Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Happiness

Happiness is one of the operational words of our day. Many Americans take very literally those words found in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There you have it...our guarantee of happiness. And so we plunge ahead with the focus being upon whatever will cause us the greatest happiness. We reflect that "if only we could get that new boat or a new car (especially today one of those hybrid cars so you feel less pain at the pump) or a new job, then we would truly be happy."

The focus of happiness seems to imply a focus upon one's self. I will do whatever I can so that I can be happy. If that means having an affair with another man or woman because that makes me happier than going home to my husband or wife, then I will do it. It is means that I play an extra round of golf instead of spending time with my children, then I will do what makes me happy. There is an interesting statement made about Jonah in Jonah 4:6 - Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. Friends, that is the only mention of Jonah's being happy about anything in the book. He was happy over a vine. And you know how the story of Jonah ends - with Jonah's anger at God because God had, first destroyed the vine, and second, God had spared the city of Ninevah. Throughout the book Jonah is always thinking first about Jonah. The pursuit of happiness is often a very shallow experience. To think only of ourselves and what makes us happy is narrow-thinking. And it can be very destructive in the end - just as Jonah.

What did Jesus say? I believe the answer is found in Matthew 5, a portion we know as the Beatitudes. Now I know you will say, "Max, the word 'happy' is not there"; but many Bible scholars say that the word 'blessed' could be translated as 'happy is the man'. So, let's use it in that way. What is Jesus saying? Happy is the man who, first of all sees himself as God sees him - a man broken with sin. Happy is the man who, secondly, recognizes that only God has an answer for that broken condition. Happy is the man who, thirdly, understands that the beauty of life is not found in pleasing self but in enjoying and pleasing God. In other words, happiness is discovered not when I ask the question - "what makes me happy?" - but when I ask the question - "what makes God happy?"

I have a friend who keeps reminding me - "I have to do what makes me happy." My friend will never find that happiness until he realigns his life with a pursuit of God. He will then discover that when he strives to please God, then and only then, will he discover what truly makes him happy.

So, are you happy? If you are living only for yourself, then beware - what you think is happiness will soon escape your grasp and leave you angry with someone else, probably God. But if you are seeking to please God, then know the depths of true happiness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Leadership

This past weekend I had the privilege of visiting Springfield, Illinois, with my son and oldest grandson, Josiah, who is ten years old. Josiah is quite a student of American history already and Abraham Lincoln is one of his favorite heroes. So, this grandpa, who is also a student of the Civil War and of Lincoln, decided that it was time to visit the new Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library. Wow! What an experience! If you ever have the opportunity of visiting Springfield you will be in for a wonderfully enriching time.

One of the high points of the weekend was attending one of the re-creations of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. This is the 150th anniversary of those famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas; both men seeking the office of Senator from Illinois. We sat on the floor of the old House of Representative chamber in the old Capital Building. Josiah sat in the chair next to the one that Lincoln occupied when he was a member of the Illinois House over 150 years ago. Two actors approached the center of the room - one appearing as Abraham Lincoln (he wore the usual Lincoln beard which Lincoln did not have until after his election as president in 1861), the other as Mr. Douglas who was known as "The Little Giant." Lincoln was a relative newcomer to the world of national politics and a member of the newly formed Republican Party; Douglas was the master orator and the recognized leader of the Democratic Party. (Both men would run for President in 1860).

Lincoln shared a portion of his famous "House Divided" speech which was given on June 16, 1858. As one listened, one heard passion and wisdom in what he shared. He said that a nation could no longer keep going in two directions, that a decision would have to be made. Then he quoted from Jesus' own words: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Then Mr. Douglas shared portions from his very last speech given in the Illinois House chambers only days before he died, shortly after the 1861 election. Although he and Lincoln had been protagonists for many years, Mr. Douglas spoke affirmingly of Lincoln's leadership as President.

My grandson told me as we left the hall, "Grandpa, I could have listened to them a lot longer." Josiah heard something that afternoon I hope he will not soon forget. I heard something that I have not heard in many years. I heard the voice of leaders. I heard the voice of two men from the past who spoke with wisdom and passion about the difficulties of their times. I heard leaders who were not concerned about political pundits or poll-watchers, but men who dared to proclaim the truth.

As I left the Capital, I engaged briefly in a dialogue with one of the hostesses for the event. She asked how I had enjoyed the afternoon's festivities. I remarked to her, "I wished we had such leadership today." Where are the Abraham Lincolns and the Stephen Douglases today? Where are men and women who will stand solidly for the truth without selling their souls to special interest groups or to poll-watchers? Where are the leaders who tell us, not what we want to hear, but what the citizens in our country need to hear? Where are our courageous leaders?

For a few moments this past Saturday afternoon, I heard real leadership. It is a moment in time I shall never forget.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

An Interesting Word Order

I was reading this morning from my favorite chapter written by the Apostle Paul - Romans 8. In my own opinion, this chapter is the greatest piece of writing to come from his pen. It is a chapter that has encouraged and blessed my heart on more than one occasion.

But I noticed something this morning that resonated with another text in the Gospel of John. Let me share Romans 8:30 - And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What I had never considered before was the particular word order of the verbs Paul used. He began with "predestined." Oh how this word has created controversy within the history of the Church. There is that centuries old debate between Calvin and Arminius. Without going into much detail - you can read as many systematic theologies as you would like - let us simply say that the word implies that God knew what was going to happen before it happened. Yes, I know it sort of blows our minds - that is because we are finite and think finitely, while God is infinite and thinks infinitely.

Now, we might expect that the second word Paul would use would be "justified", having reference to our salvation. Remember his words earlier in this epistle - having been justified by faith, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). But Paul uses the word "call." Is it possible that our "calling" preceded our "being justified?" That thought is what brought me back to Jesus' statement recorded in John 10:27 - My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. Then Jesus proceeded to say, I give them eternal life... (Also see John 10:3-4). Salvation comes after we have listened to the "call" of God. We are "called" to be saved. And, when we follow that "call", then we receive eternal life and so are "justified."

We tend to use the phrase "make a choice for Jesus" in our evangelism. And, in a sense, there is a choice we must make. However, it is a different type of choice than choosing to buy a car, or getting tickets to the Twins game, or selecting whether to purchase that new dress. It seems that both the Apostle Paul and Jesus said that salvation is responding to an invitation and that invitation comes, not when we demand that it appear, but when God ordains its appearance. Listen to these words of Jesus - No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:44). The Apostle Paul outlined it in Romans 8 this way: predestined by God, called by God - I take this to mean to be invited to His salvation, and then justified by God - the actual act of salvation itself.

In our evangelistic emphasis, perhaps it is time that we invite people to listen for God's calling. And, when such a calling is heard, encourage them to respond by following Jesus and receiving eternal life.