Monday, September 15, 2014

Not a Matter of Time

We are creatures – and captives – of time. Despite being admonished to “live in the moment,” we have the irresistible habit of gazing back at the past or looking toward the future. We think of things we’ve done or that have happened in terms of “an hour ago,” “yesterday,” “last week,” or years, even centuries ago. Or we make plans for tomorrow, next week, next year, and so on.

“Tempus fugit,” the Latin tells us – time flies. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to live in the present, because “now” is so fleeting, so…momentary. Here and gone, in the blink of an eye. So it gets little respect.

So we nurture an irrepressible fascination with time. Some people, particularly “older generation” types, feel naked without watches fastened around their wrists. Younger people are more prone to use their smartphones as timepieces. After all, they’re more accurate, right? Either way, we’re stuck in time, governed by clocks and calendars. Whether it’s getting prepared for an upcoming meeting, anticipating what we’ll do Friday night to celebrate the end of another workweek, or planning how we’ll spend an upcoming vacation, time can be our friend – and sometimes our enemy.

So I found it interesting to see this time fixation manifested in a brief Facebook exchange. A friend posted a quote from the end of the last New Testament book, Revelation, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

Reading this post, someone asked, “Define 'soon.' This was written umpteen thousand years ago!” Frankly, that’s a great question – exactly what did Jesus mean by “soon”? Several verses in Revelation quote Him saying, “I am coming soon” or “the time is near.” This was written nearly 2,000 years ago, so what’s the hold-up?

Numerous other passages make similar declarations. For instance, 1 Thessalonians 5:2 says, “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” And 2 Peter 3:10 concurs, declaring almost verbatim, “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” But here we are in 2014, many centuries later, so obviously these statements are baloney, right? Slow-moving “thief” maybe?

Years ago a friend advised me the best method for interpreting the Scriptures is by using other Scriptures. I’ve found this excellent counsel. So what does the Bible say about God’s time orientation?

One critical verse is 2 Peter 3:8 which declares, But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” The next verse adds, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

To me this states us that, unlike us, God doesn't operate according to timepieces or 12-month calendars. At the same time (no pun intended), this doesn’t mean one 24-hour day to Him is exactly 1,000 years. It’s a metaphorical statement, declaring God operates outside of time and can take as much “time” as desired to accomplish His purposes.

This understanding could apply to the six days of creation – a half-dozen literal, 24-hour days? – as well as Jesus’ imminent return. Not being required to punch a time clock or meet someone else’s deadline, God has the prerogative to take as long as He chooses to get any job done. In the 1980s, the Ford Motor Company operated by the slogan, “Quality is Job 1.” With God, through time and eternity, that has always been His motto. In other words, He simply takes as long as it takes to do it right.

God alone truly has all the time in the world. In fact, He has all the time in the universe! And more than that. Much more.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Day Everything Changed

The day many of us will never forget.

With this post appearing on September 11, it seems right to use it to reflect on that day 13 years ago when it seemed everything changed.

For most of us the morning began quietly enough, but before long we began having one of those “you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” moments. We started hearing about a commercial jet slamming into one of the World Trade Center towers. “How does that happen?” we all wondered. When the second jet rammed the other tower, we knew.

As the day unfolded we learned more and more about the causes and effects of those horrendous, unimaginable acts of terrorism, not only in Manhattan but also at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and in a lonely Pennsylvania field. It became one of those “where were you when…” events, like the assassination of JFK, the passing of Elvis, and the Challenger explosion. It’s interesting how tragic, unexpected deaths create for us mental and emotional markers.

That, of course, was in 2001. We’re now in 2014, and the world we knew then has changed dramatically, irrevocably. From long security lines at airports to the unending wars in the Middle East, from memorials that remain for the thousands who died on that day to the unfortunate profiling of Muslims because of a small minority of deranged terrorists, life is very different today.

It would be nice to conclude we’ve learned some things from that day. Well, we have, but many of those things haven’t been good. Terrorism remains an ever-present threat. Hatred across ethnic, ideological and racial lines persists, perhaps stronger than ever. So far the answer to the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” seems a resounding, “No!”

Some people far more optimistic and idealistic than me continue to espouse the belief humanity is “evolving,” and eventually we’ll become more loving, more accepting, kinder, and more (and I hate this word) “tolerant.” But where’s the proof? Show me the evidence.

