Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

10 As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. 11 Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You? – Psalm 90:10–11 (NASB95)
"It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing,"also known as purple prose. The phrase comes from the original opening sentence of Paul Clifford:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

I think I first read the words, “It was a dark and stormy night” in a Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy keeps trying to write his novel and frequently begins this way. It was long after that I learned it was from a real novel, and that awards are given (not necessarily so complimentary) for similar beginnings.

Still. I understand about dark and stormy nights. You do too. We all understand. We know because we’ve lived through such nights, or we know someone close to us who has. Just like real dark and stormy nights they keep us awake, fill us with fear and dread, steal our peace, and leave us shaken.

Sometimes, we create our own dark and stormy nights. Sometimes, they surprise us, blowing up out of an otherwise clear sky. The result is the same. It’s what makes dark and stormy nights undesirable at best, tragic and heart-breaking at worst.

Here are some ideas to work with as you face your own dark and stormy night:
  • First, storms pass. Even the worst of them. Yes, they can leave destruction in their path, and there might be a long recovery, but they pass.
  • Second, storms never eliminate the next bright day. Seems like they will, but they don’t.
  • Third, God provides hope and help. You will likely have to look for it and want it. But it’s there. When you find it, you get help to clean up the mess, and you get to enjoy the sunshine of a bright day.
Many can look back on dark days of their past and honestly say, "It was a dark and stormy night." The night has passed.

Grace And Change

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. – Titus 2:11–14 (NASB95)

God’s hardworking change.
It’s where the good life comes from.
But it’s the only place it comes from.
– Matt Chandler, Recovering Redemption, p. 151

Grace is a great thing. One big thing about grace is that it has to be free. I mean really free. It’s can’t be like one of those places that offers you a free toaster if you spend $1,000 with them. I can just buy a toaster for way less than that! When it comes to salvation from sin, grace means you don’t deserve it, and you can’t earn it. God’s grace is found in Jesus. Put your faith in him, for has done the work, not you.

But there’s more to grace, and at times it’s neglected. Real grace doesn’t overlook your sins and act like they’re not there. The truth is grace is the only lens through which I would ever want to look at my sins, because it’s the only thing that is both real with sin, and yet offers an undeserved, unearned way out!

Then what? Right here is the crucial issue that sometimes goes ignored. Grace doesn’t mean you get to keep right on living the same old way you’ve been living. It makes no sense to think that God, in his grace, sent his Son to die to save you from your sins, only to turn right around and say, “Now it doesn’t matter how you live.”

Instead, grace serves as a kind of life instruction. It teaches us to deny ungodliness. That means anything ungodly, you need to turn your back on it. It teaches us to live sensibly, righteously and godly. Real grace doesn’t say, “Anything goes!” Real grace says, “You need to rethink that one, Friend!”

The whole thing is geared to change you. Yes, there’s that word. Change. You need to be different from what you are. We all do. Ask what grace is doing to change your life.

Consider The Wonders Of God

14 “Listen to this, O Job, Stand and consider the wonders of God.” –Job 37:14 (NASB95)

“Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” —A.W. Tozer

One thing we can say about the conversations between Job and his friends - they struggled to understand God. They expressed the same confusion about human life, purpose, and meaning that we still struggle with today. Elihu may come closest to pointing Job in the right direction, at least at times. His statement in 37:14 is one of those that’s right on target. “Stand and consider the wonders of God.”

But it may be that very point of view that we’ve lost. Modern humans, at least most of us, seem to lack the ability to “stand in wonder” of God. We think of ourselves as smart, educated, and wise. Science enables us to tackle most of life’s problems. Technology makes it possible for us to do things that ancient people never dreamed possible. We’re convinced we’ve got pretty much everything covered.

At least until trouble shows up. A crisis, regardless what kind, has the potential to shake us into reality and shock us with the sudden realization that there is a vast number of things we don’t know, can’t handle, and feel completely incapable of solving. The universe is a much bigger place than we think.

Maybe we should learn to practice this “stand and consider the wonders of God.” David must have done that on many occasions while tending sheep. In the quiet solitude there was ample time for him to think, question, consider, literally “wonder” at God. Paul must have done that because he knew that the creation itself declared God’s eternal power and divine nature. Jesus must have spent much time reflecting, meditating, and thinking through the scriptures. All “wondered” at God.

You might read that word, “wonder” and think that I’m talking about a confused mind. Quite the contrary. It has nothing to do with confusion, but a realization of the sheer vastness of God. It is to be awed by God’s power, knowledge and wisdom. It is to marvel at the beauty, complexity and superiority of even a blade of grass to man’s knowledge and ability. Human education and technology? No comparison to God.

Let your soul gaze upon a saving God. That’s a wonder of wonders!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mercy, The Grace Partner

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Heb 4:16 (NASB)
A Wall Street Journal article reports that doctors discovered there are subtle differences in a baby’s cry that helps medical staff understand how to treat the infant. More than just hunger or being tired, differences in cry characteristics can provide clues that something is wrong. A computer program was created to analyze the cries in 12.5 millisecond frames and measures factors like pitch, volume and “voicing” which is how clear the cry sound is. Doctors hope such analysis can provide clues so that treatment can begin earlier than standard test results might indicate. – adapted, Sumathi Reddy, "What Science Hopes to Learn from a Baby's Cry," The Wall Street Journal (8-27-13)
You will read them together in many passages. Grace and mercy are great partners. As someone once noted, grace is getting what you don’t deserve while mercy is not getting what you do deserve. That seems to be a fair summary of some important ideas contained in the words.

