Thursday, December 18, 2014

Learning Experiences

It’s sometimes said that experience is the best teacher. Some lessons learned through experiences can’t be grasped in any other way. That’s probably why so many parents find themselves on the verge of panic when their teenagers take their first solo drives. Even if you have complete confidence in them, there’s no way to prepare them for the unexpected. Only experience can do that.

In gaining experience,
remember - there will be a test.
One of the problems with having Mr. Experience as a primary teacher, however, is it includes so many tests in the curriculum. In fact, there’s rarely time to “study” for these tests – they present themselves as “pop quizzes.”

I remember the time when I was a wet-behind-the-ears college freshman, driving to school after being initiated into the local fraternity. I was wearing the required freshman “beanie” (orange and blue, if you need to know) and baby bib bearing the fraternity’s name, all part of a very tame hazing tradition. What I was thinking about I can’t recall – maybe the girl who would be sitting next to me in English class – but just ahead of me a car suddenly slowed dramatically.

An earlier accident had left a flooded street from a broken fire hydrant. Too late I noticed how rapidly my car was closing in on the other vehicle. I slammed on the brakes, but too late. I learned a quick lesson in hydroplaning and a moment later the hood of my car crumpled upward as it collided with the trunk of the auto in front of it. A practical but costly lesson in the principle of physics that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

Thankfully no one was injured, other than my self-esteem. My embarrassment was magnified by the foolish-looking beanie and bib I was wearing for the occasion. I had flunked the test that experience had presented, but did learn an important lesson: “When driving, pay attention, dumb college student!”

No one hops on a bicycle for the first time and remains upright, perfectly balanced. There’s the wobbling as you cling to the handlebars, at least a few flops, and some tentative pedaling until you get the hang of it.  With experience though, you get better at it. At least most people do.

The first time I attempted public speaking I was a nervous wreck. Over time, and with experience, I found myself still nervous before speaking, but didn’t make the fool of myself that I feared. (At least that’s my opinion. Members of my audiences might beg to differ.)

But it’s the tests involved in the experience process that stand out. Often they’re difficult, and we might fail, but experience serves to help us in doing better the next time. This reality applies to newlyweds, suddenly discovering married life isn’t the piece of cake it seemed to be at the wedding. Similarly, first-time parents, no matter how enraptured they are by their new addition, find having a baby isn’t always the cute, cuddly experience they had imagined it would be. They, and infant, are learning on the fly.

Maybe that’s why we’re advised in James 1:2-4, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and compete, not lacking anything.”

Expanding on this idea later in the chapter it says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under the trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

The experiences of everyday life – along with the tests that accompany them – are often difficult, even painful. But they can be tools God uses to shape us into the people He intends for us to be. The fires of adversity typically are not anything we’d have sought for ourselves, or for our loved ones. But through these tests and the experience of persevering through them we become better, stronger, and hopefully more faithful people. For that we can truly say, “Thank you, Teacher.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

Accentuate the Positive?

From time to time we’re treated to new renditions of old favorite songs. I remember when Faith Hill, then a rising star in the country-western world, recorded a twangy version of Janis Joplin’s classic, “Piece of My Heart.” Barbra Streisand has just released a new album – yep, she can still sing – in which she does duets with popular male singers. For one of the songs, “Love Me Tender,” she’s joined by the King himself, Elvis. Guess it’s true what they say: You can’t keep a good man down.

The Andrews Sisters in the mid-1940s
sang about "accentuating the positive."
(Wikipedia photo)
Frankly, I like this idea of recycling hit tunes from the past. So much of what’s presented as music these days lacks, well, just about everything. So why not reprise more oldies but goldies, songs with proven track records. I’d like to nominate a song from bygone days that suggested we should “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.” This musical ditty, popularized by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters starting in 1944, deserves to be re-recorded by someone today because if anything, we tend to do just the opposite.

Take our social media for example. We find conservatives criticizing liberals, liberals lashing out at conservatives. Sports fans redressing players on their favorite teams because they failed to perform to their expectations. People who espouse one ideology launching unrelenting attacks against people that disagree with them.

“If you can’t say something negative, don’t say anything at all” seems to be the motto of the day.

That doesn’t mean we should accept everything and anything in the name of “tolerance.” We’re entitled to our beliefs and convictions. But it seems our national and personal self-images are in such sad shape the only way we can build ourselves up is by tearing others down.

So again, I propose someone famous should re-record “Accentuate the Positive” and turn it into a national hit. International even, maybe like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” or Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Wouldn’t it be great if we all started singing and humming, “Ya gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…”?

Of course, this idea’s not new. Long before that song was conceived, the ancient book we know as the Bible suggested the same thing. Writing to the church in the city of Philippi, the apostle Paul urged followers of Jesus, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things(Philippians 4:8).