More than ever, our nation – and the world – seem encamped at starkly divergent, irreconcilable ideological poles. At this rate, the word “compromise” will probably soon be eradicated from dictionaries due to lack of use. The polarizing influence of news reporting and the dart-throwing of opinions on social media only feed this growing malaise.

Violence in many forms hasn’t abated. If anything it’s escalated, and contrary to what some believe, I don’t think the solution is simply more stringent gun laws. When people are hell-bent on mayhem, if they want guns they’ll find them. And if they can’t get guns, killers will use knives, explosives, hammers, sewing needles, or their bare hands if they need to do so. Didn’t the terrorists at the Boston Marathon use pressure cookers?

Years ago we often heard the declaration, “There are no absolutes!” Many seem to have bought into this philosophy, and now we’re reaping what we’ve sown. In the Old Testament, Judges 21:25 states, In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” Regardless of your view of President Obama, it seems everyone these days is intent on doing as they see fit – what is right in their own eyes.

So where are we, 13 years after the grim, unspeakable events of 9-11? What have we learned – for the better? If we’re determined to insist on “my truth,” as if we find Truth served on a buffet table so we can select whatever appeals to us at the moment, it seems foolish for us to expect any positive change. As someone has said, “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”

Does that suggest we should despair? Not at all. Despite the events of 9-11, and everything since then, we have the assurance God hasn’t changed one iota. As the Scriptures assure us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).

I’m confident God is busily at work, even though He might not be doing things in the way we think they should be done. But that’s why He is God – and we’re not. He doesn’t need our advice. The depth of His love, grace and mercy defy our comprehension.

So as I observe the continuing, escalating turmoil around us, there’s not much in what we see to inspire hope. But then I’m reminded, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

It also helps to reflect on days when thoughts of God were alien to our minds, and then “remember at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near” (Ephesians 2:12).

So again on September 11 we pause and think about the past. But those that are followers of Jesus Christ can also look ahead, filled with hope and anticipation for the future. Our U.S. currency, to the chagrin of some, still proclaims, “In God We Trust.” Today’s a good day for doing just that.

Monday, September 8, 2014

When You Have Two Flat Tires, Not One

Years ago I was on the interstate driving home after meeting with a friend. Suddenly I heard a loud “boom” and immediately it felt like my car was traveling on a cobblestone road. Quickly pulling to the roadside, I found the right rear tire totally flat. More than flat – shredded. (Have you ever had shredded wheat cereal for breakfast? That’s what the tire looked like.)

One flat tire is troublesome
enough, but two at once?
After replacing the destroyed tire with the spare tire “donut” provided by the manufacturer, I started out, expecting to complete my return trip. But the car began shuddering as much as before. So I again steered off the road and discovered the right front tire also in shreds. What? Flat tires are common, but how often do two go flat simultaneously? I hadn’t seen anything in the road, but something large and very sharp must have cut both tires severely.

Nothing like turning a smooth, carefree ride back to the office into chaos. It gave whole new meaning to the term, “tire-less worker.”

Since vehicles don’t come with two donuts, I called a wrecker service to haul my car to the next exit and find someplace to replace both tires. My unexpected travel dilemma required not one solution, but two.

I was reminded of this experience recently by my friend, Randy Nabors. In his own blog post entitled, “Sometimes A Car Has More Than One Flat Tire,” he comments on circumstances surrounding the shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Mo. I’ll not get into what Randy has to say, but it’s insightful. If you’d like to read it, here’s the link:

Applying this observation in a broader sense, life’s problems often have multiple facets that can’t be resolved in one easy step. Poverty is one example. Some people insist the solution is simply raising the minimum wage. Increase hourly pay a few dollars, problem solved. Nice theory.

This certainly would provide relief, at least for some, but issues surrounding the poor – and poverty in general – are numerous, complex, and often multi-generational. Deeply rooted problems stemming from poor education, declining parental influence, lack of preparation and training for jobs, even a lack of positive role models, individuals who’ve risen above impoverished circumstances to provide hope and inspiration for others. Simply boosting hourly pay rates could help, but as a long-range answer it would be like applying a Band-Aid to a cancerous growth.

