Monday, October 16, 2017

I Want to Know Him

It is an amazing thing to me that, 30 years after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he expresses the cry of his heart in a letter to one of the churches he planted: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” What does that statement by Paul teach us about Christ, except that yes, we are able to know him! Even as a 15-year-old, this verse captured me the first time I read it. Maybe I saw then with immature faith that this was the greatest cry of Paul’s heart. He had forsaken the pursuit of fame and fortune as a Pharisee, and had given himself fully to the pursuit of Christ. Could there be anybody in the first century who knew Christ better than Paul? And yet, here is Paul crying out from a Roman prison that more than anything, he wanted to know the Lord.

It has been a 45-year pursuit for me — longer for some of you, shorter for others. I know that I will finally fully know Jesus when I meet him face to face, but I want to know him on this side of heaven. I want to grow more like him. The big theological term that describes what I desire more of, is sanctification.

Sanctification is the process by which we grow in our relationship with Jesus. It is progressive and continuous until the day we die. And though God takes the initiative, sanctification requires our participation. Therefore, it looks different in different people because of the amount of participation by the individual. The disobedient Christian grows much more slowly than the obedient one. You know this is a law of physics: Speed x Time = Distance. If you drive at 60 mph for one hour, you will have driven 60 miles. It is also a spiritual law. Persistent obedience over time leads to maturity. Sanctification happens as we take a “long walk of obedience” with the Lord, cooperating with the Spirit of God in the plan He has chosen for us.

How do we do it, then? How do we grow in our relationship with the Lord, to truly get to know Jesus? Let’s acknowledge that part of our growth comes from just doing the work: reading and studying the Bible, learning to pray, obeying the main things and the plain things of Scripture. But our spiritual maturity is also affected by our relationships. If we spend time with people who know Jesus better than we do, we will likely grow in our relationship with Jesus ourselves.

Ask yourself this question: “Who knows Jesus better than I do that I am close to?” I am fortunate to live with someone who knows Jesus better than I: my wife! She is not only my best friend and closest companion, she has been my example and teacher in many ways over these 35 years of marriage. I also have friends who are more mature than I in their relationship with the Lord, and I learn by being with them. I would suggest you ask someone who is close to the Lord to have coffee with you. Ask them how they know him like they do. Listen carefully, and begin to follow their walk, until it becomes your own. Be forewarned that those who draw near to Jesus will be changed. He will ask you to stop some things that are important to you, and start others that have been neglected.

The long walk of obedience will be worth it.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Salvation is Not a Do-It-Yourself Project

I had a friend named Jack Robinson growing up. It’s true. You millennials might not know that people used to use that name to explain quickness: “Are you going to the beach?” “Just as quick as you can say Jack Robinson.” Well, my friend was quick, but not always as quick as I was. We competed in everything. Running. Throwing sticks. Wrestling. Climbing trees. We even competed in selling vegetable seeds door to door. But every time we competed, the winner had bragging rights. That’s why we competed, so whoever won could brag. The winner would always brag about how much he trounced the other, and the loser would always have an excuse for why he did not win. Bottom line? We wanted to be the best.

So did Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion. With all seriousness, Paul included a list in his letter to the Philippians about why he had more reason to brag about his past accomplishments than anyone. He says, in effect, “You think you have reason to brag? Step aside, son. You ain’t got nothing.” I’ve noticed that when Paul brags, he uses poor grammar, just to make a point. Paul continued, “Let me tell you about a man who was a legend in his own time. That man, my boy, would be me.” I am using poetic license, of course, but Paul did brag to the Philippians, in order to make this point: though he climbed to the top of the ladder as a religious person, when he arrived at the pinnacle he discovered his ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. Paul discovered, through a blinding flash, that salvation is not a do-it-yourself project.

