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.

Monday, January 8, 2018

We Are Supposed to Judge

When I played football on our undefeated junior high school team, the coach liked to run us through a drill called the “meat grinder.” He would lay two blocking dummies on the ground about three feet apart. Then he would call out two names. Those two boys would stand on either end of the dummies, about 10 feet from each other. Then he would throw the ball to one of them. On his whistle, the boy with the ball would start running between the blocking dummies, toward the boy without the ball, who would try to tackle him before he got all the way through the dummies. Meat grinder. It was a good name. It many a little 13-year-old shiver with fear, including yours truly. I will never forget the time he called out, “Osborne and Fox.” CD Osborne was 14 years old and had to shave every day. Thomas Jefferson Junior High’s star running back and linebacker, Osborne was big and tough and loved to just run over people. When the coach called our names, I knew then that I was going to die. The coach tossed CD the ball, blew the whistle, and I entered the meat grinder with my arms open and my eyes shut. He hit me like a freight train and kept right on going. Meanwhile, I was lying on the ground, checking body parts. Meat grinder.

That’s what Jesus’ words often feel like when I read them and take an honest look at my own heart. Like a meat grinder. He said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Sometimes when I read that passage, I am right there in the meat grinder again, and like CD Osborne, that text is smashing me flat. “Listen up,” the Lord seems to say, “This one is for you, Mark. You cannot give in to the desire to judge people and to be critical.” His word rolls on, knocking the judge right out of me. The Lord is dealing in this text with those who have a critical spirit, who enjoy finding fault in others, who even mourn others’ successes and cheer their losses. Many people have these tendencies simply because of a deficit in their own souls. Somewhere down the line they have believed the lie that in order to make themselves look bigger in their own eyes, they need to make someone else look smaller. Thus a judge is born.

But let’s not misunderstand this passage. Jesus is not commanding us to set aside our critical thinking and go through life “judging no one or no thing,” simply giving peace a chance, allowing our dogma to get run over by someone’s karma, or any other nonsensical spin you might have heard. This verse is the favorite among those who reject the truth claims of Jesus. Most of the world can quote it, and loves to: “Judge not, lest you be judged!” If they would only read the rest of the passage: Jesus quickly tells a story about helping take a speck out of a brother’s eye after you have removed the plank from your own. Clearly, Jesus is asking us to make judgments, but without hypocrisy. He tells us to know false prophets by the fruit of their lives. He commands us to beware the leaven (dangerous philosophies) of the Pharisees. He tells us to make sure the foundation of our lives is solid rock, because those who reject the truth of Jesus’ teachings are in fact building their lives on shifting sand.

The truth is, we are supposed to judge, being careful that we first deal with our own heart and sin before we try to help someone else with their sin. We are supposed to judge, being careful that every judgment we make is in keeping with the Lord. After all, He is the final word.

And CD, wherever you are, thanks for helping to knock the judge right out of me, at least that day. We probably should get together about once a week.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Lessons Learned This Year

I keep a journal every year and include in it things I learned from reading through the Bible. I also write down life events that made me laugh, or stop and think. I offer some of my favorites from 2017, in hopes that you might enjoy them as well.

God told the people of Israel that they were to keep his commandments in the land they were going over to possess, that they may learn to reverence the Lord, along with their children and grandchildren. I have thought for the eight years that I have been a grandpa that it is a mercy of the Lord to let us old people try again to raise children, since we make such a hash of it the first time. I love reading books to my grandkids when they come over, and talking to them about life. We were babysitting Owen and Liza one night recently. I had just read several Bible stories to them, about Sarah having Isaac, and Rebekah having Jacob and Esau when Owen, who is four, looked up at me and asked, “When are y’all going to have kids?” I panicked for a second as I thought, “Oh, no! We forgot to have kids!” After I stopped laughing, it was fun explaining to Owen that if we had not had children, his daddy wouldn’t be around to marry his mommy so that he and his brothers and sister could be born.

One day in the spring I went to meet with a former student named Leo. He wanted to give me some tea from China, the land of his birth. As I thanked him and we talked, he suddenly said, “I believe in God. I just don’t know him.” We talked about that for a while and I encouraged Leo to start reading his Bible, and that there he would find a way to know God. He said he would and then Leo said, “Would you mind giving me a hug?” I was glad to do that and then I prayed for this young man, that God would meet with him as he reads the Word, and that Leo would learn to trust the Lord. I marveled later about all of this. I had prayed on the way over to meet with Leo about whether I should bring up God or faith to him. God answered as Leo brought them up himself.

