Thursday, February 4, 2016

Being Found Worthy of Trust

We see the principle in action in virtually every field of endeavor: An eager young worker starts a new job and is asked to perform menial tasks, even though he or she may be educated and qualified for much more. Over time their performance is evaluated and, based on how well they’ve done lesser jobs, they get promoted and assigned greater responsibilities.

Football season has ended – for some, mercifully so – but we see the principle in action every Friday night, Saturday or Sunday: New players get relegated to the second or third team. When they prove able, they advance to special teams – the various kicking squads – where they can show their mettle. Those that demonstrate the energy, discipline and hard-nosed determination coaches desire will eventually find themselves moved into the starting lineups.

In school, a boy or girl is awarded special responsibilities after demonstrating both scholarship and character in the classroom. Even in church the principle applies. A newcomer to the sanctuary choir, for example, doesn’t arrive and announce, “Hi, I’m your new soloist.” He or she takes part in the full choir, displays vocal talent, and then, and only then, becomes invited to sing in a solo capacity.

What is this principle? It’s found in the Scriptures: "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted in much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10). I like how the Bible’s Living Translation of states it: If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities.”

Why is this important? Well, for one thing it’s a Presidential election year and we’ll soon be electing someone to lead our nation for the next four years, starting next January. How do we decide for whom we should vote?

For some, the decision is predetermined: “I’m a Democrat, so I vote for the Democratic candidate,” or “I’m a Republican, so of course I’ll vote for whoever gets on the Republican ticket.” Others will cast their ballots strictly according to promises made by the respective candidates and who they as voters believe will benefit them the most.

But I wonder, in a day when questions of character seem largely ignored or minimized, if we might be wise to revisit what Jesus taught in Luke 16:10, as well as Matthew 24:45-51, Matthew 25:14-30, and Luke 19:11-27. It’s the idea that the best predictor of future behavior is past performance, and that worthiness for greater responsibilities should be determined by how well lesser responsibilities were carried out.

I remember as a teenager getting my first job in a supermarket. My first assignments were to sack groceries, sweep and mop the floor, including cleaning up messes when customers dropped a jar of tomato sauce, honey, or whatever. (That was before plastic jars became commonplace, so the messes were considerable.)

After proving willing and able to do those jobs, I then was assigned the task of joining the other grocery clerks in stocking the shelves. And eventually, when I worked on a night crew during the summer (again, these were the “olden days” before 24-hour supermarkets), I was entrusted with the oversight of an entire aisle – ordering products, as well as stocking the shelves and making sure they looked orderly when the store reopened and eager shoppers returned.

At first I was trusted with very little. In some respects this work seemed insignificant, even bothersome. I viewed myself as a smart, energetic guy, suited for better, more challenging tasks. But once I successfully fulfilled my “very little” assignments, I was given greater ones.

As voters surveying the array of potential candidates, not only for President but also for Congress and even state and local offices, wouldn’t it make sense for us to apply this “faithful in little then faithful in much, but if unfaithful or dishonest in little, then unfaithful or dishonest in much” principle at the polls months from now? Keeping in mind, of course, that honesty and dishonesty, integrity and unethical behavior, are non-partisan as virtues, traits, and red flags?

Taking the discussion beyond the political arena, this passage should challenge us all, even if we never aspire to public office. Do we dream of greater things, maybe a better job, higher compensation, or more authority in our sphere of influence? Or possibly we'd like to be used by God to have more impact for His kingdom. Our intentions might be noble and pure, but first things first: Show ourselves to be faithful in little things, so we can then prove ourselves capable of being faithful with bigger things.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Does Your Home Have a War Room?

Lots of times I’m behind the curve – technology, fashion trends, TV shows, movies. So I finally got around to seeing the film, “War Room,” one of the growing number of faith-based movies by the Kendrick brothers. Better late than never, as is often the case.

While this certainly won’t go down among the greatest cinematic achievements of all time, its message – for those who believe in a personal God who hears and responds to our prayers and pleas – serves as a powerful reminder.

