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.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Hold Fast to Something Secure

My kids love to tell the story of the time when two of them were out in the ocean during our family vacation and got caught in a rip tide. Let me say quickly that these were not 6 year olds. They were teenagers who knew how to swim, and who knew that when the tide is pushing you out to sea, you either float for a few minutes, or you swim parallel with the ocean until you can make your way into shore. They said they were doing all of those things but it wasn’t working. So, they started yelling for me to come out and help them. This is why they love to tell the story, because they claim that as they were screaming their lungs out, I was happily sitting on the beach, sipping a drink and reading a magazine. Look, I don’t remember that event at all, and therefore I don’t think it happened. But their version was they were struggling for their very existence while their dad was oblivious.

I thought about that last week when I was sitting on the same beach, watching my grandchildren in the water. The tide was rough and they are little, so their father and mother were out there with them, keeping a close eye. Each of the little guys was wearing a swim vest or a floatie. They were also sometimes holding onto a raft or a boogie board. I noticed that even with all of that to keep them afloat, the inevitable happened. A big wave would surprise them, tossing them hard to the surf, sometimes bringing tears along with their scraped knees and elbows.

It reminded me that there is nothing we can hold onto in the ocean, or in all the world, that will protect us from any possibility of harm. I know Bill Withers used to tell me that I could lean on him. He said, “You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand, we all need somebody to lean on.” Now that I’ve put that song in your head, let’s say thanks, Bill, but I need something more substantial to lean on! If we can’t lean on Bill, what can we depend on? Some would say, “I need to look out for number one. After all, when push comes to shove, and every other cliché I can think of, there’s only one person I can count on, and that’s this one: me.” Can I put it to you gently? You are about the last person you should be leaning on and counting on when the roll is called up yonder. Giving yourself a big ‘ol bear hug through life will not prepare you to meet the Lord. Just the opposite. OK, so what else can we hold onto? Well, there’s money. Stuff. Jesus said there’s not enough money or stuff anywhere to secure one sorry soul. He said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” OK, maybe we could hold onto education. Maybe the key is just knowing more, and piling up degrees. Hey, education is a great floatie, and we should all have some, but in the storm that’s coming, it will not hold your head above water. No, the hymn writer has it right: our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. He alone is the Word of Life. Jesus Christ is our only Savior.

And here’s great news: He will hear your cry. He will never ignore your plea for help when the waves are overtaking you.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Don’t indict Christ because of Christians

The heinous actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago with a friend over lunch. He was born into a different faith tradition than mine. I am a Christian, but not because I was born into it. Actually, you cannot be born a Christian, but that’s another column for another day.

Anyway, this friend of mine challenged me with a question that is popular among skeptics. “Millions of people have been killed in the name of religion,” my friend said. “Even Christians have killed many in the name of Christ. How do you explain that?”

“That’s a great question,” I replied, as an idea came to my mind that I had never thought before, and it came with that sweet assurance that I have had many times in such situations. I have come to trust these little bits of inspiration as being from the Lord.

I said, “OK, let’s look at it this way. Suppose you started getting a following because you are a really cool guy and everybody wants to be just like you. (Not that Jesus should be followed because he’s cool, and actually no one can follow him unless he changes them first!) But back to your story: pretty soon, there are people flocking to you, trying to look like you and act like you. The others in the world start calling them ‘Sherifans’ because they follow you, Boris Sherifa (not his real name). You tell them, “There are three simple things I think you should do in life. Wear red.” (He was wearing a red shirt.) “Eat tuna wraps.” (That’s what he was having for lunch). “And be kind to people.” (This guy is as kind and courteous as they come.)

He was smiling at me, enjoying the story and his fictional fame, but wondering where I was going with this.

“OK, so you have this huge following, and everything is great. Until one day, one of the ‘Sherifans’ sees a guy wearing green, eating a chili burger, and cursing his waiter. He follows him out of the restaurant and kills him, thinking he is doing you a favor by eliminating a ‘nonbeliever.’” I stopped and said, “Do you see the point, Boris? If Christians killed Jews or Muslims during the Crusades, thinking they were doing Christ a favor, does that nullify the Christian faith? Certainly they did what was wrong, but does that mean Jesus is no better than they? Does their wrong action make the truth that Jesus taught about himself any less valid? I don’t think so. Does it change the fact that he alone has risen from the dead? Not one iota.

“You cannot judge a system of beliefs by the actions of those who claim to follow those beliefs, but really violate them at their very core. Those who claim to love Jesus but hate their fellow man because of his race, nationality, or anything else, do not really love Jesus. But, listen! The followers of Jesus Christ are not the standard. Christ himself is the standard, and the Bible says that God ‘has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained.’ Jesus is the man. It is his righteousness, not mine or the Pope’s or Billy Graham’s, that is the standard. It is Christ alone we must follow, for he alone can save us.”

At the end of our lunch, “Boris” said he appreciated the way I explained things to him, and that he would be asking “Whoever is out there” to show him the way to go.