This isn’t a call for Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand, “don’t worry, be happy”-type thinking, but an exhortation to focus on the good, the uplifting, the encouraging and the redemptive, rather than the ugly, the demeaning and the degrading.

It’s been reported that negative, destructive thinking and acting takes a toll not only on its targets, but also on those who harbor such thoughts and actions. So as we continue through this holiday season, being reminded of the virtues of “good will toward men,” maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take the admonition from Ephesians 4:29 to heart: 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.”

Who knows? We might make someone’s day – in a good way!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ask Not, Have Not

‘Tis the season for asking. It’s the time of year when children of all ages compile their Christmas wish lists. Youngsters sidle up to Santa eager to inform him of what they expect to find under the tree on Christmas morning. Some ask nicely, others are more demanding.

I remember in the “olden days” (before the Internet and even Toys ‘R Us) lustfully browsing through the thick Sears Christmas catalog, enraptured by the vast array of toys presented just in time for the holiday season. I’d make my selections and then advise my parents of what I wanted, in essence asking them to fulfill my heart’s desire for Christmas.

Each year around this time,
Santa Claus gets "asked" a lot.
Every year many thousands of letters are written and sent to Santa Claus at the North Pole, some in pen, some in pencil, and some even scrawled in crayon. Sensitive, mature-beyond-their-years youngsters ask for sensible things, like clothes, something nice for Mommy or Daddy, or even for Mommy and Daddy to get along. But most of the time the requests are for stuff ranging from dolls and Legos to the newest high-tech gizmos. “All I want for Christmas is my…iPad”?

So is it wrong to ask? Not hardly. Even Jesus encouraged us to do so: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Asking isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if we don’t ask, people often won’t have a clue about what we want.

I’ve often found this as a consumer. I’m not prone to complaining, but on rare instances when I receive poor service I sometimes offer my comments to the appropriate retail establishment. Not only to vent my displeasure, but also to alert the company of unacceptable practices that might be affecting other customers as well. Usually I receive appreciative responses.

Recently, after reviewing a bank statement for our modest savings account, I noticed the monthly interest rate had dropped substantially. I went to the institution and asked about the change. The bank officer kindly informed me that at my request it could be increased, but I would have to ask again in three months since the rate is not permanent. No problem. I’ll just give myself a reminder and in about three months I’ll return to the bank and ask them to renew the higher interest rate. It’s not a difficult thing to do – and I make a few extra bucks in the process.

It amazes me that since we’re so good at asking for things during the Christmas season, why we aren’t more proactive in asking at other times of the year. We’d rather grumble and complain, feeling victimized and mistreated. Maybe if we learned to ask more often, things would go better for us.

This principle holds true spiritually as well. Philippians 4:6 suggests instead of fretting, we should learn to humbly ask God about our needs and concerns. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In essence, God is saying, “It’s okay, you can ask Me. I always like hearing from you.”

The apostle James affirmed much the same thing when he observed,You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Or, as another translation states it, "You have not because you ask not." We wrestle with many issues – health, finances, family strife, work, tough decisions – yet we rarely bother to trustingly turn to God for the solutions. So, the Scriptures tell us, since we don’t ask we don’t have what we desire.

There is one prerequisite to our asking, however, as James proceeded to explain. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). When we ask, the Lord wants us to do so with the right motives, not out of selfish intentions, greed, jealousy or pride. Are we seeking our own gratification, or are our requests in line with God’s purposes and plans not only for us, but also for those we encounter every day?

So it’s good to pause and consider why we’re asking for what we have in mind. If we’re confident our motives are right, then as the adage reminds us, “it never hurts to ask.” 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Worthy of Grace?

In our quest to communicate effectively, it’s often said, “It’s not what you say – it’s exactly what you say.” In other words, leave no room for confusion or ambiguity. I wonder if the same principle might apply to prayer: It’s not what you pray – it’s exactly what you pray.

What brings this to mind is a public prayer I heard recently in which the individual very humbly and piously prayed that the hearers might strive to be “worthy of God’s grace.” At first blush this sounds noble enough, but from a theological standpoint it makes no sense.

Grace, as I’ve learned over the years, is defined as “unmerited or undeserved favor.” In other words, it’s the favor and kindness of God that we can’t earn, no matter how hard we try. We can never become “worthy” of God’s favor or approval. If we could, Jesus’ death on the cross would have been unnecessary. He died on our behalf, not because we we’re deserving, but because there’s no way we could “clean up our act.”

Stating this another way, we can contrast the biblical concepts of grace and mercy: Grace is receiving what we don’t deserve (or, what we’re not worthy of) – God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance. Mercy is not receiving what we do deserve – which is condemnation because of sinfulness and willing rebellion against Him, virtually from birth.

