Monday, January 29, 2018

Simplest Truths Are Most Profound

I remember many years ago hearing one of my relatives talk about an associate pastor at his church in another city who was getting ready to leave and take a church somewhere else. “He’s the smartest man I have ever heard, when it comes to the Bible,” the man said. “He speaks Hebrew, Greek, even Latin.” There was a slight pause and one of my young children asked, “Does he speak English?”

It’s a valid question. In this case, the answer was “yes,” but the truth is, there are many who teach in churches and universities who, for all their degrees, have never learned to communicate the simple truth of their discipline. They can throw some Greek at you, but you have no idea what they are talking about most of the time. They can tell you all about the Hebrew verbs in a passage, but then they wander down a rabbit trail that has nothing to do with the text, and you are lost. Some speak about their subjects in a way that sends their audience into a deep sleep. I even heard about one professor who fell asleep himself while he was lecturing. Standing at the chalkboard, talking to his college class, the man actually nodded off while leaning against the wall.

David Garrick, the great 18th century actor, was asked why he could so mightily move men by fiction, while preachers, speaking such awful and momentous truths, left them unmoved. He replied, “They speak truth as though it were fiction, while I speak fiction as though it were truth.” If a man speaks the truths of the Word of God as though they were fiction, then he may as well be speaking in another language to his audience, without an interpreter. It will have the same effect.

Some have passion for what they speak about, but they are so impressed with themselves … and that is what is communicated most clearly. To paraphrase Charles Spurgeon, “He who makes much of himself makes very little of God.”

Others have a passion for their subject but they refuse to “put the cookies on the lower shelf.” Their vocabulary is impressive but a stumbling block. For example, how many of you would know what is meant by this quote? “Avian bipeds whose plumage can be demonstrated to have reasonable similitude display a tendency to congregate in groupings of some magnitude.” Huh? I don’t think they had avian bipeds where I grew up. Actually, they did, and the quote simply put means, “Birds of a feather flock together.” How about this? “Male cadavers are incapable of yielding any testimony.” Maybe you can wade through that one and come up with the answer: “Dead men tell no tales.” But I bet you never heard your Mama say this to you when you were growing up: “Freedom from incrustations of grime is contiguous to rectitude.” Not if she was from around these here parts, anyway. But she might have said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Or, if she was from my neck of the woods she might have said, “Boy, git yourself warshd on the outside, and maybe yur hart will be purdy, too.” My personal favorite, however, is this one: “Scintillate, scintillate, asteroid minifid!”

Ponder on it for a minute. But in the meantime, let me remind you that it was Jesus who said, just as plain as could be, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a truth as simple to understand as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”

Monday, January 22, 2018

Everything You’ve Heard About Hospice is True

As a pastor, I have been at the bedside of the dying on multiple occasions. And I have heard from many over the years how much they appreciate the work that Hospice does to bring comfort and care in a person’s final days and hours. So, I have always known that to be true, based on others’ testimony. Now I know it is true from personal experience. My younger brother died recently at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home in Winston-Salem, the city where our mom lives. Eric lived most of his life in Myrtle Beach, and when it was clear that his days were nearly gone, the only desire my mother had was to be by his side until the end. I will always be grateful that the good folks at Reynolds made that possible.

From the moment Eric arrived, until his last breath one week later, he was loved and cared for by the staff at Hospice. The morning after Eric was transported in an ice storm from South Carolina, we got a visit from the chaplain, Rennie Adcock. I don’t know if it is a requirement for hospice chaplains to be able to sing, but this one sure can. Rennie came in and greeted my mom, my wife, and me, and then turned his full attention to Eric. Though Eric could not open his eyes to acknowledge this man, I know he heard as Rennie sang “In the Garden” in a beautiful tenor voice. The chorus goes, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” I had to wipe away a tear or two as this dear man lifted his head and sang so sweetly of the care Jesus has for his children. Rennie then prayed for Eric, and as he left, he told us that if we needed anything at all, he would be there for us.

The nurses who came in around the clock to check on Eric, to give him medicine, to keep him clean and comfortable, treated my brother as though he were the only patient in the place. They loved him to the end, though he was a stranger to them.

But nobody loved Eric like Mom did. Mom spent nearly every night by his side, sleeping in the roll-away bed that they set up for her in the room. When I came in to take her place on the day before Eric died, I found her sitting by his side, her head in her hands, her elbows propped on the bed. She was praying for her youngest, as she had his whole life. But she was also grieving that for the second time, one of her three sons was about to leave.