We need to also connect grace and mercy to our prayers. The passage is Hebrews 4:16 tell us about something available to Christians. Access to God’s throne of grace is one of the benefits given to us because Jesus serves as our Great High Priest. The very idea of confidently coming into God’s presence is startling, but to think that access is to present ourselves, in all our humanness, including our needs, our pains, our struggles, and especially our failures is more than words can convey.

Make no mistake about this throne. It’s a throne of grace. Not one of us deserves to be there. None of us, by our virtue or our accomplishments, have an earned place before the throne of God. We’re there because of grace. But it’s not just a throne of grace. It’s also a place of mercy where God withholds what we really deserve, and grants us help instead.

That’s quite a different picture than one held by many. They see God as a demanding tyrant eager to threaten and punish. The truth is God does warn, and he will punish, but those are things reserved for those who reject him and refuse to believe and obey him.

Christians are not better than other people. We have the same troubles, commit the same sins, struggle with the same difficulties. The difference? Access to a couple of partners, dispensed from the throne of God.

A Place Of Grace

16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. – John 1:16 (NASB95)
Walls don't just divide us. They make us ill. After the Berlin Wall went up, East German psychiatrists observed that the Berlin Wall caused mental illness, rage, dejection, and addiction. The closer to the physical wall people lived, the more acute their disorders. The only cure for "Wall Disease" was to bring the Wall down. Sure enough, in 1990, psychiatrists noted the "emotional liberation" felt after November 9, 1989 when the Wall finally fell. Thousands of jubilant Germans climbed the Wall, wept, and embraced each other atop the concrete, and proceeded to tear the Wall down with joyful abandon. – Adapted from Marcello Di Cintio, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Soft Skull Press, 2013), pp. 10-12
Not all walls divide and make us ill, but some surely do. Walls of our homes should be healthy and supportive. Walls of businesses make it possible to create, sell, and serve. Walls of a bank should declare strength, security and confidence. So, walls can be good or walls can be bad. It depends on what’s happening inside the walls.

Churches have walls. Yes, I mean the walls of our buildings for one thing. The building isn’t the church, but the walls of our buildings say something. If the church is people, we need to know that people have walls too. They aren't brick, or metal, or wood, but they are walls nonetheless. We put up walls to keep some people out of our lives and others in.

I want to sort of combine those “church walls” into one metaphorical wall. I want to combine the walls of our building and the walls of our hearts into one wall because there is something I think the church needs to hear. Remember I said earlier that walls can be good or bad depending on what’s happening inside the walls? I want you to think about that. What’s happening inside the church? Whether it’s the walls of your heart or the walls of our building, what’s happening inside?

It’s too easy to forget what “church” is all about. First and foremost, we’re followers of Jesus. We are the redeemed, the saved, the justified, the sanctified. None of that is because we’re all that great. We need a fresh view of ourselves as sinners in need of help. We have little, if anything, to offer God. If we’re saved, it’s because God loved us in spite of ourselves, granted us mercy and grace, and washed us in the blood of Jesus. We didn’t achieve our salvation, Jesus did. If we forget that, we’ve forgotten something vital, urgent, and revealing.

What’s going on inside the walls of the church? I want to suggest to you that inside those walls, whether physical walls of a building or symbolic walls of your heart, church needs to be a place of grace. Grace doesn’t mean we deny or ignore sin. Grace means you can be forgiven and live better. Grace is what gives hope to dying people. Let’s be a place of grace - in your heart, in our house.

Come Out From Your Hidiing Place

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. – 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NASB95)
In a classic episode from the classic TV series from the 1960's, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry, is out of town. His deputy, Barney Fife, is in charge, and he has deputized the local mechanic who is named Gomer. The two deputies are walking down the street one evening when they notice that someone is robbing the town's bank. They hide behind a car. They are afraid and don't know what to do. Finally, Gomer looks at Barney and says excitedly, "Shazam! We need to call the police."
In utter exasperation, Barney shoots back: "We are the police!" – Stephen Mansfield, Mansfield's Book of Manly Men (Nelson, 2013), page 12
I went for a job interview many years ago with a big church. At the time I was preaching for a very small church. Well, it had been small. There were only 55 of us (counting my wife and two daughters) our first Sunday there. The church had grown, things were doing well, and I guess I got the attention of some folks who knew some of our members. It was quite an opportunity. If I were to tell you what church it was, some of you reading this would be both surprised and impressed.

But I was still a pretty young preacher. I was just hitting my stride, as they say. And as much as I was flattered and humbled by the opportunity, I turned them down. Yes. They never got the chance to tell me I wasn’t their pick, I turned them down. Why in the world would I do that? I remember talking to a couple of the elders. I said, “I really appreciate the opportunity, but I’m just not sure I’m your guy.”

I still think that was probably the right decision. But looking back on it now, I know who they hired and who followed that guy, etc. I now think I could have done just as good a job as those guys.

I’ve heard us pray for “opportunities.” The truth is they come every day. Instead of accepting them, and doing something with them, I think most of us have a tendency to say, “I’m not your guy.” We seem to think whatever comes our way demands somebody with greater abilities, better talent, more ‘smarts’, or some edge that we don’t possess. The truth is, we are ambassadors for Christ.

