A Coming Event
When you grow old, unless you are utterly selfish, you will derive your greatest comfort from the help you have given others. By the same token, you will derive your deepest regret from the hurt you have caused others.
If you are a man, you will wish you had been a better husband, father and neighbor. If you are a woman you will wish you had been a better wife, mother and neighbor.
You will be ashamed of lies told, cheating done and crimes committed. You will recall the high-principled dreams of your youth and wish you had realized those dreams.
You won’t congratulate yourself for the wrongs you got away with. “Scot free” will no longer bring a sigh of relief and a plunge into still further misdeeds that can bludgeon your conscience to death.
Happy are those who realize that dying in peace requires living at peace with God, with others and with one’s best self, and who spend their fast-flying years trying to relate to others by the golden rule instead of exploiting others under the rule of gold.
When changing worlds you will not say, “I got smart and dismissed the Christian faith as superstitious nonsense. I became too worldly-wise and broad-minded to make a place for God’s word and God’s house and God’s people in my life. I outgrew the need for religion and became, instead, a spiritual person.” All of the shifts and excuses by which you rationalized a proud, selfish, materialistic and hedonistic existence will wither on your lips.
In old age (and sooner for many) you will be each day a mere step away from death, and when you take that last step you will be face to face with Jesus, God’s only Son and mankind’s only Savior.
You are not going to face the judgment seat of Allah, Buddha, Confucius, or one of the multiple gods of Hinduism. “We shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” God has appointed him the final judge of all and God published that appointment by raising him from the dead.
Lies, excuses and evasions will choke you if you try to repeat them after death as you did during earthly life. Exactly who you are, what you did and the motives that grounded your deeds will be a matter of record, extracted from the files of memory and confessed before a judge who cannot be deceived, bribed or intimidated.
Like it or not, think about it or not, believe it or not—God’s judgment is a future event in which all of us will participate. Let us live now as we will wish we had lived when that awful day arrives.
A River To Swim In
When I was a little boy a stranger pulled me from a riptide in the Atlantic Ocean and saved me from drowning.
A friend told me, “You had better learn to swim or someone is going to pull your dead body from the water.” That same friend, not long afterward, saved me from drowning in a rock pit filled with deep water.
When I tried to swim my fear of drowning made me awkward and afraid, and that enlarged the danger. I finally learned to swim in a canal. Before I dared to swim across it I would walk to the other side under the water, lugging a big rock to keep me on the clear sandy bottom of that canal.
O, the joy when I first swam across that canal! It was liberation, compensation and jubilation rolled into a single exciting package. From then on I spent hours, even days, in the water and enjoyed every minute of them. When I had to leave the water and go home I envied the fish.
In Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Israel and a rebuilt temple, he beheld water flowing from the house of God. The farther it flowed the deeper it got until it was a river. At first one could only wade in it. At last one could swim in it but not across it, for it was both deep and wide. God’s life-giving Spirit is a river we can wade it and swim in and splash about in, exulting in the privilege and pleasure of being his forgiven people.
When I was a young Christian my motto was, “Deeper and farther in Jesus if I have to carry a rock.” I’m glad I outgrew the wading period and reached the swimming years of Christian life and service. The deeper reaches of the river bring greater challenge and produce greater joy. Life in the Spirit gets deeper, wider and fuller as we grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Bible is my swimming hole. There with friends or all alone I daily plunge in and splash about, renewing my soul and equipping my service.
Was Jesus a Pacifist?Was Jesus a Pacifist?
Well, he refused to let a disciple attempt to defend him by swinging a sword. A Judas-led mob came to arrest him, and Peter whipped out a sword and attacked the nearest one. Peter was a fisherman, not a swordsman. His intention was good--to fight for his master’s freedom. His aim was bad--he sliced off an ear instead of splitting the guy wide open. To Peter’s confusion, Jesus not only rebuked him for the swordplay, he restored the victim’s severed ear.
Paul tells us to “be strong in the Lord” and to clothe ourselves with “the full armor of God.” We are in a battle “against the devil’s schemes.” But he goes on to say that our struggle is not against flesh and blood and, therefore, not to be fought with “carnal weapons,” but with “the sword of the Spirit.” That sword is identified as “the word of God.” This is the only sword that Christians are commanded to wield. What Paul calls “the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of evil” are not subdued and conquered by military weaponry.
When you put these passages together, along with others where the Lord commands us to love our enemies, to pray for our persecutors, and to bless those who curse us, iat would be easy to make a case for demanding pacifism of all Christians. Some devout and sincere Christians have drawn this conclusion and refused military service even at the cost of jail time. Others consented to military service but only in non-combat capacities, such as medics and ambulance drivers for example. These are called “conscientious objectors.”
On the other hand, in the New Testament Jesus is never heard ordering a soldier to leave military service. He commended the faith of Roman army officer, declared it greater than any faith he had found in Israel, and rewarded that faith by healing the man’s servant..
John the Baptist, when preaching in the desert to huge crowds and calling them to repentance, was approached by a group of soldiers who asked, “What should we do?” He gave them some specific moral demands: Don’t throw your weight around. Don’t bully or rob civilians. Don’t supplement your income with illegal activities--that sort of thing. However, he never said, “Leave the army.”
Peter, whose sword-swinging was reproved by Jesus, was chosen by the Lord and approved by the church to carry the gospel to Gentiles. He initiated that ministry in the household of a Roman army officer named Cornelius. To him and his household Peter preached Jesus as “Lord of all.” They believed his message and were baptized “|in the name of Jesus Christ.” Neither Cornelius nor any of his troops were told to quit military service in order to be truly Christian.
How do we reconcile the prohibition of brute force with the continuation of military service?
Some have done it by insisting that a believer cannot bear arms as a Christian, but he or she can bear arms as a Christian citizen of the nation. As a Christian you can carry and use the Word to bring people into spiritual freedom; as an American Christian you can carry and use guns to help secure and maintain political freedom.
Frankly, I can’t resolve the conflict. I’ve known many soldiers who were genuine Christians. I’ve known many Christians who refused military service on moral and religious grounds. I respected them all, but I have been poor help or none at all when it came to enabling their decisions or resolving their conflicts in the matter.
Would I take a life to save my own? Frankly, I don’t know and hope I never have to find out. Would I take a life to save a loved one? Yes, I would--in a heartbeat, but it would be the beat of a broken heart.
I am weary of hearing persons, from teens to thirty-somethings, say, “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t need the church. I don’t like or trust organized religion.”
Okay, let’s talk about Christians who reject the churches. Let’s talk about firm believers in disorganized Christianity.
Let’s begin by admitting freely that the organized churches are woefully imperfect. That’s mainly because they are comprised of imperfect people, imperfect people like all you guys and gals who are just as imperfect, yet make theirs an excuse to ignore or scorn the churches.
The organized churches have founded more clinics, hospitals, colleges and universities than disorganized Christians. Indeed, has any group of anti-church believers founded even one?
The organized churches have mounted relief campaigns and invested millions of dollars in helping disaster victims around the world. Have you anti-church, anti-organization critics ever matched the churches’ compassionate ministries? You know you haven’t and we know you haven’t.
The Jesus you claim to follow “radically” went to the synagogues weekly to worship with other people. It was His “custom,” according to scripture. Some of those other people were hate-filled hypocrites, but that did not become an excuse for Jesus to absent himself from organized religion.
The Bible you claim to believe says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” The Bible, speaking of public worship, says, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” You don’t have order without organization.
If you could take over the churches and impose your own notions of Christian worship and work upon them, you would immediately favor organized religion. What’s really bugging many, perhaps most, of you is your inability to sell your opinions to the churches.
Most of you found Christ through the ministries of organized Christianity. Many of you were reared by parents who were faithful members of the very churches you now belittle. If it were not for centuries of organized churches doing organized missions Christianity would have vanished long ago. You may despise and ridicule your heritage, but without it you wouldn’t even be today’s rebellious, misshaped and disorganized version of it.
Organized Christianity began with the organizing efforts of Jesus and His first apostles. They worked lovingly with misfits, ignoramuses and hypocrites, but they never shucked the task and posed as superior Christians.
Private Christianity, churchless Christianity, is not found in Scripture. Christ formed individual believers into a community of worshippers and workers. He believed in organized Christianity. He founded it.
Come on, lose the attitude and gain a family.
The New Testament Streaker
You are reading about the betrayal and arrest of Jesus and suddenly
there it is, a short paragraph that seems irrelevant but sure is
attention-grabbing: “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was
following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment
behind (Mark 14:52).
“Streaking” became a fad in the 1960s and 1970s when young people, often “under the influence,” did crazy things for attention and excitement. In public places and at crowded events some would suddenly discard all their clothing and run naked before gawking spectators.
When I was teaching college in California, two students from San Diego State University drove downtown, shed their clothes, and ran naked down the sidewalk. Soon they were rushing back to their car with policemen in pursuit. The lads certainly didn’t bring their “A” brains to that event, for they discovered that they had locked themselves out of the car. The cops hustled them off to jail. They were brought before a judge and soon learned that buying clothes was cheaper than running naked.
In this brief passage from Mark's Gospel we read about the strange case of a New Testament streaker.
The “he” in this text remains anonymous. Many scholars believe that “he” was Mark, the author of this brief and action-packed Gospel. The incident recorded in verses 51, 52 seems to add nothing relevant to the account of Jesus’ arrest. Its inclusion, therefore, may be Marks’ modest way of saying, “I was there. I was an eye-witness to the arrest of Jesus.”
If a fellow is going to flee the scene, being naked could be helpful. A naked runner is more streamlined and less impeded. Olympic swimmers wear the least they can without being plumb naked in order to increase their speed. A naked runner weighs less, and he’s no danger of tripping over his shoelaces. Nudity might also frustrate recognition. Who looks at the face of a naked runner?
On the other hand, a naked runner could find escape more difficult. He would certainly draw more attention if unclothed. He couldn’t melt into a crowd and go unnoticed. The screams of some, the laughter of others, would alert his pursuers to his whereabouts.
Well, whoever he was, he got away without being arrested and booked. He remains anonymous, just another follower of Jesus who panicked and fled to save his own skin when the Master was taken into custody by a mob “armed with swords and clubs” and armed with authority from “the chief priests” and their influential cohorts. “Naked” is not the significant term here; “fled” is.
The “he” in this text serves as an illustration. Perhaps the account is relevant, despite the youth’s anonymity. The previous verse reads, “Then everyone deserted him and fled.” The amorphous “everyone” is suddenly fleshed out in the one young man who, terrified by the arrest of Jesus, split from the scene sans garment. The conduct of the one allows us to imagine more graphically the behavior of “everyone.” We can draw an instant mental picture of the disciples fleeing in every direction, concerned not for Jesus or for one another, but “every man for himself.”
Here in the USA we read the account of their flight in the safety provided by intervening centuries of time, and in the safety provided by a country where people are not in peril of their lives for following Jesus. We could easily judge those fleeing disciples too quickly and too harshly. Under their circumstances, would we have been any braver? Would we have stayed with Jesus, giving Him the moral support that comes from friends standing by in a crisis? Likely not. We are made of no better or stronger stuff than were those first followers of the Lord. We would probably have been as quick to lose a robe and save a life as was the unnamed naked runner.
The “he” in our text probably found a source of courage. Courage to stand and suffer for Christ came to those early disciples when they were filled with the Spirit. Before Calvary they scurried into hiding to save themselves, but after Pentecost they counted suffering for Christ a privilege to cherish and not a prospect to avoid. When some of them were jailed and beaten for refusing to be silent about Jesus, they “left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” of Christ (Acts 5:41). Mark was likely in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came with transforming power to the praying church (Acts 2:4).
Christ beside us doesn’t produce the needed valor to stand, speak and serve at the cost of personal injury. It is Christ within us, in the person and power of the Holy Spirit, who furnishes the spiritual backbone we must have to be His effective witnesses.
“Streaking” is not a Christian activity, but speaking for Christ is commanded of us. To live for Him as we ought requires us to be “filled with the Spirit.” And what the Lord requires He enables. The fullness of the Spirit has been made possible for, and is promised to, every disciple of Jesus. "The promise," said Peter, when he preached on the day of Pentecost, "is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call." The Holy Spirit will help us all to keep our clothes on when we should and to lift our voices up when we should. He is power to live and speak for Jesus.
NEW WINE, NEW WINESKINS
...new wine must be poured into new wineskins (Luke 5:38).
From time to time every church faces the challenge of change. As our mission-target changes we must change or lose the chance to reach them. As we ponder the past and face the future we need the guidance of this passage of Scripture.
1. New wine demands new wineskins.
In Jesus’ time and place wine was usually kept in wineskins—the skins of animals, sheep or goats usually. Leather dries and cracks with age. The grape juice poured into the skin-containers would ferment. The force of this expansion would split the skins if they were no longer supple and strong.
Jesus was criticized because His disciples were not living and working by the patterns of the disciples made by John the Baptist or by the Pharisees. He said, in effect, “I have given them new life. It must be contained and expressed in new ways. Your traditions cannot withstand the pressure of what I am giving and what I am doing.” New wine demands new wineskins or it will be lost.