I spent that last night with Eric, not knowing he would die the next morning. He was laboring to breathe, and the nurses were doing whatever they could to comfort him. Though Eric couldn’t respond anymore, I prayed for him to be ready to move from this world to the next. I rubbed his head and held his hand, and told him that I loved him. When it was time for the UNC basketball game, I turned on the TV. “Hey, Eric,” I said. “The Tar Heels are playing! You don’t want to miss it.” If he had been able, he wouldn’t have missed it. He was a Fox, and the Foxes love Carolina basketball.

I left the next morning at 6:30 in order to beat the work traffic and get back to Burlington for a class. I told my students that my brother could die at any time, and that’s why I had to have my cell phone with me. Ten minutes after I said that, the call came. The nurse I had given my number to that morning told me, with tears, that Eric had just died.

To all the staff at Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home: thank you for the way you loved my brother. Jesus is glorified in the care you give to the dying and to their families.

Monday, January 15, 2018

He is the Seeker, We Are the Lost

When our daughter Hannah was 18 months old or so, she wandered off down the beach one day. I had heard horror stories about children wandering off like that and being abducted, or walking into the water and being pulled under by the current. We heard about a family who arrived at the beach for their vacation. The beach house had an in-ground pool and as they were unpacking the car, their toddler found it, fell in and drowned. Their car engine was still warm and they were dealing with the tragic loss of a child. So, with that weighing on our minds, Cindy and I did not look at each other and say, “Aw, she’ll come back. Let’s give her 15 minutes and see what happens.” I didn’t say, “Look, I will go looking for Hannah in a minute, but I am right at the good part of this book I am reading, and I can’t put it down.” Nor did I say, “Hey, you go look for her if you want, but I am tired. I have worked hard and have looked forward to this vacation for months; the last thing I want to do is to go sprinting down the beach when the waves are splashing, the gentle breezes are blowing, and the beach chair is calling.”

No, I didn’t say any of that. In fact we didn’t speak at all; we looked at each other like people who have lived and loved together for a long time and took off in opposite directions down the beach.

As I was walking and half-running, I did not stop to look at shells. I don’t perfectly remember the occasion, since it was more than 27 years ago, but I am quite certain that had I even seen a perfect shark’s tooth lying in full view, I would not have taken the second away from my search to pick it up. I also did not look out at the porpoises playing in the water or the college kids playing Frisbee or volleyball on the beach. As much as I love to just walk lazily down the beach and feel the sand in my toes, I did not think about that at all. I had one thing on my mind. I was consumed by it. My daughter was gone and I had to find her.

The single-mindedness of my search was in direct proportion to the value I placed in that for which I was searching. That’s why I really don’t believe that anyone who is half-heartedly “seeking” is going to find anything. The one who has been set upon a quest to find the truth will be focused, intentional, and doggedly determined to find it. He will not be sidetracked and he will not give up until his journey leads to a relationship with the Lord. God said it himself: “And you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.”

When our daughter wandered off down the beach, she never found what she was looking for. She didn’t even know what it was. Hannah also had no idea about the dangers all around her as she wandered aimlessly. She was found and brought back home by parents who loved her and went looking for her. If you are seeking truth with all your heart, you will find it. Rather, he will find you. Jesus Christ said, I have “come to seek and to save that which was lost.” When it comes right down to it, he is the seeker. We are the lost.

Monday, January 8, 2018

We Are Supposed to Judge

When I played football on our undefeated junior high school team, the coach liked to run us through a drill called the “meat grinder.” He would lay two blocking dummies on the ground about three feet apart. Then he would call out two names. Those two boys would stand on either end of the dummies, about 10 feet from each other. Then he would throw the ball to one of them. On his whistle, the boy with the ball would start running between the blocking dummies, toward the boy without the ball, who would try to tackle him before he got all the way through the dummies. Meat grinder. It was a good name. It many a little 13-year-old shiver with fear, including yours truly. I will never forget the time he called out, “Osborne and Fox.” CD Osborne was 14 years old and had to shave every day. Thomas Jefferson Junior High’s star running back and linebacker, Osborne was big and tough and loved to just run over people. When the coach called our names, I knew then that I was going to die. The coach tossed CD the ball, blew the whistle, and I entered the meat grinder with my arms open and my eyes shut. He hit me like a freight train and kept right on going. Meanwhile, I was lying on the ground, checking body parts. Meat grinder.

