How to Observe Lent

People always wonder, “What should I do to observe Lent?”  Here are three excellent suggestions I have printed in my bulletin for Ash Wednesday for the last two years.  They are strongly inspired by the 2015 Lenten Letter of Methodist Bishop Jane Allen Middleton to whom I give credit for these ideas. 

Give Up”  — Sacrifice of some kind is an honored Lenten tradition. The sacrifice of Jesus for us inspires us to discipline ourselves by meaningful sacrifice.   

Take Up”  — Jesus encouraged us to take up our cross and follow Him. Often this means tackling some project or ministry on His behalf. We are His hands and feet of love and caring. We are His influence working for justice and healing. So during Lent is an ideal time to take up a special ministry for Jesus. 

Look Up and Open Up to “Receive from Jesus.”  —  We live in the age of the Holy Spirit, and God does not expect us to live the Christian life in our own strength. So during Lent is an ideal time to draw on God’s strength. Another great way to observe Lent is to choose an additional way to draw close to God and allow His Spirit to fill you.   

Real faith Involves discipline

A gem from my favorite devotional

One of my favorite devotional books is a little volume titled, “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, (The Upper Room, 1983).   A rich collection of readings for each week,  taken from various classic Christian authors always  provokes thought and provides inspiration.    This last week I discovered again a quote from Albert Edward Day taken from his book “Discipline and Discovery.”  I found it so amazingly relevant to our world today and to the state of the church today that I thought I would share it with my readers. 

True faith calls us to disciplines of discipleship

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored.  Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the world laying pays tribute.  The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and holy uninterested in mere churchman ship.

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline.  Faith is not a blithe “turning it all over to Jesus.” Faith is such a confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery.  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.”  People working out, God working in – that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle – hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no discipline cooperation, is a heartbreaking spectacle – a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not lift his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines.  Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ.  Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.    

                                               –Albert Edward Day

 

Houghton Magazine hits a home run

Fancher Building (three-quarter view), Houghton College

Since I am an alumnus of four different colleges, I receive more than my share of college magazines.  Usually they are marginally useful,  just a vehicle for touching base with good memories, educational traditions, and news from former peers.  But this winter edition of Houghton Magazine easily stood out as one of the best of the genre.  On the issue of relevance alone it stood above the crowd.  Titled “Reconciliation,” it addressed the issue of racial division in our country, not so much from a philosophical point of view as by examples of servants of God who are working to bridge the racial chasms in our country in various ways.   It featured articles by three different alumni from different generations who are all working directly and in different ways to heal the divisions of our land.  Outstanding pieces by our President, Shirley Mullen, and the new college chaplain, Michael Jordan, added to the issue’s power.  

In addition. I was very happy to see in this issue other evidences that Houghton itself continues to be a healing force.   In the same issue the college announced the initiation of the new Associate of Arts program in Utica, aimed primarily at helping refugees in that city.  That initiative is modeled after the highly successful and acclaimed effort in Buffalo.   In addition, the college noted that this year’s freshman class has the largest percentage of American-born minority students in the history of the school.

 

Reflection on Super Bowl Advertising

Is everyone a preacher?

I was going to write a typical article rating Super Bowl advertising again this year. I watched the game especially for that purpose. But as I watched the different advertisements, I was surprised by the number of advertisers who all but forsook the direct advertising of their product in favor of generalized moral admonition. It struck me that nowadays it seems everyone’s a preacher!

I was glad for those who spoke up favoring immigrants

Now since I am a preacher by profession (for almost 38 years now), you would think that I would be glad for this turn of events. And, in one sense, I am for it reveals that the high leadership in many of our top companies realize that some of the major issues of today are moral issues and they are courageous enough to speak out. I’m also glad to have allies in speaking up for some key topics of today. I noticed the issue that was most frequently spoken about in Super Bowl ads was the matter of welcoming immigrants, a subject dear to my own heart. All of us with the exception of Native Americans, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Having worked directly with Burmese Karen immigrants as a teacher during my last pastorate, and heard the stories about refugee camps, it is very easy for me to be in their corner. I also feel the Bible is very clear that we need to be welcoming to those who are strangers and immigrants among us. (For a complete Biblical statement on immigration see https://www.wesleyan.org/237/a-wesleyan-view-of-immigration)

But I’m uncomfortable when everyone is a preacher

But, in another sense, I found myself being surprisingly uncomfortable with the concept that everyone is a preacher. Is it that I am jealous for my position or my profession? Not directly. The more voices take the side of justice and righteousness, the more powerful the cause. To be jealous because someone else speaks up for good would be foolish. Why my concern then? My discomfort arises from the questions of motive and authority for moral exhortation. That’s a mouthful. But let me explain like this.

