Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Respect Jesus’ word to keep a clear conscience


Those who would love for the church to just slink away into oblivion must grind their teeth and rage against this profound truth that rings throughout the ages: Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Nothing will stop the church. Not even hell itself. I take great hope and find tremendous joy in knowing that I am part of something that will never be conquered, and that on that great day will be crowned with glory and honor as the bride of Christ in his eternal presence.

Though the church can never be defeated, it is not without its enemies. And though the universal church that is comprised of everyone who is born again through the blood of Jesus Christ will never be conquered, the local expression of the church may very well be. There are thousands of churches closing their doors every year. I believe the greatest threat to the church is false doctrine. Read Paul’s letters to the churches and count the number of times he warns against false teaching and teachers, and corrects their errors. After false doctrine, though, I believe the greatest threat to the local church is broken relationships. The halls of our churches are roamed by people loaded down with guilt on the one hand because of their unconfessed sin toward others, and bitterness on the other hand because of others’ sins against them. Who can carry around this weight of guilt and bitterness and survive? How can a church survive? It can’t.

Jesus gave very clear instructions to his disciples on how to deal with sin so that guilt and bitterness do not result.

Here is what he said about responding when someone sins against you:

First, make sure it was a sin. And that it was against you. Second, go to the person who sinned against you. Alone. First. In other words, don’t tell anybody else but God about the sin that was committed against you. That’s because your friend can take up an offense for you, get bitter toward your offender, and even after you and the offender have reconciled, your friend may still have bitterness. I have seen that happen, even to the point that the “friend” walks away from the church as a result. “See to it … that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Go to the person who sinned against you and “tell him his fault.” Just that one. Don’t dredge up every single thing he has ever done to hurt you. Those should have already been dealt with. Just take the one offense to him, and him alone. If he repents, you have restored a brother. If he doesn’t, Jesus explains steps two and three in Matthew 18.

What if the shoe is on the other foot? You are about to enter church to worship the Lord with everybody else and then “you remember that your brother has something against you.”

First, make sure it is because of a sin you committed or a mess of some kind that you made. If he has something against you because you love Jesus Christ and follow him, then rejoice over the opportunity to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. If you have sinned, however, leave the church, go find your brother (he may be in the fellowship hall), and confess your sin. Humbly. Ask forgiveness. Then, Jesus said, you are free to worship with all your might.

Is your conscience clear? Your health, and your church’s, depends on it.

J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man,” his latest book, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Live peaceably with all, if you can


Every now and then, I have the privilege of meeting someone who reads this column. That happened recently while I was waiting at Southern Tire. A man sat next to me and said, “I appreciate your columns in the Times-News.” I thanked him, asked his name, and we chatted for the next 15 minutes or so. You know how men are.

Our conversation started with what we do for a living. But it didn’t stay there. My new friend Patrick then started telling me about something that had happened to him a few weeks earlier. I told him the story was too good to keep to ourselves, and promised him I would share it with the other seven people who read this column. So, here it is.

Patrick was out with two of his kids one day, making good on a promise. He had told them that if they worked hard at the project they had been given, he would treat them to a milkshake. As they drove down Huffman Mill Road toward Cook Out, Patrick noticed a truck pulling a trailer in the center turn lane. It was near the entrance to Cook Out, but not in the place one would normally be if he were planning on turning. “I had to make a decision at that point,” Patrick said to me. “I honestly did not think the man was turning into the same place I was, so I pulled in front of him, waited for traffic to clear, and then entered the drive-through lane at the restaurant. I glanced into my rearview mirror and saw the man in the truck pull in right behind me. Uh-oh, I thought.”

As you may have guessed, the man in the truck did not stay in the truck. He threw it into park, opened the door, and angrily stomped forward to have it out with Patrick. “You so hungry that you had to cut me off?” the man asked after Patrick had rolled his window halfway down.

Now at this point, Patrick had a choice to make, though he didn’t tell me that as he shared the story. He could have responded any number of ways to the man’s question. Here is a sample of what comes to mind:
“What is your problem?!” (matching him anger for anger)
“You twalkin’ to me?” (with a Jersey accent, trying to throw him off with humor)
“Eh … what’s up, Doc?” (distracting with silliness, especially if he had a carrot in the car)
“(Silence)”…followed by sign language.

Thankfully, Patrick did the mature thing. He said three golden words: “I am sorry.” Then, “I didn’t know you were turning into this place.”

The angry man was not appeased. “Oh, yes you did! You knew I was turning here.” Patrick had tried to apologize. That failing, he attempted restitution. He said, “Tell you what. You back up your truck, and then I will back up and let you go in front of me in line.” The man refused the gesture and stormed back to his truck, muttering and fuming. After Patrick placed his order, he said he felt the Lord prompting him to pay for the man’s meal behind him. So, when he got to the pickup window, that’s exactly what he did. “I wish I could have seen the man’s expression when he was told his order had been paid for,” Patrick said. I would love to see that, too. Patrick did his part, though, obeying the Word that says, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man,” his latest book, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The things we do for love


I grew up in tobacco country. In fact, that noxious weed put me through college. My father and mother worked long years and retired from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. My grandmother was a receptionist for more than 30 years at Whitaker Park, where cigarettes are manufactured and thousands of visitors come every year to see how the process works. My older brother also worked for Reynolds, and he was the one that I most wanted to be like when I was a young teenager.

