Monday, December 26, 2016

God moves into surrendered hearts

One verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” goes like this: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

“How will this be?” That’s the question Mary asked the angel Gabriel when he announced the news that she would give birth to a baby boy. It was a legitimate question since Mary had never been with a man. She was betrothed to Joseph, a young carpenter who lived in Nazareth and whose ancestors came from Bethlehem. But they had not consummated their marriage. Mary was a virgin.

Have you ever compared the two visits by Gabriel in Luke 1? Look at the similarities between his visit to the priest, Zechariah, and to the young Jewess, Mary. In each case, he came to foretell a miraculous birth. For Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the birth would be a miracle because, to be real honest, they were just too old to have a baby. In Mary’s case, she was not able to conceive because she was a virgin.

In the two angelic visits, Gabriel told the listeners that sons would be born. He even told them their names. He told them their sons would both be great. John, born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, would be great because of the things he would do. Jesus would be great. Period. He was the Son of the Highest, the Holy One, the Son of God.

It is interesting to note the two responses to Gabriel’s message. Gabriel told Zechariah that he had just come from God’s presence, so this news came right from the top. Zechariah asked anyway, “How shall I know this?” In other words, he asked for a sign. “Prove it to me, Gabe, old buddy. I don’t believe it!” Mary responded quite differently. She asked, “How will this be?” Her heart believed what God was saying to her; she just didn’t understand it.

Do you see what is happening here? It doesn’t make sense to Zechariah that he and his wife could have a child; therefore he refuses to believe without a sign. It does not make sense to Mary that she can have a baby and still be a virgin; but she chooses to believe the Lord while seeking to understand. It was Zechariah’s unbelief that motivated his question. It was Mary’s belief that motivated hers.

How did Gabriel respond to each? Zechariah was escorted quickly offstage by Carol Merrill where he received the consolation prize of a tongue that would not work for nine months. Gabriel said to the priest, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Mary’s quest to understand found answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Zechariah’s unbelief led to the sound of silence. Mary’s belief led to a surrendered heart. God moved right in and took up residence. He still does that today, in every heart that is opened to him.

May Christ’s presence fill your heart and your home this Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2016

This is your trigger warning

I wrote this (now updated) column 10 years ago, when “The Nativity Story” came out. It remains one of my favorite Christmas movies.

Hey, lean in closer. I want to tell you something, but I have to be careful. There are lots of those right wing Christians running around here, and I don’t want them to hear what I am about to say. The last thing I need is to be hounded by those people, you know what I mean?

OK, here’s the deal. I know it’s time for “the holidays,” and I just want to warn you about a certain movie that just came out and that you definitely don’t want to see or let your kids see. Under any circumstances, I’m talking. There is no way you should go see this movie because it is highly offensive. I mean, I go in there taking my whole family to see this movie when it comes out, because I think it has something to do with Native American history or something, you know? I had no idea that I was going to be subjected to this blatant violation of the separation of church and state! I mean, here we are, eating our popcorn and enjoying upcoming previews to great flicks that won’t offend nobody, you know what I mean? Movies like this “Trolls” flick or whatever. Yeah, and there’s one about some beasts that is supposedly fantastic. And there’s one about a Bad Santa. I mean, any movie about Santa is fun, you know what I mean? It’s probably good, clean family entertainment that’s not going to be trying to cram some kind of religion or something down your throat.

But this Nativity movie was just plain nasty. It was right up in my face with this whole thing that Christmas is about Jesus or whatever. It made me so mad I could see red. And I really hate when that happens. I try to calm down quick because you know, red is a Christmas color, and whenever I see red or green I have to look down or cross my eyes, so I don’t think about Christmas. Those born-agains got some nerve, you know what I mean? Trying to take over the best time of the year and make it into some religious fanatic fairytale.

So I’m sitting there, you know, with my family, right? I mean, I plunked down like 50 bucks so we could see this Nativity movie, and I wasn’t about to just walk out and throw away 50 bucks. What do you think, I’m crazy or something? So, we sit there and watch this movie, and you have got to be kiddin’ me. I mean, this lady, no, this young girl gets a visit from some guy in white looking like he was an angel or something, and this guy is telling her that she’s going to get pregnant, but there won’t be no man. Yeah, right. But here they go, trottin’ off to Bethlehem because some king wants to get more taxes. Now that part I can believe! Anyway, this young girl has a baby, and every shepherd in the county shows up looking like they’ve never seen a baby before. And these wise guys come too, giving the baby gifts like he was a king or something. The truth? This movie’s offensive. Don’t go. Stay home. It is just wrong.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Go Get Some Free Christmas Music!

