Faith: You already have plenty of it!

Posted on May 1, 2007
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trust-1.jpgReligion is based on faith, science is based on fact.  You must not have enough faith.  Whatever your faith holds is right for you.  These are the usual types of statements tossed about regarding faith.  But what is faith and does it really matter where I put my faith?

Popular definitions of faith tend to suggest that it is a vague commodity that some people need and others who are more “scientific” and self-reliant don’t.  Existential philosophers describe faith as a blind leap in the dark.  A more accurate definition of faith is “complete confidence or trust.” (The Random House Dictionary).  Faith and trust are virtually synonymous.  Although many people do not consider themselves to be full of faith, they do recognize that they trust a variety of people and things to varying degrees.  We trust people, we trust the physical laws of the universe, and we trust ourselves.  The question is not do we have faith, but in what do I have faith?  Faith is a commodity by which we live our lives every day; you can’t make decisions without it. 

It has been said that faith is only as good as the object in which you place it.  What if you were preparing for a trip and you boarded a plane where the pilot appeared to be drunk and the engines had black smoke pouring out of them?  You could say that you had faith, despite these facts which point to the contrary, that you would have a safe flight.  Although it wouldn’t be a safe bet.  In this case the object of your faith was clearly not worthy of your trust.  On the other hand, what if you asked a long time friend to deliver an important package for you?  Because this is a person whom you know well and he has given you his word, you are confident that he will do as he has promised.  This would be faith that is well placed.  Life is lived by faith.  As a matter of fact, you can’t live for a day without demonstrating faith numerous times.

If that is true, then the same principles of faith must apply to spiritual issues as they do to every other area of life.  Faith, as it relates to spiritual questions, is also only as good as the object of that faith.  Everyone has faith that relates to the ultimate questions about God, meaning in life and eternity.  For example, even if you believe that there is no God, you are demonstrating faith (trust) in your own knowledge (however limited) about God.  The question is not, do you have faith?  The important questions are: how informed is your faith? And how trustworthy is the object of your faith?
All I am trying to do is identify several important truths about faith.  First, we all have plenty of faith.  Second, faith is only as good as the object in which you place it.  Third, faith as it pertains to spiritual issues is no different from any other area.  When faith is seen in this light, it is important to evaluate if your faith is informed and solid and then place it in an object worthy of your trust.  After all there are no more significant questions than those that surround God, salvation, time, and eternity.  For example, historic Christianity rests on the person of Jesus Christ and His ability to teach the truth and accomplish what He said He would do.  If so, then He would be a worthy object of trust and faith.  If not, then a person would be foolish to listen to Him.  What is your faith based on? 

What Time Is It?

Posted on March 8, 2007
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wrist-watch.jpg On a recent Sunday morning, I glanced down at my watch to see what time it was.  There was nothing unusual about that action; most of us do it dozens of times each day.  This time though, I was in church, of all places; I wasn’t in a hurry and the service had just begun.  As I thought about why I had looked at my watch I wondered why I was so preoccupied by time? And why are we (as a culture) so obsessed with time that we strap clocks to our arms?  Is it because we have so much of it or is it because we have so little time? 

Do you know what time it is?  You might know the date, day, hour, and minute, but where does any point in time fit into your lifespan?  Everyone knows that his or her life will last for a certain amount of time, but no one knows just how long that will be.  Whether it is a horrendous act of violence as seen at Columbine High School, a fatal accident, or the diagnosis is cancer, our time is often not what we expect it will be.  Whether you are young enough to have never been touched by these types of circumstances or old enough to realize that they are inevitable, maybe we really don’t know what time it is.

When a person dies at a young age, it is called a tragedy.  But the real tragedy is not in how long or short a person lives; it is when the time that is available to a person is wasted.  I am not talking about efficiency and using every second productively, but I am referring to living well and investing your life well.  I can’t imagine anything worse than looking back on life with the feeling that my time (life) had been misspent.  It seems to me that one of the most difficult things about going to prison must be the feeling that time in the past has been misspent and that the time in prison would be wasted.  Maybe that is why prison is often times a place where people begin to see what is truly important in life.

Ultimately, the question “what time is it?” is a spiritual question because it has to do with the best ways to invest a life.  The answer to that question may be different from person to person, but it is important to remember who will determine if your time was well spent.  If there is a God who created us and has entrusted a certain amount of time to us, He will have the final say. 