The preacher’s motivation must have integrity

Would companies like Budweiser and 84 Lumber have advertised as pro-immigration as they did if they had thought that it would be unpopular, detrimental to their bottom line, and cause the company’s leadership difficulty? I doubt it. They advertised as they did because they knew that those positions are very popular and would result in a good feeling about their company in most circles. But true preachers are called to speak the truth even if it hurts their own position and popularity. Most American preachers today cannot do so very often because in many American churches, we would either be voted out or people would stop attending and supporting the church. But in a true church, one where growing in discipleship is prized, people expect that sometimes the preacher will tread upon their toes, so to speak. To put it another way, sometimes the truth will cut across the grain and that is a good thing. How can we grow if that does not happen? Now you can see the motivational issue for my concern. Not just any preacher will be faithful to say what is not popular yet needs to be said.

The preacher’s authority must come from God’s Word

The second half of my concern has to do with sources of authority. When everyone is a preacher, everyone is entitled to use whatever source of authority they feel is right. Most of the time popular figures are drawing from some kind of perceived cultural consensus that supports what is being advocated. There is a strong relationship between the laws of society and cultural consensus. But for both Jews and Christians, the only true source of moral authority is the revelation that comes from God in Holy Scripture. When everyone’s a preacher, it is anybody’s guess what the relationship or lack of relationship will be between what is advocated and what the law of God says. That is another key source of my concern. The Christian preacher’s first job is to see that what he or she teaches is congruent with, indeed arises out of the Words and teachings of Scripture.

So not everyone is a preacher!

So there you have my concerns. When politicians, beer advertisers, movie stars, sports figures, businessmen and TV personalities all become preachers, there will be an increasing need for people to discern who the true prophets are. The genuine purveyors of godly ethics will be distinguished as those whose authority is not their own, it is derived from God’s Word; and the preachers to be listened to will be those whose motivation over time shows love for God and for others above oneself. Anyone can address an issue and oft times they should as a part of their own moral responsibility, but not everyone is a preacher!

Thoughts and Insights for Prospective Students

Fancher Building, Houghton College

On a news site I use, I saw an article by Arizona State University Online.  The headline for the accompanying picture read, “Checklist for Student Success” and the article’s long title was “Thoughts and Insights for Prospective Students.”    I think it was picked up because it is a topic that needs discussion.  In many colleges, a high percentage of the enrolling students do not make it through.   How can we help them have more success?

I remember my experience as a student who was a valedictorian from a very small high school attending a top ranked University (U of R) and studying physics.   The transition was huge.  There was so much to learn besides classes.  The routine of farm life was gone and in its place was the chaotic lack of schedule called dorm living.  When it came to classes, there was so much to learn about how to learn that I had never had to learn because the school I attended had not been sufficiently challenging.   Adjustments were major.  I made it through but barely that first year.   I would have benefited hugely from some advice about how to succeed in college.    

I did graduate from U of R in physics so most people are a little surprised at my shift of profession into Christian ministry.  But that is a story for another day.  For this article it is enough to note that I have since had the privilege of attending college three more times.   In recent years, I also had the privilege of serving on a college board of trustees for six years (Houghton College).   So with my own experiences in mind, both my early struggles and my later successes, I offer my own seven point version of “Thoughts and Insights for Perspective Students.” 

Use the course syllabi as a planning tool

I agree that keeping close track of those class syllabi is key.  No doubt the means have changed since I was in school but the principle is the same.  Student success is directly related to knowing exactly what the professor expects.    You will need to use syllabi to develop the discipline of scheduling your own semester work ahead of time too.   Such things as research projects, semester term papers, collaborative work, cannot be done last-minute.   In addition, even if you can do a paper in one night, you will not be able to do one for each of two different courses because you didn’t discover until the last-minute that they were due on the same day.   

Plan your schedule with study time included

Set yourself a daily and weekly schedule that includes study time.   Don’t expect study time to just happen as I seemed to do my first year.   If you can’t study in the room because of interruptions, use a library or some other place regularly.   If your friend time starts controlling your schedule, you are headed for trouble.   Don’t make excuses; take responsibility and learn to discipline yourself.    One semester we got in the habit of playing cards late at night and into the wee hours and I wondered why I was failing the 8 am class I had. 

Ask for help when you need it

Seek help when you are frustrated.  Dig for additional resources if needed.  Most teachers are much more approachable than it seems.   This one tip would have saved me much grief.   My background in math was not adequate for what I was attempting in physics.  I needed to seek some help to catch up a little.  I thought the problem was just me so I struggled through with much frustration.   Seeking help would have been so much wiser. 

