Monday, October 16, 2017

I Want to Know Him

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

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

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

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

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

The long walk of obedience will be worth it.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Salvation is Not a Do-It-Yourself Project

I had a friend named Jack Robinson growing up. It’s true. You millennials might not know that people used to use that name to explain quickness: “Are you going to the beach?” “Just as quick as you can say Jack Robinson.” Well, my friend was quick, but not always as quick as I was. We competed in everything. Running. Throwing sticks. Wrestling. Climbing trees. We even competed in selling vegetable seeds door to door. But every time we competed, the winner had bragging rights. That’s why we competed, so whoever won could brag. The winner would always brag about how much he trounced the other, and the loser would always have an excuse for why he did not win. Bottom line? We wanted to be the best.

So did Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion. With all seriousness, Paul included a list in his letter to the Philippians about why he had more reason to brag about his past accomplishments than anyone. He says, in effect, “You think you have reason to brag? Step aside, son. You ain’t got nothing.” I’ve noticed that when Paul brags, he uses poor grammar, just to make a point. Paul continued, “Let me tell you about a man who was a legend in his own time. That man, my boy, would be me.” I am using poetic license, of course, but Paul did brag to the Philippians, in order to make this point: though he climbed to the top of the ladder as a religious person, when he arrived at the pinnacle he discovered his ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. Paul discovered, through a blinding flash, that salvation is not a do-it-yourself project.

Had it been, Paul would have been a rock star in his day. I imagine a first century show called “Israeli Idol” that Paul would have won, every single year. Because the show wouldn’t have been about singing or dancing, but about reciting memorized Scriptures. Praying long, elaborate prayers. Fasting. And of course, Paul’s favorite talent: persecuting Christians. He makes the case in his letter that there was no one who even came close to having his devotion, his zeal, and his righteousness under the law.

Ahh, there’s the rub. The law cannot make one righteous any more than a mirror can clean one’s face. The law, like a mirror, shows us our need for cleansing. In the midst of his busy pursuit of making himself acceptable to God, Paul was apprehended by the Lord himself. On his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul met the Savior and exchanged his pharisaical robes of self-righteousness for the righteousness of Christ. Paul’s life was turned right-side-up. But, wait…

What about his resume? His pedigree? His studies at the feet of Gamaliel? His blamelessness “under the law”? Paul uses a crude expletive to describe all of his past accomplishments. He calls it rubbish, or, “dung.” The word was sometimes used in the Greek to describe the piles of, umm, stuff you see people scooping off the ground with a plastic grocery bag on their hand and then turning the bag inside out. I saw a lady do that recently while she was walking her dog, and then I watched in amazement as she put the grocery bag in her purse. Paul would be horrified at that, but even more, he was mortified at the wobbly foundation of do-it-yourself salvation that he had been standing on until he met Christ.

I don’t know what happened to my childhood friend and competitor. I just know that as quick as you could say “Jack Robinson,” 50 years have gone by since we were racing up Walden Avenue together. Maybe I will find one day that Jack came to the same place I did, and that he put his life and his faith into the hands of the One who can turn anyone right-side-up. I hope so.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Bibles and Hearts Collect Dust at the Same Rate

This summer a Vietnamese believer was arrested and beaten after police raided his home looking for Christian materials. A few days before arresting “Mr. Lee”, police had arrested other Vietnamese Christians and discovered Christian materials on their digital music players. The Christians stated under duress that the materials had come from Mr. Lee, a dedicated Christian in northern Vietnam. Police didn’t find anything in the raid, but they still detained him for two days, beat him and warned him to stop distributing Christian materials. 

Several years ago, Shi Weihan was sentenced to three years in a Chinese prison for printing Bibles to give away. (both stories from Voice of the Martyrs)

Let’s think about that. A man in Vietnam is beaten for giving people materials about the Christian faith. A man in China is sent to prison and fined the equivalent of $22,000 for printing and distributing Bibles at his own expense, leaving his wife and two young daughters to fend for themselves while authorities “continue to pressure the family.”

Here’s a question for you: what is the difference between a nation that can’t read the Bible, because it is not available to its people, and a nation that won’t read the Bible? It evokes Mark Twain’s quip, “The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.”

Forget the nation. What about the Christians? Why are there so many people who claim to be followers of the God of the Bible who never or seldom read the Bible of their God? Why is it that the typical church-goer in America couldn’t find the book of Philemon or Ezra without a table of contents if his life depended on it? Get into a discussion about the Bible with the average church-attender today and it won’t be five minutes before he will say something like, “God helps him who helps himself. That’s in the Bible, you know.” No. It isn’t. Or he might make the ridiculous statement, “Jesus never claimed to be God, and he never claimed to be the only necessary substitute for our sins.” The truth is, many in the church have no idea what the Bible really says because they never read it. The problem, I contend, is often found not in the pews, but in the pulpit.

Think about it. If your math teacher never lectured on algebra but instead spent his time in class pontificating on nuclear disarmament, the ozone, or grey squirrels, would you lug your textbook to class? Would you even read it?

You want to know one of my favorite sounds? The sound of rustling pages of Scripture as the congregation, including children, turns to the text that we will be studying that morning. I often say, “If you don’t have a Bible, look on with someone who does.” We have only a few scattered copies of the Bible in the pews, so it is rare that someone comes to church without his Bible. Many have spent time during the week in the next passage in the book of the Bible we are working our way through. Many have had conversations with their families about the upcoming passage, to prepare their hearts for the sermon. Why? Because the Bible is not just a great work of literature. It is the Word of God, and is necessary that “the man or woman of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That’s why people are willing to be beaten, or go to jail, or worse, to get the words of life into the hands of those who don’t have it.