In life we never really know what time it is, until it is over.  In that case it makes sense to make the most of the time that we have. A wise person has said that we should plan for tomorrow, but live for today.  Jesus Christ said it this way, “… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Paul, the Greek scholar who penned many of the letters in the Bible, wrote this, “… be careful how you walk … making the most of your time…”  The concept that he was referring to was not so much the wise use of hours and minutes, but of opportunities.  That would seem to involve giving thoughtful attention to what is important in life and navigating each day by using those bearings.  What time is it?  It is time to take advantage of today. 

The Case Of The Dead Swine

Posted on February 26, 2007
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pigs-1.jpg What does a herd of pigs have to do with the question of evil?  This evening I was reading about an event that occurred in the life and travels of Jesus Christ that made me think about that question exactly.  The event is reported as true and not just a story trying to make a point.  If so, the case of the dead swine raises some very challenging and important questions about God.  That question is: Who is responsible for the bad things that happen?

In the words of Inigo Montoya (from the movie, The Princess Bride), “Let me explain, No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”  After crossing the lake of Galilee with some of his closest friends and coming ashore in the region of the Gerasenes, Jesus was confronted by a man who was known to be possessed by evil spirits.  Knowing that Jesus had the authority to send them out of the man the evil spirits begged Jesus not to send them far away and instead asked him to send them into a herd of 2000 pigs that happened to be feeding nearby.  At which time Jesus gave them permission to do so and after they entered the pigs, the entire herd ran off a cliff and drowned in the water below.

Sooooo, one might ask, who is responsible for the death of the pigs?  Answering this question is no simple task.  When you think about it there are numerous other questions that come into play which must also be considered.  For example:  What would have happened if Jesus could have, but chose not to do anything about the situation he faced when confronted by the possessed man?  Should he have ignored this man’s plight if he knew what might happen?  Is there a difference between granting permission and causing to happen?  If doing something desirable results in some undesirable outcomes, should that action be taken?  Is the life of one man more valuable than a herd of pigs?  Is there actually evil in the world?  Does God have more power than the forces that challenge him?  If he does and chooses not to prevent them from harmful actions is that wrong?  What would you think if you, or a loved one, were the one possessed?  Would you answer the previous questions any differently?

Think about it some more and you are sure to come up with even more questions raised by this one incident (remember, the questions are not do you believe this happened or is the Bible an accurate record of historical events, those are another set of important questions).  The question is:  Who is responsible for these dead swine?  If you were the judge, how would you sort it out?  Do your answers change your picture of God?

You Need Professional Help

Posted on January 30, 2007
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golfbookcover_061.gif You need professional help!  Depending on the context, you might take offense at that statement or be grateful for it.  Say, for example, after you pour out your heart to a close friend about a current relationship, he or she responds by saying you need professional psychiatric help: you might be offended.  On the other hand, if you are a 19-year-old first-round golf-instruction.bmp draft choice with a two million dollar signing bonus and the same friend says you need professional help with all that money, you might agree.

The truth is we all need professional help in different areas of life at different times.  That fact has become increasingly clearer to me as I get older.  Maintaining a home has made me appreciate experts who know how to fix electrical, plumbing and heating systems.  A financial whiz I am not, which makes me grateful for those professionals who help me make wise investments.  Recovering from a broken leg has compelled me to seek help from professionals in orthopedics and physical therapy. 

Unfortunately, it is more acceptable to get professional help in some areas of life than others.  Your buddy might boast about the great tip his investment counselor pitched that resulted in a home run.  But he might not boast so eagerly to coworkers that he and his wife are pursuing marriage counseling.  And what would you do if you wanted spiritual counsel for questions you have about God, heaven, or meaning in life? 

Consider how many areas of life tend to get overlooked yet need some professional help.  One often overlooked area is the spiritual or religious segment.  Most of us would not consider ourselves theologians or “experts,” but we do have some pretty important questions.  The funny thing is that many theologians, scholars, philosophers, and thoughtful people have given attention to almost any question you or I can come up with and have addressed it somehow.

As big and challenging as some of those spiritual questions may seem, taking the first step is the most important.  “To be utterly lost in the woods is unfortunate.  To be absolutely unconcerned about it is unreasonable.  Yet so many people who spend weeks mastering a new video game, months learning a tennis serve, or years perfecting a golf swing will not invest a few days, or even a matter of hours, in the effort to understand better some of the deeper questions about life.” writes Thomas Morris.  If you could ask God one question, what would it be?  Why not start there and see what the “professionals” have to say.  Suffice it to say, we could all use some professional help. 

