Thursday, March 30, 2017

Called to Be Participants, Not Spectators

What would you think of football players that go to all the team meetings, take part in every practice, even suit up on game day and engage in the pregame warmups, but sit on the sidelines eating snack cakes and refuse to get into the game?

How about an aspiring sales executive who goes through weeks of sales training, gets her sales kit and spends many hours familiarizing herself with the presentation, follows guidelines to “dress for success” (as the best-selling book of years past suggested), but never makes a sales call?

Sounds silly, right? Why bother making the preparations, obtaining the necessary equipment and putting on the best possible appearance, only to remain a spectator while others become actively engage in the work to be done?

Too many of us are sitting along the
sidelines watching, when we should
be getting into the game.
Yet these could describe many who would classify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. They show up every time the church doors are opened and attend every special meeting. They sing and sway to the music, sometimes raising their hands, attend Sunday school classes, and know the prescribed jargon. “God is good” and “praise the Lord” are phrases they often express.

Sadly, there’s a disconnect. The folks they are inside the “stained-glass aquarium” look surprisingly little like the persons they are outside the church doors. I know, because I was once among them.

I’d take part in various church functions, walk and talk the proper way in those surroundings. I even held leadership positions within the congregation. But I barely knew this Jesus I claimed to believe in. Outside the church environment, I didn’t look, speak or think much differently from my unchurched friends and coworkers. I acted as if God were confined to the church building and had no idea what I did when I wasn’t there.

Only later did I discover the difference between belief and faith. We see the distinction described in the New Testament book of James. It cautions, You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:19). But we won’t be seeing demons in heaven.

True faith, the Bible tells us, can’t be divorced from action. The same book offers this warning: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).

This doesn’t mean we’re saved or made right with God by what we do. The Scriptures are clear on this: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works…” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Titus 3:5 confirms this, noting, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy….”

So why is it important to be participants in God’s eternal mission, and not just spectators cheering on those that are “in the game”? Because the Bible clearly declares being a Christ follower is not a spectator sport. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Being casual observers is not an option.

Then what are these “good works”? They start with the two greatest commandments that Jesus summarized – loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). But this involves a lot of things, from being kind and compassionate toward those in need to engaging in the last command Jesus gave before His ascension:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Some might respond, “Well, my faith is personal.” To an extent that’s true, but we’re also charged to share our faith with others so it can become personal for them as well. If Jesus and His gospel message are indeed Good News, as He said it is, we have no right to keep it to ourselves. We need to get off the sidelines and into the game – one with eternal consequences and rewards.

Monday, March 27, 2017

What All of Us Need, But Usually Don’t Want

Do you know the difference between talented people and accomplished people? We could suggest several factors, but one of the most important can be summed up in one 10-letter word: Discipline.

Talent prompts people to dabble in an activity from time to time, whether it’s artwork, craftsmanship, athletic pursuits, making investments, public speaking, or whatever else you can think of. Discipline is what enables people to take innate talents and develop them into abilities that enable them to excel far beyond their peers.

The phenomenon we call “March Madness” is a good example. Across the country are many college basketball teams with talented players. These athletes can dribble, slam-dunk, and soar through the air with astounding dexterity. And yet, their teams fall short on the scoreboard again and again; for many of them, the closest they’ll get to “the Big Dance” this year is a widescreen TV. It’s because, despite their collective talents, they’ve not learned – through the powers of discipline – how to refine those skills and become a cohesive team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

To grow properly and fruitfully, even tomato
plants need "discipline."
Think of acclaimed musicians, or celebrated dancers: They may have been born with natural talent, an inherent knack - evident from their very first attempt – most of us could only dream of having. However, that talent won’t amount to much without the discipline to work on and master the fundamentals of their craft, learning through time and repetition to perform flawlessly even without conscious thought.

It’s not much different in everyday living. If we expect to experience joyful, fulfilling lives, it’s going to require considerable discipline. I thought about this recently while reading a wonderful chapter in the Bible, Hebrews 12, which speaks about God’s discipline of His children:
“’My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves…. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons…. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11).

This passage could serve as the focus for numerous sermons. But the key point is God, in a demonstration of His love, disciplines His children – not to harm or frustrate us, but to train us to become everything He intends for us to be.

