Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Best Smiles

“…and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage.” (Isa.41:6b)

Looking through pictures from a recent family (or, at least, a part of the family) get-together, I commented to one of my grandsons who was nearby that in one picture he is looking quite sober, but in the next he is all smiles. He explained, “That’s because I’m standing next to Glory (his sister), and she always gets the best smiles out of people.” I considered this to be a high compliment for her, and well-deserved, I might add. I was reminded of something I read recently: “One way to change people is to give them something different to react to.” This may not be a fool-proof tactic, but it works enough of the time that the wise man has postulated, “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Prov.15:1).

I have observed through the years that one way of categorizing people is to put them in one of two groups: those who bring out the best in others, and those who bring out the worst. This can be done by overt provocation, but it can also be accomplished with subtle insinuation. The first group is easy to spot and hopefully avoid, while the handiwork of the second is sometimes never noticed till he or she is gone from our presence. Insidious discouragers, sowers of discord, and untiring critics come to mind. No doubt, the greatest harm comes when these people are family members, but they also lurk among those we loosely call “friends,” and both groups put a drag on our lives—especially our Christian lives—that is hard to overcome. Obviously, the best defense is limited contact, but in some cases, this is impossible. This would be a good place to throw up a shield of faith and dull the barbs with the joy of the Lord. When these people threaten to wear us down, the promise is that “the joy of the LORD is [our] strength” (Neh.8:10b).

Perhaps, though, the greatest challenge for us would be to align ourselves in the ranks of those who bring out the best in others with words of encouragement, assurances of love, gentle rebukes, and, yes, sincere smiles. Are you, like our Glory, good at getting the best smiles out of others? It may seem like an insignificant achievement in the great scheme of things, but to the extent that it makes us more convincing messengers of the “gospel of peace” and “glad tidings of good things” (Rom.10:15), it becomes a worthy enough goal.

Monday, May 28, 2007

You're Not in Charge Here

“Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.”(Rom.6:18)

Freedom from one automatically makes us a servant to the other. There is no other alternative. “No one tells me what to do,” you may say; but the truth is, someone else is always pulling the strings. “I gotta’ be me,” the old popular song says, but which me? The one who has chosen “sin unto death,” or the one who opts for “obedience unto righteousness” (v.16)? The most strong-willed among us are merely fulfilling the wishes of another with greater vehemence. We’re never doing our own thing.

When we defy the commandments of God it’s only because we have surrendered the reigns of our lives to the devil, allowed sin to reign in our mortal bodies and, therefore, have become obedient to its lusts (v.12). On the other hand, when we are pleasing the Father, it is because we have been made “free from sin, and become servants of God” (v.22). Our “members” (bodies), are simply instruments, either of righteousness or unrighteousness (v.13). We are always in the hands of another, accomplishing either the will of God or the designs of the devil.

Each of us is faced with the same choice Joshua gave the children of Israel: “[C]hoose you this day whom ye will serve…” (Josh.24:15). Make no mistake; we are all somebody’s servant; and I’d just as soon have the One who holds the keys of life and death telling me what to do. How about you?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Change of Life

“For I am the LORD, I change not…” (Mal.3:6)
He’s the only one who can make this claim. C.S. Lewis has observed, “To live in time is to live with change.” But since God only experienced the restraints of time for thirty-three years out of His existence from eternity to eternity, He is exempt from all its modifications and limitations. And as the remaining half of the verse points out, it’s good thing all around. (“…therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed”) His commitment is as invariable as His character, which is why I have committed my soul to Him (2Tim.1:12).

As I have already indicated, however, you and I cannot make this boast. We change. Still, that’s not such a bad thing. Some things need to change. But in the case of a true child of God, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, change is only progress when elemental, essential beliefs remain the same. Change, for the sake of change, is simply that: change. As the writer of Proverbs says, there are some people who are just “given to change” (24:21), and they wear others out in the process. The Christian experience should deepen with age, not becoming more complex, only more complete. Outward manifestation may change, but the inner core will remain as constant as God, who put it there. If not, no Good Seed was ever planted in the first place.

