Monday, July 29, 2019

Snippets, Soundbites and Such

Don’t you marvel at how complex information can be condensed into neat little bite-sized packages? We live in a world of snippets and soundbites, with news programming covering major developments, ranging from press conferences to international crises, and reducing them to one or two-minute summations, kind of like a trash compacter for human discourse and experience.

Consider the recent debates between candidates vying for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2020. As one astute political observer stated prior to the two-day verbal brawl, the event wasn’t designed for depth and substance. The best candidates could hope for, he said, was to make a lasting impression by cleverly turning a phrase. To make their mark, hopefuls needed to tailor their communications for snippets and soundbites that could be replayed again and again.

That’s reflective of the society we’re in today. Long-winded essays and treatises of yesteryear have been replaced by tightly edited and pre-digested bits of information. Even with 24/7 coverage, the tyranny of immediacy has seduced us into believing a 90-second news report is all we need to know about anything.

With attention spans dramatically shortened, we seem unable to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. Notice the rapid shifting of scenes in movies, TV dramas and comedies. Even “Downton Abbey.” Our minds have become like grasshoppers hopping from one leaf to another.

Even though we’re accustomed to this, it’s troublesome for those who desire to grow and mature in our faith. Because you can’t microwave spirituality. We can’t treat the Bible like fast-food literature.

Not only is spiritual growth a slow process, but building a fruitful, faithful relationship with God also can’t be achieved by a few seconds here, a few seconds there. King David illustrated this vividly in Psalm 1, contrasting the righteous and the wicked. Writing about “the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,” the psalm writer then stated, “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalm 1:1-3).

A key idea is the term “meditates.” It doesn’t mean sitting in a lotus position, humming soothing mantras. It’s reading a passage from the Scriptures and then turning it over and over in our minds, trying to capture its meaning and then considering how to apply its truth to our lives.

I heard a Bible scholar compare this to a cow chewing its cud. It munches slowly and carefully, not gobbling it down as we would a Chick-fil-A sandwich and waffle fries on the run. In a similar way, we’re to study the Scriptures  and digest them thoughtfully and meditatively, not as if we’re trying to cram them down in the middle of a 100-yard dash.

Elsewhere in the Psalms, we read David offering advice for staying on track in our walk with God. He writes, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You” (Psalm 119:9-11).

This doesn’t prescribe when or where we should do this “treasuring,” or even how. But it’s clear that contrary to the dictates of modern society, being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ can’t be achieved in bits and bytes while hustling from one commitment to the next.

Our minds must be anchored in God and His Word: “firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in (our) faith…” (Colossians 2:6-7). Just as I trust the tall trees growing behind our house are firmly rooted and anchored whenever a strong storm blows our way, I want my life in Christ to be firmly rooted as well, able to withstand the winds and chaos of life’s ever-changing circumstances. 

But this doesn’t happen automatically or by default. It must be intentional – and consistent. When life’s tough times come, we should fit the description of Isaiah 26:3, “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You.” For that to happen, snippets and soundbites just won’t do.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Replacing 10 Lines With 17,000 Pages?

Whenever we are confronted by a complex, convoluted problem, there’s always a danger in trying to offer simplistic solutions for them. At least solutions that seem simplistic. But recently I came across a profound quote that made me think, “That pretty much sums it up!”

Have you ever heard of Ravi Zacharias? If you haven’t, you ought to get acquainted with his work – his messages and books. Zacharias is an Indian-born, Canadian-American Christian apologist, a wise thinker and defender of biblical teachings. I’ve never met the man, but have discovered that listening to one of his messages for even a few minutes will provide you with more wisdom than you could glean from watching a month of commentaries on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, 24/7 .

You can Google him and find dozens of his quotations, but here’s just one example – the one that speaks to the conundrum we’re facing today as a society. He said: “The reason we have 17,000 pages in our law books is because we cannot follow 10 lines in a tablet made of stone.”

The stone tablet he’s referring to is the one God gave to Moses bearing the Ten Commandments. I have no idea where Zacharias got the number 17,000, since it seems more laws are being written and enacted every day. There have to be more pages than that. But the point is clear: When the Lord gave us the Ten Commandments, He was saying in essence, “Keep it simple, stupid!”