Of course this tends to fly against our sensibilities. We like to view ourselves as “basically good people,” offering the excuses “nobody’s perfect” and “we’re only human.” Sounds good, but according to the Bible, that’s not good enough.

We see this clearly in the candid writings of the apostle Paul, who conceded, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:21-23).

A few verses earlier Paul made an observation many of us can relate to: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Have you ever been there, knowing there was something you genuinely had no intention of doing, yet you did it anyway? At such times, did you ever feel worthy of God’s grace, His unmerited favor?

After Paul’s agonizing admission of not having done what he wanted to do, along with doing what he really didn’t want to do, he reaches this conclusion: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” But then he adds these hopeful, joyful words: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:24-8:1).

This was the apostle Paul writing this, whose letters (epistles) make up much of the New Testament, not some homeless derelict. This was the fellow who also wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This grace and the faith to receive it are a gift from God, Paul declares.

So the next time you do something that you know doesn’t meet God’s approval, or you think something you know you shouldn’t be thinking, and it occurs to you that you’re unworthy of His love – and His grace – join the club. We’re all unworthy. As Paul also wrote, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

And that’s why it’s called grace. So stop trying to be worthy, and don’t pray that you will be. Just try to be grateful.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Struggling to See the Big Picture

"Wish," a creation of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, in Belfast, Ireland.

If you wanted to create a huge portrait, what materials would you use? How about dirt and sand, wood, stones and grass?

That might sound strange, unless you’ve heard of the artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. Recently I read about his “Wish,” the largest land portrait ever created in the British Isles, on an empty 11-acre lot in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He made this image of an anonymous girl, viewable only by air or from the highest points in the city, using 30,000 wooden pegs, 2,000 tons each of soil and sand, and a variety of other materials including grass, string and rocks.

Rodriguez-Gerada has established an impressive career making massively scaled portraits in public spaces around the world, often in natural settings. As with other artists that have created similar imaginative works, he begins with a plan and an image known only to him. With the help of laborers, paid and voluntary, the required materials are hauled to the site and placed according to his instructions. Only Rodriguez-Gerada knows how the finished product will appear.

Can you imagine what it’s like being the workers, following the artist’s specifications on placement of various materials and how much of each to use, without having a clue what they’re working on? It would be like assembling a million-piece puzzle, without being able to refer to the photo on the outside of the box.

In a very real sense, the life of faith is much like this. We go from one day to the next, following life’s inevitable twists and turns, our feelings ranging from exhilarated and optimistic to confused and perplexed over how and why things happen as they do. Some days the path ahead seems clear; others are like traveling through the proverbial dark tunnel, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of light at its end.

During such times of uncertainty, trusting in God, His perfect plan and sovereignty can carry us through. This is when passages like Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” offer such comfort.

The Lord also offers this promise: See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). We are stuck in the present, seeing only the here and now, but God has a different perspective from high above – as if hovering in a helicopter, able to perceive past, present and future at once. Kind of like viewing Rodriguez-Gerada’s “Wish” from a lofty location.

But there’s another element to this metaphor. Imagine how the laborers feel when at last their work is done and they have an opportunity to step back and appreciate their work, finally understanding what the master artist had in mind.

We too have the opportunity – and privilege – of participating in what the Master Artist is doing, not only in our personal lives but also in the lives of people around us, perhaps even people living thousands of miles away. Because even though we don’t know His grand scheme, God invites us to partner with Him: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9).

This thought thrills me because I know the Lord doesn’t need me. He created the entire universe without my help, without once consulting with me. So when He asks me to be His “fellow worker,” it’s like He’s saying, “Hey, you want to join in the fun? Come on, then, let’s do it.”

No, God doesn’t provide inside information on what He’s up to, and has no obligation to do so. He simply asks, “Are you willing to trust Me?” If we do, one day we’ll understand and realize the truth that He “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

Monday, December 1, 2014

Global Warming of a Different Kind

The global warming/climate change debate rages unabated. A newly released report stated despite horrendous early winter conditions in upstate New York and other parts of the United States, 2014 is set to become the world’s warmest year on record. Who knew?

Since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted this study, it sounds credible. Who’s to argue with the NOAA? And yet, other seemingly reputable scientific sources report contrary findings. So who are we to believe – Al Gore? Frosty the Snowman? Congress, where it seems much of the world’s hot air is generated?

"It's A Wonderful Life" is a heartwarming, classic
story about redemption and redemption.
As I’ve admitted in previous posts, I’m not a scientist; much of scientific lexicon leaves me at a loss. So the magnitude and consequences of physical global warming aren’t something I’m qualified to assess. But I’ve concluded another form of global warming – global heart-warming – is definitely and desperately needed.

