Monday, January 26, 2015

Living in the Moment


Time’s a funny thing. When we’re having fun, it seems to have wings. But when we’re anxiously waiting for a day or particular hour to arrive, time seems to adopt the pace of a snail. Either way, time often dominates our thinking.

If we allow it to be, time
can be a cruel master.
Confession: I’m one of those that have paid too much attention to time, especially focusing on the future. Too frequently I have found myself so caught up in what I have to do an hour from now, or what I’ll be doing tomorrow, next week or next month, the simple act of pausing to sample the fragrance of the flowers along the way escapes my attention. So consumed by the journey, I’ve missed the scenery as I passed by.

So I couldn’t help feeling intrigued as I watched a brief video of a guy named Marc Mero, founder of a non-profit organization known as Champions of Choices. A former football player, boxer and professional wrestler, he was speaking to a large group of high school students about poor choices he’d made earlier in his life.

Mero admitted even after overcoming a variety of personal problems, he continued to concentrate on the pressing demands of his own life at the expense of important things – including time with his aging mother, who had sacrificed so much during his childhood.

Acknowledging he had failed to appreciate his mom’s unconditional love until it was too late, Mero said her death presented a major turning point for him. Observing he had become so busy with the relentless pace of living that he couldn’t enjoy everyday life, he commented, “I no longer live in time – I live in moments.”

Live in moments? Who does that? Ambitious, career-minded in particular are always looking ahead, desperately searching for the next opportunity, the “big break” that will propel them toward their long-term goals. Losing focus for even a moment, supposedly the shortest measure of time, can make a difference, right? Frazzled homemakers attend to their daily chores, determined to get them all done just right, while their offspring are growing up on the periphery.

I recall early in my journalistic career working long hours, striving to perform with excellence, convinced this was necessary for me to climb the so-called ladder of success. I gained commendations for my work ethic and diligence, but I missed seeing a lot of what my young daughters were doing while I was away meeting deadlines and pursuing the next stories. Precious moments were frittered away, never to be recaptured.

This is one reason we find warnings about this in, of all places, the Bible. It cautions about Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Days are not evil in the sense of being sinful, but they hasten past and time lost is gone forever. The only time we can truly “manage” is the moment we have right now.

Speaking to a huge crowd that had gathered to see Him in person, Jesus advised His listeners,  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). Why lose sleep about time that hasn’t arrived yet, He was telling them, when you have enough to be concerned about right now – at this moment.

The sobering truth about getting older is that the sum total of “moments” remaining is rapidly decreasing. So maybe we should follow the lead of Marc Mero and stop living in time. Instead, let’s start living in the moments – and savoring them.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Vacation from God?


A few weeks ago I read an article about a pastor in Southern California who decided to spend 12 months as an atheist and at the end of that year concluded, “I don’t think that God exists… the intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us.”

Vacations are nice, but a 1-year vacation
from an important relationship?
Very interesting, isn’t it? A “man of the cloth” who decided to take an extended vacation from God and at the end concluded He wasn’t there anyway. For some this can seem disconcerting. If a professional clergyman, someone who was “paid to be good,” concluded God does not exist, what does that say for those who don’t have theological training, pastoral experience, and who for all intents and purposes are “good for nothing,” as someone once quipped?

What it says, in my view, is not a thing. Yes, it’s hard to “figure out how God fits into everything.” But just because we can’t fully comprehend something, does that mean we must reject it? I really don’t understand how my computer works, but I’m not going to stop using it until my non-technological mind gets it figured out.

The greater issue is why, if you truly have a relationship that is meaningful, why would you want to turn your back on it, even temporarily? If you have a happy, loving marriage, would you elect to sever all ties with your spouse for an entire year to see what that’s like? Not just time apart, but no phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, or even handwritten notes? If the relationship is healthy and important, of course not.

Or a strong friendship – if you value it, if time with that person is fun and worthwhile, you’d no more want to deny yourself from being with that individual for 12 full months than you would elect to go a year without your right hand (or the left, if you’re left-handed).

I don’t know this former pastor. Until recently I’d never heard of him. I don't mention his name because that’s not important. What matters is the principle: If you have a genuine, growing relationship with someone, why would you want to end it, even for a brief time?

