Monday, May 29, 2017

More than a Conqueror ................ Parables 594

April 28, 1998

Napoleon once said, “Battles are won, not by men, but by a man.” Considering his reputation for arrogance, he must have said that before Waterloo.

Winning a battle against many takes more than one man, even a man like Napoleon. However, he was partly correct; some battles are won by one person.

In struggles to overcome bad habits, lose weight or conquer an addiction, one person does most of the fighting. Family and friends offer encouragement but the ultimate decisions belong to that one person. Winning depends mostly on their determination. No one can do it for them.

Socially, the struggle against moral decay is also fought by individuals. The person who wants to maintain a virtuous life in a moral pigpen fights a serious enemy. Although he or she may have support from others, the decision to try to live a clean life is made alone.

In that moral and spiritual realm, we may agree about how to live and group effort is helpful. Nevertheless, an enduring victory eludes us unless we rely on the one person who has already won the battle for us. He calls us, not to do our own fighting but to join Him in celebrating His victory.

To illustrate this, the Bible uses a scene common to the readers of that day. If a leader went out to war and defeated his enemies, he displayed his victory by returning home, leading those he captured in a triumphal parade. With that celebration in mind, the Apostle Paul describes how God won our battle against sin and moral failure. He says, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ. . . .”

Picture Jesus as the conquering hero. He defeated the power of sin (He never sinned) and sin’s punishment, death (He rose from the dead). In that battle, He not only destroyed sin and death but also “the power of the Devil who held people in bondage through their fear of death.”

Jesus won the war. He is leading His spoils of war toward their eternal home and an everlasting celebration. The spoils are His people, set free from the bondage of sin and its ultimate outcome, death. No longer do we fear dying or being separated from God forever. We now belong to Christ and are the evidence of His enduring victory.

The illustration show how one man, the God-man, won the battle for us. No longer in the grip of sin, Satan and fear, we are truly free, even as His captives. This freedom is not the same as being able to do whatever we please. That would bring us back into the bondage of sin. True freedom is being released from the tyranny of selfishness to be cared for by God, to become all He intended when He created us, and to follow Him home.

With this hope and in this freedom, we share in His victory parade. As a child at a football game can jump up and down shouting “We’ve won, we’ve won!” — we too can rejoice in a victory with which we associate ourselves. We did not have to overcome our enemy. All we needed to win was to put our faith in the One who won it for us.

As we commit ourselves to Him in love and gratitude, we more fully realize what He did for us nearly 2,000 years ago and with joy, we can also shout, “We’ve won, we’ve won!”

Friday, May 26, 2017

Defining Ambition ................ Parables 593

April 21, 1998

Ambition. If you do not have it, you will never make anything of your life.

At least, that is current popular opinion. Ambition keeps people going, keeps us committed to excellence. It makes us more inventive, creative, competitive. Without it, we would sit back and let the rest of the world walk all over us on their way to success.

Some ambitions are admirable, like being a good friend, beating your personal best in the Olympics, engineering a new and needed product, discovering new cures or getting an education.

Some ambitions are questionable, like holding the world’s record for the largest ball of string, being the first person to eat a bicycle, collecting a garage full of bottle caps, or like Cool Hand Luke—eating thirty-nine hard-boiled eggs.

Some ambitions are dangerous, such as walking across Niagara Falls on a rope, jumping over semi-trailers with a motorcycle, parachuting from the Trade Center or sticking your head in the mouths of lions.

Some ambitions are without regard for anyone else’s life or well-being, like possessing another person’s spouse, getting a promotion by having an employee fired, or setting speed records with the family car while all of them are in it.

Some ambitions are misplaced. One example was the consuming drive of Agrippina, mother of Nero who was determined to place her boy on the throne of Rome. Seeking the counsel of soothsayers, she was told, “Nero will rule, but he will kill his mother.”

Undaunted, she replied, “Let him kill me then.” Through his mother’s scheming, Nero did become the Emperor of Rome but five years later he ordered his mother’s death.

Most people would think twice if their ambitions would destroy them, but selfish extremists rarely do. Out to conquer any obstacle, they are obsessed with reaching their goals, having their way, tearing down all obstacles. If anyone offers them contrary advice, they ignore it. If others are damaged, they blame them and say they “should get out of my way.”

We condemn selfishly ambitious people, not for their desire to do or be something or to achieve, but for their motivation. It is all for themselves. No one else will benefit. In the end, neither will they. By the end, I mean in the day when God evaluates their lives.

God is not impressed with selfish ambition. Galatians 5 lists it along with other sins that characterize the lives of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Why is it so wrong? According to the Bible description of sin, all people are “like sheep, who have gone astray” and who have “turned to our own way.” Selfish ambition is a visible picture of doing our own thing without any regard for others or for God.