The “sometimes there’s more than one flat tire” principle applies to many pressing issues facing our society and the world today: Health care, escalating violence, energy concerns, war, disease, equal opportunity, economic disparity, bigotry, and others. In the home, resolving marital strife, the challenge of raising and guiding children to become productive adults, addressing financial problems, and other problems also can often seem like incurring multiple flat tires on a car at the same time.

So what should we do, individually and as a people? Shrug our shoulders and declare the problems are too many, too complicated, so everyone should just look out for themselves? This seems to be the attitude of some, but we know it’s not the right response. And while the easy, quick fix often can’t eradicate deeply rooted problems, any attempt to provide help is better than no efforts to offer assistance.

James 4:17 states, Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” So we have a responsibility to do what we can. To recognize a problem, but choose to do nothing when we have the capacity to help in some way, is sinful and abhorrent to God, according to the Bible.

At the same time, isolated attempts to address problems, without the concerted efforts and contributions of other able-bodied and resourced people, usually amount to the proverbial “drop in the bucket.” For persistent problems defying the quick-fix, the book of James offers more advice: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

Knowledge is good and important. But it requires wisdom to determine how best to sift through the vast storehouse of knowledge available and discern how best to apply it, aiming to solve or at least alleviate problems rather than intensify and prolong them.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hidden Behind the Dark

Journalists are always hunting for new ideas and inspiration. Among my favorite sources are cartoons in the daily comic section of the newspaper. Sometimes the simplest humor can reveal very profound truth.

A recent example was in the cartoon, “Family Circus,” created by Bil Keane and now written and illustrated by his son, Jeff. Little Dolly looks out the window to the nighttime sky and tells her infant brother, “The sun is there, PJ. You just can’t see it ‘cause it’s behind all the dark.”

We know this to be true for the natural world. Even when it’s dark, the sun hasn’t gone away. The earth has rotated, so the sun's out of view but remains where it always has been. We’ve moved, but it hasn’t. Wait a while and the sun will appear again, where it was all the time.

The same is true of spiritually. Sometimes circumstances of our lives grow dark, due to illness, tragedy, hardships of many kinds. It seems like God has disappeared, left the building like Elvis, flown the coop. He hasn’t; He’s still there. But in our personal darkness, overwhelmed by pain, grief, fear or confusion, we can’t find Him. God seems to be “behind all the dark.”

We’ve all experienced the darkness in one way or another. It’s frightening, perplexing, disheartening. God is good, God is love, right? Then why does He allow it to hurt so much? I’ve had friends whose difficulties have dwarfed my own: the passing of a grandmother and two of her grandchildren in a tragic accident; parents enduring the mournful experience of burying their adult children; friends forced to declare bankruptcy due to circumstances beyond their control.

What do we do at such times when God seems “behind all the dark”? Countless books have been written on this subject from many perspectives, and I won’t be so foolish as to attempt to address the question in a few hundred words. Except to say that just as we have full confidence that after a long, dark night the sun will reappear, we who follow Jesus Christ also have the assurance He will re-emerge from the dark to illuminate our way.

I couldn’t begin to quote all the biblical passages that promise this, but I’ll cite a couple of my favorites. Psalm 84:11-12 declares, “the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk (in Christ) is blameless. O Lord almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you.”

Another passage talks about our capacity – through the power of Christ – to accomplish things we can’t do in our own strength. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Just as the sun rises each morning, dispelling the thick darkness of the preceding night, Jesus comes to cast away the darkness of oppressive circumstances that can envelop us. This is true not only for the moment, but also for eternity to come: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:23).

If you find yourself in the midst of a difficult, dark time, remember – the Son is there, behind the dark. Just keep watching.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Laboring for the Right Things

Our Chihuahua-terrier mix, Molly, "working like a dog."

Since I write my blog posts a couple weeks in advance, I’m now thinking about Labor Day since that’s when this will appear. For some reason the words to the Beatles’ tune, “A Hard Day’s Night,” come to mind: “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog…. I should be sleeping like a log.”

Actually, having a dog, the phrase “working like a dog” doesn’t compute well for me. Our Chihuahua-terrier mix is 16 years old and sleeps about 23½ hours a day now. She’s the one that’s sleeping like a log. I suppose when the “working like a dog” cliché originated, it was in reference to shepherd dogs energetically herding sheep, St. Bernards faithfully searching for lost skiers, or German Shepherds or Doberman Pinchers trained for war or law enforcement.