Bibles and hearts collect dust at about the same rate. Read your Bible.

Monday, September 25, 2017

These Things Should Mark Us

In reprimanding those who depend on their good works for salvation, Paul counters with a picture of what a Christian is to do. He wrote that we are to worship by the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.

When you think of worship, don’t think “standing at your pew, singing worship songs.” That’s only a small part of worship. To become a worshipper means that our direction and our affections are changed, not just for a few minutes on Sunday and not just in a certain location, but all the time and in every place. Jesus teaches us that worship is not a service or a religious ceremony. It is not dependent on a place or a liturgy or smells or bells. Worship is what Christians cannot help but do all the time, because the Spirit of God has moved in and taken over. I saw a picture of this recently as I visited with Hilda at Twin Lakes. She is 94, a widow, and a wonderful woman of God who blesses me every time I see her. Hilda is not able to attend church, but boy, does she love Jesus, and she talks to him all day long. She said with a wink, “I tell the Lord, ‘Now, if I am asking too much, you tell me!’”

“Glory in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Hilda was doing. This is just a natural outflow for those who worship by the Spirit of God, because the work of the Spirit is to glorify the Son.

“Put no confidence in the flesh.” How can we survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, and then pat ourselves on the back? Good job reading the Bible this morning! Great prayer at church, you really knocked that one out of the park! You know gained you some points with God for sure!

Kind of turns your stomach a little doesn’t it? Beware of becoming the older brother in the story Jesus told about the prodigal son. The point of the story was not really the penitent prodigal younger brother, but the proud, pharisaical older brother, whose confidence was in his works, which made him a stay-at-home prodigal. The older brother, the proud prodigal said in anger to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you,” while refusing to come in and celebrate that his brother had come home. Then he said with disgust, “I never disobeyed your command.” Do you see his ‘religion?’ “Look what I did. Look how many rules I have kept!” Because his confidence was in his own self-righteousness, he felt justified in being angry with his father, even accusing his father of not loving him enough. He was a legalist, just like many today who measure their worth to God, and therefore what He ‘owes’ them, by their own good deeds.

Listen, the flip side is true as well. Many Christians fear God’s disapproval because they constantly weigh whether they do enough, whether they love enough, whether they serve enough. That’s prodigal thinking. What brought the prodigal home was not the thought that he really could do better if he tried harder. No. What brought him home was a confidence that his father would take him in, even if only as a hired servant. His confidence was in his father, not in his own works. What a surprise when he was welcomed with a kiss, a ring, shoes, and a robe!

We also can come home every single day with that same expectation and hope, that our Father will take us in, not because of our pitiful ‘good deeds,’ but because of the work completed by His Son.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Add These Qualities to Your Life

If Epaphroditus were around today, he might be in Texas or Florida with cleaning supplies and food to give away. Or maybe in Southeast Asia. Any place where people need help. There are many just like Epaphroditus, some who are reading this column today. He lived in the first century and you can read about him in the book of Philippians. Epaphroditus brought funds from the Philippian church that enabled Paul to survive in a Roman prison, which did not provide food, clothing or medical attention to inmates. I like what Paul said about this man, and suggest these are five qualities we all need. Paul called him a brother, fellow worker, fellow soldier, messenger, and minister.

Brother: this is what we call a man in the church when we don’t remember his name. “Hey, brother, how are you doing?” But Paul uses the word to describe the relationship he had with Epaphroditus. That’s how we are eternally connected to one another, not by skin tone or language or nationality or race, but by blood. The blood of Jesus makes us brothers and sisters. It reminds me, with the racial tension in our nation right now, that I am much more closely related to the African-Americans in our church who are believers than I am to the closest relative I have that does not know Jesus. We are family. Period.

Fellow worker: this is important. Paul was the up front apostle who preached to thousands and planted churches and led the expansion of the gospel in the first century. Epaphroditus was part of the support team. And yet, they were equals.

Fellow soldier: There’s a spiritual battle raging in the world, one that will continue until Jesus returns. The most dangerous place in any battle is right next to the man who doesn’t realize he is in a battle. Or that doesn’t want to be in the battle. Or is not prepared and equipped to fight the battle. That guy can get you killed. This man, Epaphroditus, was no wilting flower. He was battle-tested and willing to risk his life to complete the mission that he had been given.

Messenger: Epaphroditus was entrusted to bring a gift to Paul. It would have been a large amount of money. Then he was entrusted by Paul to take the apostle’s letter back to the Philippians. In the scheme of things, which was worth more? The letter! But in each mission, the messenger was trustworthy.

Minister: this word carries the idea of priestly duties. Epaphroditus was there not just to give a gift to Paul, but to minister to his needs. I heard a man speak on Labor Day about work, and he asked this question: What percentage of what you did yesterday was sacred, and what percentage was secular? Think about that, and answer honestly. Do you think that maybe 20% of what you do in a normal day is sacred? Or even 50 percent? Listen, dear readers. There is no separation for the Christian between the sacred and the secular. Everything we do is sacred. That’s why Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.” Not only that, the truth is that we are each called into the ministry. Each of us is necessary for God’s glory to be realized in His church and to be seen in the world.

