Monday, September 26, 2016

A mission to care for the least of these

We are told in Scripture to visit widows and orphans in their time of need. It’s a powerful word in the Bible, to “visit” someone, and is used of the Creator. God didn’t send money or a postcard or even a representative. He came Himself. He visited us in our time of affliction. To visit widows and orphans is to enter their world, to make a difference in their lives, to help them in their time of need. Why widows and orphans? Because they were then, and they continue to be now, the most marginalized, the least cared for, the most vulnerable. The least, the last, the lowest. I love the story in Luke 7 when Jesus was about to enter the town called Nain, but traffic was stopped for a funeral procession. A young man was being carried out for burial, the only son of his widowed mother. Jesus stopped the procession, told the widow not to weep, and then spoke to the dead man: “Young man, I say to you, arise.” He sat up and started talking! But the best part of the story is what happened next: Jesus gave him to his mother. Jesus visited that widow in the time of her affliction, and changed her circumstances. He gave back to her the one she needed, the son who could take care of his mother.

Brant Hansen tells the story of his grandmother whom he said was the quintessential bread-baking, flower-growing, sweet-hearted grandma. She took care of his rude, demanding grandpa for more than a decade, hand and foot, because, Hansen writes, “She knew him as a different man, the man he was, and the man he could be.” After her husband died, Hansen’s widowed grandma eventually moved into a nursing home. One day a nurse handed her a glass of orange juice, and “My grandma,” Hansen wrote, “the sweetest grandma ever, threw it back in her face.” She wasn’t herself anymore. But the nurse got another glass of juice for her, because, that’s what it means to visit widows in their time of need. We don’t care for widows because of what they can do for us. Nor do we adopt orphans, or have children of our own, because of how they will benefit our lives. We do so because each life is precious to God, made in His image, created to know Him, glorify Him, and enjoy Him forever.

Jesus told His disciples that one day the righteous will stand before Him at the judgment, and be welcomed into the kingdom that is being prepared for them. And, they will be told that they fed him when he was hungry, and gave him drink when he was thirsty. And that they welcomed Jesus as a stranger and clothed him when he was naked. And when Jesus was sick or in prison, they visited him. The righteous will look at each other and the Lord in amazement, because they will not remember a time when they fed Him. He fed them often. Or when they gave Him a drink. He gave them living water. Or when He was feeling uneasy as a stranger and they invited Him in. He gave them hope, an eternal home, and a reason to live. And for the life of them, they don’t remember when the Lord was naked or sick or in prison.

And He will say to them, to all of us who know Him as Lord, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

Bridle your tongue, you'll be the better for it

When you go to a doctor or your dentist for a checkup, one of the things he or she does is look at your tongue. That’s because the tongue is a physical barometer for good or bad health. Nice and pink with little bumps everywhere? Sounds just about right. Bright red? May be glossitis. White patches? Could be thrush. Too smooth? Possible vitamin deficiency.

The tongue is also a spiritual barometer for good and bad health. Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” We see it in sports. Games are lost sometimes, not because of the play on the field, but because of the mouth of a coach or player. We see it in politics every day, and no presidential election in my memory has ever been marked on both sides by such a cesspool of vitriol and slander and lying and childish speech. Whoever loses this year’s presidential election can look in the mirror the next day, stick out his or her tongue and say, “You are the reason I lost!” We see it in churches and workplaces and homes, too. Marriages are damaged by careless speech, and people lose jobs or leave churches because of gossip or slander.

The tongue is a fire, James says, and it is set on fire by hell. I know that many of my troubles over the years have started with my mouth. In the ninth grade I challenged a guy named David Briggs to a fight after school because he was going with the girl I liked. The silly thing is that the girl didn’t like me! But then again, what does logic have to do with hormones? Anyway, I got in his face during lunch one day and said, “Me and you, Briggs. After school. In the wrestling room.” I said it with as much bravado as I could muster, as I looked up at David and poked him in the chest. He outweighed me by at least 75 pounds. He was an offensive lineman on the football team, an upperclassman, and a stud. I was a pipsqueak with an attitude. David looked down at me and laughed. Then he shook his head and said, “Are you serious? Fox, it’s not your day to die. Go pick a fight with someone your size.” That made me mad, so I poked him again and said, “See you after school.” Well, news travels fast of an execution. After school David and I stood on the center of the mat, and there were probably 100 kids around us, yelling and laughing and waiting to see the massacre. That’s when it happened. No, I didn’t execute a perfect flying roundhouse and knock David out. Nor did I put him in the sleeper hold that I had learned watching Championship Wrestling with my grandfather. Instead, David walked over, put his arm around my shoulders, and said with a friendly smile, “I’m not going to fight you, Fox.” He started to walk away, and I said, “You're afraid, aren’t you?” He turned and said, “Yes. I’m afraid I would kill you.” Then he walked out as I stood there trying to look tough, trying to look like I had actually won the fight.

Want to know what’s in your heart? Stick out your tongue. Listen to what rolls off it with ease. Then, ask the Lord to help you bridle it by changing your heart.