In case you still haven’t gotten to view “War Room” – whatcha waitin’ for, huh? – here’s a very quick synopsis: An elderly woman decides to sell her longtime home, and while meeting with the real estate agent, discovers the younger woman’s marriage is in dire straits. This prompts her to show the agent what she calls her “war room,” a prayer closet in the most literal sense, adorned only with her prayer requests and lists of prayers answered through the years.

As you might expect, the younger woman, desperate to save her marriage, decides she needs a war room of her own. Through a series of twists and turns, God works in her marriage so by the end, they’re all living happily ever after.

Of course, in real life prayers aren’t always answered so predictably or neatly. Often God’s answers differ from what we want – or expect. Sometimes He says “yes,” but other times responds with a “no” (knowing us and what we need better than we do), or “wait,” or even in a totally different way from what we asked.

The point is, prayer is a resource we greatly undervalue and underutilize. I’m pointing a finger directly at myself right now. It’s kind of like this computer and the software I use for writing. I could choose instead to use a legal pad and write on it with pen or pencil, or just sit around thinking about writing and never actually do it. That wouldn’t make sense. But don’t we treat prayer the same way?

Every day we talk, fret, argue, complain and agonize over an endless variety of problems, concerns and needs. We visit these issues, then revisit them, hash and rehash them. But the one thing we don’t seem to do a lot is pray about them. If we spent as much time praying fervently about these things as we do mumbling about and discussing them, might it make a difference?

In November we have a Presidential election. Each of us concerned about the course our nation has taken and will take in the future knows the outcome could be pivotal, not only for the next four years but also for the ultimate course of our nation. Surveying the state of our society, whether it be about violence, poverty, morality and ethics, or the polarization of views and ideologies, we all can see a need for major, dramatic change. We can spend our time talking about it, speaking with like-minded people to reinforce our prejudices – or we can determine it’s time to pray, to really, devotedly, consistently pray.

But why a “war room”? Because while there’s nothing wrong with public prayer, as long as we’re not like the Pharisees doing it for show, the Bible indicates the real work happens in our private, one-on-one moments with God. Jesus said, But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

Whether we admit it or not, I suspect one reason we’re not as ardent in prayer as we should be is we’re not convinced of its importance and value. Otherwise we’d never use the excuse, “I’m too busy to pray.” Maybe that’s why the apostle James warned, “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).

James also wrote, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7).

If we trust in Jesus and His promises, doubt shouldn’t be an issue. He assured His followers, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7). He also stated, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22).

What happens if we do believe, if we are faithful to go to our own private “war room” and tell God whatever is on our hearts? Jesus promised, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10). 

So whether you’ve already seen “War Room,” or even if you never see it, the principle still stands: There’s no telling what could be accomplished if we all went to war, not with guns and rockets and guns, but with the weapon of prayer, trusting God to respond in His way and in His time. Just no telling.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do You Remember Jabez?

About 15 years ago, it seemed everyone was talking about Jabez, a fellow mentioned only once in the entire Bible. Dr. Bruce Wilkinson had written a little book called The Prayer of Jabez, based on 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, which states:
“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”

That’s it – two verses, just over 60 words, but for a time people throughout evangelical Christianity took to praying “the prayer of Jabez.” This obscure character isn’t cited elsewhere in the Scriptures. He’s not in Hebrews chapter 11’s “hall of faith.” Jesus never said anything about him. We don’t even know why he was considered “more honorable than his brothers.” But for quite a while, lots of people found Jabez fascinating.

My first encounter with Jabez (other than as a random name in the Bible) came in the early ‘80s, when I heard Wilkinson speak about him at a couple of conferences. Like folks years later, this little account of the guy with the odd name captured my attention. But for a different reason than many.

In 2000, when the book was published, many of the readers inserted American cultural values into this biblical anecdote. In reading Jabez’s request that God “would bless me and enlarge my territory,” they interpreted “blessing” in materialistic terms – money, luxury cars, nicer, bigger houses, stuff like that.

It’s true the Lord can – and frequently does – provide tangible blessings for His children. That might even mean a much-desired job, necessary funds to get out of debt, or resources for some special purpose. But when I heard Wilkinson speak and later read his book, I never understood Jabez’s prayer and God’s response in that way.