So, I fired up my first cigarette when I was 15 years old. I remember the first one because it made my head spin and my stomach turn. That should have told me something right there, but I was a little slow when it came to picking up such cues, especially when they conflicted with my goal: to be cool. I loved and admired my older brother and if smoking was good enough for him, then by golly it was good enough for me.

I started out as a casual smoker, just a few cigarettes a day. That was enough to give me the “tough-guy image” I was after, but kept the stench to a minimum. But there’s a not-so-funny thing about cigarettes, which I found out soon enough. They are addictive. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t eat a meal or drink a Coke or enjoy a cup of coffee without craving a cigarette. Then, I began to “need” one after I woke up in the morning, or before I went to sleep at night.

I knew I was really hooked when I started staying home from events that would last too long and where smoking was not permitted. I smoked for nearly 10 years, and used to quote Mark Twain to my college friends who expressed concern. “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world,” I told them. “I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”

But I was hooked and I knew it. The habit was interfering with my social life, slowing me down on the intramural fields, costing me precious funds that as a college student I really did not have, and producing a guilty conscience. Undeterred, I kept puffing … and hacking.

Then, I met Cindy and fell in love. We had a whirlwind romance for a year, and less than a month before my wedding day, Cindy made this announcement: “I can’t marry a smoker. You are going to have to choose … is it going to be me or cigarettes?”

I chose Cindy that same day, and have not touched a cigarette since. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for a woman who was willing to draw a line in the sand and risk losing someone she loved. She drew the line because I was someone she loved and wanted to love for the rest of her life. It was God who gave me grace and strength to overcome a habit that was in control of my life.

I am and will be forever grateful to the Lord for that. But God used a beautiful and gracious woman to give me the desire to quit.

Now, if you want to hear what it was like on our honeymoon, with me in the middle of full-scale nicotine-withdrawal, that’s another story. Just suffice it to say that we had some battles that might have ended our marriage if we were not so stubbornly committed to loving each other no matter what.

The Bible says “love never fails,” and this is one grateful former smoker.
    
J. Mark Fox is the author of A Faithful Man, his latest book, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Know your spiritual gifts


It is possible that one of the greatest untapped resources on the planet is the wealth of spiritual gifts that have been given to followers of Jesus Christ. Many believers simply do not know what has been given, why it has been given, and how to use the gift. Peter answers those questions succinctly in one sentence: “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Let’s address the questions by looking at this text.

Question 1: How many believers have a spiritual gift? Each one. Every single person who is born again has a spiritual gift. Paul said, “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” You cannot say something like, “Not me, man. I was looking the other way when God handed out the gifts.” Fact is, you had nothing to do with it.

Question 2: How does each believer get a spiritual gift? He receives it. It is a gift, not a wage or a tip or anything else earned. God gives it, which means God decides what He wants you to have. “But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.”

Question 3: What is the purpose of the gift you and I have received? It is for others. People at a dinner party were puzzled when the host asked each one of them to hold out their arms at the table. The host then strapped two-foot-long planks onto each guest’s arms. There was a fork attached to the end of each plank. The blessing was spoken and the people were invited to begin eating. But there was no way to eat. They could not get the fork to their own mouths because of the planks. They were frustrated at first, but then one of them started laughing as she realized that though they could not feed themselves, they were each uniquely “gifted” to feed the person across the table from them. What they had been given was not for them, but for others.

Question 4: How do I know what gift I have received? This is where we need to read the Bible, pray, and even experiment a little. The fact is, there are several different spiritual gifts; they are part of the “manifold grace of God.” That’s one of the things that make the church so exciting and so frustrating at the same time. It can be frustrating because everybody is not just like you and does not see things the way you see them. It is exciting for the very same reason. That’s why Paul said, “What if the whole body were an eye? How would we hear? Or what if the whole body were an ear? How would we smell?” Each gift is different and all of them are needed.

Some people attend a church service and all they can see is a need for more organization and leadership when it comes to meals for people, baby showers, work days and mission trips. Others come in and see a need for people to be taught the Bible. Others believe the church needs more resources so it can better impact the world with the Gospel. Others say, “I think I could help this church just by coming early and setting up chairs or sweeping the floor.” Each believer is uniquely gifted by God to help build and serve his church.

Are you using your spiritual gift to serve the body of Christ?

   J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man,” his latest book, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mirror of Truth

The comparison game. It is dangerous, destructive, and deadly. How often do I find myself saying, "Yeah, but I'm a better husband/father/Christian than..." The reality is I will not be judged by the standard of "that guy."