Hey all! I know, it's been a while. I apologize. I have no excuses. 

But I haven't been completely wasting my time. And to prove it, here's an album a friend and I just finished for our church. It's FREE right now on NoiseTrade and we'd be honored if you downloaded a copy and shared it with friends. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2016

The source of quarrels and fights

Thom S. Rainer wrote a blog about church fights he had heard about, and offered commentary (in quotes) on each. Here’s a sampling.

A battle over whether to build a children’s playground or to use the land for a cemetery. “I’m dying to know the resolution to this one.”

A fight over which picture of Jesus to put in the foyer. “I just want to know who took the pictures.”

An argument over whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal. “Only if it’s balanced with angel food cake for dessert.”

A disagreement over using the term "potluck" instead of "pot blessing." “I get it! The concept of luck contradicts the theology of a sovereign God. This issue is very serious. Good luck trying to resolve it.”

These are funny. And sad. But James was not laughing when he wrote to the churches, “What causes quarrels and fights among you?” The answer may surprise you, but it is the same, whether the quarrel is in the bedroom, the boardroom, the church house or the White House. James goes right to the heart of conflict by identifying our passions, our desires, our pleasures as the culprit. What happens when our desire for something is interfered with? You may have seen the commercial where the wife says to her husband, “Don’t forget we’re taking my mom and dad out on the boat this Sunday.” The man grimaces. Then we see him drive his Hyundai to the marina, untie the boat, and shove it away from the dock with his foot. As it drifts away he says, “Not my Sunday.” The voiceover comes up: “Hyundai, the official car of the NFL.”

Here’s the thing. God created us with an incredible capacity for pleasure. He wants us to enjoy the earth He fashioned, and its many delights. But hedonism is a pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. It is the belief that pleasure really is the chief end of man, the reason we exist. If we stumble down that path, we will find ourselves in all kinds of trouble.

A desire for pleasure was the root of David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba. And it started when he saw her taking a bath on a nearby rooftop. There were three "ways of escape" the Lord gave him, I believe, that David blew right past in pursuit of the fulfillment of his lusts. First, it was spring, “when kings went out to war.” Not David. Not that spring. Second, when he got his first glimpse of Bathsheba, he could have turned away, shut his chamber windows, and taken a cold shower. Nope. Third, when his servant delivered Bathsheba to his door, he could have sent her back home, and fallen on his face and repented. He did not. Instead, he coveted another man’s wife. Then he stole her. Then he had her husband killed.

Ok, if the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake leads to empty lives at best, and destroyed lives at worst, what then?

John Piper argues for a pursuit of pleasure in God, something he calls Christian Hedonism. “My shortest summary of it is this — God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Does Christian Hedonism make a god out of pleasure? No. It says that we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in. My life is devoted to helping people make God their God by wakening in them the greatest pleasures in him.”

Monday, December 5, 2016

Ultra-marathon means uber-pain

Just for fun, I ran a 50K ultra-marathon last Saturday. No, it wasn’t a mid-life crisis thing. I’m way too old for that. And no, nobody was chasing me, except the slow, graying guy who stares at me in the mirror every morning as I shave. This was just something I wanted to try, especially since a man named Mark who has run several ultras started coming to the church last year. He told me about this one, convinced me that I could do it, and we started to do long runs together every week as part of our training.

The run started and ended at the Derby Community Center which is “in the middle of nowhere,” as the race website stated. It also says, “This is a very low key, no frills race.  If you are expecting port-a-potties, expos, or to be waited on, I suggest you stay home.”

We did three laps of 10.5 miles each, on mostly paved roads and a two-mile stretch of a sandy road. Derby is in the sand hills (emphasis on “hills”) of North Carolina, not far from Ellerbe and Pinehurst. I expected the course to be fairly flat, and my running buddy assured me that it would be. Until we were almost through with our second lap, somewhere around 18 miles and Mark turned to me and said, “This course has a LOT more hills than I remember.” I grunted something back, lacking the energy to form a full sentence at that point.

