Monday, July 16, 2018

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Runners and Drivers

Milton Berle used to say, “My doctor told me that jogging could add years to my life. I think he was right. I feel ten years older already.”

Many of you would agree with the late comedian. You are the same ones who respond when I talk about going for a run: “Was someone chasing you?”

The truth is, yes. I am being chased by an old man, by my geriatric future self who can’t walk to the mailbox without oxygen. I am being chased by the image of me, ten years from now, tired and out of shape, unable to take a walk with my grandsons, much less go for a run with them. I am being chased by obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Edward Stanley said, “Those who think they don’t have time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Do I like to run? The answer to that question really doesn’t matter; the bottom line is that I need to run. I need to “discipline my body and bring it into subjection,” as Paul said. He also said, “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” There are three ways physical exercise profits. First, it helps me feel better and have more energy for the work God has called me to do for the days I have left. Second, it is one way I provide for my family. Think about it. If you die early because you were not a good steward of your physical health, are you being the best possible provider and protector for your family? Third, I run because discipline begets discipline. In other words, if I get self-indulgent with my physical appetites, I get lazy with my spiritual disciplines as well. Anybody who runs will understand this: the battle is not with your body but with your mind. Discipline your mind in physical exercise and you are strengthening your mind to follow the Lord and obey His commands as well.

And to answer the question, yes, I love to run. I didn’t at first, but the more you run, I promise, the more you will grow to love it.

General George S. Patton, U.S. Army General in World War II and Olympian (pentathlon) in 1912, said, “Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

I run in town, and I run on the rural roads around my house. I always face the traffic, as runners should do. Here is what kills me, and thankfully, it hasn’t yet: drivers who seem to be playing chicken, seeing how close they can get without hitting me. Most of the time, there is no one coming in the other direction, so there is no reason why the driver barreling down on me could not move over into the other lane. I am hugging the white line, or moving onto the shoulder if there is one, but they pass by within a foot of me anyway. I always wonder why anyone would take such a risk: a sudden sneeze or a spasm or a bee in the car could mean death for one or both of us.

Go for a run or a walk this morning after you finish reading the paper. It will be good for you. And if you drive past me while I am running sometime, please wave as you motor by … in the other lane.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Broken by Forgiveness

When Stakwell Yurenimo, a Samburu in northern Kenya, did well on his 8th grade exams, the Kenyan government informed him that he had qualified to go to a high school that they would choose. They also chose his roommate, a young man named Paul, who was a member of the enemy tribe, the Turkana. Stakwell determined in his mind that there was no way he would room with a Turkana. In fact, part of his culture demanded that in order to be respected as a man, he needed to kill a Turkana.

Stakwell poured water on Paul’s bed every night so that his roommate was forced to sleep somewhere else. Paul did not react in anger, but slept on the ground without complaint. This went on for several months. Meanwhile, there was friction on the soccer field as well. Stakwell was an excellent midfielder. Paul was the team’s star forward, a striker with considerable skill. But the team kept losing because Stakwell would not pass the ball to his roommate. The coach finally confronted Stakwell, who told the coach that there was nothing he could do. “You will just have to put one of us on another team,” he said.

That’s what the coach did, and the first time the two teams played each other, Stakwell threw himself into Paul, trying his best to kill him. He broke Paul’s leg and knocked out several teeth. Because it was an intentional penalty, Stakwell was expelled from school, and sent home a hero to his fellow Samburu tribesmen for injuring a hated Turkana. He did not care about being expelled, but then the school told Stakwell that he would have to repay Paul for all of his medical expenses. Stakwell, a Samburu shepherd, faced an insurmountable debt. That’s when his life changed.

Paul came to Stakwell offering forgiveness. He did not want to be paid back. Paul explained that he did not retaliate all the time his roommate was persecuting him, “not because I am weak, but because I am a Christian. When you were pouring water on my bed and forcing me to sleep on the ground, I was praying for you.” Stakwell’s heart was broken by this demonstration of the Gospel. He became a Christian, and after finishing high school and attending Bible School, he began working to bring reconciliation between the two warring tribes, the Samburu and the Turkana.

