Monday, February 19, 2018

Don’t Trust Yourself with This

We got a call from one of our sons this week, just wanting to check in and tell us how things are going for him in college. He is a senior, majoring in theater, and having the time of his life. He is getting ready to go with the theater students to France and Belgium during spring break, where they will present three different plays. Some will be done on the street, and at least one is for people connected with NATO. Part of the preparation for the students includes working on their testimonies: how they came to meet Christ and what He is doing in their lives. My son shared openly in his testimony about some struggles he had several years ago with internet pornography, and how he had finally gotten the courage to confess it to me. We talked and prayed together that night, and then I helped him set up a system of accountability through an internet program called “Covenant Eyes.”

A couple of days after my son shared this testimony with the other theater students, a young man called him to see if they could get together for lunch. They did, had a great time, and at the very end of their time together, the student told my son that he was looking at internet porn every day, and wanted to be free. “Your testimony gave me hope that I can get out of this, but I don’t know what to do,” he said. My son asked him about his relationship with his father, and encouraged him to call him and tell him what was going on. “Do it now,” he said. The young man did, right there in the dining hall, and his father, a pastor who lived about an hour away, left everything and drove to campus. They met and talked, and prayed together, and the father gave his son the encouragement and help he needed at that moment. I know it could have gone badly, and often does. The father could have scolded his son, told him how disappointed he was, shamed him, and made him regret that he had ever asked for help. He didn’t, thank God. We fathers need to learn to give grace to our children when they fail, just as we have been given grace in our struggles and defeats. Mostly, our sons especially need to know that they do not have to fight this battle of the flesh alone, and that we will help them.

When I was in Moldova in January, and my oldest son and I were teaching men about how to lead their families, we talked about this issue of porn. I said in every meeting, “Internet pornography is the fastest growing addiction in the world. And though I am 60 years old, I do not trust my own heart. That is why every Monday morning, one of the elders in the church gets an email from Covenant Eyes. I have it installed on each of my devices, and it monitors my internet usage. If I were to go to a site that I shouldn’t, he would get that report the following Monday. I do this for accountability. I do this because I love my wife and want to be faithful to her in every way, including with my eyes and my heart. I do this because I love my family, and I do not want to damage them through moral failure. I do this because I love the church, and I do not want to bring shame to the Gospel, and harm to the people I shepherd every week. They say it takes a lifetime to build your character, and only five minutes to destroy it. Mostly, I do this because I love the Lord, and do not want to dishonor the one who bought me with his own blood.”

I am proud of my son, and the way God used him to connect a father and son and bring help where it was desperately needed. I was reminded again of how dangerous this particular addiction is, and how deceptively enticing. So, I say to myself, and to anyone reading this column: don’t trust yourself with this.

You absolutely cannot handle it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

This is God’s Plan for Social Justice

Is God concerned about social justice? You can count on it. He rebuked people in the book of Amos who “turn justice to wormwood,” who “abhor him who speaks the truth,” who “trample on the poor,” who “afflict the righteous,” and who “take a bribe.” God tells his people that judgment is coming, and calls on them to seek the Lord and turn from evil, that justice may be established in the land. Or, as Martin Luther King famously quoted the prophet, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Whom did God raise up to speak this truth to power in Israel more than 700 years before Christ? A simple man of labor named Amos. We know very little about him. Amos tells us in the very beginning of his book that he was “among the shepherds of Tekoa.” This was a village of no reputation, about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. Amos was just one of the shepherds in an insignificant little town. Nothing special. We know from later in the book that he was also a “dresser of sycamore figs.” Amos was a simple man who worked with his hands. If he had a business card, it just said, “Shepherd.” His number was 549-BAAA. He wasn’t invited to speak at conferences. He was not a board member for an important corporation. He did not hobnob with the rich and powerful. He didn’t have any honorary degrees from the “best universities.” He was Amos, the shepherd. Jeff Niehas writes, “It is significant that Amos chose to remain largely faceless, because this attitude reflects what should be the true spirit of a prophet, epitomized by the last of the prophets of the old covenant, who said, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

Here’s the thing. He who was insignificant to men was significant to God. The same is true for each of us. Later in the book, a priest in the northern kingdom tells Amos, get out of town, go back home, and take your message from God with you! I love Amos’ response. He basically says to the priest, “The Lord took me. The Lord sent me. The Lord told me what to say.” Then the little shepherd turns to Amaziah the priest and says, “Now therefore, hear the word of the Lord.”