We don’t make changes just for the sake of changing. Novelty is not our God. We don’t change the wineskins because they are old. We change them because the wine is new. The wine improves with age, the wineskins do not. The wine is essential; the skins are expendable. What matters is the life that Jesus gives, the work that He is doing—and not the forms in which that life and work are shaped or expressed.
2. New wineskins demand death.
It took death to produce the wine—the grapes were picked and pressed.
It took death to produce the wineskins—the animals were killed. It took the death of Jesus to provide our spiritual life. If that life is to expand, to develop, to become a blessing to others, we must die to our wills so that the will of the Lord may be done. We must die to our desires, to our ambitions, to our traditions—to everything that would keep the church from being robbed of its power to minister effectively and redemptively to the present time.
We cannot serve the present if we are prisoners to the past. To cling to the past is to paralyze the present. To paralyze the present is to forfeit the future. We must allow the Lord, the One who gives life, to guide us in deciding and executing the changes by which that life is best preserved, developed and made available for the benefit of others.
Let Jesus be Lord. He is the founder and builder of the church. His Spirit will guide us in discerning and doing His will—and we will neither lose the wine nor ruin the wineskins.
MEMORY HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
“I forgot.” I find myself saying that a lot lately. I suppose it’s
normal for an octogenarian to have frequent memory lapses. If so, I still
possess one proof of normalcy.
Not that forgetting is only a recent phenomenon in my experience. I remember a night back in the Sixties when I was pastor of our then Atlanta First Church. I was awakened by Doris, who said, “Get up. I’m worried about Bill. It’s past two o’clock in the morning and he isn’t home yet.”
Rubbing my eyes, which never really helped to wake me up, I said, “Oh, Hon, I forgot to tell you. Bill called hours ago and asked to spend the night with a friend. I told him okay.”
She went to bed to get a precious few hours of sleep, and she was not in the best frame of mind toward me. I stayed up the rest of the night, penitent and ashamed and uncomfortable in the dog house.
Forgetting was a rare happening in the Sixties. Now that I’m in my eighties forgetting is what I do expertly and frequently. I sometimes go into a room and stand there unable to recall why I entered that room. What was I going to do? What was I going to get? If I stand there a flash of memory may occur and I’ll get on with my business. Too often I return to the room I left and never recall what prompted the change of rooms.
Two things impress me deeply these days. One is how little I remember and for what short times memory is on duty. The other is how much God forgets and for how long he forgets it. I treasure the promise of God made to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” No more equals forever in the mathematics of God’s kingdom.
I forget things I need to remember. I remember things I wish I could forget. God is my comfort because he forgets my sins forever. When he forgives he never again treats you as the person you were or punishes you for what you once did. He always remembers his covenant which includes his promise to forgive and forget. That is the most liberating truth we can experience.
A SURVIVOR'S REPORT
Well, I have survived another hospital experience. An old nemesis,
infection of the urinary tract, sent me there in style, by ambulance, a
few nights ago. There I was examined, diagnosed, admitted and treated.
They no longer have a surplus of needles in that hospital. I felt like a
human pin cushion but I was smart enough to say nothing about it. Never
aggravate someone who is approaching you with a shot to give! If you do
they will likely bring a bigger and duller needle on their next
I came away a few days later with the same feelings about hospitals I have registered before. I dislike them as a place. Hospitals are dangerous. Every disease present in the city can be found there. Germs abound and surround. I felt like every breath I took was probably an entrance ritual for viruses and bacteria that could sicken me worse or kill me off.
While I disliked the place I appreciated the personnel. Every doctor, nurse and tech that entered my room was pleasant and attentive. I hope they were all efficient, but I have no capacity for judging that. In the hospital as in no other earthly institution I lived by faith, trusting my life to persons I hardly knew who were treating me with medicines I couldn’t spell. I felt I was in good hands, but I really had no way of knowing, for the doctors, nurses and techs were people I was meeting for the first time. The survivor rate of their patients was a statistic I could not access but I sure hoped it was high. I’d rather die on an ant hill than in a hospital. The view is better, the air is cleaner, and the food is no worse. And on an ant hill it’s easy to tell whether or not you are still alive.
I had a few visitors, received a few calls, cards and gifts and was the recipient of many prayers. I received more kindness in a week than I could earn in a lifetime, and I am deeply grateful for it all.
Throughout the days and nights I spent there, this was what had the strongest impact upon me: the presence of the Lord. I talked to him and he talked to me. He said no to some of my attitudes and actions and I said yes to his rebukes and demands. I was changed more spiritually than physically by the entire unplanned and unwanted experience. I am getting better and growing wiser, but I still am a living example of the Swede’s lament--too soon old, too late smart. The Lord was strict with me, but he was patient and forgiving also.
Anyhow, for better or for worse, I’m home again. Doris is once more in charge of my case, and I am really in love with my nurse.
THE DUTY AND DANGER OF OPPOSING THE “EMERGENT” MOVEMENT
The duty is simple. The gurus and leaders of this
emergent movement, conversation, dialogue—call it what they will—do not
base their teachings and writings upon Scripture but upon their own
opinions. They do not submit to the authority of the Bible but seek to
impose their authority upon the Bible. They dismiss the clear witness of
the Bible to itself as the inspired Word of God. When this has been done
the witness of the Bible to God, to Jesus Christ and to salvation from sin
is rejected outright or dangerously distorted.
As a consequence, to them Jesus is no longer “the Way.” He is “a Way,” and all ways lead ultimately to God and heaven. Devotees of other religions are not to be converted to Christ. Instead, we should encourage them to blossom fully in the soil of religious beliefs they have already chosen. Our goal is not to make them Christians, but to encourage them to be the best they can be within the structures of belief and behavior of their ancestral faith. That is unscriptural and untrue, whoever says it.
It is true that some who form the listening audience when these emergent leaders are paid (by our institutions with our tithes and offerings) to expatiate upon their concept of truth do not accept all they offer. They insist that they are putting an orthodox spin upon it all, and clinging to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, insisting upon salvation through Jesus alone, and giving lip service to the unique authority of Scripture for faith and life. Why in the world should we pay someone to voice opinions we then have to caution against and recast in order to use?
These who listen to the emergent gurus claim to be mining the emergent movement for structures of thought and strategies of engagement that will help them reach increasing numbers of people for Christ. If you keep tabs on them, however, you will find that the longer they preach and teach the closer they come to the beliefs of those gurus who want to dismantle historic, Bible-based Christian doctrines.
Leaders of the emergent movement claim to have no interest in theology or doctrine. They try to sell themselves as men and women concerned only, or at least mainly, with discovering ways and means of gaining attention to and involvement in genuine Christianity. Despite their disclaimers the emergent movement is creating theology and disseminating doctrines and making converts to their re-interpreted and inoffensive Christ.
The duty of opposing them arises out of their rejection of the authority of the Bible.
The danger in opposing them is more subtle. I’ve spent over 30 years as a pastor and another nine as a college teacher. I know that in our denomination there is a strong and stubborn streak of anti-intellectualism. Some of our people, including some of our preachers, seem to think that ignorance is a fruit of the Spirit.
The same God who created us as emotional beings also created us as rational beings. To go to church and unscrew your head in order to have some acute feel-good experience is to slander true worship.
The danger is that we shall allow our opposition to heresy to be voiced only or chiefly by leather-lunged fanatics instead of informed and reasonable proponents of what John Wesley called “good old Bible religion.” We cannot effectively oppose false teaching by merely turning up the volume. Noise level, even happy noise level, is no substitute for “reasonable service.”
Once More God Has Enriched Heaven
Doris and I went to Arcadia, Florida recently to
attend a funeral service that celebrate the life of one of the dearest,
closest friends we’ve ever had—Velma Keene Melton.
The church was packed for the service. She was one of God’s quiet, gentle saints who made friends by her sterling qualities of patience, acceptance and forgiveness. She never met a person she wouldn’t help and never received a wound she wouldn’t pardon. A Jesus-like love, always present but never intrusive, was the mainspring of her being and doing.
Several persons stood up and spoke out in praise of her during the service. Nearly all of us joked about how slow she was. Velma never hurried, and if your capacity for waiting was small you wouldn’t involve her deeply in your planned activities. Snail’s pace was acceleration for her. She was never idle, but kept busy at a rate of speed that was really just a rate of movement. There was no speed involved.
All of us who ever teased her about being slow, however, joyfully confessed that she was even sweeter than she was slow. Her responses to hurting people were always kind, both in word and deeds. She never held grudges, never withheld forgiveness. Her sympathy was always genuine and practical. I learned not to mention my aches and pains around her, for she always had medicines and bandages for everything that ailed me.
She loved the Lord and was devoted to her church. She reflected the goodness and kindness that dwelled first of all in her mother, Rhoda Keen, who was one of the truest Christians I ever served as pastor. Velma was more than a chip off the block, however; she was herself a block. She could be counted on when the ministries of friendship were needed.
Her daily life centered on her family, though she swung a compass wide enough to include a host of others. Her dating system reflected her mother-love. She didn’t use A.D. or B. C. She used before and after Dale, Patti and Sue, by which she meant before or after each of her children were born.
She loved Howard truly and purely. I met her before I met him, and she couldn’t believe that I didn’t know her husband. “Everybody knows Howard,” she exclaimed. I left her, thinking, “I refuse to be a nobody because I don’t know Howard, whatever he’s like.” She had me pegged as an alien with a limited circle of acquaintances.
I met Howard a few months later, and he has been a choice and constant friend for 63 years. She was his loyal wife for 69 years before the Lord made heaven richer and earth poorer by taking Velma home. I remember her with gratitude and I pray for him with sympathy. You can’t lose a companion with whom you have lived intimately for seven decades without feeling an abysmal loss. “We sorrow not as those who have no hope,” Paul wrote, but no measure of hope eliminates the hurt when those we love disappear from view.
No, everybody didn’t know Howard, and most of you who read this didn’t know Velma. You would have loved her. She was a follower of Jesus and a friend to all—“of whom the world was not worthy.”
A QUESTION HARD TO ANSWER
I have, from time to time, been asked a question that
is hard to answer. The question: Why was God "about to kill" Moses? The
passage of Scripture that prompts the question is found in Exodus 4:23-26.
At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it. "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)
My answer: Moses was on his way, at God's command, to lead God's people out of Egypt. Moses was a descendant of Abraham with whom God made a covenant that included the required circumcision of all his male descendants. Moses had failed to circumcise one of his sons. God would not allow a covenant-breaker to be the deliverer of a covenant-people, for such an example would encourage all kinds of disobedience. Implied throughout this incident is the opposition of Zipporah to the ritual of circumcision. Moses had evidently neglected his duty to God because he wanted peace with his wife. He had to learn what every leader of God's people should know: God first!
To teach him this, the Lord brought some unspecified life-threatening affliction upon Moses. It served as "a wake-up call," but left Moses too debilitated to perform the ritual surgery himself. Zipporah decided that a circumcised son was preferable to a dead husband, so she "took a flint knife" and performed the circumcision herself. The Lord allowed Moses to recover and to resume his journey to Egypt. As a final expression of her displeasure, Zipporah called Moses "a bloody bridegroom."
The God who sent Moses to deliver Israel from slavery sent Jesus to save us all from our bondage to sin and death. Jesus entered history as a Jew, a descendant of Abraham. How seriously God took the "sign" of that covenant may be implied from this simply-stated Gospel record:
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived (Luke 2:21).
Sin is a violation of God's covenant, a defiance of His word, and "the wages of sin is death." We are to love God supremely and to obey Him explicitly. We dare not displease Him in order to please others, even our spouses, parents or children. Disobeying the commands of God disqualifies a man for leading the people of God. That was the lesson Moses needed to learn, and did learn, when God took him to the brink of death.
That God's ultimate purpose was to teach this lesson, not to slay Moses, is obvious, for God can easily kill anyone He wants to dispose of. Had God really wanted Moses dead, Zipporah could have begun digging his grave.
This is a difficult passage to interpret and far wiser men than I am have tried to understand it and explain it in all its details, stated and implied. I am simply sharing with you what I have come to grasp as the meaning of the incident.
The Most Nauseated Man I Ever Visited
His name was Josh and he and his wife lived in a
modest bungalow on the south side of the town where I was serving as
pastor of our church. I dropped by to visit with them occasionally. They
were not members of my congregation, but I enjoyed “chewing the fat” with
them and praying for them.
One evening I called on them and found Josh nearly dead. He was then recovering from the worst sick spell he had ever experienced. That wasn’t my assessment; it was his description of the situation.
A few days earlier he had been sitting in the living room of his house as evening turned to night. Darkness slowly occupied the room, but because he was sleepy and comfortable and thoroughly familiar with his surroundings he didn’t leave his rocking chair to turn on any lights.
He had “a fit of coughing,” though, and stood up to reach for a bottle of cough syrup he had been keeping on the mantle above the fireplace. He uncapped the bottle and took what he called “a right hefty swig.” Within minutes he was doubled over in pain and became violently nauseated. His wife rushed in to see what the groaning and upchucking was all about. I don’t recall whether a doctor came to him or he went to the doctor, but medical help and welcome relief were soon forthcoming.