Having been a follower of Jesus for only a few years when I first heard about Jabez, I had great appreciation for people who had invested in my spiritual growth. I had a desire to “pay it forward,” giving some of my time and energy to help other new believers grow as well. So when Wilkinson talked about “enlarging our territory” or “expanding our borders” as another translation puts it, that meant having an impact on people and the world around me, one that could reach into eternity.

So when I prayed for God to enlarge my territory, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a bank account or things in a store or showroom. I asked Him to bring just one man into my life that I could start to disciple, in keeping with Jesus’ Great Commission to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19). I thought it would be wonderful to have a positive influence for the Lord even in one life.

God answered my prayer. In fact, within six months He had introduced me to two different men, with whom I met individually every week for more than two years. I remain in regular contact with one of them, more than 30 years later.

But when I asked God to enlarge my territory, in effect He said, “I can do better than that.” He also took my goal of one day writing a book and multiplied it. I’ve since had the privilege of writing, editing and co-authoring more than 20 books. A weekly workplace meditation I started writing and editing in 1998, “Monday Manna,” today is being translated – through no doing of mine – into more than 20 languages and is distributed via email around the world, reaching countless thousands of readers.

This blog, which I began in 2008, is re-published on an online newspaper, and a couple of months ago I received an email from someone in the Middle East who had been reading it, telling me how much he appreciated my spiritual perspectives. When God promises “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), He’s not kidding.

I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back. Far from it. Much of the above resulted simply from God opening doors and my having enough sense to step through them. I offer this only as an example of how God can answer a simple prayer to bless us and “enlarge our territory.” The one condition: That our motivation be to honor Him and give Him glory, using whatever He has entrusted to us and taking advantage of opportunities He provides.

So I admit to being fond of Jabez. Who knows why, in the midst of a long list of Israelite lineage, God chose to single out this guy and expound on him briefly? Maybe, as Wilkinson suggested in his book, it’s because the Lord wants us to know we have His permission to pray for personal blessings – as long as our hearts are in the right place. How might God be willing to enlarge your territory – if you’d just ask Him to do so?

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Weight of ‘What If?’

As we journey through life, many difficult questions confront us. Few are more perplexing than the universal interrogative, “What if?”

You know: “What if I had done this, instead of doing that?” or, “What if I made that decision, instead of this one?” For many people, the echoes of “what if” plague them throughout their adult lives. They wonder what might have been if they had gone to a different college, if they had taken a different job, or if they had married someone else.  

Sometimes it’s a singular act: “What if I had turned left instead of right – or if I had just kept going straight?” “What if I hadn’t canceled that appointment?” “What if I had been better prepared for that interview?” “What if I had made that investment, or taken that risk I chose to avoid?”

The problem with what-if ponderings is there’s nothing we can do about them. They exist in the increasingly distant past, and no amount of wishing or remorse can restore them to the present. H.G. Wells’s fanciful time machine has yet to be invented, and even if we could send ourselves back to fateful moments in our personal histories, there’s no certainty we could change anything anyway. And if we could, what might be the impact on the “space-time continuum,” as fretted the characters in the film, “Back to the Future”?

In reality, even if  (sometimes it’s hard to escape that “what if” phrase) we could alter decisions or actions in the past, there’s no guarantee that the outcomes would have been better than what we’ve experienced.

For instance, I spent my first year of college in Houston, Texas, then transferred to the Ohio State University, where I majored in journalism. What if I hadn’t transferred? Or if I’d transferred, but not to Ohio State? I would have had a different set of friends and professors. My career path probably would have been different, perhaps dramatically so. I wouldn’t have become the ardent Buckeye fan that I am. And I wouldn’t have met my wife in a Columbus, Ohio suburb, gotten married and been blessed with the children and grandchildren we’ve had.

Sure, there are things along the way I’d like to change. More than a few, actually. But even my failures, blunders, and foolish decisions have turned into experiences from which I’ve profited and grown. We often think, “If I only knew then what I know now,” but usually we know things now because of mistakes we had to learn from then.

