Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is Your Fish In Clear View?

Recently, I was asked about the significance of the "fish symbol." You know to what I am referring, the simple outline of a fish you see displayed on car bumpers, clothing, bookmarks, and the like.

The symbol of the fish was a mark or sign employed by early Christians. These believers, especially during times of state persecution, were often hesitant to let their Christian identity be publicly known and employed a variety of methods to "reveal" themselves to fellow Christian bothers and sisters in a discreet manner. One method was the use of the "fish symbol," and it was employed in a number of ways, including as embroidery on one's clothing, a symbol painted or affixed to one's dwelling, and a mark placed so as to direct worshippers to a secret assembly place.

The choice of the fish as a Christian symbol was not without meaning. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, was used as an acrostic. Each letter from the word signified a title: the iota ("I") stood for Iesous, or "Jesus"; the chi ("Ch") stood for Christos, or "Christ"; the theta ("Th") stood for Theos, or "God"; the upsilon ("U") stood for Huios, or "Son"; and the sigma ("S") stood for Soter, or "Savior." So together, the acrostic formed a simple Creed: "Jesus Christ, God's Son and Savior."

Today the display of the "fish symbol" has lost its significance for many. It has become a decorative piece more than an icon. The fear of violent persecution is not present, at least in this country, and so men and women of faith are not as fearful to let the world know their mark--to pronounce that they bear the name of Christ. Times have changed: instead of a fish symbol discreetly sketched into the bark of a tree, we are able to erect a noticeable sign on the curb of our public property.

However, have the times really changed that much? Do many not seek to hide their Christian identity, not purposely to avoid persecution, but to purposely avoid embarrassment? How many people live their lives "for God" one or two days a week only to devote the balance of the week "for self"? Certainly, by many, the identity of Christ is hidden from co-workers, fellow students, and family members; it is tucked away so others will not laugh, be offended, or exclude one from "fun." And the Christian name is checked at the door so as to allow one to "live it up" and "let loose" without the burden of a guilty conscience.

I hope that we can sing the lyrics of Isaac Watts with the passion they are due; "I'm not ashamed to own my Lord, nor to defend his cause; maintain the honors of his Word, the glory of his cross."

Friday, July 30, 2010

Dads, Are We Serious?

It is factual to say that most churches are made up of more women than men, usually by a ratio of nearly two to one. This has certainly been the trend for the past 50 years, and perhaps for much longer. Women, by and large, are more spiritually-inclined and more committed to Christian duty than their male counterparts.

God, however, primarily entrusted men with the role of spiritual leadership in the household. It was to fathers that Moses, speaking the words of God, said, "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lied down and when you arise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6.6-9).

These words form the Shema, a constant reminder of God's sovereignty and one's personal commitment to God, and of the father's obligation to instruct his children to honor God and his law. The Rabbis taught that these words were to be recited by husbands and fathers with the evening prayers at the close of each day, and again with the morning prayers at the dawning of each new day. The importance of religious instruction in the household was not to be dismissed.

Today, many men have dismissed their obligation to provide spiritual leadership in the household. Religious instruction is left to wives and mothers, or to ministers and teachers. And, we wonder why so many have forsaken God and why our culture has become so corrupt and evil.

Fathers, it is said by sociologists that we have the greatest influence over the spiritual development of your children. The children of a father who dismisses church involvement and spiritual disciplines are much more likely to forsake such values, themselves, when they reach adulthood. These findings represent no trend, but are founded upon God's creative order. Husbands and fathers, God has given us a responsibility. Have we taken it seriously?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Most Overlooked Passage

"John answered, 'Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.' But Jesus said to him, 'Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you'" (Luke 9.49-50).

Is this the most overlooked passage in the Bible? I believe that a case can be made that it is one of the most forgotten passages in Scripture. The episode is brief, and this may contribute to the disregard shown it. The episode is challenging, and perhaps this is a more likely reason it is overlooked.

What are the implications of this short encounter between John and Jesus? Do we dismiss the story as incidental and not worthy of much attention? Or do we see this brief exchange between Jesus and a disciple as a teachable moment filled with some far-reaching principle?

"We tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us," John complains. "Do not stop him," Jesus responds, "for whoever is not against you is for you."

Certainly too much can be read into this dialogue and our interpretation of it can be too extreme if not tempered with reason, but surely it offers us some advice on how to relate to others who act and speak in Jesus' name. Let's consider the implications.

Is Jesus condemning all criticism and ostracism of anyone who operates under the guise of Christianity? After all the agent of John's ire was "casting out demons in his name." What is meant by John's objection, "he does not follow with us"?

