Thursday, October 01, 2009

Doors And Gates

Salvation remains a struggle for many Christians.  We say that Jesus saves, that his sacrifice is the one that satisfies God, and that we can’t earn our salvation.  We repeat what we’ve heard from others, that we can’t earn our salvation.  We define grace as something that can’t be earned or deserved, so we discount a works-oriented salvation.  Mercy declares that the punishment we deserve is redirected away from ourselves.  In all of this we are correct, yet listen to Christians talk and despite what we say, we end up sounding very much like we believe salvation depends on what we do, how we behave, and the level of righteous life we attain.
Writer, Paul Thigpen, put it like this:
Often we feel, as Thomas did, that the Lord isn’t living up to our expectations. Perhaps the headlines carry disturbing news that makes us wonder what God is doing in history. Maybe a new movement in the Church puzzles us, or revival comes from some direction we would have thought most unlikely. Even in our private lives, we may find that God hasn’t directed events in the way we’ve been taught to believe He “ought” to.
In those times when we, too, feel confused about God’s intentions, we must listen carefully to how the Lord answered Thomas’s question. When the disciple asked for directions, Jesus replied, “I am the way” (Jn. 14:6).
“I am the way.” Not the law. Not an instructional manual. Not a neatly arranged framework of philosophical truth, or even of systematic doctrine. The way to the Father was not a dogma, but a Person.
Because we so frequently quote this verse in reference to salvation we often neglect its immediate significance. Jesus was answering Thomas’s request for guidance for this life in this time. And Jesus replied, “I am the way.”
Most of us aren’t comfortable with that arrangement. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we’d rather have maps and traffic signs to show us the way. But Jesus came to tell us that we needed more than the map of the law; we needed a personal Guide.[1]
Maps and traffic signs.  Yes, we want something to show us the way.  Largely, we want rules and regulations, a list of specifics to utilize.  We’re comfortable so long as we have a tidy list.  Invite us to live based, not on rules and regulations, but principles and we’re immediately confused.  Called to follow a man, not a set of doctrines, and our eyes cloud over with helplessness.
Yet, this is the call of the gospel of Jesus.  “Go make disciples,” Jesus said.  “Follow me,” Jesus said.  “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master . . . .”
At some point, one must wrestle with the clear teaching of the Bible.  Jesus is the Savior, therefore, Jesus saves.  But we can’t just dash that one off carelessly.  Consider the truth of the statement in light of passages like Acts 4:12.  “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved (NASB95). Focus a moment.  “No other name.”  Want to be saved?  Jesus is it.  In fact, what else can Jesus himself mean in John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me (NASB95).  That’s as exclusive as it can get.  Jesus makes no provision for any other means to the Father other than himself.  He is “the” way, “the” truth, and “the” life.  Not “a” way, truth and life, “the” way, truth, and life.
This is bigger than it might seem, for the potential “savior” immediately removed is us.  In other words, neither you nor I can possibly be a savior.  If either of us is saved, it will come at the hands of Jesus.  It is this idea that terrifies a lot a lot of otherwise good Bible students.
We invite people to have faith in Jesus, and immediately, there will be an addendum to the conversation.  “Well, yes, we must believe in Jesus, but remember, we must do something too!”  We say that as if we’re afraid that faith in Jesus won’t quite do the job.  Jesus will need a bit of help.  We don’t want to give the impression that we have fallen for a mere “mental assent” kind of salvation.  Real faith, we insist, must have some teeth, and that comes from our obedience.  So we run right past Jesus and focus on our obedience.  We “obey” the gospel, therefore we’re saved.  Too many say that as if it was their obedience, not Jesus’ sacrifice that saves.
I am not minimizing the role of obedience.  I am trying to maximize the role of Jesus.  Either Jesus is the “the” way, truth and life, or he’s not.  We can’t have it both ways.  It’s confusing to everyone, including those of us who claim to have been saved by Jesus.  We end up sounding as if we’re not really sure at all what saves or who saves.  In fact, it’s little wonder a lot of Christians are so unsure of being saved.  After all, if it depends on our performance level, who wants to really trust that?
A recent discussion about Mt. 7:13-14 brought this to light.  The passage reads: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it (NASB95).  The discussion turned “way” into “lifestyle,” or “obedience.”  But the passage is about entering a gate that everyone doesn’t find.  It’s about a gate that leads to life.  Life is found by entering a narrow gate.  I think it’s tempting to make it a lifestyle, and to suggest that finding life is discovering the way we ought to live.  Nobody is arguing against a godly, correct way to live.  But is that what Jesus meant?
John 10:7-10 is helpful to the discussion.  So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say  to you, I am the door of the sheep. “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (NASB95).  In both passages, Jesus is represented by similar objects.  In one, a gate.  In the other, a door.  Both passages relate to finding life.  In both passages, Jesus is the means of passing from one place to another, and to finding life.  Both passages are consistent with the idea in John 6:14, that Jesus is “the” way, truth, and life.
Here are a few things we ought to get from all this:
  • There is only one Savior, Jesus, who is “the” way, truth and life.
  • Salvation (life) isn’t about your performance level.
  • Salvation (life) comes from faith in Jesus.
  • Salvation (life) isn’t about having achieved a certain lifestyle.
  • To find life (salvation), you have to enter a narrow gate (in fact, there is only one).
  • Salvation really is a free gift ( that’s grace).
  • Life is only possible when we don’t get what we really deserve (that’s mercy).
  • It would be better if we got the focus off ourselves and on Jesus.
  • Once you’re saved, now go about becoming like Jesus.
You’re not ever going to be perfect or completely righteous.  That’s no reason not to try, but you need to put it into perspective.  Once you enter the narrow gate, or go through the door, which is Jesus, you now have life.  You are saved.  All that, despite your continued imperfections.  Engage the continuing effort to live and become like your master.  This is the place to encourage holy living.  Sure, God cares how you live.  But he doesn’t depend on your efforts in order to save you.  That one he has put on Jesus.  He’s a narrow gate.  He’s a unique door.  There is only one way to the Father, and it’s through him.  Once inside the gate, live the life you find there.

