Monday, February 18, 2013

If It Ain't Broke.....

Change is sometimes necessary. It breathes new life into old ideas. Change reveals better ways of accomplishing tasks. It stretches our imaginations as well as our perspectives of what is possible. Given all of the positive aspects of change, why do we fight against it so much?

This weekend, I attended the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of Verdi's Rigoletto.  This piece holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the earliest operas I explored on my own. I was excited to see a wonderful production by one of the world's leading opera companies.  Somehow I had missed the  fact that director Michael Mayer had reset the opera in the Las Vegas desert of the 1960s. As I watched, I was enthralled by the lights and the creativity brought to the stage. I had to admit that the shift of era and locale worked, but the simple fact was that I did not like it! I wanted my Verdi in its traditional guise! The Duke of Mantua as a sleazy lounge lizard was simply too much of a stretch for me.

As I contemplated my reaction, I began to question why I embrace change in some areas while fighting against it in others. When it comes to music, I am very much a traditionalist. I welcome change in procedures in the office (especially when useless redundancy is eliminated). I don't want to do things in the same order in my class or worship service, but I revel in the stability of checklists. I am intrigued by new techniques in the visual arts, but don't ask me to sit through an avant-garde concert that sounds like rubbish to my ears.

I suppose I'm like most people. There are areas of my life that I want to see remain constant and familiar while I'm open to new ideas in others. I'm challenging myself to step out of my comfort zone and explore the possibilities that change can bring. I'm not going to turn anything completely on its ear right away, but I'm hoping to be more open to it at least. Small steps, after all, lead to major changes and exciting journeys.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Whatever Happened to Integrity?

I like to think that I am a trusting person. I always hope that I can take people at their word. Unfortunately that's not always the case. I am reminded on a regular basis that many people do not place the same value on truthfulness and honesty that I do. It's in those moments that I find myself renewing my own commitment to personal integrity.

The lack of integrity comes in many forms. My parents and I were expecting a repairman to arrive at our home yesterday. As the time slot we were quoted began to end, Mom finally called only to be informed that they decided not to come. There was no apology and no phone call. They simply were not coming. I don't know which upsets me more -- the lack of integrity or the poor customer service.

While grading a stack of student journal entries, I came across one that clearly was not the work of the student. I read the entire document, hoping to find a reference to a source or material that was obviously her own. When it became clear that no effort was made to give credit where credit was due, I decided to submit the paper to for an originality check. The result was shocking to me:  90% of the document was verbatim from one of four websites. (Just so you can all understand my frustration, allow me to explain the assignment. Students were to write ONE PAGE on ANY TOPIC OF THEIR CHOOSING! They were merely being graded on putting their opinions on paper. The assignment is worth 10 points.)

The student who will cheat to earn 10 points will become the employee who will lie to earn a promotion. The service provider who doesn't make a call canceling an appointment will also be the person who is unreliable when more substantial issues are on the line. The level of integrity in many areas of our society is on a downward slope. As it becomes more acceptable to bend the truth, the Christian's commitment to personal integrity is more important and sets us apart as different. May our truthfulness in all matters be a example to the world and bring honor to the One who is Truth.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Beauty for Ashes

Today we celebrate Ash Wednesday. It's not a day celebrated in my denomination, but as a student of history and music, I find myself fascinated with the feasts and practices of the Church.  Here's what a quick Internet search revealed about this beginning of the Easter season.

Ash Wednesday is a movable feast which falls 46 days prior to Easter.  The beginning of the 40 day period of fasting known as Lent, Ash Wednesday participants receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads.  In much of Western Christianity, the burned palm fronds from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration are the source of the ashes. The length of Lent parallels the number of days Christ fasted in the wilderness and serves as a reminder of man's sinfulness and need for repentance.  Why are there 6 additional days between Ash Wednesday and Easter? Sundays are considered "feast days" and are not included in the traditional fast. There are 6 Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter....thus the extra days.

When I see ashes on the foreheads of the faithful, my mind immediately goes to the beautiful passage found in Isaiah 61.  This prophetic statement about the coming Messiah reaches its climax in verse 3. The prophet states that the Messiah will "provide for those who grieve in Zion -- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes." (Isaiah 61:3a, NIV) As we come to grips with our fallen state, we find ourselves grieving because of the sin that separates us from a loving Heavenly Father. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes during times of intense grief. How thankful I am that because of the blood of Jesus and His triumphant resurrection from the dead on Easter morning, I no longer have to live a hopeless life filled with grief and shame. He truly has taken my ashes of mourning and replaced them with His glorious beauty.

