Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Bitterest Pill

Disappointment. We are all far more familiar with it than we'd like to be and very few of us would ever argue that good has come to us from our disappointments. We have allowed ourselves to believe that our lives and the worlds we live in should be places of never ending bliss, free from disappointment or discomfort.

Baloney...that way of thinking is nothing but baloney.

The truth is that disappointment is a part of everyday of our lives. None of us is immune from it and the sooner we face that truth and learn how to profit from our disappointments the better. Life is full of pain and all of us experience loss more than we know victory. May I suggest that there is far more benefit from failure, loss, and disappointment than in victory, ease, and comfort.

In my life I have experienced a great deal of success in a number of areas. I have known what it was to win overwhelmingly as well as scratching out a win at the last minute. I celebrate my victories and remember them accordingly. Yet none of my victories gave me the knowledge or the understanding to become better equipped at handling life. Winning is a temporary high that does little to mold us in the way of genuine success. I have often told my kids in their lives that they will be remembered more for their reaction to disappointment than for their success. I believe that we have overvalued winning. Success is more dependent on character and discipline than on winning.

So how do we handle disappointment? I cannot speak with great authority because I still struggle with it myself. I want to win every time I step on the playing field or power up the video game with my kids. I still get upset when the backgammon app on my phone beats me at a game, much less a match. That is perhaps the first step, realizing that dealing with disappointment is a process, and it's a step that must be repeated over and over again. What I mean by that is that we come to see our disappointments in the overall arc of our lives. We tend to live in the moment and fail to see that life is not individual experiences but the sum total of all that we are and experience. Life itself is a process, a progression that will not be completed in this lifetime. As Christians we need to understand that we are being made into the image of Christ and that process takes time. In fact, it takes a lifetime.

Secondly, we need to get over ourselves. Most of us have a grossly overrated opinion of ourselves. We believe that God cannot get along without us, that the world hinges on our very presence. Hubris (pride) is a powerful motivator and an equally powerful force that directs our reactions to situations. I don't mean to burst your bubble, but God can and will do just fine without you (and me). God blesses us by allowing us to be a part of His work. He doesn't need us, regardless of what we think. Pride is a dangerous attitude when it comes to dealing with others and handling our disappointments.

Thirdly, and certainly not less importantly, we need to examine our motives. I have a habit of keeping cartoons that I find to be funny or thought-provoking, and in a file in my desk I have a cartoon of a man about to sing in church. The caption is the man saying "I don't really care for the words of this song, but I really sound good singing it." Obviously his motives should be questioned. Disappointment often springs from misguided motives. "Why am I doing what I'm doing? is a question that we all ask frequently. When our motive is to advance our image or to influence others to our way of thinking we open ourselves to disappointment. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians that everything we do should be done as if it were for the Lord (Col. 3:23). Please note that I am not saying that we should not be trying to convince others of the truth or of our strong convictions. The question is why we are doing a particular thing. Are we simply trying to draw attention, approval, or applause to ourselves? Often times prideful, "all about me" people will cloak themselves in "good" motives while trying to obscure their real motives. Such attempts always lead to disappointment.

Perhaps we would all be better served by remembering that God is in control of all things and that they will unfold in the manner that he has ordained. We are blessed to partner with Him, but we are not essential or indispensable to His work. I believe that when we submit ourselves to His authority and commit ourselves to His glory we'll learn that there is no such thing as disappointment. His ways are beyond ours, and the sooner we realize and submit ourselves to that way of thinking the better and easier we will understand and respond to disappointment.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Settling for Poor Substitutes

Last week it was revealed that the 2010 book "The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven" was a work of fiction. The young man whose "story" the book purports to tell made a public announcement that the book was a work of fiction. What should have been a minor story with a short shelf life has become a story with "legs" (a longer shelf life than expected) and with a reach that may include LifeWay, the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing operation.

