Sunday, September 27, 2009

No Place Like It

Sometimes a phrase becomes so commonplace that it ceases to lose its meaning. We find this with niceties like saying "Bless you" after someone sneezes. Or we find it it repetitious practices that, once sacred, have become meaningless habits, such as the ritualized practice of saying grace before a holiday meal is for many families. We use words like awesome, amazing, and wonderful as terms for describing our day or the surf conditions, and we are left inept to describe the majesty of God.

What works in the positive, can also work in the negative too. Recently I was reminded of this when a friend described a job situation as a "living hell." Sure it was a colorful description, but it wasn't an accurate one. First of all, hell, by definition is full of death because it is the only place that is removed from God's presence. Therefore signifying that life and hell could co-habitate is a nonsequitar (Some may argue that they have been taught that wherever your final destination you experience for eternity, but using Scriptural definitions, we cann't rightly call permanent expulsion from God's presence "life.") Secondly, as bad as conditions can be on Earth, and I know that they can be very, very bad, we still ultimately live under God's watchful eye. In hell, this protection, this covering of grace that ensures the rising of the sun at the beginning of every day, is no longer a part of our existence. Therefore, regardless of how bad a job may be it surely doesn't equate with this destitution.

What mostly concerned me though, is that the person was a believer. So not only do they get to experience God's grace as it pertains to His sustaining force on their life (let's call this a general grace), but they get to experience His personal grace that came as a result of their trust and faith in Him and allows for personal communion with their Savior. Regardless of how bad their job was, they had the Ever-Powerful Creator to turn to and lead upon. How can it be a living hell when God is always beside them (Hebrews 13:5)?

The theme has this blog has been, and will continue to be, to focus on the better things ahead, the things of heaven, and I think this is rightly so because when our focus is on these things, we understand Earth in the right perspective. However, just as we are to take heaven seriously, so should we take its alternative. And may doing so increase our commitment and our urgency sharing our future home with others (John 14:2).

*A closing thought - while I believe that heaven is grander and that hell is worse than anything we can experience on this Earth, I by no means intend to make light of the genuine pain, heartache, and destitution that can occur at our current place of resident. For those who feel like God has abandoned them, please do not despair. His love for you is so much He sacrificed everything for you.


Divesting Diligently

Perhaps because of the recent economic contraction, we are all more familiar with the idea of divesting. In business terms, it's when a company sells off a business unit or product line because its become unprofitable. (Any of my marketing students who read this will recognize that these are the "dogs" in Boston Consulting Group's SBU Matrix.) In more recent times, divesting has perhaps taken on a more personal level as people have sold off or given away personal assets that were no longer financially possible. They did this as a point of necessity, just as organizations do with unprofitable units.

While it is beneficial to make give up those things that are having a negative impact on our financial outlook, its also sometimes beneficial to make a practice of divesture, even when situations don't mandate it. I started this practice several years ago when, one Christmas, I realized that my accumulation of stuff was outpacing my desire for it. I decided that to combat this phenomenon I would make an annual commitment to give away those things that I was not using, that were replicated with other things, or that could be of benefit to someone else. It became a little crusade of mine that I would somehow stay at net neutrality when it came to the things I owned. So if I bought a shirt, I gave another one away. If I read a book, and no longer needed it, it was shared with a friend who may enjoy it. My implementation of it hasn't been perfect, but the concept has been freeing.

While I think this practice is a good one, I also think its incomplete. That is because I gave away for my benefit, to accomplish something I wanted, while I should have been giving for the benefit of others. I should be diligently divesting not so that I may gain my desire aim, but to help others gain what they need. Divesting is then no longer for the good of the giver, but of the givee.

The concept is not a new one. Maxey Jarman, the founder of Genesco & of Jarman shoes stores, and who once had controlling ownership in Tiffany & Co, was famous for giving substantial portions of his wealth away. When faced with economic downturn, he was asked by his protege, Fred Smith, whether he regretted his generosity. In response Jarman said, "The only thing I lost is that what I have kept." (qtd. by Stevens, Ronnie. 2009, May 3). And Jarman was on to something. When we diligently divest what we own no longer consumes us. Instead, we are consumed by what we may give away, and this is a much better, and less demanding, controlling interest.

