Saturday, November 18, 2017

Best Laid Plans

We are ruined by our own stupidity, though we blame the Lord.

-- Proverbs 19:3

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray," wrote Scottish poet Robert Burns. No matter how well we prepare, stuff happens. And when it does, it can lead to disappointment and confusion. Just ask the Apple, Inc. executives about Apple Maps.

Several years ago, Apple replaced Apple LogoGoogle Maps with Apple Maps on its wildly popular iPhone and other devices. The company's executives expected the app to be yet another user-friendly feature that their customers would rave about. Instead, Apple Maps rapidly disappointed its users because of a variety of remarkable glitches. For example, the app's 3D flyover feature displayed grotesquely distorted images of well-known landmarks. It also rendered the wrong locations for well-known addresses. And famous monuments--even entire cities--seemingly evaporated into cyberspace. Apple's engineers had planned for success. But not thoroughly enough.

It's safe to say that just about everyone who's ever walked this planet has wondered why God allows disappointments. We reason that if he's all-powerful, he should prevent them. But consider that God's mysteries extend far beyond human experience and comprehension. For example, why should a year-old child die of an incurable disease? Or why do thousands of seemingly innocent people around the globe die each year in natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis? 

In both instances we must remind ourselves that God's ways aren't our ways. Moreover, our human minds are simply too limited to grasp the entirety of his greater purpose.

However, we're not totally in the dark here. God's word to us--the Bible--gives us several clues. First, we live in an imperfect world where bad things can (and often do) happen. Ever since Adam and Eve first disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, perfection on Earth was spoiled. Indeed, we can read about the world's first murder in the opening chapter of the Bible. And it was downhill from there.

Our own bad choices are another reason for disappointment, pain and suffering. If someone chooses to get drunk and then gets behind the wheel, tragedy often follows. But that's hardly God's fault. We instead reap from the foolishness we sow.

The flip-side here is that we worship a God who specializes in turning seemingly bad situations into very happy endings. Consider someone who gets laid off from a job, only to find a much better one in a different city--and with better pay--in a completely different industry. If it weren't for the "tragedy" of unemployment, that worker might have become stuck in a boring, dead-end job with little future. God (as always) knows best!

Finally, God often turns bad into good by using it to discipline and mature us. Are we ever the same after experiencing a major illness or family tragedy? It's through adversity that we draw closer to God and depend on his help. And our Creator can even use our suffering as a witness to others. If you're a Christ-follower faced with a God-sized situation, where you place your faith speaks volumes to others.

The human experience is filled with disappointment and heartache. But God never promised us a pain-free existence. In fact, Jesus told his disciples to expect trouble. But let's take comfort that we worship a "Big Picture" God--one who sees beyond our nearsighted plans to turn even the greatest disappointments into the greater good. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ut Prosim

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

-- James 2:14

Is Jesus a Hokie?

Although most people--particularly University of Virginia and James Madison fans--would answer that the Savior doesn't play favorites when it comes to college sports, it's still probably safe to say that Christ closely identifies with Virginia Tech's motto. Literally carved in stone on the scenic Blacksburg campus are the words Ut Prosim, which is Latin for That I may serve.

Serving others and giving back go Hokiehand-in-hand with being a Christ-follower. Indeed, we're called to serve as Jesus' hands and feet on earth while we wait for his return--or at least until that day when he calls us back home. Until then, God wants us to help prepare his kingdom by making the most of the gifts and talents he's given us. What's more, we're to serve as a beacon amidst the darkness of today's so-called progressive, enlightened society.

"Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise you Father in heaven."

That's how Jesus puts it in Matthew's Gospel. But what sort of light is he talking about? It's really that spark or inner power that God grants each Christ-follower for demonstrating his goodness through their words and deeds. For example, we can shine a light and serve by running a much-needed errand for an elderly neighbor. We can help clean up a neglected school or a community park--or even work in a food pantry or visit the residents of a local assisted living community. There's no shortage of options.