When I was growing up, menopause was usually referred to as the “change of life.” The foreboding of the term is probably why it is seldom used now. It sounds as though nothing will ever be the same again. But, in truth, nothing ever is, throughout all of life. Hormones may appear to suddenly become erratic—in both men and women—but, actually, infancy, childhood, puberty, adulthood, and middle age have all been moving us steadily toward old age. It only seems like, as the saying goes, “About the time your face clears up, your mind gets fuzzy!

Ironically enough, when it comes time for me to stand in the presence of God, the first order of business will be one last change (1Cor.15:51-52). On that day, He will change my “vile body” and fashion it “like unto his glorious body” (Philip.3:21). And that, dear friends, is the “change of life” I’m waiting for!

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Sit; I Will Be the One!"

“Then said she, Sit still, my daughter…” (Ruth 3:18)

My daughter, Leah, spends nearly two weeks every year in the Philippines. There, along with others from her church, she ministers to and with Filipino Christians in crusades and conferences. Needless to say, she has come to love the people and has many friends there. She considers them to be some of the most thoughtful, happy, and caring people she has ever met. They love to do for others, and when you are preparing to get something, or do something, they will often say, “I will be the one”; or “Sit; I will be the one.”

Volunteerism is always admired, but not always emulated. Obviously, we may not be capable of every endeavor or work to be done, but even when the job is well within our realm of expertise, it is very easy to say, “Let Jack (or Jill) do it; I have my own fish to fry.” And when the job is an especially unpleasant one, we are even less inclined to raise our hands. That’s why someone who can be counted on to step into the gaping voids of life is such a blessing to others. In Ruth’s case, she and her mother-in-law were widows, adrift in a harsh world of survival; yet Naomi was confident enough in the character of their kinsman, Boaz, to reassure her, “Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall: for the man will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day.”

And in the same way, our Heavenly Boaz, Jesus Christ, did not rest until He had finished the unimaginable task of paying the price for our redemption. “…when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb.1:3). Now, to all of those flailing around in an effort to appease God and overcome sin, He says, “Sit; I will be the One. I will be the One to take the punishment of sin, break its power in your life, and one day, deliver you from its very presence.” Make no mistake; the death of Christ was a voluntary undertaking that did not make Him a mere martyr, but, rather, the Savior of the world, because He lived to tell it. He is the One and only One!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Be of Good Cheer

“Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.” (Acts 27:25)

One of the editors of the Newsweek magazine has offered what she considers to be a clear indication that our president is in denial about what is happening around him, especially the war. The fact that as a boy of seven he tried to cheer his mother up after the loss of a child provides an early sign that a tendency toward optimism was inherent; and this, she concludes, is a very bad thing. To quote her: "The tip-off for denial is perpetual optimism, a pathological certainty that things are going well." This editor, who, by the way, has no actual training in such things, is typical of most news media types, who know that misery sells better than happiness. And the idea that someone can express optimism in the face of opposition is to her “pathological.”

This does not bother me too much in individuals who are familiar with God in name only, but when I see it in men and women who claim to have a living relationship with Him, I am somewhat baffled. In the case of a Christian, the lack of joy—cheerfulness, if you will—is much more of an indication that one is living in a state of denial, since everything we know about God from His Word would indicate that He is eminently in control.

Somewhere along the line, we seem to have gotten the impression that gravity is an indication of depth and profundity, while cheerfulness is a sign of shallowness and superficiality. Perhaps it comes from our own need to appear important. Whatever it is, it is for certain it does not come from the Bible. Nor does it mean one must be unaware of the seriousness of a situation. In times of sickness (Matt.9:2), fear (Matt.14:27), tribulation (Jno.16:33), and even imprisonment (Acts 23:11), we are encouraged to “be of good cheer.” In Acts 27, in the midst of a great storm, threatening the lives of all on board, the Apostle Paul, stands in their midst and proclaims, “Sirs, be of good cheer, for I believe God…” Now, we’re beginning to get the picture. You thought there was a catch, didn’t you? It all goes back to that little, all-important word, “faith.” People who truly believe what God has said have a totally different outlook on life from those who are openly, or secretly, skeptical.

I should hasten to point out that mindless optimism, or inappropriate hilarity is not a sign of godly cheer, but rather, immaturity. One should be serious about cheerfulness, if I may say it that way. It should rest upon the promises of God, not wishful thinking. The fact is, there is much in this life that would give us good excuse for gloom; but, on the other hand, there is nothing about God’s eternal life that leaves any room for pessimism.