With the help of New Directions International (now, Feed the Hunger), Stakwell opened a Sports Camp in the Kurungu, Kenya region. He brings hundreds of young people together three times a year for friendly competition. More than a dozen tribes are represented at the camps, and the ministry is changing the climate of the region. Stakwell told the team from Antioch Church that visited several years ago, “There has not been one killing in the past two years between the Samburu and the Turkana.” There is even a Turkana village now in the Samburu region, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

Being at the camp with Stakwell and his family (including seven children they rescued from abandonment) gave our mission team a picture in living color of what is only possible through the power of the Gospel. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Stakwell Yurenimo, the Samburu warrior once committed to destroy the Turkana, was broken by the forgiveness shown to him by a Turkana follower of Jesus Christ. Now he lives to help others find that forgiveness as well.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Upside-Down Power of Weakness

I got some good advice from a spiritual mentor years ago, right after I became a pastor. JL Williams told me that he knew of several men who started the same way I did. These men believed the Gospel, and were determined to faithfully preach it. “But,” JL said, “now, ten years later, or 20 years later, they are presiding over a congregation that is not a church, and making converts who aren’t Christians. They have given up preaching the Word and replaced it with preaching what people want to hear. Don’t do that, Mark. Don’t ever do that.”

The man who told me that was faithful to preach the truth until the day he was called home, and by God’s grace, I will do the same. The question is, why do so many drift? Why would anyone replace the Gospel message, which the Bible tells us is “the power of God for salvation,” with a message that cannot save? Why would someone choose to tell people what they want to hear, instead of what they need to hear?

Part of the answer is clearly explained in the Bible. Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” Christ crucified. That is the message of the Gospel.

Alistair Begg says the drift happens because the preacher himself begins to doubt the message of the cross. Think of it. A Galilean carpenter, claiming to be the incarnate Son of God, nailed to a Roman cross, who died to take away your sins and mine? “That’s just too much,” some preachers say. “I can’t believe it.” Begg says the preacher wants to have intelligent people in his church, and he believes that no intelligent person would believe that stuff. “So in order to keep the intelligent, he lets go of the apparently foolish, and fills his church with a bunch of foolish people who are apparently intelligent.”

The message of salvation reveals the upside-down power of weakness. The Savior did not ride into Jerusalem on a horse, followed by an army, to overtake the Romans and bring political freedom to the Jews. He was beaten with a cat-o-nine tails, forced to wear a crown of thorns, stripped of his clothing and nailed to a tree outside of town, in order to bring forgiveness and eternal life and spiritual freedom now to all who will believe in Him. Stephen Um writes that at the cross, “The ultimately powerful one becomes the ultimately weak one. The ultimately wise one condescended to our level. By this great wisdom and power he has rewritten the storyline.”

The message of the cross, when believed, should produce great boasting in the believer. That’s what the Bible says. Christians should boast more than anybody else. In fact, I challenged the congregation last Sunday to try and become the biggest boasters in the tri-county area. Or, hey, if you aim at the stars, you might hit the moon, right? So, make it your goal, I told them, to become the biggest boasters in the whole state. Oh, one more thing I told them that is important. When we come to the cross, we can no longer boast about ourselves. But as Paul said, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” And as God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Let the boasting begin. At the cross.

Monday, June 18, 2018

There’s a Way Out of the Pit

Charlie was walking through the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya when his worst nightmare happened. He lost his footing and fell into the side ditch, which was filled with raw sewage. Charlie managed to spare the Bible he was carrying by holding it over his head, but the rest of him was covered. When he got back to the room where we were staying, I smelled him before I saw him. The pit he had been in, even for an instant, messed him up.

Prisons of old were sometimes just pits filled with muck and mud. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into one, and would have died there had men not come and rescued him.