If there was anyone who wished he could change the past, it was the apostle Paul. A one-time zealous persecutor of those who followed Jesus Christ, he literally saw the light on the road to Damascus and became an irrepressible Christ follower himself. He sometimes reflected on his past life, but ultimately concluded, “…But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

The apostle wasn’t ignoring or excusing his previous actions and attitudes, but recognized the futility of dwelling on the unchangeable past. Instead, he chose to focus on the present and the future, intent on not adding to his collection of regrets.

We also have the assurance of knowing that when we act unwisely, God already has dealt with the “what if” questions and ordained an acceptable resolution. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

We needn’t worry about foiling the Master Planner’s sovereign plans. He’s already studied our lives, from beginning to end, and made contingencies for every “what if” along the way. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).

So fear not. “Oh, no!” isn’t part of God’s vocabulary. As the song says, “When you don’t understand, when you can’t see His plan, when you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Deciding Which Road to Take

Over the years I’ve enjoyed the writings of the late poet Robert Frost. Perhaps my favorite is his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” partly because it’s so profound in its simplicity.

Even though it consists of only 20 lines, I’ll not quote it in entirety, but here are the key verses:
The most-traveled path is not
always the best to follow.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair….
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

That last thought, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” echoes as a reminder that taking the most popular, well-traveled path may seem convenient but it’s not always the best.

This poem brings to mind another quote I came across some time back: “It’s better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.”

We used to hear a lot about the pitfalls of peer pressure, how striving to please those around us and following their lead could result in serious consequences. That hasn’t changed. It’s probably been the case since the beginning of time. Shepherds understand that sheep are prone to follow each other, even into calamity, and the prophet Isaiah observed thousands of years ago, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray…” (Isaiah 53:6). In many ways we are indeed like sheep, following the crowd, sometimes without a clue about where we’re heading.

At one time the Judeo-Christian ethic was largely embraced in our society – not only in our churches, but also schools, houses of government, and even places of business. That’s where our notions of loving our neighbors as ourselves, doing to others as we would have them do to us, and being kind to strangers came from. Today, however, society as a whole seems intent on drifting away from principles that undergirded our everyday lives – and excluding God from the entire equation.

Increasingly, those of us who believe we stand accountable before a holy, all-knowing, almighty God find ourselves having to take this “road less traveled by.” Does that mean we’re in the wrong, that mankind has suddenly gotten so smart God is no longer necessary? Have we become so “enlightened”?

I doubt it. Highly intelligent people throughout the centuries have honored and worshipped God and viewed their lives and work as ways of serving Him and others. In our culture we tend to equate “blessings” with prosperity, but ironically we’ve been so blessed in that way many people no longer feel a need for God. That’s doesn’t mean He’s no longer there – or that His ways are no longer right.

Jesus often spoke about this, noting that even the religious leaders were more concerned about what other people thought of them than how they were viewed by God. Peer pressure, and the adoration of men, served as their motivations. This is why the Lord admonished His followers, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Long before Robert Frost wrote his celebrated poem, Jesus spoke about a spiritual road less traveled. “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 road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

This doesn’t mean becoming regulated by a system of rules and rituals, but rather recognizing that although the vast majority may be joining in following a popular path, they may in fact be heading in the wrong direction. As Proverbs 16:25 warns, There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”

This is why Joshua, not long before he died, declared to the Israelites he had been leading, “chose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). This is a choice we each must make – it can’t happen by default. If we don’t consciously make this decision, it’s very likely someone will make it for us. And in these times, when people choose the road they will take, it’s not the one that leads to God.

Monday, January 18, 2016

THINK Before You Speak

We’re all familiar with the admonition, “Look before you leap.” Makes sense – a leap of a few feet might be of little consequence, but leaping off a cliff or from a building several stories high wouldn’t be a good idea. So preceding our leaping with our looking seems quite wise.

We could say something similar about speaking, especially in these days of quick, immediate communication – texting, email, voicemail, social media. A proper admonition would be, “Think before you speak.”

Recently I came across an acronym that encourages us to do just that. This acronym, THINK, stands for:
            T – is it true?
            H – is it helpful?
            I – is it inspiring?
            N – is it necessary?
            K – is it kind?