*The title for this blog was inspired by Ronnie Steven's sermon titled on Acts 2:42-47 on May 3, 2009. If you have never listened to one of Pastor Ronnie's sermons, I highly recomend it. His gift of exposition is one of God's hidden treasures.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Not In the Moment

Part of my job as a marketing professional is to understand consumer behavior. Part of my job as a professor of marketing is to teach my students to understand consumer behavior as well. Basically this means that they must be able to identify the influences and the lifestyle dimensions that impact an individual's purchase decision. The goal is that through this understanding, organizations can help provide potential customers with better information, thereby improving the likelihood that they'll be satisfied with their selection.

Not surprisingly, culture is one of the influences that has a profound impact on consumer behavior. Culture - the sum total of norms, behaviors, and values that guide a society's conduct - is often an elusive quantity to define. Yet, its impact is relentless. Even with all the studies that have been conducted, we still don't completely understand how it shapes who a person becomes.

To make sense of this difficult concept that is culture, researchers have formulated strategies for comparing cultures to one another. One such way that cultures are compared is based on where they fall along certain value dimensions. For example, one might compare how individualistic vs. collective a culture is. Or one might examine the role of youth and age in cultural interactions. Another aspect that is considered is whether a culture is more likely to value immediate gratification vs. delayed gratification. It would probably not surprise readers to learn that America ranks high on the immediate gratification scale (For more information see Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, Consumer Behavior, 2009). Delaying fulfillment of our desires is not one of our strong suits.

However, while this may be the American way, it certainly isn't the biblical one. Proverbs 25:16-28 makes this clear. This series of verses extols the abandonment of excess. And it isn't just in the physical realm that overindulgence should be avoided. As verse 27 shares, we shouldn't be seeking excess praise, any more than we should be seeking an abundant feast. In fact, these verses not only preach the dreadful consequences of prideful indulgence, they share the antidote as well. For, when we aren't concerned with consumption, we share. When we are focused on the present, we seek to acquire; when we are focused on eternity's future, we seek to give. When we cease to live in the moment, we realize that even our enemies can be the benefactors of our good.

The reason for this is simple yet complicated. It's only through recognizing that life is not made up of possessions, but of moments that we realize what we need to do is not live in the moment for today, but make the moment count for eternity.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Humble Strength

I like helping people. It's a weird thing to say (or to write), I know, but it's true. I get more joy out of helping someone else accomplish their goals then reaching some milestone on my own. It's probably one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession. And why I was never that good at competitive sports.

The thing with being a helper is that its sometimes hard to know when you are helping too much. I face this with my students all the time. It's easy to tell them the answer when they ask a question, but much more beneficial to them if I make them think it through and come up with a response. Sometimes helping someone well means helping them figure it out on their own.

However, despite the fact that I like helping, I find that sometimes my desire to help is overwhelmed by my desire not to. There is a great tendency to make excuses for not wanting to help. It's easy to justify our non-involvement in other's lives in a variety of ways; we don't have the time, resources, or ability. We aren't sure how to best provide help. We don't know how beneficial our help will really be. Or a thousand other excuses that enable our inaction.

The truth, however, is far from any of these seemingly justified responses. The truth, I'm afraid, is that often we don't get involved simply because we don't want to. In our pride, we want to to make others do things on their own - just like we fancy we did. In our arrogance, we think we know better, and so should everyone else. The reason we don't help isn't we can't. We don't help because in truth, we don't care.

However, one of the great things about God is that He has already considered these lame justifications and countered them. Feel like you don't know how to help, then great, because God already given you the first (and the only step) - to love as He did (John 15:12) Feel like you are too good to help, even better, because God says he will exalt that which is humble, and humble that which exalted, which sound like the perfect predicate to helping someone you view as "less" than you (Matthew 23:12). Feel like you don't have enough strength to help, wonderful, because God says His strength is made perfect in your weakness (I Corinthians 12:9), and it's hard to imagine anything being more helpful than God's perfect strength.