Here’s the story of lap one. The day was beautiful and the weather was perfect. The sun was shining, the wildlife was plentiful, the temperatures stayed in the 40’s or 50’s, and the runners were happily talking in small groups as they ran. Very few of us were walking up the hills on lap one (big mistake), and I had the fleeting thought at about mile 9 that the pace we were keeping was going to come back to bite us in the end.

Lap two began hopefully, and we decided to run halfway up all the hills and then walk to the top of each. The runners by this time (there were only 63 of us) were spread out more, and friendly chatter had given way to deep contemplation, or something like that. I tried to listen to a podcast at about mile 14, but couldn’t concentrate enough to enjoy it.

When we completed the second lap, I said to my buddy, “Mark, you have no idea how much I would like to quit right now.” We had completed 21 miles and I just could not imagine running or even walking another 10.5. My legs ached, my feet screamed at me, my toes throbbed. All the while, my mind told me that a chair and a hot meal were just twenty feet away. All I had to do was quit. But on we went; we had not come to Derby to stop short of a 50K.

I have never been as happy to cross a finish line as I was that day. As I hobbled toward the community center for spaghetti, I met a 72-year old who came in about five minutes ahead of me. But this was not his first ultra, as it was mine. It was his 340th. And he had just run 92 miles in a race one week earlier. I hobbled more slowly towards the chow hall after hearing that. Talk about perspective.

The Bible says of those who pursue God’s wisdom, “…if you run, you will not stumble.” He promised nothing about pain.


Monday, November 28, 2016

There is No Good Reason for a Gloomy Christian

I read about a pastor who had this encounter with a supermarket clerk one day. As she scanned his savings card and his name came up on her computer, she stopped and looked him in the eye. “We always know when your church lets out on a Sunday—saddest, meanest group we deal with all week long.”

Ouch. How could the people who claim to have found the answer to their greatest problem—their sin—be the gloomiest, most hateful people who walk the streets? Furthermore, what does a gloomy Christian get out of being gloomy? Do we honestly suppose that by frowning and shuffling through life, not looking people in the eye, not thanking those who serve us for a job well done, not greeting people with a smile…do we honestly suppose that our day goes better as a result? Do we really believe that if we looked like we were weaned on a sour pickle that it will bless those around us and bring glory to the Lord? Somebody said, “If the joy of the Lord is in your heart, then why don’t you tell your face about it?”

Hannah Whitall Smith wrote about this very problem many years ago in a book called, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.”

I once heard of a poor woman who earned a precarious living by daily labor, but who was a joyous, triumphant Christian. "Ah, Nancy," said a gloomy Christian lady to her one day, who almost disapproved of her constant cheerfulness, and yet envied it.

"Ah, Nancy, it is all well enough to be happy now, but I think the thoughts of your future would sober you. Only suppose, for instance, that you would have a spell of sickness, and be unable to work. Suppose your present employers should move away and no one else would give you anything to do. Suppose…" "Stop!" cried Nancy, "I never suppose. The Lord is my Shepherd, and I know I shall not want. And," she added to her gloomy friend, "it is all those 'supposes' that are making you so miserable. You better give them all up and just trust the Lord."

Nothing else but seeing God in everything will make us loving and patient with those who annoy and trouble us. They will then only be the instruments for accomplishing His tender and wise purposes toward us, and we will even find ourselves inwardly thanking them for the blessings they bring.

Mrs. Smith may have stumbled onto something that we would do well to investigate. She didn’t make this stuff up, you know. It was Paul who wrote from a jail cell: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” It was Jesus who cried from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It was David who said while running for his life from King Saul: “I have set the Lord always before me…therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.”

So, even if you are in prison for something you did not do, or being crucified for sins that belong to others or being chased down by bloodthirsty men, you can rejoice. And since I wager none of my readers fall into those three categories…why aren’t we smiling? What in the world have we got to be gloomy about? Is there any reason why we cannot be the most joyful people on the planet? Give up your ‘supposes’ and give thanks to the Lord.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday. It is a way of life.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Take time to give thanks

It is at this time of year when many people, regardless of their spiritual condition or social status, begin to reflect on giving thanks. I have always wondered whom atheists thank for their many blessings. Could their doxology possibly be, “Praise no one from whom all blessings flow”? That doesn’t just sound hollow, it sounds ridiculous because any thinking individual knows that the very air he breathes is a gift, the sunshine that warms his tomatoes is a wonder, the ground that supports his every step is a benevolence.