I wish it was a simple matter writing an article, tossing out a challenge, having someone read it, and find themselves moved to change their lives. I pray we can become more confident; not haughty or irritating people, but confident enough to speak to people about Jesus. We are his ambassadors. We represent him.

I know it’s not that simple, but I want to challenge you anyway. You are an ambassador for Christ. Don’t be like Barney and Gomer. You don’t need to call anyone. Step out from your hiding place.

Feel Like You're Drowning?

25 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. – Matthew 14:25 (NASB95)
Mark Twain was accompanied by his wife on one of his visits to the Holy Land. They were staying in Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a moonlit night, and the weather was perfect, which gave Twain the romantic idea of taking his wife for a boat ride on the lake.
They walked down to the pier, and Twain inquired of a man sitting in a rowboat how much he would charge to row them out on the water. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes, and white Texas hat. The oarsman, presuming him to be a wealthy rancher from the USA, said, "Well, I guess about twenty-five dollars." Mark Twain thanked him, and, as he turned away with his wife on his arm, he was heard to exclaim, "Now I know why Jesus walked!" – Ward Williams, "Walking on Water,"
All respect to Mark Twain, Jesus didn’t walk on water because it was too expensive to ride in the boat. It does make for a good joke!

A lot of people relate to the idea of water and boats, however. Maybe you’ve said, “Well, we’re all in the same boat!” Or you’ve heard someone say, “I’m neck deep in water!” Another twist on this is, “I’m drowning!” Despite Peter’s desire to walk on the water with Jesus, I suspect he identified more with people in trouble than he did with Jesus. It’s on reason he started to sink.

I’d just like to say, we need somebody who can walk on water. We need Jesus because he could walk on water. In times of trouble when we feel like we’re drowning, or we’re up to our necks, or we think we’re sinking and can’t swim, we need to know there’s somebody who can help.

A man who walks on water is a man who is living by, and possesses, a power far more potent than anything I’ve got to offer. He’s got control of physical elements, and if he’s got control over those things, that alone is power, but it hints at even greater power.

Stories like this aren’t there to trick us or give us a mere mythical tale. Stories like the one that tells of Jesus walking on the water are there to build our faith, our trust, our willingness to depend on such a man. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to sink. So do we.

The next time you get that sinking feeling, or think you’re drowning, look for the man who walked on the water. He will reach down and save you.

I've Got A Question

46 Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. – Luke 2:46 (NASB95)
"Were we to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, 'What comes into your mind when you think about God?' we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man." – A.W. Tozer
Questions are important. Asking appropriate questions, even more. Asking the right question at the right time. Wow. Light bulb time.

Jesus was a master question asker. At the age of 12, he was found in the temple, “both listening to them (the teachers) and asking them questions. He started early, like most young people. Adults often tire of questions, but it’s questions that reveal the inquisitive mind, one open and ready to learn. It’s also the tool of the master teacher to pry open closed or unthinking minds.

Todd Catteau wrote that most of Jesus’ questions could be organized into one of three categories (“The Questions of Jesus”, Discipleship Journal, Issue 100 (July/August 1997):
● Questions that validated his teaching
● Questions that challenged false ideas
● Questions that deepened faith
Frequently, Jesus made statements of truth, followed by questions designed to cause people to think about how sensible the statements were. Or he would question the standard beliefs people held by getting to think about alternate possibilities. Occasionally, questions dug at what people believed, or challenged their faith in a way designed to deepen it.

We should learn to love questions. Instead, we avoid them. They irritate us. They confuse us. We just don’t want to bother with them. Sometimes, we act as if people shouldn’t ask questions at all. Questions aren’t always easy or comfortable. They do throw us off balance. They betray the reality that we might not know all that we think we know. We don’t like being shown up by a good question.

Still, it’s getting answers to questions that causes us to grow. Jesus didn’t want to merely irritate people. He didn’t want to confuse them. He wanted them to think, to learn, to grow. All of us should want that.

Do you really believe that Jesus is unnerved at our questions? I don’t think so. But I do think he will unnerve us with his questions. We need to learn to love questions. We need to ask them, and we need to consider the ones found in scripture. A good question opens up a world of information.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Complaining People

There's an interesting passage back in the Old Testament book of Numbers. What is sometimes missed is that it works as a commentary on human beings. It describes well the propensity we have for quick dissatisfaction and complaint. It seems that many (most?) of us just can't be happy for very long. Here's the passage:
33 Thus they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey, with the ark of the covenant of the Lord journeying in front of them for the three days, to seek out a resting place for them.34 The cloud of the Lord was over them by day when they set out from the camp.35 Then it came about when the ark set out that Moses said, “Rise up, O Lord! And let Your enemies be scattered, And let those who hate You flee before You.”36 When it came to rest, he said, “Return, O Lord, To the myriad thousands of Israel.”1 Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.2 The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord and the fire died out.3 So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them.4 The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat?5 “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,6 but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.”Numbers 10:33–11:6 (NASB95)

Those people were three days into their journey. Three days. They complained. They were greedy. They got all caught up in "how things used to be." Now let's be fair. Was everything great? No. But they refused, or were unable to see the greater picture. God was leading them to the promised land. He was on their side, leading them, providing for them. He was their God and they were his people. But mundane things of life overwhelmed them, and their own little petty desires clouded their ability to see. Memories of the past morphed from hardship of slavery to a feast-table of fine foods.