We are certainly expected and, I believe, obligated to counter false teaching, teaching that perverts the gospel and places the souls of people in peril, but we are to do so reluctantly and cautiously while making absolutely certain that the grounds of our objection to what we deem as false is secure and not based solely on our "own" sense of right and wrong. We can be too quick to judge, and we often judge others on the basis of what we feel is right or according to that which with we are personally comfortable. Our judgments are most often made according to our personal experiences and traditions, and so we are quick to condemn anything that is new, innovative, or different from our own practices.

Are not many of our criticisms of other religious people and groups focused on trivial matters, matters of opinion, and matters where we cannot quote chapter and verse with gravel-pounding authority? Yet are not the criticisms of false teachers in the New Testament always centered on bedrock theological principles--matters such as a proper understanding of God the Father, Christ, and grace? Where are the controversies that are so prevalent today, controversies that are given so much of our focus today? Certainly the controversies of yesterday will differ from the controversies of today--the passing of time necessarily redefines the sources of conflict. Yet should we not take some guidance from the approach of Paul, Peter, James . . . and yes from Jesus? "Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Prayer to the God Who Sees

Father God, help me to see as you see, or at the very least to realize and be comforted by the fact that you see all when my vision is often very limited. My perspective is often quite small, Father. My sight is obstructed by time and place, by the limitations of my physical presence, by my intellect and understanding (which are both quite human and not omniscient like you), by my prejudices and hangups, by my sin and stubbornness, and by the sin and deception of others. But, you, Father, can see past through all of these things to see the Big Picture. Thus, I must trust you and depend upon you . . . to accept the guidance you give. I get so impatient. I want a resolution now to the trials I experience. But, you are the one who sees, and I will trust in you to see me through.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Humans Are A Lot Like Turtles

Humans are a lot like turtles: we have shells. Not a physical shell that protects us from the elements or from predators, but a shell we create and modify throughout the years of our lifetime--an emotional sphere in which we can feel comfortable, secure, and unthreatened.
Sometimes we call our sphere a comfort zone. We are careful to engage in activities that don't overly stress us, to accept those beliefs that do not overly challenge us, and to relate to people that do not overly intimidate us. New activities, beliefs, and people often present us with a challenge.
Do you remember when a new student was introduced into your classroom at school? There was a nervousness in the air, wasn't there? "Is he going to be weird?" you asked yourself. "Will I fit in?" he wondered to himself. In time, however, these anxieties dissipated as the "new kid" gradually became incorporated into the life of your class. Fear was weakened through the expanse of knowledge and experience.
We live in a time when the culture about us is changing at an unprecedented rate. It is easy to become intimidated by the evolution of society. It is easy to shrink back into our shells and desire to live as if it were yesterday. But, adaptability is an essential component of life.
If you were to take a snapshot of the church standing on the threshold of the 21st Century and compare it to one taken of thew 1st Century Church, would the pictures be a mirror-image of one another? In certain respects, yes: we share in the fundamentals of Christian faith. In certain respects, no: we may differ in terms of methodology and practice. The passage of time results in the transformation of any organism or institution.
The Gospel of Jesus is timeless and the faith we express and practice is not affected by the transformation of society and culture. However, our methods of teaching and worship, service and fellowship, are often affected by time, and rightfully so. And, thus, when certain circumstances such as lessened effectiveness demand change let us not fear new things, but approach them with a rationality founded on the Spirit's direction, study, and prayer.

Remember the 1st Century church as it wrestled with the inclusion of Gentile converts within the boundary of Christian fellowship. The church was faced with a dilemma and the specter of newness. Many sought to withdraw within their shells--within their established comfort zones--and not attain to a new plateau. Many sought God's guidance, stepping out of their shells, and becoming transformed into a people ready to confront the next challenge.
Where do we stand today?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

What Is Prayer?

Prayer is a conversation with God. A conversation requires at least two parties engaged in shared thought and expression. Prayer occurs within a context of God speaking to us through his word, history, other people, and his creation.

Prayer is a product of faith. Prayer is predicated on the belief that someone is listening. In Matthew 6.5-8, Jesus condemns two falso approaches to prayer: (1) religious ritual for the show of it, and (2) calling on God out of habit and custom. Prayer must be passionate and come from an active faith that God is the Father who loves his children.

Prayer is an act of humility. We come before God acknowledging that he is the Creator and Sustainer of life. In Matthew 6.9-10, Jesus prays, "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven."