Had it been, Paul would have been a rock star in his day. I imagine a first century show called “Israeli Idol” that Paul would have won, every single year. Because the show wouldn’t have been about singing or dancing, but about reciting memorized Scriptures. Praying long, elaborate prayers. Fasting. And of course, Paul’s favorite talent: persecuting Christians. He makes the case in his letter that there was no one who even came close to having his devotion, his zeal, and his righteousness under the law.

Ahh, there’s the rub. The law cannot make one righteous any more than a mirror can clean one’s face. The law, like a mirror, shows us our need for cleansing. In the midst of his busy pursuit of making himself acceptable to God, Paul was apprehended by the Lord himself. On his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul met the Savior and exchanged his pharisaical robes of self-righteousness for the righteousness of Christ. Paul’s life was turned right-side-up. But, wait…

What about his resume? His pedigree? His studies at the feet of Gamaliel? His blamelessness “under the law”? Paul uses a crude expletive to describe all of his past accomplishments. He calls it rubbish, or, “dung.” The word was sometimes used in the Greek to describe the piles of, umm, stuff you see people scooping off the ground with a plastic grocery bag on their hand and then turning the bag inside out. I saw a lady do that recently while she was walking her dog, and then I watched in amazement as she put the grocery bag in her purse. Paul would be horrified at that, but even more, he was mortified at the wobbly foundation of do-it-yourself salvation that he had been standing on until he met Christ.

I don’t know what happened to my childhood friend and competitor. I just know that as quick as you could say “Jack Robinson,” 50 years have gone by since we were racing up Walden Avenue together. Maybe I will find one day that Jack came to the same place I did, and that he put his life and his faith into the hands of the One who can turn anyone right-side-up. I hope so.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Bibles and Hearts Collect Dust at the Same Rate

This summer a Vietnamese believer was arrested and beaten after police raided his home looking for Christian materials. A few days before arresting “Mr. Lee”, police had arrested other Vietnamese Christians and discovered Christian materials on their digital music players. The Christians stated under duress that the materials had come from Mr. Lee, a dedicated Christian in northern Vietnam. Police didn’t find anything in the raid, but they still detained him for two days, beat him and warned him to stop distributing Christian materials. 

Several years ago, Shi Weihan was sentenced to three years in a Chinese prison for printing Bibles to give away. (both stories from Voice of the Martyrs)

Let’s think about that. A man in Vietnam is beaten for giving people materials about the Christian faith. A man in China is sent to prison and fined the equivalent of $22,000 for printing and distributing Bibles at his own expense, leaving his wife and two young daughters to fend for themselves while authorities “continue to pressure the family.”

Here’s a question for you: what is the difference between a nation that can’t read the Bible, because it is not available to its people, and a nation that won’t read the Bible? It evokes Mark Twain’s quip, “The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.”

Forget the nation. What about the Christians? Why are there so many people who claim to be followers of the God of the Bible who never or seldom read the Bible of their God? Why is it that the typical church-goer in America couldn’t find the book of Philemon or Ezra without a table of contents if his life depended on it? Get into a discussion about the Bible with the average church-attender today and it won’t be five minutes before he will say something like, “God helps him who helps himself. That’s in the Bible, you know.” No. It isn’t. Or he might make the ridiculous statement, “Jesus never claimed to be God, and he never claimed to be the only necessary substitute for our sins.” The truth is, many in the church have no idea what the Bible really says because they never read it. The problem, I contend, is often found not in the pews, but in the pulpit.

Think about it. If your math teacher never lectured on algebra but instead spent his time in class pontificating on nuclear disarmament, the ozone, or grey squirrels, would you lug your textbook to class? Would you even read it?

You want to know one of my favorite sounds? The sound of rustling pages of Scripture as the congregation, including children, turns to the text that we will be studying that morning. I often say, “If you don’t have a Bible, look on with someone who does.” We have only a few scattered copies of the Bible in the pews, so it is rare that someone comes to church without his Bible. Many have spent time during the week in the next passage in the book of the Bible we are working our way through. Many have had conversations with their families about the upcoming passage, to prepare their hearts for the sermon. Why? Because the Bible is not just a great work of literature. It is the Word of God, and is necessary that “the man or woman of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That’s why people are willing to be beaten, or go to jail, or worse, to get the words of life into the hands of those who don’t have it.