A great many Christians are just like this. Christians, including leaders like preachers, elders, and educators, seem trapped into a viscious cycle of dissatisfaction with just about everything. The generations are at each other's throats with accusations that whatever generations one is not part of is to blame for all the failings and bad things happening to the church. Preachers lambast church members because they aren't living like they're supposed to live, doing what they're supposed to be doing, giving like they're supposed to be giving, but instead of acting like a shepherd-leader, gently instructing and guiding, they get fed up and quit. Or move. Church members throw tantrums because those in charge don't cater to their every whim (or whimper!). Leaders are accused of being stuck in the past, not caring for the flock, or just being irrelevant.

It is surely true that some of those complaints exactly right. But it  equally true that many of them are just people acting out the very human trait of dissatisfaction and grumpiness. I've known lots of Christian leaders. Not one of them was perfect, or knew how to sasisfy every complaining member. I've known lots of church members. Few of them were progressing in their spiritual growth that was exceptional. Most everyone drags their spiritual feet.

But we've entered a time when the game is played for high stakes. We're told by every expert around that the church is failing, it must change, it must do things this way or that way, it must change it's doctrinal stance on this issue or that, else nobody will ever pay attention again.  I have no doubt but that it wouldn't hurt us a bit to do some new thinking on lots of things. But I doubt that will be the answer to our problems. For just about the time we satisfy one bunch, another will rise up with new complaints. And nobody seems bold enough to ask, "Might the problem be with the complainers?" No, you do that and you get a fresh load of criticism and blame tossed your way.

If you've bothered to read this far, you're probably expecting me to offer an answer to the problem. Sorry. I have no answer, except to point us back to things that God has always taught us when things go wrong. I will leave it to the reader to discover where I found these things, but I promise every one of them is in your Bible. Here's how to make progress when things aren't great:
  • Stop complaining. You read that right. Just stop.
  • Quit thinking so highly of yourself. It's the first step toward trouble.
  • Love others. That means you do the loving of the others.
  • Learn tolerance. I don't mean the socio-political meaningless word popular today.
  • Be patient. Things seldom happen in a hurry.
  • Be more concerned about the health of your own faith than about that of others.
  • Encourage and build up people, and never shoot the wounded.
  • Live and practice what you expect of everyone else.
  • Treat others like you want them to treat you.
  • Don't try to outpuke buzzards (this one might be hard to find).
  • Make more peace than ruckus.
  • Never yell about what somebody else is or is not doing; you do it (or not) first.
  • If you can't see God's big picture, keep quite until you do.
  • Never confuse popular ideas or opinions with the Bible.
  • When things don't turn out like you think they should, return to the top of this list.

I believe two things about complainers. First, some people have legitimate things to complain about. If you don't believe this one, go read the Psalms. You'll find lots of complaints there. When finished, read Job. If that's not enough, write me, I'll suggest more.  Second, most complainers get on God's nerves. Everybody should think about that one before they start.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I Remember Mama

1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise) Eph 6:1–2 (NASB95)

When our daughter, Kathy, was participating in a parenting class at her church, she explained to her 6-year-old daughter, Kayla, that she was taking a course to help make her a better mommy. The next Sunday, after church, Kayla became upset and had a tantrum because she was not getting her way. Both parents tried to calm her. But with tears streaming down her face and in a loud voice, Kayla announced to her mother, "You told me you were taking a course to make you a better mommy. Well, it's not working!" – Shirley Ratcliff, "Kids of the Kingdom," Christian Reader (July/August 2003)

I had a great mother! One of the stark realizations of growing up is finding out that’s not true for everybody. I grew up in a neighborhood of good mothers. There were three houses in a row on our street with kids my age. All the mom participated in parenting all of us. It was a great place to be a kid. But for some reason, even though we had the worst yard to play in (smaller, dirt instead of grass, big oak tree with huge roots, etc.) we probably spent more time in our house/yard than the others.

It could have been because my mother was a good cook. But I really think there was more to it. My mother loved people. Oh, she could get aggravated and yell with the best of them. And don’t think it was because she let us get away with things. Nope. I think it was because she was a good mom.

Not only do I remember plenty of people sharing our table, but there was almost always somebody at our house visiting just to drink coffee and talk. That meant there was plenty of laughing and good times. She knew how to make you feel good, feel loved, feel appreciated, feel wanted. The world needs more that!

Don’t misunderstand. My mother was not always the best example. Get her riled and she might let a word slip that the rest of us would get whacked for saying. Her life was not without difficulty and mistakes. My mom and dad divorced when I was twelve. For years she didn’t go to church. She sent me with my aunt who lived down the street, but she didn’t go. She went back when I was a teenager. But I don’t think she ever left her faith. And don’t let anybody mess with her kids. She could be a lion.

Mothers Day is great for a lot of people. Like me, they had great moms. But that’s not true for everyone. Sometimes, moms just fail. It’s sad when that happens because it can affect a person’s whole life. If you know somebody like that, don’t press the issue. Just give them a special hug and let them know that today, right now, you love and appreciate them. If you had a great mom, be thankful. Tell her, if she’s still around. A few words of love and thanks go a very long way.