In the gathering darkness Josh had picked up the wrong bottle. Unknown to him, his wife had set a bottle of her corn remedy on the mantle, and when poor Josh downed a big swallow of that he felt it to his toes. He said it burned all the way down to his stomach and set that afire when it arrived. He said, “Preacher, I ain’t never been that sick in my whole life. I thought I was goin’ to die and didn’t much care to go on livin’. How that woman uses that stuff on her feet without losing her toes is a mystery to me. Man, I heaved up everything I had swallered that day. I thought I was goin’ to turn inside out.”
I was sorry Josh had such a miserable experience, but I was also happy to make good use of it. Through the years many people have shrugged off the claims of Christ, saying, “I believe that as long as I’m sincere the Lord will accept me.” With one gulp of the wrong medicine Josh had proved that you could be sincerely wrong and self-destruct. I pressed that truth home to him and his wife that evening, and I have used his near-fatal mistake as an illustration on several occasions.
A Disgraceful Signing
Patriotic songs still have power to fill my heart with
profound gratitude for the privilege of being a citizen of the USA. At the
same time, I never hear them without realizing how much injustice and
misery their finest lines conceal. I believe that God who once declared
that He was planning disaster against His chosen people could justly bring
enormous disaster upon our country.
We continue to destroy the lives of unborn and partially born infants in appalling numbers. To business men and congressmen who favor this continuing slaughter we can now add the sitting president of the U. S.
God is the author of all life and all good. Human beings have authored sin, death and all evil, including the evil of abortion on demand. Our nation has made convenience the criterion for life or death choices. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a more trivial reason for destroying human life.
When our president signed the Freedom of Choice Act into law, he displayed a hypocrisy and hardness unworthy of the office he holds and the esteem in which all citizens would like to be able to hold him. Convenience abortion is judicial murder and no wordplay can excuse the swordplay of this moral outrage. Can anyone really believe that the quiet slaughter of human infants is justified because mommy and/or daddy are too busy having fun, making money or acquiring fame to take care of a child?
What if the president’s mother had chosen to abort him? You can be sure that he regards himself as a most, if not the most, significant person in this nation. He believes that his election to the presidency was a huge step forward for mankind’s benefit. Would he be willing to have his hopes, dreams, ambitions and contributions to human welfare torn from the pages of history because a parent or parents thought, “This child will be too much trouble, too much expense, if we allow his birth. Let’s get rid of him before he can create those problems.”
How many abortions have deprived the world of someone who could have made huge differences for good in the lives of others? Only God knows. He does know, and He sees through the tissue of lies by which the nation justifies its cavalier turning of hospital facilities into killing grounds. He alone is our final judge and a planned disaster for all who oppose His work as Creator and Redeemer is in the offing.
The slaughter of infants at birth was a political crime of an ancient Pharaoh. Had his edict been strictly enforced the world would have been deprived of Moses. The slaughter of infants from birth to two years of age was a political crime of King Herod. Had he succeeded in what he intended it would have robbed the world of Jesus.
I deeply resent the fact, and regret the fact, that our president has joined Pharaoh and Herod in regarding a baby’s life as expendable to an adult’s pleasure patterns or career ambitions. Does he care about what I think? Of course not. But a bulldog can bark at an elephant, and a bulldog who refuses to bark out of fear or apathy is not worth his bones and biscuits.
Don't Let Criticism Defeat You
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus (Mark 14:6). He issued
this command to defend a woman who had anointed Him with costly perfume
and was being criticized by heartless men who branded her deed a waste.
Jesus knew what it felt like to be badly misunderstood and harshly criticized. This happened to Him after every message He preached and every miracle He performed. Enemies watched Him like hawks seeking prey. Critics attributed evil motives to His good deeds. He was slandered and accused of gross sins when He was doing works of mercy that healed and saved. Sharp tongues were always stabbing at Him. Therefore, He could empathize perfectly with this woman who had anointed Him with costly perfume and was being slashed to ribbons by the cutting tongues of self-righteous critics. “Let her alone!” He commanded. He silenced those smug wannabe judges with love and logic.
“They rebuked her harshly.” Criticism is sometimes deserved and often helpful, but harsh criticism is never justified. The spirit in which something is said or done can be more significant than the words and deeds themselves. In this case, however, the critics were wrong both in attitude and in action. What they branded “waste” He named “a beautiful thing.” What they labeled as indifference to the poor He defended as reverent anticipation of His imminent atoning death.
She has done what she could,” Jesus said. In doing all she could for Him she did more than her critics would do for Him. He commended, therefore, what they condemned.
There is a lesson here for Jesus’ disciples. Do what you can for Him, and refuse to be intimidated or paralyzed by critics. Accept the fact that no one can act for Jesus and escape criticism. Devotion always brings criticism from the half-hearted or the non-committed. Such criticism is just as unavoidable as it is unfair. If we allow fear of criticism to stifle our devotion we will never do for Jesus the costly things He richly deserves. Furthermore, we will deprive ourselves of the blessings that He bestows upon loyal and loving followers.
Nothing is too good for Jesus, but nothing is too good to escape the censure of unknowing and uncaring spectators. The woman poured perfume upon the Savior’s head, but the critics poured contempt upon hers. Hers was an outpouring of love and faith, theirs an outpouring of hatred and unbelief. Her brave gesture of affection, however, won an everlasting memorial. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Think about this: You will be remembered as a friend of Jesus or as a critic of His friends.
Do something beautiful for Him today. Do something that reflects His spirit, His faith, His love. Do something that expresses your love for Him and your concern for the world for which He died.
Don’t expect everyone to applaud your acts of service. Do them in spite of criticism. Do them because doing them is right, not because it is popular. Dare to do them even in situations of conflict when reprimand and rejection are likely.
The reward exceeds the risk. The approval of Jesus is worth the disapproval of others.
Come See Jesus
Take a few minutes today to read John 4. There you
will find the story of a Samaritan woman who met Jesus and was transformed
by the encounter. He so excited and delighted her that she told her
towns-people, “Come see a man!”
What will you see if you come to Jesus? You will see a Lover. He knows us best but loves us most, as someone long ago remarked. Indeed, this woman exclaimed that Jesus told her “everything [she] ever did.” That was exaggerated, but He had evidenced the fact that He was aware of her sordid past and scandalous present. In spite of that, He loved her.
Most Jews avoided Samaria, but Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Why? Because this woman was there and needed His forgiving love. Other rabbis would have shunned her, but Jesus went there to give her new life. She offered Him nothing; He had to ask for a drink of water from the well where they met. But He offered her everything that finally matters; He offered himself to her as the water of life.
His words so excited her that she left her water jug and rushed back to town to tell others about Him. The towns-people, attracted by her testimony, hurried to see Jesus. He so loved these people who hated Jews and were hated by Jews that He consented to stay with them a few days. As a consequence of His messages many believed in Him and found deliverance from their sins. They named Him what He truly is, “the Savior of the world.”
Yes, when you come to Jesus you see a Savior. That isn’t true when you look at anyone else. No other person, past or present, can deliver you from sin. Confucius cannot save. Buddha cannot save. Moon cannot save. No ancient idol, no modern guru can save. As Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me. “ As Paul put it, “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men”—and for women and children and in-laws and outlaws, and for everyone everywhere.
Some love who cannot save. Jesus combines love and power adequate for the salvation of all who believe. The woman asked, “Could this be the Christ?” Indeed, given His love and power, could He be anyone but the Christ? Come and see!
The Best Things In Life You Can Only See By Faith
For over two years I have been receiving shots in my
eyes. A competent and caring doctor has been injecting needles into my eye
balls and filling them with a substance that is intended to preserve, and
hopefully improve, what sight I have. Naturally my eyes have occupied more
of my thoughts and prayers than ever before. Once I could see a gnat on a
window screen. Now I ask, “What window screen?”
Paul wrote, “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:18). Staring at what you can’t see? That sounds impossible and irrational, but it makes sense if you stay within Paul’s categories, the temporal and the eternal. These are two kinds of reality and call for two kinds of eyes.
Our physical eyes behold the physical environment. If I want to know that Gainesville really exists I just walk outside and look around. Knowing that God is, and that heaven is, requires the eyes of faith. There is an aspect of reality that is not processed by the eyes in my head but by the eyes of my spirit.
What I see with my physical eyes is passing away. Indeed, the eyes with which I see the temporary are themselves “here today and gone tomorrow.” They can be improved by doctors and modified by spectacles, but they are perishing even as I use them. The day approaches when the eyes that viewed this world will be turning to “dust” and “pushing up daisies”—or cacti, or ragweed—or something.
If I want to improve the eyes of faith I must commune with God and study the Bible by which He makes Himself known to me. Faith says, “God is!” Faith seeks “an enduring city.” Faith sings, “We shall behold Him.” Faith shouts, “To live is Christ and to die is gain!” The eyes of faith look to the Lord and see a welcome mat, a writ of pardon and emancipation, and the promise of a world unstained by sin, sorrow and suffering.
What the eyes of faith behold is not only there, it will be there forever. The world I now live in is not the only world, and certainly not the best one. I am living here and now for what is there and then. Skeptics have asked me, “What if you’re wrong? What if faith finally turns out to be delusion, just wish-fulfillment? What if, at the end of this life, you find nothing?�� I told them, “If you are right I won’t find ‘nothing.’ There will be no me to find anything.” I know that I will find Someone and something. I know that I have been saved by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A man dying of thirst may mistake a mirage for an oasis, but a man who drinks deeply from an artesian well will be satisfied. The man who has drunk the water of eternal life won’t die stuffing sand down his throat.
The Contents Sell, Not The Cans
I see by the paper that Pepsi, troubled by a declining
market, is going to spend over a billion dollars to change the design and
logo on their aluminum can. Who buys Pepsi because they like the can? Only
idiots would do that, and while we have a hefty supply of idiots in the
world, there aren’t enough to radically affect the market for soft drinks.
People buy Pepsi, not because they like the can, but because they like the
contents. If they don’t buy Pepsi it’s because some other beverage tastes
better to them, or they lack the money needed to please their palates.
In small Southern towns you could nearly always find a Baptist and a Methodist church on a main street. They were often side by side, more often across the street from one another. Some members were sure to be competitive, and would go to nearly any length to outdo their rivals. I served in a town where the Methodists discovered that the steeple on the Baptist church was two inches higher than the one on their church. The pastor told me, with a grin that expressed more pain than pleasure, that some of his people wanted to rebuild their church, or at least the steeple, to make it closer to heaven than was the Baptist edifice. Who finds religion attractive if peace of mind can be forfeited to two inches of steeple?
What really matters is not the package but what it holds. A corpse dressed in a new suit and lying in an expensive casket is still dead. A different suit and a fancier coffin won’t bring him to life. It’s what’s inside that really matters. Elisha’s servant cooked a large pot of stew for some student preachers. Without realizing it, one of them had contributed a “wild vine” that made the stew inedible. When Elisha was told, “There is death in the pot,” he didn’t change the pot, he changed the stew.
Don’t misunderstand me. I think buildings and grounds should be well-designed and attractively maintained. I’ve seen a few of our churches that tempted me to commit arson. But if a church is not preaching Jesus Christ and helping those who serve Him to become spiritually mature, what needs to be remodeled are not the buildings but the occupants. A deeper commitment to the Lord and His word is vastly more significant than new dimensions, designs and décors.
A great woman went to heaven on December 1.
Her name was Alma Yarbrough and she had just turned 99 on November 24. She has been for many years a member of our Nashville, GA church.
I met Alma when I was pastor of our church in Thomasville. Her brother Elmer was the song leader for our church, and frequently Alma would drive over from Nashville to visit him and his family.
Alma never married. Instead, she spent her whole adult life as a caregiver. First it was her aged parents. Then it was her sister, Elizabeth, who was wheelchair bound for many years. Then it was Elmer and his wife. They were both placed in a nursing home in Nashville so that Alma could look after them. This situation persisted for years, too, until Elmer and Tabitha died.
Alma loved the Lord and the church with undying love. She was faithful in every avenue of service that opened to her. Her personal life was a beautiful and challenging example of likeness to Jesus. She encouraged her pastors and other members of the church by word and deeds, asking nothing in return.
My father-in-law was one of those pastors. He once told me that he had never served a more Christ-like individual.
She excelled at what she did, with the exception of driving. She once escorted Doris and me on a tour of Nashville. She wanted us to see the church’s facilities and to meet her pastor, and her driving scared me witless. I am sure a guardian angel attended her when she was at the wheel, and she kept that angel busy.
A humble, patient, and thankful disposition shone through all she said and did. You probably never knew her or heard of her. She made no headlines and sought no honors. She just quietly served the Lord and cared for people through a long life. Unknown and unsung, she attracted very little attention, but in the book of life that God keeps I am sure that she was named among the great.
Farewell for a while, Alma. I will miss my place in your prayers, but I will always keep you in mind as one of the choicest Christian women I ever met.
Praise the Lord
I woke up this morning with pain and praise. I suffered yesterday some of the severest pain I have ever experienced. I could not escape it by resorting to adequate sedation, for I had two sermons to preach and no intention of letting them lie in the files for future use. I may not die preaching but I will die wanting to preach.