Your health depends on it, and your loved ones and friends will be forever grateful.

Monday, September 12, 2016

We grow according to our obedience

The late poet Archibald Rutledge told of meeting a man whose dog had just been killed. Heartbroken, the man explained to Rutledge how it happened. Because he worked outdoors, he often took his dog with him. That morning, he left the animal in a clearing and gave him a command to stay and watch his backpack that had his lunch in it, while he went into the forest. His faithful friend understood, for that’s exactly what he did. Then a fire started in the woods, and soon the blaze spread to the spot where the dog had been left. He stayed right where he was, in perfect obedience to his master’s word. With tears, the dog’s owner said, "I always had to be careful what I told him to do, because I knew he would do it." That’s the kind of obedience that Jesus demonstrated to the Father. He went through the fires of suffering and death to accomplish God’s purpose, to win our pardon, pay for our sin and invite us into a relationship with Him. For His glory and for our great good, He also calls us into obedience to the Father’s will, no matter the cost.

In James’ powerfully practical book, he says the key to obedience to God is found in looking intently into the perfect law of liberty, God’s Word, and then doing what it says. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Why then do most of us struggle with this? James said a person who hears the Word and doesn’t do it is like a man who looks in a mirror and walks away, forgetting at once what he looks like. Most scholars believe the man forgets what he looks like not because he has short-term memory loss, but because he chooses to forget. He looks at himself in the mirror and sees the ravages of sin, the scars of lifestyle choices, the marks of laziness or lust, bitterness or gluttony. And he hurries away to the rest of his day, because he doesn’t even want to think of what changes he would have to make if he really took the image in the mirror seriously.

Isn’t that what Sunday morning can become, and has for many? We hear the Word and know that God is speaking to us, but as soon as the last amen is uttered we are out the door and on our way and whatever rumblings we were feeling in our soul during the sermon are gone. I have been in the movie theater, and so have you, where the credits are rolling and no one is moving. Everybody is sitting speechless, powerfully moved by what they have just seen and heard. There’s not a whisper in the place and if there is, it seems unholy. Everyone is stunned by what just happened, and no one wants to leave. That begs the question: when was the last time you responded to the Word like that? When was the last time you heard the message of truth from the Scripture and could not move from your seat until you had dealt with what God was speaking into your soul? Those times are much too rare, friends, but they don’t have to be. They increase at the same rate with which we take the truth of God’s Word for what it is.

Do you ever wonder why some Christians grow to maturity with rocket-like speed, and others seem to plod along in the same place for years? This is a key. We grow up in proportion to our obedience.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Do not deceive yourself!

When Gene Chizik was the Auburn football coach, one of his players told him he wanted to be a doctor. But all Chizik had heard about were the player’s many trips to local watering holes. He called the student in and asked him if he still wanted to be a doctor. He said, “Yes sir.” Chizik replied, “No you don’t. You want to be a drunk. That’s what you’re repeatedly doing.” When Chizik told this story to writer Lee Pace, he referenced a quote by Aristotle: “You are what you repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence becomes not a single act, but a habit.” Chizik said, “This guy said he wanted to be a doctor. But that’s not what he was doing…Your habits tell me who you are.”

Gene Chizik held up a mirror for that student, didn’t he? He showed him what everybody else saw and what the student was deceiving himself into not seeing. Sometimes we just ignore the mirror. I was in a restaurant once and saw a man and his wife engaged in intimate conversation, leaning forward and gazing into each other’s eyes across the table. Hanging off his earlobe was what looked like a dollop of shaving cream. There were two things funny to me about that scenario. First, that he had never seen the dangling cream or maybe he had, but then the phone rang before he could get it off and he forgot about it. And second, that this woman who was gazing adoringly into his eyes wouldn’t tell him he looked ridiculous! We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Gotten dressed in the dark and ended up with a brown sock and a blue sock. Although today maybe that’s a fashion statement and not a faux pas. Or maybe you have walked out of a bathroom all zipped up and dressed in your best, not realizing you’re trailing toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Shaving cream, socks and toilet paper can only lead to a wounded pride. What if we are deceived about whether we are walking in truth? The stakes then are much higher. That’s why the Bible urges us, “Be doers of the Word, not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

Imagine someone who has a chronic illness going to a doctor and being told, “This is an illness I see every day, and there are three things you need to do to slow its progression and move towards a cure. If you don’t do these things, your condition will get worse and you will become debilitated. So, do this: Take this pill every day. Do this exercise for 25 minutes every day. Change your diet in this way.” The patient nods and walks out. Three weeks later a good friend asks the person how he is doing and he says, “Oh, I’m getting worse every day.”

“What?” the friend says. “I thought the doctor told you what to do that would help you improve.” The patient says, “I’m not going to do those things! The pill is hard to swallow and besides, I don’t like some of the side effects. Exercise wears me out, and besides, I just don’t have time to do that every day. Changing my diet is a pain, and besides, I like what I eat. I’ve been eating this way for 20 years.” What would you say to that person if he were your friend? What should you say to yourself if that is you?