Brother (or sister), worker, soldier, messenger and minister. Wouldn’t that look good on your tombstone? Cindy and I joke about what will be on ours one day. I say her tombstone will say, “I just couldn’t get everything done.” I am afraid mine will say, “He was a jerk, but he was our jerk.” But I’m working hard to get “brother, worker, soldier, messenger, and minister” on there. Don’t call the guys at Askew & Peterson Monument just yet.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Choose People Over Tasks

It is one thing to be available to serve in the church or in the community. It is another thing to be compassionate. When Paul referred to a young man he trusted enough to send to the church in Philippi, he said something important about Timothy. Paul wrote, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” An available person is really not useful unless he or she is also genuinely concerned for others. You don’t want someone keeping the nursery that doesn’t like babies, no matter how available she is! You really shouldn’t ask someone to visit the sick that has a track record of grumbling and complaining before, during and after making such visits. What was it about Timothy that made Paul choose him over every other person in the city of Rome?

We know there were people who were not quite as timid as Timothy. He had a reputation for such, and Paul had to light a fire under him at least once by way of encouragement. There were certainly people in the church in Rome who didn’t have health issues, as Timothy did. No doubt there were people in the church in Rome who were older than Timothy, and more experienced. But those things, timidity, ill health, and youth were not limiters. No, the problem, the limiter, was a lack of compassion for others. Those Paul passed over simply did not care enough about other people. Timothy, with all his weaknesses, had one thing going for him. He put the Lord’s interests ahead of his own, and he put people ahead of tasks.

I say with shame that it has been a cause of tears in my marriage on more than one occasion, when I did not show genuine concern and compassion for people. My biggest concern was getting something done, and I allowed no one to get in my way, so that I could complete the task. You all know that there are people who are much more task-oriented than others, and I would admit to being one of them. We “task-driven” folks are continually frustrated by people who don’t get things done as quickly as we do. Or that sometimes don’t complete a task at all. But here’s the thing. These same people we tend to look down on are usually much more relational, and much more likely to stop their “all-important” task and tend to someone’s more important need.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks.... It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked yet straight path.’”

Listen, dear reader. We need each other, but mostly we task-oriented people need to be more like you relational people. There is a balance, and I am not saying that if you are relational, it’s fine if you never complete a task. No, God called us to do good works, the ones He has prepared for us, and it glorifies Him for us to do that and do it well.

The greatest work, however, is to love the Lord, and to love the people that He has placed in our lives. For people who learn to do that well, all the mundane tasks in the world seem silly in comparison.
I hope to be one of those people some day.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Hold Fast to Something Secure

My kids love to tell the story of the time when two of them were out in the ocean during our family vacation and got caught in a rip tide. Let me say quickly that these were not 6 year olds. They were teenagers who knew how to swim, and who knew that when the tide is pushing you out to sea, you either float for a few minutes, or you swim parallel with the ocean until you can make your way into shore. They said they were doing all of those things but it wasn’t working. So, they started yelling for me to come out and help them. This is why they love to tell the story, because they claim that as they were screaming their lungs out, I was happily sitting on the beach, sipping a drink and reading a magazine. Look, I don’t remember that event at all, and therefore I don’t think it happened. But their version was they were struggling for their very existence while their dad was oblivious.

I thought about that last week when I was sitting on the same beach, watching my grandchildren in the water. The tide was rough and they are little, so their father and mother were out there with them, keeping a close eye. Each of the little guys was wearing a swim vest or a floatie. They were also sometimes holding onto a raft or a boogie board. I noticed that even with all of that to keep them afloat, the inevitable happened. A big wave would surprise them, tossing them hard to the surf, sometimes bringing tears along with their scraped knees and elbows.

It reminded me that there is nothing we can hold onto in the ocean, or in all the world, that will protect us from any possibility of harm. I know Bill Withers used to tell me that I could lean on him. He said, “You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand, we all need somebody to lean on.” Now that I’ve put that song in your head, let’s say thanks, Bill, but I need something more substantial to lean on! If we can’t lean on Bill, what can we depend on? Some would say, “I need to look out for number one. After all, when push comes to shove, and every other cliché I can think of, there’s only one person I can count on, and that’s this one: me.” Can I put it to you gently? You are about the last person you should be leaning on and counting on when the roll is called up yonder. Giving yourself a big ‘ol bear hug through life will not prepare you to meet the Lord. Just the opposite. OK, so what else can we hold onto? Well, there’s money. Stuff. Jesus said there’s not enough money or stuff anywhere to secure one sorry soul. He said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” OK, maybe we could hold onto education. Maybe the key is just knowing more, and piling up degrees. Hey, education is a great floatie, and we should all have some, but in the storm that’s coming, it will not hold your head above water. No, the hymn writer has it right: our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. He alone is the Word of Life. Jesus Christ is our only Savior.

And here’s great news: He will hear your cry. He will never ignore your plea for help when the waves are overtaking you.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Don’t indict Christ because of Christians

The heinous actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago with a friend over lunch. He was born into a different faith tradition than mine. I am a Christian, but not because I was born into it. Actually, you cannot be born a Christian, but that’s another column for another day.

Anyway, this friend of mine challenged me with a question that is popular among skeptics. “Millions of people have been killed in the name of religion,” my friend said. “Even Christians have killed many in the name of Christ. How do you explain that?”

“That’s a great question,” I replied, as an idea came to my mind that I had never thought before, and it came with that sweet assurance that I have had many times in such situations. I have come to trust these little bits of inspiration as being from the Lord.

I said, “OK, let’s look at it this way. Suppose you started getting a following because you are a really cool guy and everybody wants to be just like you. (Not that Jesus should be followed because he’s cool, and actually no one can follow him unless he changes them first!) But back to your story: pretty soon, there are people flocking to you, trying to look like you and act like you. The others in the world start calling them ‘Sherifans’ because they follow you, Boris Sherifa (not his real name). You tell them, “There are three simple things I think you should do in life. Wear red.” (He was wearing a red shirt.) “Eat tuna wraps.” (That’s what he was having for lunch). “And be kind to people.” (This guy is as kind and courteous as they come.)