Like the ancient Pharisees, who took great pride in inventing new laws and adding onto old ones, we seem to have laws governing just about everything. But they don’t keep us from behaving badly. I’m not sure there’s any regulation about blowing bubbles with bubble gum, but I suspect now that I’ve mentioned it, someone will write one.

The sad reality is, if our lives depended upon being able to recite the Ten Commandments – regardless of which version of the Bible we chose – most of us would composing our final farewells. Including many who profess to be followers of Jesus.

For a refresher, here they are, straight from Exodus 20 (and Deuteronomy 5):
  1. “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
  2. “You shall not make for yourself an idol (graven image)….”
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain (misuse His name)….”
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy….”
  5. “Honor your father and your mother….”
  6. “You shall not commit murder.”
  7. “You shall not commit adultery.”
  8. “You shall not steal.”
  9. “You shall not bear false witness (give false testimony) against your neighbor.”
  10. “You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Actually, God made the commandments even simpler. When asked what was the greatest or most important commandment, Jesus replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strengthThe second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). In other words, that’s all God asks of us. If we can keep just those two laws, no sweat!

The problems with this – and the reason we have many thousands of pages of laws – are obvious. Simple as they are, the Ten Commandments and the two greatest commandments cut against the grain of sinful humanity. For instance, there are so many other gods to choose from. Not only the imaginary ones for whom idols and statues are made, but also things like money, our careers, our children, our favorite sports teams – even ourselves. 

Sadly, in an age of increasingly fractured families and irresponsible lifestyles, too many kids don’t even know their fathers to honor them. As for the “false witness” part, it’s become the operational standard for too many professions. And coveting, it seems have become the national pastime. We could continue going down the list.

So, nope. Let’s just keep churning out more laws, ones that people will continue to ignore or abuse. What’s a few thousand more we can disregard? Why try to do it God’s way when we can do it our way? 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Pitfalls of Comparing ‘Highlight Reels’

Have you ever looked at another family, comparing them with your own, and thought, ”Why can’t we be like them?” Perhaps there’s a couple you don’t know well, but observing them, they seem so perfect. “Why can’t my (husband/wife) and I be like them?” Or maybe you’ve been inspired by a guest speaker at your church or a Bible conference and you thought, “That person has it so together. What I wouldn’t give to be like (him/her).”

We’ve probably all done this at one time or another. I know I have. The problem is, what we’re doing is contrasting our lives with what I heard one person call the “highlight reels” of other people’s lives. 

You know what a highlight reel is, don’t you? It’s the “best plays of the day” that ESPN at the end of every sports day. It’s the video package a football or basketball prospect puts together to catch the eye of coaches – outstanding runs, catches or tackles, or three-pointers and slam dunks. Judging from those little video snippets, how can one help but be impressed? 

It's similar to that in real life. Except not on reels. We see folks up close and marvel at how ideal they seem. “There are no perfect people,” we reason, “but they sure look pretty darn close.”

Therein lies the problem – or pitfall. Sports highlight reels don’t include the fumbles, dropped passes or missed tackles, the bad shots or fouls. They show only the good plays. That’s usually the case when we’re in public. As my friend Jimmy Lee says, we put on our “Sunday smiles.”

How did I learn to distrust other people’s “highlight reels”? I had the opportunity to see people behind the scenes, when they let their guard down, when they thought no one was watching, or I caught a glimpse of how they acted when the spotlight was turned off.

Those families who seem to in sync, who appear to be oozing with love for each other without a trace of conflict? In real life – rather than reel life – they experience strife just like anyone else. They might present their best at church and other public settings, but they’re just as riddled by sibling rivalry as the rest of us. As the saying goes, they put their pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else.

I recall during my years in parachurch ministry that I would watch couples seemingly in lockstep, totally in one accord as they ministered to others together. Then I would learn that some of them were in counseling, that they were wrestling with demons from their past, or bickering just like any other married couple. Even “perfect people” have flaws.

And those individual who seemed so smart and friendly from the podium? The ones you think, “Wow! If only he were my pastor and I could hear him speak every week”? Or, “She’s so warm, so compassionate. Wouldn't it be something to have her as a friend – or even a mentor”? Over the years I learned that some of them are lightbulbs. They shine when they’re on stage, with all the attention riveted on them. But in private, when the switch is turned off, they’re really introverts. Not nearly as sparkly and engaging as when they’re speaking.

