paths of least resistance, the easy way that demands minimal effort and sacrifice. But that’s not the option for followers of Christ. Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). The so-called “Christian life” is one of grit, perseverance and sacrifice.


As Kight observed, if we expect our children and even younger people we influence to develop these traits, the onus is upon us to demonstrate them in action. This is why Paul the apostle boldly declared, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice” (Philippians 4:9). The disclaimer, “Do as I say, not as I do,” had no place in his lifestyle.


A tree develops its hardest wood during times of adversity that require grit. A moth emerges from a cocoon prepared to fly through grit. And achievements are most satisfying not when they’re handed to us, like participation trophies in youth sports, but when they have been attained via the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. The sooner we learn that – and in turn, teach it to others – the better.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Who Are You? Our Identity Conundrum

Everyone these days seems concerned about their identity. “Who am I?” How we answer that question can take many directions, ranging from the work we do, to our family history, to the color of our skin, and increasingly, our gender.


For people in the working world, careers and jobs have long been a big part of their identity. I’ve lost count of how many times while traveling for business that I was asked, “What kind of work do you do?” I would ask fellow travelers the same thing. It might have been out of curiosity or sincere interest, but this  question functioned as a convenient way to discern where someone fit on the social importance scale. “Oh, you’re a doctor? Interesting!” “You’re a nuclear scientist? Wow!” “A professional athlete. That’s great!” “You’re a best-selling novelist? Well, so glad to meet you!”

 Alas, folks like hotel maids, sanitation engineers, newsstand operators and retail clerks usually don’t get the same kind of eager reception. Because some jobs equate to affluence and status while others don’t, and the more money you make, the more important people think you are. That’s what we’re taught to believe.


But jobs are only one of many determinants we use for identity. If you’ve ever taken an online survey, toward the end they often ask questions about marital status, the number and ages of children you have, your own age, education, race and gender. They might ask about your political affiliation. Sometimes they inquire about your income. All are used as means for identifying who you are. Or at least, who you’re supposed to be, based on demographics.


Twenty years ago, no one was talking about “gender identity.” It was agreed that gender, or sex, was determined by the equipment a baby had when it was born. These days, however, a whole cadre of people want to “identify” gender according to the impulses racing around their minds. You are who you think you are or perceive yourself to be, we’re now being instructed.


Rather than wading into that debate, I have another question: Is it really fair – or right – to define someone’s true identity solely based a single criterion, or even several external criteria? Such as the kind of job they have; how many years they spent in college; the size of their bank account and investment portfolio; whether they’re married, single, or divorced; the color of their skin; or even their lifestyle choices? 


For instance, I’m a male, Caucasian (for which I offer no apology), a husband, father, grandfather, writer and journalist (in the traditional sense of the term), college graduate and Buckeye fan. But not one of those descriptions – or all of them together – represent my full “identity.”


What if we resolved to determine our identity not based on what we do or have, or how we feel, but rather according to what God says about us?


Indeed, what does God say – and think – about us? Answers to that question could fill a book, but I’ll highlight just a handful of passages that have meant a lot to me, ones that have made a huge difference in how I understand my own identity. For instance, Psalm 139:14 says I am, “fearfully and wonderfully made” – a unique and special creation of God. That’s very good news.


The Bible also tells me some bad news, that I’m a sinner: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and “There is no one righteous, not even one…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12). I don’t like this part of my identity, but it’s true.


But as the Scriptures so often do, when they give us bad news, they also provide good news to offset it. In response to this sin problem we all have, which separates us from a perfect, holy, righteous God, we’re told, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This ties in with the passage most of us know well, John 3:16 – “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.” That is, to borrow the phrase from an old rock song, a whole lotta love!


Getting back to my identity, the answer to the question, “Who am I?” The Bible declares that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I have received a brand new identity. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Abiding in Christ, as the Scriptures term it, I’m a new person, fully forgiven for my sins and empowered by His Holy Spirit to live this new life.


A few verses down in the same passage, we’re informed that as His followers, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors…. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (Romans 5:20-21).