There’s a very strident atheist I’ve had some interactions with over the past couple of years who takes pride in claiming he has personally convinced more than a dozen “Christians” to give up their faith and join him in conscious non-belief. Recently, he was making another overture to debunk what the Bible says and dissuade me from trust in Jesus Christ. I responded he would have more success seeking to persuade me to crawl back into my mother’s womb than for me to renounce my faith in Jesus.

Because true biblical faith isn’t something you turn on or turn off whenever it’s convenient. When Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3), He wasn’t using a euphemism or metaphor. He elaborated, declaring, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised by my saying, ‘You must be born again.’... So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

What He was saying is “born again” isn’t some religious cliché, casually used as an adjective for a certain theological point of view. It’s a literal, spiritual transaction in which the life of Christ comes into anyone who receives the gift He offers of eternal life: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

For the first 30 years of my life, although I participated in religious meetings and activities, I was no more a disciple of Christ than I was a gold medal Olympic sprinter. Because it’s not about doing, but being. Could you persuade a dog to cease being a dog, and become a cat instead? Or can a horse be talked into becoming a fish? In a similar, yet far more profound way, true followers of Jesus – ones that have been born again by His Spirit – could no more renounce their faith than snatch the moon from its orbit.

So while I don’t judge this West Coast pastor, I’m convinced the reason he could so easily discard his belief in God is that he has never experienced real faith in the first place. The Bible says, “even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror” (James 2:19). We must believe with our heads, but true faith is a matter of the heart.

Sadly, many people are 18 inches from the joy and peace of truly knowing Jesus Christ. So near, and yet so far.   

Monday, January 19, 2015

Blessing . . . Or Curse?


Often during important political elections, key issues are raised and debated. Perhaps the most common is described simply by a phrase we’ve often seen: “It’s the economy, stupid!” The world can be tumbling around us, but as long as we’re doing well financially, all’s well. Conversely, many things may be going right in society, but if we’re confronting inflation, high interest rates, or other fiscal maladies, panic typically ensues.

Sometimes too much of a good thing is...too much of a good thing.
For those who would propose the United States is a “Christian nation,” one of the evidences they submit is our history of economic prosperity. We still have the poor among us, but even many of our disenfranchised have earthly possessions that the “wealthiest” people in some Third World nations would envy. So we conclude, solely on the basis of material goods, that “the Lord has really blessed us.”

I sometimes wonder about that. I’m like everyone else – I’d like to have a little extra at the end of each paycheck, but prosperity can be as much a curse as it is a blessing.

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a demon offers advice to an apprentice, Lewis makes this observation: “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth.”

That’s a lot to chew on, but I think the late Mr. Lewis was onto something.  I’ve often heard it said that some of the happiest people in the world are poor. That’s not an endorsement of poverty, nor a justification for anyone who believes they don’t have a responsibility to help the less fortunate in some way. But think about it – poor people aren’t worried about what the stock market does today. They don’t have to install costly security systems on their homes. Many don’t have to consider how buying a new car will affect their insurance premiums. They don’t need safes to protect their valuables.

They may have other worries, but they don’t have to worry about preserving their “stuff.”

And as C.S. Lewis suggests, if our prosperity gives us the “sense of being really at home in earth,” we can easily forget about the eternal home Jesus promised to all who have received him. The apostle John expressed it clearly when he wrote, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

Jesus stated it another way: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13).

I believe one primary purpose for the trials we experience in life, financial setbacks and hardships among them, is to serve as a reminder that no matter how we enjoy it, the world is not our home. The apostle Paul didn’t mince words when he wrote, “…many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:18-20).

If someone were to judge you according to your attitude toward your possessions, the level of prosperity you currently experience, would they conclude your citizenship is in heaven – or in this world? That’s a question we might not like, but it’s worth an honest answer.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Be Careful Who You’re Following

Sheep have an annoying tendency for not watching where
they're going, as well as for leading others astray.

Recently I read a brief account about some really stupid sheep in Istanbul, Turkey. In 2005, one sheep in the flock decided to jump off a cliff, and nearly 1,500 others subsequently followed. Approximately one-third of the sheep died, and I’m sure at the very least each of the others must have been wondering, “What was I thinking?”

This seems like a crazy happening, and you’re probably wondering if it was just a rare occurrence, an aberration in the history of sheepdom. But it wasn't. Years ago my friend, Ken Johnson, and his family devoted more than a decade of their lives to raising sheep on their “hobby farm” outside Minneapolis, Minn., and they witnessed abundant examples to prove dumbness is not a trait exclusive to Turkish sheep.