Faithful Until Death

3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near. – Revelation 1:3 (NASB95)

It is the desire for God which is the most fundamental appetite of all, and it is an appetite we can never eliminate. We may seek to disown it, but it will not go away. If we deny that it is there, we shall in fact only divert it to some other object or range of objects. And that will mean that we invest some creature or creatures with the full burden of our need for God, a burden which no creature can carry. — Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes

We usually think of beatitudes as that collection of verses in Matthew chapter five. Each one begins, “Blessed is. . . .” But there are a lot more beatitudes. Basically, it’s a statement of blessing, based on a particular reason. That’s my definition, but I think it will hold up. That makes the verse from Revelation 1:3 a beatitude.

There is a promised blessing that comes to those who will spend the time and put forth the effort with the book we know as the book of Revelation. That’s makes it doubly sad when people avoid that book because it’s controversial, or difficult to understand, or filled with confusing symbolism, or deemed unimportant. That last one is a conclusion reached because of all the other reasons. If it were important, it wouldn’t be all that other stuff. Surely!

Evidently John didn’t think that way. We may avoid it, ignore it, and refuse to study it, but the book itself still claims a blessing for those willing to dig in.

We need to address an important mistake, however. Sometimes, people will acknowledge there is a blessing, but it’s said to be for those who read it. Please read the verse again. There are two items that make up the basis for the blessing, and they are in the words, “read” and “heed” (in the New American Standard). Both work together. One must read, and then obey what he reads. The book of Revelation is to be obeyed, not just studied.

Perhaps this is another reason Revelation is an avoided book. Many have read enough to know that it says things like, “Be faithful until death. . . .” Somehow, we sense that this is a book that doesn’t gloss over the realities of life. It asks us to be honest with them, and to realize that Christians must sometimes endure great suffering because they are Christians. Revelation asks us to be faithful regardless what happens.

That’s not what we want to hear. We want to know everything will be alright. Stay with the book! It has that message too. We endure all that the world throws at us because in the end, everything is just like it ought to be. God has already won the victory for us.

It's Never, "Goodbye!"

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.” – Matthew 28:5–7 (NASB95)

When they had finished eating, they stood outside of the pub, talked for a few more minutes, and just before parting ways, Lewis said to Vanauken, "I shan't say goodbye. We'll meet again." The great apologist then plunged into the traffic to cross the street while Vanuaken watched his friend walk away. When Lewis got to the other side of the street, he turned around, anticipating that his friend would still be standing there. With a grin on his face, Lewis shouted over the great roar of cars, "Besides—Christians never say goodbye." – Greg Ogden, in the sermon "Christians Never Say Good-Bye,"

Saying, “Good-Bye”, is seldom a happy thing. Sure, we are sometimes just going on a short trip with plans to return soon. But a lot of good-byes are more permanent, or at least they’re of an unknown length. The worst good-byes are at gravesides. Death has a way of separating us from loved ones in a way that no other parting can do.

Have you ever thought about the good-byes that were said by Jesus’ friends, family and disciples as he hung on the cross? Those who took down his body from the cross, wrapped it in burial cloths and placed it in the borrowed tomb, likely said some sort of good-bye. They did not expect to see him again. Yes, we know he had already told them he would rise from the dead, but it seems they didn’t believe him, or at least they didn’t understand he meant it in such a tangible way.

The women who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, were going to say “good-bye.” They were going to perform the duty of preparing the body for burial since the earlier effort may well have been hastily done. They wanted to make sure things were right. What better way to say good-bye to someone you love?

Instead of what they expected to see and do, when they arrived at the tomb everything had changed. Guards were terrified and fled. The stone sealing the tomb was rolled away. And the tomb! It was empty. There was no body laying still as death. Jesus was gone.

This is why Christians never say good-bye. When Jesus rose from death, he gave to us the hope of eternal life. We will rise too. We will live again. It’s never, “Good-Bye.”

The Power List

9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth – Philippians 2:9–10 (NASB95)

Forbes magazine compiled their new list for 2013 of the world's most powerful people. This year's list includes 17 heads of state who run nations with a combined GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of some $48 trillion. The 27 CEOs and chairs on the list control over $3 trillion in annual revenues. And the group of 28 billionaires on the list are worth over $564 billion. Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping took the top three spots in the power rankings. At #5, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is the most powerful woman in the world. – via

Yes, there are some powerful people in the world. That power includes the ability to make or break you financially. They can control you forcibly by creating laws (to do it “legally”) or by influencing politics, police, courts, and more (illegally). They can control the media and control your thinking, or what information you get access to in order to choose or make decisions. Powerful people can control your daily lives in countless ways. We don’t like to believe this, but the power to control others is a prime motivation for obtaining wealth, political position, or other authoritative position.

It even happens in the church. There’s a fairly well-known fellow named Diotrephes in the Bible (even though we don’t know much about him). He evidently loved to be first in things so that he even countered what apostles said! That kind of thing still happens in today’s church.

Paul’s statement to the Philippians is one that doesn’t get enough press. Jesus is the one to whom every knee will bow. His name is above every name (sorry Diotrephes). That list of the world’s most powerful people above is a list of folks who aren’t the most powerful after all.

People find that hard to believe. The world doesn’t believe Jesus is worth bowing down to, but I fear that even Christians don’t easily accept this either. We still operate out of fear of folks on that “power” list. Even they will eventually bow to Jesus.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

A League of the Guilty

17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good . . . .” – Matthew 19:17 (NASB95)
So of all things, Christianity isn't supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren't any good people … This goes flat contrary to the predominant image of [Christianity] existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves, far from life's messier zones and inclined to get all "judgmental" about them. Of course there are Christians like that … The religion certainly can slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn't supposed to be. What it's supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (HarperOne, 2013), pp. 45-48
When you first read that phrase, “league of the guilty,” it might sound negative. It’s not immediately some snappy phrasing that catches our interest and makes us say, “Now that’s what I want!” No, it requires some thought.

