Thursday, October 30, 2014

No Reason for Despair


If you ever wake up feeling overcome by optimism, oozing with happiness and feeling so uplifted you can hardly stand it, just turn on the morning news and watch it for a few minutes. That will bring you back to earth – quickly.

Ebola and other diseases. ISIS and the constant threat of terrorism. Wars in the Middle East, Ukraine, and many other places on Google Earth. Murder and mayhem. Tragic accidents. Weather calamities and natural disasters. Dismal economic reports. Corporate greed.

Don't world events
sometimes make you
want to scream?
Celebrities morphing into human train wrecks. Star athletes surrounded by scandal. Self-serving politicians. Escalating hatred between people of differing ideologies. Have I cured your happy mood yet?

Apparently “happily ever after” exists nowhere but in fairy tales. If we ever wonder where the world is going in the proverbial hand-basket, it’s safe to venture a good guess. These days, when the media inform us “no news is good news,” I think that means there’s lots of news, but hardly any of it is good.

People who know me will tell you I’m an optimist at heart. Given a container 50 percent full of something, I’ll vote for “half full” every time. But given the barrage of events occurring in our nation and around the world, and observing the sad course humanity seems to have chosen, it’s become increasingly hard to find reasons for optimism.

And yet, for some people despair is not a part of their vocabulary. For me and many others, this isn’t because of some unwavering, Pollyanna belief that people are basically good. There’s too much evidence to the contrary. No, determination to ward off despair has nothing to do with a sense of confidence in our leaders, society in general, human institutions, or the silly notion that “everything works out for the best.” Rather, it’s confidence in God and His sovereignty, even when circumstances of life seem in a death spiral.

Recently I came across a passage that neatly sums up my perspective: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). There it is, in less than 25 words, the source of my hope – my confident assurance and earnest expectation.

A good friend likes to quote the following: “God is good…all the time. All the time God is good.” And this is a man who’s experienced more trauma, suffering and adversity than many of us could ever imagine. But he’s right. Even when things are at their worst, the Lord remains good.

Admittedly, even those of us that don’t see God as some aloof “force,” residing somewhere in the distant cosmos, but as a very involved deity with a vested interest in the goings-on of Earth, we’d like Him to spring into action. “Lord, do something. Anything…. And immediately would be good!”

So when hard times persist and God doesn’t seem to be concerned, what does that tell us about Him? The next verse in the same psalm gives us the key for not losing heart: “Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Of course, we don’t like to wait. As I’ve written before, we live in an instant, microwave, “right now!” type of society, so waiting is virtually countercultural. Perhaps that’s why a later psalm reminds us of the virtue of waiting. Psalm 37:7 urges us to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” and in verse 34 we see the admonition repeated, perhaps for emphasis: “Wait for the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land….”

Easier said than done? Yes, that’s true. But that’s where faith comes in. Even when times appear most bleak, it’s best to turn off the news and refocus on the assurance, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

That’s a sure cure for pessimism and despair.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Heaven – and Underwear

Thinking about the prospects of Heaven, what would you expect?

From time to time, many of us ponder the transient nature of this life and wonder about what looms beyond it. Two questions recur: “Is there really a Heaven?” and, “If there is a Heaven, what’s it like?”

Recently a number of authors have attempted to address that question, ranging from Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real to Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife to Randy Alcorn’s hefty (560 pages) but simply titled, Heaven.

These and other books offer perspectives and possible scenarios, but none can offer authoritative, indisputable proof. Personal experience accounts, like those of Burpo and Alexander, are intriguing, and Alcorn presents a thorough exploration of what the Bible says about Heaven and heavenly life. And these writings are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s been compiled through the centuries.

Many of these books can be helpful, but chances are, much of what’s in store for us in the next life surpasses our human capacity to comprehend. Nevertheless, practical questions about the reality of Heaven persist.

For instance, a while back I heard a true story about a father having a casual chat with his little daughter. Unexpectedly her face took on a quizzical look, and she asked, “Daddy, in Heaven what kind of underwear would we wear?”