[1]Paul Thigpen, The God of Surprises, Discipleship Journal : Issue 31., electronic ed. (Colorado Springs: The Navigators/NavPress, 1999).

Friday, September 04, 2009

So, How Good Are You? Really?

The Sermon on the Mount is a challenging section of scripture.  I've been mulling some things over recently, and renewed a line of thinking that struck me years ago.  I'd like to share a little of it with you.

The Sermon on the Mount may be one of the most familiar and best loved passages in all the Bible.  It's also more difficult than it first appears.  If you read scholars, you'll discover that there are numerous assumptions and attempts to give this sermon a theme, or to otherwise categorize it or give it a framework designed to explain what Jesus was teaching.  Some of it is good, and some of it is confusing.  For me, personally, the jury is still out on some overall view that gives meaning to all Jesus said.

Christians look at the sermon in various ways.  Some relegate it to the Old Testament period, and in doing so they end up giving the sermon little meaning for today's church.  Some lift it out of its "Law of Moses" context and turn it into a Christian Constitution.  Some think Jesus was laying down principles to be followed by his disciples forever.  There are other views.  I'll let you go sort them out.

The line of thought I've been wrestling with relates more to Jesus, the people to whom the sermon was delivered, the time frame in which it appears, and the immediate meaning and application of what he said.  That's a tall order, and I'm not going to try to deal with all of that here either.

I do think it's worth thinking about, however, because any application to us must take into consideration what Jesus said to them.  If you think this is a sermon in which Jesus just lays out thing we ought to do, I'd suggest you might have missed one of the major purposes of his teachings.  Does Jesus lay out things that would please God if they were to be found in us and practiced by us?  You bet!  But I think it misses something important.

In the section we know as the beatitudes, most commentators will state in one way or another, something to the effect that particular qualities encouraged by Jesus are simply not those commonly practiced by anybody.  That was true then, it remains true today.  Surely, those who are spiritually minded, regardless of the age in which they live, will pursue the kind of things Jesus taught.  But the truth is we don't do a very good job.  Even the best among us won't practice those things perfectly.  Yes, I think we can commend having these as a goal, and we can commend people who manage to practice them to whatever extent they do.  But why do we think anything less than perfect observance pleases God?