Which brings me to the point of this discourse. When we think about helping and then decide not to its often because our helping exposes our soft spots, our vulnerabilities. Helping requires that we take a risk and we are sure that we are courageous to do that for another. And yet, we know that being humble is the mark of true strength. For when we are humble enough to serve, we demonstrate that we are strong enough to trust in God's ways. When we are humble enough to serve, we remind ourselves, and those we help, that He is strong enough to save.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Presumption of Grace

We've all done it. We aren't paying attention and we accidentally cut someone off on the freeway. Sheepishly we wave our hand in apology and continue on. Or we turnaround while we are walking and bump into some unsuspecting stranger. Hastily we say we're sorry and go along our way. Perhaps we snap at someone, not because of anything they said, but because of our previous night's lack of sleep and without even making any pretense of making it right, we assume they'll understand. After all, we all have bad days.

The remarkable thing about all of these circumstances is that when we are the offender we are quick to accept our justification for the turn of events. That's because it's easy to recognize our own motivations and to believe that one ill-advised action doesn't translate into a nefarious character. We know we didn't mean any harm, and we trust that others will know that too. How often we extend that grace to others though is the real testament to the quality of our character. Do we forgive without being asked? Or do we search for an explanation that doesn't concede malfeasance? Do we extend to others the presumption of grace or do we demand an account for every grievance?

Christ said, "with the measure you use, you will be measured." (Luke 6:37) When we all stand to give an account to God, let us hope that He looks at our lives and sees a preponderance of grace. For we know that the only reason we get to spend an eternity with Him is the abundance of grace He lavished on us (Eph. 2: 8-9).

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Titanic Doesn't Teach Us

Listen to an adult contemporary music station and it shouldn't take long to hear a self-deprecating lover pledge their willingness to die for their beloved. Ever since Romeo and Juliet (and probably well before that), we've been captivated by the idea that there could be a human love worth sacrificing our very life for. We want that kind of love and when an artist recreates that commitment in their music, it speaks to the depths of our souls. It may be the most compelling explanation for why Titanic was such a blockbuster; every girl wants a Jack who will place her on the debris while he freezes. It's a monumental moment of sacrifice, and we are left in awe.

However, despite the perpetual declarations of a lover's willingness to die, there doesn't often seem to be the occasion for anyone to enact their intentions. Sure, scour the papers long enough and you'll read about a lover who legitimately was put in the position to risk their own life to save their companion, but it's a rare occurrence (at least in the relatively safe United States.) It's not every day that we risk death so that our spouse may live, so the promise to do so if called upon, becomes easier to make.

And while there may never be an occasion to die for our beloved, that doesn't mean that we don't have to sacrifice for them. In fact, I find it's sometimes easier to make proclamations of my willingness to pay the ultimate cost, than it is to watch the movie that my husband wants to. Dying to save him may be inconvenient but at least it has its glory; going to the restaurant he wants to eat at, well, there's absolutely no one who will be heralding that. It's much harder to live sacrificially than it is to state a commitment to give my life. Yet, if I'm truly willing to give my life, than I better be willing to live like it.

And like so many things, what's true in marriage is also true between Christ and His Church. We may be willing to be martyrs, but are we, as my pastor likes to say, willing to stay the extra hour, spend the extra dollar and go the extra mile if it means His name is glorified though we are inconvenience? I hope so. And while I hope that in my death He is glorified, even more so, I hope He is in how I live.

Revisionist History

In politics, opponents will often accuse each other of having an inaccurate view of the past. Whether they are wanting to disavow a now unpopular position, or they want to claim affinity for a suddenly popular one, its not uncommon for political figures to exhibit selective memory...and to hope their constituents do the same.