That’s probably a question you haven’t wondered about lately. At least not much. But that doesn’t mean it’s not valid. Will it be Fruit of the Loom? Hanes? Will Victoria’s Secret retain its secrecy in Heaven?

I really have no idea how the father responded, but it seems to me if there’s a need for underwear at all in Heaven, it certainly would be holy underwear. Right? (If that’s the case, some people already have a head start!)

The book of Job offers a clue we might not expect. After Job learned about a series of personal calamities, we’re told he tore his robe and shaved his head to demonstrate the intensity of his grief. Then he declared, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart” (Job 1:21). I’m not sure, but maybe that’s an indication that Heaven will be clothing-optional. Perhaps the born-again will just wear their birthday suits.

Of course, as pressing as it is, the “underwear in Heaven” issue is dwarfed by other matters, such as what will it look like? What will we do there? Will we recognize family members and friends?

Those are interesting questions, but I’m content with the assurance Jesus gave His followers shortly before His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. He told them, “In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

The King James Version states “many mansions,” but when we get there I don’t think we’ll be expecting the equivalent of one of the Vanderbilt mansions or one of those stately residences in the Hamptons. Just a simple place, even a pup tent, will be okay for me.

Because, as someone observed many years ago, when we get to Heaven we’ll probably be surprised by three things: Who is there; who isn’t there; and – when we see the Lord in all His glory – that He has graciously allowed us to be there. Underwear, or not.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Change: Rarely Easy, But Often Worth It


A friend has been going through a rough patch. She’s experiencing change, making the transition from a PC to a Mac. Change is hard, I know. In fact, I’ve made the switch from a Mac to a PC (not my choice), and years later from a PC back to a Mac (definitely my choice.). Many times change proves very worthwhile, but it takes time to make the adjustment.

In the technology world, change is non-negotiable. Have you just bought a new computer, or tablet, or smartphone? Congratulations. It will be obsolete within six months at the latest. Surely you’ll want to swap what you’ve got for the latest and greatest, right?

But change isn’t just a technological phenomenon. It’s a recurring theme throughout life. The simple act of being born is quite a change in itself. No wonder the first thing babies do is cry: “Put me back in that womb, right now!”

Crawling, standing and walking are just
the first of many changes we face in life.
Then little Johnny or Johanna figures how to do tricks like roll over (“See, Rover, I can do that, too!”) and crawl. They’re just mastering that skill, setting land-speed records in the infant crawl, and mommy and daddy start coaxing them to walk. Stand up. Wobble a bit. Take a tentative step or two. Then collapse on their bottom. “Ok, enough of this walking stuff. I’m all for crawling from now on!” But parents have none of it, and before long Junior or Missy is high-stepping all the way down the mall.

Changes, of course, are just starting. There’s potty training, preschool, kindergarten and elementary school. Difficult changes for both child and parents, watching their progeny start to progress through the stages of life. Driver’s license. High school. Dating. College. Exciting, sometimes traumatic. Changes that are inevitable, that must be addressed.

Next are major events like a first full-time job, getting married (at least for some people these days), having children of their own, changing jobs, moving from apartment to house, selling house and buying another, changing jobs again, and so on. We learn that besides death and taxes, the only constant is change.

The same is true spiritually. I can remember cruising along in life, thinking I had everything under control, when suddenly I had a life-changing encounter with God. I had occasionally performed some religious act, like attending a church service, but most of my life probably looked as if I were a practical atheist. If I had been charged with being a follower of Christ, there wouldn’t have enough evidence to convict.

Then, while I was delightfully minding my own business, God interrupted. Some of the changes He brought about in my life – and the life of my family – were instant. Others have come slowly, day by day. That’s what theologians call “sanctification,” the process God uses for transforming our lives from what we once were to what He wants us to be.

Spiritual change is as difficult as any other kind. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we’re told, “Therefore, if anyone in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” But this doesn’t mean the new life we receive is easy. It requires unlearning old, destructive habits through the power of Christ, while learning new, productive ones. Sometimes aspects of our former life still seem appealing.

Romans 12:2 instructs, “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.” Again, easier said than done, because it means being willing to change from what someone has termed “stinkin’ thinkin’” and choosing instead to adopt a new mindset based on what God has revealed in the Scriptures. Sometimes this change can occur quickly, but often it takes place at tortoise speed.