Paul said, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Indeed. The question is not, “Where do I start to give thanks for the blessings I have been given,” but, “Where would I stop?”

Here are a few of my blessings that I share with you, in the hopes that my ramblings may provoke you to consider your own life and how God has been generous with you.

I am most thankful for the Lord who chose to save me. I shudder to think where I would be right now, what I would be doing, what days of quiet desperation I would be living without the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. How does anyone navigate the normal trials and tribulations of life without the one who is life and strength and hope? That is indeed a question for the ages.

I am thankful for my precious wife of 34 years. I love to tell the story of how God used Cindy to turn me around 180 degrees. While I was intent on pursuing my own goals and satisfying my own selfish ambitions, God had me bump into this young lady in Chapel Hill who was serving the Lord the way I knew I was supposed to. Cindy is my best friend and the love of my life.

I am thankful for seven children and the wonderful spouses four of them have found. They keep us laughing, praying, and rejoicing that they know Jesus. As John said, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” I love my children and five grandchildren and cannot begin to measure all that they have taught me.

I am thankful to be part of the body of Christ in a local church, people who have stood by me through the loss of loved ones, personal health issues, and struggles with my own sinful heart. If you are in a fellowship that still believes the Bible is true and that Jesus is our only hope for salvation, that the purpose of church is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry, that loves to give people and money to missions, that is filled with folks who really do love the Lord and each other…you are greatly blessed. Church is not a service or a building or even a group of people who just like to be together and think the same way. The church is the body of Christ, which he purchased with his own blood, and which he is building. Our hope is not and has never been in the political process, but in the Lord. His Kingdom is eternal, and will never be shaken.

There is much more I give thanks for today, including the opportunity the Times-News has given me to write this column each week. How about you? What are you thankful for today? Write it down, shout it out, and mostly, tell the Lord about it. He is, after all, the one who has given you all that you have.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Only God can tame this beast

What weighs less than two ounces, works almost constantly for 16 hours a day, and cannot be controlled by either man or woman? The mighty tongue. I know what Charles Wesley meant when he wrote “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” but we just couldn’t survive it. 999 of them would be gossiping or backbiting or complaining, while the one would be singing “our great redeemer’s praise.” No thanks, Charles. One is plenty.

A family sat around the table for breakfast one morning. As was his custom, the father prayed and thanked God for the food. Immediately afterwards, as was also his habit, he began to grumble about the food and how it was prepared. His young daughter said, “Daddy, do you think God heard what you said when you thanked Him for the food?” “Certainly,” replied the father with confidence. “And did He hear you when you said bad things about the food?” “Of course,” the father replied, hesitantly. His little girl said, “Daddy, which did God believe?”

James illustrates the power of the tongue to direct, destroy, and to delight (or deceive) in his third chapter. The first word picture compares the tongue to a bit. A bit is put into a horse’s mouth so that a 60-pound kid can direct a 1,000-pound horse. One of my dad’s decisions when I was growing up was to buy a Palomino and keep him pastured offsite. I remember going over to ride Sundance on occasion. Every time I did, the horse would obey my instructions given through the bit and bridle for a little while, and I could set my watch by what happened next. After 10 minutes, he would get tired of the whole thing, because he knew somehow that I was really not in charge, and he would take off for the trees. Gaining speed as he got closer, all while I am pulling back on the reins and yelling, Sundance would go straight for the low branches to try to knock me off. That horse was evil. No, he was just like me as a young man, and sometimes as an older man. He did what he wanted to do; he was not going to be controlled by someone else. When the horse submits to the bit, then the rider has control over the horse’s whole body, and the ride is a pleasure for both. So it is with the tongue.

