Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jumbo Shrimp

You have heard people say, "Love your neighbors and hate your enemies." But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.

-- Matthew 5:43-44

Reality Television
Steel Wool
Deafening Silence
Civil War

What do these figures of speech have in common? They’re all oxymorons – rhetorical devices that use contradictory terms for effect. If you think about them for a second, they really don’t make sense. But for whatever reason, the words mesh perfectly to communicate the idea.

The Bible reveals Jesus as One who always made His point with great effect – particularly to those willing to put His message into action. But instead of linking a few opposing words or phrases, God’s only Son turned entire concepts on their heads to reinterpret long-held notions about what has true value in life. Consider His admonition to those seeking greatness:

“Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down,” Jesus warned. “But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”

This, of course, flies in the face of our society’s “Looking-Out-for-Number-One” perspective. After all, how can you make it to the top in this world if you let everyone walk all over you?

Through ordinary human eyes, pure selfishness and self-preservation appear to be logical approaches to getting ahead and staying there. But to Christ-followers viewing the world through the lens of the Gospel, it’s really a recipe for disaster. “What will you gain if you own the whole world but destroy yourself?” Jesus asks us. “What would you give to get back your soul?”

Jesus spent His brief ministry teaching from a Kingdom perspective. And it’s through the Bible that Christ explains to us how God means for things to be. Often this demands a totally new life perspective from those who would be His followers. Accepting Christ’s bold message is like a nearsighted child who sees the world anew through a pair of glasses. At first, it can be awkward and difficult – and sometimes even intimidating. That’s because Jesus calls for for total devotion. Half-heartedness and non-committal have no place as Christ establishes His Kingdom through every believer.

Jesus’ invitation to us is much more than wordplay conflicting with conventional wisdom. If we want to call ourselves true Christ-followers, He makes it clear that we must consider the cost in our lives. And that cost is high. But it’s all worth it through the positive differences we can make at home, where we work, in our neighborhood and even throughout the world. And that’s not to mention the personal transformation each believer experiences along the winding path of his or her life journey.

Maybe it’s only fitting that Jesus uses an oxymoron to drive this point home:

"I tell you the truth," He told Peter (one of His first disciples), "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the Gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who is Number One?

Everything you were taught can be put into a few words: Respect and obey God! This is what life is all about. God will judge everything we do, even what is done in secret, whether good or bad.

-- Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

The media have long recognized the public’s love of lists. Check out the magazine racks in any supermarket and you’ll see headlines for the Top 10 Muscle Cars, Best Ways to Renovate Your Home and the Year’s Nastiest Celebrity Breakups. Newspapers write year-end articles about the nation’s biggest political scandals and most costly business failures. And 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.

Then there are perhaps the most controversial lists of them all (at least in the minds of sports fans). They’re the weekly Top 20 rankings of college football and basketball teams – often a topic for heated discussions in office break rooms across the country and over the Internet.

The fact is that everyone has opinions about what or who is number one in certain aspects of life. When it comes to entertainment and sports, we might have our favorite movie or forcefully defend our choice for the NFL’s greatest quarterback. But what’s your opinion about something a little more substantial?

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, join the crowd.

Regardless of how you answered this important question, King Solomon – probably the wisest man who ever lived – could relate to your perspective. In the Old Testament book called Ecclesiastes, he writes 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 Solomon 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 Sundays but live quite differently on the other six? And finally, we find fulfillment in life only when we live with the right focus. In other words, live your life with eternity in mind. Careers, money, vacations – and even sporting events – may be the things that seem so important in our lives. 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. Being His personal representative is in the job description of every Christ-follower.

Now’s the time to look again in the mirror and decide who (or what) is really Number One in our lives. So consider Jesus’ timeless advice on this matter to His first followers. In today’s uncertain economic environment, you’ll see that His words of wisdom are remarkably 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 reminded them – and 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.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Words of Wisdom

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

-- Colossians 3:23-24

Longtime fans remember Yogi Berra as quite a ballplayer. The former New York Yankees catcher, outfielder and manager was a 15-time All-Star, a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, and caught a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. He attained the sport's greatest honor through his 1972 induction into the Hall of Fame. But the St. Louis native was also well known for his "Yogi-isms" -- unique words of wisdom about everyday life that often left readers scratching their collective heads.