God did not intend we be selfish. He created us in His image and likeness so we could be a visible reflection of Him. When we are driven by selfish ambition, we cannot fulfill His major purpose for us.

God is not selfish. He proved it by coming to earth and taking our punishment for sin on Himself, dying in our place that we might have eternal life. A selfish God would simply say, “Oh if that is the way they want to be, let them go their own way and see what it gets them.”

Nero was a despot who used human torches to light his garden at night. Had Agripinna been more like God intended, she may have looked in the Bible for her life goals and been motivated to teach her son how to love people in generosity and kindness. Instead, he not only killed thousands of other people but his own mother.

So much for selfish ambition.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Know a Perfect Editor? ................ Parables 592

April 14, 1998

A graphic artist worked hard to reach his goal of landing a cover on Fortune magazine. Finally it happened and he joyfully celebrated. However, within a week while standing on a street corner, he saw a garbage truck drive by on its way to the dump. It was filled with outdated issues of Fortune magazine, his artwork on its cover.

Creative people dream large goals but artists, writers and others who create things must understand one reality: what we produce will not necessarily outlive us.

A wise man once said, “Of the making of books, there is no end.” That holds true for all sorts of commodities. Even though precious few paintings are preserved as masterpieces and few books are collected as classics, no matter what we design or manufacture, most of our creative efforts appear for a time then they are “out of print” and fade into oblivion.

Creative people also struggle with “revising and editing.” A first sketch or a first draft is rarely the best an artist or a writer can do. Well-known artists often wipe off the canvas and start over. Famous authors revise their manuscripts six, eight, ten or even more times. Long after their work is produced, displayed or published, there is often a sense that “I could have done better.”

When anyone dreams big or tries to make their work the best they can possibly do, they exemplify a worthy goal for their personal lives. Yet how often we look back with regret at the life we have lived and say, “I could have done better.”

Ben Franklin may have felt something like that when he wrote the following epitaph for his own tomb, but notice the ending: “The Body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer, Like the Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents Torn Out, Stripped of Its Lettering and Gilding, Lies Here, Food for Worms. Yet the Work Itself shall not be Lost; for it will, as He Believed, Appear once More in a New and More Beautiful Edition, Corrected and Amended by The Author.”

Franklin is right; life is a lot like the writing of a book. In the first draft, we construct a lifestyle that feels right, quickly laying down the foundation. Then we begin to revise, realizing that success demands more than a just quick pass.

As the work progresses, we discover there is far more to “good copy” than what can be seen on the surface. We begin editing and revising at a deeper level, perhaps refining our souls. Like a writer, the honest person also realizes that the work of improving is a never-ending task; just when we are satisfied, we see more flaws that need correcting.

Benjamin Franklin obviously thought about life more deeply than the average ambitious person. He knew that no matter how hard he worked, his body would eventually succumb to decay. After his life was over, then what?

Franklin, like many others, looked beyond success in this life to the promises of God. He found that through faith in Christ, he could live forever, in a new body, with God, where death has no power. He also realized that God would do a major revision, deleting all his errors.

Franklin may have read the Bible verses that say, “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day . . . . We know that if the earthly tent we live in (our bodies) is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands . . . .”

He likely found another place that says when we go to heaven “we will be like Jesus,” all typos corrected, all subjects and objects in agreement, every comma in the right place. As Franklin said, we will be a new edition, corrected and amended by the One who created us and who will totally restore us — a far superior fate than being carted off to a garbage dump.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Parties may last for a lifetime, but . . . ................ Parables 591

(No tear sheet)

One of my cousins told me he would never consider becoming a Christian. He explained he was “having too much fun” and being a Christian would “stop all that.”

People go many directions in their pursuit of happiness. Some look for it in more money, or a bigger house, or a faster car, or different friends, or a better job. Most of us realize that even if we achieve these goals, the delight they bring does not last very long.

My cousin thought he would find happiness in a never-ending string of parties, with lots of alcohol and never enough sleep. Instead of the fun he hoped for, he wound up with liver damage that has contributed to seriously deteriorating health. Whether he becomes a Christian or not, “stopping all that” seems like a good idea.

In contrast to my cousin, Cyprian the 3rd century Bishop of Carthage, wrote to a friend: “It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and good people who have learned the great secret of life. They have found a joy and wisdom which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are Christians... and I am one of them.”

Anyone who has put their faith in Christ shares Cyprian’s discovery. There is a joy that cannot be found in external pleasures or material possessions, or even in being healthy. It is the inner joy that God gives to those who walk with Him. It is a joy that cannot be destroyed, taken away or replaced.

