Monday, February 27, 2017

It’s not the legs that matter most

I heard a former NFL coach say that the most important thing about the scouting combine was that it gave the scouts and coaches an opportunity to look the players in the eye and see what kind of character they have. “Their speed in the 40 is highly overrated,” he said. “What is most important is the interview.” The most important consideration for coaches looking to draft a young player to their team is their character? Maybe even the NFL is learning that athletic prowess connected to unbridled character leads to trouble. Just let the athlete talk about himself for five minutes, and what’s in the heart will come out.

It’s the same in the business world. When two equally skilled people compete for the same job, the person who gives the best interview usually lands it. One professional said there are five red flags for him in an interview, any one of which is a deal-breaker. Even if the candidate is imminently qualified, he won’t get the job if: 1) He talks too much; 2) She doesn’t have a basic understanding of the company; 3) He is not wearing a suit; 4) She begs for the job; 5) He doesn’t know how to communicate why he would be a good fit for the company. I would suggest that each of those "flags" indicate character problems of selfishness, laziness, carelessness, insecurity and unpreparedness.

In the NFL combine or the professional interview, the question is, does the man or woman reflect the resume? The employer is trying to get a look at the heart, the character, the real deal. God does the same.

David asked God in Psalm 15, “Lord, who may abide with You? Who is able to stand in Your presence?” He was not asking God how to be saved from his sins. That only comes by grace through faith, which cannot be earned by any man or woman. Christ paid for it on the cross. David was asking how he could know that he was really walking with God. “Lord, how can I live in such a way to enjoy the fullness of your fellowship?”

I have a warning for any of you dear readers who might entertain these thoughts: “I don’t care about the fullness of His fellowship. I just want to make sure I am in. That when the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” If that is the attitude of your heart, it may call into question whether you have ever known true repentance. When the Spirit of God comes in, He doesn’t just take up space, He takes over. There is an ongoing change in a person’s thought patterns, actions, desires, motives, goals, and affections when he has been born again. That doesn’t happen when we say to God, in effect, “Stay in this closet in the basement, please, so as not to get in the way with how I want to live my life; when I need You, I’ll let you know.” Instead, regeneration results in extreme makeover, and there are dire consequences for all who would pretend. As Charles Spurgeon said, “To own Him in our profession (what we say) and deny Him in our practice (how we live) is, with Judas, to betray Him with a kiss.”

Read Psalm 15 and see how your walk, your talk, and your values will stand as evidence of life-change. And yes, Virginia, there is a final exam. All who truly know God will pass.

No matter how fast or slow they run the 40.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Don't fall asleep at the wheel

I worked at IBM for a summer when I was in grad school and had to be there at 4:45 a.m.

I left my apartment in Chapel Hill at 4:00, and I can remember a few mornings when I was asleep at the wheel while I drove. It was God’s mercy that kept me alive. I woke up once while passing a car on Highway 54. Had there been a car coming the other way during my little nap, I shudder at the thought of what would have been lost, including the life of the oncoming driver. I would not have met my lovely bride, enjoyed 34 years of marriage, watched 7 children grow up, or held five (so far!) grandchildren in my arms. All would be lost because of one second of inattention. Some of you will remember the Hudson River crash of 2009. Nine people were killed when a single-engine Piper collided in mid-air with a Liberty sightseeing helicopter. The air traffic controller had stepped out of the tower to talk on his cellphone with his girlfriend. The supervisor was not in the tower, as required by law. Both of these men took a break, just for a brief moment, and that’s all it took for families to be destroyed.

Falling asleep unintentionally is one thing. Pursuing a lifestyle that keeps you in perpetual stupor is quite another. Jesus said, ““But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”

There is a real temptation, in other words, to deal with the hardships of life by checking out, intentionally throwing yourself into full party-mode, living for the moment, ignoring the warning signs until you swerve over the center line and into a head-on collision. Some of you scoff at the idea, completely confident in your ability to avoid the collision, to live to satisfy your every craving without a problem. May I remind you that the “Day” is coming? It comes for every man. He says, “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the earth.” Nothing ever caught in a snare meant to be there. No person in his right mind swerves on purpose into oncoming traffic. No one tries to catch a nap while driving 75 on I-85. It just happens. Jesus says it will happen to all of us one day: death will come and then we will face the final Day.

May I say this to all of you who follow Christ? You may have spent a lifetime building a testimony to faith in Him, but it just takes a split second to lose it all. One second you are awake and alert, and the next second you have fallen asleep in the arms of adultery or bitterness or drunkenness or deceit, and all is lost. Watch! Stay awake. By the way, I have never fallen asleep in the car while I am talking with someone else. We need help to stay awake. Do you have someone in your life that is willing to nudge you, or worse, when you start to drift off? I would suggest that’s what the church is for, in part. I am surrounded by a number of men who love me enough to tell me the truth, and I do the same for them. It’s a wonderful means of grace that keeps us on the road.

Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. The price is too high.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leave this spidery habit behind

Here’s a question for you: How is a slanderer like a spider?