Early one morning Ken was cleaning up in front of the barn where his sheep were housed. As he let the animals out for the day, he went to the door and held the handle of his hoe in front of the first sheep as it came out. He just wanted to see what it would do. Without hesitation, the sheep leaped over the hoe and casually strolled into the pasture. Ken pulled the handle away, but when every sheep exiting the barn reached that point, they proceeded to replicate what the lead sheep had done, leaping as if the hoe handle were still there.

So apparently to a sheep’s way of thinking, jumping off a cliff because the one directly in front did it makes perfect sense.

Why bring this up? Because the Bible uses the sheep metaphor extensively, in both the Old and New testaments. In fact, the prophet Isaiah wrote thousands of years ago, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6). The problem is, as anyone that has spent time with sheep can attest, when one sheep strays, many of the others are likely to follow – sometimes to their doom.

This is why in Israel and other parts of the Middle East, as well as countries like New Zealand – where sheep actually outnumber the populace – shepherds are important, even though they have little social status. Shepherds not only protect their flocks from predators; they also protect the sheep from themselves.

In Ken’s book, Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart, which I had the privilege of co-authoring, he offers numerous other illustrations. But the point is this: As Isaiah declared, in many ways we are indeed like sheep, prone to be misled and get into all manner of mischief. We desperately need a shepherd – the Shepherd – to guide us, watch over us and care for us.

The 23rd Psalm is beloved for its poetic style, but it also communicates enduring truth:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Each of these verses could be discussed individually and applied to our lives and circumstances. But collectively they tell us one thing – we desperately need the Shepherd, and He’s promised to faithfully provide for our needs as we follow Him.

This is why Jesus made what might have seemed a bold declaration when He told His followers, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep…” (John 10:11-18).

In that simple statement Jesus was assuring us that He is our true shepherd, He knows us personally, and at that moment was foretelling the sacrifice He soon would provide atonement for our sins and offer redemption to each of us.

The question we each must answer, one no one can answer for us, is who are we following? Today there are countless “leaders,” many voices calling out and offering to serve as our “shepherd.” Sadly, all but one is leading toward a cliff and too many are blindly, mindlessly following them.

More than 35 years ago I made the determination that the Lord is indeed my Shepherd, and true to His word, I have never been in want. My needs have always been met, sometimes in ways I could never have imagined. And I’ve resolved to follow Him ever since, even though at times I’ve lapsed into my foolish, sheep-like ways. Thankfully, although at times I’ve looked away from Him, Jesus has never looked away from me.

What about you? Who are you following today?

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Curious Command to ‘Do Nothing’


Whenever any kind of difficulty arises in our lives, the first impulse is a desire to do something, anything to get it resolved. “Do something – even if it’s wrong!” - I’ve heard people say this more than once. We can’t wait to make a crisis go away or fix a problem. “What should we do?” “Don’t just sit there, do something!”

Even when not faced with crises, we typically feel better when we’re doing something, being productive. We’re a nation of doers, after all.

We usually have an impulse to do something,
but in one sense, it's better to "do nothing."
Interestingly, one of the most intriguing commands in the Bible is not about what to do, but rather, what not to do. There is a time and also a need for doing nothing. It says so – literally.

In Philippians 2:3-4, the apostle Paul urges his readers, 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.” I like to refer to this as the “do nothing” verse.

Okay, this really isn’t an exhortation to not do anything. Paul is calling for us to make certain that what we do is carried out with humility and concern for others, rather than out of selfishness and self-centered motives. In God’s sight, the “why” of what we do is equally as important as “what.”

In actuality, observing many people today – from top leaders in business, politics and other realms of influence to our friends, family members, and even ourselves – if we were to take this command to heart, we’d wind up either doing nothing or radically changing the things we do.

So much of what we do is couched in a “what’s in it for me?” framework. Even as we perform acts of kindness, we feel disconcerted if our actions aren’t met by equivalent expressions of gratitude and appreciation. We want to feel good about what we do, and how can we do that if people don’t properly recognize it, right? So even our good deeds are often tainted by self-serving motivations.