The enduring nature of this joy stands on a strong foundation. One is the sovereignty of God. He controls all things in wisdom, power and goodness. Nothing surprises or upsets Him. He has what it takes to meet all situations. When we trust a God like that, anxiety begins to fade. We know He is taking care of every detail of our lives.

The second foundation is the peace of God. God is at peace within Himself. When Jesus said to those who trust Him: “My peace I give to you. . . .” He was talking about that inner peace. With it, we are released from our inner conflict too. Also, God knows how to settle external conflicts. As we trust Him, we begin to learn how to do it too. Stress begins to leave and joy moves in to fill the space.

Because God is eternal, His joy and peace last forever, withstanding time and trials. The only way we can get rid of them (Who wants to?) is by choosing doubt or sin instead of trust.

Joy is also powerful in itself. The Old Testament writer Nehemiah said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” This kind of joy has the capacity to give us confidence and a sense of being able to meet life without fear.

When we know God is in control, we are joyful. When our inner struggles are settled, we are joyful. When we trust God, we learn that there is no joy like the joy of the Lord. Parties may last for the night but God’s peace and joy lasts for ever.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ambitious? ................ Parables 590

(No tear sheet)

Alexander the Great was a man of ambition. However, after completely subduing the known world, he was not satisfied and wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. He died young — in a state of debauchery.

Hannibal was another ambitious man. We remember him as the leader who crossed the Alps with his elephants. Most do not know that the gold rings taken from those he slaughtered filled three bushel baskets. Like Alexander, his end was ignoble; he killed himself by swallowing poison. Few even noticed his death and he left this world unmourned.

Julius Caesar ambitiously conquered 800 cities, “staining his garments in the blood of one million of his foes” but he too found no lasting reward for his ambition. Instead, he was stabbed by his best friend at the scene of his so-called greatest triumph.

Napoleon, once feared as the scourge of Europe, spent his last years in banishment. His ambition and many victories did not bring lasting honor or lasting rewards either.

These men did not dedicate their lives or their ambition to God, but for people who have the outcome is quite different. God’s people may have great ambition or be less enterprising. Nevertheless, their lives have surprising results.

For example, a woman once poured expensive oil on Jesus’ head. The disciples thought the money paid for the perfume should have been given to the poor. Were they right? This woman’s oil was worth about a year’s wages. Wouldn’t God reward her for an act of generosity that benefitted many people instead of wasting it on one person?

Today, movie celebrities donate money to charities that feed and clothe thousands. Other wealthy people give a portion of their millions to people less fortunate. Jesus did not say giving to the poor was wrong, but in the case of this woman, He said, “Leave her alone. . . . She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” A small and costly ambition, but she was given an eternal legacy.

Missionary pioneers Hudson Taylor and William Carey provide more contemporary examples. Respectively, these men determined to take the gospel to China and India. Because of their selfless efforts, millions of souls will spend eternity with God, another priceless legacy.

While not evil in itself, the Bible warns against selfishly motivated ambition: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”

Selfish ambition and neglecting a commitment to godliness are characterized by wanting what other people have — even to the point of depriving them — and calling it “ambition.” In contrast, the ambition that God approves is like that of Mary of Bethany. She did not cling to what she had but “wasted” it on Christ.

So did Taylor and Carey. They could have stayed home and put their skills to making money or fame for themselves. Instead, they poured out their lives for the eternal well-being of others. Whatever they missed out on in this life, they did not miss out on God’s promises. He affirms that those who serve Him will enjoy His eternal rewards.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Impatience changes with a change of perspective ................ Parables 589

March 24, 1998

A city restaurant offers lunch free if customers have to wait longer than 10 minutes from the time they order to the time it is on their table. We sat with friends discussing the difficulty of waiting. Everyone seems to be time-oriented, busy, always rushing, and increasingly impatient.

One person at the table told a story about a man standing in a slow-moving lineup at his bank. He shuffled from one foot to the other, seething inside. The tellers were pitifully slow. Even the customers seemed to take their time moving ahead when it was their turn. Then he noticed a small sign on the counter: “For every 5 minutes you wait in line, we will put $5 in your account.”

Suddenly he viewed waiting from a different perspective. He relaxed. Slowness was no longer an issue. He even found himself mentally saying “take your time” to both tellers and customers. It was to his advantage that they dawdled.

A different perspective can change our response to other ways of waiting. Waiting on God is one of them. Sometimes we are anxious for His answer to our prayers, for Him to change our circumstances. We feel less anxiety when we look at His view of our problems.