We live in a time when many people have forgotten, or never learned, the virtues of discipline. Children, even as toddlers, are encouraged to do whatever they choose. Many teenagers aren’t fettered by curfews or other parental controls. Young people entering the workplace are taken aback when superiors place rigid expectations on them, or require them to carry out their jobs according to specific guidelines. They fail to appreciate how discipline can enable them to grow and flourish as individuals – discipline exerted by more experienced people that have learned to distinguish the right ways from the wrong ways.

The Scriptures tell us even Jesus understood the importance of discipline. We’re admonished, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Imagine a rosebush, or a tomato plant, trying to grow without the “discipline” of a trellis or stake to keep it growing upright. It wouldn’t be very pretty, or fruitful. In like manner, God knows if we’re to realize our full potential, we must accept His discipline. It keeps us on the right path, enables us to learn dependence on Him, and prepares us for a life of service that exceeds anything we could have imagined or hoped for.

The apostle James points out, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). As the writer of Hebrews assures us, “God disciplines us for our good.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What We Can Learn from ‘Simon Says’

When was the last time you played the game, “Simon Says”? I’m not referring to the musical reality show judge Simon Cowell, or even the legendary vocalist Paul Simon. I mean the kids’ game when the leader tells us “Simon says” and gives instructions on what the participants need to do.

There are two requirements to succeed at “Simon Says.” If Simon says you need to do something, like standing on one foot, doing jumping jacks, or patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, you better do it or you’re out of the competition. And if the leader gives a command, but Simon doesn’t say to do it, you better refrain or…you’re out of the competition.

I never figured out who “Simon” was, or why he wasn’t called Clyde, or Hilda for that matter, but we all knew that whenever Simon said something, we better pay close attention. If only we did so well in heeding what God tells us to do.

Francis Chan, a popular preacher and author on the West Coast, addressed this reality in a video. He noted that while the children’s game teaches us to be vigilant in obeying Simon’s instructions, too often we don’t feel obligated to do what the Lord says.

Many of us regularly read the Bible, all the while nodding our affirmation for what Jesus taught. We might pause to meditate on His message for a while, even memorize some verses that particularly resonate. But put it into practice? Not so fast! As Chan observed, “If Jesus says something, you don’t have to do it. You just have to memorize it.”

He quipped, it’s like telling a child to clean his or her room. Hours later, nothing has been picked up or straightened. When challenged, the child responds with a big smile: “I liked what you said. I memorized it – I can even say it in Greek!”

Alas, that’s not what God expects. As we’re told in James 1:22, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” It’s easy to declare, “I love the Lord,” but is there evidence of that? We’re instructed in 1 John 5:3, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.”

Yes, He has given us laws and commands to obey, but as the verse above points out, they aren’t burdensome – they’re not intended to make our lives miserable. In fact, their purpose is just the opposite. They enable us to experience the peace, joy and fulfillment God promises, and they also enable us to grow closer to Him in the process.

Eric Liddell, the central figure in the film of years ago, “Chariots of Fire,” was a world-class athlete who stood firm on his convictions about keeping the Sabbath holy, even when it cost him the opportunity to compete in an Olympic event he was favored to win.

Liddell’s motives were not self-righteousness or unbending legalism, but a desire to enjoy an intimate relationship with his Lord. As he wrote in The Disciplines of the Christian Life, “You will know as much of God, and only as much of God, as you are willing to put into practice.”

Years ago, I came across a verse that underscores this truth. The apostle Paul wrote, “I pray that you will be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 6). My personal paraphrase is that when we put into practice what God has given us, He will give us more knowledge and understanding; conversely, if we’re not eager to use what we already have, why should He entrust us with more?

The Amplified Translation expresses this even more powerfully: “(And I pray) that the participation in and sharing of your faith may produce and promote full recognition and appreciation and understanding and precise knowledge of every good (thing) that is ours in (our identification with) Christ Jesus – and unto (His glory).”

When God tells us to do something, we can trust it’s for our good – and for His honor and glory. So just as we enthusiastically used to do what Simon said, we should be even more willing to do what Jesus says – because it’s not just a game. It’s real life, the life God intends for us.