Monday, July 28, 2014

‘Make Yourself at Home’

Do we approach our spiritual life as guests passing
through, or as permanent residents?

We all like to be hospitable – or at least perceived that way. So when guests arrive at our homes, we typically encourage them to “make yourself at home.” By that we mean we’d like them to feel comfortable, and if there’s anything they need, just ask.

But what if they did – they proceeded to really make themselves at home? Imagine this scenario: They march to your refrigerator, survey the contents, and start fixing a meal without clearing it with you first? Or they take a look at your living room and commence to rearrange the furniture? Or decide to tear off the wallpaper that was designed specially for your dining room?

Suppose they go into your yard and start yanking out the flowers you just planted, stating they don’t like the colors. Or they call a crew to start digging a huge hole in your backyard, since they’d really like to see a pool there. You did tell them to make themselves at home, correct?

You’d be more than upset. Speechless. Horrified. Nonplussed even. Because while you wanted them to feel at home, you didn’t want them to act as if they owned the place. There’s a difference between being a guest and a resident. We want them to feel welcomed and at ease, but not to go overboard. (Actually, if you had a houseboat and they arrived to be your guests there, you might want them overboard!)

Yet this is exactly what God asks us to do. And He means what He says. He wants us not only to feel at home with Him but also to remain, to reside there. In fact, Jesus was explicit when He said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). He invites us to take full advantage of everything He has to offer to us.

The Scriptures use words like “abide,” “dwell” and “remain” to describe the relationship God desires with His children. These terms don’t refer to a quick visit or a stopover for a casual cup of coffee. We’re invited to abide in Him, enjoying His presence both now and for eternity.

Earlier in the passage Jesus draws a metaphor to a grapevine or the branch of a fruit-bearing plant, declaring, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

The psalmist had a clear handle on this when he wrote, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4). Later it says, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’” (Psalm 91:1). Sounds comforting, doesn’t it?

Many people proudly refer to themselves as “Christian,” and yet if one were to observe their lives and compare them to those of people who have no church or spiritual affiliation, too often we’d see little if any difference. Their behaviors, attitudes, even their conversations aren’t discernibly different, and they don’t seem to be experiencing the peace and rest that abiding – establishing our home in Christ – promises.

Could it be that even though God has invited them to “make yourself at home,” they’ve chosen instead just to make occasional, brief social calls, or at most treat it like an overnight motel stay, rather than fully embracing the invitation to abide – to remain as permanent residents?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

It’s ‘All About Me!’ – Or Is It?


The other day I saw a news report declaring 2014, “The Year of the ‘Selfie’” – the fascination so many people have developed for taking photos of themselves in different settings with their smartphones.

Sure, it’s fun to go to a nice place on vacation and take a “selfie” in front of some well-known sight, but people these days are going to extraordinary lengths to put themselves into the picture. At the Tour de France, for instance, spectators jogged just ahead of the competing bikers, arms extended and smartphones angled strategically to prove to all the world, “That’s me. I was there!”

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn about someone taking a “selfie” in Pamplona, Spain while racing to stay a step or two ahead of the charging bulls.

Even as children, we quickly learn
the lesson, "It's all about me!"
You don’t even need to be holding the cell phone. People “photo-bomb” by popping into the mix when photographs are being taken of others, at events ranging from weddings (“See, that’s me with the bride and groom”) to awards ceremonies (“Can you believe that’s me there with DiCaprio?”)

Years ago we heard a lot about the “Me Generation.” We’ve become so me-conscious we don’t even need to use that phrase anymore. It’s assumed. And thanks to the wonders of technology and portability of smartphones, we have ever-improving ways for declaring to the world, “it’s all about me!”

“Me, me, me” is being repeated so often it sounds like the vocal warm-up session preceding an opera or vocal concert.

I’m not stumping for all-out altruism or iron-clad vows of self-denial. No need to get extreme. Not that there’s any real danger of an epidemic of selflessness, anyway. But wouldn’t it be nice to see more people demonstrating more awareness of persons other than “me, myself and I”?