We could consider many more portions of Scripture, but I think one verse sums up what our focus should be, the way we address the matter of our “identity,” the answer to “who am I?” If we have trusted in Christ, have committed our lives to Him in faith and are seeking to know and serve Him more and more each day, then we all can rest in this promise: “See how great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).


It matters not whether we’re male or female, married or single, with or without children; whatever kind of work we do, what our skin color or ethnicity might be, how much education we have, or how much money we have in the bank. Those are facets of our lives, mere fractions of who we are in totality. But they don’t define us. Am I a child of the living God, promised life both now and forever as a member of His eternal family? That is who I am. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Is the Great Commission Out of Commission?

Statistics are funny things. Sports fans get excited when a batter has a .333 hitting average, since that means he gets a hit one-third of the time. Meanwhile, they ignore that he makes an out two-thirds of the time. The meteorologist can tell us there’s a 40% chance of rain, but doesn’t point out there’s a 60% chance that it won’t. Statistics can say whatever we want them to say.


Some statistics, however, speak more loudly than others. Recently the Barna Group, a research organization that specializes in societal and cultural trends affecting the Church, found that 51% of U.S. churchgoers surveyed are unfamiliar with the term, “the Great Commission.” Some of the respondents might have thought it referred to a huge bonus after closing a big sale or a major business deal. Sorry, wrong answer!


This particular finding seems especially striking – and unsettling – because the Great Commission was the last thing Jesus Christ said to His followers prior to His ascension to heaven:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching to obey everything that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).


Barna’s survey might conclude that 49% of American church attendees do have some familiarity with the Great Commission. However, since it consisted of Jesus’ final words on earth – the “marching orders” He gave before ascending to the Father – that also means far too many who profess to know Him have no clue about what Jesus expects us to do, the “mission” He wants us to pursue with Him and for Him. 

 This also suggests a larger portion of folks connected to the Church aren’t asking an important question: What does it mean to “make disciples”? Or even, “What does it mean to BE a disciple?” 


The term disciple can mean many things depending on the context in which it’s used, but the New Testament use of the word disciple means to be a follower, a learner, an imitator, and ultimately, a reproducer, developing others who will become followers of Christ, too. In essence, this is how God intends for His Church – the body of Christ – to grow in both depth and breadth.


Disciplemaking is an important theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. In fact, whenever I’ve had the opportunity to teach on the topic, I’ve observed that the idea of “making disciples” isn’t mentioned in the Bible until…the first chapter of Genesis.


We see it in Genesis 1:26-28, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness….’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase [multiply] in number, fill the earth and subdue it….’”


Considered within the overall scope of Scripture, this clearly means more than a directive to populate the earth numerically. God created humankind “in His image,” and then commanded that men and women “be fruitful and multiply,” thus creating many more in His image. And this involves more than attending church, praying over the food before we eat and following a few rituals.


For many years I’ve been involved in discipling other men. Some term it “spiritual mentoring.” The goal is to help them to grow and mature in their faith, and prepare them to come alongside others in the same way, starting with but not limited to their own families. We see this described beautifully in 2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things you [Timothy] have heard from me [Paul] in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In this single verse we see four generations of believers: Paul, Timothy, faithful men, and others.


We read a lot these days about how many churches have succumbed to the influence of the surrounding culture, as well as the decline in influence of the Church – and Christianity – on the culture. I strongly suspect one major reason for this is because we’ve forgotten the Great Commission. We might be trying to “save souls,” or spending time talking  and thinking about “the sweet by and by,” but the vast majority of folks who claim to be Christians aren’t making disciples. Despite the fact that Jesus thought this was so important, it became it His last command before ascending to heaven.


The way spiritual multiplication works can be summed up by one Old Testament verse,“one shall become a thousand” (Isaiah 60:22). While addressed specifically to the people of Israel, it also relates to each of us who has been called to become a member of the eternal family of God. As we pass along our faith to someone else and invest in them, then we each in turn do the same with others, over time one can become 1,000 or more.


We live in a time when we fret over how we can positively influence the course of our nation, when much of society seems spiraling out of control. We tend to look in many directions for bringing about necessary changes, but perhaps the best course of action would be to simply revisit Jesus’ Great Commission, to become true disciples ourselves and then to engage in making disciples of all nations.


