Monday, March 28, 2016

My brother is home now

My older brother Keith went to bed last Monday night, in his home at the beach, and woke up sometime in the early hours of Tuesday morning in a different place. He went to sleep in a body, and he woke up absent from the body, present with the Lord.

Keith worked hard at RJ Reynolds for many years as one of their first computer guys, and was loyal to his employer for 38 years. But Keith’s heart was at the beach. He sent me a text last year after he had retired at the age of 59 and moved to Newport: “Brother Man (he always called me that), my only decision today, and every day, is whether I am going to fish from the surf, from the pier, or from my boat.”

We three boys fought like dogs as youngsters. No one wanted to babysit us. Some, bless their hearts, had no choice. BB gun fights. Spit wad fights. When spit wads got boring, we shoved straight pins through them and fired them at each other. Oh, we fought. But here’s the thing. If anyone outside the family bullied one of us, we became a band of brothers. A force to be reckoned with. I remember walking to school in the 4th grade (uphill, both ways; always snowing, as I remember) and being picked on and knocked over by a kid named Chuck. He tormented me…until Keith heard about it. Keith took care of Chuck. Because he wanted to take care of me. That was what my older brother did. He took care of people. At his church in Winston-Salem, and in his neighborhood, and in his community at the beach. In the ten years between my father’s death and Keith’s, you could count on one hand the days that he didn’t either go see our Mom or call her. What I kept hearing at his memorial service were stories of how he had helped someone in need, how he had loved people so well.

The Psalmist said, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” It is a wonderful thing to think about, that when a loved one dies who knows the Lord, their death is a precious thing to God. The word for “precious” almost always refers to precious stones and jewels that adorned the temple. The Bible uses it to refer to God’s Word, as well. And His wisdom. Precious things are valuable and rare and something to be treasured. That’s what God thinks of the death of one of His own. It’s precious to the Lord when one of His sons and daughters die, because of the priceless and imperishable sacrifice of HIS Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Charles Spurgeon wrote this: “They shall not die prematurely; they shall be immortal till their work is done; and when their time shall come to die, then their deaths shall be precious. The Lord watches over their dying beds, smooths their pillows, sustains their hearts, and receives their souls. Those who are redeemed with the precious Blood are so dear to God that even their deaths are precious to Him.” We will walk right from this life into the next, into the open arms of our Savior.

My brother is home now. He is truly in his element. He is more alive than he has ever been. And all who are in Christ by grace and through faith will see him again. I can’t wait.

You know, there’s a glassy sea in heaven. Wonder if there are any fish in it?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Everyday checkups are vital

“The bathroom scale is not your enemy.”

That was how a recent article in USA Today began. Kim Painter wrote that the conventional wisdom of weighing once a week has been refuted by a study at the Duke Global Health institute that suggests the optimal frequency for stepping on the scales is every day. College freshmen who weighed themselves every day during a semester put on no weight, while their classmates added an average of five pounds.

Now let me hasten to say, dear reader, that your self-worth is not measured in pounds gained or lost. You are infinitely valuable to the One who created you in His own image, and paid for you with His own blood. But it is precisely for that reason that I want to do all I can to bring Him glory. That made me wonder: If this principle holds true with weight loss maintenance, it stands to reason that this habit would apply to other areas of our lives.

If daily checking on my weight is an incentive to eat right and exercise so the scales don‘t begin to creak and groan again, what about my relational health? Daily checking my heart for signs of bitterness or envy or lust or selfish pride is essential. What about my mind? When you add up time spent on entertainment media, TV, and computers, it comes to a staggering 12 hours per day for children and youth ages 8 to 18, as compared to 25 minutes spent reading books.

In the more than 30 years that I have been in the ministry, I can agree with Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. The people I have met who are the most vibrant and growing in their faith are, without exception, the ones who consistently spend time reading their Bibles and praying.

They are involved in a healthy church that believes the Bible is the Word of God. They participate in weekly fellowship groups where there are people who know them well and are willing to hold them accountable. Most of the time they do not do these things because they “have to“ or out of a sense of duty, but because they get to, with a sense of delight.

They make it their aim, Paul said, “to be pleasing to Him.” They step on the scales daily because they would agree with Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.“

Then there are many others who put the scales as high up in their closet as they can. Their spiritual lethargy has become a way of life. They would read their Bible every day, but they just can‘t seem to get around to it. They have good intentions, but they have an even better TV schedule. They would go to church every week, but getting up in time to get the kids ready is just too much of a hassle.

And after all, they can “go to church” “with Charles Stanley, and hear a sermon in their pajamas and not have to get involved with other people. They feel guilty sometimes that they are not involved in any kind of regular fellowship group with Christians who will love them enough to hold them accountable. But they push that scale deeper in the closet, stuff their guilt, and console themselves with the thought that they are doing just fine, better in fact than their next-door-neighbor! So, life goes on. Nothing changes.