Choose friends wisely

Choose friends with values like yours.    This is actually one of the most important choices you will make.   This is also good advice for high school students, active duty military personal and anyone else starting a new chapter in their life in a new setting.   Friends influence us!   One of the probable reasons for my later success in my first college was that I found a group of students who had religious values like mine and study values even better than mine and I associated with them as my friends.  That helped me immensely. 

Professors are people too

Realize that professors are real people too.  They have just taken many more courses.  But they probably haven’t read the same books that you have.  They don’t know every subject equally well.  They know one subject very well.   Learn from them eagerly but do not be surprised when they are not perfect or when some are better than others.   

Remember to grow in good character too

Remember that unfortunately most colleges only teach subjects.  But character education is even more important.   Knowledge without good character will not result in a successful career.   So beware of those peers who would treat college years like a moral holiday.   The result of that attitude is a bunch of moral infants as graduates.  Unfortunately, fraternity and sorority houses have a bad reputation in this regard.   I don’t recommend joining them. 

Embrace the stretching

Finally, college is a stretching experience.  This is a wonderful part of those years.  Embrace it but exercise discretion too.  As I look back I can think of so many things that stretched my perspective from that of a Western New York farm boy with very strict roots.   Here are a few: I first flew in college as my roommate flew me to his house in Ohio – I had not been West of Niagara Falls either.   I rode a public bus in college when I took lessons at Eastman and saw an inner city neighborhood for the first time on my return trip.   I had a professor who was an immigrant who had a heavy accent.   I had another, a favorite, who smoked a pipe which I admired too much and almost decided to imitate – thank God I did not.   I attended Pentecostal/charismatic worship services for the first time and began to learn about the wonderful variety in the family of God.    Sometimes I was conscious of the stretching.  More often I was not.   We learn and grow through such new experiences. 

A new theme prods reflection on the role of change

Change creates opportunity for progress

I’m starting the New Year with a new blog theme (Twenty Seventeen).  I really liked the old one (My Life), especially its three column format, so I kept it a while.   But I’m following a principle that change is needed to keep things fresh.  If we don’t plan positive change, our product becomes stale and stagnant. I have learned that staying with the comfortable keeps me in a rut and eliminates the opportunity for progress which change usually brings.   I may change again if I am not satisfied with the result of my new theme.   I’m hoping for a fresh look, more readable fonts, different menu locations, and increased ability to handle tables.  Looks like I’m getting some new video capability thrown in.  Perhaps that will challenge me to grow in a new area.    The whole exercise caused me to reflect on the role of change in what I do. 

Change can be confusing

I discovered again that there is a natural resistance to change.   The old is familiar.  Change creates work.  In the case of a theme change, I have to manually reset the menu and widget structure of the blog.   I need to choose pictures and backgrounds.   There is always the hidden fear that the change will be for the worse.   The wisdom of past experience lessens this risk immensely, but it can feel risky anyway.

Change has a logical side and a psychological side

“A good exercise when you face change is to make a list of the logical advantages and disadvantages that should result from the change, and then another list indicating the psychological impact.  Just seeing this on a sheet of paper can be clarifying”  (Bob Biehl in Increasing Your Leadership Confidence p. 46).

There are several up sides to my blog theme change.  When I redo a theme, I learn in the process, sometimes reluctantly, but I learn.  That’s a good thing.  Usually the new theme has capabilities that the old one did not.   A new theme presents the blog reader with a fresh look which hopefully creates new interest.   For example, this one seems much cleaner in appearance.  From the blogger’s standpoint, deficiencies in the old theme can be remedied.  For example, this one handles tables much better.     I’m excited about the opportunity for a video message provided by this theme. 

Concerning creating change in an organization, here is a great resource to read; John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You, chapter 4 “Creating Positive Change.”    

 

 

Tips for Countering Depression

 

 

Contrary to popular opinion, the end of the year holidays are a very difficult time for many people.   Depression is often worse then.  Winter is coming on; other people seem almost obnoxiously happy and there are many social gatherings.  If one is not in the best mood or has experienced personal reverses or some serious losses and is grieving, the holidays can make the situation worse.  Here are some suggestions to help. 

