Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

The beginning of a new year invariably invites people to take stock of their lives and "resolve" to make some changes. It's a good thing to endeavor to make positive changes in our lives and the new year provides a natural opportunity to examine ourselves and seek to make some of those positive changes.

But New Year's Resolutions aren't often very successful in making those real changes. I find myself making resolutions or commitments to some kind of change in behavior in most years. My success has been a bit spotty. Sometimes it really makes a difference, and at other times it doesn't last long. The most common New Year's Resolutions have to do with exercising more, changing eating habits, quitting smoking or drinking, etc. I suspect that a lot of folks don't do too well with those. Others have to do with "spending more time with family" or some other relationship oriented issue. I suspect those don't fare too well, either. Some of them are so general and vague like "enjoy life more" that it would be difficult to measure whether you've accomplished it or not.

I read about an interesting study that gave some tips on being successful in maintaining New Year's Resolutions . It was done in Great Britain (See involved about 3,000 test subjects. It found that there is usually only about a 10% success rate on New Year's Resolutions. One in ten. That's not very good. But the study also found some ways that people tend to be more successful - and that the methods for success were somewhat different for men and women. Men triple their success at a resolution if they make a specific goal or target, with small, incremental measurable goals (like losing a pound a week), rather than an undefined, non-specific goal (like losing weight). Women, on the other hand, double their success at a New Year's Resolution if they told somebody - went public - with their commitment. Then they received support from their friends.

This, I think points out two very important principles - even spiritual principles - about life change: Making specific commitments that can be measurable and loving accountability in keeping those commitments. Ingenious qualities that led to the effectiveness of the early Methodist movement were these principles. The early Methodists, once they experienced the pardoning grace of God in Jesus Christ, didn't make some vague commitment to grow in grace. They committed themselves to specific disciplines (prayer, Bible reading, fasting, worship, acts of mercy and service to others), but also they gathered together in groups, shared these commitments with one another and met weekly to pray for each other and hold each other accountable for their growth in grace and specific commitments to spiritual disciplines.

People who seek to exercise regularly are much more successful if they have a partner who's going to be waiting for them at the gym or the health club at the agreed-upon time. We are much more likely to keep our daily quiet time for prayer and study or to do a particular act of service if we know our Christian friends are going to ask us about it at our next meeting.

I hope you will be successful in any life changes you seek to make as you begin the new year. And I would encourage you to focus on changes that are deep and signficant, rather that those that are merely cosmetic and superficial.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An Historic Election

For the last month I have been reflecting on the historic election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. I'm certainly not the only one who is still marveling and celebrating this. And when I say that, I'm not at all talking about those who are particularly excited because they supported him as president, no matter what the reason. Because whether or not one supported him or voted for him as president, we should all celebrate that a man of his ethnicity and heritage was able to achieve this. As I was watching the election returns on election night, as they declared him the victor, I happened to be watching Fox News Channel (although I had been flipping through several throughout the evening). As the news began to sink in, Juan Williams, a Fox News contributor and NPR commentator, and himself a black man made a response I'll not soon forget. He talked about the historic and amazing nature of this event, and tears welled up in his eyes and his voice quivered a bit as he said something to the effect, "to have a man who is a member of a race that has been so reviled and beaten down in this country to become the elected head of its government is nothing short of astounding."

I was born in 1958, and I have only vague memories of the virulent racism of the 1960's and before. Now that is not to imply that racism has been eradicated - far from it. But even though I have not seen the things those who are 10-20 years older than I have seen, it's still a stunning thing for an African-American to become the president in my lifetime. I didn't think I'd see it, at least not until I was very advanced in age.

This demonstrates and enables us to celebrate how far we have come in this country. We have elected a man who during the lifetime of the generation just before him (and me) could not have even voted for president in many areas of our country, much less been elected. To have an African American first family move into the White House that was built by African slaves is a stark symbol of the good things about our nation - that all men (and women) really are created equal and that the United States of America really is a land of opportunity, democracy and freedom. I'm not suggesting that our country doesn't have deep problems of all kinds, nor am I suggesting that Barack Obama is some sort of Messianic figure (as some seem to think), but neither is he the anti-Christ (as some others seem to think). He is a man, and I believe a good man. It is my prayer that he will be a good leader also.

I will pray for him and his family and for our country during this time of great challenge. And although I am hopeful for his presidency and wish him all success, my deepest hope is not in him or in any man or president; nor is my hope in any economic report or development; my hope is not in the notion that bad times, even terrible times will not come. My hope is in God who sustains me whatever comes. He is the One (not Barack Obama, sorry Oprah!).

God bless Barack Obama and his family. God bless all those who will serve our country in his administration. God bless all those who serve us in government. God bless the United States of America. And God bless all of God's children in the world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Time Management?