"If you come to a fork in the road, take it," Berra once advised. Then there was this bit of sage counsel: "You should always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't come to yours." And who could argue when he opined, "You can observe a lot by watching."

Although Yogi Berra's words are no doubt brilliant, King Solomon probably beats the Hall of Famer when it comes to wisdom and discernment. In fact, Solomon asked God for wisdom - rather than riches or fame - after he took the throne following his father's (King David) death. God honored Solomon's wise request with wisdom beyond human understanding. Great riches and fame soon followed.

Solomon was an effective ruler when he lived by God's standards. But as wise as he was, Solomon tended to strike out in his personal life and make very poor decisions when he took his eyes off the ball. It's through his years of "learning-it-the-hard-way" that Solomon penned Ecclesiastes - an Old Testament book that summarizes many of the wise king's observations about life.

His first observation is that this is our one and only life. And it's only through God that we can find true happiness in it. Likewise, our lives are short. Therefore, we need to make the most of the opportunities God gives us each day. Although our lives are brief, they are more like cross-country marathons than straight-ahead sprints. Jesus centuries later reinforced Solomon's observation. "For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction," Christ warned His followers, "and many enter through it." We instead must enter via life's winding roads and narrow gate.

Finally, Solomon wrote that everyone's hour will come when they leave this brief lifetime and pass into the next chapter of existence. And since none of us know exactly when that will be, we all need to be ready; for both when we'll die and for where we'll spend the rest of eternity.

So how do we get ready when life is so full of unknowns? This first step on this guaranteed road to success is to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior - the One who is ready, willing and waiting to wipe away all the failures of our pasts and give us literal new life and a fresh start.

If you think it's too late in life to start over, you still have time as long as you're still breathing. Yogi Berra's wise words sum it all up: "It ain't over 'til it's over."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It's the Real Thing

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-- Matthew 6:19 - 21

The introduction – or more accurately “re-introduction” – of so-called “retro” products has been a hot marketing trend for several years. You can buy classic video games (like Pac Man and Space Invaders) from the 1980s, wear college football jerseys from the 1960s and drive old school muscle cars from the 1970s. Yes, some things really do get better with age.

Many marketing experts credit simple nostalgia for the products’ successes. They say they’re popular because our aging population looks back toward simpler, more innocent times. And maybe there’s some truth to that. But it’s also likely that folks naturally gravitate toward trustworthy products that have proven themselves over the years. If something isn’t broken, they don’t want anyone trying to fix it.

That might sound like a no-brainer. But it happens to be a basic marketing principle that one Fortune 500 company ignored with disastrous results. In 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced New Coke with much hype and fanfare. Unfortunately, this product replaced the tried-and-true fizzy beverage that had quenched the world’s thirst since the late 1800s. Consumers complained that the new drink tasted suspiciously like rival Pepsi. Black marketers began selling $30 cases of the old cola to those still thirsty for the beloved original product. And worse yet, sales of New Coke were (pun intended) flat. The result was a public relations fiasco for Coca-Cola. So within weeks, they pulled New Coke from the market in favor of a classic: Coke Classic, to be precise.

Coca-Cola’s folly is a textbook example of how companies can seriously damage themselves by replacing their reliable products with inferior, second-rate imitations. Consumers might be fooled for a while. But eventually, they see through all the slick advertising and hype.

This goes to show that we’re willing to fight to keep quality products on supermarket shelves. But when it comes to our spiritual lives, most of us are too willing – if we’re really honest with ourselves – to drop our loyalties at times and seek fulfillment from outside God’s kingdom. Rather than depending on Jesus for our inner joy, how often do we turn to negative external influences for a short-lived glimmer of happiness or pleasure? It can come in many different forms – anything from alcohol to drug use to gambling to illicit relationships. And a hobby, job or even religion itself can turn negative when we use them to replace Christ as the source of true meaning in our lives.

An ancient observation from the Book of James reveals much about this issue:

“You want things, but you do not have them. So you are ready to kill and are jealous of other people, but you still cannot get what you want. So you argue and fight,” teaches Jesus’ brother. “You do not get what you want because you do not ask God.”

Turning back to God – the tried and true Original -- is therefore the first step toward gaining personal fulfillment. To borrow Coca-Cola’s classic slogan, It’s the Real Thing.