Truly, appearances can deceive. But this isn’t to condemn these folks. It’s just that they’re not super heroes. They’re just like us, people with real joys and real sorrows, facing the same types of struggles and challenges we all do.

Perhaps this is one reason God included “you shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17) among His Ten Commandments. It’s just not wishing we had a house or car like someone has; it can also mean coveting what other people appear to be. Especially because in many cases, that’s not who they really are anyway.

This also might be another application of the apostle Paul’s declaration in Philippians 2:11, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Yes, he was writing from prison, in less than ideal circumstances, and during his ministry had often suffered from near-deprivation. But he had also learned to find contentment wherever he was and whatever situation he found himself in. Thus he emphasized to his protégé, Timothy, that “godliness with contentment is great gain.”

When we learn to accept our spouses and families for who they are, rather than some false image of what we think someone else’s is, we grow one step closer to God. When we accept being what the Lord made us to be and to become, rather than wishing we were like another person, we also grow one step closer to Him.

So those “highlight reels” other people are showing us every day? Only their best feet forward? Ignore them. Those are no more genuine than the Wizard of Oz, or Obi Wan Kenobi. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Biblical Mathematics: Is It ‘Jesus-Plus’?

Some of us are better at math than others. For some reason I’ve always been good at number games, like what is 27 times 27 (729) or 32 times 32 (1,024)? But I’ve always been highly challenged by columns of numbers on a ledger sheet or in a checkbook. Some people seem to have problems, too, with what I call “biblical math.”

It concerns what is required to go to heaven and enjoy eternal life. There’s one side that says all you need to do is add up good deeds and compare them with bad deeds. If the good adds up to more than the bad, you’re good to go.

When asked if they expect to go to heaven when they die, the vast majority of people will respond, “I hope so.” Then they might enumerate reasons why: “I’m basically a good person.” “I support charitable causes.” “I’m nice to puppies.” “I think I’m better than the next guy.” “I try to practice acts of random kindness.” Stuff like that.

Those are all laudable things, without question. We’d certainly like to see everyone behaving well rather than behaving poorly. But if we believe the Scriptures, they categorically affirm that none of us is going to earn our way into heaven. It’s not going to happen. It’s not an issue of which total is greater.

Consider the following: Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “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, so that no one can boast.” Lest we be accused of biblical “cherry picking,” we also have Titus 3:5 which declares, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” 

These are just two of many passages we could consider, but they clearly teach that not only can we not earn our way to eternal life through our works and good behavior, but even the faith to believe in what Jesus has done for us is a gift from God.

But there’s another side to this coin. It’s one that essentially contends that while Jesus has paid the full price for our sins – “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) – we still need to add to what He has done to stay in God’s good graces.

We might term this “Jesus-plus” thinking. It goes something like this: “Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and we receive forgiveness through His mercy and grace. But there are still things we must do to ensure that we’re Christians.” Biblical mathematics, don’t you know?

These might include things like being baptized in a prescribed manner (usually by immersion); showing up faithfully whenever the church doors are opened; wearing the right clothes and/or having one’s hair trimmed and styled in specific ways; listening only to certain kinds of music; giving or tithing a minimum amount. The list could go on. You probably can think of additions you’ve heard.

The bottom line is that this kind of teaching essentially contends that Jesus isn’t enough. We must add something (or some things) to what He’s already accomplished on our behalf. Some might even point to verses like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), or “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).

These are important declarations, indeed, and we dare not cast them aside. But neither they nor other similar verses justify “Jesus-plus” teaching. As Oswald Chambers wisely observed more than a century ago, working out our salvation with fear and trembling amounts to working out what the Lord has already worked in. Kind of like squeezing out a saturated sponge.

When you plant an apple tree, you presume that eventually it will produce apples. And we don’t try to get oranges off of oak trees. Similarly, if we are genuinely new creations in Jesus Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:17 describes, then there should be evidence of that spiritual transformation in our lives. Our actions, as well as changes in our thoughts and even things we say, serve as manifestations of that.