Today I won't be wearing ashes on my forehead. I have applied the ashes to my heart, however, and have asked the Lord to remind me of His gift and my desperate need for His salvation in the coming weeks. Who knows.....maybe next year I'll participate in a local Ash Wednesday service. Now that I know more about the tradition, I can see why it is so meaningful for so many!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ignored Warning Signs

It happens every time! You notice that something is not quite right.....there's a strange sound coming from the appliance.....the car is not running smoothly.....the drains aren't emptying as normal. Rather than investigate and deal with the problem, you ignore it in hopes that it will remedy itself. You know what? It rarely does!!! Truthfully, the problem tends to escalate over time until you find yourself with a bigger mess (and more expensive one) than you would have if you had addressed the issue when it first happened.

How do I know? We've been dealing with a lot of these issues around here lately. Last week, what began as a sink that wouldn't drain properly turned out to be a MAJOR clog in the drainage for one half of the house.  This week's issue came to a head last night. The refrigerator has been making a "whirring" sound for several months now. Did we call to have someone check it out? Nuh-uh!! This morning, I went to the refrigerator to get ice from the door only to see a note there that the entire thing is OUT. A repairman is to be called later today to see if we can repair it or if it simply has to be replaced.

Why are we like this? We argue that "ignorance is bliss" rather than understanding that it's better to know what's wrong NOW in order to fix things before they reach a crisis stage. I know it's annoying to constantly maintain things, but that's much less stressful than finding yourself in the situation where things have to be corrected or replaced immediately. Oh it's time to pay the piper and find out what the damage truly is.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Moment with Nature

Here in eastern Arkansas, I live in an agricultural area of the country. My daily drive to work begins on a stretch of road that is honestly nothing more than a connector running through the middle of this fertile soil. Right now there is very little activity in the fields; everything is barren and brown. I am not a country boy by any stretch of the imagination, but I do prefer the sights of the spring and summer over the ugliness of the winter months here.

That's why a field of white caught my eye as I drove home from teaching a morning class earlier this week. I found myself looking over this enormous section of white, trying to figure out what in the world was out there. It looked a bit like cotton, but even I know that's not possible at the moment.  As I got closer, I slowed the car to have a closer look.

Once I rolled down the window of the car, I knew exactly what I was looking at. The noise gave it away. This field was filled with honking geese! They truly were everywhere! This particular field is probably 1.5 to 2 acres in size (based on my non-agricultural knowledge) and was FILLED with our fine-feathered friends! 

I found myself doing something unusual for me. I sat on the side of the road for several minutes just to listen and watch. I was intrigued by the animals that I don't see on a regular basis. I was thrilled by their beauty and was filled with hope that life and Spring will return to the land before too long. I noticed my attitude improved as I sat and listened to their voices filling the air with humor and joy. 

I wish I had a camera in the car with me; instead, I had to rely on my phone to capture the image. I'm just thankful that on a cold winter morning, I had the opportunity to stop and observe the sights and sounds of nature while remembering that the darkness of winter would soon come to end.

Monday, February 4, 2013

When It Seems Like No One Understands....

When was the last time you looked at your life and felt that no one truly understood your situation? There was a desperate desire to share your feelings with someone, but no one came to mind. No one can fix the problem. You really don't want to burden anyone with your problems since it's certain that they are also facing problems of their own.

Yesterday I began a new series with my Sunday school class on the topic of prayer. I've never felt as though prayer was a great strength in my life. I always feel awkward when I pray -- searching for the right words to express my feelings. Honestly, at times I have felt guilty sharing my problems with God since He has so many things to deal with.....and my problems are so minute and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I found great encouragement through my own study of 1 Samuel chapter 1 and wanted to share some of it with you.

Hannah was a woman who was greatly loved by her husband. Still, there was something missing from her life because she was unable to bear children. Her husband's other wife was a baby-making machine and constantly reminded Hannah of the difference between them. Notice the pain that the New International Version records in this passage:
And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.  This went on year after year.  Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.  (1 Samuel 1:6-7, NIV)
As though things are not bad enough because of her rival wife, Hannah's husband can't understand why she is so upset. He even adds insult to injury when he asks Hannah "Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?"  (v. 8) I'm sure Hannah found herself somewhere between a tremendous eye roll and full blast waterworks in that moment!

Since no one at home seems to be understanding her pain, Hannah turns to the church and goes to pray. While she is pouring out her pain to God in prayer, Eli (the High Priest) observes her and thinks she's drunk! What makes Eli think this? He sees her mouth moving, but there is no sound coming out.

As I studied Hannah's prayer, I was shocked at how REAL she was with God.  She didn't hold back anything from Him at all. Take a look at this prayer found in verse 11:
O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me [in other words, don't forget about my pain any longer!], and not forget your servant but give her a son....(1 Samuel 1:11, NIV. Emphasis added)
I can just hear Hannah's anger mixed with her absolute despair. In that moment, Hannah seems to have thought that even God had forgotten her. She's not even sure that God will notice her suffering.  Don't miss the fourth word of the verse:  "if"!  I don't know about you, but I've certainly been in that place.  "God, everyone else around me has let me down and I'm not even really sure that YOU are listening or even care.....but just in case You do.....please see my pain and move on my behalf." I have shared Hannah's desperation for a move of God in my life more often than I care to remember.