So today I greeted the morning by praising the Lord for all the years He has given me as a servant of His word. When I was called to preach I dreaded the assignment. I was too shy, too dumb and too interested in other pursuits to care about being a preacher. I supplied the Lord with an impressive list of reasons for not becoming a preacher but He brushed them aside and imposed His will as if I had no right to decide how I would spend my life. And I didn’t. He was being God and I was trying to play God.
I remember telling Him, “All right, Lord. I will preach, but You will have to be responsible for my ministry. I’m not going to ask the church for a place to serve.” I sure ate my words on numerous occasions! He kept me busy. I’ve always had a job and often more than one at a time. I’ve nearly always had pain, but seldom was it strong enough to sideline me.
So I thanked Him for uncounted mercies and the privilege of being a preacher of His word. I serve a patient, gracious, generous and forgiving congregation. They enjoy some of my work and quietly, lovingly endure what they can’t enjoy. They pray for me, some of them daily, keeping my name and needs before the throne of grace. They are “family” and I have become, by reason of long years, the family patriarch. When I say something wise they try to put it into practice. When I am unwise they ignore it as age-related but relatively harmless. Always they, like the Lord, treat me better than I deserve.
I am least of all saints but the recipient of “grace upon grace” or “one blessing after another,” depending on the translation you are reading these days. I have no complaints to make, but every reason to live and die and after that go on praising the Lord forever. There is not a more fortunate man on earth than I.
Forgiven and Forgiving
This morning my eyes fell on a book I cherish, for it
was written by a man with whom I worked when I was editor of our
denominational magazine, the Herald of Holiness. The book is entitled A
Theology of Forgiveness, the author is Ivan Beals. The book was published
after Ivan died, a victim of cancer, a victor over cancer. Ivan wanted me
to write a foreword to the book and I was honored to do this for we were
close friends. Let me share with you some words from that foreword. They
may prove helpful.
The church of Jesus Christ is a community of forgiven sinners. The church is also a community of forgiving saints. Human forgiveness is necessitated by divine forgiveness. Because God has forgiven us, we must forgive others. Because God has forgiven us, we can forgive others. His loving actions provide both the model and the power for ours.
God doesn’t forgive because sin doesn’t matter. He forgives because Christ has made atonement for sins—for all sins and for all time and for all persons. We forgive others, not because their sins are small or because their merits are large; we forgive for the same reason God forgives, because Christ atoned for sin. We are most Godlike when we forgive those who sin against us.
For thirteen years Ivan and I worked closely together. We also worshipped as members of the same church. I knew him to be a forgiven and forgiving man
Let me now add some words from Ivan’s preface to the book:
“Human sin and depravity…. cannot be cured by any self-help efforts or innate moral virtues. Rather, God meets our plight with His forgiving grace, redemption through Jesus Christ…. The Spirit of truth ever reminds me that God’s call to holy living remains a call to be forgiving—like Christ…. He enables us to do the seeming impossible—be forgiving.”
In our years of working together I am sure I gave Ivan frequent challenges to be forgiving. He never failed to meet the challenge. Our world needs the teachings of Jesus embodied in human lives.
Be forgiven! Accept the gracious offer of pardon that Jesus extends to all who repent and believe. Be forgiving! To imitate the forgiving grace of Jesus is the choicest way of showing gratitude to Him and showing Him to people.
“Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). We have received freely the forgiveness of our sin. We should freely grant forgiveness to those who sin against us. That is a Jesus-like way of living, and no one has ever found a better way.
What's In A Name?
My nephew David McCumber is managing editor of a newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I was browsing their website the other day and ran across a brief story that tickled my weary little brain. A woman named Jolee Bacon had won the annual hog-calling contest at the Nez-Perce County Fair in Idaho. Hog-calling is part of her vocation, not simply an avocation, for she raises pigs and calls them twice daily. According to the news item she nailed down first place with some loud snorts and a long “sooey.” Bacon seems a fitting name for a hog-caller, doesn’t it?
I got to thinking about being nicely named and badly named. An early Texas governor named Hogg named a daughter “Ima.” That seems cruel to me.
Living down a bad name can be hard. Sometimes it’s just as difficult to live up to a good name. We who follow Jesus bear the noblest and best of names. Calling someone “Christian” began as an insult, according to some commentators on Acts 11:26. To the apostles, however, it was worth enduring persecution to bear Christ’s name (Acts 5:41).
There are still places and people who despise the name and would like to wipe out those who preach and teach Christ. In anti-Christian riots recently in India three of our pastors were killed. Fifteen Nazarene churches and hundreds of Nazarene homes have been destroyed.
Unfortunately, there have been times in the history of Christianity when war broke out between “Christians.” “Christians” were imprisoned, tortured and killed by other “Christians” over theological differences. The brutality was practiced in the name of Jesus Christ, the very One who forbad His first followers to take up the sword against their enemies. Those who persecuted always insisted that it was just because it punished heretics and deterred heresy. Jesus taught us to pray for those who persecute us, not to wage “holy” warfare against them.
The name of Jesus has suffered more from the words and deeds of those who call Him their Lord than it has from those who openly defy and deny Him as Lord. The churches have been their own worst enemies and caused thousands to turn from Christianity in disgust.
We should bear His name gladly, but not proudly, for we don’t deserve Him. We should bear it truly, but not smugly, for there is always a gap between who and what He is and who and what we are. We should bear it expensively, for His way is one of sacrifice and suffering, not of ambition and brutality. Let’s live like Jesus or quit calling ourselves by His name.
The Good, The Bad and the Saved
As kings are evaluated in Scripture, Josiah gets top billing. In 2 Kings 23:25 we read, "Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses"
So popular was Josiah that "all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for him." The prophet Jeremiah "composed laments" for him, which were sung at services held in his memory for generations.
Josiah did a good thing. "Josiah had set the temple in order..." The house of God, and the worship services for which it was built, had been sadly neglected for years until Josiah came to the throne. With a genuine zeal for God's glory, the king ordered the temple to be cleansed, repaired and reopened for holy traffic. He led the people in a covenant-renewal ceremony which sparked a great moral reform throughout the kingdom.
Josiah did a bad thing. "He would not listen to what Neco had said at God's command but went out to fight him..." Neco was the king of Egypt and had no quarrel with Josiah. He was marching to attack Syria, and sent word from God to Josiah to keep out of the affair. Instead, Josiah led his troops into battle against the forces of Neco.
God's word was plain enough to make Josiah's stubborn rebellion inexcusable: "God has told me to hurry," said Neco, "so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you." Had Josiah been more closely "tuned in" to God, he would have accepted the message, avoided the battle and lived a while longer. Rejecting God's word is the sure path to destruction—true in Josiah's day, true in ours.
The good didn't cancel the bad. "So they...brought him to Jerusalem, where he died..." Josiah was wounded in battle and brought home by loyal officers. There, in Jerusalem, he died and was buried, casting a pall over the entire kingdom.
Within the chosen nation no king, no priest, no prophet, no private citizen could disobey the word of God with impunity. God was the true King behind the kings, and not even the rulers of men could escape being the servants of God. Whatever good they did could furnish no alibi for doing evil. Without partiality for person or office, God poured out His wrathful judgments upon those who sought to usurp His sovereign purposes and powers.
The ancient record serves to remind us that we are not saved by doing good things. Good deeds have no power to cancel bad deeds. Should good deeds outnumber bad deeds, that disparity will not save us. God's gracious pardon is our only hope of deliverance from sin and death. He isn't keeping a balance sheet. He isn't grading on a curve. The atoning death of Christ alone can remove our sins. This is the clear and constant teaching of Scripture, and to reject the word of the Lord can only ultimate in destruction.
A Serious Personal Problem
Old age brings numerous problems and among them is
diminished strength. The older you get the weaker you become in body, mind
and spirit. Your source of physical and emotional strength is
non-renewable. Consequently, you find yourself making more and more
mistakes, dumber and dumber mistakes, which results in frustration and
At least, that's how it has been for me, and from numerous conversations with other pastors, I don't think I'm a special case. I illustrate the general rule.
For instance, I was recently unable to figure out how to replace paper towels on a state of the art paper towel holder/dispenser. I finally wanted to pitch it into the trash, but I have dim memories of paying a high price for it. I have done the replacement chore before, and I recall that the process was simple. Now I'm simple and the blasted kitchen accessory seems complex.
"Get 'er done" is no longer a matter of adequate motivation and initiative. It has become a constant problem of "how?" and I often don't remember how. Read the manual, you might say. I would, if I could remember where I put the "easy steps" pages of information.
Okay—such problems can be shrugged off as "no big deal."What I cannot shrug off as a pastor is the emotional burden of my inability to help people because my resources of time, energy, money and problem-solving-intelligence are almost daily dwindling. I see the wounds and feel the pains of needy persons, but there just isn't enough of me or mine left that can be put into operation to meet those needs.
I can laugh at some of the crazy things I think or say or do because of creeping dementia, but I can't laugh at the deep and wide gap between what I want to do and what I can do. The fact that people are kind, that they understand, does not ameliorate my heartache when I yearn to be of use to them and cannot.
This frank confession, this baring of my soul probably doesn't help you or me. I'll hush now and have another go at that recalcitrant paper towel holder.
My Older Brother
My older brother died this week. I had not seen him in years. Our paths diverged when I began to follow Christ and they seldom crossed again. Phone calls and e-mails were our infrequent contacts.
When news of his death reached me a memory from our boyhood immediately sprang to mind. I had an altercation with a kid in our neighborhood. He was bigger than I, as were most of the kids we played and scrapped with. Both of us were on bicycles stopped in mid-street for the argument we were having. Other kids surrounded us and the situation became tense.
Trying to defuse the incident I cracked a joke—a poor one. The others laughed. My assailant didn't. He said, "I resent that," and walked over to me, still astride his bike. When he got close he struck me with a hard fist. The blow landed on my cheekbone with force enough to snap my head back and leave a bruise for days.
As soon as he landed that blow my older brother was on him like a duck on a June bug. He flung that guy, bicycle and all, out of the street and into some palmettos. I thought, "Wow! It's nice to have a big brother in a time like this," as the bully pedaled off crying.
I now have no siblings, but I still have a big brother. My elder brother is Jesus, and He is a gracious, mighty deliverer. I seem to be too small and too stupid to stay out of trouble. I'm glad He names me as part of His family, and stands by me in every situation I can't handle. Forces of evil can dwarf me by their size and strength, but they can't keep me imprisoned by fear. I have someone who is always present with power to sustain and deliver.
Just today my devotions took me through Psalm 31. There I read, "My times are in your hands." I can't control my times, but I am not abandoned to them. The Lord is in charge, not the times. It's comforting to have a big brother in times like these!
Spring Is Here
Spring is here!
My nose is running. My eyes are itching. My skin is itching. My sinuses are swollen. Spring is here!
In spite of my physical system going haywire, my heart rejoices when Spring recurs each year. I love to see the blossoms, in their gorgeous variety of sizes, shapes and colors that festoon the trees and shrubs. I delight in the green of Spring. Winter blacks and whites make interesting postcards, but they can't hold a pistil or stamen to the polychromatic exuberance of Spring.
There is a different lilt to birdsong that even my musically-challenged ears can discern. The raccoon that visits our place looks happier. His mask makes him look less the burglar and more the reveler. The wild turkey that occasionally struts across our yards has a gobble that rivals a giggle.
Frankly, I don't know why nature produces so much pollen. My car, carport floor and driveway are covered with it. I'm sure there is a carpet of it on the yards and cascades of it being swept by rain from the rooftop. I do believe there is enough pollen in my one place of residence to furnish an entire small town with a surplus. .
Notwithstanding the yellow attack, I love the Spring. I can feel the sap rising, even in my ancient, creaking mind and body. I want to sing. I want to dance. I want to dine on food with color and zest. (I'm not talking about fiery foods, spiced with stuff that spells Mexico in my stomach, or stuff that smells like money to folks in Louisiana.) If I were a kid again I'd want to run barefoot, splash in a creek, and communicate with tadpoles and wrigglers.
Some people tell me that year-round Spring would be monotonous. I'd like to risk it. They tell me that we need frigid winters and broiling summers, but I'm not convinced. If God had willed it, if my income had allowed it, if my family had been there, I would have retired in Hawaii. Climate-wise it would have been like baby bear's soup—just right.
Out of every window, in every yard and along every highway I see the beauty of Spring on display. My heart cries, "Hallelujah!"
Got to run—I'll finish this tomorrow.
Oops! An electrical storm is brewing and we are under a tornado watch.
I still love Spring!
Hot air will abound in the months ahead as the national presidential campaigns fire all rockets to reach election day confident of victory.
Television has given "stumping" a new dimension, a new direction and a new dynamic. More people can see and hear the candidates than ever before. The media, on a predictable feeding frenzy, will do a thorough analysis (autopsy?) of every speech and comment uttered by the candidates.
When it comes to public speaking, Obama is clearly the frontrunner. This is so true that Clinton's advisers are already trying to picture him as big in eloquence and small in substance. To downplay the significance of Obama as a wordsmith they are overreaching and come close to denying any significance to words. You know they don't believe their own propaganda when they rush to explain or to explain away every foot-in-mouth slipup that Clinton makes.
Words do matter. Anyone who questions the power of words to effect changes never stood before a magistrate or minister to say "I do." Those two little words can reshape entire lives. And those who keep trotting out the adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words" need to consider this: The words of Jesus are being quoted daily but no one has ever had a portrait of him.