Prayer can be spoken or unspoken. Prayers do not have to be articulated, they can be thought. And, in Romans 8.26, Paul says, "We do not not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."

Prayer can be private or public. We should have a daily habit of personal prayer. We should pray regularly with our family, friends, and the church.

Prayer can be temporal and unceasing. We pray at isolated moments, but prayer should envelope the whole of our lives. In 1 Thessalonians 5.17, Paul commands, "Pray continually (without ceasing)."

Prayer can be self-centered or focused on others. We should pray for ourselves and for others. Paul's description of Epaphras is beautiful: "Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured."

Prayer must be a work in progress. Like our faith, we must grow in prayer. Our understanding and practice of prayer must progress and mature during the course of our lifetime. If we are saying the same prayers at 65 that we said when we were 25, something isn't right.

To the righteous man, prayer is effective. James says, "The prayer of a righteous man is pwoerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops" (Jas 5.16-18).

Prayer is a blessing. The psalmist praises, "I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live" (Ps 116.1-2).

Friday, July 23, 2010

What Are Your Treasured Possessions?

We collect a lot of stuff over the course of a lifetime.

From time to time, every family has a garage sale or yard sale. The time comes to part with many of the things acquired over the years. The lack of use and a shortage of storage are usually the reasons for the effort to downsize.

I have found that the process of selecting items to post for sale is difficult. It is odd how attached we become to things. I know that certain items have a sentimental value—they remind us of special people, of fond occasions, and the like—but they are things, they are things of this world.

Are we as attached to the spiritual treasures we have?

Prayer is a wonderful blessing. The opportunity to stand (or sit, kneel, lay, etc.) before God and communicate to him our thoughts, praises, feelings, and longings is a treasure beyond value. Yet, how often do we relegate prayer to a 30-second corner of our day? How many times is prayer left at the mercy of work schedules, family fun, and allure of the living room idol (TV, of course)?

The study of God’s Word is a wonderful blessing. The Creator of the Universe has expressed himself to us in the pages of the Bible—contemplate the great treasure that has been placed in our hands. Yet, do we cherish moments spent reading and listening, meditating and learning? A three-hour sporting contest doesn’t eat up too much our day, but 30 minutes of reading is thought too much?

Togetherness with men and women of common faith is a wonderful blessing. God has blessed us with those who can strengthen our faith, but how often do we neglect meeting together, sharing together, working together? Do we under appreciate time spent with our spiritual family?

How sad it is that we often value more the piles and piles of stuff stored in our garages than we do the countless blessings God has give to us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do you know this song?

I have spent the week editing and updating my devotional song book. I started the project back in 1990, the summer I began as youth minister for the University Church of Christ in Denver, Colorado. Every 3-5 years, I try to update and enlarge the book, adding songs that are "new" or "newly discovered."

This week, I discovered a song new to me. It is a song with beautiful and meaningful lyrics. But, unfortunately, I do not know the tune. Can you help me out?

Here is the song:

Mighty God
Author Unknown

You are the sunshine and I am a candle
You are the mountain and I am a hill
You are the ocean and I am a river
Winding and swirling and never quite still
Winding and swirling and never quite still

You are a Mighty God, Your deeds are so awesome
Mighty God, I stand amazed
You are a Mighty God, I worship You only
You are so mighty and worthy of praise
You are so mighty and worthy of praise
You are so mighty and worthy of praise

You are the canyon and I am a crevice
You are the heavens and I am a star
You are the thunder and I am a whisper
Quietly longing to be where you are

You are a Mighty God, Your deeds are so awesome
Mighty God, I stand amazed
You are a Mighty God, I worship You only
You are so mighty and worthy of praise
You are so mighty and worthy of praise
You are so mighty and worthy of praise

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To the Teachers of My Children

I did not write the following. I'm not sure who did, but the sentiment is certainly shared by me and the countless others who are continually blessed by Bible class teachers.

An Open Letter to the Teachers of My Children

Two or three times a week I trust you with my most prized jewels, and those two or three times a week, you live up to that trust and return them to me—though not quite the same. Somehow you manage to take them and gradually, week by week, polish them to make them shine a little more than I sometimes think possible. You are patient and wise enough to see the potential for riches in what others may see as only rough ore.

I know you spend much unnoticed time in preparation to teach my children about Jesus. I’ve seen the literally hundreds of objects they bring home to remind them of your object lessons. You always win when I prematurely suggest discarding certain Bible class memorabilia. Much of it has a lot of your TLC, not to mention time and creativity, behind it.