Stepping on the scales can be depressing. It may also be the first and most important step back to health.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Revival comes from God

Jonathan Edwards was a child prodigy who started Yale at 13 and graduated at the top of his class at 17. He is perhaps best known for his sermon, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God,” which he preached to his congregation in 1741. Some of you readers who are my age or older may remember reading that sermon in high school or college, not only for its historical significance but also for its powerful metaphors. Edwards was 38 years old at the time, and right in the middle of the First Great Awakening. He watched as revival took over his hometown in western Massachusetts, and wrote, “One day God invaded the town of Northampton. The town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” The bars emptied and churches and Christian homes filled with people who were anxious to know God.

Visitors to the town were stunned by the atmosphere in Northampton, and Edwards wrote, “If you came across someone who seemed to be spiritually indifferent, it would be spoken of as a strange thing.” George Whitfield came from England in 1740 to preach and eventually became friends with Benjamin Franklin, who went to hear Whitfield on many occasions, and even hosted Whitfield in his home. Franklin wrote of the impact of the revival that was taking place in the colonies, “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.” He also wrote about a particular prayer that his friend Whitfield was praying for the American people, that “they would not live as 13 scattered colonies, but as one nation under God.”

As I study the book of Nehemiah, and as we preach through it at Antioch, we see the same kind of awakening happening in Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C. It began when Nehemiah gathered the residents of the city and Ezra the priest read from the Book of the Law (the first five books of the Bible) for six hours. The people were cut to the heart because they saw how far they had fallen from the will of God for their lives, their families, and their nation. For several weeks the entire city heard the Word read and preached, and studied it together. The culmination occurred in Nehemiah 9 when the people again heard the Word preached for three hours, and they confessed their sins and worshiped the Lord for another three hours. I told our congregation that this is a clear example of something in the Bible that is descriptive, not prescriptive. Were it the latter, I would be planning our six-hour worship services starting this Sunday, for the three people who would show up. It was descriptive, but what a clear description of the seeds of revival! God said it clearly: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Here we are in 2016, in desperate need of revival, and the seeds are the same. It is dependent on those who are called by His name. We cannot go to the polls and elect revival (although there is no excuse for a follower of Christ who chooses not to vote). We must go to the Lord, to His Word, to the corporate gathering of His people.

Revival comes from God.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Don't do random acts of kindness

A woman went to her lawyer and said, “I want to get a divorce. I really hate my husband, and I want to hurt him. Give me some advice.” In addition to wanting to get the gold and give him the shaft, she was wondering about some other way that she might do him in. The attorney said, “Look, you’re going to divorce the guy anyway, so for three months don’t criticize him. Speak only well of him. Build him up. Every time he does something nice, commend him for it. Tell him what a great guy he is, for three months. After he thinks he has your confidence and love, hit him with the news, and it will hurt more.” The woman loved the idea and went after it with gusto. She complimented her husband for everything he did. For three months she told him what a great man he was.

After three months, they forgot about the divorce and went on a second honeymoon.

You see what happened? Without meaning to, this woman began to practice unconditional love. She began to give without expecting anything in return. She practiced what Jesus taught, “But love your enemies and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.”

I can do good and lend, sometimes. I can even love my enemies. Sometimes. It’s that last part, “expecting nothing in return” that takes the wind out of my sails.

Richard Foster wrote, “Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service, but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition.”

That hurts. But it makes me look deeper into the idea that, by God’s grace, I can give with no strings attached. I can be like Mordecai, who served the King without any hope of reward, or I can live like Haman and do everything with a hidden motive of seeking man’s approval and the King’s favor.

Facing arrest for his faith, Dirk Willems fled for his life across a frozen lake. When his pursuer broke through the ice, Willems gave up his chance to escape by turning to save his persecutor. He was then captured, imprisoned, and burned at the stake in 1569.

Two brothers complained bitterly to their pastor because a man kept coming and stealing water from them. They had worked long and hard to irrigate their fields in order to produce a healthy crop and provide for their families, but it was threatened by this man’s constant theft. The pastor surprised them by suggesting they irrigate the man’s fields for him, and ask for nothing in return. The brothers followed the advice and were amazed at what happened. They began to love the man, and they finally were able to witness to him and lead him to the Lord.

A young boy was forced to carry a German soldier’s pack for one mile during the Nazi regime. He did so, but decided to obey the words of Jesus and go two miles. The German soldier asked why, and he was able to witness to him. Later the boy said, “I believe the best witnessing starts during the second mile.”

What do all of these stories have in common? They are purposeful acts of loving others the way Jesus did, not random acts of kindness.

Surprise your friends and bless your enemies. Practice this love that Jesus demonstrated. Give it away as freely as He did.