The State Of Humanity Address

Posted on January 10, 2007
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 presidential_seal.gif What is the state of humanity In the early years of the 21st century?

Each January the president of the United States gives the state of the union address.  This speech describes the current situation in our country and world, and outlines a vision and plan for the future.  With that in mind let’s assess the condition of the human race and call it the state of humanity address. state_of_the_union.jpg

On the positive side, we have made significant technological advances which have greatly affected our quality of life with spectacular advances in health care, communications, and transportation, just to mention a few.  Yet with all of our technological advances there remain many nagging questions about how we are really doing as a people.  Why, if we are constantly changing, learning, and evolving, do we still struggle with basic problems like racism, human rights, and war?  Why can’t nations and peoples within nations get along?  There are by some counts 56 wars being raged right now.  In the last century alone more people were killed by their own governments than have been killed in all the previous wars throughout history. 

Let’s also consider the difficulties that advancements in technology have brought.  Medical advances with all their benefits have raised ethical dilemmas that are almost unimaginable.  Living in the nuclear age has enabled us to build weapons of mass destruction and cause people all over the world to live in daily fear of an attack or accident.  We are now able to do things that we don’t know weather we ought to.  Technological advances often bring an equal ability to cause harm. 
If humanity is so good then why do people do so many bad things?  Why do people intentionally murder one another?  Why are there people dying of starvation every day when there is the ability to feed them?  Why do we call it “ethnic cleansing” when whole groups of people are slaughtered?  What kind of person intentionally creates a computer virus?  Shouldn’t we have progressed beyond the point of having to deal with these kinds of problems by now?

On a more personal level, how are we doing individually?  If lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong, then why is there so much of it?  Why do we each fall short of our own moral standards?  Are people basically good and getting better or are we experiencing these kinds of enduring problems because we have a fundamental flaw and are in need of serious help?  One cultural critic put it this way, “We may be smart, but we are not all that good.”  Selfishness, pride, violence, impurity all seem to flow out of a person from deep within. 

The purpose of the annual state of the union address is to identify current realities and look to the future to make changes.  The question is what the true nature of the human condition is and who can help solve our problem?  Here’s to 2007.

I Resolve To…

Posted on January 3, 2007
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checklist.jpg The beginning of a new year is a good time to pause and reflect. What was 2006 like for you? What was good and what was difficult during the last 12 months? How have you grown and changed during the year? Taking just a few minutes to think back and remember is always profitable.

The beginning of a new year is also a good time to look ahead and yes, even make some resolutions. New years resolutions are often viewed as an exercise in futility. After all, we have all made resolutions and not been able to keep them for the entire year. Even if that is true, it is not a good reason to keep from setting goals and seeking to develop yourself in the months ahead. With that in mind, let me be so bold as to suggest a couple of good resolutions for 2007 regarding ultimate pursuits.

Resolution #1: Ask more questions. The beauty of little children is that they question everything. The reason they learn so quickly is for just the same reason. Don’t assume that you know it all. Start with your spiritual beliefs and convictions. Ask yourself why you believe what you believe? Do you have good reasons to hold those beliefs? This could be a little uncomfortable, but you may find that you have a lot to learn in the process. You will be encouraged if you discover that you have a solid foundation for your beliefs. You will be better off if you realize that your beliefs are not true and get a fresh start in building a stronger foundation. It is amazing how much can be learned by simply asking the right questions.

Resolution #2: Seek answers that are true. Don’t just ask questions for the sake of discussion, ask them for the purpose of getting to the bottom line, the truth; professors expect this, so does the business world, why shouldn’t your goal be the same in the spiritual area? What is true about God? How does that truth relate to my existence? How can I live a meaningful life? Do you think those answers are impossible to find? Don’t jump to that conclusion to quickly, remember resolution #1. Let the evidence lead where it may. The worst that could happen is that you realize that you are alone in the cosmos. The best of possibilities is that you discover that God has been active in history and can be known. Don’t settle for answers that don’t satisfy your mind and heart and that only scratch the surface. Most people would rather simply be comfortable than question their beliefs and expend energy to find the truth. Wouldn’t you rather discover the truth than be comfortably ignorant?

Who knows what this year will hold for you. Why not make it an exciting year of discovery and personal growth? Ask yourself, “how sure am I that my spiritual beliefs are true?” If they are not true you may have a lot to loose. If they are true, they can withstand any form of testing you can apply. January is a great time to get a fresh start in your pursuit of truth.