Reading the Bible, it’s evident God is all for change; He’s in the deconstruction and reconstruction business: “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

So becoming a new creation in Christ takes time; it’s a process. Like a master sculptor approaching a piece of granite to create a magnificent sculpture, God comes to us in a similar manner. He’s bringing about change – sometimes uncomfortable, even painful – gently and patiently chipping away everything that doesn’t look like Jesus, so that one day we’ll experience the truth of 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

And you thought changing from a PC to a Mac was an achievement!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Downsides of Discipline


One of the TV morning news shows recently teased about “simple ways to exercise and do it consistently.” I didn’t wait to hear what these “secrets” were, but I doubt they had anything to do with thumbs working smartphones or the remote control.

The reason I chose not to watch this “investigative report” is because I already know better. There’s no such thing as a “simple” way to commit to meaningful exercise on a regular basis. After nearly eight years of a 4-5 times a week exercise regimen, preceded by about nine years of power-walking at least three times a week, I’ve adopted the following philosophy: “I hate to exercise – but I love to have exercised.”

As far as I can tell, the only secret to effective exercise is a little word many of us hate to hear: Discipline. The discipline of selecting an appropriate time and place; the discipline of putting in a sufficient amount of time and effort; and the discipline of maintaining a commitment to keep at it consistently and frequently, three times a week or more. There’s no simple way around that.

The problem is, it seems if there’s something many Americans don’t like, it’s discipline. We want the quick fix, not a slow-but-sure solution. We want results in the short-term; nothing long-term will do. Nice and easy, not strenuous and difficult.

But I like a quote by Dorian Yates, a much-decorated English professional bodybuilder. Apparently responding to those favoring the quick and easy route, Yates stated, "Moderation in bodybuilding is a vice; moderation in discipline is a failure." He didn’t become a world champion by training in moderation. To excel, whether it’s bodybuilding, academics, a career, parenting, or even a hobby, requires a commitment to work as hard and long as necessary, and that requires discipline.

This photo of a rose trellis shows how
this "discipline" enables the roses
to grow full and beautiful.
Imagine a rosebush without a supporting trellis to provide “discipline” for its growth. Tomatoes won’t grow well on a plant that’s lying on the ground – that’s why we tie them to stakes, so they grow strong and tall. Stakes supply the “discipline.”

The Bible speaks a lot about discipline – most of it in a positive sense. For instance, Proverbs 22:6 urges parents, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." The literal meaning of this is to teach them to follow their natural bent, to discover who and what they’ve been created to be. But to do this – to discern this “bent” and guide them to pursue it properly – requires discipline, both for child and parent.  

Earlier in Proverbs we’re told, “He who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray” (Proverbs 10:17), and “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1). I don’t see any ambiguous meaning here.

In John 15:1-2, Jesus told His disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” Dr. Bruce Wilkinson years ago wrote in his book, Secrets of the Vine, that sometimes this pruning process feels painful, but it’s done as a form of discipline, much as pruning a rosebush or grapevine isn’t done for harm but to strengthen and make more productive.

And Hebrews 12:5-8 declares God uses discipline to demonstrate His love and concern for His children: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.”

The Scriptures do declare, “God is love” (as I plan to explore in a future post), but part of His love is to discipline us by training us up in the way we should go.

So if you’re going through a tough time, experiencing a season of God’s discipline, don’t despair. It might be His way of saying, “Child, I love you just the way you are. But I also love you too much to leave you that way.”

Just as in exercise we set physical goals and then discipline ourselves to follow the necessary steps to attain them, God often exerts discipline on us to get us to where He wants us to be. When the going seems hard, we must remember the adage: Father knows best.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Fan…Or A Follower?

For ducks, and people, being a fan is different from being a follower. 

A few years ago Kyle Idleman wrote Not a Fan. In this book he explains the difference between being a fan of something and being a follower. The distinction, as Idleman points out, is critical.