What's common in politics in also common in the rest of the human race as well. Ask people whether they think they will go to heaven, and a majority will probably answer "I hope so." When probed deeper and asked why they believe they will gain admittance, it is common to hear "Because I've lead a pretty good life." Of course, the benefit of this type of statement is that its very hard to prove the alternative in that moment, and so the questioner will assume that the person's life has, in fact, made a positive contribution.

Rarely, however, do we give an accurate account of the life we've lived. Even our overt actions are often insubstantially justified. When you include our hidden thoughts, feelings and emotions as well, it seems ludicrous that any of us can claim to have "lived a good life" let alone a life that is good enough for a holy God.

The apostle Paul, however, runs counter to this tendency. Here was man who repeatedly listed his iniquities and gave an account for his sinful actions. He did this, not to boast in the deeds he had done, but in the grace he had been shown. He did it to demonstrate that only God can truly revise a person's history.

Let us follow the apostle's example. Let Christians acknowledge their sin and the grace that has been showered upon us. And let us thank our God who intervened in history and change our future.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Wisdom Beyond Words

"Nature abhors a vacuum" This Aristolean principle helps explain why air fills an "empty" space, why liquid goes to the edge of the container its given, and why, regardless of the size of our house, we always seem to be able to fill it with stuff. We grow to the space we are given whether it terms of our potential or in terms of our physical possessions.

In the same way that nature fills emptiness, many fill silence with the presence of speech. In a car ride with others, a litany of syllables fill the air. Waiting for a doctor's appointment, we start chatting up the other unsuspecting patients. An elevator is our worse nightmare, because as we wait for the ten-floor ride downward we aren't sure what conversation is most appropriate.

Sometimes though, words aren't what's needed. "Silence is golden" as they say, and while you may not be able to sell it on the commodities market, there is value in the absence of words. We speak because we want to demonstrate our intelligence, our concern, or our care. Sometimes though, wisdom means that we withold our opionions, our options, and our intution to allow God to work. The wisest thing we can do is to withold peddling our perceptions so that we can see things from His. When we are standing before a holy God, all the words that we have to say are useless. Wisdom dictates listening to Him, not ourselves.

Words can captivate and motivate, but words can't love and words can't care. Just ask Micheal Oher, recently drafted to the Baltimore Ravens. Once homeless, he's now a member of an NFL, primarily thanks to the actions of one caring family in the community. Words couldn't do that, only action could. While thousands may have been able to tell Oher what he needed, only one family actually provided it.

We speak to elevate ourselves in the presence of our audience, whether its a thousand people, or just one friend. However, oftentimes the best thing we can do is direct them to the One audience that really matters and tell them to listen to Him.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Beyond Today

"My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad; my inmost being will rejoice
when your lips speak what is right. Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off." - Proverbs 23:15-18

It's easy to get wrapped up in what's going on in our lives. Primarily this is because of the intimate way in which what happens in our lives effects our happiness, our attitude and our ability to make of life what we desire. We get caught up in the trials and travails of today, and spend countless moments searching for how we might change them. We focus on the here and now to the neglect of the ever after.

This tendency to be consumed with the dailyness of our lives is easily understood and quite commonplace. However, the preponderance of its existence doesn't mean that it is beneficial phenomenon. As the above Proverb illustrates, when we focus on today, the Christian will often come up short. We will look at what we've obtained and compare it to our neighbors and be found wanting. We will see the immediate delights of sin, and ignore the deadly consequences When in our foolishness we focus on the attainments of today, we neglect to secure the wisdom that teaches the permanence of eternity.

To combat this, we need to ask God to expand our view. Instead of seeing what we're missing, the Christian needs to look to all that they've received. We need to look beyond today to the hope of tomorrow. And unlike what can be acquired now, this is a hope that can be sustained. And when our Hope is clearly in view, we find peace, no matter what the day brings.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No Time Off

"A reckless car ran out of gas before it came by way" - Amy Grant, "Angels Watching Over Me"

If you've been a Christian for any length of time, you've undoubtedly experienced times in your walk that have felt static. These can sneak up on us unaware, or they can be the result of a particular time in our journey coming to an end. There is little comfort in understanding the reason why when we feel grounded in the mire. Like a traveler emerged in quicksand, we can see the point that we wish to get to, we just can't seem to get there.