We’re not saved by our works – but our works demonstrate that we’re saved. As Jesus said, for instance, By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Or as John the Baptist admonished, Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God” (Matthew 3:8, New Living Translation).

To put it another way, there’s nothing we can contribute to enhance what Christ has already done for us. As He said on the cross before taking His last breath, “It is finished” (John 19:30). At the same time, there should be evidence of His work in our lives – proof that we have indeed repented and turned to God. Otherwise, it just doesn’t add up. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Time to Confront the Commitment Problem?

Have you heard the story about the pig and chicken walking past a restaurant that advertised a breakfast special of bacon and eggs? The chicken glances at the sign and swells with pride, but the pig can’t conceal his sadness.

“What’s the matter?” asks the chicken. “Well, you see, for you that sign represents a contribution,” the pig explains. “For me it means total commitment.”

This silly little story highlights a virtue we seem to be losing in our society. Workers increasingly have little or no commitment to their employers, just as employers don’t seem very committed to their workers. The days of 40-year careers with a single company culminating with a gold watch have become about as common as dodo birds. Marriage is in the midst of a commitment crisis as well. With the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, familiar vows of “better or worse…as long as we both shall live” aren’t worth much more than a grain of salt. 

Young people, growing up in fractured homes, often lack positive examples of what commitment means, so they’re quick to abandon ship when things get tough or something more appealing arises. The head football coach at one major university came under fire recently when he referred to this in discussing the NCAA’s newly created “transfer portal.”

Observing that more than 650 collegiate football players had elected to transfer over the past two years, rather than complete their eligibility at their original school, the coach bemoaned, “We have a problem with our society. We don’t have a problem with our program.” Apparently when the going gets tough, it’s simply time to go elsewhere.

Things don’t seem much different spiritually. These days, it’s more common for churches to grow through “transfer growth” – people moving from one congregation to another – than the addition of people new in their faith. We see people making professions of faith, whether by walking an aisle, raising a hand or being baptized, then drifting away, no longer seen in church – anywhere. 

On several occasions I’ve met with men in discipling relationships, feeling encouraged by their zeal and apparent spiritual growth over weeks or months. Then something came up, perhaps a problem they encountered within the church, or deciding the cost of discipleship was higher than they were willing to pay, and they no longer wanted to meet. Sad, but it happens.

This problem is hardly new. The Old Testament repeatedly tells about commitment issues the ancient Israelites had. One day they were vowing, “You and us, Lord, all the way!” Then the next they started complaining, “God, what have You done for us lately?” And before long they were making golden calves or building altars for false gods. The grass seemed greener on the other side of the tabernacle.

Jesus Christ knew well the fragile commitment levels of His fickle followers. In the Gospel of John, we read that when some of His teachings became difficult, many who had been pursuing Him decided it was time to go home. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). They wanted to believe – but only if it was easy. 

We have the tragic example of Judas Iscariot, who decided Jesus wasn’t meeting his expectations. So he betrayed the Lord for 30 pieces of silver. The other 11 disciples weren’t so obvious in their betrayal, but when Jesus was arrested and led off to a mock trial, they dispersed as well. Confronted about whether he was among Jesus’ followers, Peter denied Him – three times.

Have you ever had times when your faith felt weak and you began questioning what you believed? We’ve probably all had moments like that. Commitment to anything long-term is difficult, especially a walk of faith. But its rewards are beyond compare.

King David explained why in one of his most honest psalms: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (Psalm 37:3-6). 

There are times when all hope seems lost and we’re tempted to lose heart, but David advised we should hang in there. The best is yet to come: “Wait for the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you will see it” (Psalm 37:34).

This hope is anchored in one simple truth. Although we all struggle with commitment, God has no such problem. He makes this promise to each of His children: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). If we just take time to reflect on the Lord’s total commitment to us, even to the point of going to the cross to atone for our sins, maybe it will become easier to reaffirm our total commitment to Him. We won’t settle for just making a temporary contribution.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Putting Emphasis in the Wrong Place?

“We expect results!” Have you ever heard someone say that? In the business world, it’s said by a boss, client, or investor. It’s expressed – or at least implied – in the sports world, by a manager bringing in a relief pitcher and a coach putting in a player off the bench. If you’re a consumer, if you don’t say it, at least you’re thinking it when you buy a new car or glitzy smartphone, or try a new diet. It’s about results.