He was smiling at me, enjoying the story and his fictional fame, but wondering where I was going with this.

“OK, so you have this huge following, and everything is great. Until one day, one of the ‘Sherifans’ sees a guy wearing green, eating a chili burger, and cursing his waiter. He follows him out of the restaurant and kills him, thinking he is doing you a favor by eliminating a ‘nonbeliever.’” I stopped and said, “Do you see the point, Boris? If Christians killed Jews or Muslims during the Crusades, thinking they were doing Christ a favor, does that nullify the Christian faith? Certainly they did what was wrong, but does that mean Jesus is no better than they? Does their wrong action make the truth that Jesus taught about himself any less valid? I don’t think so. Does it change the fact that he alone has risen from the dead? Not one iota.

“You cannot judge a system of beliefs by the actions of those who claim to follow those beliefs, but really violate them at their very core. Those who claim to love Jesus but hate their fellow man because of his race, nationality, or anything else, do not really love Jesus. But, listen! The followers of Jesus Christ are not the standard. Christ himself is the standard, and the Bible says that God ‘has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained.’ Jesus is the man. It is his righteousness, not mine or the Pope’s or Billy Graham’s, that is the standard. It is Christ alone we must follow, for he alone can save us.”

At the end of our lunch, “Boris” said he appreciated the way I explained things to him, and that he would be asking “Whoever is out there” to show him the way to go.

“I really want to know,” he said. “Do you think he will show me the truth?”

I believe God will. He loves to answer the prayers of those who are truly seeking after him.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Whatever fills you controls you

Have you ever seen anybody who was filled with rage? The anger that fills them also controls them. I remember as a teenager going on a double date with my cousin. Halfway through the date, I found out the girl I was with had an insanely jealous boyfriend. He was also big, she said. “And,” she added, “he has a nasty temper.” I figured that to be a deadly combination, so I filed that information away, reminding myself to avoid this boyfriend of hers at all costs. We were driving home later that night when all of a sudden my cousin said, “Uh-oh.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked, thinking maybe we were running out of gas. “Don’t look now,” he said, “but Marty is right on our tail.” I looked anyway and saw a car about two inches from our bumper, and we were doing 60 on the interstate.

“Who’s Marty?” I asked. “Uh…that’s my boyfriend,” my date answered.

Now, up until this point I had only done one thing I regretted, and that was to go out with this girl in the first place. But now I became a willing participant in a series of stupid mistakes. May I say to any teens who happen to be reading this: “Don’t try this at home…or on the interstate.” My cousin floored the car, a 1972 Camaro Z28, and we took off like a rocket. We were going over 90 mph with Marty right on our tail, and it is only by the grace of God, gentle readers, that I am here to tell the story. We finally reached our exit, careened onto the ramp, and headed for my cousin’s house. Marty was only seconds behind us. My cousin realized we weren’t going to outrun him, so he said something like, “Good luck, Mark!” I was shaking with adrenaline and fear, and could hear the words “big…nasty temper…insanely jealous” reverberating in my skull. My legs felt like Jello and my mouth was dry as dust.

About that time my cousin slammed on the brakes in his carport, and I managed to fall out of the car to face my attacker, who was jumping out of his car as it slid to a stop in the driveway.

Now you have to realize that at this time in my life, I had not yet had my growth spurt. In fact, I still haven’t had it, but I was a skinny 16-year-old then, only about 5’ 8” and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. As I recall it, Marty seemed to tower over me by at least a foot. But what I remember most of all was the purple rage that consumed him. He was so filled with wrath that he had no control of his body. He couldn’t swing his fists because the anger controlled them. He couldn’t speak, but sputtered and fumed, because anger had his tongue. As he stumbled toward me I bent over, and he pounded me on my back. The blows were nothing, dissipated by the rage that controlled him.

I saw something that day I will never forget. Whatever fills you controls you, whether it is wine, anger, lust or greed. That’s why the Bible says, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man. Lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” Or, I might add, lest he rearrange your face.

I am so thankful the Lord spared my life that day, and gave me a picture of what anger can do to a man’s soul.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Work out, not for, your own salvation

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This command in Paul’s letter to the Philippians has caused many to stumble, to make an argument for works-righteousness, and even to believe that what Jesus did was not enough. That he needs my help to save me. We know that’s nonsense, and the plain meaning of this text makes perfect sense. Paul says work out your salvation. He doesn’t say work in your salvation. Or work up your salvation. Or work for your salvation! No, we are to work it out. In other words, what God has secured in you through His grace given on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, work it out in every way and on every day. It’s what we do in our marriages, right? Were you done when you said, “I do”? No, you were just getting started. And for the rest of your life, you are working out your marriage in fear. And sometimes with trembling!

If you are working out your salvation as a father, it means you are learning to bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. You cannot learn that without starting to do it badly. But you have to start. When my children were very young, they each had trouble learning to ride a bike. They fell. They scraped their knees. They cried. But they kept getting back on the bike until it became second nature to them. Get back on the bike, Dad, and lead your family in the things that are most important. If you are working out your salvation as a student, it means you study. You work hard. If you are working out your salvation as a brother or sister in Christ in your church family, it means that when you are offended, you don’t hold onto that. You let it go quickly, and if you can’t let it go, you go to the one who offended you and you work it out. And yes, it will require work, sacrifice, and discipline. Tim Challies had a good word on this recently:

“I want to have 10 percent body fat. I set that goal a while ago and even managed to get really close to reaching it. But eventually I found out that I want to have 10 percent body fat just a bit less than I want to have 13 percent. There’s a key difference between the two: While 13 percent requires moderate effort to gain and retain, 10 percent requires strict discipline. I soon learned I just didn’t want the goal enough to put in the effort to achieve it. I didn’t meet my desire with discipline.” Then he adds, “I often consider the people I’ve known who set an example of unusual godliness. I think of well-known Christian men who lived godly lives in the public eye and who carried out unblemished ministries. I think of unknown and unnoticed women who lived equally godly lives far outside the public eye. What did they have in common? What was the key to their holiness? I believe it was their discipline. They disciplined themselves for the highest godliness. They were spiritual athletes who ensured their highest desires supplanted their baser desires. They achieved godliness because they aimed at godliness.”