I saw a note one of you wrote to my children, challenging her to be the great Christian leader and example you expect her to be. You even promised to pray for my daughter and reminded her that you are always there if she needs to talk.

Thank you for the time, the love, the prayers, the expectations and the support you devote to my children. And thank you for being a constant reflection of Jesus. They notice. And when they do, so do I.

Please resist the temptation to feel unappreciated. You’re not only appreciated but needed—and not just by my children but by me. And please don’t underestimate your influence or your teaching role on them or me as a parent. My children echo much of what you teach them, probably more than you think they hear. In fact, they remember some of your stories and illustrations long after they are promoted to another class.

As a Bible class teacher, you give my children Christ and yourself. I can’t give you enough thanks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Gift of Singing

I wrote this article in August 2002, following a camp session at Quartz Mountain Christian Camp in Oklahoma.

At camp two weeks ago, I was reminded of the gift of song. In attendance was a young camper, Brian, who loved to sing. He was not familiar with most of the words to the songs we sang, but still he sang. He was always out of tune, but still he sang. And, on his face, as he sang as loud as could be, there was a beaming smile.

Have we forgotten the gift of song? As we gather to worship, I look around as the songs are sung. The faces I see are often expressionless. Eyes are downcast. The words are more mumbled than spoken. Many just sit there, silent, thoughts wandering to who knows where. We hurry through the songs, to get to the real reason why we came. The songs are made an afterthought . . . a way to pass time? Have we forgotten the gift of song?

“Come, let us sing with joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.” These are the words of Psalm 95, a beautiful song of praise. Little Brian reminded me of these words as he sang with such passion.

What a wonderful gift God has given to us: the ability to lift our voices in song. We are commanded to sing to one another, but not in order to pass the time, or as a means to transition from one act of worship to another. We are commanded to sing to one another in order to encourage and to teach and to inspire and to uplift one another.

Singing is a rather unique act of worship in that we are called upon to join together in one action. A preacher preaches, the congregation listens. A prayer leader words a prayer, the church is present in spirit, but the words remain those of the leader. And, at the Table, our reflections are usually to ourselves. But, as we sing, our voices are lifted as one. We may sing different notes, and the words may not be the same for all, but the effect is singular . . . it is communal: a song from all those present is offered to God.

Come, let us sing with joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

He Left the Throne of Heaven

Is it not the most beautiful sentence that has even been written? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16, ESV).

He left the throne of heaven to become a man. He became a person like you and me. Not for a few hours, or a day, or a week did he come, not even for a month or a year. No, he experienced the fullness of humanity, from birth to death, and he assumed all that is common to life.

He left the throne of heaven and came into the world through the same means that you and I are introduced to life. His conception, albeit miraculous, was followed by a birth that was rather natural. He came not to the halls of kings, but came forth into this world in a stable, in the most humble of places. His birth was heralded not by the wealthy and powerful but by shepherds coming in from their fields. His childhood, implied from the scarcity of information given to us, must have been rather ordinary. He went through the same stages of life that we all experience. He grew to be a man.

He left the throne of heaven to live an ordinary life. I doubt that he was physically imposing. His looks must have been rather plain. I imagine that he appeared a lot like his neighbor across the street. I imagine his hands bore the calluses of a carpenter. The Gospels speak of times when he was hungry, when he grew weary, we he felt sadness and wept.

He left the throne of heaven to accomplish a mission that was anything but ordinary. He came to live a life that pleased God, to show a way that no man could walk on his own. He came to teach and to inspire, he came to serve and to heal, he came to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice no other could bring.

He left the throne of heaven and gave himself into the hands of evil men. These men took him and nailed him to a cross. He did not resist them. He did not curse his enemies. He did not call 10,000 angels to rescue him from death. He simply bowed his head, lifted his cross, and died on a windswept hillside.

He left the throne of heaven to show us beyond a doubt of God’s great love for mankind. He became one of us to show us the will of God and to provide a way for us to stand before heaven’s throne for eternity.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Our Amazing Bodies

I am not sure who wrote the following article, but it is good. What a wonderful God we have!

It was a familiar scene. The young couple were going over the monthly bills, trying to stretch their money to cover their obligations. There will bills from the drug store, mall stores, gasoline companies, electric and water bills, etc. In an effort to break the tension, trying to be humorous, the husband said, “Isn’t it s good thing that God doesn’t bill us for the air we breath?”

A most serious thought was spoken lightheartedly. What if God decided to bill us for the wonderful body he has given us? The Psalmist said, “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14).

What if God billed us for . . .