Why is this principle of service so important for Christ-followers?

"In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served," Jesus explains. "He came to serve other and to give his life as a ransom for many people." Our Master--Jesus--embodied a service-focused life during his ministry. So as his modern-day disciples, we should turn our faith into actions of service by accepting his invitation to shine a light of hope and truth.

Let's wind things up by considering the original question: Is Jesus a Hokie? Whether he is or not, let's limit our rivalries to the football field and basketball court and become of one mind when it comes to serving others. It's one time that every Christ-follower (whether they're a Wahoo, Tar Heel or even a Mountaineer) can agree to live out Virginia Tech's Ut Prosim motto and become just a little bit more like our Savior.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Comeback Kid

Don't toss me aside, banished forever from your presence. Don't take your Holy Spirit from me.

-- Psalm 51:11

Playwright Oscar Wilde was right on the money when he noted that experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes. Whether it's on the job (a missed deadline) or in the home (left the water running in the tub), mistakes can be both costly and painful. 

If there was anyone who knew something U-Turnabout mistakes--and also rebounding from them--it was David, Israel's most famous king as well as an ancestor of Jesus. His mountaintop moments included killing the giant Philistine warrior Goliath and leading his army to decisive victories. On the other hand, David was twice a fugitive: once while evading jealous King Saul and then years later when his own son chased him from the throne. David also committed adultery with one of his officer's wives and then had the unsuspecting man killed to cover his own sin. Psalms, a collection of poems written and compiled by David, records his emotions as he encountered the epic peaks and bottomless valleys of life.   

Maybe your own slip-ups and blunders haven't been of biblical proportions. But they might have felt like it. After all, how many times have we all made such huge mistakes that it seemed like the end of the world? We blew it. It's over. And we'll never get back.

Life-changing errors can cover a lot of territory. They might affect our personal relationships, careers or even spiritual lives--and maybe all of the above. But the good news for Christ-followers is that we worship a God who not only knows what we're going through, he also cares. What's more, he's also a God of second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) chances.  

Like King David, the apostle Peter had a world of experience with mistakes and comebacks. In fact, after Jesus was arrested and the other apostles had scattered in fear, Peter emphatically denied that he even knew Christ. And not just once, but three times!

Jesus was soon tried and convicted on false charges. And then he suffered a horrific, painful death--in our place--through his crucifixion between two deserving criminals. Crushed by guilt, Peter believed that his own life was essentially over. After all, if anyone had blown it, it was him. But Christ had other plans for this apostle of little faith. We read early in the New Testament's Book of Acts that Peter--now filled with the Holy Spirit--boldly defied the same religious authorities who had earlier condemned Jesus to death.

Failure and defeat are both elements of the human experience. But here's the Good News: They don't have to be permanent or define us. As we search for our own life-comebacks, let's take Peter's victorious testimony about his Master--Jesus--to heart:

"In no one else can salvation be found," he proclaimed. "For in all the world no other name has been given to men but this, and it is by this name that we must be saved!" 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Who's #1?

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

-- Revelation 19:16

The media have long recognized the public's love of lists for who or what is Number One. Peruse the magazine covers while you're in the supermarket checkout line, and you'll see headlines for the Top 10 Muscle Cars, Best Ways to Renovate Your Home and the Year's Nastiest Celebrity Breakups. Television embraces this popular genre through shows like the Top 100 Heavy Metal Videos of All Time, Best Caribbean Beach Resorts and the Greatest Engineering Disasters of the 20th Century. And then there are websites like Ranker.com, which asks its readers to rank their favorites on a wide variety of topics like Best Video Game Franchises of All Time, Greatest Batman Gadgets and America's Coolest College Towns.

When it comes to entertainment and Number Onesports, we might speak up for our favorite movie or defend our opinion about the NFL's greatest quarterback. But what about issues of much greater importance? For example, who (or what) is Number One in your life? Is it your family? Your career? Money, vacations or the weekend? Or maybe the answer is as close as the nearest mirror. If it is, you're not alone.