The writer quoted points out one of the major faults with the modern church. We think too highly of ourselves; something the Bible tells us not to do (Rom 12:1f). Modern Christians like to talk about how good we are, often how much better we are than outsiders. We give ourselves a bit of gloss and polish and become hypocrites. Yes, hypocrites. That’s somebody playing a role that isn’t really them, and we’re certainly not the perfect, angelic folks we pretend to be.

Reality is quite different. Truth be told, Christians have just about all the sins that others have. Yes, we may have moderated a bit, some quite a bit. But if we were to suggest to Jesus how good we are, he would likely respond the same way he did in the verse above. “There is only One who is good.” It’s not you and it’s not me. Only God is good, so maybe it would be a great idea for us to acknowledge that truth and figure out what we are supposed to be.

“League of the guilty” isn’t too bad a way to put it. We’re all sinners, but we resist naming our sins. We all admit to imperfection, but have trouble identifying exactly what that is. We’re better at pointing our fingers at others.

It’s time for the church to be what we really are, if we’re the church. We are redeemed sinners. We are saved rebels. We still struggle with sins. Specific, real, honest, gut-wrenching sins. The best among us is not good. We’re all guilty. But we do have one thing going for us. Jesus died to take away our sins and eliminate the consequences of our guilt. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!” (Ps 107:2). That’s much better than acting like we’re something else.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Put Your Thinking Cap On

14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. – 1 Corinthians 2:14–15 (NASB95)
Daniel Kahneman, in a Time magazine interview about the quality of our rational thinking: We are normally blind about our own blindness. We're generally overconfident in our opinions and our impressions and judgments. We exaggerate how knowable the world is ….What psychology and behavioral economics have shown is that people don't think very carefully. They're influenced by all sorts of superficial things in their decision-making, and they procrastinate and don't read the small print.  – Belinda Luscombe, "10 Questions," Time (11-28-11), p. 104
Thinking as fallen on hard times. Well, maybe not thinking, but good, solid, reasonable, productive thinking is certainly hard to come by. Even among those with a good education, thinking often falls far short of what it should be.

It’s easy to get caught up in minutia. That happens when people read or study the Bible. Instead of thinking about what they read so as to understand what the writer is saying, they get caught up in rabbit trails, chasing bits and pieces of this or that, but never actually getting the point.

I’m convinced that a lot of the “talking head” experts you see on television use that to throw people off track. Instead of reasonable thinking about problems, issues, and events, they throw a lot of quips, jargon, and fluff our way. It’s like the chaff an airplane pilot might eject to fool a missile about to shoot him down. We get off track because we don’t know how to think our way through.

If you want to be a good Bible student, you have to learn how to think. Good reading skills helps, as does talking with others who have already developed those skills. Read good books on communication. With some effort just about anyone can up their thinking game considerably. Put your thinking cap on. There will be a test.

A Baby Was Born

10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” -- Luke 2:10–12 (NASB95)
A lady who served on many civic committees, asked to select carols suitable for a community Christmas-tree lighting, sought the help of her pastor. When she scanned the list he had selected, she exclaimed in dismay, "But they're all so theological." -- Unknown
Ever thought about how very theological is the birth announcement of Jesus? Right there in three verses, you’ve got some pretty serious stuff. Consider: angelology, evangelism, anthropology, soteriology, christology, lordship theology, signs, and incarnation. All of them have some pretty heavy-weight theological considerations behind them.

But we don’t talk in such language for the most part. We leave that to the folks locked inside ivory towers down at the university. Thankfully, we use smaller words. It still means the same.

Angels are messengers from God, and on this occasion, they bring some really good news for everybody. On this day, they announced that in Bethlehem a savior was born. He was the Messiah, the anointed, chosen one. Here’s a sign! Look for a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger.

That’s God with us, Immanuel. That’s the divine clothed with human flesh. That’s the promises of God fulfilled in a Son. That’s the perfect life, without sin, given as the sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. There is the grace and mercy of God displayed in the most graphic fashion imaginable. There is God’s love! Forgiveness abounds in a manger. Your whole Bible is focused on that baby and later the man. Your hope for eternity is wrapped in a mother’s arms. Shepherds came with amazed faces. Wise men traveled far to bow and give gifts to the baby born King of the Jews.

We spend so much time fretting over whether or not we’ve got the date right that we miss the birth. Jesus was born. Jesus died and rose again. Jesus is your Savior and Lord. It all came to fruition in a stable, on a night, when angels sang, and a baby was born.

A Christmas Gift

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! – Matthew 7:11 (NASB95)
My three-year-old son helped me with the community toy drive. First he cleaned out his toy box, then helped fix defective items, and collected donations for "kids that don't have anything to play with." When Christmas Day came, Timmy received his much wanted Sesame Street Play House. After playing with it all day, I found him trying to rewrap it. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, "I want to give this to one of the kids that doesn't have anything to play with 'cause if I didn't have any toys, this is what I would want." – Cathie Gebhart, Canton, S.D. Christian Reader, "Lite Fare."
Christmas is all about giving gifts. Sometimes we complain about the commercialization of the holiday, and it’s certainly true that one can get caught up in materialism. Still, there’s a reason we give gifts.