Reading the Bible, it seems evident God isn’t a “selfie” fan. "Unselfish" is the word He’d rather His people emulate. As it states in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Maybe one reason Jesus Christ came during the time in human history that He did, rather than in the 21st century, is He didn’t want people flocking to take “selfies with Jesus” and then post them on social media. Quite to the contrary, He instructed His followers, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

But this isn’t easy, especially in a society that in one way or another constantly insists we must “look out for No. 1.” So how do we overcome this tendency? Is there an antidote for “me-ism”?  Let me offer a few suggestions:

·       Perform an act of kindness – or more than one – for people that can’t possibly repay you. That way you don’t have to examine yourself as much for ulterior motives.
·       Find a local organization or project you believe in and volunteer your time and talents to help advance its mission and help those that will benefit. How about tutoring, mentoring, or working in a soup kitchen?
·       Contribute to a charity or non-profit that provides services to meet urgent needs. And if you’re already contributing, give more – or find additional causes to support.
·       Do something special for a neighbor, even if you don’t know them well. And try to do it anonymously so you won’t be doing it to gain an expression of gratitude or receive a similar gesture in return.

If you do any, or all, of these you might discover Jesus was right when He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). And you’ll begin to understand why.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Complete Makeover: Human Edition


As previously noted, I’m not mechanical. Not even close. My dad, uncle (his brother) and paternal grandfather all were handymen, very skilled with their hands. Not me. If there’s such a thing as a “mechanic” gene, I’m lacking it. Under duress I can hammer a nail or turn a screw, but that’s it. And even those tasks require my most intense concentration.

Cable TV home makeover shows offer proof
that a total transformation is possible.
So it comes as a surprise – even to me – that I find some of HGTV’s programming interesting. Particularly fixer-upper type shows. It’s not that I’m looking for “how-to” or DIY (do it yourself) tips. Because when you have two left thumbs, attempting repair or renovation projects around the home isn’t flirting with disaster. It’s an all-out romance with calamity.

Why then do I watch? Because it amazes me how the “experts” can take a wreck of a home and turn it into a residential work of art. And it involves more than paint and surface touches. Many of the projects have termite problems; wiring dating back to the early 20th century; d├ęcor that went out with the Kennedy administration; defective plumbing, and floor plans that look like they were conceived by three-year-olds with LEGOS. Massive renovation is needed.

As the designers and contractors guide would-be buyers and renters through various properties, explaining how they could perform the habitational equivalents of sow’s ears made into silk purses, I think, “No way. The only thing that could help that house (or apartment) would be utter demolition.” But by the end of the program, voila! They’re performed a makeover that would turn plastic surgeons emerald with envy.

Some of the housing transformations seem nothing short of miraculous. The homeowners could not have brought about the changes. They couldn’t even have envisioned them. And yet, when it’s all finished, everyone exclaims, “This is perfect! It’s more than we could have dreamed. I can’t believe it!”

In a very real sense this is what God desires to do in each of our lives. If we’re honest, we all admit we’re messed up. Not only are we unable to live up to God’s standards; we can’t even live up to our own. Have you ever intended to be kind and failed to do so? Have you ever admitted you weren’t nearly as loving or caring as you should be? Have you ever said that thing you can’t believe you said? Or have you ever realized your best intentions were just that – intentions never acted upon, therefore never realized?

There are misconceptions even within what’s commonly referred to as Christianity. One is that we’ve got to clean up our own act, to try to be deserving of God’s approval and acceptance. Good luck! That’s like trying to convince a rotted log it’s got to turn itself into material suitable for a beautiful hardwood floor. It’s not going to happen.

Some will respond, “Nobody’s perfect. God knows that, and accepts us just as we are.” Nice sentiments, but that concept is reflected nowhere in the Scriptures. Essentially it says God loves us as we are – but loves us too much to leave us that way. Because, as Isaiah 64:6 asserts, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” I won’t give you the literal meaning of “filthy rags,” but if you’re interested you can look it up. It’s not referring to dust cloths.