As the apostle Paul wrote to believers in Philippi, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

Monday, April 12, 2021

In a Desperate Search for Some Round TUITs

Do you or someone you know have a problem with putting off unpleasant or difficult tasks? I’ve been thinking of addressing this plague of procrastination for a while, but I’m just getting around to it. As someone has said, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” Mark Twain extended that thought: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”


I suspect that each of us has ventured into the realm of “procrastinator-ism” from time to time. Maybe you’re even reading this to put off doing something else, such as doing your taxes. (April 15 is right around the corner, in case you’ve conveniently forgotten.) Paying bills can be another of those undesirable, procrastinate-able duties, as are washing windows, cleaning the garage or attic, or other forms of spring cleaning.


If someone were to judge from our planning and subsequent execution of those plans, one might conclude there actually are eight days in every week: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and…Someday.


Being a writer, procrastination has often become a close companion. The act of writing, especially because it’s a complex commitment of time and energy, can be daunting. I can relate to the wisdom of Bill Watterson, author of the “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon strip: “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.”

Years ago, I was telling an elder gentleman about a project I had been meaning to get to, but was finding trouble getting around to it. With a twinkle in his eye, he reached into his pocket and pulled out what seemed like a large wooden coin. He handed the round object to me and on it was etched the word, “TUIT.” He had given me the solution to procrastinating – a round TUIT.


What a handy, tangible reminder for getting on with something that you’ve been keeping in neutral. The best of intentions might be better than the worst of intentions, but ultimately, they’re intentions just the same until we take steps to move them into action. In his book, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens wrote, “Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.”


Perhaps this is why the Bible has much to say about this problem. Proverbs 10:4-5 says it plainly: “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.” And Proverbs 14:23 offers a slightly different slant: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Procrastination can have financial consequences.


Daydreaming is a favored pastime for procrastinators, conjuring up visions of what could happen if they actually did what they were thinking about – without actually doing it. “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment” (Proverbs 12:11). 


I have one writing project I’ve been talking about, thinking about and dreaming about for too long. As I write this, I’m preaching to an audience of one – ME. As soon as I’m done with this, I’m determined to shift to that. As St. Augustine of Hippo said, “God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination.”


Ecclesiastes 9:10 exhorts us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might….” So if there’s something you’ve been putting off, put off the procrastination. Do it with all your might. Do it now. And when you do, reward yourself with a round TUIT! 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

‘Yeah, But What Have You Done for Us Lately?’

There’s a trait common to most humans, and that is forgetfulness. I’m not talking about Alzheimer’s or dementia, or the phenomenon of walking into a room and then trying to remember why you went there. No, I’m referring to the “what have you done for me lately?” type of forgetfulness.

We see this in every realm of life. In the work world, an employee is sometimes regarded only as good as his or her latest day of productivity. It doesn’t matter whether the work they’ve done in the past was exemplary – if they have a day or week of poor performance, their status might suddenly move to proverbial thin ice. You’re only as good as your last day’s work.


This can go the other way, too. We receive a raise or bonus, and for a week or two we’re ecstatic. But before long, the euphoria over extra compensation wears off and workaday doldrums resume. We go back to regarding the boss with a sneer, as the mean taskmaster, because after all, “what have you done for me lately?”


We often take that same attitude with our sports teams, civic leaders, name-brand manufacturers, restaurants, even friends and loved ones.


My paternal grandfather passed away when I was about 12 years old, but I still have fond memories of the times I spent with him. Short in stature, outwardly he could come across as a crusty old guy, but inside he possessed a heart of gold. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me – or for anyone else. But I remember a time when I fell into the “what have you done for me lately?” way of thinking.


I was at his home in Pennsylvania and had broken one of my toys. I don’t remember what the toy was, or how I had damaged it, but my grandfather – whose only fault was he failed to pass his handyman skills to me – volunteered to fix it. In my mind’s eye I still see him descending the steps into his basement, where his tools and workbench were located. 