While in Moldova this summer, I was reading in 2 Kings about the man called Jehu. I love this guy and look forward to meeting him in heaven, and maybe challenging him to a chariot race. I can identify with this man; the Bible says he “drove furiously.” I also love his zeal for the Lord. He was relentless in his pursuit of God’s will, and the way he dealt with Jezebel is a picture of sin-eradication, not sin-management.

Here’s a verse to ponder, especially in light of the #MeToo avalanche this fall: “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.” The reference is to Uzziah, a king of Israel who served the nation and the Lord for 52 years. “His fame spread, for he was marvelously helped, until he was strong.” When he became great in his own eyes, however, the downward spiral began. Uzziah refused to listen to counsel. He got angry at those who tried to warn him about his sin. The Lord struck Uzziah with leprosy, and the king lived in isolation until his death.

We had the glorious privilege of being with all of our children and grandchildren at the beach for a week this summer. When our daughter and her family left to drive back to Kansas, Cindy cried and grieved over it. I wrote in my journal, “A mom just wants to be with her family. It occurs to me that God has put in all of us a longing for that time when there will be no more goodbyes.”

Amen. Until that day, may the Lord draw you and me closer to Him.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

We Can Learn From Shepherds

This is the time of year when you can walk into the mall, or Barnes and Noble, or just about anywhere and hear songs like, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” playing for your shopping pleasure. A friend of mine said he sometimes wants to shout out, “Hey! Hey, everybody, do you hear that? Do you understand what that song means?” But sadly, there are some places where you won’t hear songs about Jesus. Dave Barry used to write for the Miami Herald, and this is how he started one of his columns around Christmas time: “To avoid offending anybody, the school dropped religion altogether and started singing about the weather. At my son’s school, they now hold the winter program in February and sing increasingly non-memorable songs such as ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and — this is a real song — ‘Suzy Snowflake,’ all of which is pretty funny because we live in Miami. A visitor from another planet would assume that the children belonged to the Church of Meteorology.”

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is not about the weather. The first verse ends with this: “glory to the newborn king.” Question: To whom were the angels heralding this amazing news, the news of a king being born? The shepherds, of course! And where were the shepherds? Another Christmas song tells us: “The first Noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” Why were they lying around in fields? The song, and the Bible, tells us: because they were keeping their sheep.

There were some famous shepherds in the Old Testament, the greatest being David, shepherd-boy turned King of Israel. At the time when Jesus was born, however, shepherds were scorned and despised. Ironically, the first people besides Joseph and Mary to see the Savior with their own eyes, the shepherds, did not have legal standing in those days to give testimony in a courtroom that they had seen the Savior with their own eyes. That didn’t matter to God.

What can we learn from the shepherds? Plenty, but here’s one thing: they obeyed the Good News. The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Notice first that their obedience was corporate, and that’s a great thing. The shepherds went together, encouraging one another to obey the Lord. If you are hanging out with people who make a habit of obeying the Lord, and encouraging you to obey the Lord, you are hanging out with good people. Second, their obedience was immediate. “And they went with haste.” They hurried to obey God. There were lots of reasons to delay: as many sheep as there were, those were each a reason. We are not told what they did with the sheep. Maybe the angels told them that they could leave the sheep in the field and they would be fine. Maybe they found some substitute shepherds who were off that day. Maybe they just looked at the sheep, looked at each other, and called out, “Good luck Fluffies!” as they hurried off. Probably not, they were shepherds, which means they were first and foremost protectors of sheep. But God had spoken to them through a heavenly host, an army of angels. And it was with great joy that they obeyed God with abandon!

There is delight and surprise waiting for those who will make haste and obey God’s command. Third, their obedience was grounded. They said, “Let’s go see this thing which the Lord has made known to us.” They did not hesitate to obey because they had heard the very Word of God. Finally, their obedience was rewarded. “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.” Seeking the Lord will lead to finding the Lord. God always rewards obedience. Always!

May God bless you and yours this Christmas with hearts fully yielded to Him.

Monday, December 18, 2017

This Was the Greatest Gift Of All

Addison Leach used to talk about a father and young son, playing ball together. Dad helps him learn to cup his hands, and hold them together, and gently encourages his son as he tosses him the ball underhanded. All of a sudden, the little boy drops the ball, which rolls down the lawn and into the busy street. Acting impulsively, as three year olds are prone to do, the little boy runs to get it. He is about to step into the street in front of a car when the father races down, using all of his energy and strength, and at the last possible second, grabs his son, and pulls him to safety. That father has actually displayed two kinds of being. First, he has condescended to live on the boy’s level, play ball at the boy’s speed, act as he acts, for the purpose of fellowship with his son. Second, for the purpose of saving his son, he exerts everything he has to pull him out of danger.