Or her preferred activity, sleeping like a log.
But often we hear people complaining of “working like a dog,” whether they’ve actually observed a dog at work or not. In any case, it’s clear that’s not a good way to be working. I’ve always figured if you really feel you’re working like a dog, you should investigate another line of work.

I’m fortunate to have found myself in a profession that, while it’s required hard work and long hours, has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. I started as a newspaper editor for a community newspaper, being an editorial staff of one. Then I worked on other newspapers, before becoming a magazine editor, followed by opportunities to write freelance articles, author and edit books, and even do a weekly email workplace meditation that’s sent around the world and translated in more than 20 different languages.

This work has been demanding, sometimes tedious, often stressful, but I’ve never felt as if I were “working like a dog.” (Actually, since dogs can’t write, the analogy doesn’t seem to fit anyway. I have written about dogs on occasion.)

So as we celebrate Labor Day, it would be nice if everyone could find work that not only paid the bills, but they also found enjoyable. Something about which to feel enthused and passionate. For some that’s a fantasy, an impossible dream. But it’s still something worth aspiring to.

At the same time, there’s another kind of work worthy of consideration, work with results that will endure past the next deadline and won’t have to be revised or redone when the boss says so. It’s work that will last forever.

Jesus described this in John 6:27 when He said, “Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then He added, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” This doesn’t mean simple intellectual assent, but transforming faith, since anyone that has truly met Jesus Christ can never be the same.

We invest our working hours to earn money to buy food that will consumed and immediately forgotten. That’s necessary, of course. But sometimes we keep fruit, milk, vegetables and bread too long and have to throw them away. There’s nothing quite like the fragrant aroma of rotten eggs or spoiled potatoes, right?

So we’re to work for “food that endures to eternal life” – what’s that? This has a number of meanings and applications, but one thing for certain: Jesus was discouraging us from devoting 100% attention to the pursuit of position, prestige and promotions, or material targets like houses, cars and toys, things we have one day and can easily lose the next.

That’s why Christ also said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Are the activities you’re engaged in – your work, as well as hobbies and pastimes, everything that consumes your time and energy – things that will enhance your life and the lives of others not just for today, but for eternity? If so, that’s noble, worthwhile work. Stuff of which legacies are made.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Disconnected from the Power Source

A dark computer screen is not conducive to bright writing.

There I was, minding my own business, finishing an article I’d been working on. Suddenly, my computer screen went blank. The light in my office went dark, and the air conditioner stopped running, so I knew there was a problem. Our electricity had been disrupted. Few things make me feel more powerless than when the power is out.

In days of yore, when journalists like me executed our wordsmith tasks on prehistoric machines called manual typewriters, I could have continued working – as long as there was enough light to see what was on the paper. But thanks to the advances of technology, when a desktop computer is disconnected from the power source, work comes to an abrupt halt.

Thankfully, I didn’t lose much of my work. Years ago I had learned a vital lesson: I’d written about two pages of copy but failed to hit the “Save” button when, to my dismay, the power went off without warning, casting my well-crafted words and paragraphs into cyberspace oblivion. What I had written, I can’t recall. Perhaps it was the start of the next Great American Novel. Who knows? But when my computer came back on, the words were long gone and couldn’t be recaptured, having flown to the communications cosmos. Since that day I always try to remember that Jesus saves – and so should I.

We now have notebook/laptop computers, tablets, and even smartphones that can meet our writing needs, but I’m a traditionalist. There’s something about a real-sized keyboard and sitting at a real desk I find not only comforting, but also productive, even inspiring. So I’m sadly and hopelessly dependent on the power company to keep me going. When the power stops working, I do too.

When the power's on, there's no
limit to what a computer can do.
But what if I’d just kept typing away, my fingers flying across the keys creating sequences of words and sentences and paragraphs on my wireless keyboard (battery-powered, of course) despite the darkened computer screen? Would it have made sense to continue working with my computer’s hard drive in “park”?

Of course not. But that’s how we approach much of our lives, especially spiritual pursuits. The power’s off, but we press ahead convinced we’re doing something meaningful and good in our own strength.

The apostle Paul referred to this in a letter to his young protégé, Timothy, when he described religious people as, “without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them” (2 Timothy 3:3-5).