In case we’re tempted to dismiss that statement as being strictly for Old Testament people, Romans 3:10 declares, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” And it’s not just talking about politicians. The passage continues, “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless, there is no one who does good, not even one.” Wow! Don’t worry about “nobody’s perfect.” We’re light-years from that.

Reading this makes us want to echo the question of Jesus’ disciples: “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Jesus responded with the answer that remains true today: “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

If there is a “secret” to the so-called Christian life, this is it. Living the life God requires isn’t difficult – it’s impossible in our own efforts. It requires, like the home improvement shows on TV, a complete makeover. A transformation. The good news is that God is in the transformation business. It’s His specialty.

That’s why it was necessary for Christ to go to the cross on our behalf, to be the sacrificial Lamb for us. Our sins, our debts, could be reconciled only by the direct, personal action of the one to whom we’re indebted, the one we’ve sinned against, the only one who could wipe the slate clean.

More than that, God wanted to offer not only life after death, but life before death. But to do that meant more than a little touch-up. Nothing short of a total transformation is sufficient. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” And Galatians 2:20 affirms that truth: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Not just a fresh coat of paint, a bit of plaster to cover up some holes in the wall, or a little duct tape. That’s hardly enough. God desires – and demands – a complete, total, extreme spiritual makeover. And He’s the only one that can achieve it.

Only then, as the apostle Paul wrote, can we be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). And God can say with authority, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).

How’s your “makeover” coming along?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Too Much of a Good Thing?


A morning news show interviewed a young woman who was overcoming “orthorexia.” Have you ever heard of it? This, I learned, is a real condition in which a person forms a “fixation on righteous eating” – becoming obsessed with eating properly. Well, you learn something new every day.

For many of us, a refrigerator is like a
magnet. Even filled with good things,
it can become too much of a good thing.
This eating disorder, while different from bulimia or anorexia, can become equally problematic. This woman said she would stand in front of her refrigerator for 20 minutes debating what she could eat that was good for her. Over time she developed a variety of maladies including rashes and even disruption of her monthly cycle. In her determination not to let anything unwholesome enter her mouth, she apparently was restricting herself to too much of a good thing.

Admittedly, most of us will never struggle with this problem – ours is more likely the opposite, trying to ward off the temptation to over-consume fat grams, calories, and other unhealthy ingredients in the foods we eat regularly. But can you see how even good things can become bad things in excess?

Work is a good thing for many reasons, yet we all know of people who have become workaholics, spending inordinate amounts of time on the job to the detriment of family, friends, even their physical and emotional well-being. The Internet (in most cases) is a good thing, but if we spend too much of our waking hours “surfing the web,” or being entertained by social media, we can easily neglect other important matters.

Being a devoted spouse or parent is good, but there are limits even for this. We all need our personal space, and children need to learn to become less dependent on mom and dad as they get older. So if your son or daughter is 30 years old and has never lived away from home, maybe it’s time for them to adopt a personal declaration of independence.

Too much of a good thing can apply even to activities such as attending church or reading the Bible. How? Well, for starters, if you’re in the church building every moment the doors are open, but aren’t providing spiritual leadership in your own home, maybe it’s time to reorder priorities.

I’ve known people that have gone from one conference on evangelism to another without ever speaking to another soul about Jesus Christ. James 4:17 states, Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” The Scriptures also offer this challenge: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” Just soaking up good information, no matter how much, has little value if we don’t put it to use.

Perhaps the classic example is the “rich fool” Jesus described. This businessman, apparently a farmer, had experienced a bumper crop, one that exceeded the capacity of his barns. “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Luke 12:14-20).

Moral of the story: Anything to excess, no matter how good, is excessive.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Pitfalls of Prosperity


I’m all for prosperity. Somebody once said, “I’ve tried living with money, and I’ve tried living without money. I like living with money better.” I concur with that perspective, although I’ve never pursued wealth and have never achieved it. And I’ve never been as “dead broke” as Hillary Clinton claims to have been.