Our ears? A piano has 88 keys, but our ears have a keyboard of 1,500 keys. They are so finely tunes that you can hear the blood running through your vessels. The outside of your ears can catch up to 73,700 vibrations a second.

Our eyes? They are both microscopes and telescopes. They can gaze into the heavens and see a star millions of miles away, or inspect the smallest insect.

Our feet? Each foot has 26 bones, none of which is wider than your thumb. The foot is so manufactured (arched) with its ligaments, tendons, muscles and joints that a 300 pound man can put all his weight on these tiny bones.

Our heart? Its size is about the size of your fist, but pumps (beats) 4320 times an hour. In a year, your heart beats about 40 million times. A drop of blood can make a round trip in your circulatory system in only 22 seconds.

Yes, what if God sent us a bill for this marvelous body in which we live? Staggering, isn’t it? But God does not send bills. He just loves us and cares for us. Can we do any less that to return his love? We show him our love by obedience to his Word and by faithful stewardship of that which he has entrusted us.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What You Can't Control

I do not know who wrote this poem. It is short, but it says so much!

You can’t control
The length of your life,
But you can control
Its width and depth.

You can’t control
The contour of your face,
But you can control
Its expression.

You can’t control
The weather,
But you can control
The atmosphere of your mind.

Why worry
About things you can’t control,
When you can keep yourself busy
Controlling the things
That depend on you?

Church Rock, south of Moab, Utah, with La Sal Mountains in background.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Equipping Our Children to Make Wise Decisions

I read an interesting article a couple of years ago, and though somewhat dated, it remains relevant. The article: “Adolescent Pregnancy: Current Trends and Issues.” It was authored by Dr. Jonathan Klein, and was published in the July 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In his article, Klein presents some startling statistics. He writes, “Currently, more than 45% of high school females and 48% of high school males have had sexual intercourse. The average age of first intercourse is 17 years for girls and 16 years for boys. However, approximately one fourth of all youth report having had intercourse by 15 years of age.” He continues, “Involuntary sexual activity (rape, assault, foundling, etc.) has been reported by 74% of sexually active girls younger than 14 years and 60% of those younger than 15 years.” And, perhaps, most shocking: “Current surveys indicate that 11% of high school females and 17% of high school males report having had 4 or more sexual partners.”

Klein argues that there a number of “predictors of sexual intercourse during the early adolescent years.” They include “early pubertal development, a history of sexual abuse, poverty, lack of attentive and nurturing parents, cultural and family patterns of early sexual experience, lack of school or career goals, substance abuse, and poor school performance or dropping our of school.”

Klein lists a number of “factors associated with a delay in the initiation of sexual intercourse.” These include “living with both parents in a stable family environment, regular attendance at places of worship, higher family income, parental supervision, setting expectations, and parent/child connectedness.”

Parents, you would do well to consider the information in this article. Let us equip and empower our kids to make wise decisions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Greatest Mission of the Church

Our window of opportunity is narrow. They are with us for only a short time. Our obligation to them should be at the top of our list of priorities. For, if we allow the opportunity we are given to slip from our hands, another generation of the church will be lost. I am speaking of our youth and our responsibility to teach them and guide them and prepare them for a lifetime of faith and service to God.

Pardon my bluntness, but the evidence of our weak resolve and shallow commitment to the spiritual instruction and development of our youth is stark. There are so many churches in our land, including our own, that are filled with senior adults but are so visibly short of middle-aged and younger generations. I applaud the faith of those in the twilight of their years, but I lament the absence of those between the ages of 20-50. I attribute their absence, in part, to a neglect of our children, a neglect particularly visible in smaller congregations like our own.

We neglect our children when we invest little time or resource in our program of Bible classes. Those who teach our kids need to be constantly affirmed by the whole church, and more of us need to be involved in teaching. Our classrooms need to be comfortable and spacious places where it is easy to teach and to learn. Our curriculum needs to be practical and meaningful and contemporary. We need to make available resources that facilitate visual and experiential instruction, for a child will effectively retain only 10-20% of what they hear, but as much as 90% of what they see and feel and do. We need to understand the different maturity levels of our children (herding 7th graders and 12th graders into the same class environment is usually counterproductive).

We neglect our youth when we fail to appreciate the constant pressures that they are under. Adolescence is the most difficult and formative stage of a person’s life; it is said that 90% of a person’s “value system” is formed before the age of fifteen. So, the church must help parents equip children to make right decisions, to place themselves in proper environments, and to nurture healthy relationships. The church can do this by programming alternatives to the unwholesome activities that are so pervasive in our society. An active and vibrant youth group experience can provide a young person with a safe haven in which faith can grow and a person develop in a nurturing environment.