 

  1. Get more exercise.   Perhaps this is a surprising first tip but actually exercise helps our bodies generate the right chemistry for joy.  It physically helps the body balance moods. Exercise also helps our sleep patterns.   http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495
  2. Practice giving thanks for little things.  When we are depressed we focus on the negative.  In wholesome contrast, the habit of thanksgiving helps us get a wider perspective on life and encourages us to appreciate what is good even amid our difficulties. 
  3. Avoid alcohol.  Alcoholic drinks are often consumed by those who are depressed to help them “forget their troubles.”    However, chemically alcohol depresses bodily functions and makes depression worse.   http://www.ulifeline.org/articles/460-alcohol-and-depression
  4. Get in touch with the losses, hurts and angry feelings in your heart.  Frequently depression has components related to grief and anger from circumstances in our lives, sometimes cumulative circumstances.   When we are depressed, we may not be dealing in a healthy way with these feelings.  It helps so much to be conscious of the roots of our sadness and then to talk it out with trusted and wise friends, counselors or pastors.  Hiding these feelings inside feeds our depression in unconscious ways.   Praying about these feelings also helps; think of prayer as talking out our feelings and circumstances with God.    
  5. Keep interacting with your friends and family. When we are depressed, we have a natural tendency to isolate ourselves, but this is not the healthiest thing for us to do.  Maintaining or even increasing our usual connections with family and friends will help us greatly in getting through our time of depression.  The warmth of friendship and love is healing for us even when it is hard to reciprocate.   True friends understand.
  6. Remember the character of God. He is a God of Hope and Encouragement (Romans 15:5, 13).   So drawing near to God helps immensely.  If it is hard to pray yourself, ask a Christian friend to pray with you.   Keep attending services, if at all possible.  Remember that God knows the hurts of your heart (Psalm 10:14).    When words don’t come, He hears your heart.
  7. Find some key Bible verses that speak to you. Write them on cards and place them where you will see them often or put them on your computer desktop.  They will help reshape your thinking.   Reading in the Psalms will help you find them.  Here are some suggestions to begin.  1 Peter 5:7; Matthew 11:28;  Psalm 23; Psalm 28:7; Psalm 46:1, 2; Psalm 55:22; Psalm 56:3; Hebrews 13:5, 6; 2 Corinthians 9:8; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Isaiah 40:29-31; Isaiah 46:4, Isaiah 57:15; Philippians 4:4-8;  and Psalm 103. 

Finally, it you don’t find yourself making progress, seek help.  It is a strong thing to do to recognize when we could use a little help and seek it.  Counselors, pastors and doctors are trained to help in sensitive ways.  Most everyone has times in their lives when they could benefit greatly from counsel.  

 

Both historical knowledge and spiritual experience are needed for faith

We need both personal spiritual experience and knowledge of the Bible

About a week ago I was very impressed by a quote that I found in my devotional book.   The focus for the week was on the supremacy of Christ and how we get to know him. In today’s world it is popular to emphasize the spiritual in an almost mystic sense. But it is much less popular to do the hard work of reading Scripture and studying it to learn more about the historical figure of Jesus who inspires our Christian faith.    The  quote points out that both the spiritual response often associated with prayer  and meditation and the historical underpinning from study are needed in order for us to truly know what Jesus is about and how  his Spirit lives in and through us.  I pass it on to you.

Historical Christianity is dry and formal when it lacks the immediate and inward response to our Great Companion; but our spirits are trained to know him, to appreciate him, by the mediation of historical revelation.  A person’s spiritual life is always dwarfed when cut apart from history. Mysticism is empty unless it is enriched by outward and historical revelation. The supreme education of the soul comes through an intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ of history.    (The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones)

Scripture speaks of both essentials

I think both ends of this balance are easily seen in the words of Scripture as well.  The Apostle Paul spoke of the spiritual side of our relationship to God:   

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  Eph. 3:16-17  NIV 2011

David wrote eloquently of the need to keep in touch with God’s written record and allow it to form us. 

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.    Ps 119:105

 

An excellent article for understanding the election

I am glad I did not vote for either candidate in the presidential election as it gives me more latitude to comment on it.  My brother Allen (a Bernie Sanders fan) posted the link to this article on his Facebook page. It is one of the best articles I have read for understanding the election.   It does not hit everything, but it covers some of the main topics that are not usually addressed.  

Add to this article two additional dimensions and then I believe you will have a pretty complete picture of what fueled Trump’s victory.   One dimension relates to Obama’s and Clinton’s identification with and exacerbation of the culture wars.   This is what pushed the religious right into an uncomfortable corner. As a whole, I believe they did not like Trump but could not stomach a promised worsening of Obama’s cultural affronts under a second Clinton administration.   Secondly,  I believe one probably needs to factor in Democratic opposition to NRA positions.   I believe that stances in both of these issues would likely follow similar urban/rural geography to the election returns, strengthening the end result. 

https://hbr.org/2016/11/what-so-many-people-dont-get-about-the-u-s-working-class