  For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endures to all generations. ~ Psalm 100:5

Frederick Brotherton Meyer
(1847-1929)
F.B. Meyer rightly suggests that we must stand before the mirror of truth—Christ. He is the light that dispels darkness, He is the truth of the rightly guided conscience, He is the incarnate Word. He is our standard, and our most "stringent test. With unfailing accuracy we will discover our true selves as we come face to face with him, who is girt with righteousness." He is the standard towards which we must always push and which has no room for complacency or compromise. As one of my good friends often says, "we need to walk like Jesus walked, live like Jesus lived, and love like Jesus loved." Jesus is the incomparable standard. The comparison game of self-adulation and other-degradation cannot be played when we have our eyes turned toward the mirror of truth. Thomas à Kempis speaks of this mirror in the opening words of The Imitation of Christ:

He who follows me can never walk in darkness, our Lord says. Here are words of Christ, words of warning; if we want to see our way truly, never a trace of blindness left in our hearts, it is his life, his character, we must take for our model. Clearly, then, we must make it our chief business to train our thoughts upon the life of Jesus Christ.
It is by training "our thoughts upon the life of Jesus Christ" that we will be able to use this mirror effectively. If I am not daily saturated by the truth of Scripture, if I am not running my daily activities through the grid of discipleship as taught by Jesus in the gospels, the mirror of truth will become fogged by the steam of distraction. He should be my first thought, my first love. When faced with that standard, I fall woefully short—but I press on.

The momentary self-satisfaction I feel from being better than "that guy" is fleeting and false and ultimately leaves me flat. Yet having the standard of Christ before me, the unattainable standard, is paradoxically motivating. One would think that comparing oneself with a standard of perfection would be crushing. Yet once again, Jesus breaks all the rules. Rather than being crushed, one is counterintuitively given hope, peace, and strength to continue pressing on toward that standard. I close with an exhortation from Meyer:
Then let us, in the name and by the power of Jesus, put away all that has been shown to be inconsistent with His character and claims, and let us submit in everything to His control. It will cost us something. We may have difficulty with our judgment warped and injured by self-preference. We may have to contend with our will, reluctant to sign the death warrant of some favorite habit. We may feel powerless to carry into effect what we know in our loftiest moments, to be our only safe and blessed policy. But happy are we, if we dare to catch up the trailing robes of self-indulgence, and restrain them under the umbrella of inexorable truth and purity.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A man's life can be changed with forgiveness


When Stakwell Yurenimo, a Samburu in northern Kenya, did well on his eighthgrade exams, the Kenyan government informed him that he had qualified to go to a high school that they would choose. They also chose his roommate, a young man named Paul, who was a member of the enemy tribe, the Turkana. Stakwell determined in his mind that there was no way he would room with a Turkana. In fact, part of his culture demanded that in order to be respected as a man, he needed to kill a Turkana.

Stakwell poured water on Paul’s bed every night, so that his roommate was forced to sleep somewhere else. Paul did not react in anger, but slept on the ground without complaint. This went on for several months. Meanwhile, there was friction on the soccer field as well. Stakwell was an excellent midfielder. Paul was the team’s star forward, a striker with considerable skill. But the team kept losing because Stakwell would not pass the ball to his roommate. The coach finally confronted Stakwell, who told the coach that there was nothing he could do. “You will just have to put one of us on another team,” he said. That’s what the coach did, and the first time the two teams played each other, Stakwell threw himself into Paul, trying his best to kill him. He broke Paul’s leg and knocked out several teeth. Because it was an intentional penalty, Stakwell was expelled from school and sent home a hero to his fellow Samburu tribesmen for injuring a hated Turkana. He did not care about being expelled, but then the school told Stakwell that he would have to repay Paul for all of his medical expenses. Stakwell, a Samburu shepherd, faced an insurmountable debt. That’s when his life changed.

Paul came to Stakwell offering forgiveness. He did not want to be paid back. Paul explained that all the time his roommate was persecuting him, he did not retaliate, “not because I am weak, but because I am a Christian. When you were pouring water on my bed and forcing me to sleep on the ground, I was praying for you,” Paul said.

Stakwell’s heart was broken by this demonstration of the Gospel. He became a Christian, and after finishing high school and attending Bible School, he began to work to bring reconciliation between the two warring tribes, the Samburu and the Turkana.

With the help of New Directions International, Stakwell opened a sports camp in the Kurungu, Kenya, region. He brings hundreds of young people together three times a year for friendly competition. More than a dozen tribes are represented at the camps, and the ministry is changing the climate of the region. Stakwell told us as we visited with him, “There has not been one killing in the past two years between the Samburu and the Turkana.” There is even a Turkana village now in the Samburu region, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.”

Being at the camp with Stakwell and his family (including seven children they rescued from abandonment) gave our mission team a picture in living color of what is only possible through the power of God. For he “has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Stakwell Yurenimo, the Samburu warrior once committed to destroy the Turkana, was broken by the forgiveness shown to him by a Turkana follower of Jesus Christ. Now, he lives to help others find that forgiveness as well.

J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man,” his latest book, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at
markfox@antiochchurch.cc