We all have work to do if we are to aim at God’s best for us. Thankfully, we are never alone. Paul adds, “for it is God who works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Moldova, men and ministry

You can find an article online that was published last year in The Telegraph entitled, “25 amazing things you probably didn’t know about Moldova.” It’s a good read, and though I have been to the tiny country in Eastern Europe twice, I learned a lot from the article. That being said, my oldest son and I didn’t go there because it is the least visited country in Europe. Or because they have great wine. Or because the people speak two and sometimes three languages. We went because we were invited by World Team Moldova, a missions organization committed to coming alongside churches and their leaders to encourage and equip them.

Micah and I had a great time in Chisinau, the capital city, as we spent five days on the ground meeting with men who were invited to hear us address two topics with them. Our first mission was to encourage men to take up the mantle of spiritual leadership in their homes. In Moldova, as in many other places in the world, men mostly take a passive role in the home. If they lead at all, it is often tyrannical, and sometimes abusive. Micah and I shared from the Scriptures and from personal experience how they could lead in a different way, through love and through service. We encouraged them to study the Bible and to teach their families what they are learning. We challenged them to pray with and for their wives. We pleaded with them to demonstrate in word and deed how much they love their wives and their children. We prodded them to protect their families from false doctrine.

We exhorted them to provide for their families, not just financially, but by preparing their children to be adults. “You are not raising children,” we said to the men, “you are raising adults. More than that, you are raising parents, who will, like you, invest in the next generation. Prepare them well, for the sake of their children, and for the sake of Moldova.” In each session, we had to work through a translator. I was telling the story of a young man in England who years ago wrote in his diary, “Went fishing with my father. Best day of my life.” The man translating into Russian misunderstood diary, and said that the young man had diarrhea. He was quickly corrected by three others in the room who understood English, but it was a reminder that when you don’t know the language, you are absolutely at the mercy of your interpreter. In this case, it ended well and gave us a lighter moment. By the way, the point of the story was that this young man’s father was a diplomat and historians found his diary to see what he had written on that day. It was this: “Went fishing with my son. A day wasted.”

Our second mission was to encourage church leaders and pastors to look again at what the New Testament says about the importance of a plurality of elders in the church. The model in Moldova for church leadership, as in much of the world, is a solo pastor at the top, and a board of people under him who assist in the ministry. We spent time looking at a different way, which is on display clearly in the book of Acts and in the letters Paul, Peter, and others wrote to the churches.

We have been invited back to Moldova, and I look forward to continuing our relationship with the people in this beautiful country.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Get the Leaving Part Right

I was in line at a wedding reception a few years ago when a man asked if I remembered what happened at his big day nearly sixteen years earlier. I started laughing. The picture is etched in my mind of the two of us who were officiating the wedding standing in front of the two being united that day in holy matrimony. The problem was, there was a third party standing there. Right between the bride and groom. You see, the pastor who was supposed to ask, “Who give this woman to be married to this man?” forgot to ask. As a result, the man giving the bride away kept standing there. He didn’t know what to do, and the pastor who forgot to ask the question didn’t know there was anything that needed to be done. This was only the third wedding I had officiated so I didn’t know what to do either. We were all undone.

As I recall, the vows were spoken by the bride and groom as each kind of leaned forward and looked past the man in the middle. He was no small man and the image of those vows being tossed across the bow at each other makes me laugh every time I think of it. An awkward situation, to be sure, but the couple came to the same end that every wedding is supposed to come to: they were married when it was over. That story has been told and re-told for these many years and I am sure it will live on in the lives of their children’s children.

I couldn’t help but think about what that wedding scene represents for so many who never really left home on their wedding day. Though a man in the middle of the wedding ceremony may not change anything, a man (or woman) in the middle of the marriage will spell disaster. You have heard these stories. Young newlyweds decide to remodel their living room. The groom’s mother hears about it, orders paint and wallpaper that she thinks would look best, and shows up on Saturday morning ready to go to work. Or a young couple with their first child decides to go to the lake for a summer vacation. When the maternal grandmother hears about it she insists that the young man not take her daughter and grandchild to that lake “because it is not safe.” Or a young family is visiting grandparents when one of their children acts up and needs to be spanked. The young man’s father tells him he is being rash and begins to teach him, as he says, about the “proper way to discipline your children.”

At most weddings I officiate, I ask the parents of both the bride and groom to stand. Then I say, “You have the privilege and the responsibility to pray for (this couple), to support his leadership in their marriage, to give advice and counsel only when asked, to encourage them and take delight in their life together as husband and wife. Will you pledge to do this?” The two sets of parents will then promise before God and man to let the young couple establish their own household as the Lord requires.