We do live in a results-oriented world. We expect a lot of others – and might expect even more from ourselves. If we go to the gym, we want to become instantly fit and shed excess pounds immediately, if not sooner. Maybe that’s why so many people start physical fitness programs and then stop so quickly. They didn’t get the results they wanted.

In a marriage, we often do things with an expected return. Sensing some tension in the home, a husband decides to do a good deed for his wife or buy her flowers, candy or something else. He suspects that will salve any wounds – even if Clueless Clem doesn’t know what he did to cause them. But when the “easy fix” doesn’t come about, hubby gets frustrated. “What do you want from me?” he thinks. And if he actually utters those words, there’s more trouble coming, so he better zip his lip.

This is often the case spiritually as well. We spend a few minutes reading the Bible and expect to become instant spiritual giants, or pause a moment or two in deep, fervent prayer, and look for God’s fast-response team to arrive. But it doesn’t work that way. Spiritual growth isn’t necessarily a cause-and-effect pursuit. If you see someone you really admire for their godliness and depth of faith, you can be assured that didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of much pain and strain, daily devotion, and perseverance during the hard times.

Results, after all, are greatly overrated. Even if you succeed today, whether it’s completing a presentation or winning a round of golf, you’ll have to prove yourself over again tomorrow. So it’s best to appreciate the small, incremental steps of progress when they occur, recognizing some days we soar and other days we barely limp along.

We can gain an important lesson from the world of vegetation. Not every seed we plant will germinate, and the expected growth may take much longer than anticipated. Nevertheless, the secret to success is simply pressing on. Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson made the wise observation, “Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

A veteran farmer or skilled gardener understands that sometimes the crop will be bountiful, other times it won’t amount to much at all. And often they’re not in control of the outcome.

This holds true for us spiritually, as the Scriptures affirm. The apostle Paul wrote, I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).

We have the privilege of participating in the work the Lord is doing in the world around us, but it’s not up to us to dictate outcomes or how quickly they come about. All we can do is our part – and remain patient. The results are up to Him.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus offered the parable of the sower, telling about the farmer who went out sowing seed that fell on different types of soils. Some seeds fell on the path and were devoured by birds. Others fell on rocky ground and sprang up quickly, only to wither due to heat and lack of water. Still other seeds were choked out by thorns that overwhelmed them.

At that point the farmer could have thrown up his hands and declared, “What’s the use?!” Results expected but not realized. Yet the agricultural expert kept on sowing; seeds that fell onto good, fertile soil resulted in an abundant harvest.

There’s a good lesson in there for us. If we’re seeking to grow spiritually ourselves, not every worship service or conference we attend will be a sacred gold mine. Not every time we read the Bible will bring us “Wow!” or “Aha!” moments. If our desire is to see our children – or grandchildren – well-grounded in faith, we won’t observe dramatic results every time we interact with them. And if there’s a friend, or relative, or coworker we’re concerned about spiritually, we’re wise not to expect results. At least not immediately.

Most things that are really important take time. And nothing’s more important than someone’s relationship with God. A lifetime of faithfulness can’t be accomplished in a day, a week, or even a month. Because as Paul said, it’s God who makes things grow. He gives the increase.

So take Stevenson’s advice. Don't evaluate today by the harvest you’ll reap. Just worry about the seeds you plant. We never know which will take root and flourish.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Huddles Are Good, But They Shouldn’t Be Home

Summer has barely begun, but I’m ready for football. The period between the last bowl games and the start of the next season sometimes seems interminable. March Madness is already a distant memory, baseball’s claim to “national pastime” status has passed, NASCAR’s heyday is also history, and even though soccer’s popularity is on the rise, I’m not among its advocates. So if you ask, “Are you ready for some football?” my answer is, “Uh-huh. Absolutely.”

Which brings me to the subject at hand. For many years, a central element of football has been the huddle. The quarterback gathers his offensive teammates around him and…tells guy jokes. No, that’s not right. And they’re not gossiping about the players on the opposite side of the ball. The huddle is where the next play is called, whether it’s a run, pass, or option.