Don’t give in to those who would intimidate you into silence. Serve God where you are. He may call you to leave the sheep and go speak truth to power. But most likely, he will simply say, “Tell the truth about God right where you work, and where you live.” God is not a respecter of persons. He uses all of his own who are willing to be used, all who are yielded to him. Are you a schoolteacher? Teach with the authority that God gives you. Are you a truck driver? Drive with the certainty of God’s calling on your life, reaching people that the teacher and the preacher may never even see. Are you a judge? Judge righteously, as one who is called by God to do so in every case. Are you a businessman or woman? A homemaker? A student? Serve God where you are. It is the power of God in your life that makes whatever you do make a difference in the Kingdom of God.

That is how justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. That is how families and cities and nations are reformed, and the oppressed are set free, and the weak are welcomed and cared for, and the lost are found. It happens when the people of God live and love as we are directed to do so by the Lord.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Meet Me at the Sauna

I know some guys who get together once a week to play golf. Or to watch sports on TV. I know some guys, myself included, who meet with other men once a week for coffee and conversation, in an effort to help each other grow in the Lord and be faithful to our wives and families. Until two weeks ago, I didn’t know there were guys who met at the sauna every week. If you go to Moldova, a little country in eastern Europe, you can find these guys. You may even be fortunate enough, as my oldest son and I were, to be invited to join them. It will be for you as it was for us, one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life. It would have been even more unforgettable had the men experienced sauna like they normally do, without clothing. I thank God that they chose instead to wear at least a speedo, for our sake. As Micah said to me later, “Dad, there’s some things you just can’t un-see.”

Words cannot describe the experience; you have to be there. We baked in the dry sauna, in temperatures that continued to climb through the evening until they maxed out at 110 Celsius. Do the conversion. After 15 minutes in the oven — my mind flooded with praise to God that I will never experience hell — we leaped into a pool where the water temperature was 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I asked the men before I jumped if my heart would survive the shock, and they all shrugged and said, “Probably.”

We went from sauna to pool over and over, and then we sat in a room and sipped bitter tea. “This will cleanse your liver,” they told us as we made a face with the first sip. I told them I felt like my liver was pretty clean, and they offered another tea I could drink if I didn’t want the bitter libation. “This is women’s tea,” they said, and smiled as they pointed to a much milder drink. I screwed up my courage and proceeded to cleanse my vital organs, helped by a teaspoon of honey with each sip.

The three hours of male bonding ended with the most muscular of the men taking turns beating each of us with an oak branch. I am not making this up. The branch had been soaked in a bucket over night, so the leaves were hydrated. He methodically struck us on our chest, back, legs, and the bottoms of our feet. The idea, they said, is that the moisture and the heat is pressed into the deep tissue and even into your organs by the hot, wet branch. Umm, OK, I’ll have to take their word for it. I just know that my whole body was on fire for that final plunge into the pool, a leap that I had grown to look forward to.

Lest you think we lounged around in our bathing suits all week, let me explain. Antioch Community Church sent us to Moldova to meet with men, and to teach them how to be spiritual leaders in their homes, and how to love their wives and children. Everywhere we went, we met men who were hungry to hear what the Bible says about this. We spoke in one village where the power had been out for two days, and it was 45 degrees in the church building. Sixty men sat in their winter coats and gloves and listened for two hours, and then stayed longer to ask questions and to fellowship together. They thanked us and asked us to come back and teach them more. Micah and I were humbled by the response everywhere we taught. We heard older men say, “We wish we had heard this 30 years ago.” We heard younger men say, “We have not been leading and loving our families the way we should; may God help us to change.”

We came back with encouraged spirits, full hearts, and tired bodies. I probably need to go to the sauna. Meet me there; I’ll bring the oak branch.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Simplest Truths Are Most Profound

I remember many years ago hearing one of my relatives talk about an associate pastor at his church in another city who was getting ready to leave and take a church somewhere else. “He’s the smartest man I have ever heard, when it comes to the Bible,” the man 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 truth 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 awful and 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 so 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 here parts, anyway. But she might have said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Or, if she was from my neck of the woods she might have said, “Boy, git yourself warshd on the outside, and maybe yur hart will be purdy, too.” 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, January 22, 2018

Everything You’ve Heard About Hospice is True

As a pastor, I have been at the bedside of the dying on multiple occasions. And I have heard from many over the years how much they appreciate the work that Hospice does to bring comfort and care in a person’s final days and hours. So, I have always known that to be true, based on others’ testimony. Now I know it is true from personal experience. My younger brother died recently at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home in Winston-Salem, the city where our mom lives. Eric lived most of his life in Myrtle Beach, and when it was clear that his days were nearly gone, the only desire my mother had was to be by his side until the end. I will always be grateful that the good folks at Reynolds made that possible.

