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.

Monday, December 4, 2017

We Have Good News to Tell


Cindy and I enjoy reading through books together. At least a few evenings a week, we will curl up with a hot drink in the den and read a chapter or two. The book we are currently enjoying is “The Insanity of God” by Nik Ripken. You really should read this book, if for no other reason than to understand the title. Let me warn you, though. There are stories that will make you laugh out loud, and stories that will make you sob. Out loud. Let me share one of Nik’s lighter stories that took place before he and his wife went overseas for the first time.

They had spent months filling out paperwork and answering questions about their desire to serve as missionaries. Finally Nik and his wife got to answer questions in person. The board asked why they were interested in missions, and Nik’s wife told them about feeling called to missions even as a child. The board was impressed. Then they turned to Nik and asked when he had “received the call.” He said, “I read Matthew 28.” That’s where Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, commanding them to go and make disciples of all nations, of all people groups. The board was not impressed, and they spent an hour explaining how overseas missions is “supposed to work.” They told Nik that it requires first a call to salvation and then a call to ministry and then a call to take the Gospel out into the world and finally a call to go to a specific country. They asked him then what he thought about that, and he wrote in the book that he was young and naïve enough to believe they really wanted to know what he thought. He said, “It appears to me that you have created a ‘call to missions’ that allows people to be disobedient to what Jesus has already commanded all of us to do.”

I love that story because it has so many applications. We Christians sometimes like to hide behind the fog of ‘feeling a call’ as an excuse not to do the plain things the Lord has commanded us to do. “Well, you know, I would have people over to my house for a meal,” someone says, “but I just don’t feel called to do that. It’s not my gift.” You don’t have to read much in the Bible to see that God’s people are commanded to exercise hospitality.

Someone else says, “I don’t go to church very often. It’s just not my thing.” If church is not your thing, you should reconsider whether Jesus is. It makes no sense to say that you love the head while you are indifferent to the body.

Another person says, “Well, I don’t know much about what the Bible says, but I don’t need to; the pastor (Priest? Father? Bishop?) is supposed to read that stuff and tell the rest of us what it means.” That kind of thinking led to the Reformation.

The classic example is when a Christian says, “Tell people about Jesus? What do you take me for, a fanatic? Besides, that’s not my calling. I’m not good at it. Other people can do that, but not me!” Read Matthew 28. In fact, dive in and read the whole Gospel, any of the four, and see what Jesus trained his first disciples to be and to do.

Then, go practice sharing the good news. Tis’ the season, after all, and hearts are more open to hear at this time of year the reason we celebrate Christmas.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Feel Free to Share This Secret




Jason Lehman, at 14 years old, expresses a common problem well in his poem, “Present Tense”.

It was spring, but it was summer I wanted,
the warm days, and the great outdoors.
It was summer, but it was fall I wanted,
the colorful leaves, and the cool, dry air.
It was autumn, but it was winter I wanted,
the beautiful snow, and the joy of the holiday season.
I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted,
the freedom, and the respect.
I was twenty, but it was thirty I wanted,
to be mature, and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was thirty I wanted,
the youth, and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-age that I wanted,
the presence of mind, without limitations.
My life was over,
but I never got what I wanted.

I don’t know the secret to the changing seasons. I don’t know the secret to a long life. I don’t know the secret to keeping a clear complexion, or keeping my hair from turning gray or turning loose. I don’t know the secret to avoiding the flu in the winter. Those would be nice secrets to unlock, and I would be happy to share the answers with you if I stumbled upon them. But can I tell you a secret? This one is huge, and makes long life, hairiness, healthy skin, and flu-freedom seem trivial in comparison. It is particularly appropriate to learn this secret during this season of the year, as we bask in thankfulness for family and as we approach a time of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. OK, here it is:

I am learning the secret of contentment. I am not able to say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” No, I am still learning. But, what Paul said was no glib statement from a man in a chaise lounge on the deck of a cruise ship, sipping a lemonade and reading Grisham. Contentment in any circumstance for the Apostle Paul included having his back laid open with a whip more than once, being stoned and left for dead, being shipwrecked, and sitting in a Roman prison awaiting trial and possible execution. He says, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Whether he had a full belly or not, whether he had just been beaten or just been welcomed to a warm home, Paul was content. It stands to reason that Paul didn’t fret about losing his hair, or his complexion, or even his life! He had found the secret of contentment.