Regardless of your response to this revealing question, King Solomon--probably the wisest man who ever lived--could relate to your perspective. In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, he wrote that he tried every pleasure under the sun to find fulfillment in life. And unfortunately for him, his search in all the wrong places brought him emptiness and sorrow. But we can gain much from the lessons that he learned the hard way.

First, fulfillment in life comes about only when we live for the right person. And in our case, that means living for God by letting his son (Jesus Christ) live through us. Second, we can find fulfillment only when we live by God's standards. After all, what good does it do if we say we're a Christ-follower on Sunday but live much differently the rest of the week?  And finally, we find fulfillment in life only when we live with the right focus. In other words, we need to live with eternity in mind. Careers, money, vacations--and even sporting events--may seem important today. But they'll all pale in significance when it comes to what we do in life to help usher in God's Kingdom here on earth. That's because every Christ-follower is called to be Jesus' personal representative.

Now's the time to look again in the mirror and decide who (or what) is really Number One. Let's consider Jesus' timeless advice on this matter to his first followers. Considering today's uncertain social, political and economic environments, you'll see that his eternal words are both relevant and reassuring:

"Don't worry and ask yourselves, 'Will we have anything to eat? Will we have anything to drink? Will we have any clothes to wear?' Only people who don't know God are always worrying about such things," the Savior tells us. "Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these. But more than anything else, put God's work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well."

Saturday, October 21, 2017

I Shall Return

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: "I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have raised up a young man from among the people..."

-- Psalm 89:19

March 11, 1942 was a dark day for America--as well as for the entire free world. Just three months earlier, the Japanese had launched a devastating surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The result was a crippled American Pacific fleet, 3,478 servicemen killed or wounded plus an additional 103 civilian casualties. MacArthurNow the Japanese had trapped 85,000 American and Filipino troops on the Philippine's Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor.

Under orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur (the American commander) and his family evacuated the area for the relative safety of Australia. The thousands of troops MacArthur left behind were eventually forced to surrender to the mighty Japanese military. But the general refused to turn his back on his men--or on the Filipino people. "I shall return," MacArthur promised in his statement to the press. And on October 20, 1944, he kept that promise when he waded ashore with an invasion force at the island of Leyte. "People of the Philippines, I have returned," MacArthur declared in an unforgettable radio broadcast.

Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Douglas MacArthur was a warrior known for his bravery, heroism and faithfulness. And although his promise was both historic and world-changing, it pales in comparison to another promise kept more than 2,000 years ago. Mankind had for centuries been enslaved by an enemy called sin, and freedom was just a dream. Keeping a vow he made at the foundation of the world, God himself paid mankind's enormous sin-debt in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. He came to earth in the form of a helpless infant, grew up and lived a faultless, sin-free life, and was unjustly executed for crimes that he didn't commit. The message of his brief ministry declared the Good News of God's coming Kingdom, and it's summarized in one of the best-known passages of the Bible (John 3:16):

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

It was through Jesus that God kept his promise of forgiveness and salvation for those who ask for it in faith. And one day--perhaps in the very-near future--he'll keep another long-anticipated promise when another warrior, Jesus, returns to once and for all defeat the enemy and forever free his people.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Good Shepherd

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

-- Isaiah 1:17

If you're one of the millions of Americans these days who are considering a career change, how about becoming a shepherd?

Although the number of job openings for shepherds has dropped over the last several decades, it appears that good help is still hard to find. In fact, it's not uncommon for ranchers, farmers and landowners to import experienced shepherds from other nations where sheep-and-goat management is a thriving enterprise. If you still think that you're up to the task, understand that shepherds are responsible for protecting their flock against vicious predators including coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears and even domestic dogs. They must also monitor their sheep for illness. What's more, an experienced shepherd is expected to shear up to 125 ewes a day without nicking or cutting the animals' skin.