And while there may be little comfort in understanding the reasons why, there is comfort in this - even when we don't understand how God is at work, we can rest assured that He is. God doesn't vacation, He isn't closed for the holidays, and He never calls in sick. He is continuously working for His good pleasure, both in our lives and in the lives of others who follow Him (See Romans 8:28). When we feel a lack of God's hands on our lives, it isn't because He has forgotten about us. Instead, He is arranging things, preparing us for the next step He wants us to take. We may feel His conviction, hear His call, or feel His love at specific moments in time, but that's not the only times where He is employed in furthering His kingdom through us. He is always working.

Practically this means that we can be confident that as we follow Him, He is leading. Even when it feels like we aren't going anywhere, He is still journeying with us. Like a guide that has walked the road before, He is simply preparing the path that He wants us to take.

So the next time you feel like God's calling on your life is unclear, or the steps He wants you to are a mystery, stand firm knowing that you shouldn't abandon the call on your life, because He certainly hasn't.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bring It On

Perhaps the phrase "Bring It On" is most-often associated with a movie about rival cheerleader squads. In it, the phrase serves as a taunt to proclaim one squad's superiority over the other. "Bring it on" they say, with confidence that whatever the other team may bring, they will do better.

However, around the same time this movie was seeping into our nation's consciousness, and before it proliferated way too many sequels, Steven Curtis Chapman had a song with the same name. "Bring it on" he proclaimed, with the intended recipient being the Persecutor of Christians. Sure, there may be tough times, the song exhorted, but if those times bring us closer to our Father, than "bring it on."

Chapman's song emphasized an important point, reminiscent of James' point to the early Church that they should view their trials with joy because they produce perserverance in faith (James 1:2-3). And while this point is a good one, and it can help us to have a right view of the struggles we encounter, there is another reason that we should say "bring it on" when, as Christians, we face tough times. The more we suffer, the more we struggle for Christ's sake on this Earth, the more we will be rewarded in the next (See Matthes 5:11-13). When our difficulties arise as a result of our faithfulness to Christ and His calling, we can with confidence combat our trials. We say "bring it on" not only for the Earthly benefits of tested and proven faith, but for the heavenly ones as well.

This is no small tasks. Welcoming trials seems in opposition to all that we as humans crave. We desire the avoidance of pain, and the propenderance of pleasure. And while we shouldn't seek out troubling situations, just for the sake of encoutering them (See Matthew 4:7), we also needn't fear them. We can confidently say "bring it on" knowing that in the end our rival will be conquerored and our reward great.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Appreciating the Pride Killer

I used to always say that I'm my own worst critic. In a lot of ways, this is still true. On an average day, I'm probably going to evaluate my performance worse than those that observe me. Frankly, it's not a matter of self-esteem, but a desire for continuous improvement. It's an annoying quality to be sure, but for some reason, that's just how I was made.

However, I've learned that despite this tendency, I still squirm at the critiques of others. Every semester I get to experience this first hand when student evaluations are released. Now don't get me wrong, I truly value and appreciate the students' feedback. From this feedback I learned things that they like, and things that they didn't. I'm able to improve my classes and make them more applicable for the next round of scholars. Their feedback promotes what I love - continuous improvement. Plus, I've been giving them feedback all semester, the least I can do is give them an opportunity to share their's. But in a room full of 30 people, it's hard to please everyone. And it's always the comments from the one who's disappointed that stand out to me.

What I'm beginning to learn though is that the resulting bruise to my ego isn't necessarily a bad thing. I grimace at their critiques because I want to be the professor that they love. I justify their comments and rationalize away their insights, because I want to believe I'm good at my job. However, when I look at the pronouns associated with this line of reasoning, I realize it's all about me. I'm hurt, I'm unfairly criticized, I'm disappointed. It's my pride that's wounded, and nothing else.