Don’t kid yourselves. The truth of God’s Word is not for our information, but for our transformation. It only works if we walk it out.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Lord came to Mohamed

Mohamed-Ibrahim Yatarra was born and raised as a Muslim in Mali, West Africa. The oldest of 14 children, at 5 years old he was sent to school to learn the ways of Islam and to study the Koran. His father was a schoolteacher, and a strict disciplinarian. Mohamed remembers watching his friends playing soccer outside on many afternoons when school was over, while he was kept inside, studying. When he was 14, Mohamed ran away from home and fled to his uncle’s house, in another city. His uncle was a Christian pastor and, surprised to see Mohamed, he welcomed him to join the family for lunch and said, “Before we eat lunch, we will pray.” Mohamed was impressed but shocked by this. He had been taught that Christians never pray and are evil people. But during that week, he heard their prayers and was moved by them. He saw their devotion to Jesus and was drawn to it. He participated in a Vacation Bible School at his uncle’s church and learned many Bible verses and songs about Jesus. The teaching impressed him, but at the end of the week when the invitation was given, he did not go forward. He told himself, “Mohamed, this is not for you.”

When the week was over, his uncle told Mohamed that he needed to go back home. When he returned, his friends came to see him, and the first thing he did was take out the New Testament his uncle had given him and he started reading to them. He was not a Christian, but wanted to explain to them what he had seen and heard. His father was listening and became very angry, and sent him back to the Koranic school, telling him that maybe this time he would learn how to be a good Muslim. “My father was trying to brainwash me,” Mohamed said, “and it worked.” He forgot his sidetrack into the Bible and studied the Koran. Two years later he was sent to high school in the same town where his Christian uncle lived, so he stayed in his house. Once again, he was drawn to Christianity, and found himself torn between the religion of his father and the faith of his uncle.

He read Muslim books and Christian books trying to understand, and would often defend Jesus to his Muslim friends. “I was very confused,” he said in his testimony at Antioch last Sunday, “because I also defended Islam to my Christian friends.” One night, he prayed, “God, I want to know the truth. Is it Islam? Is it Christianity? Maybe there’s another religion, I don’t know. I just want to know the truth.” Immediately he remembered a Bible verse he had learned four years earlier at Vacation Bible School: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy.” That night, the Lord came to Mohamed, and this young man’s faith was settled once and for all.

His father disowned him when he heard of his conversion, but Mohamed continued to visit his father to show him honor. After his marriage, he asked if one of his younger siblings could come and live with him and his new wife, but his father said no. “You will try to make him a Christian.” A year later, his father passed away and since Mohamed was the oldest son, he was given the privilege of raising his younger 13 siblings. Today, all but two of them are following Jesus.

The Lord came to seek and save the lost. In every nation.

Monday, August 22, 2016

He chose me despite my weakness

I remember it like it was yesterday. It is my fourth-grade class with Mrs. Wade and time for recess. Every day, it is the same. When the teacher announces recess, I am at once fearful and elated, filled with dread and excited at the same time. Why? I am excited and elated because I get to go outside and play, one of my passions even to this day. I am fearful and filled with dread because I am one of the smallest boys in the class, and I know that recess means kickball. I know that kickball means that the two biggest boys in the class will announce that they are captains and start choosing their teams. The girls will stand off to the side and giggle as the boys make their selections from among the rest of us young pre-pubescent males who are standing there, trying to look tough and athletic. Not me. I am standing behind a row of taller boys, and occupying my full attention by gazing at my right foot. Anyone who is observing this whole scene would have to write in his notes: “The short, skinny kid, Fox, is staring at his right sneaker like it’s his job. What is going on with him?” What is going on is that I know what will happen. Every single boy on that field will be chosen until there are two left, me and this other little kid named Albert or Edgar, I can’t remember. Then the two self-appointed captains will argue over who gets me and who gets the other kid. The girls on the sideline, in the meantime, are whispering to each other and giggling into their hands. I am dying. The selection process is finally over, and the game begins, and I can relax and go hard after every ball. I always tried to make up with hustle and effort what I lacked in size and skill.

When Jesus came to his hometown to preach there for the first time, he opened the Old Testament to Isaiah and read a passage about the coming Messiah that included this statement: “He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” This is not an economic designation, this word for "poor." Rather, it is a word that points to “those who for any number of reasons were relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people.” Jesus came to proclaim good news to people who knew they were outside of God’s boundaries - all of us are - and who knew they were lost and needed a Savior - all of us do.

I am back on the kickball field, and I expect to be picked last. In terms of size and skill, I am poor, outside the boundaries of those who would be included in the athletic category. And then one of the captains overlooks a whole row of bigger, stronger boys who are smug in their expectation of being picked first. He finds me through the crowd, standing on the back row, looking at my feet, preparing myself to deal with the shame of being picked last or next to last. And he says, “I’ll take Mark.”

Of course, it never happened to me in kickball. I still got picked last. But it did happen to me with the Lord. He saw past all my sinful pride and rebellion and said, “I’ll take Mark.” He preaches the gospel to the poor, to the least likely, to the lowly. He proclaims good news to people like you and me.