I indicated when I began this blog that I would try to write every week or so. The next thing I know I looked around and it was well over two months later! Now that could mean that I haven't had any thoughts in that length of time. But that's not really true. What is true is that I just haven't taken the time to write them down. I apologize for not laying them out there as regularly as I'd hoped. I'll try to do better. That's what I always say to myself (or my wife) when I haven't been doing too well at managing my time in getting certain things done according to my intention. This business of time management has always been (and alas, probably always will be) a challenge and at times a struggle for me.

There sure has been a lot going on I've been reflecting on lately - election of a new president (the first African-American, at that), what seems to be a cascading financial crisis/meltdown/depression/catastrophe (descriptive term used depends on which pundit you happen to be quoting), and just my usual hectic fall schedule. Actually fall is my favorite time of the year in many respects. I love the weather (when we actually HAVE fall weather). I like a lot of the holiday activities. And October contains my birthday (actually I need to write a whole entry on that particular subject, since on this last birthday, I turned 50!). I will endeavor to try to write about some of these things in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I will continue trying to manage my time, rather than have time manage me!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Better Freedom

Joan and I had the opportunity to attend a retreat at Laity Lodge near Leakey over the Labor Day weekend with Michael Card. We knew that we would enjoy ourselves. First, just the opportunity for me to have a "Sabbatical Sunday" away from pulpit responsibilities, and just for us to be together for a weekend was going to be quite nice. Second, we knew we would enjoy being at Laity Lodge, a beautiful setting in the Frio River canyon near the river's headwaters. Both of us have had the opportunity to be on the H.E. Butt Foundation property there on several occasions. I served a number of times as a counselor at church camps at one of the more rustic camp facilities years ago, and then both of us have been on private retreats at their cottage called "The Quiet House," Joan 2-3 times, and me about half a dozen times. Because those private retreat experiences have been so meaningful to us both, the whole H.E. Butt Foundation Camp is sort of like "holy ground." But I had been to an event at Laity Lodge only once before, and Joan had never been, so it was wonderful.
er reason we knew we would enjoy our time there is that Michael Card was both the speaker and musical artist. We have enjoyed and been blessed by his music for many years, and it had been a long time since we had heard him in concert. We had never met him or been with him in such an intimate setting. So we knew we were in for a wonderful time.
But we had no idea how significant it would be. The people who participated in the retreat with us, the wonderful music (of course) were a really a blessing.
But the teac
hing Michael presented to us was very challenging. It was a Bible study he entitled "A Better Freedom." What he basically did was point out that slavery is a major theme throughout the Scripture, and a primary way to understand God's relationship with his people. He gave us good background information on the history of slavery in ancient Israel, the Roman world of the New Testament, and African-American slavery in America. He pointed out the prominent image in the Old Testament of God as master and the people as slaves. For example, the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt, in order for Yahweh to become their Lord (which means - Master). Most particularly he talked about how prominent and pervasive the slave theme is in the New Testament all through. A large percentage of the parables Jesus told are slave parables. An interesting note is that there is a Greek word translated "servant" much of the time in English translations, that more accurately means "slave" (doulos). Paul refers to himself as a slave of Jesus Christ (ex. Romans 1:1) in numerous places. Paul also talks a lot about sin as slavery, but also talks about being a slave to righteousness or to God's law (Romans 7). Further, the word in the New Testament translated "Lord" (kurios) most clearly means "Master." This sheds a whole new light on much of New Testament Scripture.
What is most significant is that Jesus portays himself as a slave. One of the things that really struck me was Michael's pointing out that the price of a slave in Jesus' day was 30 pieces of silver. Does that figure sound familiar? It ought to - it was the price Judas was paid for his betrayal of Jesus! This is one of the paradoxes found in the New Testament. Even though Jesus was himself God, he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave - there's doulos again - slave, not servant (Philippians 2:6-7). He said that in order to be rich, we must become poor; to save our lives we have to give them up; to be mature, we have to become like children; and in order to become great, we have to become slaves. And if Jesus is our Lord and Master, we are owned; we have been bought. Everything we are, and everything we have belongs to our Master. The point of his teaching was that complete freedom is really slavery, and that slavery to Jesus is real freedom - "a better freedom." It's going to take me a while to digest what Michael presented to us. I encourage you to study on your own the New Testament and notice the pervasive theme of slavery and Jesus as "Master." It is certainly my prayer that I might find "a better freedom" as I surrender myself to my Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. But I know that this is tough stuff.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I'm Finally a Blogger!

Well, here I am blogging around in cyberspace! Another opportunity for a preacher to talk! Oh, well. This will give greater opportunity for me to have a greater audience to witness my sticking my foot in my mouth!

Seriously, I hope doing this blog every week or so will give me an opportunity to think about some things out loud. Hopefully it will help me grow in my own thinking and understanding, as I reflect on various things serious and not so serious. I also hope somewhere in the midst of all the verbiage I post here, you might find some little piece of my thinking that helps you in some way - if in no other way than to give you a laugh or make you think. I'm new at this (actually brand new), but we'll see how it goes! May God's grace be at work in you during these days.