The tongue boasts of great things, James says, and it can be used to direct a nation toward good or evil. On Aug. 20, 1940, Winston Churchill said to the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” He said this to praise the courage of the Royal Air Force pilots in their ongoing battle against German warplanes engaged in nightly bombings of the city of London. On his way to give the speech that day, Churchill was going over his speech. He had planned to say, “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few.” His chief military assistant, Pug Ismay, said, “What about Jesus and His disciples?” Churchill smiled and said, "Good ‘ol Pug," and he changed his speech, to “Never in the field of human conflict…”

The tongue of one man, Churchill, directed a nation, and gave them courage in the face of an enemy. On the other hand, someone has calculated that for every one word of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II.

Only God can tame the tongue.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A difficult year to judge the presidential candidates

Samuel looked at the Jesse’s sons to see which one the Lord would choose as king to replace Saul. As soon as the prophet laid eyes on Jesse’s firstborn, Eliab, he thought, “Surely this is the one!” But then the Lord said, “Do not look at his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

I think Samuel learned a lesson that day, namely, that things are not always as they appear. I hope we have learned our lesson, as well, and will not choose the next president based on what our eyes see or what our ears hear. I pray that we do not choose a president because of fear. My prayer is that we will go into the voting booth this week and pull the lever for the candidate we believe will serve this country according to principles that best reflect biblical truth. Samuel was impressed with Eliab’s stature because, well, he just “looked like a king.” But God said, “I look at the heart.”

One reason for our downward slide as a nation is, in my opinion, we began electing men and women to office because of their promises instead of their character. I understand that it is human nature to judge a man based on his appearance and his speech, but there was a day in our country when that was less important than a person’s moral values and clear conscience. When we elect men or women to office because they speak well, we reveal the shallowness of our own thinking about who is best equipped to lead. When we base our vote on which candidate will do the most to make us more prosperous, we indict our own hearts for selfishness and greed. When we pull the lever for the man or woman who will load us down with entitlements rather than lead us, we betray our own misguided motives about what government was first created by God to do.

This is a difficult year to judge a candidate for the Oval Office based on character, isn’t it? But I urge you to resist the temptation to throw up your hands and decide you will sit this one out. To those who read this column and who belong to Jesus Christ, I would ask…What is our responsibility as Christians? I believe as we approach an election, we are first called to pray and ask the Lord for wisdom about the candidates. Every one of them is a sinner, just as we are, and the job of Messiah is already taken. None need apply. Ask the Lord to show us all which sinner He has chosen to lead this nation. Second, go and vote. Once. Finally, whatever the outcome, pray for those who have been elected. Paul wrote, “First of all, I urge that supplications… be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Plato said, “The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men (and women) worse than themselves.” May God give us wisdom and humility to be able to see what He sees, and to base our vote on the principles of the candidate, not on the appearance or the speech or the promises of a man or a woman. And may God have mercy on this nation.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Faith is obeying God in spite of consequence

Someone has said that faith is not “believing in spite of evidence but obeying in spite of consequence.” Abraham did that. He left his home at God’s command, and went to a place he knew nothing about. He obeyed God when he was told to take Isaac as a boy and sacrifice him on an altar. If you don’t know the story, read it in Genesis 22, and see how God stopped Abraham from carrying out the deed, but saw in his heart that Abraham loved God and believed that even if Isaac were slain, God would resurrect him to be the son of promise. Abraham obeyed in spite of consequence.

That’s the story of the Groenewald family. Werner Groenewald was a South African pastor, married to Hannelie, a trauma doctor. Inspired by the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Werner and Hannelie began to seek the Lord about how and where they should live. When they visited Pakistan and Afghanistan with a medical team in 2002, the direction of their lives was forever changed. Hannelie said, “We felt the touch of the Holy Spirit. I just started crying and knew that Afghanistan or Pakistan, wherever the Lord calls you, can be your home.”

In August of 2003, the Groenewald family moved to Afghanistan with their son Jean-Pierre, 5, and their daughter Rode, 3. Their families thought they were crazy to leave South Africa and move to this war-torn country where they knew they could be killed. But the certainty of their call and the support of their church gave them courage.

They served in Afghanistan for 11 years, she as a doctor and he as a teacher. On Nov. 29, 2014, Hannelie was working at the clinic, and Werner was teaching leadership to Afghan students in his home. Jean-Pierre, 17, had been playing guitar in his room and chatting with friends on social media. Rode, 15, had spent the day crocheting, and working on her computer. Late that afternoon, Afghan rebels broke into the compound where the Groenewalds lived. Confronted by the guard, the rebels shot and killed him. When Werner heard the shot he sent his students to another room to take shelter, and began to climb the stairs to protect his children. As Werner ascended the rebels burst in and shot him three times, killing him. The rebels then killed Jean-Pierre, Rode, and most of the Afghan students who were hiding throughout the house.