Jesus said it like this: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The picture of a mother or a father sleeping between newlyweds makes us shudder. There’s no room for a third party in the middle of a marriage.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Don’t make God into who you want him to be

 There was an AP story several years ago entitled, “Gone to the dogs: church starts pet service.”  It involved a pastor in Los Angeles who, wanting to add more bottoms in the pews, decided it did not matter how furry those behinds were. He started a service for dogs, “complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers and an offering of dog treats.” Pastor Eggebeen’s, um, support, for this idea came to him through close examination of the Scriptures. I say this with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Here is the pastor’s logical leap: “The Bible says of God only two things in terms of an ‘is’: That God is light and God is love. And wherever there’s love, there’s God in some fashion. And when we love a dog and a dog loves us, that’s a part of God and God is a part of that. So we honor that.”

I shudder at the influence of such men on congregants who simply have no clue what the Bible really says. Many who read this column will have had the same visceral reaction to Eggebeen’s statements that all we know for sure of God is that He is light and love. We also know that He is holy, just, good and glorious. We know that He came to earth in human flesh to “seek and to save that which was lost.” We know that Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” We know that God created all that we see and all that we cannot see and that into man alone He breathed His Spirit.

We also know that humans alone have souls and can therefore be saved from sin. At no time while Jesus was here on earth is it recorded in the Bible that He stopped to bless an animal or heal someone’s pet. He mentioned animals at times in His teaching to show sinful man what it means to trust God. He cares for the ravens, for example, “who neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them.” What is the point? Jesus says, “Of how much more value are you than the birds?” Jesus did not come and give His life for dogs, cats, birds or iguanas, but for the one species that is made in God’s image: mankind.

I understand our love for our pets; we have a dog and a cat and I grew up loving the pets I had as a child. But we must not pretend that our ability to love something brings it into the sacred realm or puts it on the same level as human beings. I admit that I laugh when I read the bumper sticker that says, “My Yorkshire Terrier is smarter than your honor student.” But that honor student was made in the image of God and has a soul that will live forever and was created to know and please and worship the Creator. The Yorkshire Terrier, as cute and as intelligent as it may be, was created by God to serve man, to live to please man, but it cannot know God or understand grace and forgiveness.

Pastor Eggebeen, like many others, may have the very best intentions with his pet-centric services of worship. But I would suggest that letting the church go to the dogs is not the answer to his attendance woes. It will simply prolong the inevitable.

Let’s not make God into what we want Him to be. We desperately need to know Him and love Him as He really is.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Grandchildren are the crown of the aged

One of my favorite passages of Scripture to read at baby dedications is Psalm 128. “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.” Maybe there’s a woman reading right now who bristles at the thought of being compared to vegetation, but believe me that the Psalmist meant it as a compliment.

There was no greater blessing to a Jewish home than children, and there was no greater sadness to a Jewish couple than to be unable to conceive. Children were considered a gift from the Lord, a divine inheritance.

Today in many places, even in many churches, children are considered a burden. The couple who dares to have more than the obligatory 1.2 children is met with sarcasm at best, derision at worst. I heard about one man whose wife had triplets and he decided to name them “Any,” “Minnie,” and “Miney.” When the man was asked why, he responded, “Because there won’t be no Mo.”

The last verse in Psalm 128 proclaims blessing upon blessing, as the psalmist says, “May you see your children’s children.”

I know from studying Scripture that it was the dream of every Jewish man to hold his grandchildren and help teach them about God. I had read in Proverbs many times, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers.”

Each time I read it, I thought about how vital godly grandparents are to the family, and what an important job they have in preparing the next generation for life and service to the Lord.

Until eight years ago, though, my head was only covered with graying hair. I was still crownless.

Cindy and I are thankful to be eight years and five grandchildren into that stage of life known as grandparenthood. We join hands gladly with all of the rest of you “old people” who have held your sons’ and daughters’ children in your arms and bragged that they are just about the best looking baby you have ever seen.

We also empathize with all of you out there who have gone through the trying time of having your grandchildren decide what you will be called from now until the day you die.

I agree with Brad Stine that the one year-old who eats out of the flower pot should not be allowed to name the family patriarch. Will it be PeePaw and MeeMaw? Or Gramps and Grannie?

I put my request in 8 years ago for “O Captain, my Captain,” but it fell on deaf ears. Micah and Kari wanted to wait until Blake was old enough to talk, to see what he came up with as he attempted to say, “Nana and Grandad.”

It seems to be official, now. We are “Nana and Gan-Gan.”

I told Blake, who turned 8 this week, that he is plenty able now to say “Grandad.” He grinned and said, “Sure thing, Gan-Gan!” Of course, his two-year-old sister is way confused; Liza calls me “Dan-Dan.”

Nonetheless, Cindy and I welcome the honor we have been given to love and nurture 5 grandchildren, and all the others who will follow, as the Lord gives His precious gift of children to our children.

OK, grandma and grandpa, what are you going to do with your grandkids? Teach them how to catch a fish? Throw a ball? Drive a car? Work hard and enjoy it? Be polite? Respect other people? Obey their parents? Those are excellent lessons.

While you’re at it, teach them one thing more. Teach them to love the Lord. Better yet, show them how you do it. They will never forget it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Go ahead and move to Humility

I remember those early Saturday mornings in the summertime when the kids were little and we were all loaded up in the car and headed to Holden for a week of vacation. You couldn’t do much more to increase my joy at that moment. But if the kids wanted to just send me over the top in ecstatic utterances of praise, all they had to do was get along with each other on the trip. They would have the same mind, to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the same love, and be in one accord. Even though we were really in one Odyssey. Paul is pointing to a place we all should move to as soon as possible. Humility. It’s not a geographical location but a way of life. What does that look like in our relationships?

