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.

Monday, October 30, 2017

That is where we belong

Where do I belong? Where do I fit in? We all want to know the answer to those questions. For some, it is a lifelong pursuit. I remember my high school days with pain, because I really didn’t know where I fit in. In my school there were five groups. At the top of the food chain were the popular kids. Some were athletes or cheerleaders, others were not. But they were the kids everybody else wanted to be like, and to hang out with. I remember a recurring dream where one of the popular guys would see me carrying my tray in the cafeteria at school, and he would call over to me: “Hey, Fox, come join us!” Then I would wake up.

Next in the pecking order were the jocks. You didn’t have to be the quarterback or the starting point guard, but if you were on the football or basketball team, you were cool and got invited to all the parties. Tennis? Umm, not so much. I played tennis in 9th and 10th grade, and we even won a city championship. But tennis didn’t cut it with the jocks.

The third group was the brainiacs, the smart kids. They were the ones who, if they even bothered to show up at the football game, brought their chemistry book with them. But at least they belonged to a group, and I wasn’t in it.

Then there was the group that we called the druggies, the ones who wore Black Sabbath T-shirts and were always smoking cigarettes in the bathroom and talking about their latest party. Those guys scared me.

Finally, we must not forget about the rednecks. These were the good ol’ boys who drove their pickups to school and backed them into a parking space in the gravel lot. They couldn’t wait for lunch break because they would eat their sandwich and Fritos outside, gathered around one of their trucks, “talking boss,” whatever that meant. I, uh, didn’t have a truck, and didn’t have the nerve to back my dad’s 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass into a parking space next to them. So, I didn’t fit in with those guys, either.

That was it, the five groups in my school. Oh, wait, there was one more: “others.” That’s where I hung out: with the rest of the losers. And to be honest, that’s where the majority of the Christians fit in. Still do. We are the “other” guys and girls. We ate together, went to church together, and sometimes prayed together early in the morning before school started. And though we knew where we fit in, sort of, mostly we knew where we didn’t fit. I had Christian friends who would have done anything to break into one of the other groups.

Maybe some of you feel that way, whether you are 17 or 37. You are still trying to figure out where you belong. I have great news! All who come to Christ by faith belong to him. We are accepted in the beloved. We are called by Christ to know him and to help others to know him, too. But our citizenship is in heaven; that’s where we will fully and finally and forever belong. I have thought about having a passport made up that says “Heaven” for my citizenship status, but my impression is that the guys at passport control are not known for their sense of humor.

Who are you? Where, really, is your identity found? That question, at least in our culture, is perhaps more confusing than it has ever been. But the Bible makes it plain. Our identity is not found in our race, or our gender, or our politics, or our education, or our athleticism, or our economic status, or our marital status, or our children, or anything else. Our identity is found in Christ: that is where we belong.

And, you know what? If there’s a football team in heaven, I’m showing up for tryouts with my new and glorified body.

Monday, October 23, 2017

What One Change Would You Make?

You can live in the past, and be constrained by it. Or you can learn from the past, leave the past in the past, and run without hindrance toward the finish line. Which character in the New Testament, based on his past, was least qualified to be a leader in the church? That would be Paul, the pre-conversion terrorist whose passion was to track down and imprison Christians. After Paul’s conversion, he could have easily crept back to his hometown of Tarsus, lived a quiet life there, minding his own business, feeling bad about his past sins, and waiting patiently for death. Except for one minor detail: the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. He was chosen, and he was called, and God had a plan to use his life (and yours and mine) for the Gospel. That means that no one reading this column has a past that is bad enough to disqualify you, even if you have been a terrorist. So, what do we do if we want to know Christ and be useful to him in ministry? Paul said it like this: “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining towards what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Anything in our past or our present that would rob us of our run after Christ needs to go.  That could mean failures of the past. We all have them. That could mean successes of the past. We all have those as well. Leave them there, along with your past defeats, and press on. This also means that if we are presently entangled in a way that hinders our pursuit of Christ, we need to disentangle. Young people, if you are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t make you want to be more like Christ, that is a clear warning from God that he or she may not be the right person for you. I would encourage you to seek godly counsel and not make a lifelong mistake.