As I was growing up, the youth center of the Green Lawn Church of Christ was the safest and most encouraging place I knew to go. I would go there after school and hang out with my friends, I would go there on Friday and Saturday nights; it was my home away from home. I did not have to worry about being tempted to do unwholesome things while I was at the youth center. I knew that I was surrounded by people who cared about me and loved me and who shared my faith in God.

We neglect our youth when we do not prepare them for service and leadership in the church. We need to teach our young men to lead in worship. We need to instruct our boys and girls on how to teach a Bible class, on how to serve the needs of others, on how to use their artistic and creative skills to enhance the education programs and aesthetics of the church. We encourage our youth when we show them that they are not alone in this development (our kids need the affirmation of seeing their peers from other congregations engaged in the same activities).

The most important mission of the church is to raise up its own young to be faithful to God. For, if we cannot teach our own, how can we proclaim the Gospel to the world?

Often times we talk a good game, but are we serious about the task?

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's On Your Account Ledger?

Love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13.5). Of all the descriptions of love contained within the apostle Paul’s masterful treatise on the subject of love, this concept is the most challenging to me. In a way, Paul is saying that love is blind, and that love has no memory.

We have all been hurt by the words and actions of others. We have all be treated unfairly, and even many of us have been cheated, lied about, or falsely accused. Paul says that our love must extend beyond such ill treatment.

Surely, Paul is exaggerating the issue. Isn’t he simply painting the ideal picture of love and not that which is possible or even likely? Surely, Paul knows that love can only extend so far, and that it must be conditioned upon reciprocal treatment and returned love. No, Paul is most certainly serious. The standard for love he describes is the standard to which our love must be measured.

What Paul describes is the love our Lord showed. I stay amazed at the event described in John 13, where Jesus took the position of a lowly household servant and washed the dirty, stinky, ugly feet of his disciples. In that room, and among the men whom he served, were Peter and Judas, men who would betray and deny him only hours later. Yet, Jesus loved them despite the knowledge of what they would do. And, even more amazing than this, he looked down from the cross upon those who had hung him there, and he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.” I am challenged by these words. For about three years, I have been mistreated by a person close to me. The details of the abuse are not important, but I have been repeatedly misjudged by this person and have been accused unfairly, without being given the recourse to show my innocence. My responses have been human. I have been angry. I have been bitter. I have said things that I shouldn’t have. I have struggled to forget the ill treatment and disrespect shown to me. I have kept an account of a wrong suffered.

I must learn how to love as Paul says I must love—blindly and without memory. Please pray for me as I struggle in this. For, it truly is only through the strength that God supplies that this love is made possible.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Much Time Had Passed?

He returned home, but how much time had passed?

Jesus’ narrative (Luke 15.11-32) gives the reader no firm clue. He simply indicates that in time the young man awoke to his senses and returned to his father.

The he, of course, is the man often called the prodigal son. And, it is an interesting and instructive question to ask: how much time had passed before he returned home? Was it six months? . . . A couple of years? . . . A decade? . . . Most of a lifetime?

His story has been relived countless times in the course of human history. How many have walked in his shoes? How many fathers and mothers have stood at the gate waiting anxiously for their prodigal child to return?

I know many parents who stand today waiting for a wayward child to return from a place of faithless living far removed from God. Time after time, efforts to instruct and direct and correct are rebuffed. The promise of the wise man seems shallow—“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when old, he will not depart” (Proverbs 22.6), the wise man wrote.

But, the promise is not founded on immediacy, is it? “And when he is old . . . ,” the wise man explains. Old is certainly an abstract term, but it is significant that he did not write, “and he will never stray.” Does the promise allow (perhaps anticipate) a time of waywardness followed by a return?

My point is simple: parents, there is hope, so don’t give up waiting at the gate. It is possible that the prodigal returned after being away for only six months. It is just as likely that he was gone for years upon years. After all, he did spend away an entire inheritance.

So, to the fathers and mothers waiting anxiously at the gate: be concerned, but do not despair; be concerned, but do not be overly critical of your parenting; be concerned, but do not give up hoping. Be patient, and allow the seed so faithfully planted to take root and grow and transform a life. Remember: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when old, he will not depart.”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Chocolate 'n Vanilla

Thanks to the crews from Tecumseh, Oklahoma and Oregon City, Oregon who have painted my house this week.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

May Our Shouts Be Reduced to Civility

There seems to be a lot of shouting these days. I am not speaking of the arena of politics, nor am I speaking of the cultural clashes, or the roar of thousands gathered to see a sporting contest. Sadly, I am speaking of conflict within the church.

