Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The simplest truths are the most profound

I remember many years ago hearing one of my relatives talk about his associate pastor in another city who was leaving to take a church somewhere else. “He’s the smartest man I have ever heard, when it comes to the Bible,” my relative said. “He speaks Hebrew, Greek, even Latin.” There was a slight pause and one of my young children asked, “Does he speak English?”

It’s a valid question. In this case, the answer was "yes," but the truth is, there are many who teach in churches and universities who, for all their degrees, have never learned to communicate the simple truths of their discipline. They can throw some Greek at you, but you have no idea what they are talking about most of the time. They can tell you all about the Hebrew verbs in a passage, but then they wander down a rabbit trail that has nothing to do with the text, and you are lost. Some speak about their subjects in a way that sends their audience into a deep sleep. I even heard about one professor who fell asleep himself while he was lecturing. Standing at the chalkboard, talking to his college class, the man actually nodded off while leaning against the wall. David Garrick, the great 18th century actor, was asked why he could so mightily move men by fiction, while preachers, speaking such momentous truths, left them unmoved. He replied, "They speak truth as though it were fiction, while I speak fiction as though it were truth." If a man speaks the truths of the Word of God as though they were fiction, then he may as well be speaking in another language to his audience, without an interpreter. It will have the same effect.

Some have passion for what they speak about, but they are even more impressed with themselves … and that is what is communicated most clearly. To paraphrase Charles Spurgeon, “He who makes much of himself makes very little of God.”

Others have a passion for their subject, but they refuse to put the cookies on the lower shelf. Their vocabulary is impressive but a stumbling block. For example, how many of you would know what is meant by this quote? “Avian bipeds whose plumage can be demonstrated to have reasonable similitude display a tendency to congregate in groupings of some magnitude.” Huh? I don’t think they had avian bipeds where I grew up. Actually, they did, and the quote simply put means, “Birds of a feather flock together.” How about this? “Male cadavers are incapable of yielding any testimony.” Maybe you can wade through that one and come up with the answer, “Dead men tell no tales.” But I bet you never heard your Mama say this to you when you were growing up: “Freedom from incrustations of grime is contiguous to rectitude.” Not if she was from around these parts, anyway. But she might have said it in English: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” My personal favorite, however is this one: “Scintillate, scintillate, asteroid minifid!”

Ponder on it for a minute. But in the meantime, let me remind you that it was Jesus who said, just as plain as could be, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

That’s a truth as simple to understand as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star!”

Monday, July 18, 2016

We can choose to be part of the solution

The events that took place in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas last week have the nation reeling, leaving many feeling unsettled and fearful, and our hearts are broken for the victims and their families. Sadly, some people are using the tragedies of last week for political posturing. Others are using the events to push their legislative agendas, and that seems misguided. But I am thankful that many are looking past politics and government to promote the truth of who we are as creations of God, and to examine the heart conditions that are at the root of all hatred and violence. One of those offering real solutions is John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote this week:

“Let us first and unequivocally say every human life is precious and valuable because it bears the very image of God. C.S. Lewis wrote in 'The Weight of Glory,' ‘You’ve never met a mere mortal… Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.’

Let’s also say that (last) week’s events are a surface explosion of issues long present in our society. We’re not OK, folks, and we haven’t been in quite a while. These horrible events are not creating unrest; rather they are revealing it. Our society is weak in its middle — at the “social glue” level of local communities and civil society. And, we have a race problem. We might disagree on why, but it won’t do us any good to say it doesn’t exist. Here we are — and there’s no way out of this except by confronting it.

Third, and most important, let us proclaim, “Christ has risen!” It is true about this moment as it is about every other moment of history — good or bad.

And now, Christian, what might we do?

First, pray. I am praying for Christians tasked with talking about this to colleagues, families and neighbors on Monday. I am praying we will be Gospel-shaped in our words and tone. But mostly, I pray today for mercy using ancient, tried, and tested words: Lord, have mercy on us.

Second, we can, in the words of the Apostle James, be quick to listen and slow to speak, particularly to those with whom we agree on the Gospel, but differ in experiences as citizens.

Third, we can focus efforts on rebuilding those institutions able to address the problems we face. Government has a role, but the state cannot lead us in reconciliation, virtue formation, or trust building. God has uniquely equipped the home and the church for those tasks.

It looks bleak, but we worship the same Christ whose Gospel has brought healing to post-adultery marriages, post-riot cities, even post-genocide Rwanda. It can here, too. There is, in fact, no other place to look."

You and I may not be able to break down the mistrust that exists among the races, or the social classes, or the political parties. But you and I can choose to be a part of the solution by praying for our neighbors, believing that the same power God used to raise Christ from the dead can change our city. But don’t stop with prayer. You and I can choose to be a part of the solution by crossing the street to have a conversation, to build a relationship, to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.