In Mt. 5:21-47, there is an entire section that follows a pattern of thought.  Each sub-section begins something like this:  "You've heard it said. . . but I say to you."  It's an interesting section.  Was Jesus quoting what the Law said, then giving his own interpretation of it?  It seems so in some places, but not altogether in others.  Was he quoting what the Rabbis taught, and then giving his own take on things?  I think that may come closer.  Regardless, he was certainly taking what the people of Israel had become accustomed to hearing (and practicing), and ripped it to shreds.  Take murder, for example.  The common thinking was that unless you've taken some weapon and gone out and murdered someone, then you haven't broken God's law.  Jesus said that a person is in trouble if you get angry and shoot off your mouth carelessly.  Nobody could be guilty of adultery unless they've actually committed sexual sin outside marriage.  But Jesus said that to look on a woman with lust in one's heart is to have already committed adultery.  Each sub-section follows suit.  Sin is violation of a standard human beings rarely apply to themselves.  It was true then, and it's still true today.  The arguments against the thinking of Jesus appeal to everything from common sense to consequences.  I understand the effort.  But try arguing that with Jesus, and you'll flat out miss his point.

In fact, Jesus made a statement following this section that we usually try to minimize a bit.  Matthew 5:48 says, "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." NASB95  We usually point out that the word really means "mature" and not "without flaw."  I understand that.  However, there is an obvious comparison made here that we can't ignore.  It's God on one hand, you and me on the other.  You can make "perfect" mean whatever you want to, and the result is still the same.  God will manifest that quality perfectly, without flaw.  Neither you or I will come close.  The ideal is that you do it just like God.  The reality is you haven't to this point, and won't later on either.

Chapter six begins with admonitions against practicing righteousness just for the sake of being noticed by other people.  Righteousness isn't some kind of game where we try to out-point one another.  It's a heart matter.  Jesus pointed to common practices of his day like giving, praying and fasting and roundly condemned the very people who used these things as measures of personal righteousness.  Does anyone come out looking good when Jesus gets through?  If so, I don't know who they are.  It's not people who didn't pray or fast at all, and it's not people to prayed and fasted as a means of getting noticed by others.  In the text of Jesus' sermon, I can't find anyone being congratulated.  I do find where people are being shown that righteousness is something different than they had thought.

If you don't think the attitudes Jesus attacked still exist today, I'd suggest you've been asleep under a rock.  Hyper-judgmentalism is alive and well today; in our churches; among people who claim to be Christians.  If we don't realize this, I don't think we can understand Jesus, much less make an current application.

Near the end of chapter six, Jesus said something that ought to shock us, amaze us, and shame us.  In Matthew 6:33 he said, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." NASB95  Jesus put seeking God's kingdom and righteousness in a place of priority above anything and everything else.  Wow.  I'm going to make a statement here that some will no doubt disagree with.  I've never met anyone who did that consistently, including me.  What I have seen is that people will make all sorts of excuses to, at least occasionally, slip something into life above God's kingdom and his righteousness.  I'm not being negative or condescending.  I'm trying to be realistic.  If we don't see how very different are the words of Jesus compared to how we really live, how can we ever appreciate what he taught?  We will forever be "dumbing-down" the real meaning of Jesus' words.

Then take things like judging others.  Basically, Jesus said we ought to get ourselves in order before we take on anyone else.  But we're likely to think, "Yes, but other people's problems are so obvious!"  Or, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as 'so-and-so'."  Really?  Then you're missed the fact that the issue isn't how you stack up against some other person, the issue is how you stack up against God.  How do you feel about things now?

The golden rule, as stated in Mt 7:12, is a fantastic maxim for life.  "Treat people the same way you want them to treat you."  I think I've known at least a handful of people who do a pretty good job at that.  But not every time, not completely consistently, and to be honest, the golden rule isn't practiced nearly as often as we'd like to think.  The real truth?  Human beings are still a pretty self-centered, selfish bunch of people.  If we can't admit to that, we miss just how powerful is the teaching of Jesus.