Most of us consider ourselves fans of someone or something. We might have a favorite author whose books we avidly read, or a singer or musical group whose recordings we buy as soon as they’re released. We might be a fan of a comic strip that makes us chuckle each day. We can be fans of specific media celebrities, fashion designers, politicians, TV shows, even restaurants.

Of course, many of us are ardent, even diehard, fans of one or more sports teams. People that know me have no doubt I’m a fan – bordering on “fanatic” – of the Ohio State Buckeyes, especially during football and basketball seasons. I’ve also been a fan of various pro sports teams through the years, although my devotion toward those hasn’t been nearly as constant.

And that’s the point: A fan might be an enthusiastic admirer, but that can change over time. Rooting for a certain NFL team, for example, doesn’t require a lifetime commitment. You might like the team because of a particular player, but when that player leaves the team, you abandon it to cheer for another. Or if the team fails to meet your expectations, you can easily jump off the bandwagon and root for another.

To be a follower, on the other hand, involves more than being passionate, since passion can fade. It requires being fully devoted, completely committed to what the one you’re following stands for, whether it be an individual, institution or ideology, even willing to submit to a higher authority.

This is why Idleman posed the question to people professing to be Christians: Are you a follower of Jesus, or just a fan?

We live in a society where many people express admiration for Jesus Christ, the model He provided through His life, along with the principles and values He taught. Mahatma Gandhi was a great fan of Christ, but not one of His followers. Gandhi famously commented, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Frankly, Gandhi had a good point. In his day, as well as today, many that have claimed to be Christians demonstrate by their lives they are fans, but not followers. Because Jesus calls His followers to radical devotion and commitment, not merely cheering from the sidelines. 

Jesus often said outrageous, even perplexing things, once telling a self-assured, rich young ruler that if he wanted to be His follower, first he had to sell all of his worldly possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. “Then you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). This young man, whom the passage describes as having “great possessions,” didn’t like this idea, so he left Jesus and went away sorrowful.  

After another series of challenging statements, Jesus found a number of curious hangers-on reconsidering the value of following Him. “From that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). (Isn’t it interesting that the numbers of this verse are 6-6-6?)

But Jesus never wavered in the demands He made of those desiring to be with Him. He wasn’t recruiting Facebook “friends” or trying to see how many “likes” He could collect. Jesus was straight-forward, insisting that His followers die to themselves, their desires and aspirations, and go as He led them: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The question I’ve asked myself, one worth asking again from time to time, is simple: When it comes to Jesus, am I a follower – or just a fan? 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bothered By ‘Blessings’


There’s an old saying concerning communication: “It’s not what you say – it’s exactly what you say.” So it’s implicit that before words easily slip off our tongues, there’s no harm in pausing to consider the impact of what we say upon our hearers.

This came to mind as I read an online article by Scott Dannemiller, a former missionary. The article was entitled, “The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying.” What is that one thing, according to Dannemiller? “Feeling blessed.”

Even in the midst of storm clouds, a
rainbow can reveal God's blessings.
(Photo by Joe Ehrmann)
As he explains, “I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed. Like the ‘amen’ at the end of a prayer.”

I’ve often observed this, too – and been guilty of it. Successfully recovering from health setbacks, we declare how “blessed” we are. We acquire a new (or newer) car, complete with high-tech gizmos, and tell others it’s a “blessing.” A businesswoman reports how God continues to “bless” her business with growth and profits. Or we attend a gathering at someone’s gorgeous, expansive home, compliment them on it, and they reply, “Yes, God’s really blessed us with it.”

Sounds good, right? Giving credit to the Lord, where it’s due. Readily acknowledging good things that come into our lives and work, expressing gratitude to God for His provision. In one sense, that’s as it should be.

But what about those who suffer from chronic, even terminal illnesses – with no prospect of experiencing good health again? Are they not blessed? And if not, why? What about the folks stuck with clunkers for vehicles, who can’t afford anything better? Is God mad at them? The businessman who strives to honor God in all he does, yet sees his company continue to flounder. Why hasn’t the Lord “blessed” him? A struggling couple who love Jesus admire the splendid home but can’t help but wonder, “Why hasn’t God blessed us like this?”