Show a picture loaded with drama, for example a huge man weeping, and you will need a thousand (more or less) words to satisfy the curiosity of those who view the picture and wonder who he is and why he is crying. Words can fare without pictures far better than pictures can do without words.
At the same time, words can be empty, deceptive and confusing, carelessly so or deliberately so. Words can frame promises never intended to be kept. They can arouse expectations that never eventuate in actions. As someone said long ago, a politician's promise is like the rear platform on the old passenger trains—a way to get in but not to stand on.
Whoever you're for or against, listen to the words. Weigh the words. But also look at the records, consider what a candidate really believes by how they have lived. This won't keep their speeches honest but it will keep your vote from being ignorant. Remember the words of Jesus: "If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch."
Thank You For All You've DoneRecently we moved. No sooner than we began to unpack, arrange, and get squared away Doris had total knee-replacement surgery. Then came holidays and visitors and happy times with folks we cherish. They were fun times but busy, busy, busy. Rehab personnel were in and out several times a week. Three days after the last rehab session Doris fell and fractured her other knee. Now she is trying to figure out how to limp on both legs at once. She's in a brace and I'm on the gallop.
During all these emergency situations and throughout the holiday season you were gracious and generous. Cards, flowers, gifts, checks and services flowed in—a flowing stream of one kindness after another. It has been a parade of good people doing good things for us.
We are deeply grateful, but—to my shame—I have been remiss about thank-you notes. I haven't found the time to get them written, and—I painfully confess—I can't always remember who did what, who gave what. That was a list Doris always kept, and she was out of action.
I have been in a confused state. I'd rather be in the state of Georgia with a clear mind and steel-trap memory. But my days of daze and haze took advantage of my age and infirmities, and my struggles to create the record and recall each incident of kindness have failed. As a consequence, I am resorting to this means of expressing our gratitude. We sincerely thank all of you for all you have done. You have lighted dark days and Doris and I have felt so loved and so appreciated through all that has occurred.
I need one more gift—the gift of your forgiveness. My breach of common etiquette was as unintentional as it is embarrassing. I can't undo my failure; I can only ask for your understanding and your pardon. There are times when it's hard for me to like me, and this has been such a time. I'm genuinely sorry. Forgive me.
Did you think I was dead? It has been a while since a new item appeared from my pen.
I'm very much alive. Well, I am alive. Let's leave it at that. My silence has had nothing to do with my health, but quite a lot to do with my wife's health. She has been going through some rough patches.
On November 14 she had a total right knee replacement. After some bad moments resulting from an unsuspected allergy to certain anesthetics and/or medicines she got along well.
On the third day after she completed her rehab sessions, January 4, she fell and fractured her left knee. Her knees are now healing from surgery and a fracture. This has caused her lots of pain and called for lots of patience.
Her misfortune has kept me pretty much confined to our house. I have made some hospital calls, have kept some doctors' appointments, have done some grocery shopping, and have continued to preach on Sundays and share the Word with my wonderful congregation on Wednesday nights. Fortunately, I have an adequately equipped study/office at home, so I could devote early morning and late night hours to preparing messages. However, an unusual amount of my time has been given to household chores and to practical nursing. My writing has been neglected. (Of course, if I knew how few persons missed that or mourned that, my fragile ego would never allow me to wield a pen or pound a keyboard again!)
This is a report and not a complaint. Long years ago Doris had already passed the point at which she had fully earned everything I could do for her until the end of our lives. Helping her through these rough patches of accidents, surgeries and recovery is a privilege, not a burden. Her wit and wisdom continue to scatter sunlight over my life on the darkest days.
Keep us in your prayers and we will return the favor. "This too shall pass." The only constants in our lives are changing circumstances and the unchanging love of our covenant-keeping God.
Well, we moved. We had the usual amounts and degrees of order and chaos. We had marked boxes and mystery boxes. We had light stuff—which I handled—and heavy stuff which younger and stronger men handled. We had things we needed and things we didn't need. We have moved about thirty times in our lives, and this one—THE LAST ONE—was much like the others. I strongly dislike moving. I abhor clutter. But we moved, and that's that.
We had help, good help, good-natured help. No one was angry. No one swore. No one got drunk. No one entertained dark and violent thoughts of murder. Family members pitched in with muscles and minds. Church members added their brawn and brains. A four-man crew of professional movers took care of the bulkiest, heaviest stuff. They were the best movers we have ever engaged. The volunteer help was efficient and gracious. To everybody who got involved we say a hearty "THANKS!!!" You made moving a time of enriching fellowship. That's a miracle.
I have signed a life-lease on the house we moved into. We are here until the Lord calls us home. We have the dearest landlord on earth. We have met our neighbors and they are class A. We are conveniently located—close to the mall, close to the church and close to the funeral home. We are even close to West Virginia's finest—the Poffs. Who could ask for anything more? The Lord and His people are so good to us that I fumble for words to describe their constant kindness.
We moved on Doris' birthday, and two days before mine. The church surprised us with a wonderful birthday present: They paid the moving bill. Not only do goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, they made moving day a grace-filled experience. I am more deeply indebted to the Lord and the church than ever before. My best service falls pitifully short of meeting that debt, but the debt inspires and challenges me to serve them better. Thanks, everyone who so lovingly invested in our lives.
A Thrilling Sunday
October 7, 2007 was a happy day for me. Doris and I worshipped with our Suwannee River church, located in a crossroads community in northern Florida. I was privileged to preach for their seventy-fifth anniversary celebration.
Doris' father served this church as pastor three times. Our mothers were part of the congregation until their deaths. We were members of this country church in the 1940s. Most of the folks I worshipped with and preached to back then are now in heaven. Some of their children and grandchildren remain in the area but many have moved away, a familiar scenario with rural churches.
Three of our oldest, dearest friends attended the service, driving up from distant cities. Three of our children were present. Relatives from my father's side of the family formed a large part of the crowd. The song leader was a man I met when he was a lad living and working on a farm. Present, too, were a retired couple for whom I "tied the knot" when they were young. Some retired preachers whom I have known for years added to the intriguing mix of people who sang, prayed and listened to God's word on this occasion.
Following the happy and challenging service was "dinner on the grounds," one of the choicest traditions of American Christianity. Country cooking down South is not calculated to keep folks slim, but it sure makes the bulges a tribute to some of the tastiest food to ever travel alimentary canals.
All in all the day was glorious. No two of us present had traveled identical paths, but each of us could bear witness to the faithfulness of God. The fidelity of God to His people was my overwhelming impression as I looked at, preached to, and dined with the Suwannee River church. They could tell of good times and bad, of feasting and fasting, of joy and pain, of blessings and affliction, of fulfillments and disappointments, of happiness and sorrow as God patiently and graciously wove the variegated threads of human experiences into a meaningful pattern.
Every church's anniversaries underscore the words of Jesus: "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." Angry demons and wicked persons have fought hard and long against the church, but victory has always been reserved for those who have linked their lives to the risen and reigning Lord. Church anniversaries are chapter headings or chapter summaries in the story of faith's triumph over tribulation. Suwannee River's seventy-fifth was a thrilling experience.
A Prayer Warrior Has Been Promoted
"We hardly got to know you," was a writer's lament when John F. Kennedy
was cut down in youth by an assassin's bullet.
That's what I thought and said inwardly as I looked at Helen Allums' body in a casket. She did not die in youth, but she died soon after the Allums began to attend our church. My contacts with her were infrequent and brief, but they were meaningful to me.
The first time she came to our church, she shook hands with me after the service and said, "I 'm going to pray much for you. You may be old, but we need you."
And pray for me she did, as some of the family have told me. When I last visited her in the hospital she said, "I've been praying for you every day." She had a clear line to God, the kind of person we used to call "a prayer warrior." Her prayer life reflected a strong personal trust in the Savior and a deep concern for the ministry of God's word.
I shall miss her, for people who pray daily for me, if brought together in one place, would not make a multitude. However, it is the quality—the integrity—of intercessors that matters most, not their quantity. Helen prayed as she lived, with a radiant and joyful trust in the trustworthiness of the Lord. She is now in the presence of the Christ "who ever lives to make intercession" for His people.
Helen requested me to say "a few words" at her funeral. Fulfilling that request was a privilege and an honor. A few words sufficed, given our brief acquaintance, but her long life of fidelity to Jesus was a continuous testimony, speaking loudly and clearly of Him as the priority of her life.
One of our early leaders was asked, "How much religion does it take to get to heaven." His thoughtful reply was, "Enough to make you comfortable in the presence of Jesus." Helen is with Him, and she is comfortable in His presence.
We will pray much for Jack. That his loss is heaven's gain will be great comfort to him, and he will rejoice in her "promotion to glory," but he will also experience a deep grief as he continues his own journey of faith without her inspiring companionship. She is with the Lord, and the Lord is with her family. That will be their strength and peace.
Thanks, Helen, for your prayers. I'll see you in the morning.
Wimps, Not Winners
Almost forty years ago I toured an
open-air market in a Central American city. The market was flanked on one
side by a river. As I watched, parts of animals and fish were tossed into
the river. Suddenly the water would become extremely agitated as a shoal
of piranhas feasted on the dumped flesh. They were a kind of animated
garbage disposal. In seconds the orgy ended and the water calmed as the
piranhas awaited their next meal.
To me, those piranhas were scary. They seemed to be so savage, so vicious, and so lethal. I shuddered to think of falling into that river. I could be reduced to a skeleton in moments, moments that began with horrible pain.
To my surprise I read a recent article, a Reuters' dispatch, in which the piranhas were described as fearful, not fearless. They congregate in big numbers to protect themselves from such predators as caiman—first cousins to crocodiles—and dolphins and other large fish. I thought their instincts taught them to live by the rule, "The larger the hunting party, the larger the prey discovered and devoured." In reality, says a professor at the University of St. Andrews, piranhas are "wimps." They forage in huge numbers in order to avoid becoming the menu and not the diners.
That got me to thinking back on my life. Most of my fears turned out to be groundless. Most of the forces that I regarded as enemies proved to be less powerful than I had supposed. The threats I faced were not unreal, but they had been exaggerated in my mind.
As a Christian you can't run with the pack. A Christian is necessarily in conflict with prevailing culture. To be a friend of the world, we are warned in Scripture, is to become an enemy of God. And God, not the human piranhas of this world, is the one to be feared. If He is your friend, the forces of evil can only attack as He allows. Just as Satan had to get a permit to test Job, so God remains sovereign over all who oppose, malign and seek to destroy His people.
"There is strength in numbers." So reads an ancient and frequently quoted proverb. The one and only God has greater strength than all the powers of darkness combined. If they wound, He can heal. If they kill, He can resurrect. Neither demons, nor disease nor death can prevail against the purpose of God. "If God be for us," Paul exclaimed, "who can be against us?" Compared to the omnipotent God, the piranhas of evil become wimps.
A File Not Found
A few days ago I was looking at my PDF files and noticed one labeled "Droughts and Floods." It carried a 2004 date as a Word Document. I could not remember any such document so my curiosity was jostled. I tried to open the file and was told that it no longer existed in the PDF files and might have been moved or renamed. I proceeded to conduct a search of all files which yielded no results.
That set me to thinking. Droughts and floods are natural disasters. They destroy crops and buildings and lives. People sometimes ask, "If God is, and He is love, why does He allow these disasters to occur." Nobody can supply a complete and satisfying answer to any question that begins, "Why does God" or "Why doesn't God." God tells us, in Isaiah 55:9, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." There are mysterious heights and depths in God's thinking and doing that we cannot fathom, much less explain to others. Only God can fully understand God.
But the Bible points us forward to "a new heaven and a new earth" where natural disasters will not occur and injuries and deaths will be unknown, perhaps even unremembered. No search for them would be rewarded. A delete key will have been tapped by "the finger of God," erasing all that would bring pain, grief or misery to human experience.
According to the Scriptures, natural disasters are sometimes a form of divine judgment upon human rebellion. Sometimes these judgments have the effect of increasing the sins of men. They demand explanations from God, as though they could put Him on trial. Failing to get their demands they sometimes make these judgments an excuse for denying God's existence. Such denials are a species of arrogance. God's existence does not depend upon our approval of His ways. Abraham trusted that "the judge of all the earth" would do what is "right."
Trust in God when disasters strike. He has a future planned for us that will reduce all disasters to missing files.
A Bitter Pill
Years ago I read about two lads who were fighting. The bigger one had the
other flattened and was punching him mercilessly. A man passing by stopped
the one-sided battle and asked why they were scrapping. The bigger kid
replied, "He called me a liar." "Well," the man asked, "are you a liar?"
"Yeah," the boy replied, "but I got a right to be sensitive about it."
There's something better than being sensitive, resentful and belligerent about the exposure of our wrongs. It's called repentance, and it can be a bitter pill to swallow. Followed by trust in our Father's forgiveness, however, repentance is the first step toward transformed living. The apostle Paul furnished us with a remedy for sin: "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 2O:21).