Throughout our land, churches are best with turmoil and division. Factions of Christians have lined up against one another. You have heard the labels, they sound as if they are names for sports teams or political parties: Liberal, Conservative, Progressive, Legalistic. Voices are raised, tempers flare, feelings are hurt, and brothers are divided.

“You’re violating my conscience,” shouts one. “You are weak in your understanding,” responds another. “You’re seeking to destroy the church,” one levels. “You’re just holding us back with your stubbornness,” chastises another. “It’s my way or no way,” argues yet another.

The fighting seems to make a mockery of Jesus’ words, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13.35). The shouting seems to dismiss the prayer of our Lord: “I ask . . . that they may be one” (Jn. 17.20-21).

It is human nature to defend what seems to be right and to promote that which is personally beneficial or comfortable. However, our identity as Christians and as joint heirs of the eternal blessings of God demands that we defer to one another in love. Paul’s words are clear: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were called in the one body” (Col. 3.12-15).

In this spirit, may each of us defer to one another in love. May our shouts be reduced to civility. May our separate agendas be replaced with the unified agenda of proclaiming God’s eternal love to a lost and dying world. We can get along, we can be one, and we can impact our world with the Gospel of Christ, but we must begin by humbling ourselves.

Classic Calvin

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

He Set His Face

Staying the course is not always easy.

The Gospel writer describes the resoluteness of Jesus as he set out for Jerusalem, despite knowing the tragedy that would occur there. In Luke 9.51, the description is given, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” A rather matter-of-fact statement. A statement that subtly underscores the determination with which Christ set out on the path that would lead to his death.

The statement should remind one of the words Isaiah spoke about the one called the “Lord’s Servant.” This servant is the Messiah, the one God would send as deliverer and redeemer.

The Lord’s Servant speaks of the difficult and trying times he would face, of the opposition that would be pitted against him, and he concludes in Isaiah 50.7, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.”

The Lord’s Servant affirms that God will be with him during his time of trial and that he will overcome, with God’s help, the opposition he will face. The Servant is able to declare, “I have set my face like flint,” a statement declaring his resolve to be faithful to the task given him by God.

Jesus, writes Luke, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He would go to the place of the cross with the same spirit of resolve exhibited by God’s Servant.

Do we share in Jesus’ resolve as we follow in his steps and obey the will of our Father? So many distractions vie for our gaze; it is so difficult, at times, to concentrate on the task at hand . . . faithful service to God.

Let us refocus and become more resolute as we follow the steps of our Savior and Lord. Our God will surely provide us with the strength we need.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Worship In a Van

The plan: worship together on the slopes of a majestic mountain under the bright blue sky. The reality: a memorable two hour service of prayer and praise in a cramped Ford van. The lesson: the church is not made of bricks and mortar, and it is not a place on a map, but it is men and women who have been purchased by the blood of Christ.

The occasion was a camping trip I put together a number of years ago. I had taken about 25 youth and parents to a camping area a few miles south of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We arrived on Friday, with plans to return home on Monday. The highlight, for me, would be worship on Sunday—gathered around a roaring camp fire, with the beauty of nature as the backdrop, sitting on naturally-hewn pews singing, praying, hearing God’s Word, and sharing in the thanksgiving of communion.

Yet, Sunday “dawned” with a thunderstorm the likes of which this boy from the plains of Texas had never seen. There was torrential rain, hailstones, lightning, thunder, wind, but no campfire, no pews of rock and timber, no picturesque setting in which to “have church.”

So, we huddled together, all 25 of us, in a 15-passenger Ford van. We sang, we prayed, we read God’s Word, and we partook of the Lord’s Supper. For two hours, we joined in worship to the God who created all that was about us and all that was in us. At least one important lesson was made clear: the church is not made of bricks and mortar, and it is not a “place” on a map, but it is men and women who have been purchased by the blood of Christ.

How much of our energy and resources is given to bricks and mortar, and to places “on the map”? Much of the attention has become a necessity: the wise steward in us dictates that buildings that “have been built” should be kept in working order. Yet, how easy it is to forget that the church is “people” is that our calling is not to build buildings, but “relationships.”

We must remember, we are in the business of building relationships with God and among men. When buildings and properties and physical concerns occupy the bulk of our energies and resources, then I believe we have compromised our identity as the church of Christ.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Chocolate Cake

A slice of chocolate cake. What brings more joy than a slice of chocolate cake?