We have all been in a pit, and will most likely be in one again. Maybe our pit is not filled with mud or muck or raw sewage, but pits come in all sizes and shapes and substances. Fear or anxiety can become a pit. So can greed. Gluttony. Even self-righteousness, with proud hearts praying, “Thank God that I am not like other men.”

The real danger in being in a pit is that you can become numb to it and get to where you don’t care anymore that you are there. The people living in Jerusalem after the Babylonians had leveled the city were living in that condition. It took someone from the outside, Nehemiah, coming in and seeing the rubble, the walls broken down and the gates burned with fire to say, “Hey, you cannot live like this!” The people had grown numb to the pit.

Cold can become a pit that demoralizes men. It happened in Germany in the winter of 1944, as some of our soldiers lost heart and gave up hope in the bitter and brutal cold.

There are all kinds of pits. Tony Evans, a pastor in Dallas, said once that a few folks came to him and said, “You got some people we don’t care for coming to the church right now and we want you to know that if things don’t change, we’re out of here.” Tony said, “Bye!” Then he added, “If you stay around, I can help you deal with your heart problem, but to do that, we have to fix your feet right now.” They were convinced the pit of prejudice was a good place to stay.

Sometimes solving the pit problem starts with correcting where we allow our feet to go. The young man in Proverbs 7 fell into a pit of lust because he followed the adulterous woman to her house, “as an ox goes to the slaughter…he did not know that it would cost him his life.” Fix the feet.

Here’s the bad news. Sin always leads us into a pit, and sin is always going to be part of the story. Here’s the good news. Sin is not the end of the story. God is. He can rescue you and me out of the deepest pit. Corrie ten Boom said, “There is no pit that is so deep that God is not deeper still.”

Warning: You may well be in a pit and not realize it because your heart is dull of feeling and hearing. If Charlie had not thrown his clothes away and showered “Kibera” off of him, he would have eventually gotten used to the smell. Maybe you have gotten used to the stench of the sin-filled pit you are living in. I guarantee you that those around you have not. Ask them.

Mostly, cry out to God. He alone can pull you out of the pit and set your feet upon the solid rock. That’s the only safe place for your feet to be.

Monday, June 11, 2018

There is Correction for These Trajectories

I had the privilege to speak twice at a conference last weekend in Winston-Salem. After one of my talks, which was on “Time Management,” a family came up and introduced themselves to me. They live in Thomasville, and though they appreciated what I shared about managing ourselves and stewarding our time wisely, what they really wanted to talk about was the church. Specifically, their desire to be involved in a church that puts the Gospel first, and doesn’t separate the family at the front door. As I thought about that later, I was reminded of another conference I attended several years ago. There, I heard Al Mohler speak about eight trajectories that have led the church away from the Gospel. Here are four of his eight warnings, and then I would like to add one of my own.

The Therapeutic Trajectory: This rests on the belief that we really need a therapist, not a Savior. Most people would rather claim they have a sickness than admit their problem is sin. Recovery and rehab can “cover” a problem, but sin can only be removed by faith in Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection.

The Pragmatic Trajectory: This is based on the idea that we should do what works in the church, whether it has biblical support or not. Mohler said, “A pragmatic approach can produce crowds that are not churches, and ‘converts’ who are not Christians.”

The Emotional Trajectory: This tendency puts a premium on what makes a person feel better based on personal preferences and experiences instead of on the Scripture and the way God reveals Himself. This leads to much felt-need, topical preaching, trying to scratch where people itch, or where they think they itch, instead of expository preaching that takes us back to the cross, where our real need can be exposed and taken care of.

The Materialist Trajectory: This trajectory is based on the belief that what we can touch and feel is more important than what is immaterial. This is the prosperity “gospel” that preaches that you can and should live your “best life” now.

Those are four of the eight trajectories Al Mohler presented. I would like to add one of my own that I call the Trained Professional Trajectory. This is based on the belief that programs and church staff are best equipped to disciple families. Timothy Paul Jones writes in his book, Perspectives on Family Ministry: “Suppose I called my wife this afternoon and announced, ‘Honey, guess what? Remember how you asked about a date tonight? Well, I hired a professional dater to take you to dinner and a movie. He’s much better at dating than me — plus, since I’ll be home, we won’t need a babysitter. Have a great time!’” How many nights would you be sleeping on the couch if you pulled that stunt?