The Hebrew word translated repentance means a turning. The Greek word means a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior. Both Testaments make it clear that repenting is more than feeling sorry; it is being sorry enough for our wrongdoing that we execute a U-turn. I saw a sign the other day that read, "God Allows U-Turns." He not only allows them, He demands them, enables them and rewards them. He grants a free and full forgiveness to those who truly repent.
Repentance is an unpleasant experience. It compels us to face the truth about who we are and what we have done that displeased God and damaged others. It strips away masks and facades, those protective and deceptive fronts we display to hide the truth about our defective characters and behaviors. The person who denies his or her illness will not seek help or find healing. We have to admit the ugly truth about our sins or continue unsaved.
Because this pill is bitter, we won't want to swallow it again. Repentance, therefore, is both an entrance into spiritual health and a deterrent against relapsing into sin. Jesus preached repentance. His apostles preached repentance. Any preacher who doesn't include repentance in his sermon menu is a quack, not a healer. You can't evade it, you can't fake it, and find peace with God and peace within yourself. As Jesus so emphatically stated, "Unless you repent, you...will all perish" (Luke 13:5).
Over the paragraph of Scripture that contains that statement, my Bible has an editorial caption: "Repent or Perish." Given the option, take the pill.
Damaged Heart, Undamaged Faith
I preach good news, but my doctors don't have that privilege. Now they
have discovered that I have an atrial fibrillation. With their penchant
for abbreviation they call it an "A Fib." I call it an "Oh, Oh."
I did not relish learning this. I think there are times when ignorance is bliss. However, the doctors feel that patients will not take necessary steps to protect their hearts and extend their lives unless they know the condition of their hearts.
These doctors told me that a normal human heart ejects seventy percent of its blood with each pumping action. Thirty percent remains in the heart. Mine, they say, retains seventy percent and only pumps out thirty percent. The blood that remains in the heart constitutes a danger. Clots may form and travel from the heart to other parts of the body. At special risk is the brain, for clots that journey to the brain cause strokes. This heart condition is treated by prescribed medicines and proper rest.
On February 22, 2000 my heart was in the hands of a skilled physician doing bypass surgery. Since then I thought I was doing well until this condition "A Fib" was discovered. Now I know why I often feel "done in" when I haven't done much. I also know that I live with a sort of time bomb within my chest.
My options are limited and challenging. I can live in fear, withdrawing from activities that could trigger trouble, and try to hang on by suspended effort. Or I can live hopefully and helpfully, continuing to serve the Lord and His people with what strength and sense are yet mine. I had no promise of tomorrow when I was young; I sure don't have such a promise now that I am an octogenarian.
A friend of mine use to say, "What is to be will be if something worse doesn't happen in the meantime." I am not that fatalistic. I choose to regard each day as a gift from God and use it to honor Him and to help others. "My times are in your hands," the Psalmist said to God. My heart is in His hands. My prayer is, "Your will be done." How one lives is always more important than how long one lives.
God Allows What He Doesn't Approve
God hates sin, but He permits human beings to indulge every sin their
morally warped minds can imagine. He dislikes illness, as the healing
ministry of Jesus amply illustrates, but He allows people, even the best
of people, to become victims of disease. He disapproves of crime but He
does not intervene to halt the robberies, murders and rapes that are the
stuff of headlines in daily newscasts.
The fact that God allows what He doesn't approve has been used by unbelieving men to argue that He doesn't exist, or that if He does exist He is deficient in love or power. Those who devise and distribute such arguments seem to overlook the obvious fact that if God prevented all evil by removing all evildoers, none of them would have lived long enough to frame and broadcast their arguments.
As the Bible says, "All have sinned." That includes all the men and women who seize upon the corruption and crime that bloodies human relationships as justification for maligning and denying God.
It's easy to look with horror upon the madness of society and conclude that a loving and almighty God would never allow such evil to exist with its apparently endless repetitions. It's easy to read the newspaper and feel, "If I were God this would never be permitted." All wrongs, however, are rooted in human freedom, not in divine indifference. God could eliminate evil only by destroying our freedom to choose our behavior. The evils that are used to undergird atheistic arguments infect also the minds of those who argue. True, some have never acted out all that is in their hearts, chiefly because they lacked opportunity or feared consequences. Nevertheless, all human minds have been polluted and all human behavior has been tainted. With the single exception of God's "one and only Son," Jesus, all have sinned—inwardly and outwardly.
God, whose character is maligned by these easy arguments, "so loved the world" that He sent His Son to be its savior. Jesus died to atone for our sins, to make it possible for God to be just and yet the justifier of the ungodly. Through Jesus, the worst of sinners can be freely and fully forgiven. They can become "a new creation" destined to inherit "a better country" where holiness and happiness will be unmarred forever.
Instead of denying the God they do not want, people should repent of their sins, trust in divine mercy, and experience deliverance and transformation. The arguments that deny God are as old as sin and rooted in sin. And sin is what God does not approve but does allow, and in that allowance He grants us time and space to be saved before He brings final judgment upon sin and sinners.
A Bitter Pill; A Better Person
I have just lived through three months of illness. My problem was
pneumonia and bronchial infection which triggered frequent and violent
coughing spells. There were two or three days when I thought I might cough
myself into the next world.
Nothing seemed to relieve the coughing. I had prescriptions from the doctors and home remedies from my past. We have a detective in our church, Margaret Dawson. She told me to get Fisherman's Friend, a cough remedy that has been around since 1865. It's even older than I am. She warned that it would taste bad but insisted that these particular cough drops had helped her more than anything else when she had a problem similar to mine.
So, that very night, on the way home from church I purchased a box of Fisherman's Friend. I popped one into my mouth, and my mouth said, "Don't you like me any more?" It tasted awful, unlike anything I've ever sucked on, chewed on or gagged on before. But it helped. It did more to put my throat at ease than any medication I was taking.
At a funeral home where I was to conduct a service, one of the morticians saw me take the box from my pocket and slip a Fisherman's Friend into my mouth. He said, "You are the first person I've seen who uses the same cough remedy that I have used for years." He said the same things about it that Margaret had said—bad taste, good effect.
Why am I telling you this? To push this brand of cough drops? No. I wanted to remind you that sometimes it takes a bitter pill to produce a better person. John the Baptist hit the scene preaching, "Repent." Jesus followed him, preaching, "Repent." All who have repented know that repentance is a bitter pill. To confess and forsake one's sins, even the most darling of those sins, is never easy. However, repentance leads to faith in Jesus for the pardon of our sins and the transformation of our hearts and lives. Repentance is a preface to peace with God and to healthier and happier relationships with people. As Simon Peter could tell you, Jesus was a fisherman's friend and proved to be the one and only remedy for the lethal malady of sin.
I'm not a salesman for Fisherman's Friend. I am a witness for Jesus Christ. I know that He is the answer to your deepest needs and your direst threats. "Taste and see that the Lord is good."
What's Ahead? God Only Knows
I used to travel weekly in a state that made "Better
dead than red" a slogan. The motto expressed abhorrence for communism and
implied that democracy was worth dying for.
As an individual credo that may be commendable. On the other hand, the dead can't change the red.
Good government is rare, partly because good governors are scarce. Too many politicians have a personal agenda that fuels a driving ambition for power and / or wealth. Good government is worth preserving at the cost of lives spent in its preservation.
Bad government can be overthrown or reformed. For that reason it beats no government. Anarchy is the ultimate expression of human rebellion against God, for the Bible affirms that God maintains order through human rulers. Anarchy puts us all at the mercy of the lunatic fringe of society.
Within recent decades we have witnessed the fall of communism in huge and powerful nations. There is still enough "red" in the world, however, to badly stain human society. Given time, it too will crumble, for all who oppose God taste defeat sooner or later—sooner than we think it will happen and later than we wish it would happen. God's timing doesn't always coincide with our desires.
To swap a brutal dictatorship for a crooked democracy is not a solution to the misery inflicted by that dictatorship, but a crooked democracy can be straightened easier than a brutal dictatorship can be gentled. The worst democracy beats the best dictatorship.
Cruel rulers have spread more death than the most virulent plagues that ever decimated a population. The depths of evil to which many rulers, ancient and modern, have sunk are terrifying and dizzying. It is hard for the average citizen to realize how and why men would bathe the earth in the blood of millions to further their own ambitions. Nonetheless, it has happened, is happening and will happen. Murderous cruelty is the stuff of history and will be until God brings the curtain down.
What's ahead? God only knows. The One who knows has given his people a glimpse of the ultimate future: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 11:15). That is the hope which springs eternal from the word of God and from the hearts of His redeemed people.
"I Resolve" (Again)
The world is edging through tinsel, wrapping paper and
multi-colored lights toward a new year. 2007 is short days ahead. Very
soon we will stop saying "I got..." and start saying (if only to
ourselves) "I resolve..."
Whatever happens in any given year, we close it with some sense of personal dissatisfaction and think about (however briefly) changes we need to make in our personalities, behaviors and situations. Every success is shadowed by some sense of failure. We are not all that we wish, in our honest moments, to be. We have not done all that, in the light of conscience and consequences, we should have done. So we resolve to make certain changes, resolutions to which we can often add "again."
"That's not all bad," to borrow a comment frequently made by one of my seminary professors when he had summarized a viewpoint or activity he was preparing to critique. It would be bad if we were fully content with who we now are and what we have already achieved. The room for improvement is still the largest room any of us occupy, and the person content with himself or herself is too easily satisfied.
Doing springs from being. We live from the inside out. Our resolutions to change, therefore, should focus more on who we are than what we do, on attitudes more than actions, on spiritual health more than physical strength,
We need a measuring stick with which to compare ourselves. For earnest Christians that must be Christ. Likeness to Him is our goal, and we should consent to the death within us of anything unlike Him. We should respect human leaders and human heroes, but our ultimate target is not likeness to them but to the One who is, as Scripture says, "above all." To love as Jesus loved, to live as Jesus lived must ever challenge us to renewed efforts to meet daily life in His spirit and to comport ourselves by His teachings.
The day is coming when His followers "shall be like him." That day, the New Testament teaches, will come when He returns. We evidence the fact that we "belong to the day" by living every day in earnest efforts to reflect His disposition, His demeanor and His decisions. We should be alarmed, disappointed and challenged by every failure to be Jesus-like in our relationships and circumstances, whoever and whatever these involve.
We cannot afford to think or say, "Oh, well. No one is perfect. One day He will change me completely, so I'll just wait for that to occur." We are responsible for becoming as much like Him as we possibly can here and now, not just there and then.
Low Budget Space Travel
Within recent days American and Russian spacecrafts
have journeyed to the International Space Station with a minimum of
publicity. Soyuz TMA-9, on its mission, included the first female space
tourist along with its astronauts. Space tourists thus far have
reportedly paid twenty million dollars for the round trip flight.
I could not qualify physically for travel in outer space, and I sure could not qualify financially. Like all but a rare and privileged few mortals, my space travel must be done at ground level on Mother Earth. That can be exciting for it's certainly dangerous. Fewer people die in outer space or in the air than on the ground.
As I get older my ground-level space travel is reduced in the number and length of trips made. There was a period in my life when I averaged more than thirty flights a year on commercial jets. I spent huge amounts of time sitting in airports and on airplanes. Frankly, I don't miss that, but I do miss the human connections that flying allowed me to make.
My happiest trips now are thrice-weekly drives to church for worship services. I live eleven miles from the church building. Covering the space between my back door and the church's side door brings me to the fullest measure of social pleasure I experience. I do love to be in God's house with some of God's people.
I have friends who can no longer make such trips, and I hurt for them. I don't know which is sadder, the few who want to attend church services and cannot, or the many who could attend them but do not. I do know that "I envy not in any mood" those who deliberately absent themselves from gatherings of the Lord's people. My friends in Christ are loving and loyal.
They add riches of laughter and tears to my limited existence.
We share our church building with Hispanic believers. I enjoy greeting them as we Anglos are exiting the sanctuary and they are entering it for their services. I cannot speak or understand their beautiful language, but their "faith, hope and love" resonates with mine, and their smiles are to my heart what sunshine is to my aging carcass.
Next to traversing the space between home and church, I enjoy covering the space between my bedroom and my study. I am often making this trip by three or four o'clock in the morning, and I can devote hours to the study of God's word, scarcely aware of the time that is passing. I also have friends who are no longer capable of this short trip. I value the privilege immensely.
Closing the space between any room and the dining room still blesses me, also. This is an even shorter trip but it's so rewarding! Good appetite and good food to satisfy it are among life's choicest blessings. When people ask me the time-worn question, "Do you eat to live or live to eat," I answer "Yes." I also have friends who can no longer enjoy meals, and that is a sad situation for anyone to endure. The Gospels indicate that table fellowship was one of Jesus' favorite experiences. I want to be like Jesus.
Yes, my life is quite restricted now, compared to earlier years, but every day is good and filled with beneficial activities. I have one long trip ahead through totally uncharted territory. Sometimes I feel a bit of dread when I think about it, but I will have the grandest companion on that last journey that anyone can have on any trip. He assures me, "I will never leave you. I will never forsake you."
Inking My Thinking
At the recent district assembly, Dr. Roy Rogers kindly
plugged my new book, Come In, The Door's Open,. When doing so, he referred
to me as an "asset" to the Georgia district.