After some minutes Grandpa reemerged from the basement, with the toy. But it wasn’t repaired. He said something about not being able to fix it. Being the spoiled little boy that I was back then, I simply replied, “You can’t fix anything.” Wow! Talk about ingratitude! That’s how we respond when we’re fixated on, “what have you done for me lately?” We don’t stop to think about all the kind and gracious things that have already been done – all we care about is what we want. Now.


My grandfather didn’t say a word in response, but I remember a look of hurt in his eyes. He just turned, again went down the stairs and didn’t come back up until the toy had been restored. Then he said, in his rich Hungarian accent, “So, I can’t fix nothing?” Thankfully, his love for me was much greater than my ingratitude.


This type of attitude is unacceptable, but it’s hardly new. The other day in my Bible reading, I came across a passage that showed the ancient Israelites suffered from the same kind of thinking. God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt; parted the Red Sea to enable them to escape the pursuing Egyptian army; guided them by a cloud during the day and gave them the light of fire at night; and had miraculously provided for their everyday needs in the wilderness, including water, and daily servings of manna and quail. Even their clothing and shoes didn’t wear out. And yet, repeatedly they wondered of the Lord, “what have you done for us lately?”


Speaking about the men of Ephraim, one of the tribes of Israel, Psalm 78:9-20 says, “…they did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law. They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them…. They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and steams flowed abundantly. But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?’”


Sound familiar? Have you ever faced a crisis, something that seems beyond resolution, and thought, “Yes, Lord, you have come through for me in the past. Time after time. But this problem here, how are You going to solve this one?”


But it’s important – even crucial – that we continue to remind ourselves, and each other, of the wonderful things God has done in the past. We dare not forget the many incredible times when He deftly snatched victory out of the jaws of seeming defeat. As we remember those times, we must also realize that if God was faithful and all-sufficient for those times of need, why would He not be able to address our present needs, no matter how pressing.


I like the words of Asaph, concluding another of his psalms: “Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (Psalm 79:13). I think God delights in doing the impossible, bailing us out sometimes just in the nick of time. Because then we can know that it’s all His doing, nothing we have done. And that will indeed inspire us to praise Him – not only in this life, but forever.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Tweet Unto Others As You Would Have Them Tweet Unto You

Social media. I have a definite love-hate relationship with it. Sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and even Twitter have been great for staying connected with people I don’t see on a regular basis, as well as reconnecting with folks I hadn’t seen or talked with for many years. What a way to quickly reach out to old friends! 


But the social media also have their dark side. Behind the safety of their screens and keyboards, some people use these forums to say things they would never think of speaking in public, especially face-to-face with their “targets.” No wonder our society has become increasing negative, even snarky. With the flick of a finger, people can bully or demean without fearing repercussions. And social media definitely  aren’t the place to conduct a civil discussion or debate.

Which leads me to the topic for today: Most of us are familiar with the so-called “golden rule.” And I don’t mean the one that goes, “He who has the gold, rules.” I’m referring to what Jesus taught in His “sermon on the mount,” as well as His response when religious leaders challenged Him, asking Him to specify which commandment in Jewish law He considered to be the greatest, or most important. 


Addressing a large crowd of His disciples, as well as many curious onlookers, Jesus was teaching about relationships, especially with those they would regard as enemies. He taught that instead of responding to their unkind or even evil treatment with the same kind of behavior, instead they should pray for them and, whenever possible, do good to them.


He said, in the King James translation I heard as a young person, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). That’s clear enough, but I like the way a popular paraphrase, The Message, expresses it: “Here is a simple, rule-of thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them” (Matthew 7:12).


Jesus also stated this principle another way. After asserting that the greatest commandment of all is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” He added, “the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).


Imagine for a minute if, before they impulsively texted something hurtful, sent a nasty email, or crafted a nasty response to someone on a social medium like Facebook or Twitter, everyone paused long enough to consider, “Is this the kind of thing I would like others to say to me? Is this the way I’d want other people to treat me?” 


They could also check themselves by self-inquiring, “Is what I’m preparing to post (or text) a reflection of the love I have for myself – and what I’d like others to demonstrate to me?”