On and on we could go, but throughout the Sermon on the Mount, we keep bumping into the same things.  The standard Jesus upholds is a standard far different from the one we live.  I think, overall, that's the message he wanted to get across.  He wasn't preaching a sermon where anyone could get to the end and say, "Wow, do I feel great about how well I'm doing pleasing God."  No, I think anyone who really listened to his sermon got to the end and said, "Wow, I'm so far off the mark it's pitiful."  I know this sounds like a downer, but stay with me.

Nobody has ever, legitimately, been able to stand before God on the basis of their own achievements.  If you don't get that point, you will never fully appreciate the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The good news of Jesus will never be good until the bad news about ourselves is really bad.  We still struggle with this, "Well-I'm-not-such-a-bad-person-and-certainly-not-as -bad-as-a-lot" thinking.  It's so pervasive among present day humans it's almost hard to see.  This was what Jesus was fighting in his own day, and it's a common link that stretches across centuries and includes us today.

I think if you "get" the Sermon on the Mount, you'll be left with a great need.  You'll have to admit that in numerous places, Jesus just pointed out your shortcomings, failing, sin.  He put his finger on your attitudes, your mind-set and heart-set, and it's not good.  He showed you where you're on the wrong track, headed to nothing pleasing to God.  You're in deep trouble.  You really need a Savior, because you're just a mess.

So, I'll end by pointing you to one other verse.  It's found in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." NASB95  You and I need a Savior.  If we are to ever be righteous in God's sight, we're going to have to have something working for us that's better than anything we'll ever produce ourselves.

Don't think what Jesus taught is unimportant.  If we really want to try to please God, give the things in the Sermon on the Mount a shot.  But don't get too caught up in how well you do.  It won't be as good as you'd like to think.  But in Jesus, when you fail, you get to get up and try again.  You're wearing his righteousness.  Let it motivate you reach higher than you ever would before.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pray For Your President

I got an email the other day asking me to pray for the President.  No, that’s not exactly what I was asked to do.  In short, I was asked to pray a blanket prayer that all the President’s programs pass and become law.  Frankly, I was shocked.

I started paying attention to politics, Presidents, and other elected officials about the time John Kennedy competed against Richard Nixon to become President.  That would have been 1960, and I was 11 years old.  I remember sitting fascinated in front of our little black & white TV watching both the Democratic and Republican conventions, taking in speeches, and trying to figure it all out.  I admit I didn’t understand everything I heard, but most of it wasn’t all that difficult.  In the end, I was a John Kennedy fan.  I did not like Nixon, then or ever.  I remember sitting in study hall and hearing that Kennedy had been killed.  I actually watched TV with some friends as Lee Harvey Oswald was dispatched by his own assassin.  I have tried to keep up, listen, and generally stay on top of the major political events and more.  I have often prayed for every President to hold the office since I was 11 years old.

But I have never prayed that any President get everything he wanted.  I’ve never known one whose every program was a good one, or should have been passed into law.  That includes President Obama.  Sorry, but I’m not going to pray for things to become law that I don’t understand, agree with, or think would be the right thing to do.

Leave out for a moment the obvious things that probably produced such a request (health care and associated elements).  I think abortion when the life of the mother is not endangered is murder.  Obama supports abortion.  I can’t, in good conscience, pray that his view on abortion be sustained.  I’d like to see Roe V Wade reversed.  Why mention this one?  Because the request to pray for the President to get everything he wants came from a Christian.  It’s that fact that stuns me.  Are they asking me to pray in favor of abortion?

Will I pray for the President?  I’ve been doing that, and will continue to do so.  I pray for his health, stamina, and physical safety.  I pray for him to be blessed with wisdom and integrity.  I pray for his family.  I pray that as President he work as a tool in God’s hands so that God’s will is done.  Now if God wants something to happen that I disagree with, I hope God will ignore my disagreement and do what he wants.  So, if I’m wrong in my opinion or ideas, I get it right when I ask for God’s will to potentially override mine.  But to just ask that President Obama get everything he wants?  Sorry.  I haven’t prayed that way for any President since I knew we ought to pray for one, and I’m not about to start now.