It means that we have the same love. Let’s face it, some Christians are like porcupines; they have a lot of good points but they’re hard to get close to. Notice that Paul surrounds having the same love with two phrases about being of the same mind. Every fight between church members starts in the mind. A church split in Dallas started when one of the church elders was served a smaller slice of ham than the child sitting next to him. I’m not making this up. Instead of keeping his big mouth shut, stuffing it with a big slab of apple pie, the church elder expressed his displeasure, and the pork problem led to a church-wide divorce. The whole thing started in his mind, and revealed a lack of love for his fellow church members.

Humility means also that we do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach said, “Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be thankful. Conceit is self-given; be careful.” Paul had just written to the Philippians about the preachers who were proclaiming Christ out of selfish ambition. But Paul didn’t gloat and exalt himself above them. He praised God that Christ was being preached. How could Paul be so lacking in selfish ambition and conceit? Here’s how, and he concludes the verse with it: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” This command pierces our hearts, doesn’t it? This runs so counter to everything in our culture, where self-promotion seems to be the key to success, and ambition and conceit the normal fare. Instead, let’s pull up stakes and move our heart and our life to Humility. John Stott wrote, “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.”
Finally, humility means that you “Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” If our whole life is a series of selfies, interrupted by the occasional detour into serving people at a food pantry or sending a check to a missionary, then we have missed the point, haven’t we? I was in Wal-Mart with my wife recently, and my goal in that store (and any other store) is simple: get in, get it, get out. I had that look on my face, I guess, and Cindy said, “You know, if you look around at the people, it changes your perspective. I see people in here who are hurting, and it causes me to pray for them as we pass by.” Ouch. Suddenly my goals for shopping at Wal-Mart changed, as I moved my heart to Humility for the rest of that trip.

Go to the beach or the mountains, sure! But by all means, move to Humility. Life is better there.

Monday, July 3, 2017

You’re not in this alone

“I want to hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the sake of the gospel.” This encouragement from Paul is a great word picture of the church of Jesus Christ. We stand firm, and we stand together in one spirit. There are no people more unified than those who stand together in the Spirit of the living God. This is not external unity engendered by denominations or by ecumenical councils. No, it comes about by the Spirit of God. That’s why when we meet someone in another state or another country who is a brother or sister in Christ, we may wonder how we can feel such kinship with him so quickly: it is because the Spirit of God has made us one.

Notice also that we are to fight together, “striving side by side,” for the gospel. Remember that old game called Red Rover? Do kids still play that, or has it gone the way of dodge ball, because it’s too rough, and kids are too fragile? Anyway, in this game there are two groups of people, opposite one another, standing in a line with linked arms. One side calls out to the other, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Billy on over!” Billy runs as fast as he can and tries to break through the other side, hitting with all his might between two people he thinks might offer the weakest link. If he can’t break through, he becomes part of that team. If he can break through, he gets to take one of the people he broke through back to his team. This is a picture of the battle we are in, saints. We will have opponents our whole lives who will run at us with all their might, headstrong in their opinions that run counter to the truth of Scripture. We have to stand firm and catch them with the truth; we cannot give in or give over. That’s our job, to know what we believe, and Whom, and to stand firm. God’s job is to open the hearts of those who try to “break through” our faith, should He so choose, so they might believe the good news of the gospel. We can’t open their hearts, but we must be assured in our own.

They stand best who stand together. This is why the local church is so important. We stand side-by-side, arms linked in the faith, standing firm in one spirit on the truth, helping each other stand up and prevail. The picture in Scripture, again, is of a group, not a single individual. You can’t be side-by-side by yourself. We don’t run or ride this race alone. This was illustrated in the Tour of Italy race in May by the actions of a Slovenian cyclist, Luka Pibernik. During stage five of the race, Pibernik was riding alone, 50 meters ahead of the main pack when he approached what he thought was the finish line. It actually was the finish line, but Pibernik had miscounted; he had another lap to go to finish the stage. As he approached the line, he raised his hands in victory and coasted. As the pack of riders thundered past, Pibernik realized his error, but it was too late. His efforts to catch the pack and finish well did not succeed. Instead of first, he finished 148th. What would have happened if this man had been riding with one of his teammates?

Don’t walk alone. Find others with whom you are already united by the Spirit of God, and walk with them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

To live is Christ; to die is gain

Paul stated a colossal truth when he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Most Christians who have been around the Bible for even a short time have heard it or seen it.

I remember as a teenager, when God got hold of me and several other young people at the church I grew up in, this verse took on a whole new meaning for me. Up until then I would say, “For to me, to live is sports. Or fun. Or girls. Or loud music. Or anything that annoys my parents.” But then God opened my heart to who Jesus is, and gave me what I had longed for and didn’t even realize it: a reason to live.

The joy I had in knowing what I was here for also gave me a desire to help my friends find their purpose in living for Christ. Five teens from our church started a Monday night visitation program. We would ask our friends at school on Monday if we could come to their house that night and tell them what had happened to us.

Mostly they said yes, and we would show up with a few guitars, greet these kids and their shocked parents, then sit down in the living room and start singing songs like, “Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation,” by Larry Norman. The chorus goes, “Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation, And let your laughter fill the air, Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation, Tell all the people everywhere. Sing that sweet song of salvation, to every man and every nation, sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation, And let the people know that Jesus cares.”

What can I say? It was the ’70s. The lyrics weren’t deep, but the message certainly was. We wanted our friends to know that Jesus cares, and that Jesus saves, and that the reason we live is Jesus, and our greatest joy is found in Him.

Paul surrounded the colossal truth in Philippians 1 that “life is Christ” with three other powerful truths. See if you can find the other two, but one truth is this: “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” He could say that because he knew that his body was not his own: he had been bought with a price.

Listen, dear readers. If we would honor Christ in our bodies, it has to start with this understanding: This body is not mine. I am not my own.