The secret of contentment is that it is found in joyful submission to Christ. It is realized as we grow in our trust that He does all things for our good. We can trust Him when there is plenty, and we can trust Him when there is nothing at all. Whether he was sleeping on the rock floor of a dungeon or in a comfortable bed, Paul’s life was in God’s hands, and he knew it. He kept himself under God, accepting with joy everything God brought his way, instead of putting himself over God by expecting or even demanding a quieter, easier, more prosperous and enjoyable life. Those who do not know Christ have what they have simply from God’s general providence. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the Bible says. Jeremiah Burroughs writes, “But the saints have (what they have) in a special way. The saint says, ‘I have it, and I have a sanctified use of it, too; God goes along with what I have to draw my heart nearer to him, and sanctify my heart to him.’” There it is. The secret of contentment is found in trusting God for each moment of each day, that what He gives is for our good and for His glory.

This is a secret too good to keep to yourself. Pass it on!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Sometimes You Can Sing


It was a blazing hot day in war-torn Somalia in the summer of 1992. Five tons of grain had arrived earlier, and a long line of hungry people was waiting. There was a military presence at the feeding center, to keep order and protect lives. As the line moved slowly and the supply of wheat dwindled and the heat soared past 100 degrees, the hungry crowd began to grow restless. That was when one of the least likely people waiting for food decided she had had enough. An older Somali woman with deep wrinkles received her ration of wheat and then began to lose it. One of the American workers closest to her was affectionately called Bubba by the rest of the team. He was a huge man, an intimidating presence to any who didn’t know him, a gentle teddy bear to all who did. Those who spent time with Bubba were drawn to his gentle heart and his warm smile. He was not just checking off a box called “do random acts of kindness.” He was in Somalia because he loved people and wanted to help relieve suffering, wherever he could.

The old woman unleashed a verbal attack on Bubba, and though he knew she was furious, he couldn’t understand a word she said. Nik Ripken was there and was thankful that Bubba didn’t know the names he was being called. Bubba just towered over the angry woman and smiled at her. This seemed to infuriate her even more. The crowd stopped and stared at the one-sided confrontation, and Nik ran toward the event to see if he could help. He then understood the source of the woman’s anger. She was complaining about the animal feed that was being given to the people for human consumption. She had a point. The sub-standard wheat came from the United Nations contributing members, and it was product that nobody had wanted, and no one could sell. Bubba didn’t know what she was saying, though, so he kept smiling at her.

That’s when she decided to try another method of communication. The woman put down her two bags of wheat, grabbed two fistfuls of dirt and dust and wheat chaff from the ground, and hurled them with all her might into Bubba’s face. The crowd went quiet. The soldiers locked and loaded their weapons. All eyes were fixed on Bubba, who was temporarily blinded by the assault. That’s when the plot turned in a direction no one expected. Bubba wiped the grit and grime out of his eyes, turned to the old woman with a smile, and began to sing.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time, You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

She didn’t understand a word he sang, but she stomped off before the second verse began. The relieved Somali guards walked over and thanked Bubba for easing the tension, and said they didn’t know he was such a singer. “Oh, yeah,” he grinned, “I’m a famous singer. Back home, they call me ‘Elvis!’”

Nik Ripken told this story in his book, “The Insanity of God,” and concluded, “I had observed one of the most impressive demonstrations of Jesus’ love that I have ever seen. A kind, gentle, godly example of humility and humanity had instantly defused a situation so volatile that it could have turned deadly within seconds. Bubba had done that simply by following the seemingly insane teaching of Jesus who had instructed His followers to ‘love your enemies.’ Bubba had met angry hostility with a simple smile, and a very unlikely hymn…In that moment, I learned some good lessons about cross-cultural relationships. What I had mistaken at first for naiveté, I came to see as nothing less than the love of Jesus.”

Sometimes, the best thing to do is sing.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Here’s How You Can Have Peace


Are you a worrier? Do you come from a long line of worriers? Maybe you are one of those moms who has told her kids, “I’m a mom. Moms worry.” Then what would you say to someone who said, “Do not worry about anything?” I know, you would say, “Obviously not a mom.” But let’s be real; it’s not just moms who worry. Everyone worries, and today, anxiety is all the rage. The latest statistics indicate that anxiety is the leading mental health disorder on college campuses, racing towards epidemic status.

What would it be like to put your feet on the floor in the morning and not be anxious? Not only that, but what would it be like to be a person marked by joy? Oh, and for the trifecta, what would it be like to live your life in peace? Impossible, you say? I have good news that a life filled with peace and joy is not a pipe dream, nor should it be all that unusual for those who know Jesus and follow Him. I would direct your attention to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and chapter 4. In verses 4-7, Paul essentially gives us a path to follow that is different from anything the world can offer. First he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Alistair Begg says that this is only possible if we look at joy the same way we look at love. Most of us, Begg says, are more likely to think of joy as a victim of our emotions, rather than a servant of our wills. So we would say, “Rejoice? How can I rejoice in the Lord? Let me show you my doctor’s bills. Let me tell you about my job. Let me show you the suffering in my marriage, my family, my body, my soul. Rejoice? I don’t see how.” It is true, though, that even in deep sorrow, we can choose to rejoice in the Lord, if we make joy a servant of our will. Tony Merida writes, “Would this practice not conquer sins like envy, gossip, arrogance, discontentment, and complaining? These sins grow out of a heart that’s not finding joy in Christ.”