It seems that both the publisher of the book (Tyndale House) and LifeWay were made aware of the controversial nature of the story itself some time ago (in the case of Tyndale, a couple of years) and yet chose to do nothing. As with stories of this nature, the truth is sadly hard to discover and we may never really know who knew what about this story. It is a sad thing that Christian men and Christian companies appear to be evading honest disclosure about this matter. (Here's a link to the story: http://www.christianpost.com/news/boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-publisher-retailer-warned-story-was-a-lie-continued-to-sell-despite-concerns-from-mother-christian-leaders-132775/)

Stories such as this were once the nearly exclusive domain of small publishing houses and those who could afford to self-publish. But Christian media of all kinds has become BIG business. The movie version of the book "Heaven is for Real" made almost $92 MILLION DOLLARS (source; IMDB)  and Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" sold over 30 MILLION COPIES (source:  The Christian Post). Yes, Christian media has become big business, but that's not necessarily good news.

Please note that I have never read "The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven." and will not. What concerns me is the rapidity with which the Christian community in North America is abandoning the Bible and orthodoxy for those things that appeal to a fanciful interpretation of what the Christian faith is all about. I have been a Christian since 1971 and have seen (sadly) a re imagining of Christianity over the last 40 plus years. I remember when guitars and lifted hands were looked on with suspicion. We sang that new song "Pass It On" around campfires as a youth group and listened to music groups that actually used drums in their music! (Scandalous, I know) But through all that we were taught that the Bible was the standard for belief and behavior. We did not worship the Bible, but we reverenced it as the word of God and any time that our opinions collided with the Bible  it was the Bible that won the day.

I don't make any apologies for my stand on the centrality of the Bible for the Christian's life and faith. In fact, I blame the church for much of what the faith has become. When the church became more concerned with flashy services, big crowds and competing with the culture as opposed to countering it we slowly but surely began to drift from our moorings. Please understand that I am not condemning large ministries or new things or modern technology in themselves. I believe that we should use all the tools at our disposal to share the Gospel with those around us. The problem comes when the tools become more important than our message. The Bible was and is and always will be the Word of God and the standard for belief and behavior. We don't have to like it....that's just the way God made it, and everything we do, every tool we use should be held up next to the Bible to ensure that we are in line with its message.

Closely aligned with the over emphasis on tools is our desire to make the gospel "easier." In our desire to when folks for Christ we have created a gospel that lacks a clear call to sacrifice and commitment. Jesus said that we must be willing to deny ourselves and carry a cross (Luke 9:23). That's not easy and it's not popular in a culture that values individual freedom and comfort as much as ours does. There are those who have watered down that dynamic call to a matter of simple mental assent, an easy believing that really makes no demands on us at all. Those will be the people who stand before the Lord and wonder why God doesn't know them (Matt. 7).

It seems to me that in the midst of all the Christian books and cd's, movies, clothing and everything else that we have lost the centrality of the hard things that Jesus calls us to do. Being born again is hard and it requires hard things of all who would follow Jesus. Is it possible that in our rush to be bigger and more successful and relevant that we have substituted genuine wisdom for a poor substitute that only serves to tantalize our imaginations and not point us to a true faith in the one and only living God?

I fear for a church in which popular, relevant, and trendy are more sought after than truth, justice and love for one another and  for God. God desires our reverential awe (the Bible calls that fear) and transformed lives. I don't think that he's that interested in unbiblical tales of trips to heaven, no matter how many copies they sell.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Celebrating Love

"But Ruth said, 'Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.

Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me." Ruth 1:16-17

Thirty years ago today I stood at the front of the First Baptist Church of Fouke, AR and watched in wonder as my soon-to-be wife walked down the aisle. It was and remains the most breathtaking sight I have ever seen. That day culminated an almost four year courtship that, as I discovered, surprised almost none of our friends.

The years in between have been filled with struggle, tears, laughter, silliness and all the other emotions and experiences that make life what it is. We have walked through life and death together and I can honestly say that there is no one I would rather walk the paths of life with. My love for Lyndra is exceeded only by my love for Jesus.