Hannelie says nearly two years later, “It is well with my soul.” Though finding this peace was not easy, she knows God was always there for her family. She remembers Werner’s words just a month before the attack: “We die only once. It might as well be for Christ.” Hannelie said that her only regret was that she wasn’t there with her family when they died. “I wanted to be there, especially with the children, to just embrace them and hold them and face the bullets.”

Hannelie continues to share her testimony with anyone who will listen; and looking back on her family’s journey, she says she wouldn’t change a thing. “We had a clear calling. We had a mandate with this; we counted the cost. We knew that something like this could happen. God allowed that for a reason.” Then she said, about her family members who had been killed, “I know they are actually chasing me on to finish the race as well. I believe one day Jean-Pierre will say, ‘Mom, what took you so long to get here?’ I believe they are where they are supposed to be, on Jesus’ lap, and I cannot wait to get there as well. But I have to finish this race for the Lord.”

Monday, October 24, 2016

Motivation for the times we face today

As we slog through a very painful election cycle, I am reminded of a book I read several years ago. John Piper’s book, "Don’t Waste Your Life," reminds us of what is significant when we can easily feel bludgeoned or discouraged by what we see happening in our nation and in the world around us. The book is an easy read, less than 200 pages, and the title is appropriate. Piper hammers the point through 10 chapters that we have been created by God for a purpose, and that all of creation is searching for a “single passion to live by.”

He recalls the memory from his childhood of his evangelist father leading an elderly man to Christ. The church had prayed for this man for years but he had resisted. But not on this day.

God opened his heart to the Gospel of Christ, and he was saved from his sins and given eternal life. But that did not stop him from sobbing and saying, as the tears ran down his wrinkled face…“I’ve wasted it! I’ve wasted it!”

Piper said that this story gripped his heart as a child more than the stories he had heard of teens killed in car wrecks before they were converted — this story of “an old man weeping that he had wasted his life.”

One chapter in the book is titled, “Risk is Right — Better to Lose Your Life than to Waste It.” Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If this verse is true and applies to you and me who know Christ, then what are we waiting for? As Woodrow Wilson said, “I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately triumph than triumph in a cause that will ultimately fail.” And the cause of Christ will triumph!

One of the most challenging stories in Piper’s book was taken from "Flags of Our Fathers," by James Bradley. This book details the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II and the lives of the six flag-raisers at battle’s end. Here is an excerpt:

Often it was the corpsmen [medics] themselves who died as they tried to preserve life. William Hoopes of Chattanooga was crouching beside a medic named Kelly, who put his head above a protective ridge and placed binoculars to his eyes — just for an instant — to spot a sniper who was peppering his area. In that instant the sniper shot him through the Adam’s apple. Hoopes, a pharmacist’s mate himself, struggled frantically to save his friend. “I took my forceps and reached into his neck to grasp the artery and pinch it off,” Hoopes recalled. “His blood was spurting. He had no speech but his eyes were on me. He knew I was trying to save his life. I tried everything in the world. I couldn’t do it. I tried….And all the while he just looked at me….The last thing he did as the blood spurts became less and less was to pat me on the arm as if to say, ‘That’s all right.’ Then he died.”

John Piper’s plea is that he will be able to come to the end of his life and say to the generation he served and lived in, “For your tomorrow, I gave my today. Not just for your tomorrow on earth, but for the countless tomorrows of your ever-increasing gladness in God.”

Need encouragement in these discouraging times we live in? "Don’t Waste Your Life" will challenge, convict and motivate you. It may even change your life.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Restored friendship sweeter than revenge

The story goes that a Korean houseboy was hired by a group of American soldiers during the war to take care of their needs. The soldiers liked this young man, but they tormented him mercilessly. They nailed his shoes to the floor while he slept. They put grease on the stove handles, and mounted a bucket of water over the door so that he got drenched when he walked in. Through it all, however, he never complained. He just went about his work, and smiled, and seemed to take it all in stride. One day the soldiers began to feel guilty, so they called him in to apologize. “We want to stop all our pranks, and tell you we are sorry,” they said. “We won’t do it again.”