But prosperity is a peculiar thing. While it’s certainly preferable to the alternative, there rarely seems a moment when we conclude, “That’s good. It’s all I need.” Many people ascribe to the mantra, “Too much is never enough.” Take the mega-million dollar athletes and entertainers, for example. Despite having achieved riches beyond anything people in many of the world’s societies could even dream of, we hear grumbling and complaining as if they’re paupers, anxious to renegotiate compensation as soon as possible.

But there’s another perplexing aspect of prosperity. It’s the tendency to forget our roots, to lose sight of what got us from where we were to where we are now. This is also true spiritually. In times of need, including financial distress, we cry out to God for His help and intervention. But once the crisis has passed, and prosperity has returned, it’s easy to forget the source of our deliverance.

This was repeatedly the case for ancient Israel. God bailed them out time after time, only to see their gratitude and devotion wane as their prosperity surged. In Deuteronomy 8:11-14 the Israelites were warned, “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest – when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and you silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God….”

Curiously, this almost seems like a description of the United States today. Founded on Judeo-Christian principles and values, our post-World War II nation experienced an unprecedented explosion of prosperity. Home ownership, once only a faint hope for the great majority, suddenly became reality. Cars were no longer only for the privileged, and garages were added to houses. Consumerism and materialism began taking hold, and despite economic ups and downs, their grip remains strong and unrelenting.

As a consequence, we as a society seem to have decided we don’t need God. It’s become easy to deny He exists. In a twist from “I think, therefore I am,” we don’t think of God, therefore He isn’t. Supposedly there are no atheists in foxholes, but out of the foxhole we believe – or disbelieve – whatever we want. And if we feel self-sufficient, why bother with God?

Perhaps that’s one reason the apostle Paul wrote, “The love of money is a root of many kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). It not only contributes to sins such as greed, coveting, overindulgence, pride and hoarding, but also takes our focus from God, whom the Bible tells us is the giver of every good thing, shifting it onto ourselves and our stuff.

This is hardly new to human behavior. As the writer of Proverbs 30:8-9 wisely pleaded, … Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.…”

So despite hand-wringing over economic uncertainties, we in the United States remain perhaps the most prosperous society in history. While the poor in some countries live in squalor – African huts, Brazilian favelas and Hispanic barrios, all homes consisting of scrap materials – many of our poor possess cars, wide-screen TVs and cell phones. Poverty and prosperity are relative.

The upshot of all of this is we, like the people of ancient Israel, have collectively decided, “Who needs God?”, replicating the pattern the Israelites modeled: all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6).

As we scan the landscape of society, observing the craziness that’s transpiring these days, this doesn’t necessarily seem like a good thing. Maybe prosperity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nothing Like a Nice Do-Over


One of the worst ways to live is living with regret. The kind where people spend their lives focused on “woulda’s” and “shoulda’s” and “coulda’s.”

All of us have moments in our lives
we would dearly like to erase.
For example, “I wish I woulda kept that appointment I decided to cancel,” or “I shoulda spent more time with my children when they were young and less time working,” or “We coulda bought that other house, instead of this money pit.” Most times poor decisions aren’t make or break. We reconsider them, shrug our shoulders, and then move on. But sometimes we dearly wish we could have a “do-over,” or as golfers call it, a mulligan.

I think golf is unique in that respect. When I was playing tennis regularly, I don’t recall anyone offering me a “mulligan” if I made a bad serve or hit a crucial return past the baseline. The same holds true for virtually ever other sport. Except, I suppose, for fishing where the fisherman will sometimes make a catch and then, after admiring the prize, mercifully toss it back into the lake. Have you ever given a mulligan to a mackerel?

Frankly, this concept of being given a chance to do something over is one of the most appealing aspects of biblical faith. We find it repeatedly in both the Old and New testaments. In Exodus 34 we see an example that’s kind of humorous.

After receiving the Ten Commandments from God, Moses had descended from atop Mt. Sinai only to find the Israelites hooting and hollering around a golden calf they had fashioned into an idol for worship. In a fit of anger, Moses smashed the stone tablets at the foot of the mountain, breaking them to pieces. It’s not recorded, but I believe he must have quickly uttered, “Oops!”