After encouraging us to let our reasonableness be evident to all, Paul says something shocking. “Do not be anxious about anything.” Is Paul kidding here? That’s not even possible, is it? I remember being with a good friend, Rob, in Kenya one time, and I told him my mom was praying for us every day. He looked at me and said, “My mom is worrying for us, every day.” John Piper says, “Anxiety seems to be an intense desire for something, accompanied by a fear of the consequences of not receiving it.” It normally involves something like money or relationships, things or people that we really value. Anxiety happens when we imagine the future in a worst-case scenario and then give in to our fears. A friend told me recently about going through a battery of tests a few years ago, seeing one doctor after another, as they tried to figure out his chest pains, his shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of appetite, and panic attacks. There was absolutely no physical cause they could find. They finally asked him about what was going on in his life, and he told the doctor about the enormous stress he had been under in his job. That was it. He told me, “Mark, I got very close to leaving the work that I had believed I was called to. I had no joy in it anymore.”

In Matthew 6, Jesus says the same phrase three times as he reminds us of how much more the Lord loves us than he does the flowers and the birds, yet he takes care of them. What phrase does he repeat? “Therefore, do not be anxious.” If we ignore this, we live as practical atheists, telling people we believe in God and we trust Him, when we really don’t.

Here’s an idea that comes right from the Lord himself. Instead of being anxious about anything, instead turn that worry into prayer. At the first sign of anxiety, call out to the Lord with your fears and ask for his peace. Bad habits die hard, and the change will not happen overnight. But soon you will be amazed at the level of peace and joy that marks your life.

Others will be amazed, too.

Monday, November 6, 2017

This is Safe Sex

“You pick two topics out of the envelope, choose the one you like the most, and then take it to the hallway outside. You will have two minutes to prepare a one-minute speech.” That’s what I told my college students, and though they groaned a little at the prospect initially, they actually enjoyed it, especially once their turn was done and they could watch and enjoy what the others came up with for their topics. In fact, when the round was over, several wanted to do a second impromptu speech! Then it was my turn. At their insistence, I had told them that they could choose a topic for me, any topic, and I would have to speak for a minute without preparation. One of my classes chose “the migration patterns of the Alaskan moose” for my topic. Well, what can I say? I know absolutely nothing about the creature, except that it is huge. So I went for humor and talked about how important it is to miss a migrating moose with your Miata. It could ruin your whole day, otherwise.

Another class had a ball picking the topic they wanted me to speak about. I could hear them howling with laughter as I waited five minutes in the hallway for the big announcement. Finally I was ushered into the classroom. “Professor Fox,” one of the most energetic students said with a wicked grin, “we want you to speak about safe sex.”

I smiled as I approached the front of the room and stood behind the podium, praying that I would not waste this opportunity to speak to such an important topic. I started by saying, “Sex is a wonderful creation of God. It was his idea, and he gave it as a gift to husbands and wives to increase joy and intimacy in marriage. It deepens the love they have for each other, it builds trust and tenderness, and of course, it can produce life. There is nothing perhaps better, on this side of heaven, than loving sex in marriage. And of course, that is where sex is safe, and the place for which it is created: marriage. When it is used outside of the bounds of marriage, sex can be destructive. It is like a fire. When you have a fire in the fireplace, it is a wonderful thing. It warms the house, and produces ambience and joy. But when the fire is in the living room, on the rug and in the couch, it brings destruction, fear, and great loss.”

I closed by saying that I know these ideas may seem antiquated to them, and impractical, because sex is viewed by most as an entitlement. We have grown much more permissive as a society in our attitudes toward sex, with more than 60 percent of millennials believing sex before marriage is “not wrong at all.” But if we really want to practice sex that is safe, we will be willing to wait until marriage for it.

I know that the world says we Christians have our heads in the sand when it comes to sex. And that we need to be preaching to those who choose to pursue sex outside of marriage that they must do so in a way that prevents disease or pregnancy. I get it. But implicit in that message, and becoming more explicit every day, is the proposition that sex is amoral, that it is simply a bodily function, like sneezing. I don’t apologize for presenting the other side of the argument, appealing to young people who are living in a sex-saturated culture, that there really is a way for sex to be safe. And good.

When I finished my speech, the students gave me a hearty ovation, and some made comments to me as they were leaving. One senior said, “Hey, that was awesome. Great job.”

I left the classroom thankful that I was able to share just 60 seconds of encouragement with young people I have grown to love and care about.