Above all, a shepherd's primary responsibility Sheepis the safety and welfare of their flock. And since so many different things can happen to the sheep under their watch, they must expect the unexpected, be courageous and do the right thing.

Doing the right thing isn't just the right thing to do, it's also a biblical principle for Christ-followers. As we read in James 4:17, "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."

Doing the right thing often calls for bravery. While we may never face a powerful army on the battlefield, we might have to take on societal opponents like injustice, crime or discrimination. We have no hope of defeating them on our own. However, we should be encouraged that God specializes in empowering average Joes and Janes to do the extraordinary against overwhelming odds.

For example, the Old Testament tells us that David--at the time an obscure shepherd boy and musician--protected his nation by killing the giant Goliath with a single stone launched from his slingshot. It was this same David who eventually became the mighty King of Israel and the one God called "a man after My own heart." Likewise, a fisherman named Peter once dove into the deep end (literally) when he accepted Jesus' call to walk on water. But after doubting his own abilities, Peter began to sink beneath the waves. Christ, however, saved him once the struggling follower called out in faith. This same Peter--who would eventually deny Jesus to others three times--ultimately became a bold preacher of The Way (the Good News about his Savior, Jesus Christ). Two books of the Bible also bear Peter's name.

As Christ-followers, we can take heart as we proceed through the peaks and valleys of our faith-journeys. While the world is indeed a scary place, God doesn't expect us to solve all of its problems. Instead, it's by seeking and embracing his power in faith that we can make a world of difference. And it all starts when we--like The Good Shepherd we worship--seek and do the right thing.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The A-Team

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

-- Matthew 16:18

What do The Dirty Dozen, The Bad News Bears and The A-Team have in common? These late-night cable TV staples share the same general plot about a group of unlikely misfits who--one way or another--work together to overcome significant obstacles and achieve victory. They face numerous setbacks along the road. But they eventually rally behind their leader, beat long odds and accomplish the improbable. It's a classic, feel-good storyline that never seems to grow old.

And it really IS an old storyline: at least 2,000 years-old, to be specific.

The "script" here is the New Testament, A-Teamthe second half of the Bible. Much of its real-life plot also revolves around a group of unlikely characters who learn from their all-knowing leader (Jesus) to alter history. We read in the Gospels that these mundane individuals were Christ's hand-picked followers. Some were fishermen, one was a tax collector and another (Simon the Zealot) might be considered a terrorist by today's standards. 

The apostles were a dubious group for such an important assignment: changing the world for Christ's kingdom one person at a time. But since it's a mission that continues to this day through The Church--the collective term for everyone who claims Jesus as their Lord and Savior--maybe it's not so surprising that God still chooses society's outsiders and those who tend to fade into the crowd.

Some modern-day Christ-followers work for insurance companies, supermarkets, retail stores and banks. Others are homemakers, sales representatives, police officers and marketing executives. And many are between jobs, retired or work part-time. But for all of their differences, there's a common denominator. It's a fervent belief in Jesus--God among us in human form. And it's this same faith that helps them share the joys and overcome the many struggles, disappointments and even tragedies encountered along their unique faith-journeys. These Believers have also learned another vital lesson: their own strength and wisdom is worth little towards surmounting the world's obstacles. But this is actually to their advantage.

"That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties," the Apostle Paul wrote. "For when I am weak, then I am strong."

And indeed God does much with the weaknesses of Everyday Joes and Janes. Families are fed, clothed and housed through their contributions and work in local food pantries, the Salvation Army and similar organizations. The sick are cured through the efforts of healthcare professionals who also happen to trust Jesus. And still other Christ-followers teach the illiterate to read and the undereducated to gain critical life- and job-skills.

That's a very brief list of the ways Jesus changes the world when the Church serves as his eyes, hands and feet. As the A-Team's leader--Colonel Hannibal Smith--so aptly puts it in every episode: "I love it when a plan comes together!"

And no doubt so does God.