As I’ve read through the book of Proverbs, I’ve found many passages that concern how we communicate with one another. For instance: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (Proverbs 4:24). And Proverbs 11:12 states, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” 


Proverbs 12:18 affirms, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” I could cite dozens of other passages, in both the Old and New Testaments, but the one I think sums it up is Ephesians 4:25, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”


Maybe, for communication’s sake, we should rephrase the Golden Rule to, “Tweet unto others as you would have them tweet unto you.” And if you think I’m preaching, even meddling, please know my No. 1 audience is myself.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The First One to Know Was … a Woman

Over the next several days, we’ll be observing Good Friday and Easter, commemorating the two most pivotal, critical days in Christendom. Without both of these days, we would have no reason for Christmas, or even Lent or Ash Wednesday. Without the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and His resurrection from the dead, why would we care to celebrate His birth?


The implications of both Good Friday and Easter are almost limitless. And many pastors and theologians far more qualified than I have spoken and written eloquently about them. But as a firsthand beneficiary of Jesus’ sacrificial death and His resurrection – receiving forgiveness for my sins, an eternal relationship with God, a new life spiritually and the assurance of life after this one – there’s no way I can give these days a simple nod and then move on to some other topic.


However, with countless books, sermons, songs and even poems having been written about these holiest of holy days, with more surely to come, what is there to add to the discussion? Perhaps nothing, but there’s one aspect that’s not so often presented. It’s this: that the first person to know about Jesus’ triumph over death, and sin, was…a woman.


Matthew 28:1-10 tells about Mary Magdalene, a woman out of whom Jesus had cast out many demons, and “the other Mary” going to the tomb, planning to anoint the body with burial spices. Instead, they found the stone in front of the tomb rolled away, with no body inside, and only “an angel of the Lord” to greet them. “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell the disciples….’ So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples….”

The gospels offer somewhat different eyewitness perspectives of what happened next, but in John 20:10-18 we read about Jesus meeting Mary of Magdala as she wept outside the tomb, still not comprehending what had occurred. Initially mistaking Him for the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you put him, and I will get him.” Then Jesus uttered one word: “‘Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).” She knew indeed, as the angel had declared, “He is risen, just as He said.”


What’s the big deal about that? It’s especially significant for two reasons. First, in those days women in Israel had little value or status in society. We can complain about that all we want, saying how wrong it was to denigrate women, but it’s the historical truth. Yet, God chose to entrust a woman with the most important news in history. Second, and closely related, this quickly debunks the claim by some that in Christianity, women are devalued, treated as second-class citizens.


Jesus had many followers, with 12 disciples accompanying Him almost 24/7. One of them, Judas Iscariot, had hanged himself after betraying Jesus, but 11 of the men remained. Two of them, Peter and John, had run to the tomb to see for themselves that the tomb was empty. Why, in God’s sovereign plan, was a woman the first to not only find the empty tomb in which Jesus’ crucified body had been placed, but also to physically see the resurrected Christ?


I believe this was a purposeful, counter-cultural act designed to clearly demonstrate God’s equal value and love for both men and women. As it says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.”


Looking at Jesus’ ministry, we see how women figured prominently in many ways. His earthly mother, Mary, was given the unique role of bringing the Christ Child into the world. Jesus’ first miracle, at the request of His mother, was turning water into wine at a wedding celebration. Sisters Mary and Martha were given special roles of service and given special honor. 


A woman regarded by all as “unclean” because of an “issue of blood” that had plagued her for 12 years, was miraculously healed by Jesus. Then He brought back to life the daughter of a synagogue leader, and later raised a widow’s dead son. When He encountered a Samaritan woman at a well near Sychar, Jesus told her all about her troubled past, and offered her unconditional forgiveness. 


Throughout His time on earth, Jesus gave inordinate attention to women in a society that regarded them as little more than property. His time started with a young woman named Mary, and His resurrection, signaling His atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who would receive Him as Savior and Lord, was first proclaimed by another Mary. In some respects, Jesus can be regarded as the first feminist. So it truly can and should be a happy Easter – for all!