I was glad to be called an asset, and appreciated especially the last two letters of the word he used, for some people have used only the first three letters in describing me. To be sure that I understood the term "asset" I consulted my Webster's dictionary. Therein "asset" is defined as "1. A thing owned that has exchange value 2. a valuable or desirable thing to have."
I don't think the district superintendent had 1 in mind, for what could the district possibly exchange me for? I assume, therefore, that his referent was 2, and I am certainly pleased that he would regard me as valuable to the district. Before I go any farther with this, let me say that I don't want to receive any e-mail or snail mail contradicting his opinion.
When leaders place value upon me, I resolve to both sustain and improve my service. Whenever my father used to compliment my work I would increase my efforts to please him by trying to enhance the quality of what I was doing. Now and then my kid brother, eager to express sibling rivalry by deflating my pleasure, would tell me, "He's just bragging on you to get you to do more." I would reply, "Well, if that's true, it's working."
At trail's end, Jesus will confront me and say, "Give an account of your stewardship." When that account has been rendered, if He says to me, "Well done, good and faithful servant," you may be sure that I will strive to give Him much better service in the next world.
In the meanwhile, as long as I am a pastor on the Georgia district--and at my age that can't be much longer--I will try harder than ever to be an asset to the district and to the local church that I am serving. Knowing that my efforts, however sincere and strenuous, will be marred by blunders I will solicit the continued patience and forgiveness of both the Lord and His people.
If I outlive my usefulness and no longer can be an asset, I don't want family or church to waste their money or energy on me. Just bury me, brush the soil from your hands, and place your sympathy and support solidly behind whoever next shoulders the responsibilities I once labored to discharge.
Praise the Lord, O My Soul!
I feel a testimony coming on.
William Tyndale, who gave his life to give England a Bible in its own language, translated one sentence in Genesis to read, "Joseph was a lucky fellow." I am one of the luckiest fellows who ever lived.
I have a Savior who loves me, who leads me, and who never lets me down. He is faithful to His covenant of salvation and faithful to His promises of blessing. He forgives me freely and showers me daily with mercies.
I have a wife who is lover, friend, counselor and burden-sharer at all times. She reinforces my courage, strengthens my faith, enhances my joy and makes every day worth whatever it gives or takes.
I have children who love me, respect me, comfort me and exercise great kindness in their efforts to keep me from dwelling too much in the past or too much for the future. They return unused advice to me without ridicule or contempt. Their affection is evident and their banter is delightful.
I have friends who pray for me, who mentor me, who share meals and memories, ideas and interests with me. They keep me from becoming too insular in my thinking, too isolated in my living. They offer advice and impart wisdom and provide correction that makes me a more sociable and helpful person.
I serve a church that is patient with my blunders, generous in their support, loyal to their pledges and much swifter to boost than to knock. They are brothers and sisters in Christ who make it far easier for me to serve Him by their constant encouragement.
I cannot think of anything necessary to happiness or to usefulness that is not poured into my life from an intriguing variety of sources. And besides all these enriching and challenging blessings I can say with Paul, "Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ."
All that pains and grieves me is temporary; all that blesses and fulfills me is eternal. Truly God has "clothed me with joy" and my heart cries, "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever."
2 Peter 3--A Reflection
"The day of the Lord shall come."
Nothing can prevent it. The opposition of demons and the cynicism of scoffers are powerless to erase the day of the Lord from the calendar of the future. Not anything, not anyone, can keep that day from its destined place and function in the purpose of God.
Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected Son of God, is coming again. He will judge the world in righteousness and in truth. He will gather His people--a holy and happy society of redeemed sinners--to their everlasting home. His coming is as certain as the veracity of God. The "promise of His coming" will have its glorious fulfillment, the history of mankind its God-ordained outcome. Count on it! "The day of the Lord shall come."
Has that day been delayed? If so, that delay is the triumph of God's patient mercy over the world's rampant sin. Unwilling that any should perish, God has extended the opportunity for their repentance.
Can that day be hastened? If so, only by that activity of the Church which accords with God's reason for delay. In other words, only by the Church boldly engaged in intense evangelism, calling sinners to repentance and proclaiming the saving mercy of God.
"The day of the Lord is a transitional cataclysm. It drops the curtain on the present order, but it raises the curtain upon a new heaven and a new earth in which holiness finds at last its permanent residence.
The sure coming of that day imposes upon the Church obligations of character and conduct. We are to be zealous for holiness of heart and life. We are to confront the world with the claims of Christ as Savior and Lord. A worldly church, an apathetic church, serves only to deepen the skepticism of sinners. A church fervently pursuing its witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit is God's chosen instrument for the last days, which will culminate in the day of the Lord.
We used to sing, "Are you ready for that day to come?" Ready or not, it is coming. "His promise" gives meaning and excitement to every passing day. Each page pulled from the daily calendar brings us that much closer to the greatest day in the history of salvation.
A Life of My Own
I have always been willing to live parts of my life
vicariously. For example:
I've always wanted to wrap Doris in a blanket and hand her a cup of hot, freshly brewed coffee when she descended from the frigid heights of Mt. Everest to the base camp where I waited to congratulate her on a brave and torturous climb.
I've often day-dreamed of cheering for Doris as I helped her out of the scarred barrel in which she went over Niagara Falls and bobbed around in the mist-shrouded waters below that thunderous cascade.
I've always wished to hear the roar of an admiring crowd as Doris, holding a glowing torch in each hand, did a free fall from a red-white-and blue airplane and parachuted into a fan-packed stadium, landing with stunning precision on the fifty-yard line--then changed uniforms and scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds of the Georgia vs. Florida game.
I've imagined the thrill of being confronted by an angry, hungry bear, a huge grizzly with fire-lit eyes fixed in envy upon the bacon I had fried at our campsite. As it rears up, lifts its powerful claws, and growls my obituary, Doris steps between us, slaps its jaws and sends it shambling away to its cave, whining an apology and thinking, " What a wallop!" In admiration and with gratitude I then hand her a plate of bacon, eggs and grits cooked just the way she most enjoys them.
Never, never, never do I want my service to Jesus Christ to be vicarious, however. I want a very personal fellowship with the Savior. I want to hear Him say to me, "Your sins are forgiven." I want to offer Him the best and truest service I can in grateful response to His amazing grace. I want to pour out my soul to Him in prayer as I face the successive waves of challenging circumstances that comprise the Christian journey in a non-Christian world. I don't want to know about Him; I want to know Him.
I thrill to the testimonies of others who have found Him. I rejoice with them in the spiritual victories they have scored. Their companionship, their trials and triumphs, often brace me for the hard places on my own upward climb. I am helped enormously by their prayers, their friendship and their encouragement. But I must have my own answers to prayer, my own spurts of growth, my own explorations of His words, my own expressions of praise, my own submissions to His lordship, my own service ventures--however awkwardly rendered--for His kingdom.
I don't want to just watch others do and dare for Him. I don't want to just hear others preach or praise Him. I cannot be content to say, "the God of my fathers." I want to say, "My God," as well. My own life, captive to Christ and spent for Christ--that is the cry of my heart that I seek to translate daily into the stuff of my thinking, feeling and doing. I wish to say with Paul, but not simply quoting Paul, "To live is Christ."
Two brilliant young men were team-teaching a class in
philosophy. I was present as a student auditing the course. One of them
stated, “There are no absolutes.” Turning to his colleague, he asked, “Do
you agree with that?” The other teacher replied, “Absolutely.”
They never raised a question about, or supplied an answer to, the obvious self-contradictions in their decisively-aired opinions.
“No one is perfect.” I’ve heard that said frequently and emphatically. Even more frequently, however, I've heard “perfect” used as an adjective to describe what someone had done, had said, or was wearing. “Absolutely” and “perfect” seem to be favorite terms with sportscasters and newscasters. Notice this the next time you hear some of them describing and commenting upon a baseball game or fashion show.
Ralph Waldo Emerson called consistency "the hobgoblin of little minds.” By that definition we may safely conclude that there are few small minds in our world, for only the dead are fully consistent, as Aldous Huxley said.
Gray is the color of moral codes in our day. That is true in part, perhaps in large part, because we treat the absolute as relative and the relative as absolute. The frequent statement, "There are no moral absolutes," is either denial or defiance of the Bible. When God says something is wrong, it's wrong though millions do it. When God says a thing is right, it' right though no one does it.
Twist and turn as we may, rationalize and justify as we may, we will at last be judged by the only One whose life was absolutely holy and whose words were absolutely true. We will be judged by Jesus, who alone could say, "I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him" (John 8:28, 29). To Him all judgment has been assigned, and He cannot be mistaken, deceived or bribed. The only escape from our just deserts for living as though God's commands were relative and our desires were absolute is offered prior to meeting Him at final judgment. That one possible escape is His free and full forgiveness of the sins we confess and forsake.
God is absolute. His commands are moral absolutes. His promises are merciful absolutes. They will stand when the heavens collapse and the earth is bathed in flames. By them we will be forgiven and sustained. By them we will be judged and acquitted. By them we will conquer death and inherit heaven. "Heaven and earth will pass away," said Jesus, "but my words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:31). His absolute truth is our absolute hope.
Jesus said to His disciples, "I send you forth as
sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16).
I can understand why a lad in Sunday school, on hearing this text, blurted out, "Wow! Those guys didn't have a chance!" Compared to wolves, sheep are defenseless.
But the sheep are never sent without the Shepherd. In this same Gospel the Lord promised, "I am with you always" (28:20). As a shepherd, David slew a lion and a bear in defense of his flock. Our Great Shepherd can handle the wolves.
However, His unfailing Presence does not exempt us from conflict and suffering. His very next words were, "Beware of men" (10:17)--and He spoke of imprisonment, betrayal and death as the lot of His followers. He reminded them that "the disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord" (v. 24). The Shepherd was persecuted and crucified; the sheep will not be spared from suffering.
The security He pledges is not shelter from the wrath of men but shelter from the wrath of God. Only sin arouses God's wrath, while men vent theirs upon good, right and truth. He may allow evil men to strip His people of earthly goods and mortal life, but He gives eternal life and promises "a better country"--and no one can deprive them of these.
The afflictions endured by the flock are more than compensated by the presence of the Shepherd. To be with Him in raging conflicts is better than comfort and pleasure without Him. The followers of Jesus have always found a greater joy in the midst of suffering than His enemies find when surrounded by ease.
The wolf is a savage fighting machine, and sheep are passive and gentle. Nonetheless, the feeblest sheep endure the strongest wolves, thanks to the Shepherd's care. Don't expect an easy way when you serve Christ, but count on His unfailing love and your inevitable victory.
The battle is not always to the strong or the race to the swift. The Lord has promised eternal triumph to those who follow Him, and His word will not fail. Sheep are ultimate winners, wolves are ultimate losers.
Bread For Life
Few persons bake bread in American homes. For years
"store-bought" bread has adorned our tables and appeased our appetites. At
first we bought whole loaves, but now even the slicing is done at bakeries
before the bread is wrapped and distributed. For these reasons, we know
less about bread, though we consume more of it, than did our ancestors.
When Jesus said, "I am the bread of life," He connected with those who heard Him. Certain facts were immediately apparent.
For one, bread is basic to life. True, Jesus echoed the words of Moses, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). The manna that sustained Israel during the "wilderness period" was a symbol of the true bread from heaven, the word of God. While the spiritual bread exceeds in value the material bread, both are necessary to life, as the word "alone" implies. Quit eating and you will quit living. That's true physically and spiritually.
Jesus is basic to life. He gives life to those who trust in Him. He gives spiritual life, eternal life to His followers. He is God's way of bringing to life and continuing in life those who "were dead in transgressions" (Eph. 2:4). Apart from Him, eternal life is not available to us.
Bread is made from grain that sprang from seed, seed that died in the ground and arose to reproduce itself many times over (John 12:23, 24).
Jesus is the grain who, in the words of the Apostles' Creed, "was crucified, dead, and buried" and "rose again from the dead." He reproduces himself in the lives of all who follow Him.
Grain is crushed to make bread, and bread is broken by those who eat it. We don't swallow whole loaves. The breaking of bread became a ritual that symbolized the death of Jesus on the cross. His death was an atoning sacrifice. God accepted and honored the sacrifice by raising Jesus from the dead. By that death for sins, Jesus reconciles us to God and God forgives and adopts us as His children and heirs.
Jesus was a supreme teacher, but we are not saved by mental assent to His teachings. He was a perfect example, but we are not saved by efforts to emulate His way of life. You can't energize a corpse by reading to it or exercising before it. The gift of eternal life is based upon the death of Jesus, the bread that was broken in order that we might be made whole.
Jesus is "bread from heaven" for life on earth--and beyond earth. Feast on Him by trusting in Him and you will live, not merely exist, forever. Refuse that bread and you will die, not just bodily, but eternally.
Come, Holy Spirit!
Life is amusing. Life is depressing. Sometimes the
moods follow one another, sometimes they team up and you get both at once.
In any case, it isn't far from our smiles to our tears.
We cope best when we can master our moods and not be mastered by them. When we're up we need to realize that we are strapped to a parachute; we are not in the pilot's seat of a space rocket. We are up but headed down. There is no escape from bad things and sad moments. We are weeping clowns or clowning weepers much of the time.