We must.

Monday, July 11, 2016

There's always an escape from temptation

Here is a plain truth and a main truth from Scripture that we would do well to understand, believe and appropriate in our own lives. God does not tempt us; every temptation to sin can be traced back to our own desires.

Not to God. And not to the devil. Tom Sawyer told his Aunt Polly that the devil made him do the bad things he did. Flip Wilson made that a punch line in the 1970s. "The devil made me do it!" But there is nothing funny about the devil. He comes to steal, kill and destroy. However, though he may suggest a lie to us, as he did to Eve in the garden, he cannot make us sin. J.A. Bengel said, "Even the suggestions of the devil do not occasion danger before they are made our own."

He can bait the hook, but we have to take the bait, and when we do, it is always because of our own evil hearts. This often surprises us in ourselves or others. A young priest was listening to confessions for the first time, accompanied by an older priest. At the end of the day, the older priest pulled him aside and said, "My son, when a person finishes his confession, you have got to learn to say something other than, 'Wow.'"

The Bible uses a fishing metaphor to describe how temptations can pull us away from a safe place. We are tempted when we are "lured and enticed by our own desires." I was watching my sons fish a few days ago, and I noticed that no one was throwing out an empty hook, thinking that a fish would be stupid enough to throw himself on it and be reeled in, you know, just for fun. No, the lures they were using looked just like food to the fish, which is a God-given desire. Fish like food. God made them, and us, that way. But when a fish takes the bait, it is hooked and dragged out of safety and to a place that is decidedly not safe. It is the same for you and me.

When we are hooked and dragged away, caught in a trap that works because of our own desires, it often carries a very high price. And it is true that our desires are not always evil, but the ways we fulfill those desires can be dangerous and destructive. A desire to be loved leads many young girls in dangerous places. A desire for sexual gratification leads many young men astray. A desire to eat and enjoy food or drink can lead us to gluttony or drunkenness. We have a golden retriever who loses her mind when a thunderstorm comes. We have a perfectly safe place she can hide in our garage, but her desire to escape the storm completely has convinced her she needs to be inside the house, which has led to the near destruction of our storm door.

What to do about temptations? Here is another plain truth and main truth in the Bible: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." That is a verse to believe, memorize, and live. We can never say, "I couldn't help it."

There will always be a way of escape. It’s our choice whether to take it or not.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

You can run but you can't hide

I learned early on in my Christian walk that I could run from God’s plan to help me grow up, but I could not hide. Like the time I decided to skip church and watch television at my grandparent’s house. The only problem was, I really needed to have my glasses if I was going to watch TV, but I left them at home when I made the 2-mile drive over to Nana’s. Why? Do you really have to ask why a 17-year-old who wears Coke-bottle glasses because he’s blind as a bat would leave them at home when he’s driving through his neighborhood in the daytime? Have you forgotten how important it was to be cool when you were a teenager? It was important to me, too. And since I didn’t have a snowball’s chance at being cool, I had to at least look cool. That didn’t work for me either, but I took comfort in the theory that since I couldn’t see what I looked like without my glasses, maybe nobody else could either.

I headed home to collect my specs. I slowed down just a little at the stop sign that someone put there to test my skills at crossing from Nana’s road to our road without having to tap the brakes more than once.

Driving along, singing a song, and then I saw it. A blur of blue in my rear view. I couldn’t really tell what it was, but I figured it wasn’t the northern lights, so I pulled over. Seconds later, a sheriff’s deputy appeared at my door and I began to shake. I saw that his mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. My window! I rolled it down quickly and he said something again, but my ears had temporarily stopped working. He said it a third time, forcefully: “Get out of the car, sir!” I got out, half expecting him to slap some cuffs on me and drag me off to jail, since I had just had a wreck a few weeks earlier, a wreck that was my fault.

The sheriff’s deputy was asking me another question, and I didn’t answer because, once again, my head was ringing and my ears were refusing to work. The officer was beginning to think I was mute. And maybe blind. My glasses! He was asking about my glasses and why I wasn’t wearing them, and according to my license I was required by law to wear them. Did I know that I had run a stop sign back there, and did I know that I could be cited for driving without a license, and did I know that I had nearly run a car off the road? And suddenly I was in a time warp, and my first grade teacher was saying, “Mark, did you know that it was wrong to hit Kip in the head?”

I was finally able to speak and the sheriff’s deputy kindly served God’s purposes by giving me a ticket. I said “Yes, sir,” as he explained the consequences of my actions, and I said “Yes, sir,” as the DMV revoked my license for 60 days, and I said, “Yes, sir” as I paid my fine for running a stop sign.

The Bible says, “we are to grow up in every way, into Him who is the head.” I am thankful that the God who owns the universe governs my life. I can try to run from him, but I can never hide.