Truthfully, I’d actually like for President Obama to lose some of the things he’s trying to put over on Americans.  I don’t think they’re good for anybody.  I think they are detrimental to the country.  Those who asked me to blanket-pray that Obama get all he wants would have never prayed that for George Bush (or probably any other President).  So why does Obama rate better than any other President?

I hope Mr. Obama turns out to be a good President.  Honestly, I do.  We need a good President.  They’ve been in short supply.  Prospects for the future don’t look all that bright.  Mr. Obama has a real opportunity here.  Does that mean he’s right on every point.  Nope.

So, I suggest we pray for the President.  Pray for the man and his family.  Beyond that, I get very selective.  It would be interesting to know if anyone really believes that any President ought to get every single one of the things he wants.  Does anybody really believe that?  Would you pray that way for a President who comes from a party other than yours?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Camp Musings

It's hot!
I spent a week at church camp recently so I thought I'd jot down a few observations.  First, you need to know why I have dodged camp for so long.
It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Ole Miss.  That's along time ago, in case you don't know.  Anyway, it was the first summer that Sardis Lake Christian Camp had full-fledged summer camp.  The year before they only had day-camp.  I was recruited for the job of Assistant Camp Director.  The Director's job was filled each session by a different preacher.  They were there only one week.  I was there all summer!  My job was to keep the camp running.  I was the first up in the morning (even before the kitchen staff), and the last to go to bed at night.  It was great fun, but by the time all the sessions were over, I was completely exhausted.  No, it was worse than that, if you can believe it.  Though I've always been glad I had that job that summer, I made up my mind that I would not "do camp" again!
So, I surprised myself when I accepted the invitation to participate in a one-week session this summer.  I was asked to teach the staff Bible class, and then help out with various activities.  It was a good job.  I got to speak one night, took a couple of turns at "Reflections," the late-night teen devo, and the most fun was helping out with the teen ropes course!  I also got to reflect a bit on my week's experience, and a few things stand out to me.
1.  Kids haven't really changed all that much.  Oh, some of them look different.  Clothes and hair are different, but only in looks.  When I was a teenager, our clothes and hair looked different too.  But the emotions, the needs, the questions, etc., are all pretty much the same.  That was a surprise to me because after reading some experts on today's youth, I expected young folks to be something akin to aliens.  Not really true.
2.  Heat is worse now than it was when I was in college.  Well, maybe it's not the heat.  The college kids who served as counselors this summer seemed to manage it pretty well, as did the campers.  It was us old guys (and gals) who struggled with it.
3.  Singing is still a very popular spiritual activity with young people.  I'm happy about that one.  I've always believed that singing is a powerful tool to reach the minds and hearts of people.  Yes, they are sometimes tentative, but once you get them going, young folks love to sing.
4.  I'm impressed at how hard a lot of adults will work to provide a week's camp experience for kids.  Went to the chow hall one night at 11:30 for a late night cup of coffee.  There was a lady there making chicken salad for the next day's lunch.  I watched young adults work themselves silly so that the kids could have fun.  Counselors worked hard to keep the heat and activities from wearing out the kids, and handling teen tempers and hormones!
5.  I'm amazed at how serious a lot of our youth are about their faith.  I had the opportunity to study with some of them one-on-one.  They were eager, open, and fully accepting of God's will.  They love Jesus, and want to follow Him.  That's been true of young people in just about every generation.  It's good to know that desire and openness is still alive and well.
6.  I was impressed with the way young people served and took their turn at chores.  They served on the chow line, poured iced tea, cleaned up, worked in the kitchen, cleaned the cabins and shower house, picked up trash, and generally worked without too much complaining.  You didn't think they did all that without any complaining did you?  Still, they did a great job.
7.  Will I do it again?  I don't know.  Let's wait until next summer for the answer.  But I did have a great time, met some great people, and thoroughly enjoyed being there.  Maybe the best part of all is that it left an impression on me that Jesus is still able to do great things with people.  Save them, change them, grow them, use them.  It's great to be a part of all that.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Spread Love Everywhere

7Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. - 1 John 4:7-8, NASB95

Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own house. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor . . . Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting. - Mother Teresa (quoted in Chicken Soup For The Soul, p. 3).