However, as a Christ-follower, I not only know that pride is not only a sin, but the more pride fills me, the less Christ does. If I'm so consumed with justifying what I've done, the clothes I choose, or the manner in which I teach because I believe that all-in-all I've done a good job, then I'm not at all focused on the work of Christ. Sure, it's good to take an inventory of how I've used the opportunities God has given me, but once I let it destroy my confidence in Him, I know that it's my pride that's experiencing pain. Criticism wounds pride and criticism is a pride-killer. As a follower of Christ, I want less of me anyway, so why shudder at the injury?

Maybe a day will come when I will rejoice at the day student evaluations are released. Maybe someone will critique my driving, or my cooking, and I will thank them. At the very least, I hope to appreciate how as a result, pride is killed in my life, and thereby, in humility, embrace the criticisms that come.. . .whether or not they are deserved.

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Laboring to the Day

Everyone loves a least if the amount of traffic on Southern California freeways is any indication. The opportunity to take off work, get away, and not worry about the concerns of everyday life, is a welcome occurrence. Of course, rarely does a holiday go as idyllic as we imagine it, but still, the chance to get away from it all is applauded.

Perhaps the "get away from it all dream" is most prominently demonstrated in the American mindset towards retirement. Just last week, I was talking with a recently graduated student who was already looking towards how he would spend retirement. Sure, dreaming and planning can be good things, but we have developed a culture that has an aversion to work. While many may blame the younger generations, it is an infection that crosses generational bounds; many boomers feel cheated that the recent economic recession will upend their plans for retirement.

While this predilection is understandable, I'm not sure its biblical. While the Old Testament certainly gives prominence to elders, there's little indication that they ceased to actively manage their household affairs. And since their household affairs were their jobs, there seems to be little indication that they gave up gainful employment. Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David all appeared to work until the very end. Retirement only occurred when they went to their Father's home.

I tend to think that their spiritual children should do the same. We are, after all, promised eternal rest. There's no need for us to take a prolonged respite here on Earth, as we can look forward to a heavenly one. Additionally, Christ promises that, as we take on His burden and do His work, He will provide us rest here (Matthew 11:29). Sure, our work may not always be for a paycheck, but that doesn't abdicate our responsibility to continue to work for Him.

Someone famously said, "I'd rather burn out than rust out." May every Christian do the same.


Fighting Fear - A Book Review

"When Christ is great, our fears are not" - Max Lucado, Fearless

There is perhaps no greater detriment to the Christian life than fear. As Max Lucado persuasively argues in his new book, Fearless, combating fear in His disciples was one of Christ's primary concerns when He walked this Earth. Fear inhibits joy, fear chokes confidence, and fear takes the focus off Christ and puts it on ourselves. Living a fearless life then, is paramount for Christians.

In the fight against fear then, it's helpful to have weapons. Lucado's new book is a great resource to begin the battle. Although serious biblical scholars may find his treatment of the topic elementary and cursory, for the average American Christian it will jump start the desire to begin living fearlessly. And at a time when fear seems to plague more hearts then ever, it's not only helpful, but timely as well.

Fearless is divided up in chapters that provide battle tips to combat specific fears. Perhaps Lucado's greatest contribution comes in his handling of the age-old question - why does a good God allow His followers to experience pain? While correctly acknowledging that Christ promised His disciples troubles in this world, Lucado also reminds readers of the hope that comes from the next. "[Christians] aren't insulated. But neither are we intimated." "Satan cannot reach you without passing through him [Christ]." Through Christ, "heaven's best took hell's worst and turned it into hope." Therefore we can have confidence that "God wastes no pain." And again, while Lucado's work may not thoroughly address all the intricacies of this question, it is a great reminder of the foundational truths that Christians must heed.

Christ, and His Word, offers confidence and hope in a world gone awry. Begin living a Fearless life today.

This book review was completed as part of Thomas Nelson's Book Review Blogger's program.


Better Things Ahead: September 2009

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Better Things Ahead