It really is the simple things in life that bring the most joy. A child's laugh. Freshly baked cookies. A hug. A newly bloomed rose. A smile. A snow-capped mountain peak. "Jesus Loves Me."

What brings more joy than a slice of chocolate cake? Okay, okay . . . you gotta have a dip of vanilla ice cream on top! Blue Bell homemade vanilla ice cream!!!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Life's Legacy: She Loved KFC?

Over the years, I have been asked to officiate a lot of funerals.

Many times, these occasions, while sad, can be times of joy and a blessing to the preacher. Death is a natural part of life, it is inevitable, and for many it marks the ending of a time of sickness and physical discomfort and pain and the passing to a life of wholeness . . . a life lived in the eternity promised to those in Christ. Those who are left to grieve, while sad, are comforted in the faith that God blesses his people. (For the minister, blessing can come in his contact with the family, the pastoral care that is given, and in the joy of bringing honor to the one who has passed, through the words that are spoken. An older minister told me long ago that the experience of a funeral can bring you closer to a family than just about anything else.)

There are times, however, when death is altogether sad . . . and final.

A few years ago I directed a funeral that was altogether sad. It was for a woman I did not know. As I prepared my remarks, I was told that she had a brief relationship with the church many years ago, and may have even been baptized at some point, but for 50 years had no obvious life of faith.

When I meet with a family to plan a funeral, I ask for memories of the one who has passed and for special reflection on their character. As I met with this particular family, in preparation for my remarks at the woman's funeral, I was given just one statement about the person (beyond the bare details of the obituary). A son-in-law simply said, "She loved KFC." That was it. That was all the family could tell me about this person . . . their mother, sister, aunt, friend.

She loved KFC. That was the one memory her family had of her. How sad.

Now, perhaps I am being too cold . . . too harsh. Perhaps the family was too steeped in grief to be able to articulate anything more. I truly hope that there was something more, much more, about this woman than that she loved fried chicken. But, sadly, many live their lives focused on the superficial. Despite the potential for a deeper and more meaningful legacy, some devote all their attention and energies on things that will not last . . . things that will go to the grave with them.

I am reminded of Esau. You know, the one who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. Give me some of that "red stuff" he demanded of his brother. The writer of Hebrews warns: "See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears" (Hebrews 12.16-17).

Life in this world is never certain. Make your legacy be something substantially more than "She loved KFC."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Father, Give me a Good Kick!

Father, in the abundance of your blessings, you give me opportunity. Opportunity to serve, to love, to share, to give, opportunity to bless others. But, so much of the time, my fervor to serve, to love, to share, to give, and to bless wanes. I am so preoccupied with my own concerns, needs, activities, and ambitions. With the opportunities you give me, grant to me also a willing heart, motivation, give me a good kick and move me out of my comfort (or my rut) so that I may be about your business, your concerns, to share the blessing of your love with others.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

At Home In a Small Church

In my life, I have been apart of many different congregations ranging from the very large to the very small. If I have learned anything from this experience it is that I am most at home in a small church.

I have been apart of churches that had a membership of 50, and those that had a membership of over 1,000, and those with memberships somewhere in between these extremes. There are advantages and disadvantages to all sizes of churches. Here are some of my observations.

Larger churches . . .

1. . . . can usually afford to address every demographic in the congregation in effective and specialized ways.

2. . . . can usually have a significant profile in the community.

3. . . . are usually less hung up on traditions that stifle progress.

4. . . . are oftentimes a collection of cliques and several people who are overlooked.

5. . . . sometimes facilitate the performance of the few and the spectatorship of the many.

6. . . . sometimes become so consumed with meeting the needs of the congregation that they forget the wider mission field.

7. . . . sometimes reduces leaders to acting as mere managers and caretakers.

Smaller churches . . .

1. . . . often behave and function as an extended family.

2. . . . often require the service of the many and few are left inactive.

3. . . . often excel at ministering to those in crises and deep need.

4. . . . often are less consumed with finances than are larger churches.

5. . . . often are more ready to give an ear to missionaries and mission efforts (I'm learning this from personal experience as I travel the country on behalf of MNCH).

6. . . . sometimes are beset with the inter-familial conflict that roils in too many families.

7. . . . sometimes are beset with reactionary mindsets and are stifled by tradition.

8. . . . often lack a healthy balance of demographics.

What are some of your observations regarding small churches and large churches? Which do you prefer?