I feel sorry for people who don't love others. I've known some folks like that. Dealing with them is always like following a blueprint or living up to the terms of a contract. Sure, you can make a good case for blueprints and contracts. They certainly have their place and purpose. You wouldn't want to build a house or engage in business without them. But people are not houses or businesses. They are, well. . . People!

A couple of Jesus' disciples were like this. James and John were called "sons of thunder." Maybe they were loud and boisterous. It's more likely that they were ready to zap everybody who didn't exactly measure up to their liking. On one occasion, Jesus was traveling toward Jerusalem. He sent messengers into a Samaritan village to make arrangements for him, but the Samaritans did not respond favorably. James and John asked Jesus, "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Wow! Nice guys. I wonder what an average day was like in the company of James and John? Would you have gone to these men with your problems and mistakes? How receptive do you think they were to troubled people, folks with needs, or people needing guidance or help? If you didn't measure up to their standard, would they have been ready to scorch you with a flame?

Maybe it's true that most folks don't wear the handle, "son of thunder." But most of us will testify that even without the handle, an awful lot of people leave you feeling deflated, defeated, and discouraged. If you can provide some advantage to them, they're all for you, but if not, they can turn on you quickly. The truth is that finding people who will really love you is harder than it ought to be. Even if they don't call down fire from heaven on you, they provide nothing positive to help.

We know that John, and probably James too, matured and changed. John became the apostle known as the "apostle of love." Somewhere along the line he learned that calling down fire isn't what people need. They do need the love of Christ, and the love of Christ's people.

I'm afraid the modern church has lost much of its willingness and ability to love. Yes, there are pockets of it here and there. Outstanding examples of loving people give us hope that love can revive and grow. But these examples are too few in number. Many have opted instead for non-loving relationships. We've lost the "heart" of the gospel and replaced it with legalistic mindset.

Thankfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about good news. It's the good news that Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins. It's the good news about forgiveness. It's the good news about restored fellowship with our heavenly Father. It's the good news about eternal life instead of death. It's the good news that there is love to abound. When the gospel of Jesus is properly and effectively taught, the result is always that people learn to love each other. It must be this way for John himself said, "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."

Here's what I know. People who do not love do not know God. God is love. If we are to be the people of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, then love must rule our lives. There is no other way to see it. What a different world this would be if Christians really knew God and loved like He loves.

A Little Persecution

10"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11"Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. -- Matthew 5:10-12 , NASB95

The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe. When a man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil, there is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil that is in man. The Communist torturers often said, "There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish." -- Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured For Christ, p. 36.

Richard Wurmbrand's book, Tortured For Christ, is a record of the unspeakable torture he and others endured at the hands of Communists. It is not a pleasant read, but it is an important one. What Christians endure for their faith is not what one hears about in the media, and is seldom what is portrayed in books and movies.

Today, you are more likely to hear about the abuse of animals than you are to hear about the abuse suffered by people who believe in Jesus Christ. There is almost a sense that today's world has grown beyond the sharp persecution of years ago, but that would be to misunderstand the realities of our time in history.

American Christians, in particular, are sometimes isolated from the news about other believers in the world and what they must endure in order to be believers. We are much more comfortable with theological arguments, debates, and who is a notch up on the "I'm right and you're wrong" scale. Much of the rest of the world is just trying to avoid pain and death because they believe in Jesus.

Years ago, a friend of mine frequently prayed this: "Lord, send us some persecution!" I would say to him, "Jim, leave me out of that prayer!" He didn't really want to be persecuted, but he did believe that persecution would urge us to get our minds focused on the important and abandon the rest. I still don't want to be persecuted, but I haven't found the magic answer to getting us focused on the really important and away from things that just don't matter.

It's an interesting thing about this age in which we live. We seem to spend more of our time focused on things that keep us apart than on things that bring us together. Is it because we have the luxury of being able to do that? Could it happen because we aren't driven to one another by pain and death? Historically, it is said, that the church has always grown stronger under persecution. Some of that must occur because people are driven to what really matters. But the flip side of that must count as well. People are driven away from unimportant things.