We have every right in the world to be incorrigibly cheerful. Go for it!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Dear Readers:

I was blessed this Mother’s Day to have my older daughter, Leah, here for a visit. She is a special person, who has a heart for people—especially children—with “special needs.” She shared a truth with her father and me that two of them had taught her recently, and I thought it would be a blessing to you, as well. So…enjoy!

"Good, Better and Best"

"For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise." (2 Cor. 10:12)

Over the past ten years, I have developed a very tender spot in my heart for people with Down's Syndrome. It began back in 1997 when I met an adorable two-year-old boy named Bo. Though it is evident by Bo's features that he is Down's, he is very much "on the high end" intellectually. He speaks relatively clearly and continues to expand his vocabulary, reads and writes a little, is extremely cognizant of all that goes on around him, and is a loyal fan of Scooby-Doo. The only major struggle Bo faces is that he is still not completely toilet-trained even though he recently celebrated his 12th birthday.

Another of my favorite "Down's people" is Morganne Mach. Morganne lives (and was born) on the mission field of the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Her mother and I have been friends for about 27 years now. Like a true "woman," Ten-year-old Morganne talks incessantly; however, very little of anything she says can be understood by anyone except some of her immediate family. She struggles academically despite her mother giving her diligent speech therapy activities and specialized home-schooling. She is bubbly and loud and active... and has been completely toilet trained for several years. Her Down's features are evident and her mother must often gently remind her, "Morganne, put your tongue in your mouth."

Morganne's family was on furlough a couple of years ago and parked their motor home at our house for several months while they had meetings in our area. One of those meetings was at our own church's mission conference. During this time, we were all excited to see Bo and Morganne meet and interact with one another. What I observed gave me one of the greatest spiritual rebukes of my life.

Passive and somewhat reserved as usual, Bo was sitting next to me when Morganne came running energetically over to the two of us, hugged me and began a paragraph of animated conversation which was completely untranslatable. Then she grabbed Bo in one of her bear hugs and finally stepped back with her tongue hanging out (a normal Down's trait) and just stared at him. After a long minute, she smiled at him and walked away.

As she was walking away, Bo looked at me with a scowl and said, "I don't like that girl." Knowing this was NOT his usual nature, I asked incredulously, "Why?" He said, "Ummm, she's loud... and she stick her tongue out... and she talks weird to me; I don't like that." After I had an on-his-level heart-to-heart talk with him about it, I began thinking....

Bo is not unlike many of us.

By our standards, both Bo and Morganne are "less than perfect" so we find it unthinkable that he would look down upon her. After all, you cannot tell by looking at Bo that he is not completely toilet-trained; but you can immediately perceive that Morganne cannot communicate well. So it does appear that he is the "better" of the two.

Do we not do the same every day with our fellow believers? In our Father's sight, we are all handicapped and "... come short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23); yet we constantly compare ourselves to some fellow Christian who is just not quite as spiritual as us. You know, the ones whose faults and sins are readily seen-- as opposed to our inward ones like envy, pride, jealousy, etc...

Bo has an excuse for his reasoning, he is mentally handicapped. What excuse do we have for our Pharisaical reasoning? Perhaps we are spiritually handicapped more than we know.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Royalty That Can Be Touched

“And the whole multitude sought to touch him…” (Luke 6:19a)

As you probably know, the Queen came calling a few days ago, Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, that is. One the things we learned, if you didn’t already know it, was that protocol dictates that at no time should the Queen be touched. One may not even extend a hand of greeting unless she offers hers first. Most of these practices have historical precedent, and obviously, they are breached on occasion, but to do so is to indicate ignorance at best, and arrogance at worst.

My first thought, of course, when being reminded of this prohibition, was to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the King of all the earth (Psl.47:7), who knew before He ever took human form that not only would He be touched and handled (1Jno.1:1), He would also be manhandled (Mk.14:65). It is safe to say, I think, that the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ gives testimony not only to His love but also His openness to the human touch. Men (Mk.8:22), women (Mk.5:28,41), and children (Mk.10:13)—all were able to touch God in the flesh. Even the one who handed Him over to His enemies was allowed to press his lips against the cheek of the guiltless One, in a kiss of betrayal.