What are some things we tend to do if we think that we own our bodies? We eat too much, or not enough. Or we eat poorly. We sleep too much, or not enough. We exercise too little, or not at all. Or “too much?” Yes, that’s possible. Anything can become an idol if we think our body belongs to us.

If we believe we own our bodies, then we can put anything we want in front of our eyes, and we can let anything we want come out of our mouths. Sex with anyone at any time becomes an unquestioned right if we think we own our bodies. Sex is separated from marriage and from producing children, if we think we own our bodies. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

Jesus changes our minds about our bodies for our good and our great joy. “My body, my choice,” is blown away by the knowledge that Jesus made the choice to pay for your body and mine, with his blood.

That’s worth singing about.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Put the gospel first

Do you know what happened after Jim Elliott and four other missionaries were speared to death in Ecuador in 1956? Thousands of young people were emboldened to take the Gospel to the mission field. The suffering and the sacrifice of Christians around the world today should give us courage to put the Gospel first. It’s worth it!

Suppose you had told Elisabeth Elliot when she first met Jim in college that she would one day be a widow with a 10-month-old baby girl, and that she would go with her daughter to the tribe that killed her husband. She would struggle and suffer there, but God would lead that tribe to faith in Jesus. She would have another husband who would leave her a widow. She would become an author and have a radio broadcast and speak at conferences and thousands would come to know Jesus or love Him better because of her. She may have said to that, “I can go through those trials for that kind of fruit.” But Elisabeth Elliot didn’t know any of that when she married Jim, or when Jim was killed trying to take the Gospel to the Waodani people.

When we are in the middle of a trial, we don’t see the fruit that will come. But our job is to trust, to be joyful, and to remain faithful. Because this is the truth: God will give others confidence to trust Him more in their suffering when they see you trusting Him in yours. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, he wrote to the Philippian church, had emboldened his fellow Christians, “to speak the word without fear.”

Francis Chan tells the story about a fellow pastor who was driving down the road and saw a driver in front of him accidentally swerve and hit a man on a bicycle in the bike lane beside him. The man on the bike was OK, but furious. He ran over to the car and opened the man’s door and started beating him! What would you do if you saw this, Chan asked, especially if the man he was beating was 75 years old? The pastor in the car behind him didn’t know what to do, but finally he jumped out and tried to pull the man off the old guy. The cyclist turned and started beating him, instead. The pastor asked himself, do I fight back? He did. He hit the cyclist and knocked him out cold.

The police showed up and asked the pastor what had happened. Pointing to the unconscious cyclist, the policeman asked, “How many times did you hit him?” The pastor said, “Honestly, just once.” “That’s what all the witnesses said, too,” the policeman replied.

When Chan told this story at church, everybody applauded. Then he said, “How many of you would have gotten out of the car to stop the assault, even if the man were bigger than you?” Most nodded or raised their hands. He said, “OK, so you would have the courage to intervene, to save this poor old man.” Then he said, “How many of you would go share the gospel with a 75-year-old man who is sitting alone in a restaurant, if you knew he was not a Christian?” No one nodded or raised his hand. Chan asked, “Why is it easier to be courageous in physical matters and not in spiritual matters? Could it be (because) speaking the Gospel is warfare?”

Hey, I dare you. Ask God to give you courage today to put the gospel first. Then get ready to speak when He opens an opportunity the same day. He will.

Monday, June 12, 2017

See what really matters

There’s a great story in Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Nora Ephron, the late screenwriter known best for her works that included the movies “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally,” said that what helped her the most in learning to capture the essence of a story was her high school journalism class. Charlie O. Simms started the first day of class explaining the concept of a “lead” for an article, that it covers the who, what, when, where, and why of the piece. Then he gave his students the facts of a story and asked them to come up with the lead. “Kenneth L. Peters, the principle of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”

The students clacked away on their manual typewriters, trying to get all the information from the teacher. Then they pounded out leads in the next few minutes and handed them in. Each student tried his best to summarize the information for their lead. One wrote, “Margaret Meade, Maynard Hutchins, and Governor Brown will address the faculty on…” Another wrote, “Next Thursday, the high school faculty will…” Simms read each of the leads and said that they were all wrong. He said, “The lead to the story is, ‘There will be no school Thursday.’”

“In that instant, Ephron recalls, “I realized journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it matters.” She added, “He taught me something that works just as well in life as it does in journalism.”

Now there is some news you can use, some truth you can hold up to the light.  More important, there’s truth you can hold up to your life. Let’s face it: we can spend the rest of our days mastering the who, what, when and where of every detail of our lives, and never get to the why. McKeown uses the example from the Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crash of December 29, 1972, to illustrate. Over one hundred passengers were killed even though the investigators found that when the plane crashed it was in perfect working condition. What happened? “The Lockheed jet had been preparing to land when first officer Albert Stockstill noticed the landing gear indicator, a tiny green light that signals the nose gear is locked down, hadn’t lit up. Yet the nose gear was locked; the problem was the indicator light. While the officers hyper-focused on the gear indicator, however, they failed to notice that the autopilot had been deactivated until it was too late. In other words, the nose gear didn’t cause the disaster. The crew’s losing sight of the bigger problem - the altitude of the plane – did.”

When the women came to the tomb on that early Sunday morning many years ago, they clearly saw the who, what, when and where. Jesus was not there. The stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty.

What’s the lead to that story, and indeed, to ours as well? “He is risen, as he said.” No knowledge in the universe is more powerful. No reason for your existence and mine is more satisfying. Jesus Christ is Lord, just as He said.

Why hammer away through the rest of your life trying to write any other ‘lead’?