I still don't think I want to be persecuted, but perhaps we need to be driven to the vitally important and away from junk. Which direction are you headed?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Making Forgiveness Possible

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. -- Ephesians 4:32, NASB95

It is the center point around which our faith revolves. But when we are the ones who need to forgive, forgiveness becomes more difficult. To believe that God forgave me millennia ago, pardoning me in a broad theological sweep with billions of others, seems, for some reason, more reasonable than my granting forgiveness to someone who has wronged me. -- Discipleship Journal : Issue 105., electronic ed. (Colorado Springs: The Navigators/NavPress, 1999).

It is often helpful to pay attention to what Bible writers actually wrote. They often reveal far more than we see at first glance. Paul’s encouragement to the Christians at Ephesus to forgive each other is an excellent example.

Forgiveness means several things, and it’s not the intent of this article to dig into them. Suffice it to say that forgiving somebody means you don’t hold the offending behavior against them, and you release them from their guilt. Forgiveness makes it possible for a person to recover and move beyond wrong things done, and the pain and damage caused to others.

However, there seems to be a serious shortage of forgiveness. Even among Christians, forgiveness is often hard to come by. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness, but less meaningful forgiving happening. It may be that this shortage of forgiving is the result of two other things that are also missing from the human experience.

The first is kindness. The truth is that we live in a hard world. Kindness is much more than good manners and common courtesy. Many Christians can fake the kindness angle. They can greet you with a smile, hug your neck, then stab you in the back. They can look you in the eye and tell you they love you, then they can spread the latest gossip about you when you’re not listening. Kindness is a particular sort of behavior that always results in something good for the person to whom we are being kind. There are lots of other things that go into real kindness, like grace and mercy, love and gentleness. There is usually little doubt when kindness has been extended.

The second is tender-heartedness. That’s a term that is so self-descriptive that it’s hard to improve on it. It’s being soft-hearted toward others. It’s the opposite of hardness or harshness. It is a heart full of compassion and understanding. This heart is one shaped by grace and tempered by mercy. It’s the last thing from a demanding, insistent, judgmental attitude.

If you understand about kindness and tender-heartedness, then you understand what it takes to be a forgiving person. It may well be that unless a person can be kind and tender-hearted that person cannot forgive others. To the extent that kindness and tender-heartedness exist, to that extent he or she can forgive others.

It’s so much easier for us to desire forgiveness than to give it. We all want people to be kind to us, to have tender-hearted feelings toward us. But when it comes to forgiving others, we often get hung up on justice, retribution, and punishment. None of those are ours to give. God will take care of those things, if needed. We have a bigger job to work on: being kind and tenderhearted, so we can forgive each other.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

All My Books - Great Program For Preachers

Here's something all preachers can use (as well as anyone who has a sizeable collection of books). It's a computer program called "All My Books." You can click on the title of this blog entry or just click here and it will take you to the web site.

For years, I've wanted a program to help me keep up with my books. There are lots of preachers who have more books than I do, but I daresay I have more than most. The job of cataloging and keeping up with them all is staggering. Years ago, when I was working on my Th.M., one of the things I had to do was an exercise that resulted in assigning to my secretary, the task of working up a list of books in my library. She wasn't thrilled. It involved developing a bibliography of several thousand volumes. That list has now been exceeded greatly, then lost somewhere in a move. The thought of attempting such a job now is, well.... not a thought at all.

So, why "All My Books?" Because it will do most of the work for you. Here's a quick example. I entered just the ISBN for one of my books, clicked on the icon beside the entry box, and in a few seconds, the program accessed's database, retrieved all the pertinent information, and I was ready for the next entry. Slick! Cool. Way cool. This, I can do!

The program also handles ebooks in various formats, and audio books.

The program will provide you with statistics, and even function as a loan manager so you won't forget who you loaned that priceless book to.

Even if you're not a preacher, you may have a few hundred books. I still think the program would be worthwhile. The price is right too, at just $34.95 for a single user.

There are other programs available that might be or interest to many. "All My Movies," and "All My Software" are other titles you might want to consider.

I'm always looking for useful tools to make things easier. This one is outstanding.