“I really want to know,” he said. “Do you think he will show me the truth?”

I believe God will. He loves to answer the prayers of those who are truly seeking after him.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Whatever fills you controls you

Have you ever seen anybody who was filled with rage? The anger that fills them also controls them. I remember as a teenager going on a double date with my cousin. Halfway through the date, I found out the girl I was with had an insanely jealous boyfriend. He was also big, she said. “And,” she added, “he has a nasty temper.” I figured that to be a deadly combination, so I filed that information away, reminding myself to avoid this boyfriend of hers at all costs. We were driving home later that night when all of a sudden my cousin said, “Uh-oh.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked, thinking maybe we were running out of gas. “Don’t look now,” he said, “but Marty is right on our tail.” I looked anyway and saw a car about two inches from our bumper, and we were doing 60 on the interstate.

“Who’s Marty?” I asked. “Uh…that’s my boyfriend,” my date answered.

Now, up until this point I had only done one thing I regretted, and that was to go out with this girl in the first place. But now I became a willing participant in a series of stupid mistakes. May I say to any teens who happen to be reading this: “Don’t try this at home…or on the interstate.” My cousin floored the car, a 1972 Camaro Z28, and we took off like a rocket. We were going over 90 mph with Marty right on our tail, and it is only by the grace of God, gentle readers, that I am here to tell the story. We finally reached our exit, careened onto the ramp, and headed for my cousin’s house. Marty was only seconds behind us. My cousin realized we weren’t going to outrun him, so he said something like, “Good luck, Mark!” I was shaking with adrenaline and fear, and could hear the words “big…nasty temper…insanely jealous” reverberating in my skull. My legs felt like Jello and my mouth was dry as dust.

About that time my cousin slammed on the brakes in his carport, and I managed to fall out of the car to face my attacker, who was jumping out of his car as it slid to a stop in the driveway.

Now you have to realize that at this time in my life, I had not yet had my growth spurt. In fact, I still haven’t had it, but I was a skinny 16-year-old then, only about 5’ 8” and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. As I recall it, Marty seemed to tower over me by at least a foot. But what I remember most of all was the purple rage that consumed him. He was so filled with wrath that he had no control of his body. He couldn’t swing his fists because the anger controlled them. He couldn’t speak, but sputtered and fumed, because anger had his tongue. As he stumbled toward me I bent over, and he pounded me on my back. The blows were nothing, dissipated by the rage that controlled him.

I saw something that day I will never forget. Whatever fills you controls you, whether it is wine, anger, lust or greed. That’s why the Bible says, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man. Lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” Or, I might add, lest he rearrange your face.

I am so thankful the Lord spared my life that day, and gave me a picture of what anger can do to a man’s soul.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Work out, not for, your own salvation

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This command in Paul’s letter to the Philippians has caused many to stumble, to make an argument for works-righteousness, and even to believe that what Jesus did was not enough. That he needs my help to save me. We know that’s nonsense, and the plain meaning of this text makes perfect sense. Paul says work out your salvation. He doesn’t say work in your salvation. Or work up your salvation. Or work for your salvation! No, we are to work it out. In other words, what God has secured in you through His grace given on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, work it out in every way and on every day. It’s what we do in our marriages, right? Were you done when you said, “I do”? No, you were just getting started. And for the rest of your life, you are working out your marriage in fear. And sometimes with trembling!

If you are working out your salvation as a father, it means you are learning to bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. You cannot learn that without starting to do it badly. But you have to start. When my children were very young, they each had trouble learning to ride a bike. They fell. They scraped their knees. They cried. But they kept getting back on the bike until it became second nature to them. Get back on the bike, Dad, and lead your family in the things that are most important. If you are working out your salvation as a student, it means you study. You work hard. If you are working out your salvation as a brother or sister in Christ in your church family, it means that when you are offended, you don’t hold onto that. You let it go quickly, and if you can’t let it go, you go to the one who offended you and you work it out. And yes, it will require work, sacrifice, and discipline. Tim Challies had a good word on this recently:

“I want to have 10 percent body fat. I set that goal a while ago and even managed to get really close to reaching it. But eventually I found out that I want to have 10 percent body fat just a bit less than I want to have 13 percent. There’s a key difference between the two: While 13 percent requires moderate effort to gain and retain, 10 percent requires strict discipline. I soon learned I just didn’t want the goal enough to put in the effort to achieve it. I didn’t meet my desire with discipline.” Then he adds, “I often consider the people I’ve known who set an example of unusual godliness. I think of well-known Christian men who lived godly lives in the public eye and who carried out unblemished ministries. I think of unknown and unnoticed women who lived equally godly lives far outside the public eye. What did they have in common? What was the key to their holiness? I believe it was their discipline. They disciplined themselves for the highest godliness. They were spiritual athletes who ensured their highest desires supplanted their baser desires. They achieved godliness because they aimed at godliness.”

We all have work to do if we are to aim at God’s best for us. Thankfully, we are never alone. Paul adds, “for it is God who works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is the gift that keeps on giving.