Bibles and hearts collect dust at about the same rate. Read your Bible.

Monday, September 25, 2017

These Things Should Mark Us

In reprimanding those who depend on their good works for salvation, Paul counters with a picture of what a Christian is to do. He wrote that we are to worship by the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.

When you think of worship, don’t think “standing at your pew, singing worship songs.” That’s only a small part of worship. To become a worshipper means that our direction and our affections are changed, not just for a few minutes on Sunday and not just in a certain location, but all the time and in every place. Jesus teaches us that worship is not a service or a religious ceremony. It is not dependent on a place or a liturgy or smells or bells. Worship is what Christians cannot help but do all the time, because the Spirit of God has moved in and taken over. I saw a picture of this recently as I visited with Hilda at Twin Lakes. She is 94, a widow, and a wonderful woman of God who blesses me every time I see her. Hilda is not able to attend church, but boy, does she love Jesus, and she talks to him all day long. She said with a wink, “I tell the Lord, ‘Now, if I am asking too much, you tell me!’”

“Glory in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Hilda was doing. This is just a natural outflow for those who worship by the Spirit of God, because the work of the Spirit is to glorify the Son.

“Put no confidence in the flesh.” How can we survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, and then pat ourselves on the back? Good job reading the Bible this morning! Great prayer at church, you really knocked that one out of the park! You know gained you some points with God for sure!

Kind of turns your stomach a little doesn’t it? Beware of becoming the older brother in the story Jesus told about the prodigal son. The point of the story was not really the penitent prodigal younger brother, but the proud, pharisaical older brother, whose confidence was in his works, which made him a stay-at-home prodigal. The older brother, the proud prodigal said in anger to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you,” while refusing to come in and celebrate that his brother had come home. Then he said with disgust, “I never disobeyed your command.” Do you see his ‘religion?’ “Look what I did. Look how many rules I have kept!” Because his confidence was in his own self-righteousness, he felt justified in being angry with his father, even accusing his father of not loving him enough. He was a legalist, just like many today who measure their worth to God, and therefore what He ‘owes’ them, by their own good deeds.

Listen, the flip side is true as well. Many Christians fear God’s disapproval because they constantly weigh whether they do enough, whether they love enough, whether they serve enough. That’s prodigal thinking. What brought the prodigal home was not the thought that he really could do better if he tried harder. No. What brought him home was a confidence that his father would take him in, even if only as a hired servant. His confidence was in his father, not in his own works. What a surprise when he was welcomed with a kiss, a ring, shoes, and a robe!

We also can come home every single day with that same expectation and hope, that our Father will take us in, not because of our pitiful ‘good deeds,’ but because of the work completed by His Son.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Add These Qualities to Your Life

If Epaphroditus were around today, he might be in Texas or Florida with cleaning supplies and food to give away. Or maybe in Southeast Asia. Any place where people need help. There are many just like Epaphroditus, some who are reading this column today. He lived in the first century and you can read about him in the book of Philippians. Epaphroditus brought funds from the Philippian church that enabled Paul to survive in a Roman prison, which did not provide food, clothing or medical attention to inmates. I like what Paul said about this man, and suggest these are five qualities we all need. Paul called him a brother, fellow worker, fellow soldier, messenger, and minister.

Brother: this is what we call a man in the church when we don’t remember his name. “Hey, brother, how are you doing?” But Paul uses the word to describe the relationship he had with Epaphroditus. That’s how we are eternally connected to one another, not by skin tone or language or nationality or race, but by blood. The blood of Jesus makes us brothers and sisters. It reminds me, with the racial tension in our nation right now, that I am much more closely related to the African-Americans in our church who are believers than I am to the closest relative I have that does not know Jesus. We are family. Period.