For instance, James 1 tells us to “consider it pure joy when we face trials.” At first read, that is ridiculous statement. Who can face trials with any kind of positive reaction, never mind “pure joy”? But we must not let this strange command make us think God does not care. He has a greater plan in mind than simply giving us relief. James goes on to say trials are His tool to test our faith and produce perseverance. He says if perseverance does its work in us, we will be mature (like Christ) and not lack anything. Therefore, if we can keep His end result in mind, we can face trials as opportunities for our good and even be glad they are happening.

God challenged me when we decided to have my aging parents live in our home. My gifts lie in teaching and although I love my parents, serving them with compassion would be a trial. As my frustrations grew, I prayed asking God why He wanted this for me. His response came quietly to my conscience: “I am using this to make you a better teacher.” After seeing His perspective, it was much easier to cooperate with Him.

Another example that ties with the hurried, impatient pace of current life is the importance of spending time with God. Caught up in hectic doing, many Christians find it difficult to stop and pray or read their Bible. We say we don’t have the time, yet in our hurrying we find ourselves stressed and even exhausted.

The prophet Isaiah offers this: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but they who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Waiting on God means not fretting about life but allowing Him to care for us. To do that, we need to spend time in His Word, learning about His faithfulness and reminding ourselves who He is and how great He is. As we do that, we can face trials with a different vantage point — His.

Spending time with God helps us see our circumstances as part of His plan, not something unfair or meaningless. Waiting on God also helps us find our strength in Him and not in our own resources. Knowing He is in control and that he loves us gives us a sense of peace and renews our energy.

Bank line-ups or impatience for food in a restaurant are small trials but for even these, we can focus our thoughts on the care and purposes of God. The renewal He gives will mean far more to us than a free lunch or an extra few dollars in our account.

Monday, May 15, 2017

It’s a control thing! ................ Parables 588

March 17, 1998

Mergers are making news. Not too long ago, Nova Corporation and TransCanada Pipe Lines announced their plan to unite. This deal could create a huge company with billions in revenues and assets. It would also give them greater power over their competitors.

Not to be outdone, Compaq Computer Corporation plans to take over Digital Equipment Corporation. This will be the biggest acquisition in computer industry history, also giving this larger company an edge over their competition.

Banks are getting in on the act too. The Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank of Canada announced plans to merge. If this agreement is approved, it will be the largest bank in Canada with enough clout to be considered a world class financial institution. Again, more power.

In the past week, two major pharmaceutical companies also announced their intention to merge. It is unlikely this deal will become reality as this merge would produce a huge monopoly in that market. Governments agree that too much power in the corporate sector is not good. However, intention and motivation are there. And as my friend Gloria would say, “It’s a control thing.”

Some Christians suspect these mergers are an indication that the world will eventually be united under one government and one spiritual and political leader, the Antichrist, who wants to control everything. Whether or not one person will rule the world, forces other than big business do unite to give themselves greater power, particularly in opposition to Christianity.

On that note, the first real “antichrist” merger happened when Jesus was arrested. Luke 23 describes how Pilate tried to pass off making a decision about Jesus by sending him to Herod. When Herod couldn’t get Jesus to perform any “tricks” for him, he sent him back to Pilate to order His death. Verse 12 says, “That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.”

Since then, leaders of varying political persuasions have tried to eliminate Christians by joining forces to make laws against faith in Christ. Believers have been persecuted and killed for telling others about their beliefs. Atheists and others joined forces to make sure reading Scripture and saying prayers to God is banned in most schools, even in Canada. Many religious and secular organizations collectively cry for tolerance and fair treatment but will not tolerate the Christian faith. Again, my friend Gloria would say, “It’s a control thing.”

We do have a thing about control. Marriage partners vie for it and seek out others to “take their side.” Children gang up to wrest it from their parents. Students join to take every opportunity to seize it from teachers. We make control a sales feature on everything from cars to breeds of dogs. And if it helps, we will join forces with the most unlikely people in order to have more control over our own lives.

God (are you ready for this?) says this attitude is the very thing that separates us from Him. In short, our penchant for control He calls sin. One of His prophets describes it like this: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way . . . .”

Apart from Christ and within our own selves, we unite against submission to the authority of God. Our minds say, “I think I am right.” Our emotions say, “I don’t feel like it.” Our wills say, “No one is going to tell me what to do.” Our bodies say, “My own way is far more comfortable.” The resulting merger is that we become our own boss, we turn to our own way.

God says we cannot serve two masters and our self-serving is the essence of sin. Instead, He wants me to pray, “Lord, unite my heart to fear Thy name.” Whenever I insist on being the boss, I declare I do not, and will not, trust God’s sovereign power. Unless I choose otherwise, and again begin believing He wants and knows what is best for me, I become a one-person monopoly.