That’s what Jesus’ words often feel like when I read them and take an honest look at my own heart. Like a meat grinder. He said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Sometimes when I read that passage, I am right there in the meat grinder again, and like CD Osborne, that text is smashing me flat. “Listen up,” the Lord seems to say, “This one is for you, Mark. You cannot give in to the desire to judge people and to be critical.” His word rolls on, knocking the judge right out of me. The Lord is dealing in this text with those who have a critical spirit, who enjoy finding fault in others, who even mourn others’ successes and cheer their losses. Many people have these tendencies simply because of a deficit in their own souls. Somewhere down the line they have believed the lie that in order to make themselves look bigger in their own eyes, they need to make someone else look smaller. Thus a judge is born.

But let’s not misunderstand this passage. Jesus is not commanding us to set aside our critical thinking and go through life “judging no one or no thing,” simply giving peace a chance, allowing our dogma to get run over by someone’s karma, or any other nonsensical spin you might have heard. This verse is the favorite among those who reject the truth claims of Jesus. Most of the world can quote it, and loves to: “Judge not, lest you be judged!” If they would only read the rest of the passage: Jesus quickly tells a story about helping take a speck out of a brother’s eye after you have removed the plank from your own. Clearly, Jesus is asking us to make judgments, but without hypocrisy. He tells us to know false prophets by the fruit of their lives. He commands us to beware the leaven (dangerous philosophies) of the Pharisees. He tells us to make sure the foundation of our lives is solid rock, because those who reject the truth of Jesus’ teachings are in fact building their lives on shifting sand.

The truth is, we are supposed to judge, being careful that we first deal with our own heart and sin before we try to help someone else with their sin. We are supposed to judge, being careful that every judgment we make is in keeping with the Lord. After all, He is the final word.

And CD, wherever you are, thanks for helping to knock the judge right out of me, at least that day. We probably should get together about once a week.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Lessons Learned This Year

I keep a journal every year and include in it things I learned from reading through the Bible. I also write down life events that made me laugh, or stop and think. I offer some of my favorites from 2017, in hopes that you might enjoy them as well.

God told the people of Israel that they were to keep his commandments in the land they were going over to possess, that they may learn to reverence the Lord, along with their children and grandchildren. I have thought for the eight years that I have been a grandpa that it is a mercy of the Lord to let us old people try again to raise children, since we make such a hash of it the first time. I love reading books to my grandkids when they come over, and talking to them about life. We were babysitting Owen and Liza one night recently. I had just read several Bible stories to them, about Sarah having Isaac, and Rebekah having Jacob and Esau when Owen, who is four, looked up at me and asked, “When are y’all going to have kids?” I panicked for a second as I thought, “Oh, no! We forgot to have kids!” After I stopped laughing, it was fun explaining to Owen that if we had not had children, his daddy wouldn’t be around to marry his mommy so that he and his brothers and sister could be born.

One day in the spring I went to meet with a former student named Leo. He wanted to give me some tea from China, the land of his birth. As I thanked him and we talked, he suddenly said, “I believe in God. I just don’t know him.” We talked about that for a while and I encouraged Leo to start reading his Bible, and that there he would find a way to know God. He said he would and then Leo said, “Would you mind giving me a hug?” I was glad to do that and then I prayed for this young man, that God would meet with him as he reads the Word, and that Leo would learn to trust the Lord. I marveled later about all of this. I had prayed on the way over to meet with Leo about whether I should bring up God or faith to him. God answered as Leo brought them up himself.

While in Moldova this summer, I was reading in 2 Kings about the man called Jehu. I love this guy and look forward to meeting him in heaven, and maybe challenging him to a chariot race. I can identify with this man; the Bible says he “drove furiously.” I also love his zeal for the Lord. He was relentless in his pursuit of God’s will, and the way he dealt with Jezebel is a picture of sin-eradication, not sin-management.

Here’s a verse to ponder, especially in light of the #MeToo avalanche this fall: “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.” The reference is to Uzziah, a king of Israel who served the nation and the Lord for 52 years. “His fame spread, for he was marvelously helped, until he was strong.” When he became great in his own eyes, however, the downward spiral began. Uzziah refused to listen to counsel. He got angry at those who tried to warn him about his sin. The Lord struck Uzziah with leprosy, and the king lived in isolation until his death.

We had the glorious privilege of being with all of our children and grandchildren at the beach for a week this summer. When our daughter and her family left to drive back to Kansas, Cindy cried and grieved over it. I wrote in my journal, “A mom just wants to be with her family. It occurs to me that God has put in all of us a longing for that time when there will be no more goodbyes.”

Amen. Until that day, may the Lord draw you and me closer to Him.