In his book, "Ragman and Other Cries of Faith," Walter Wangerin starts one story with a lesson about eight-legged arachnids. He explains that a female spider is often a widow for embarrassing reasons — she eats her spouse. In fact, the female spider regularly eats all who wander her way, making her dining room a morgue. If you see an immobile fly that is caught in a spider’s web, most likely it is only a shell. The fly is still hanging around for decoration, but he’s been consumed. His insides have been drunk by the spider, which has no stomach, making it incapable of digesting anything. Through tiny punctures, the spider injects her digestive juices into its prey, until its insides turn into a warm soup. “This soup she swills, even as most of us swill souls of one another after having cooked them in various enzymes: guilt, humiliation … cruel love. And some among us are so skilled with the hypodermic word that our dear ones continue to sit up and smile, quite as though they were still alive.”

A gruesome picture, wouldn’t you agree? It is an awful thing to suck the life out of others with our snipes, our sneers, our stares, or our stony silence. By definition, to slander someone is to maliciously utter false statements that damage that person’s reputation. If you take the time to look up slander and its twisted sister, gossip, in the Scriptures, you will be amazed. Maybe even changed. Slander is mentioned repeatedly as a sin we must put way. The regular use of gossip and slander is associated with those who have a debased mind, and are “haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful,” and so on. One biblical admonition against slander could be literally translated, “Do not speak down on one another.” That’s a good picture, because for me to speak down on another means I have assumed a lofty position above him. One way we all slander is when we assign a motive to someone’s behavior, speaking as if we know his or her heart. “Well, the only reason she is here is to be seen. She absolutely craves the spotlight, you know.” Or, “I know why he’s late; he is lazy.” We almost always ascribe circumstances to our misdeeds, while ascribing character flaws to others. “I overslept because the alarm wasn’t loud enough. Today. For some reason. But he overslept because he’s soft. Coddled. Immature.”

Gossip is the companion of slander, but it can include truth. It is the deadly art of confessing other people’s sins, where it is supposedly safe: behind their backs. Here’s an idea on stopping the habit: refuse to listen to it yourself. It starts this way, “You know I am only telling you this because it’s true.” Or, “Let me tell you what I heard about her, because, of course, she needs our prayer!” As soon as that trigger is pulled, politely refuse to hear another word. Walk away from your stunned friend knowing that the one who brings you a tale about another will bring tales to others about you. Be the stopper. The goalie. Change the culture one person at a time. Of course, that means you will have to refuse to utter gossip about others, lest you be found a hypocrite.

The female spider will not eat her spouse if he’s bigger than her, providing us a great illustration of how we stop acting like cannibals with our speech. We simply must esteem others as more important than ourselves.

Sounds biblical to me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Clearing the Roadblocks: Is Jesus the Only Way?

Challenge: I believe Jesus was a good teacher and a great person, but when he says he's the only way to God, that's when I hit pause. That just sounds too exclusive, too unloving. If Jesus really is God—and if God really loves uscouldn't he make salvation a little less narrow?

The Truth Hurts
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6, ESV)
I certainly understand the objection to the idea "Jesus is the only way" and I don't think it's a stretch to say that this challenge isn't just a difficulty for skeptics. If we're all honest, most Christians have felt the uncomfortable nature of Jesus' claim as well. 

But let me point something out here at the onset: just because a truth claim is narrow or exclusive (or presented in an unloving manner), that doesn't automatically make it untrue. In fact, I would suggest there are all sorts of narrow truth claims that we are presented with every day, yet we don't bat an eye at them because they are plainly obvious to us.
  • Narrow - It is narrow to say that the only way to the moon is via spacecraft. There's literally no other option. But no one fights it or throws a fit because it's perfectly apparent that this is the case. To claim you don't believe it because it is "too narrow" would sound like lunacy.
  • Exclusive - We have just witnessed the spectacle that was Super Bowl 51. It is exclusive to say that only two teams get to play in the Super Bowl—and then only after battling through the gauntlet that is the divisional play-offs. But you know what didn't happen this past Super Bowl Sunday? We didn't see the 30 other teams flying into Houston in their personal jets ready to play the game because "only two teams in the Super Bowl is just too exclusive". 
  • Unloving - Sometimes the truth is just hard. It can hurt and feel unloving. But a hard truth is still a truth. If a doctor with a poor bed-side manner tells you that you have a fatal disease, you may go get a second opinion but you know what you aren't going to do? You aren't going to ask your friendly neighborhood barista for that second opinion. You aren't going to dig into your kid's toy chest and ask the Magic 8-Ball in hopes of a different answer. Dealing with a hard truth is better than happily living an illusion. 
So we can't discount Jesus' claim simply because of narrowness or exclusivity. And we can't write the message off simply because sometimes the messengers are less than compassionate in their delivery. Rather, we have to deal with the veracity of Jesus' claim itself.

Jesus: Full of Truth
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)
I love the opening of the book of John, but I have always been especially captured by the phrase that John used to describe the coming in flesh of the Son of God as "full of grace and truth". Jesus came both proclaiming full truth but with absolute grace. I believe it was Tim Keller who said "Truth without grace isn't really truth. And grace without truth isn't really grace."It is only in Christ that we find the perfect balance of grace and truth. Perhaps "balance" is the wrong word to use because that sounds like 50/50. In Christ we find the perfect union of the two.

So when Jesus says "I am the only way to God", he is saying this as one full of truth. But even more than that:

Every time Jesus makes his "only way" claim, it is always directly tied to his deity. [1]

Or to put it another way, the reason Jesus can say "I am the only way you can come to God" is precisely because he is God coming for us.

Thisas an asideis the precisely the problem with the popular "Blind Men and the Elephant" illustration. In the story, a group of blind men stumble on an elephant and begin proclaiming that it is "like a rope", or "like a tree", or "like a wall" because they each only experience a part of it. Thus, the storyteller says, I believe that everyone is right because we're all only seeing a part of God.

Here's the problem. The story only works because the storyteller is taking an omniscient all-seeing perspective—and because the elephant can't speak for itself and say what it is like. But if Jesus is who he says he is, then he is the omniscient storyteller and he is elephant speaking up for itself. If that's the case, only Jesus gets to say what God is like.

So the one thing most people want to do with Jesus is exactly what you mustn't do. You mustn't say, "I believe Jesus was who he said he was. I believe he was God. But I don't believe he's the only way to God." To do this is to separate two things that Jesus said were inextricably linked.

So if you refuse to agree with Jesus on this one point, at least have enough intellectual integrity to call it what it is: you have an honest disagreement with Jesus.

Jesus: Full of Grace

But while some may have an intellectual objection to Jesus' claim, I've found that the tension most people feel here is more of an emotional one. And this is not a criticism, I feel that same tension! (But remember: how we feel about a truth claim doesn't change the fact of it.)

But it is at this very point that Jesus—full of grace and truth—meets us. Because we are not the only ones that feel the uncomfortable exclusivity of this claim. Jesus felt it too. Let me say that again.

Jesus felt the narrowness of his own claim more starkly than anyone else ever will.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus knelt in the garden of
Gethsemane and pleaded in prayer, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will...if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." (Matt. 26)

What was happening here? Jesusknowing the immense price he was about to pay to open up a way for us back to God—was asking for another way. Jesus was feeling the the exclusivity of his own claim and it ultimately crushed him. To death. 

And yet Jesus was willingly crushed to death under the narrowness of his own claim out of love for us. Because Jesus didn't just come proclaiming "I am the only way to the Father" as one full of truth. Truth without grace here would have been cold indifference. But Jesus comes full of grace and truth declaring "I am the only way"—and then gives his own life to secure it.

[1.] Matthew 11:27, John 1:1-13, John 8:18-19, John 10:24-30, John 14:6-10

Other posts in the Clearing the Roadblocks series:
Can We Trust the Bible? (Part 1)
Can We Trust the Bible? (Part 2) 
The Resurrection
Does God Care About Our Government?

Monday, February 6, 2017

This is how you resist the devil

You should not use James’ encouragement to “Submit yourselves to God and resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” as if it were a formula for exorcism. Some have tried, and missed the first part of the verse completely. Check out the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19. Their idea of “submitting to God” was to just get familiar with Jesus-speak. They found a good prospect, one who really was possessed, and went to work with their words, throwing their Jesus-speak at the demon and expecting it to flee. One of the seven sons, maybe the oldest and most cocky, said, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” You know what happened next? You can’t make this stuff up. The demon said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” Then the demon-possessed man whooped those boys seven ways to Sunday, until the seven would-be exorcists ran out of the house naked and wounded. I’d say their little formula didn’t work. The demon was unimpressed.

This text is not a formula for exorcism, but it is a powerful encouragement to live in such a way that the enemy will continually flee from you. Walking in submission to God includes ongoing and deliberate resistance to the devil. We know how he operates, as we have a picture of it in Genesis. He told Eve that if she ate the fruit she would not die. You will be like God, he said. You will finally have access to all that God is keeping from you, he intimated. These were lies, but Eve fell into his trap because she disregarded what God had said. She submitted to the devil, and resisted God, which is always a recipe for disaster. How can we reverse that in our own lives?

It starts with bowing our will to His. This is the defining characteristic of humility. The word for submission finds its roots in the military, and it means to “be placed under the authority of another.” This is counter to the culture, right? Everything in society is telling us to go big or go home. Be your own boss. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. In fact you can sign up for hundreds of seminars that will teach you to look out for number one, learn to assert yourself, make a name for yourself, and build your personal brand. People sign up for these seminars in droves. I wonder how many would sign up for a seminar on “Submitting to God.” The brochure would say something like, “Learn to be the least, the last and the lowest. Learn to be a servant of all.” What do you think? Good seminar idea? Not by the world’s standards. Submitting to God is counter to the culture. But even worse, submitting to God is counter to our own nature. Our souls crave attention and yearn for the spotlight. That’s why the Bible is filled with admonitions like, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.” Or, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Or, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Count others more important than me? That hurts, but mainly because it forces me out of my narcissistic tendencies. And don’t confuse humility with self-hatred. Someone said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Submit yourself to God, and let him handle the demons.