The Law Of Large Numbers

Posted on November 30, 2006
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elephant.jpg Do small numbers act the same as large numbers? Do numbers act at all? (already I digress) In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert explains the law of large numbers to address that question. As a test for the law of large numbers Gilbert proposes an experiment called “split the tab with Dan”. This involves going to a local bar and flipping a coin to see who pays the tab. If you flip the coin four times and Dan wins three of them you might consider yourself unlucky. If you were to flip the coin 4000 times and you lost 75% of those flips you might become suspicious because large numbers do not act the same as small numbers. It is rational to consider loosing three out of four coin tosses due to some imperfection in the coin or the coin tosser (or is it tossee?), but if those same statistics held true for a much larger sample your intuition and rational capacities would suggest that something was amiss and you would be correct.

So, you might ask, what does the law of large numbers have to do with Ultimate Pursuits and asking life’s most important questions? Excellent, thank you. That is precisely the question I asked myself while listening to Gilbert’s book on my iPod while riding a stationary bike and feeling like I was going nowhere. Then it struck me, for all of the important questions in life (at least all that I can think of right now) it is crucial to apply the law of large numbers when drawing conclusions and arriving at answers. For example, it would be possible to conclude, after surveying 10 clinically depressed individuals residing at a psychiatric hospital, that there is no ultimate meaning to one’s existence. A broader survey of the population at large might yield much more optimistic and statistically accurate results.

Wouldn’t the same principles come into play with questions about such vast and important topics as say the existence of God? Granted, that is a question that can seem somewhat like eating an elephant for dinner; it is difficult to know where to start. If that is the case it may not be most important where you begin, but how far you get. For example, many an undergraduate student has been discouraged by a single university science or philosophy professor who has declared that there is no God. As a result, on the basis of one academic, that freshman has concluded that all (or most) thinking university types must have arrived at the same conclusion. Who would argue against encouraging that student to explore further, read more widely, and gather more knowledge before arriving at a conclusion on such a weighty matter?

A friend of mine who is an eminent philosopher suggests that when tackling the important questions we ought to state the question in the form of a proposition and then set out to see where all the lines of evidence converge, apply some logical tests and make a decision accordingly. My guess is that this is actually the process you use subconsciously to make decisions on a regular basis. How about deciding where to go and what to do on a vacation? Aren’t you ultimately asking what will make you happy or what is worth pursuing?

The law of large numbers does not mean that you have to have weighed every apple in a barrel to determine the average weight of the apples. It does mean that weighing seven out of ten apples will give you a more accurate average than by only weighing three. Regarding Ultimate Pursuits types of questions I think it is safe to say that you are more likely to arrive at true and satisfying answers if you ask focused questions, gather as much relevant information as you are able, and test those conclusions to see how they work.

“I will call you back as soon as possible”

Posted on November 1, 2006
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Telephone“At the sound of the tone, please leave your message and I will call you back as soon as possible.”

How many times have you heard that message? Maybe you even use a statement like that for your voice mail message. The next time you get a message like that one, use the opportunity to engage in a philosophical thought exercise. Consider the possible meanings of the phrase “as soon as possible.” Does it mean returning the call at the precise moment the message was received, or simply in the order it was received? Maybe it means: “You might get a call after I come up for air and catch up on all the other urgent issues in my life.” I try to imagine my friends frantically dialing the phone upon hearing my message and getting back to me A.S.A.P.

Of course, the phrase “as soon as possible” is typically used in an existentially relative sort of way. Calls are usually returned based on where the caller ranks on an unspoken priority list. Telemarketers don’t stand a chance. Who ever returns their calls? The boss calling to see if you can work next weekend: Message? What message? Your wife or husband? The local radio station calling to say they picked your name for the $1,000 cash giveaway and you have 20 minutes to call back to claim your prize?

You can learn a lot about a person by what they say on their voice mail message. The no nonsense people say, “You know what to do when you hear the beep.” The co-dependent person says, “Please leave a message and I will do whatever you ask if it will make you like me.” The pessimist says, “You can leave a message if you want, but don’t hold your breath for a call back; it probably isn’t going to happen.”

The point is that calls get returned based upon how interested one is in the message and how strong the relationship is with the caller. So, in the bigger scheme of things, what you do with every voice mail message is a microcosmic picture of how you view life. OK, maybe that is going a bit too far, but it does say something about what you think is important. How quickly would you return any of the following voice mail messages: a call from the CEO who wants to discuss the open VP position? The governor’s assistant with an invitation to a reception for a visiting dignitary? Jesus Christ and something about the meaning of life?