That’s the story of the incarnation, when Jesus “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Eternal God condescended to live as a man. Every now and then, we saw the eternal attributes of God displayed in Jesus. Like the time when Jesus was asleep in the boat with His disciples during a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee. He was asleep because he was tired. The disciples awakened Jesus, afraid for their lives. He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and they immediately died down. What is this? Tired yet omnipotent! Here Jesus’ human nature completely hid his mighty power until that omnipotence broke forth with a sovereign Word from the Lord of heaven and earth.

In order to submit to his Father’s will and save sinners like you and me, Jesus had to become a man himself. Years ago my brothers and I used to set out rabbit gums, wooden boxes with a trap door; the animal would smell the bait, enter the box, hit a stick that was connected to the door and the trap would slam shut. Every morning before school I would run down in the woods and check my traps. I caught exactly one rabbit in all those years. They’re just too smart. I caught dozens of possums because, well, they’re not known for their brainery. Why do you think there’s so much free possum meat on the road? Let’s suppose my heart goes out to these poor critters and I decide to act in order to save the possums. I figure the only way to save the whole possum race is to become one. I somehow add to my human essence the essence of possum (you won’t find that fragrance at Belks), and I come in the likeness of a possum. I travel down, way down to possum land, where those critters live. I would probably find most of them waiting by the side of the road, watching for cars to come so they can run out in front of them. And I would go to them and speak possum to them, pleading with them to change their ways. Of course, in keeping with the truth of the Gospel, I would have to offer my life as a perfect sacrifice for them.

Look, even if I could become a possum, I wouldn’t want to. But listen, friends. However great the distance from manhood to possumhood might be, it cannot compare to God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came to die so that you and I might live. There is no greater Christmas present than that.

Have you received that gift yet?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Joseph Was a Thoughtful Man

Joseph decided to quietly divorce Mary when he found out she was carrying a baby that was not his. That alone puts in him a league virtually by himself, as he wanted to protect, rather than expose, the woman who had seemed to betray him. Then he did the unthinkable. He thought about what he was about to do. What would have happened to Mary had she been betrothed to an impulsive man? An angry man? A man who shoots first and asks questions later? A man who can always be counted on to blow up at the least provocation so that everyone around him walks on eggshells? God chose the man who would be the father to Jesus on the earth, and He chose Joseph. Here’s a lesson learned from this man’s character: thought should always precede action.

It was while Joseph thought about the events that were unfolding around him that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. His thoughtfulness reveals a wisdom that Joseph had even as a young man. Someone said wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk. Perhaps we could say that wisdom is also the reward you get for developing the habit of waiting when you are not sure what to do.

The fact that Joseph got the answer in a dream tells me something else. Joseph did not make an impulsive decision about his betrothal to Mary. He slept on it, first. How many decisions have we made in the heat of the moment that had we just waited 24 hours would have saved us untold misery? I heard about a zoo in Friedberg, Germany that decided, (ready for this?) that they are no longer going to allow children to swim with crocodiles. Good call, folks! It seems that at birthday parties, the children could feed, touch, and even swim with crocodiles, as long as they were with an experienced guide. Wow. Some decisions you don’t need to sleep on, and that one falls into the “What took you so long?” category.

Maybe none of us are going to swim with crocodiles. We are much more likely to take other risks, like racking up large amounts of debt on our credit cards. Last year the average American family spent nearly $1,000 on Christmas presents, which doesn’t include what they spent on decorations, food, and trips to see grandma’s house. Most Christmas spending is put on a credit card. If you make the minimum payment on the card, it will take more than five years to pay off the debt for one Christmas, and you will end up paying an additional $500 in interest. Hey, probably the best thing we all could do for our financial health would be to pay cash for presents this year.

Joseph was a thoughtful man who listened to and followed God. God spoke to Joseph about staying in the betrothal and not running away from what would have been a scandal to the community. That is what love looks like: to suffer humiliation quietly for the Lord’s name. Then, God spoke to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take the child and His mother to Egypt, to protect them from Herod. Here’s another definition of love: to put myself in an uncomfortable place for the sake of Christ. Finally, God spoke to Joseph when Herod was dead to say it was safe to go back to Israel.

I can hear you say, “Well, hey, if an angel of the Lord appears to me in a dream and tells me what to do, I will gladly do it!” But that would be missing the point. The point is that in each case, Joseph heard from God. We can do that without angels and without dreams, can’t we? Joseph put himself in position to hear from God by being a thoughtful and just man, and by obeying what God said. We can do the same thing by being daily in the Word, weekly in fellowship with the church, and moment-by-moment being dependent on the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance.