Monday, March 20, 2017

Why not just tell the truth?

Here’s a pop quiz for you. What is more serious than impatience and more dangerous than grumbling?

James would answer, “Lying is,” because it gets to the ultimate issue of personal integrity. We are bombarded by lies on a daily basis. We hear them on the radio and television, and read them in the news. Politicians and advertisers lie to us. And if we can be totally honest with ourselves, we tell lies, too. We lie to ourselves, to each other, even to God. For some, lying is an art, a craft that they hone and perfect. They understand that lying can move a product or build a resume. They know that, “A lie can travel around the world, while truth is still lacing up its boots.”

We call it “fake news” in the media. We also see that every time a politician opens his mouth these days, there are 50 people fact-checking every word. Sadly, that happens out of necessity. One President in the late 1990s said to his top aides, “There is nothing going on between us,” referring to his White House intern. Of course it came out that there was plenty going on, so when the President was asked before a grand jury to explain his statement that he had made to his top aides, he replied, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the — if he — if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”

Huh? Go back 25 years before him, and you hear another President say at a press conference, “I am not a crook.” Which turned out to be a lie. We would all be justified in our anger against these men if we did not have to look at ourselves in the mirror every day. We also shade the truth, exaggerate, and sometimes just flat-out tell lies.

Now I am aware there may be a moral relativist reading this column who would respond, “You’re making a big deal about ‘truth’, but really, there is no Truth with a capital T. There is only little-t truth, which is a construct. Your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth.” I would say to them, your life proves that you don’t believe that. Because when you get your Duke Energy bill, and the company has inadvertently added a zero, you call them up. You say, “You have made a huge mistake. The power bill should have been $175, but you charged me $1750!” You don’t expect them to say, “Hey, $175 is your truth, but $1750 is our truth. Pay the bill or lose your power.” No, and it’s the same when you go to the doctor to talk about your MRI. You don’t want him to tell you his truth with regard to the results. “Well, the MRI shows a huge mass in your pancreas, and conventional wisdom says we need to aggressively treat that or you will not be here next year at this time. But my truth is that you are fine. Forget about it. Live happy. It’s probably nothing, in fact, I am sure it is.” No, the relativist trashes his own doctrine at that point, as well as that doctor, gets a second opinion and demands the objective truth. My integrity and yours depends on truth-telling, or crumbles for its lack.

James said it plainly: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.” In other words, why not just tell the truth?

Monday, March 13, 2017

We learn to be patient in suffering

Susan is a 14-year-old girl who lives in a Muslim family in Uganda. One day a person spoke at her school about Jesus, His sacrifice for our sins, and how a person can be redeemed through faith in Him. That day, Susan gave her life to Jesus. When she got home and her father heard about it, he grabbed Susan and her brother by the hair and dragged them into the front yard. He put a knife at her throat and told Susan that he would kill her and her brother if she did not stop talking about her faith in Jesus. Susan did not stop. So her father took her to a room in the house where there was a single mat on the floor. He made her sit on the mat and said, “You will not get off of that mat until you renounce your faith in Jesus.” Then he locked the door. And he didn’t open it again for three months. The only way Susan survived was that her brother would dig a hole under the door and pour water into it. Susan would lean over from the mat and lap up the water. He fried bananas and put them under the door so she wouldn’t starve. One day the neighbors asked the brother where Susan was. He told them and they called the police. When they opened the door, they were horrified to find Susan, barely alive, weighing only 44 lbs., her bones beginning to deform because of the way she had sat for three months. When asked why she had never moved from that spot, had never gotten off the mat, Susan said, “Because my father told me that if I got off the mat, I would be denying Christ.” (Open Doors USA)

I thought about that story as I read what the book of Hebrews says of prophets of old: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.” Those words, written nearly 2,000 years ago, are just as true today. In many countries, and the number is growing, those who speak the truth about Jesus, as Susan did in Uganda, suffer and sometimes die because of their testimony. James writes in his letter, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” It’s vital that we understand as followers of Christ that patience and suffering are traveling companions. We grow in patience if we suffer well, and we suffer well by practicing patience in the midst of the trial, by looking to the Lord to be the lifter of our head.

What do we learn from the prophets and from testimonies like Susan’s? First, God allows suffering in the lives of those who speak for Him, so that their life will back up their message. Second, we are not to go silent in times of suffering. The will of God does not lead us where the grace of God cannot keep us. Even the sword cannot separate us from the love of Christ.

I am thankful for my Ugandan sister whom I have never met. Her story of faith in Jesus, no matter the cost, moves and inspires me. She inspires me to pray for her and the millions of Christians around the world who suffer simply because of what they believe about God. And it inspires me to stand and speak about Him who is the author and the finisher of our faith. He is worthy of any price that I have to pay.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Do not worry about what you can’t control

At the funeral of a dear friend last week, I heard the following story from David, one of her sons.

Seems this lady was a classic worrier, even though her faith was firmly settled in Jesus. And as classic worriers tend to do, and really all of us do this, they worry much about things that are outside of their control. The son got a phone call from his dad years ago. He said it startled him a little because his parents always called at certain times in the week, and this was outside the norm. His pastor dad sounded very concerned and asked his son if he would do something for him. Of course, the son answered, and waited to hear the news. He knew his parents were getting ready to leave soon for a trip to Hawaii, and he knew that for his mother, flying was death. But he was surprised to hear his father say something about the fruitcakes that David’s mom loved to make, and how she always included brandy in the recipe. And he was reminded that his dad had to travel two counties over to buy the brandy, lest someone would see him, their pastor, in the ABC store. Then his father said, “If our plane goes down, don’t grieve or mourn or do anything until you’ve done this. Go directly to our house, look in the shed, and on the floor behind the freezer, you will find the bottle of brandy. Destroy it at once.” The folks in the memorial service roared with laughter, and a few minutes later it was the older son’s turn to give a eulogy for his mom. Jeff looked from the pulpit to his father in the front row and said, “I just have one question, Dad. Why was it that the younger son got to know where the brandy was kept?”

In his letter, James tells his readers to be patient until the coming of the Lord. Then he reminds them that the farmer is absolutely dependent on the rain. And we know that rain is absolutely outside of our control. Farmers have to trust God with what is His to do. I love the late Keith Green’s song, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest,” especially his verse about Noah: "You just think about Noah, totin' his umbrella, when there wasn't a cloud in the sky. All his neighbors would laugh at his pet giraffe, and they would snicker as he passed by. But the Lord said, 'Hey Noah, be cool — you just keep building that boat, it's just a matter of time, 'til they see who's gonna float; you just keep doing your best, and pray that it's blessed; hey Noah, I’ll take care of the rest, I'm the weather man!'” If you know the story, you know that Noah worked for 100 years, building an ark in a world that had never seen rain, much less a flood.

What we learn from Noah was that not only did he trust God completely with the things that were outside of his control, but he also trusted God completely with the things that were under his control. What was in Noah’s control? The ark. He was told by God to build the ark. His obedience was just as necessary as the rain. He couldn’t control the rain: that was on God. He could only control his obedience.

So, why do we worry? Jesus said, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”

Monday, February 27, 2017

It’s not the legs that matter most

I heard a former NFL coach say that the most important thing about the scouting combine was that it gave the scouts and coaches an opportunity to look the players in the eye and see what kind of character they have. “Their speed in the 40 is highly overrated,” he said. “What is most important is the interview.” The most important consideration for coaches looking to draft a young player to their team is their character? Maybe even the NFL is learning that athletic prowess connected to unbridled character leads to trouble. Just let the athlete talk about himself for five minutes, and what’s in the heart will come out.

It’s the same in the business world. When two equally skilled people compete for the same job, the person who gives the best interview usually lands it. One professional said there are five red flags for him in an interview, any one of which is a deal-breaker. Even if the candidate is imminently qualified, he won’t get the job if: 1) He talks too much; 2) She doesn’t have a basic understanding of the company; 3) He is not wearing a suit; 4) She begs for the job; 5) He doesn’t know how to communicate why he would be a good fit for the company. I would suggest that each of those "flags" indicate character problems of selfishness, laziness, carelessness, insecurity and unpreparedness.

In the NFL combine or the professional interview, the question is, does the man or woman reflect the resume? The employer is trying to get a look at the heart, the character, the real deal. God does the same.

David asked God in Psalm 15, “Lord, who may abide with You? Who is able to stand in Your presence?” He was not asking God how to be saved from his sins. That only comes by grace through faith, which cannot be earned by any man or woman. Christ paid for it on the cross. David was asking how he could know that he was really walking with God. “Lord, how can I live in such a way to enjoy the fullness of your fellowship?”

I have a warning for any of you dear readers who might entertain these thoughts: “I don’t care about the fullness of His fellowship. I just want to make sure I am in. That when the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” If that is the attitude of your heart, it may call into question whether you have ever known true repentance. When the Spirit of God comes in, He doesn’t just take up space, He takes over. There is an ongoing change in a person’s thought patterns, actions, desires, motives, goals, and affections when he has been born again. That doesn’t happen when we say to God, in effect, “Stay in this closet in the basement, please, so as not to get in the way with how I want to live my life; when I need You, I’ll let you know.” Instead, regeneration results in extreme makeover, and there are dire consequences for all who would pretend. As Charles Spurgeon said, “To own Him in our profession (what we say) and deny Him in our practice (how we live) is, with Judas, to betray Him with a kiss.”

Read Psalm 15 and see how your walk, your talk, and your values will stand as evidence of life-change. And yes, Virginia, there is a final exam. All who truly know God will pass.

No matter how fast or slow they run the 40.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Don't fall asleep at the wheel

I worked at IBM for a summer when I was in grad school and had to be there at 4:45 a.m.

I left my apartment in Chapel Hill at 4:00, and I can remember a few mornings when I was asleep at the wheel while I drove. It was God’s mercy that kept me alive. I woke up once while passing a car on Highway 54. Had there been a car coming the other way during my little nap, I shudder at the thought of what would have been lost, including the life of the oncoming driver. I would not have met my lovely bride, enjoyed 34 years of marriage, watched 7 children grow up, or held five (so far!) grandchildren in my arms. All would be lost because of one second of inattention. Some of you will remember the Hudson River crash of 2009. Nine people were killed when a single-engine Piper collided in mid-air with a Liberty sightseeing helicopter. The air traffic controller had stepped out of the tower to talk on his cellphone with his girlfriend. The supervisor was not in the tower, as required by law. Both of these men took a break, just for a brief moment, and that’s all it took for families to be destroyed.

Falling asleep unintentionally is one thing. Pursuing a lifestyle that keeps you in perpetual stupor is quite another. Jesus said, ““But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”

There is a real temptation, in other words, to deal with the hardships of life by checking out, intentionally throwing yourself into full party-mode, living for the moment, ignoring the warning signs until you swerve over the center line and into a head-on collision. Some of you scoff at the idea, completely confident in your ability to avoid the collision, to live to satisfy your every craving without a problem. May I remind you that the “Day” is coming? It comes for every man. He says, “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the earth.” Nothing ever caught in a snare meant to be there. No person in his right mind swerves on purpose into oncoming traffic. No one tries to catch a nap while driving 75 on I-85. It just happens. Jesus says it will happen to all of us one day: death will come and then we will face the final Day.

May I say this to all of you who follow Christ? You may have spent a lifetime building a testimony to faith in Him, but it just takes a split second to lose it all. One second you are awake and alert, and the next second you have fallen asleep in the arms of adultery or bitterness or drunkenness or deceit, and all is lost. Watch! Stay awake. By the way, I have never fallen asleep in the car while I am talking with someone else. We need help to stay awake. Do you have someone in your life that is willing to nudge you, or worse, when you start to drift off? I would suggest that’s what the church is for, in part. I am surrounded by a number of men who love me enough to tell me the truth, and I do the same for them. It’s a wonderful means of grace that keeps us on the road.

Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. The price is too high.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leave this spidery habit behind

Here’s a question for you: How is a slanderer like a spider?

In his book, "Ragman and Other Cries of Faith," Walter Wangerin starts one story with a lesson about eight-legged arachnids. He explains that a female spider is often a widow for embarrassing reasons — she eats her spouse. In fact, the female spider regularly eats all who wander her way, making her dining room a morgue. If you see an immobile fly that is caught in a spider’s web, most likely it is only a shell. The fly is still hanging around for decoration, but he’s been consumed. His insides have been drunk by the spider, which has no stomach, making it incapable of digesting anything. Through tiny punctures, the spider injects her digestive juices into its prey, until its insides turn into a warm soup. “This soup she swills, even as most of us swill souls of one another after having cooked them in various enzymes: guilt, humiliation … cruel love. And some among us are so skilled with the hypodermic word that our dear ones continue to sit up and smile, quite as though they were still alive.”

A gruesome picture, wouldn’t you agree? It is an awful thing to suck the life out of others with our snipes, our sneers, our stares, or our stony silence. By definition, to slander someone is to maliciously utter false statements that damage that person’s reputation. If you take the time to look up slander and its twisted sister, gossip, in the Scriptures, you will be amazed. Maybe even changed. Slander is mentioned repeatedly as a sin we must put way. The regular use of gossip and slander is associated with those who have a debased mind, and are “haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful,” and so on. One biblical admonition against slander could be literally translated, “Do not speak down on one another.” That’s a good picture, because for me to speak down on another means I have assumed a lofty position above him. One way we all slander is when we assign a motive to someone’s behavior, speaking as if we know his or her heart. “Well, the only reason she is here is to be seen. She absolutely craves the spotlight, you know.” Or, “I know why he’s late; he is lazy.” We almost always ascribe circumstances to our misdeeds, while ascribing character flaws to others. “I overslept because the alarm wasn’t loud enough. Today. For some reason. But he overslept because he’s soft. Coddled. Immature.”

Gossip is the companion of slander, but it can include truth. It is the deadly art of confessing other people’s sins, where it is supposedly safe: behind their backs. Here’s an idea on stopping the habit: refuse to listen to it yourself. It starts this way, “You know I am only telling you this because it’s true.” Or, “Let me tell you what I heard about her, because, of course, she needs our prayer!” As soon as that trigger is pulled, politely refuse to hear another word. Walk away from your stunned friend knowing that the one who brings you a tale about another will bring tales to others about you. Be the stopper. The goalie. Change the culture one person at a time. Of course, that means you will have to refuse to utter gossip about others, lest you be found a hypocrite.

The female spider will not eat her spouse if he’s bigger than her, providing us a great illustration of how we stop acting like cannibals with our speech. We simply must esteem others as more important than ourselves.

Sounds biblical to me.