As we read this indictment it’s easy to think, “Yeah, I don’t want to be like those people!” But what if “those people” happen to be us? Many of us have learned well how to go through the motions, using the right words and following the expected rituals and practices in church settings, but when people observe us outside that setting, do they see any semblance of the life and power of Jesus Christ manifested in our lives?

That, I’m convinced, is the distinctive between religion – mankind’s best effort to reach God (including in some cases, institutional Christianity) – and a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. Repeatedly He told His followers about the futility of attempting to do God-stuff in what the Bible calls “the flesh.”

He said things like, “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 15:5). Then Jesus added, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7). Essentially He’s saying He is the power source – but too often we “unplug” and try doing things for Him rather than letting Him do His work through us.

One of Jesus’ parting statements to His followers was, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). Christ left the earth physically, but in His stead sent His Spirit, the power source for us to live the life God calls us to live.

This is what Paul meant when he wrote to believers in Rome: “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature (the flesh), the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work…. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:5-6).

As I mentor men, I emphasize this truth – something I learned years ago but still remind myself every day. When we try to do good things in the flesh, by our own power, we often encounter failure. Much like pounding on a computer keyboard when the electrical power is off. We can try hard, giving it maximum effort, but things won’t turn out the way we’d like.

But when we appropriate the power of Christ, desiring to do what He wants in His way and through His strength, the outcome not only will be better but also will require a lot less effort.

So if you’ve been diligently endeavoring to do good, moral, God-honoring things, but find yourself worn out, even discouraged, there’s probably a good reason. Perhaps you’re not drawing from the Source of power.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Renewing the Great American Spectacle

Across the nation, millions await the whistle for the opening kickoff
of the 2014 college football season. 

After a seemingly interminable wait, it starts again this weekend – college football season. With memories of bowl games that concluded the 2013 season fading, hopes for fans across the country are at their apex. Whether you root for Alabama or Aliquippa State, Wisconsin or Winthrop, Syracuse or Slippery Rock, expectations are high. Your team, like all the others, is undefeated, for the moment.

So let’s revel in that moment. Forget soccer – it’s time for real football to commence! With its pageantry, spectacle, craziness. They’ll be on display in stadiums from coast to coast, everyone decked in their favorite school’s colors, bands blaring fight songs, cheerleaders jumping and screaming, coaches raving and ranting, demanding “110 percent” from their team.

I’ll be rooting for Ohio State’s Scarlet and Gray, as I have every season since 1966. But I’ll also be admiring the sport’s teamwork aspect – players performing their respective roles and, if they do them well, powering their team to success.

Quarterbacks, running backs and receivers get most of the acclaim, but the huge, unheralded linemen are the ones that make possible the exciting runs, spectacular passes and…touchdowns. On defense, success requires hefty hulks on the defensive line, agile linebackers and speedy defensive backs, all doing their part to disrupt the opposing team’s offensive schemes.

It only takes a single breakdown – a failed block, a missed tackle, an untimely penalty – to shift momentum and potentially change the outcome of the game. So when the question is asked, “Who’s the most important player on the field?” the truthful answer is every single one of them. This brings to mind familiar adages like, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.”

The latter observation comes from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 4:9. The Scriptures speak extensively about teamwork, affirming none of us alone is as strong as when we’re working in concert with others, aligned to the same mission or goal. A few verses later in the passage it states, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

Proverbs 27:17 declares, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” and any good football coach will tell you competition within the team serves to make everyone better.

I love the moment in a football game when, after a big play, teammates converge to back-slap, high-five and chest-bump, engaging in mutual congratulatory support. While it’s not talking about American football, Hebrews 10:24-25 refers to this when it says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds…. Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another.”

And speaking of teamwork, the Bible uses the human body as a metaphor for teamwork and unity built around a common purpose, especially the Church of Jesus Christ. It even alludes to our tendency to give special notice to the more spectacular parts:

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts…and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor…. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have special concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).

So when you turn on your TV to watch your favorite team, remember when it’s operating smoothly, with the various players effectively carrying out the responsibilities of their positions, it’s how the body of Christ should function. And when there’s a lost fumble, interception, missed block or tackle, that’s kind of how the body of Christ looks when we fail to fulfill the role God has called us to fill. So try not to miss your assignment – no matter what you’ve been given to do, it’s important.