Wise men brought gifts to the new born Christ child. The history of Christmas is all about giving gifts, and they remind us of gifts given to us. Don’t you love what the little boy said. “. . . If I didn’t have any toys, this is what I would want.” And he was giving it away!

So what is it you really want this Christmas? Would you give it away because you liked it so much you figured somebody else would like it too? That’s a real test. Most of us hang on to the things we want and give away things we don’t care all that about. It takes a really generous heart to give away what you love.

It reminds me that this is precisely what God did for us. When he sent his son into the world to become our sin sacrifice, he gave us what he really loved. Scripture testifies to this. Jesus declared it to be true. The Father deeply loved the Son. Then he wrapped him in swaddling cloths and gave him away.

Very likely you give and get some gifts this year. Keep all this in mind as you give to others. And every time you give a gift, think of the one God gave to you. It’s the very best gift he could give.

Grace Gets Exciting!

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4:14–16 (NASB95)
The litmus test of whether or not you understand the gospel is what you do when you fail. Do you run from God and go try to clean yourself up a bit before you come back into the throne room, or do you approach the throne of grace with confidence? If you don't approach the throne of grace with confidence, you don't understand the gospel. You are most offensive to God when you come to him with all of your efforts, when you're still trying to earn what's freely given. – Matt Chandler, from the sermon "Remembering Your Creator"
Anybody who has heard me preach or teach knows that I love the word, “therefore” (or similar words). It’s a word that is meant to tell us something like, “sit up and pay attention now, a conclusion is coming,” or it brings together a series of thoughts. Sometimes, “therefore” appears in a series (“this” “therefore” “that” “therefore” “more” and so on). It’s a great little word.

It drives home important points. For example, in the passage from Hebrews 4, you’ll see “therefore” at verse 14 and again at verse 16. I’ll let you go read the verses coming before this passage, so you’ll see more of what’s involved in Jesus being our great high priest. But the question might be, “So what?” Well, first, we have a great high priest in heaven, and it’s somebody that can sympathize with our weaknesses. After all, he’s been tempted in all things as we are. Sure, he didn’t sin, but he understands. You really need to get that point.

The next idea is thrilling! When we need mercy and grace, we can approach God’s throne of grace confidently because we’ll get exactly what we need, not what we deserve. Grace gets exciting when you understand it. Some think they need to get things together before they come to God. Grace tells us it’s the other way around. When you need God’s help, go to him. He’s the only one who can clean you up.

Complaining Makes You Dumb!

in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. -- 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NASB95)
Now here's an interesting take on the need for gratitude (aside from the hundreds of biblical injunctions of course). The magazine Inc. ran an article titled "Listening to Complainers Is Bad for Your Brain." Apparently neuroscientists have learned to measure brain activity when faced with various stimuli, including a long gripe session. And the news isn't good. The article summarizes the research: "Being exposed to too much complaining can actually make you dumb. Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity—including viewing such material on TV—actually peels away neurons in the brain's hippocampus." That's the part of your brain you need for problem solving. So, basically, too much complaining (either listening to it or dishing it out) turns your brain to mush. The article provides three practical steps to avoid that negative, brain-numbing experience of complaining, but that advice can't top the Bible's simple command: "Give thanks in all circumstances". –
I have to admit that I got a good laugh out of this. I think I’m going to file it away where I can find it easily because I think it’s going to come in handy. I know some folks who are constant complainers! They just gripe and moan about everything. Now I can tell them they need to cut it out because it’s making them dumb, and I’ve got science to back me up.

Whether this is actually true or not remains to be seen, I suppose, but what I do believe is that complainers often miss the best things. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes a complaint is deserved, and might even result in change that brings better results or better experiences. That’s just true. What we’re talking about are the constant, drip - drip - drip - drip complainers. Those folks can depress everyone around them.

But the more important thing is that complainers are actually disobeying God. You did not misunderstand me. Scripture teaches us to give thanks in everything. There are two very important words in that statement. Thanks. Everything. Three if you want to count the word “give”. Thanks does not good if we just hang on to it. Thanks must be given away, and God says do that in everything. Next time you are tempted to complain about something, give a thought to whether you’re disobeying God.

How To Open People's Ears To The Gospel

30 The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:30–32 (NASB95)
I could not figure Brenda out. She was wealthy and intelligent. She had an exciting social life married to a leading Australian businessman. What was she thinking inviting us for a meal and discussion? At no point was this teacher pushy or preachy. Her style was completely relaxed and incredibly generous. When her VCR went missing one day, she made almost nothing of it, even though she suspected (quite reasonably) it was [someone from] our group. For me, her open, flexible, generous attitude toward us "sinners" was the doorway into a life of faith. As we ate and drank and talked, it was clear this was no missionary ploy on her part. She truly cared for us and treated us like friends or, perhaps more accurately, like sons. As a result, over the course of the next year, she introduced several of us from the class to the ultimate "friend of sinners," Jesus. – John Dickson, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission (Zondervan, 2010 ), pp. 51-52
If you take a look at how Jesus went about teaching the gospel, he did it by means of friendship, love, and simply being kind to people. I know. We tend to focus on his famous confrontations with Pharisees, and he did have them. But it was mainly because they weren’t interested, and worse, they were enemies out to kill him. He was hardest on those who claimed to be friends of God. They weren’t.