Philanthropists give generous donations to their favorite charities, then eagerly pose for photos of them presenting the check to the head of the designated organization. Or they expect their benevolences to be rewarded by having buildings named in their honor. The prominent church member who devotes many hours to organizing the annual holiday event anxiously awaits being introduced so her efforts can be applauded and she can take an appropriately humble bow. “Aw shucks, ‘tweren’t nothin’.” Ah, but they hadn’t been acknowledged, that really would have been something – and probably not something good.

Maybe this is why the passage is phrased as it is, putting emphasis on “do nothing.” Perhaps it’s suggesting that if our intentions are for advancing ourselves, rather than unselfishly seeking first and foremost to address the needs and interests of others, it would be better if we did nothing.

This doesn’t mean, of course, we have a ready-made excuse for not doing good to others. “I don’t know if my heart’s right, so I won’t do anything until I’m sure that it is.” Rather, it’s a reminder that our good deeds should be accompanied by good motives, even if and when they don’t result in our receiving anything good in return.

Did you perform some kindness for a friend, and they didn’t fall all over themselves showing gratefulness for your “sacrifice”? Did you prepare a special surprise for your spouse, but he or she was preoccupied and failed to return the expected appreciative response?

So how can we effectively “do nothing”? Are you a teacher? Teach with all your heart and soul, doing all you can to educate and inspire those entrusted to you, even if no one expresses thanks for all you do. Are you a sales executive? Serve your customers to the max, even if their best interests don’t max your commissions. Are you a boss? Consider how best to encourage and nurture those who report to you, even if it means forgoing or compromising some of your personal goals and ambitions.

If we “do nothing” as the passage from Philippians suggests, we might find ourselves doing quite a lot. As President Harry S. Truman once said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Photographic Memories

Swans at Barnsley Gardens near Atlanta provide a "Kodak moment."

When I was young, if someone kept staring at you for an inordinate amount of time, we’d say something like, “Take a picture – it lasts longer.” It was a snide way of telling someone to mind their own business, but there’s truth in that old rebuke.

Whenever we travel to interesting places I’m rarely without my camera, Next to writing, photography is my second-favorite activity, but taking photos of sights we see is more than a simple hobby. As the saying goes, if I take a picture then the experience lasts longer.

Last year we did a fair amount of traveling and I have hundreds of photos to prove it. No, we didn’t go to exotic venues like Hawaii, Alaska, Europe or Asia, but I have photographic evidence to prove there are many visual delights in places like Orlando, Florida (and not just Walt Disney World), Asheville, N.C., Columbus, Ohio (yes, the land of the Buckeyes), Atlanta, and even Nebraska.

Fireworks at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
leave an indelible memory on visitors.
Long after we’ve returned from our trips, I can review my collection of photos from those times and relive some of our experiences, using them to jog my memory. As I review images from those trips I also can take note of details I might have missed when I saw them originally.

When I find myself caught in the humdrum tedium of daily work and responsibilities, it’s fun to remind myself of special times my family and I have enjoyed as we've ventured outside the mundane moments of everyday life.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something similar along our individual spiritual journeys? Actually we can, although not by using a digital camera or smart phone camera. We have to rely on our memories, the mental images of key moments in our lives when God intervened in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

It’s important to make a point to do this regularly because if we don’t, we fall into the trap of the ancient Israelites when they would forget their miraculous deliverance from Egypt and start asking God, “What have You done for us lately?”

After witnessing the numerous plagues God brought upon the Egyptians – none of which affected the people of Israel – they were served an eviction notice by the frustrated Pharaoh. Then, when Egyptian forces pursued the Israelites after Pharaoh had yet another change of heart, God parted the Red Sea and led Moses and the men, women and children of Israel to the safety of the opposite shore.

As they traveled, whenever the Israelites grew thirsty or hungry, God made miraculous provision for them. Still, their “photographic” memories often failed them. “The Israelites said to (Moses and Aaron), ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into the desert to starve…” (Exodus 16:3). Later they grumbled, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).

Even though the Lord brought both quail and manna for the Israelites to eat, they still found reasons to complain. Instead of “don’t worry, be happy,” their theme song was “don’t be happy, be worried.” Maybe it would have helped if they had been able to look at Kodak scrapbooks of the times when God bailed them out, but they chose instead to forget what He had done. Instead, they sugarcoated their centuries of enslavement in Egypt and longed for them as if they were “the good old days.”