Fellow worker: this is important. Paul was the up front apostle who preached to thousands and planted churches and led the expansion of the gospel in the first century. Epaphroditus was part of the support team. And yet, they were equals.

Fellow soldier: There’s a spiritual battle raging in the world, one that will continue until Jesus returns. The most dangerous place in any battle is right next to the man who doesn’t realize he is in a battle. Or that doesn’t want to be in the battle. Or is not prepared and equipped to fight the battle. That guy can get you killed. This man, Epaphroditus, was no wilting flower. He was battle-tested and willing to risk his life to complete the mission that he had been given.

Messenger: Epaphroditus was entrusted to bring a gift to Paul. It would have been a large amount of money. Then he was entrusted by Paul to take the apostle’s letter back to the Philippians. In the scheme of things, which was worth more? The letter! But in each mission, the messenger was trustworthy.

Minister: this word carries the idea of priestly duties. Epaphroditus was there not just to give a gift to Paul, but to minister to his needs. I heard a man speak on Labor Day about work, and he asked this question: What percentage of what you did yesterday was sacred, and what percentage was secular? Think about that, and answer honestly. Do you think that maybe 20% of what you do in a normal day is sacred? Or even 50 percent? Listen, dear readers. There is no separation for the Christian between the sacred and the secular. Everything we do is sacred. That’s why Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.” Not only that, the truth is that we are each called into the ministry. Each of us is necessary for God’s glory to be realized in His church and to be seen in the world.

Brother (or sister), worker, soldier, messenger and minister. Wouldn’t that look good on your tombstone? Cindy and I joke about what will be on ours one day. I say her tombstone will say, “I just couldn’t get everything done.” I am afraid mine will say, “He was a jerk, but he was our jerk.” But I’m working hard to get “brother, worker, soldier, messenger, and minister” on there. Don’t call the guys at Askew & Peterson Monument just yet.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Choose People Over Tasks

It is one thing to be available to serve in the church or in the community. It is another thing to be compassionate. When Paul referred to a young man he trusted enough to send to the church in Philippi, he said something important about Timothy. Paul wrote, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” An available person is really not useful unless he or she is also genuinely concerned for others. You don’t want someone keeping the nursery that doesn’t like babies, no matter how available she is! You really shouldn’t ask someone to visit the sick that has a track record of grumbling and complaining before, during and after making such visits. What was it about Timothy that made Paul choose him over every other person in the city of Rome?

We know there were people who were not quite as timid as Timothy. He had a reputation for such, and Paul had to light a fire under him at least once by way of encouragement. There were certainly people in the church in Rome who didn’t have health issues, as Timothy did. No doubt there were people in the church in Rome who were older than Timothy, and more experienced. But those things, timidity, ill health, and youth were not limiters. No, the problem, the limiter, was a lack of compassion for others. Those Paul passed over simply did not care enough about other people. Timothy, with all his weaknesses, had one thing going for him. He put the Lord’s interests ahead of his own, and he put people ahead of tasks.

I say with shame that it has been a cause of tears in my marriage on more than one occasion, when I did not show genuine concern and compassion for people. My biggest concern was getting something done, and I allowed no one to get in my way, so that I could complete the task. You all know that there are people who are much more task-oriented than others, and I would admit to being one of them. We “task-driven” folks are continually frustrated by people who don’t get things done as quickly as we do. Or that sometimes don’t complete a task at all. But here’s the thing. These same people we tend to look down on are usually much more relational, and much more likely to stop their “all-important” task and tend to someone’s more important need.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks.... It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked yet straight path.’”

Listen, dear reader. We need each other, but mostly we task-oriented people need to be more like you relational people. There is a balance, and I am not saying that if you are relational, it’s fine if you never complete a task. No, God called us to do good works, the ones He has prepared for us, and it glorifies Him for us to do that and do it well.

The greatest work, however, is to love the Lord, and to love the people that He has placed in our lives. For people who learn to do that well, all the mundane tasks in the world seem silly in comparison.
I hope to be one of those people some day.