But look closely at the four gospels. Over and over, Jesus dines with sinners, visits with them in conversations, tells stories to illustrate truth, and dispenses grace and mercy everywhere he went. The reason children liked to be around him is that he was easy to be with. It’s the same reason sinners and tax collectors liked to be with him.

The big question is why don’t we learn from Jesus. We keep thinking evangelism depends on some method or formula. We keep holding workshops to teach the latest “secret” techniques. We need to just be more like Jesus. Be a friend to sinners. Be kind to people, love them, act graciously and mercifully. That opens ears like nothing else.

Church Signs

3 “And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? -- Matthew 16:3 (NASB95)
The moment God is figured out with nice, neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. —Rob Bell
I see some funny things on the Internet. I subscribe to some humor resources, and Facebook is good for a laugh on most days. I recently saw a whole blog about church signs. Here are a few good ones:

● Honk if you love Jesus; Text while driving if you want to see him!

● Bring your spiritual marshmallows, our Pastor is on fire!

● Try the bread of life or be toast!

● Sin burn is prevented by Son screen!

● Our congregation is like fudge; sweet with a few nuts!

● Presbyterian Church Parking: Public welcome except during church functions!

My favorite is that last one! I think I know what they meant, but the sign makes them look like the public isn’t welcome at their church.

Obviously, the quote from Jesus above, and these church signs are two very different things. But not completely. I think Jesus implied that people should be able to “read” the signs of the times in which they live. Church signs are often a reflection of our time. “Texting” would have made no sense at all 20 years ago. Today, it makes perfect sense. Every sign demands that we understand how we communicate, and what we’re communicating about.

That leads to my question. What do you think people “read” when they take notice of us? What do they see? What do they hear? Are we like the church with a few nuts? Is your “pastor” on fire? Is the public welcome at our church functions? People will read us. That’s a fact. The only question is what will they read.

Short People Get A's

20 Have I not written to you excellent things Of counsels and knowledge, 21 To make you know the certainty of the words of truth that you may correctly answer him who sent you? – Proverbs 22:20–21 (NASB95)
Roger Wengert, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, often begins his introductory ethics classes by asking how many of the students believe that truth is relative. A show of hands usually reveals that two-thirds to three-fourths of the class thinks in this manner. After discussing the syllabus, testing dates, papers and content of the course, Wengert informs the class that they will be graded according to height. When the smart-alecky tall kid loudly agrees with this system, the professor adds, "Short students get A's; tall students flunk."
Inevitably a student's hand is raised: "Your grading system is not fair." "I am the professor," retorts Wengert. "I can grade however I wish." The student insists, "But what you ought to do is grade us according to how well we learn the material. You should look at our papers and exams to see how well we have understood the content of the course and grade us on that." The class nods in affirmation (especially the tall students).
Professor Wengert then replies, "By using words like should and ought, you betray your alleged conviction that truth is relative. If you were a true relativist, you would realize that there is no external standard to which my grading should conform. If my truth and my ethic lead me to an alternate grading system that you deem inappropriate, c'est la vie! I will grade however I wish." – Mark Ashton, Absolute Truth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 9-10
People today like to think truth is relative. In other words, there are things true for me, and there are things true for you, but they’re not necessarily the same thing. That works pretty well, until my truth bumps up against yours, and then somebody’s truth wins out.

Objective truth means that what’s true for me is also true for you. That doesn’t mean we have to like the same things, or to have the same things. It means that when something is true, it’s true for us both. God is a God of truth, and he doesn’t confuse things by making one thing true for one person and another thing true for the next person. It’s also one reason you can trust the Bible. God’s word is truth. It’s the same story for you and me.

I'm Positive About The Church!

3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:3–4 (NASB95)
The only omnicompetent Executive chose Simon Peter--a man of great strengths and glaring weaknesses--to lead his fledgling church. – Kenneth B. Quick, Leadership, Vol. 11, no. 3.
I hear lots of people who are down on the church. If you’re looking for somebody who is going to deny that the church deserves lots of criticism, don’t look at me. Frankly, the church has done some bone-headed things. We often talk a much better game than we play, we’re often way too critical of people, there isn’t always much to admire about us, and we fail quite regularly at pretty much everything.

So why would anybody be interested in church? Recently, I told some folks that if I were not already a Christian I doubt that I would be much interested in becoming one. My reason? Most of what I hear about church is sadly negative. Let’s face it, if the very people who make up the church don’t think much of it, then why in the world would I want to be a part of it. It’s like people are saying, “The church is the most pitiful, awful thing in the world. Come on over and join us!” No thanks!

We need a different way of thinking about church. Nobody is suggesting that we deny and ignore our faults, mistakes or failings. But it’s time we focus on why church is a good idea and why it’s worth investing ourselves in it. First, the church is made up of people who have been forgiven of their sins. I didn’t say it was made up of people who don’t sin, I said it’s made up of forgiven people. Even the church gets that one mixed up at times. Second, we’re not only forgiven, we’re the people who are being changed, whose lives are being reformatted and prepared for something eternal. It’s the church that God is working in and through in marvelous ways. People would be worse without the church!

We don’t always get things right. But the great thing about God’s grace is that he won’t give up on us. We should be way more positive about the church. It’s always been populated by failing people. That includes you and me. We need a better focus on what we should be and can be, not what we have been or even what we are today.