The next time you get a voice mail prompt that says, “… and I will call you back as soon as possible…,” leave a message telling the person to relax, to get back to you whenever is convenient, and to think about the philosophical implications of the message.

Living to die or dying to live?

Posted on October 23, 2006
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tomb-stone.jpg In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie Schwartz, who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, tells his former student, “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it.” Because Morrie knows that he was going to die soon, he decides to give great thought to how he will use the rest of the time he has to live. So often, though, we don’t know how to talk about the subject. It is like the life insurance salesman who said to the prospective client, “If you should die …” There are no if’s and’s or but’s about it–everyone is going to die. The question is: Are you living to die or dying to live?

What I mean is that there are at least two ways to look at our life: from a physical perspective and from a spiritual perspective. One could say, “I am alive and growing, working out, eating right, and I am more alive than ever before,” even though that person is aware that one day he or she will die. Or, one could realize that in many ways each day of life is actually one step closer to death. I am not trying to be overly morbid, but physically that’s reality.

There may be another way to look at life, though, and that is from the spiritual perspective. Most religions in the world hold to the belief that there is some type of existence after physical death. For many of those religions, how we live our life here on earth plays a role in what happens after death. For those religions that believe in some type of “heaven” and “hell,” not everyone has the same destiny. Even the system of reincarnation is based upon progress and regress in coming lives. If it is true that one’s life continues after physical death, then it is also true that with every passing day each of us is progressing not only toward death, but also toward eternity.

Now, life and death take on a new perspective. Spiritual life is being present with God in eternity. Spiritual death is being separated from God in eternity. Of course, there are many different religions and many different concepts of the afterlife, but one thing that can be understood for certain is that they cannot all be correct. Something (or nothing, as some believe) is going to happen, and it will be the same “system” for all of us. It cannot be that those who believe in reincarnation will go that way while those who believe in heaven or hell will be judged that way and that the atheist will simply cease to exist.

Physically everyone is in the process of dying; spiritually it is another story. Some people may be living to die, meaning that they are currently alive physically, but are heading toward spiritual death. Others may be dying to live, meaning that while they are in the process of dying physically, they are headed toward spiritual life. The question everyone would like to know the answer to is: How can I be certain what happens after death?
Morrie Schwartz knew that he was going to die, so he used his time and life more fully and purposefully as a result. Settling the issue of spiritual life and death also has a profound effect on one’s physical life. Just imagine what it would be like if you knew for sure what would happen right after you die.

It is common today to believe that nobody can know for sure what will happen after death, but often times that is simply an excuse for not dealing with the question, which is an uncomfortable one. Is it possible that there is a way to answer the question and to be sure? Jesus Christ made a very interesting statement. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” You will have to decide for yourself, but it sounds like he is on to something.

Compound Interest

Posted on August 10, 2006
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coin-stacks-compound-interest.jpg Most people are familiar with the concept of compound interest these days. When taking out a mortgage to buy a home it works against you, but when investing in a certificate of deposit it works for you. Compound interest is the amount of interest paid on the total value of the principal and any accumulated interest. It is the slow and steady road to building wealth over the get rich quick strategies that are so often promoted on infomercials. It is the same lesson from the story about the tortoise and the hare.

An example of how compound interest works for you can be seen in this scenario. If a person invested $20 a week at 5% interest annually that investment would be worth $1,065 after one year; $13,486 after 10 years; $35,723 after 20 years; and  $132,828 after forty years. A small amount invested at regular intervals leads to a significant gain over time. Needless to say it is more fun to look at how investments grow using compound interest than it is to calculate the actual amount you pay for a home over the life of a typical 30 year mortgage.

As is often the case, principals in one area of life work in the same manner in another area of life. In this case C.S. Lewis, renowned philosopher and author, describes the spiritual truths of compounding interest.

Lewis writes, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

Are the little decisions you make each day really of infinite importance? Are there areas of life that you have invested in over time that are beginning to pay off? Can you see areas of neglect that over time have begun to feel more like the weight of an unpaid loan that has reached its maturity date?

Every once in a while someone gets lucky and wins the lottery or hits the jackpot. On the other hand every day everyone makes decisions that will determine the outcome and destination of their life by the same principle of compound interest. Those that work the land know this as the principles of sowing and reaping. Those that work in the financial world know it as the value of compound interest. So, the next time you look at your 401k retirement account balance or are considering giving in to that familiar temptation calculate the compounding effect it will have on your life.

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