Some things are just too important, too significant, to surrender to so-called professionals. So, why have we let that happen in our churches, where fathers have in large part been replaced by programs and staff? Church leaders can equip fathers to disciple their families, but leaders should not do it for them or hire a professional to do it for them. That is what has happened at an alarming rate in this country since World War II. Now, Jones writes, you will be hard pressed to find a church’s youth group that has a mission statement that says anything about the fathers of the youth. Jones read more than 100 mission statements on youth ministry websites before he found one that even mentioned the parents’ role, and that was in a sentence fragment.

The Bible has a correction for this trajectory: “And you fathers…bring (your children) up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” If you don’t know how to do that, you are a wise man if you ask for help. Abdication, letting the “professionals” do it, carries a price tag that is much too high for the families of this generation and the ones to come.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Be Watchful, Men

I remember when my second son was little, probably around 5 months old, and I laid him down on a kitchen countertop, just for a second, while I turned and opened the refrigerator door to get something. Hey, don’t look at me like that. I was training my son to obey. I laid him down and said, “Caleb, stay there.” As I reached into the fridge, just for a second, I heard a sickening thud behind me. I turned around in horror to find my son lying on the kitchen floor, startled for a moment, before he burst into a scream. At that precise moment, I heard another sound, a voice coming from the bedroom, saying, “What happened?” What happened was I took my eye off of my responsibilities, just for a second, and it could have been disastrous.

Then there was the time I was 17 years old, driving my father’s Oldsmobile (and it really was my father’s Oldsmobile) in Charlotte. I had gone there with two high school friends to check out the university. I remember it like it was yesterday, driving down Independence Blvd., feeling like I might as well be in New York City, because I had never driven in traffic like that before. It was rush hour, I was nervous, driving with two friends, and not really respecting the seriousness of the moment, when it happened. I turned left at a stoplight, right into oncoming traffic. A city of Charlotte truck hit us broadside and smashed up the Olds, but thankfully we were not hurt.

That wasn’t the worst of it. I ran over to the truck to see if he was OK and the man waved it off. He said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” got out of his truck, assessed the damage to the front end, and got back in. I went back to my car and waited for the police to arrive. As soon as the policeman arrived, the truck driver got out of his car and was limping like he had a compound fracture in his right femur. I told the officer that the man had gotten out of his truck two minutes earlier and walked, not limped, around it, but the officer told me not to worry about it. So, I didn’t.

That wasn’t the worst of it. I had to call my father and tell him that I had a mental lapse while driving, just for a second, and wrecked his car. That wasn’t the worst of it. Six weeks later there was a knock at the door and my father was served with a lawsuit, because of the wreck. I thought I was going to pass out. Again, the whole thing happened because I had taken my eye off of my responsibilities, just for a second.

I can’t tell you how many times in nearly 36 years of marriage I have found my wife crying because I have taken my eye off of my responsibilities, and she has ended up having to carry something or take care of something that I was supposed to do. There is a saying that a woman notices when there is a leak in the roof, but the man doesn’t notice until the roof caves in. That can apply to actual leaks, or it can apply to problems with the finances, child discipline issues, problems with the marriage, and problems with the spiritual environment in the home. That’s why Paul wrote this: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”

This is not a passive word that would describe something like watching television. If that is all that God is requiring of men, then the country is ablaze with his glory. Men everywhere are watching, but not in a biblical sense. In fact, watching television is probably the exact opposite of what this word means. The word is a command to wake up, to refrain from sleep, to engage in what is going on around you. You cannot be on autopilot in your spiritual life and be fulfilling this requirement of the Lord.

Be watchful, men. Engage with your family. Stand firm in a growing faith in God.

And don’t lay your 5-month-old on the kitchen counter. Not even for a second.