One distinctive about the huddle is the team doesn’t stay there. They listen intently to the signal caller’s instructions, then “break the huddle” and go to their respective positions on the line of scrimmage, ready to carry out their responsibilities. Hopefully the result will be moving the football down the field, ultimately into the end zone.

And that’s important – the breaking of the huddle. I’ve never heard of football players, even during road games in front of hostile crowds, pleading, “Please, guys, let’s just stay here in the huddle! The fans out there are mean, they’re saying nasty things, and the other team doesn’t look too friendly either. So let’s just stay in the huddle.”

Huddles are good. But that’s not where the game is played.

There’s an interesting parallel for those of us who attend church services every week. Years ago, someone referred to worship assemblies as “holy huddles,” where believers gather, sacred songs are sung, prayers are uplifted, and inspiring messages are presented. Often these activities get us fired up, convinced about what a great team we are – God as the Coach, and the rest of us as faithful teammates, eager to carry out His instructions.

But then it happens. The service ends, the music is over, and we have to go out the doors into the real, sometimes hostile world. “Let’s get back in the huddle!” we’re tempted to cry out. It seems so safe, non-threatening there. We’re pretty much in one accord, unlike the strife-riddled world outside the sanctuary. But God didn’t make us for the huddle.

Jesus gave the first hint of this when He assigned His disciples their initial training mission. And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7). In effect the Lord was saying, “You know that stuff I’ve been teaching you? Well, I want you to go out and start putting it into practice. Teach others what you have been learning.”

At the end of his time on earth, Jesus clearly stated what He expected His followers to do. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey what I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20). “Out there,” far beyond the walls of what author Joe Aldrich called “the stained-glass aquarium.” If the disciples had been football players, Jesus would have commanded, “It’s time for you to leave the huddle.”

But where were they to go? The Lord explained that, too. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In a word, Everywhere. Which means we can’t just hang out at the church, no matter how warm and comfy it seems. God’s mission for us is out there – our homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities, across the country, even around the world, if given that opportunity.

During a football game, good things can happen in the huddle, especially when the winning play is called. But to execute the play, players have to break the huddle. For us, worship services should be where the quarterback (the pastor) calls the plays from the playbook (the Bible) that the Coach (God) has so meticulously assembled. Then we have to break the holy huddle and execute the plays. Just as no touchdowns are scored in the huddle, most of God’s work isn’t accomplished in the worship center.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

One Nation, Under God … Indivisible?

American flag on carrier USS York in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
If you’ve been reading my posts for very long, you know Independence Day means a lot to me. Because I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy – born on the Fourth of July – as the refrain from the old George M. Cohan song goes. Every time we celebrate another anniversary of the founding of the United States, I unfurl our flag, put on one of my patriotic T-shirts, and enjoy a fireworks show, whether in person or on TV.

I’ve lost count of the photos I’ve taken of American flags – even in Italy. I’m convinced red, white and blue never have – and never will – look as good as they do on Old Glory. Hearing the “Star-Spangled Banner” always fills me with pride for our nation, despite its flaws. Lee Greenwood’s classic tune, “Proud to Be an American” peps me up, and John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” makes me want to find a parade and march.

Replica of colonial flag waving at Charleston, S.C. home.
If only it were this way for everyone who benefits from living in the USA, the most free country in the world. I suppose we’re spoiled. Too much of a good thing can do that to you. Some burn the flag to make a statement. (Don’t ask me what I think they’re saying.) Others take a knee, or sit, when they hear the National Anthem of our country that so many shed blood to defend. Yes, they’re free to do this – but don’t they see the hypocrisy in such actions?

These days the Pledge of Allegiance has become controversial. When I was in grade school we recited the Pledge every day, concluding with the words, “…one nation, under God, indivisible….” Sadly, the “indivisible” description seems antiquated as our nation has become divided, according to some unlike ever before. We’ve become a country of extremes, with little room for common ground. “Tolerance” has come to mean being intolerant of any views that differ from our own.

Perhaps that little phrase, “under God, indivisible,” identifies why we find ourselves no longer “indivisible.” Because some factions of society insist we shouldn’t be “under God.” But I think the wording from the pledge is correct: A United States of America can only be truly indivisible if the source of our unity comes from being under GodOtherwise, it’s everyone for themselves, as the ancient Israelites were described in the Old Testament (Judges 21:25) – doing “what’s right in their own eyes” – when they determined no longer to submit to a sovereign God.