From the moment Eric arrived, until his last breath one week later, he was loved and cared for by the staff at Hospice. The morning after Eric was transported in an ice storm from South Carolina, we got a visit from the chaplain, Rennie Adcock. I don’t know if it is a requirement for hospice chaplains to be able to sing, but this one sure can. Rennie came in and greeted my mom, my wife, and me, and then turned his full attention to Eric. Though Eric could not open his eyes to acknowledge this man, I know he heard as Rennie sang “In the Garden” in a beautiful tenor voice. The chorus goes, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” I had to wipe away a tear or two as this dear man lifted his head and sang so sweetly of the care Jesus has for his children. Rennie then prayed for Eric, and as he left, he told us that if we needed anything at all, he would be there for us.

The nurses who came in around the clock to check on Eric, to give him medicine, to keep him clean and comfortable, treated my brother as though he were the only patient in the place. They loved him to the end, though he was a stranger to them.

But nobody loved Eric like Mom did. Mom spent nearly every night by his side, sleeping in the roll-away bed that they set up for her in the room. When I came in to take her place on the day before Eric died, I found her sitting by his side, her head in her hands, her elbows propped on the bed. She was praying for her youngest, as she had his whole life. But she was also grieving that for the second time, one of her three sons was about to leave.

I spent that last night with Eric, not knowing he would die the next morning. He was laboring to breathe, and the nurses were doing whatever they could to comfort him. Though Eric couldn’t respond anymore, I prayed for him to be ready to move from this world to the next. I rubbed his head and held his hand, and told him that I loved him. When it was time for the UNC basketball game, I turned on the TV. “Hey, Eric,” I said. “The Tar Heels are playing! You don’t want to miss it.” If he had been able, he wouldn’t have missed it. He was a Fox, and the Foxes love Carolina basketball.

I left the next morning at 6:30 in order to beat the work traffic and get back to Burlington for a class. I told my students that my brother could die at any time, and that’s why I had to have my cell phone with me. Ten minutes after I said that, the call came. The nurse I had given my number to that morning told me, with tears, that Eric had just died.

To all the staff at Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home: thank you for the way you loved my brother. Jesus is glorified in the care you give to the dying and to their families.

Monday, January 15, 2018

He is the Seeker, We Are the Lost

When our daughter Hannah was 18 months old or so, she wandered off down the beach one day. I had heard horror stories about children wandering off like that and being abducted, or walking into the water and being pulled under by the current. We heard about a family who arrived at the beach for their vacation. The beach house had an in-ground pool and as they were unpacking the car, their toddler found it, fell in and drowned. Their car engine was still warm and they were dealing with the tragic loss of a child. So, with that weighing on our minds, Cindy and I did not look at each other and say, “Aw, she’ll come back. Let’s give her 15 minutes and see what happens.” I didn’t say, “Look, I will go looking for Hannah in a minute, but I am right at the good part of this book I am reading, and I can’t put it down.” Nor did I say, “Hey, you go look for her if you want, but I am tired. I have worked hard and have looked forward to this vacation for months; the last thing I want to do is to go sprinting down the beach when the waves are splashing, the gentle breezes are blowing, and the beach chair is calling.”

No, I didn’t say any of that. In fact we didn’t speak at all; we looked at each other like people who have lived and loved together for a long time and took off in opposite directions down the beach.

As I was walking and half-running, I did not stop to look at shells. I don’t perfectly remember the occasion, since it was more than 27 years ago, but I am quite certain that had I even seen a perfect shark’s tooth lying in full view, I would not have taken the second away from my search to pick it up. I also did not look out at the porpoises playing in the water or the college kids playing Frisbee or volleyball on the beach. As much as I love to just walk lazily down the beach and feel the sand in my toes, I did not think about that at all. I had one thing on my mind. I was consumed by it. My daughter was gone and I had to find her.

The single-mindedness of my search was in direct proportion to the value I placed in that for which I was searching. That’s why I really don’t believe that anyone who is half-heartedly “seeking” is going to find anything. The one who has been set upon a quest to find the truth will be focused, intentional, and doggedly determined to find it. He will not be sidetracked and he will not give up until his journey leads to a relationship with the Lord. God said it himself: “And you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.”

When our daughter wandered off down the beach, she never found what she was looking for. She didn’t even know what it was. Hannah also had no idea about the dangers all around her as she wandered aimlessly. She was found and brought back home by parents who loved her and went looking for her. If you are seeking truth with all your heart, you will find it. Rather, he will find you. Jesus Christ said, I have “come to seek and to save that which was lost.” When it comes right down to it, he is the seeker. We are the lost.