Second Corinthians reminds us that you and I cannot touch Jesus Christ as those early Christians were able to (5:16), but that does not mean we cannot experience the same results. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus can still be touched, and it is our “infirmities”—our inadequacies, if you will—that make Him especially accessible to us. It is the hand of need that is the quickest to lay hold on God.

I have no illusions of ever being in the presence of earthly royalty, much less experiencing its touch, but every day I come into the presence of the One who holds within His hands the heart of all kings (Prov.21); and every day, by faith, I touch Him. It may not be skin to skin, but it’s heart to heart, and it’s every bit as real. Can you say the same?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

A House of Mirrors

“And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” (Num.13:33)

From reading the last half of the verse, it’s reasonable to assume that the reason the ten gloomy spies saw themselves as grasshoppers in comparison to the giant Anakims, was because that’s the way the Anakims saw them. Obviously, the comparison is completely skewed. The Anakims may well have been giants, but the Israelites were not as small as grasshoppers in comparison. Midgets maybe, but not grasshoppers! Some things never change. We are all prone to exaggeration, one way or the other. In some cases, it may not be too harmful, especially if it’s used satirically. But at other times, such as in this example, it can be disastrous. The picture these men painted of the impossible odds that would have to be faced if they followed God and Moses into the Promised Land was so fearful that the people lost heart and ended up postponing victory for forty years.

We all know that few of us see ourselves as we truly are; but to try to remedy this by seeing ourselves as others see us is not always an accurate gauge either. Neither we nor they are free from bias. Love and hate can both be blind. Self-loathing is just as dishonest as narcissism (love of oneself). And the opinion of a prejudicial critic is no worse than that of an over indulgent friend. The truth is, this world is like a house of mirrors that gives us a sometimes amusing, but never accurate, reflection of ourselves. Even a true mirror can be deceiving. That’s why the reflection we see when we make a quick pass is different from the one we see when we take the time to stand and gaze. The latter has the benefit (?) of time to factor in a preconceived idea that either masks or magnifies flaws.

The only true picture you and I will ever have of ourselves is the one given to us in the infallible Word of God. It is a true reflection of what the penetrating eye of God sees before and after He has fashioned us into “new creatures” (2Cor.5:17), once clothed with filthy rags (Isa.64:6) but now robed with the righteousness of the perfect Son of God. So if anyone asks you how you see yourself, tell them, “Not too good; but God thinks I’m perfect, and He’s got better eyesight!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Him With Whom We Have To Do

“Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” (Heb.4:13)

C.S. Lewis has observed that what most of us are really looking for is not a Heavenly Father, but rather, a heavenly grandfather. But we need to get one thing straight: God is nobody’s grandfather. If our relationship to Him is not an immediate bloodline, there is no connection at all. If the Bible teaches anything, it makes this truth abundantly clear. Still, as you well know, teaching that is Biblically sound is not always practically seen. Lewis’ observation is a case in point.

If you and I are not carefull, we can easily see God as a benevolent, indulgent deity, content to sit by and watch us play and have a good time, merely shaking his hoary head from time to time and murmur a gentle, “No-no, now.” Not senile exactly, just unobservant. This idea is reminiscent of a philosophy popular in the 18th Century, called Deism, which acknowledged that God must have existed to create the universe and all its laws, but there is no reason to think He has any concern with the day to day concerns of men or justice. Obviously, this was only wishful thinking. It was alright to believe in God, but not much of one. It goes without saying, if the God who created all things is actually watching, the implications are enormous…and potentially life changing.

You who are grandparents, as we are, have no doubt experienced hearing from your children say, “You never would have let me get away with that!” And it’s true; we often succumb to the temptation to pass over offenses in our grandchildren that we castigated in their parents. (I will not argue here whether this is a virtue or a vice!) My point is this: you and I have to deal with God personally. As the verse says, it is Him “with whom we have to do.” With regard to our eternal destiny—Heaven or hell—Jesus Christ stands between God and us, but parental discipline, as well as parental protection, is part of God’s job description. And He takes it seriously. Children of God can, and do, sin, but never successfully. The old gospel song says, “My Heavenly Father watches over me.” But there’s also an old Negro spiritual that says, “He sees all you do and He hears all you say; my Lord’s a-watchin’ all the time.” Both are true.