Not long afterward, Moses climbed back up the mountain, probably red-faced. Instead of saying, “What the heck was that all about?” God simply instructed Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (Exodus 34:1). It’s like the Lord was telling the feisty leader of the Israelites, “Okay, let’s try this again. Only this time, can we avoid smashing the tablets?”

During Jesus’ trial prior to His crucifixion, impetuous Peter had – as Jesus predicted – denied the Lord three times. So after His resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” and each time Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15-23). The disciple had blown it big time, betraying the Son of God repeatedly, and yet Jesus was giving him the biblical equivalent of a mulligan.

And the apostle Paul, who’d been zealous in his role of leading the opposition to the growing legion of Christ followers, never forgot how graciously he too had been forgiven and redeemed. Like all who humble themselves and receive Jesus into their lives, Paul had been given a spiritual do-over he described this way: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In other words, no need to dwell on your past.

Do you ever find yourself wrestling with woulda’s and shoulda’s and coulda’s? God won’t alter what’s already transpired, but He offers a second chance, a do-over. If you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend you take Him up on His offer!

Monday, July 7, 2014

As Simple as E + R = O


Being a longtime, devoted Ohio State fan, I was interested to read consultants Tim and Brian Kight have been working with the Buckeye football team to help foster consistent success both on field and off. An “equation” they use caught my attention, one anyone could find useful – even those who detest the Scarlet and Gray.

This is not a mathematical construct, but rather an easy-to-learn acronym for addressing circumstances people encounter in everyday life: E + R = O. This stands for Event + Response = Outcome.

Emotions often rule our
response to events.
This seems straight-forward enough. Many events in our lives are beyond our control. But we usually can determine our response to the events, good or bad. The combination of the two leads to outcomes that can significantly impact the future.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a classic example of how E+R=O can work in a very positive manner. One day as an energetic, healthy teenager, Joni dove into a lake, unaware how shallow it was. Her neck broke, leaving her a quadriplegic. That was, for purposes of this discussion, her “event.”

Joni candidly writes her initial response was despair and suicidal thoughts. Being paralyzed, she was unable to act upon her desperate feelings, and over time accepted her circumstances. She drew upon her trust in God, turning to Him out of helplessness and resolving to do all she could to make lemonade out of the lemon life had served her. With the help of family members and friends, she studied the Bible, prayed, sought counsel, underwent rehabilitative treatments, and began exploring skills and activities that didn’t require the use of hands or legs. These steps comprised her “response.”

Her “outcome”? Through faith, determination and just plain hard work, Joni honed her innate talents to become an internationally known author, painter, speaker and singer. She founded a multi-faceted ministry, Joni & Friends, dedicated to serving individuals and families confronted with many forms of disability and suffering. And she’s been happily married more than 30 years.

How we respond to negative
events can shape outcomes.
Most of us, of course, won’t experience events as extreme as hers. But whether it’s a screaming child in the grocery store; an irate customer that spews all manner of venom without cause; a driver making an obscene gesture on the roadway; or something that suddenly turns a well-planned schedule upside down, how we respond to those events will shape the outcomes, sometimes long-term.

We’ve all heard of people overcoming negative circumstances not of their doing to achieve greatness. Some of the strongest, long-term marriages are those in which both spouses resolved to weather major struggles. And success in athletics, of course, is often predicated on responding to great adversity.

The Bible also speaks eloquently about how outcomes are shaped by our response to events. For instance, James 1:2-4 urges followers of Christ to “Consider it pure joy…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.” This doesn’t mean being happy about hardships, but we can feel confident they will be used for our ultimate good.

When wronged, often our first impulse is to retaliate, but Jesus taught a very different response to such events. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them” (Luke 6:29). Rather than escalating the conflict, Jesus was proposing a more peaceable, conciliatory reaction.

Negative feelings we harbor long after adverse events have passed can prove harmful for ourselves, as well as relationships with others. So the Scriptures advise us to release those emotions and their damaging impact. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

So remember E+R=O. The next time you encounter a troublesome event, try to keep a proper perspective. How you respond could greatly affect the ultimate outcome.