The scripture that I have posted at the beginning of this blog is from the book of Ruth. They are the words of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi.  Life had been harsh to Naomi and her daughters in law and Naomi decided to journey to her homeland for the rest of her days. Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to go to their homes because there was no hope for them with her. One of them left, but Ruth stayed and her words of love and commitment to Naomi have lived through time as an example of what true love is about.

My wife has lived these words. The past thirty years have tested us and tried us, but God has sustained us and grown our love for each other in ways neither of us could have ever imagined. I am truly blessed to have Lyndra by my side.

But the words of Ruth are more than the words of one friend to another, they are a reflection of the love of God for us. God has committed himself to us in the same way. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us...He has adopted us as His children...and He will not permit death to separate us from him. Paul wrote to the Romans these powerful words: "Nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:39).

There is much, much more that I could write on this subject, but it's my anniversary and I'm going to go and celebrate with my wife.

Have a blessed day.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Starting Over

I was an excellent student in grade school...my only poor subject was handwriting, which anyone who ever receives a hand-written note from me will certainly understand. I regularly made straight "A's" and loved school. That excellence continued in junior high, in spite of home struggles.

High school was another story. To say that I got off to a rocky start would be an understatement. In fact, I barely passed two subjects during my sophomore year. I could probably blame a couple of mismatched teachers or even more honestly a terrible home situation, but the truth is that I am the only one to blame for the difficulty that I had in that first year in high school. But I was able to recover and actually graduated with honors as well as being in the top ten percent of my class and selected as one of the outstanding seniors of my class.

And then came college.

The best way that I can describe my college experience is to say that I didn't let college interfere with my education. I applied myself to those subjects that I was interested in and generally blew off those subjects and professors that I didn't care for. As with my first year of high school I could cast blame on others, but the truth is that my poor academic performance is no ones fault but my own. In fact, as I approached graduation (yes, they actually let me graduate) I made the decision not to attend graduate school because I knew that I was not ready for that experience on any level.

In fact, it took me sixteen years to finally begin graduate school. So much changed in me over that period of time. I married and my wife and I had six children. We were pregnant with children number seven the day we moved onto campus, and child number eight came along during the midway point of our time in graduate school. I worked three jobs to provide for my family during those years. If you would allow me to be proud for a moment. I graduated with the highest grade point of my entire academic career, with only a handful of grades that were less than an "A."

And I can take virtually none of the credit for it.

You may be wondering why I am bothering to bore you with this information....What does this have to do with you or the price of tea in China?

Very simply, this: While my academic career was built upon foundations laid from grade school on, the success or failure of those endeavors had a limited impact on my success or failure at the next level. You would not have guessed during my sophomore year in high school that I would have gone on to college, much less graduate school. And you certainly would never have guessed during my college years that I would ever even attempt to go to graduate school, much less be successful. My academic past was not truly indicative of my academic future. A fact for which I am extremely grateful.

Too many of us are bound by the past. We can give you an up to the minute rundown of every mistake we've ever made, every failure, every person we've ever offended or let down. We don't believe that we deserve anything good that might come our way.

But that's not true.

God loves us with an all consuming, never ending, passionate love that desires to pour out every blessing on us that He can. Lamentations 3:22-23 tells us that He makes His mercies new everyday. You see, God blesses us not because we deserve it, but because He wants to.

Think on that for a minute....God wants to bless you.

Every day God gives to us new mercies, not recycled, not slightly used, not lovingly worn mercies. He makes His mercies brand new! When He gives them to us they are brand new...never used...never before seen. They are the newest, freshest expressions of His love for us. My worth is not found in my academic success but in the value that God gives to me. He values me enough that He sent His Son to die for me and to give me a brand new set of mercies every day.

High School was a new start for me, so was college...and to be honest, I didn't do as well as I could have. It wasn't until graduate school that I began to grow into the man that I am still becoming. I am grateful for those new starts and what they taught me along the way.

God gives us a new start through His Son and then gives us new mercies every day. Not because we've earned them or deserve them, but because of who He is.

I hope that you'll remember that frequently during 2015.

God bless you.