Psychologists tell us that our decisions and actions are usually rooted in emotion and not in reason. How we feel determines what we think more often than what we think determines how we feel. We can suspend the rational easier than we can suspend the emotional, and that makes it easier to say yes to temptation than to say no.
Reason would have dictated a stern devotion to duty when David saw Bathsheba taking a bath. Reason would have said, "She is another man's wife--leave her alone." Reason would have said, "As the king of Israel you are responsible for setting a high moral example for your subjects--don't get involved." Reason would have said, "As the servant of God's purpose you are covenant-bound to control your impulses and honor your commitments. So turn away and keep your distance and don't do anything foolish and destructive."
But David wasn't listening to reason. His eyeballs were strained, his desires were aroused, and his mind was already in bed with the beautiful bather. All that saved him from total ruin was the mercy of a God who forgives sin when men repent. And that is all that will save any of us, for "all have sinned" when emotion toppled reason and morality didn't matter for the moment. All have not sinned alike, but all alike have sinned.
David's ecstasy was soon displaced by David's regret. He later found forgiveness, but he could never stop the churning chariot wheels of consequence. Shame and pain followed him all the days of his life. More than ever before, his misery clouded his joy. Who among us does not live with some permanently bitter regrets?
The Christian's power against runaway emotion is the Holy Spirit. Only as we live "in the Spirit" can we triumph over temptation. Jesus defeated Satan by wielding "the sword of the Spirit" which is the written word of God. In His victory He is our Exemplar. Sin is irrational and human beings are prone to sin. A power greater than our own is needed if we would be true to what we know is right. That power is available but is not coercive. We must choose to live in the Spirit. We must welcome Him into our lives as a power for righteousness. At the control center of our lives we need Him, not emotion and not reason but Him. Let your prayer be daily, "Come, Holy Spirit!"
Bred to battle, Ambrose Powell Hill found cowardice
deplorable in any soldier, and inexcusable in any officer. At Antietam
Creek, during the Civil War in America, General Hill found a lieutenant
cowering behind a tree. The irate general broke the man's sword over his
shoulder, forcibly relieving him of command.
When a private fled from the battle, Hill was gentler in method but as firm in principle. The panic-stricken youth said, "I can't stand it, General, I haven't the courage." Hill ordered, "Go to the rear, then, before you cause good men to run."
Few things are more contagious than fear. One man's fright becomes another man's flight--and another, and another, and another... Isolation of the fearful is a wise military strategy.
Gideon marshaled an army of 32,000 against the Midianites. God said, "Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home," and 22,000 took off. The army was further reduced to 300 courageous and committed men, but they were worth a hundred times more than those who were paralyzed by fright.
Some may possess exceptional courage by nature, but nearly everyone is afraid of something. The surest remedy for fear is not a lecture to oneself but faith in God. "When I am afraid," said the Psalmist, "I put my trust in thee"(56:3).
Some of us recall missionary Fairy Chism's story of riding her mule, Coffee, along a lonely trail. She was being followed by a dangerous looking man. This frightened her at first, but she called on God, and His presence and peace enveloped her. Then, she said, "I was almost disappointed that the man didn't try something!"
God has braced many frail believers for the shock and stress of terrible battles. Some have come through perilous and bloody scrapes undefeated. He allowed others to be killed in the conflict, but they died bravely and at peace, gaining eternal life.
Fear is contagious and most of us carry the germ. The antidote to fear is faith. Trust in God will overcome fear and issue in triumph.
Do You See?
"While I was musing," the Psalmist said, "the fire
burned" (39:3). "While I was amusing," a preacher confessed, "the fire
When one reflects upon the awful plight of mankind, which is estranged from God and enslaved by sin, his heart will burn to declare God's word. Jesus told His disciples to lift their eyes and look upon fields "white already unto harvest." To see the urgent need would prompt them to pray for the sending of laborers into those fields.
While the apostle Paul was visiting Athens, his spirit was stirred as he saw the teeming idols that held mental and moral sway over the superstitious crowds. He burned within to proclaim the true God, Creator and Redeemer of the world. Soon he was engaged in earnest dialogue with the leaders of the city, preaching Jesus Christ.
If Christians really see they will care, and caring will trigger a response to the lostness and brokenness of people around them. If we become engrossed with pleasure, however, and if we become involved with the world's sins, our compromise will quench the flames of indignation and compassion. Cold hearts and dry eyes will ignore the peril of ripened fields.
Christ saw the multitudes as milling sheep without a shepherd, and He was moved to action for their sakes. From His kindled heart flowed the activities that fed the hungry, healed the sick and evangelized the poor.
It all began with seeing them, truly seeing them. Self-indulgence will blind us to the plight of others, and our resources will be wasted upon life-styles that mock human suffering. May God open our eyes! Then our hearts and purses will be opened in compassionate ministry. We will oppose evil and offer Christ as the only Savior, bringing hope to the hopeless.
"True humanity," said Charles Fox, "consists not in starting or shrinking at tales of misery, but in a disposition of heart to relieve it." True Christianity sees and cares that people are desperately hurting.
"The dogs shall eat Jezebel," exclaimed the prophet,
then wisely bolted through the door and fled to safety.
Jezebel was Queen, as vicious as she was powerful. Killing a prophet would have been no harder for her than swatting a mosquito. She was powerful, wealthy, crafty and cruel--a tough missionary for her pagan gods. Her example and influence had filled Israel with Baalism, incurring the holy wrath of Yahweh.
When you said "Jezebel" you were talking political, military and social clout with a capital C. Yet this nameless upstart of a prophet dared to say, "The dogs shall eat Jezebel." Preposterous! But it happened. She was pitched from a window by servants who knew Jehu was now buttering the bread. Horses trampled her broken body, then dogs--half wild scavengers--dined on her crumpled flesh. When Jehu finally sent a burial squad to inter the Queen they found only her skull, feet and palms.
What is the moral of this grisly story? That dogs will eat anything? No. The story (in 2 Kings 9) is a gory reminder that rebellion against God always issues in judgment. No man, no woman, sins with impunity. None are too high to be brought crashing down. None, by reason of money, position or influence can escape righteous retribution. Human judges may be deceived, corrupted or intimidated but Almighty God, perfect in wisdom and holiness, cannot be hoodwinked, bribed or cowed. His judgment upon evil is as certain as His nature is holy.
If one so exalted and secure as Jezebel could not escape God's judgment, no impenitent evildoer can. Only those who repent of their sins and trust in the atonement made by Jesus Christ will be sheltered from divine wrath upon sin. Arrogant men may polish their medals and rattle their swords and tyrannize the people, but sooner or later comes the dogs. God is not mocked and evil will be judged.
Royal dog food! It's something to think about.
A few nights ago I left the house to attend a board
meeting at the church. Because I'm the pastor I'm also chairman of the
board. (If the position were not "ex officio" this would not be true.)
Just as I was going out the door Doris said, in her impish tone, "Don't
bully the board."
That's a joke. I couldn't bully anybody about anything. I'm too easy-going for my own good at times. Not a confrontational person, I have sometimes been run over, stomped on and left for the buzzards.
Doris' joking remark, however, got me to thinking about bullies and bullying. No one likes to be bullied, and bullies, for the most part, are insecure and cowardly despite their bravado and cruelty. They never jump on those who are a match for them in size, strength and strategy. If they discover that they have underestimated their intended targets, they quickly back down, cover up and seek peace.
On a few occasions I have encountered bullies on church boards, and I'm sure, human nature being the sorry stuff it often is, there are pastors and preachers who are bullies. A little guy, like me, tends to be defensive and belligerent, but if wise he also tends to be diplomatic. He seeks to sell his ideas by persuasion, not coercion; by the strength of his arguments, not by the size of his muscles.
When I meet with any group to make decisions and formulate policies I am not equipped to bully them. So far from preying on them, I pray not to be their prey. I do believe, however, that whatever disparities of size exist, whatever differences of opinion surface, a person should not submit to bullies. For the Lord's sake, and by His grace, we should stand our ground even if it means taking our lumps. Better to be pounded on than to weakly submit, compromising our moral principles and abdicating our moral obligations.
I'm convinced that bullies within the church are anomalies. There should be no such critter as a Christian bully. The disciple of Jesus, according to Scripture, should "be peaceful and considerate, and ... show true humility toward all men." We should be lovingly patient and patiently loving toward all with whom we converse. We should be as willing to listen and learn as we are to speak and teach. We should guard against elevating our personal convictions and opinions to the status of divine revelation. None of us has a corner on truth and right. Every discussion should include some "wiggle room," not because God's word is negotiable but because our understanding is imperfect.
Seated on a front pew, waiting for the morning service
to begin, I spotted an interesting intrusion. A weedy vine had slipped
under the rear door of the sanctuary, penetrating the building. A closed
door could not keep it out. I thought to myself, "You could open every
door to this building, invite all the neighbors to come, and you couldn't
drive most of them into church with a two by four scantling."
Many years ago I was preaching in a home mission venture. The services were held under a tent and only a handful of people attended them. One Sunday morning a dog strayed in during the song service and was immediately chased by a man who hurled stones at the dodging beast. I called to the man to stop. "There are so few two-legged creatures coming to our services," I said, "that I don't want to evict any four-legged ones."
Empty churches will condemn the world. In the judgment God will say, "Houses of worship were planted in your communities to draw your thoughts to Me, to judgment, to eternal destiny. You ignored them, clinging to your sins and causing your ruin." Every Christian house of worship is a silent reminder of Christ and the salvation He provided at Calvary.
But empty buildings also challenge and could condemn the Church. We who know Christ should make Him known, bringing others to Him and to His house. Church growth should mark our gatherings and crown our labors. Where this is not happening we must search for the reasons and initiate changes that will produce soul-winning churches.
Samuel Chadwick did that in one of his pastorates. As a result he was baptized with the Spirit. Soon the Spirit came with power upon his people as they prayed. Then they prayed for the Lord to save the worst sinner in town. He did--in one of their services--and hundreds of curious people came to hear the man's testimony. The church was filled and sinners were saved. This miracle of spiritual renewal can happen to preachers and churches everywhere today.
In any sport a packed arena of noisy rooters is
supposed to give an edge to the home team. Stopping the home team's
offense and scoring against their defense often "takes the crowd out of
the game." It quiets their cheering, thus reducing the emotional intensity
with which their team was playing in response to encouragement.
Any player worth his salt does his best whatever the circumstances. To be human and alive, though, is to respond to external stimuli. One's best is determined in part by the measure of encouragement received from others. Whether playing ball or serving God, it's hard to perform at peak levels of possibility if we feel no one cares. The indifference of our friends is harder to overcome than the antagonism of our enemies.
A great ministry, one in which all of us can be involved, is the ministry of encouragement. For every one who failed because he attempted a task beyond his ability, there are many who failed because others did not cheer their efforts.
Disraeli stood in Parliament to make his maiden speech. He could scarcely be heard above the hoots, catcalls, laughter, and foot drumming that greeted his words. Mustering courage and resolution, he closed the rejected speech with a ringing challenge: "I sit down now, but the time must come when you will hear me."
That time came, and Disraeli rose to the office of Prime Minister. He was as distinguished in debate as he was for duplicity. Deeply hated by many, he could be ignored by none. While much of his success owed to his genius, Disraeli also had some constant friends who never ceased to encourage him in his darkest hours.
We all need such friends. More important, we all need to be such friends. Our love, loyalty and support can make the difference between mediocrity and excellence--and even between defeat and victory--in someone's life and work. Encouragement inspires our best. We rise above the levels otherwise possible when someone cheers us on. The ministry of encouragement requires no uncommon gift and no special training. We can all serve in this way.
Faith and Obedience
The Bible does not divorce the saviorhood and lordship
of Jesus Christ. Either He is "our Lord and Savior" or He is neither.
Scripture does not divorce faith and obedience. Jesus not only said, "Believe in me," He also said, "Follow me." He who truly believes follows; he who truly follows believes. You cannot do one without doing the other.
A false separation between saviorhood and lordship, between faith and obedience, accounts for much of the appalling worldliness among professing Christians. Thousands claim that Jesus is their Savior who live daily in disregard of His teachings.
Not in ignorance of His teachings--that's another matter. Faith requires education, and Jesus invites, "Learn of me." Faith can be real where knowledge is small. But faith cannot be real where defiance of the word and will of Christ continues.
Christ saves from sin, not in sin. He imposes moral demands and enables our obedience to them. Grace does not sanction disgrace. The grace of God which "appeared for the salvation of all men" teaches believers to renounce the world and live "soberly, righteously, and godly." To turn back to sin, like a dog to its vomit or a hog to its mudhole, is to insure destruction, not salvation.
The one who loves Jesus will also obey Him. "If you love me," He insists, "you will keep my commandments." Love that does not obey is as phony as a thirteen-dollar bill.
Those who hear and do the words of Christ are built upon rock and the storms will not collapse them. Those who hear and do not His words are built upon sand and the storms will tumble them down.
"Faith without works is dead," writes James. "Faith...works by love," writes Paul. The New Testament does not countenance a profession of faith unaccompanied by a practice of obedience.
Dead faith stinks. It disgraces the Church, dishonors the name of Christ, and destroys the person who makes it his refuge. To believe is to obey.