American flag flying in Capri, Italy.
We can’t directly equate the USA to ancient Israel, but I believe the underlying principles still apply. The Israelites prospered and thrived under leaders who were devoted to God. But when leaders wavered in their faith, or were replaced by ungodly leaders, the nation suffered.

Psalm 33:12 tells us, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He chose for His inheritance.” We see this declaration affirmed in Psalm 144:15, “Blessed are the people of whom this is true, blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.”

Historical revisionists would have us believe the so-called “separation of church and state” meant that matters of faith should be excluded from the public square. However,The Founders’ Bible argues to the contrary. In hundreds of documents compiled by historian David Barton, we find writings from many of our nation’s founding fathers who believed the United States could not survive apart from a foundation based on reverence for God.

We live in a time and culture very different from when our nation was founded in 1776. However, we worship the same unchanging, unchangeable God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). If we are again to become truly “United,” we must somehow return to our roots. I pray that will be so – and soon.

Monday, July 1, 2019

No Need to Stew Over Stewardship

Are you playing your life like a game of Monopoly?
When your pastor announces his sermon is about stewardship, or your church celebrates “Stewardship Sunday,” how do you respond? Many people immediately reach protectively for their wallets or make sure their purses are close by. After all, it’s all about getting more of your money, right?

I have felt that way at times. We’ve just paid the bills, bought the groceries, did our usual charitable giving, and then I hear a message that we’re not giving enough. “That’s easy for you to say,” I think. “You don’t see our budget and expenses.”

Actually, there’s a lot more to stewardship than being asked to share some of your hard-earned cash. Ultimately, our lives in total represent forms of stewardship. We’re given 24 hours each day – how are we going to use them? We receive an education – how are we going to use it? We have unique skills, gifts and talents – what are we going to do with them?

The temptation is to clutch tightly to whatever we have, not just our financial resources but also our time, material possessions and talents. “They’re mine, and I can do with them whatever I want!” we reason.

The problem is we tend to approach this life as if there’s nothing else. That we need to squeeze every dollar and minute for our personal satisfaction. In reality, however, this life we know so well is just a hint, a taste, of what’s to come. In fact, the Scriptures tell us, “’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived" -- the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Jesus had that in mind when He cautioned His disciples and others listening, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).

Then He explained why this is so important: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Again, some may interpret this as a statement about our material resources, but looking at the scope of Jesus’ ministry on earth, it’s clear He had more in mind than bank accounts, portfolios and leisure spending.

When he was president of CBMC, a parachurch ministry I worked with over two decades, Ted DeMoss often quoted this brief poem:
“Only one life, ‘twill soon be past –
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

It was a frequent reminder that we needed to review our priorities and make certain we were investing not only our treasure, but also our time and talents for eternity. As someone has said about Christ’s admonition to store up treasures in heaven, we can’t take anything with us when this life comes to an end, but we can send things on ahead.

I recently heard speaker and pastor J.D. Greear use two analogies for the folly of concentrating too much on what we have in this temporal life and failing to appreciate what we can do that’s of eternal value. He said it’s like renting a motel room and engaging in a costly renovation of the space, even though we’re only going to be there for a brief time. Bigger sink, replacing the carpet, new furniture. Wouldn’t that be foolish to spend money, time and effort in refurbishing something we’ll be leaving in a day or two?

His other example was the popular game of Monopoly. Fierce competitors cruise around the board buying everything of value, from Boardwalk and Park Place to the railroads and utilities, multiplying houses and hotels. They smile smugly when other players stop on their properties and have to pay rent. This might go on for an hour or two and then…everything goes back in the box. Game over – and nothing to show for it.

For some of us, that’s how we play this game called life. We devote our energy and resources to things that won’t last, while ignoring opportunities to invest in things that do. If asked to take a stewardship test, chances are our grades wouldn’t be very high.

So when we next hear the foreboding term, “stewardship,” maybe it’s not a pitch for our money. Rather, it might be a timely reminder that the things God has entrusted to us should be used for His glory – and His eternal kingdom. As the little poem says, “Only what’s done for Christ will last.”