Poor Hannah just cannot catch a break. She's been harassed by her rival wife. Her husband knows that her childlessness is a sensitive subject and still comes across like a total lug. When she seeks refuge in the church, the minister accuses her of inappropriate behavior and tells her to get out (see v. 14). How wonderful, though, that despite the fact that no other human seemed to understand her pain, Hannah had a Heavenly Father who saw her anguish, listened to her hurt over all of the betrayal, and came to her rescue with healing and love! Scripture doesn't tell us exactly what happened in Hannah's spirit after that time of prayer in the temple, but we know that SOMETHING wonderful happened.  Notice the end of verse 18:  "Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast."  Although Hannah's situation hadn't changed, she had an assurance that her God had heard her cry for mercy and was able to act on her behalf.

The next morning, the family returns home. Hannah has to face the very ones who have caused her so much suffering again. She returns to the bed that was a constant reminder of her own failure. We don't know how much time passes between their return home at the beginning of verse 19 and the end of the verse that shares with us that "the LORD remembered Hannah." Even if it was that same night that Hannah conceived, it would have taken several weeks....and possibly several months......before Hannah would have known deep within her that God had heard and answered her prayer!

I rejoice with Hannah at the birth of Samuel, whose name means "I asked the LORD for him." Her sorrow has totally been turned into joy.  All of the weeping is now replaced with the laughter that a child brings. Hannah knew that her God had heard....and acted! The painful memories of feeling forgotten were now just a thing of the past.

Take heart from the story of Hannah. Despite your circumstances, you are not forgotten. Your Heavenly Father cares about what concerns you and welcomes your expressions of frustration, pain, and hurt. When we finally open these hurts to His healing touch do we allow Him to bring beauty into our lives again.  Take comfort in the truth that He hears......He cares.....and He understands whatever is upsetting you today.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lessons from Nehemiah

A few weeks ago while in my local Lifeway Christian store to pick up some music, I found myself drawn to Kelly Minter's Bible study on the book of Nehemiah. I took a look and walked away, convincing myself that I simply didn't have time right now to start a new Bible study. My daily Bible reading was just going to have to suffice during this tremendously busy season. I proceeded to move to the check-out.

When I got to the front of the store, I was a little frustrated because of the exceptionally long line. The cashiers were at their wit's end; it was then that I learned that the computers were running slowly. Since it was clear this was not going to be a quick exit, I started to browse the shelves at the front of the store. What did I see? Minter's Nehemiah study. I picked it up to make sure the video segments could be downloaded before purchasing. I added the study to my items, but put it back while waiting. The entire study just looked too feminine for me at the moment.

While we were waiting in line, a sales associate came to the front to help. When she passed me, she asked if I had taken a look at any of the Bible studies and then proceeded to recommend Nehemiah as one of her favorites. It was then that I sensed the Spirit ask me how long it was going to take me to follow His promptings. I finally got the message......

Today, I'm approaching the halfway point of the study and confess that I believe it was ordained by God for me to dive into this Old Testament book at this time in my life. The reminder of Nehemiah's faithfulness to the desire that God had birthed within him (rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem) has become more meaningful to me than ever before. See, I always knew that Nehemiah built the walls with God's help, but I have never really considered the enormous amount of conflict that came against him while trying to obey God. Not only were his enemies trying to intimidate him, Nehemiah also dealt with negativity from the very ones that should have been his biggest allies -- other Jews!

As Nehemiah prayed throughout the entire process, God moved supernaturally and aided Nehemiah in accomplishing a great task that brought glory to God and restored Jerusalem's glory. But God had other plans for Nehemiah....the task didn't end just because the walls were rebuilt. The city was massive, but it was empty. God had Nehemiah get involved in bringing the people of God back to the city.  How easy it would have been for Nehemiah to declare his job done when the walls were finished. However, he understood that the walls were quite meaningless if he lost sight of the people they were meant to protect. In my own ministry efforts, may I never lose sight of the people that God pursues as I do the work of ministry -- building the wall one section at a time.

I'll be completely honest. Nehemiah is not a book that I had ever really taken the time to explore before. When I started the study, I expected to learn some history I didn't know. What I have found instead is a life-changing book with the hand of God clearly at work in the lives of people on every page. Nehemiah is filled with treasures; every once in a while, you just have to dig below the surface a bit to find the jewel!

What have been your experiences with the book of Nehemiah? I'd love to hear insights that God has revealed to you. Please take a moment and share in the comment section below.