As Dannemiller pointed out, in our American culture we tend to equate God’s blessings with material prosperity and physical well-being. But taking a close look at the Scriptures, that’s not necessarily the biblical view.

Jesus told His followers,In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Trouble? Where’s the blessing in that, right?

Writing to believers in the city of Corinth, the apostle Paul declared, “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance, in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). Could it be God didn’t like Paul as much as we thought?

Paul and another apostle, James, exhorted followers of Jesus to “rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3) and “consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). What kind of “showers of blessings” are these?

When the Bible speaks about blessings, much of the time it offers a perspective that doesn’t take into account materialistic rewards.

In Matthew 5, His so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus talked about those blessed that are “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and “those who are persecuted.” Hardly the kinds of things we would feel blessed about, but as He explained, each of these conditions cause people to draw closer to God, perhaps the greatest blessing of all.

The very first psalm also offers a non-materialistic view of blessings. It states, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (Psalm 1:1). He’s blessed by not associating with disreputable people that can have a negative, ungodly influence on him.

This isn’t to say God can’t or doesn’t bless us in tangible ways, because many times He does. But trials and adversities that move us closer to God often can prove to be great blessings, while material possessions that become idols, objects of our affections, can prove instead to be a curse by distracting us from God.

When Jesus was approached by a woman in a crowd, He told her, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28). Do you want to be blessed? Simply do what the Lord tells you to do in the Scriptures. Then, regardless of your circumstances – good or bad – you can truthfully declare, “I’m greatly blessed.”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Biggest Loser


Have you recently watched “The Biggest Loser” on TV, or another of those human makeover shows? A current edition features former star athletes who have “let themselves go” and are trying to regain their former svelte selves. From fit to fat – and back again?

Transformations taking place over the course of programs like these often are astounding. Sometimes clothes the participants wore in the opening episode would fit two of the persons surviving for the final show. Occasionally it’s hard to believe the overweight individual and the “made-over” version are the same person. They truly become shadows of their former selves.

Interestingly, “loser” more commonly is used as a derogatory term – whether in sports or everyday life. Competing in football, basketball, golf, soccer or some other sport, no one wants to be a loser. The same is true of being a member of a family or social group: “You’re a loser, you chump!” On these “Biggest Loser”-type programs, however, it’s a badge of honor to become the champion loser. This can be true in a spiritual sense as well.

The Bible asserts it’s actually a good thing to be a loser, as long as you’re losing the right things. For instance, in Matthew 10:39 Jesus talked about the importance of setting the right priorities: Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

I imagine some of His hearers might have wondered, “What’s Jesus talking about, losing our life to find it?” Later He elaborated, perhaps to clarify what He’d said earlier: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).

Being inhabitants of a tangible, visible world, it’s easy for us to forget about unseen, intangible spiritual aspects of our lives. Out of sight, out of mind, right? In fact, the materialistic emphasis that begs for our attention every day can result in matters of faith becoming nothing more than add-ons, rather than central to our daily existence.

The life to which Christ calls His followers, however, isn’t one in which He serves as icing on the cake, an “add-on” to the things in this world we embrace so tightly. Instead, He desires to be the focal point of our lives. As the apostle Paul declared to curious Greek leaders and officials, For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Jim Elliot, among five missionaries murdered while seeking to minister to the indigenous Huaorani people in Ecuador in 1956, made a similar statement about being willing to lose everything except what matters most: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

In Elliot’s case, his loss amounted to what we often term the “ultimate sacrifice.” But as he declared – and his widow, Elizabeth, affirmed in books following his death – being the “biggest loser” made him a true winner in God’s sight.

A particularly American trait is to compartmentalize our lives – our work, family, hobbies, spiritual pursuits. We carve our daily existence into neat slices, conveniently separated with little or no overlap. But when Jesus says we should “lose our life to find it,” He’s calling for us to let loose of everything that would detract from giving our full, undivided allegiance to Him.

The question every one of us must answer is, “Am I willing to become the ‘biggest loser’ for Jesus?” This might be harder than it sounds. But if we are, we’ll find ourselves realizing the promise of 2 Corinthians 5:17, “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Are you ready to become a new you?