He loves me too much to let me do that.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Helping teens learn leadership skills

One rising seventh-grader said to another, “Which school supply is the most important?” She replied, “I don’t know, which school supply is the most important?” He said, “The ruler!”

That’s how one of the AYLA presentations began last week at Elon University. AYLA stands for Alamance Youth Leadership Academy, and rising seventh-graders are chosen to participate each year. The program began with two schools in 2007 and currently serves 205 seventh and eighth-graders in 11 public, independent and charter middle schools in Alamance County. The Alamance Chamber of Commerce program is supported by the Elon University Center for Leadership, Alamance-Burlington School System, Alamance Citizens for Education, and Leadership Alamance Alumni. The model includes a three-and-a-half day summer experience, school-based chapter meetings that take place during the school year, and quarterly joint events hosted by the Chamber’s AYLA Advisory Board. Developing and implementing a school improvement project is at the heart of the learning experience. (http://www.alamancechamber.com/pages/AYLA)

I had the privilege of presenting a workshop with the students on public speaking. Each workshop lasted about an hour, and I spoke to 50 young people at a time. It was a lot of fun, but when one of them asked me during the question and answer time if I ever get nervous before speaking, I had to say, “Yes! I was nervous before I came here today.” I was being truthful. Hey, you never know what to expect when you are trying to give a speech to several dozen preteens. But they were excellent listeners, full of energy and genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. It was a blast, and I was happy to whet their appetite for learning to speak in public. I loved hearing their hearts in their questions. One student asked, “How can I learn to not be so nervous?” Another said, “What do I do if I stutter or have trouble getting my words out?”

The next day, 300 family and friends gathered to hear these students give presentations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools, and what they hope to do in the next two years to improve them. They did a great job, and took my encouragement seriously about being enthusiastic, organized, and interesting.

Several groups started their presentations with some kind of hook, in order to get the attention of the audience and make them want to listen. One student started with, “How many of you have been frustrated about poor internet connections?” Of course, nearly every hand went up. Another student started her presentation by asking, “How many of you have served on student government?” Then, with a smile she said, “And how many of you enjoyed it?” One of the improvements her group was proposing would re-establish a thriving student government in their middle school.

My favorite hook was a two-man standup routine that was short but sweet. One boy said to the other, “Why don’t they give tests in the jungle?” The second boy said, “I don’t know.” The first replied, “Because there are too many cheetahs!”

It’s a tough world we live in, and a scary proposition to be raising children these days. I am thankful for this program, for the adults and college students who are taking time to invest in future leaders. They are showing them a way to go beyond just recognizing problems in their ‘community,’ but looking for and implementing solutions.

Jesus would say, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

This is what we desperately need

When was the last time you heard a graduation speech that mentioned wisdom and how desperately we need it? What the world says we need and are lacking in is tolerance. Or diversity. Or greater distribution of wealth. Or education. Here’s what Harvard University believed about education in the 1600s, taken from an early document: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” That sounds like wisdom to me.

You don’t hear about wisdom in graduation speeches, because its very meaning takes you to a moral foundation, which takes you to God. The word is Sophia, and it means “knowledge of how to regulate one’s relationship with God; related to goodness.” Who needs wisdom? Everyone. Even kings. Solomon could have asked for wealth or longer life or power over his enemies. But he prayed, “I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or to come in . . . Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this great people?” Wisdom is knowing the difference between right and wrong, and choosing to do what is right. Jesus illustrated wisdom and foolishness with the parable of the builders in Matthew 7. One man built his house on the sand, and the other man built his house on the rock. Two men, two builders, two houses, two foundations, one storm. The house built on sand fell, and the house built on rock stood. And Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Knowledge hears. But wisdom does.

Wisdom is what we need . . . so, what do we do? Ask God for it. I truly believe that God delights in answering this prayer when we are going through a trial and don’t know how to respond to it. James writes in his letter that when we ask God for wisdom, believing in faith that He will give it to us, God will heap wisdom upon us, and He will do it gladly every time we ask! If I could turn back the clock, one of the things I would want to go back and do over is to change how I responded, much too often, when one of my children would ask me a question about a school problem, or about a chore I had assigned them, or how to do something. Too many of those times ended in tears from the child, because of my impatience. It is a point of shame in my fathering. I am grateful to God who covers our shame, and I am grateful for sons’ and daughters’ resilience and willingness to forgive. I think back to my own childhood and teen years. The teachers I loved the most and the employers I loved the most, and wanted to work the hardest for, were the ones who showed great patience with me when I didn’t understand how to do something. They were willing to teach me every time I asked. They were teaching me something much more important than math or how to do my job; they were showing me what God is like.

What the world needs now, and that includes you and me, is God’s wisdom. Ask for it.