Maybe it’s not a relationship with a person that hinders your run, but just a life filled with trivial pursuits. Paul wrote, “Have nothing to do with silly, irreverent myths. Rather, train yourself for godliness.” Silly, irreverent myths, or silly, irreverent activities could describe about 95% of what is on television or Netflix or at the theater, couldn’t it? Be honest with yourself about this: are you saturated with entertainment to the point that pursuing Christ is either a third-place hobby in your life or something that doesn’t even show up at all? What would it look like for you and me to train ourselves for godliness? To strain forward toward what lies ahead instead of simply living for the next movie, the next Netflix series, the next reality show, the next video game, the next ballgame, the next golf outing, the next shopping spree, the next ­­­­­____________(fill in the blank with your preferred entertainment option.) It doesn’t mean we have to chuck our golf clubs in the lake or our TVs in the woods. It might mean, however, that we put limits on the many ways we tend to “amuse ourselves to death.” It will definitely mean that we begin an earnest run after Christ. Look, you can put one of those silly and sad 0.0 stickers on the back of your pickup if you want, proudly announcing that you don’t run unless something is chasing you. But you cannot put that sticker on your soul. If you know Jesus, you are called to run after Him with all your might. Period.

Knowing Jesus and helping others to know Jesus was all that really mattered to Paul. It was the one thing that marked his life more than anything else. He let nothing get in the way of that pursuit.

What one change could you make in order to pursue the one thing that matters most?

Monday, October 16, 2017

I Want to Know Him

It is an amazing thing to me that, 30 years after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he expresses the cry of his heart in a letter to one of the churches he planted: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” What does that statement by Paul teach us about Christ, except that yes, we are able to know him! Even as a 15-year-old, this verse captured me the first time I read it. Maybe I saw then with immature faith that this was the greatest cry of Paul’s heart. He had forsaken the pursuit of fame and fortune as a Pharisee, and had given himself fully to the pursuit of Christ. Could there be anybody in the first century who knew Christ better than Paul? And yet, here is Paul crying out from a Roman prison that more than anything, he wanted to know the Lord.

It has been a 45-year pursuit for me — longer for some of you, shorter for others. I know that I will finally fully know Jesus when I meet him face to face, but I want to know him on this side of heaven. I want to grow more like him. The big theological term that describes what I desire more of, is sanctification.

Sanctification is the process by which we grow in our relationship with Jesus. It is progressive and continuous until the day we die. And though God takes the initiative, sanctification requires our participation. Therefore, it looks different in different people because of the amount of participation by the individual. The disobedient Christian grows much more slowly than the obedient one. You know this is a law of physics: Speed x Time = Distance. If you drive at 60 mph for one hour, you will have driven 60 miles. It is also a spiritual law. Persistent obedience over time leads to maturity. Sanctification happens as we take a “long walk of obedience” with the Lord, cooperating with the Spirit of God in the plan He has chosen for us.

How do we do it, then? How do we grow in our relationship with the Lord, to truly get to know Jesus? Let’s acknowledge that part of our growth comes from just doing the work: reading and studying the Bible, learning to pray, obeying the main things and the plain things of Scripture. But our spiritual maturity is also affected by our relationships. If we spend time with people who know Jesus better than we do, we will likely grow in our relationship with Jesus ourselves.

Ask yourself this question: “Who knows Jesus better than I do that I am close to?” I am fortunate to live with someone who knows Jesus better than I: my wife! She is not only my best friend and closest companion, she has been my example and teacher in many ways over these 35 years of marriage. I also have friends who are more mature than I in their relationship with the Lord, and I learn by being with them. I would suggest you ask someone who is close to the Lord to have coffee with you. Ask them how they know him like they do. Listen carefully, and begin to follow their walk, until it becomes your own. Be forewarned that those who draw near to Jesus will be changed. He will ask you to stop some things that are important to you, and start others that have been neglected.

The long walk of obedience will be worth it.