“No more nails in shoes?” the houseboy asked.

“No more,” the men promised.

“No more sticky on stove?”

“No more,” they said.

“No more water on head?”

“No more,” they answered.

“OK,” said the houseboy. “No more spit in soup!”

Ahh, revenge. It comes to us quite easily doesn’t it? Francis Bacon said, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice.” Lord Byron said, “Revenge is sweet.”

The late financial counselor, Larry Burkett, used to tell the story of the man who bought a Mercedes for $50. He was looking in the L.A. Times classified section one day and saw an ad for a nearly new Mercedes for $50. Sure that it was a misprint, he called the number and the woman assured him that the car really was for sale for that price. He told her be would be right over, and set a new land speed record getting to her house. Expecting to find a problem but hoping against hope that this was not a dream, the man discovered a shiny new Mercedes, in mint condition, in the woman’s driveway. He quickly wrote her a check for $50 before she could change her mind, and when she handed him the keys, he said, “Do you mind me asking why you are selling this car for this price?” She said, “Not at all. My husband decided he didn’t want to be married to me any more, and he left me for another woman. He called two days ago and said we would divide everything up and told me to sell the Mercedes and send him half.”

Ahh, revenge. It just seems to feel right, doesn’t it? The problem is, many things that feel right are deadly wrong. Revenge may feel great going down, but you pay for it later. Getting revenge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Jesus made it clear how I am to respond when someone hurts me. If I have been offended, I am instructed to go to the person who sinned against me and tell him what he did. Just the two of us, face to face. Jesus said, “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” That’s the goal, that our relationship would be restored, not that I get my pound of flesh. If he will not listen, then I get a trusted and mature friend and go back to him. Just the 3 of us, face to face. If he still will not listen, then I go before the church leadership with the problem. In every step, restoration is the destination, and forgiveness, not revenge, is the vehicle that will get you there.

A restored friendship is much sweeter than revenge could ever be. If you don't believe it, call me when you want to sell your Mercedes.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Snobbery and faith don't mix

In his commentary on James, Kent Hughes tells the story of a woman who came from “the other side of the tracks,” to visit a prominent church in her city. She may have wondered why no one ever spoke to her or welcomed her, but she liked the church anyway, wanted to join, and told the pastor so. He told her to go and think about it for a week. She did and came back and told him she wanted to join, and he said, “Let’s not be hasty. Go home and read your Bible every day for an hour, and come back next week and see if you still want to join.” She did. And came the next week wanting to join. He said, “Let’s do one more thing. Go home and pray every day this week, asking the Lord if he wants you to come into this fellowship.” The pastor didn’t see her after that for six months. Then one day they met on the street, and he asked her what had happened. She said, “Oh, I did what you suggested. I prayed every day for a week, and one day while I was praying the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about not getting into that church. I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last 20 years!’”

James questions the integrity of those in the church who would welcome the rich man to the church, offering him the best seat, fawning over him because of his wealth, and then telling the poor man dressed in shabby clothes to stand, or if he must, be seated on the floor. There’s a difference between showing honor to someone and showing partiality. We honored three sailors in our church two weeks ago, three young men who are stationed at different places and had come home to Antioch while on leave. If the governor or any civic leader were to visit the church, we would honor him or her because of the position God has given them. Peter said, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” But here’s the thing. If the wealthiest person in town showed up in your church, you would do wrong to make a big show of his attendance, to honor him simply because of his wealth. The sad truth is that too often churches go even further, making a rich man an elder, not because he has the spiritual qualifications, but because he has a pocketful of cash.

The question James is asking us to consider is this: does our reaction change depending on who walks in the door on Sunday morning? To show partiality means literally to “receive the face,” to accept or reject a person based on outward appearance. Our tendency may be to see the clothes and the car and the house and the lifestyle, and to honor someone based on those things. We must not do that, and if we allow that thinking in the church, we are headed for trouble. You see, though the world puts premium value on wealth and status, the church must not, because God has turned that upside down in Christ. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.”

True riches are only found in Christ, and He welcomes all who come to Him by faith: rich or poor, highly educated or a high school dropout, powerful in society or just known by friends and family.

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.