Who could guess these pandas displayed at
the Grove Park Inn are made of gingerbread?
Don’t we do that sometimes? We pray and God answers, often in ways far beyond anything we could have hoped and imagined. Yet months or weeks or even days later, we fret and worry, acting as if God had never done a single kind thing for us.

So I make a point of reminding myself of wonderful things He has done. Can you remember the first time you sensed God is really there? Was there a special moment – perhaps in church, at a spiritual retreat, even an in-depth conversation with a friend – when God revealed Himself and His truth in a way He had not done before?

Has there been a time when a family member or friend was in dire straits and you prayed for them, clueless about how God could possibly resolve the crisis – and yet He did? Was there a personal struggle you were dealing with, possibly involving finances or illness, and you turned to God only as a last resort – and yet He came through in an amazing way?

One of the wonderful things about the Bible is the honesty of its writers. They weren’t much different from us. For instance, the psalmist writes, “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted” (Psalm 77:1-2). Does this sound like anything you’ve experienced?

How did the author of this psalm find comfort? He remembered. “I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11-12).

The psalm writer might not have had a handy stack of photos to sift through, but his vivid memories – both from his own life and from those of his people – served as reminders, helping him to remember and continue to trust in God’s faithful presence and provision.

Is it time that you pulled some out of the “photos” from your spiritual journey, reminding yourself of what the Lord has done in your life, perhaps even some things you haven’t thought about for a long time? As the psalmist urges us – remember.

Monday, January 5, 2015

More Suggestions for Growing


In my last post I discussed the value of setting spiritual goals, recognizing we can’t truly measure our personal growth. But reasonable, realistic goals can get us moving in the right direction.

Devoting daily time to pray is important. But I’ve found spending at least a few minutes a day reading the Bible is equally valuable. If we want to build a relationship with someone, we need to talk with them – and afford them time to talk with us. God is not an exception.

If you’re ambitious, you might even attempt something like reading the entire Bible over a period of a year or two. I’ve done that, and it’s been very enlightening to gain an overview of the Word of God from start to finish.

However, I’d recommend not reading front to back as we would with a typical book. Genesis and Exodus, written in narrative form and consist largely of stories, are very engaging. But frankly, when I’ve ventured into Numbers, Deuteronomy and Leviticus there have been times when I’ve felt like I was wandering in the wilderness with the wayward Israelites.
If you want to grow, you must be willing
to let it go.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t read those books of the Bible, because I believe they’re just as important as any of the others. But it might be good to try to balance reading a portion from them while also reading a chapter or two from another book, like Psalms or Proverbs, or something from the New Testament. That way, you can “come up for air” when a passage from Numbers or Leviticus starts seeming confusing, or too obscure and irrelevant for life in the 21st century.

If reading the entirety of the Bible, 39 Old Testament books and 27 in the New Testament, seems too daunting, select a single book to read, not just for information but also for inspiration. Try reading thoughtfully, meditating on what you come across and asking God to speak to you personally. You might even pray the verse I’ve cited before: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18).

If you read something you don’t understand, don’t let that bother you. I’ve been reading the Scriptures almost daily for more than 30 years, and find it’s like peeling an onion. You remove one layer and discover there’s another layer underneath, ready to be explored. And because the Bible is “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword…” (Hebrews 4:12), a passage that doesn’t seem to make sense or have much meaning when you read it will suddenly become alive when you read it again some other time.

One other suggestion: Don’t keep what you learn to yourself. Share it with others. This accomplishes two things. First, what you share with others might well be a special blessing to them. You can do this in the context of a small group, while mentoring someone, or just in the course of a conversation. Second, when we’re willing to share what God has taught us with others, He then promises to entrust us with more understanding.

In a little New Testament book, Philemon, it says, “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” (Philemon 6). Whenever I read this verse, the words “so that” seem to jump out – if we are obedient in sharing what God has given us, then He’ll give us more.

Jesus affirmed this in Luke 16:10 when He stated, 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.” I understand this to mean, “Why should I give you more if you’re not willing to put into practice what I’ve already given to you?” Or in other words, use it or lose it.

Is one of your goals for this year to grow spiritually, to draw closer to God? Then pray. Read His Word. And share with others what He’s teaching you along the way. Growing will follow.