This is the time of year when schmaltzy, feel-good holiday films are shown in theaters and on TV – often simplistic, generally heartwarming stories of harmony overcoming animosity, love evicting hatred, unity dispelling division, compassion conquering selfishness.

One of my favorites for the holiday season is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Jimmy Stewart classic in which humility and sacrifice triumph over the tyrannical town magnate. Then there’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which Kris Kringle succeeds in uniting a cynical mother, her hopeful little daughter and a trusting, determined attorney. And then we have “A Christmas Carol,” the Charles Dickens classic story of a crotchety miser whose heart is softened by a series of midnight visitations. Each concludes with its own version of happily ever after.

But why does this happen only in the movies and not so much in real life? Strife, hatred and conflict seem on the rise, while “good will toward men” seems increasingly in short supply. Why can’t we all just get along, right?

If someone could definitively solve that question, they’d be deserving of more than the Nobel Peace Prize. But as we approach the Christmas celebration, we are reminded a solution has indeed been offered. Discord and cold hearts don’t necessarily need to be our “default setting.” The question is, are we willing to accept it?

In proclaiming the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago, the angels proclaimed,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). The King James Version adds the phrase, “good will toward men.” Imagine, peace and good will being made available through God coming in the flesh.

Later, during His earthly ministry, Jesus promised His followers, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Many of us, however, don’t believe this. We try everything we can think of to achieve peace, but if anyone utters the name of Jesus, we hear protests of “intolerance” and “narrow-minded.” Maybe that’s why Jesus said His peace is not “as the world gives.” Maybe the reason animosity reigns across the world is because we so readily reject the peace He alone can provide.

We’re quick to observe the Bible tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), as if it’s simply a matter of willpower. But we forget the first part of Jesus’ statement, what we might call the prerequisite for loving our neighbors: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

If we could do a better job of doing the first, maybe the second part wouldn’t be so difficult. And we’d have a lot more real-life, global heart-warming stories to tell.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks…for EVERYTHING?

As we gather together with family and friends for another Thanksgiving Day, the tradition in many homes is to pause for a few moments to reflect and say a prayer of thanks. Typically we express gratitude for “blessings” like loving relationships, a warm home, the food we’re about to consume, safety, health, and the material resources at our disposal.

The cornucopia, the "horn of plenty."
The cornucopia is used as a symbol of this, representing the overflowing “bounty” many of us enjoy. We may still have wants, but if our true needs are met – food, clothing, shelter – we truly are blessed.

For followers of Jesus Christ, even though it’s not Christmas or Easter, we’ll also thank Him for the gift of His life, death and resurrection – along with all that means for us, not only today but also for tomorrow and eternity. His presence, protection, provision and peace will be remembered with thanksgiving by many.

An interesting passage in the Scriptures, however, offers a somewhat different perspective on how we should approach our giving of thanks and the things we should emphasize. We tend to define “blessings” in terms of good things we possess and experience, but 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 urges us to include every thing in our thanksgiving observances.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” the passage instructs us.

These are the first three verses I ever memorized, because of their brevity. But they’re not short on meaning or magnitude.

The translation I’ve used above is from the New American Standard Version, but the New International Version states the same passage this way: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.” The 19th verse adds, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I’ve pondered these verses a lot and reached the conclusion that when it says, “in everything give thanks,” the literal meaning is…every thing. So as we’re expressing thankfulness for our loved ones, homes, jobs, food, clothing, even the automobile in the garage, the TV on which we’ll be watching football games or holiday shows after a sumptuous dinner, our computers and other high-tech gizmos, we’re also told to give thanks for things we wish we didn’t have.

This means we’re to be thankful for the serious disease that has resisted a cure. Or the family conflict that no amount of holiday cheer can easily resolve. Or the financial burden you haven’t been able to lift. Or the addiction that continues to lurk in the background, relentless in its temptations. Or the unfulfilling, discouraging job you drag yourself to every day.

Or even things not so dire, yet hard to include in your Thanksgiving list – like a pesky neighbor you can’t get along with, or achy joints, a car that breaks down at the most inopportune times, or simply feeling at times like God just isn’t paying attention to what’s going on in this world.

Perhaps you could add to this list. So what are we to do with this admonition, “in everything give thanks”?

Well, we could ignore it; conclude someone must have translated the passage improperly; tell God it’s too hard to do or He doesn’t understand. Or we could just do as it says, giving thanks even for things that range from annoying to desperate. That’s what faith is all about, and why giving thanks for everything is not a “mission impossible."

Because we have God’s promises: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11) and “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will sustain you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

God says we’re to be thankful for everything, no matter what, because whatever it is, He’s right there with us, guiding us through, sometimes carrying us. And for that we should give thanks!