Unfortunately, much of our communication these days is anything but these. We don’t seek to check the veracity of statements we hear and read. If we agree with them, if they reinforce our biases and prejudices, they must be true, right? Why bother trying to be helpful when we can belittle and degrade? Rather than inspiring, we too often opt for discouraging and criticizing. Much of what we communicate, whether in person or via impersonal methods, isn’t necessary at all. And sadly, kindness is sometimes our last consideration when we’re intent on giving someone a piece of our mind.

Not to dwell on politics, but since this is a Presidential election year, I think it would be extremely refreshing – surprising, or even shocking – if the candidates would choose to focus on their own strengths and views and policies rather than exerting so much energy in trying to discredit and diminish their opponents. Don’t bet on it.

But we don’t have to be running for public office to find value in a commitment to THINK before we say something.

Perhaps the strongest biblical admonition along these lines is found in Ephesians 4:29, which tells us, 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.”

The Scriptures don’t stop there. Repeatedly passages in the Bible urge that if we don’t have something good to say, it’s better to zip the lip. For instance, Ecclesiastes 10:12 states, “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.” Remind you of anyone you know, or someone you’ve seen on the news?

Proverbs 13:3 offers these words of caution: “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.” The Bible’s book of wisdom also states, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue” (Proverbs 11:12).

Even Jesus taught sternly against waging a war of words. Speaking to religious leaders of the day, He said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks…. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34-37).

And as followers of Christ, we should be striving to emulate Jesus’ example of saying only what is fitting for the moment. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

Then there’s one more admonition I’m often reminded of when tempted to speak impulsively what’s on my mind: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:28).

So once again, since we’re still early in the new year, it wouldn’t hurt if we each resolved to THINK before we speak or write.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Where Are We Shining the Light?

One of the things I love about Christmas Eve services is the traditional lighting of the candles in the dimmed sanctuary. As candle after candle is lit, darkness is dispelled and the vast room glows with the flickering flames.

A troubling thought occurred to me, however, at the end of our last Christmas Eve service. Perhaps it was an epiphany. Once the last notes of “Silent Night” had been sung, the pastor dismissed us with the cautionary words: “Please extinguish your candles before you leave.”

Practically speaking, this admonition made perfect sense. We didn’t want to accidentally drip hot wax on the carpet, or on someone else leaving the building. Much worse, we didn’t want to drop our candles and cause a fire, or perhaps have a flame touch someone’s flowing hair. Just the thought of such things causes an involuntary shudder.

But I couldn’t help but wonder: At the end of every other worship service throughout the year, are we doing something similar? Are those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ “extinguishing our candles” before we leave the sanctuary?

During a worship service it’s easy to feel all warm and fuzzy. We’re among like-minded people – or so it seems. We sing hymns and praise songs affirming our faith. We hear sermons reinforcing our beliefs. When we hear the lyrics, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” we heartily agree. Our “lights” burn brightly .

But what happens when we leave the sanctuary, return to our cars, and head to our homes or a restaurant to eat? Or the following day, when work and school and household responsibilities vie for our attention? Did we leave our lights in the building we commonly refer to as the “church”? What impact – if any – are we having on the dark influences in the world around us?

During his so-called “sermon on the mount,” Jesus challenged His followers, telling them, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” Then Jesus completed the metaphor: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Are we doing this? Or are we, as we’re instructed on Christmas Eve, extinguishing the flames on our “lights” as we leave each worship service and returning the world outside the stained glass, appearing and acting much like those who never think of darkening a church building’s doors?

This is a humbling, thought. Is the world around us – our workplaces, schools, communities, homes – any brighter because we’re there, serving as “the light of the world”?

The apostle Paul gave a reminder to believers in the church of Ephesus that applies to us as well: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with fruitless deeds of darkness…everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible” (Ephesians 5:8-13).

This is a question we should ask ourselves: Are we living as children of light? Or are we, outside of the formal worship center, virtually indistinguishable from anyone else? Do we brighten a room when we walk into it, or do we serve only to add to the darkening gloom? And if we realize that we’re not being the light of the world God desires for us to be, what are we going to do about it?

It’s still early in the year, so maybe we should do a bit of soul-searching and try to find some honest answers to these questions. During this year, will we fit the description of Isaiah 58:8, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard”?