Persevering in Prayer

Reader’s Digest shared the story of a four-year-old named Caitlin who was impatient for a sibling. One morning she told her mother, “Maybe if we both prayed out loud, God would hear us.” So they prayed together. As soon as they finished, Caitlin asked, “What did God say?” Her mother explained that prayer doesn’t work that way; sometimes it takes a long time to get an answer. Caitlin was indignant: “Do you mean we were praying to an answering machine?” Young Caitlin’s frustration with the process of prayer serves to expose our own. How many of us have prayed, even fervently and repeatedly, for something with no apparent answer from God? We sometimes wonder, Is God even listening to me? Does He not care about the burdens of my heart? If He does care, is He able to do anything on my behalf? Just to set the record straight, the God of the Bible is described as One who knows our every thought before they even enter our minds, as well as every word we speak even before they land on our tongues (Psalm 139:1-4). God’s Word reminds us that His love for us is immeasurable, steadfast and that His compassion never fails (Psalm 103:11, 89:2; Lamentations 3:22). As to God’s power, the apostle Paul praises Him for being the One who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). The prophet Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jer. 32:17). Therefore, when it seems as if we are talking to an answering machine because we do not immediately get the answer from God, it is most certainly not because God is unaware or indifferent to our plight, nor due to any lack of power and ability to intervene on our behalf.

Why then does God remain silent at times when we pour out our hearts before Him in prayer? Let me begin by confessing that the ultimate answer to that question is way beyond my pay grade to provide. I do not qualify to question what God does, why He does it, or when He chooses to do what He does in answer to our prayers because the distance between God’s thoughts and mine is truly incalculable. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Even though we may never fully understand God’s reasons for the what, the why, or the when of His responses to our prayers, His Word repeatedly encourages us to persevere in them. The apostle Paul encouraged believers to “Continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2) and to “pray without ceasing” (Thessalonians 5:17).

The Lord Jesus Himself shared a parable with His disciples about how the perseverance and persistence of a helpless widow finally gained her a favorable ruling from an unjust and uncaring judge (Luke 18:1-8). Luke tells us that Jesus shared this story to demonstrate that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart(v.1). It seems the Lord understood their tendency (like ours and young Caitlin’s) to become discouraged when our prayers are not answered immediately or in the manner we desire. Jesus told of a poor widow who kept coming to a judge saying, “Give me justice against my adversary.” For a period of time he stonewalled her and refused to help. However, this widow was not going to be denied. When he arrived at the courthouse in the morning, she was there waiting for him at the steps. When he went out for lunch, she appealed to him again. When he headed for home at the end of the day, again she made her case before him. Finally, after a prolonged period of constant appeals, the judge relented saying, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (vv. 4-5). Of course, Jesus was not suggesting that our heavenly Father is as callous, uncaring or unjust as the judge in the parable was. Nor was He encouraging His disciples to persevere in prayer as a way of wearing down the Almighty and forcing Him to do their bidding. The Lord was simply making an argument from the lesser to the greater: If even a unjust scoundrel will respond to the perseverance of a helpless widow, how much more do you think the just God of heaven will answer and bless those who persevere in faithful prayer before Him? Jesus said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” The obvious answer is, “œOf course, He will.” If perseverance pays off with scoundrels, how much more will it pay off with a caring and loving heavenly Father?

I’m writing this article because my dear friend, brother, and fellow Sheriff’s Chaplain Herb Smith is seriously ill. The doctors have run every imaginable medical test on him and while they still have no firm diagnosis, they suspect he is suffering from Valley Fever. Herb has experienced severe fever and headaches and was close to death at times. Along with many of you, I began to pray fervently and repeatedly for Herb and his family. There were times in the past few weeks that I found it difficult to focus on my daily tasks and responsibilities because my mind and heart were drawn back to prayer for my friend and fellow Chaplain. I do not know why God did not immediately answer our prayers for Herb’s healing, but I do know this on the authority of God’s Word, none of us have been praying to an answering machine.

Recently, I visited with Herb in his home when he was released from the hospital. I shared with him how fervently I have been praying for Him. I was greatly encouraged by the strong and resilient faith and trust in God that both he and his beloved wife Debbie have demonstrated throughout this entire ordeal. I’ve been touched by personally witnessing in their lives the difference between people who talk about trusting God and those, like Herb and Debbie Smith, who actually live out that trust. As they spoke of their faith in God’s sovereign will in their lives, I couldn’™t help but think of the words of God’s servant Job, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). “œThough He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15). Regardless of how Herb’s illness ultimately plays out, they are resting in God’s faithfulness and goodness.

I shared with Herb how God has used my own prayers on his behalf to remind me that in myself I am as helpless as the widow in Jesus’™ parable and utterly dependent upon His wisdom, grace and power. God alone is the One who determines our future. It is not our place to tell God what He should do, but rather it is our calling to submit our hearts and wills to Him. I told Herb what a blessing it has been to see so many concerned friends joining hands across the county on bended knees on behalf of someone we love, learning to trust in God and believing that He knows what is best for him and us. By persevering in prayer, I have learned that God uses delays to purify our petitions, to move us from asking for our will, to desiring His will alone. Another great blessing that comes from persevering in prayer is that God purifies not only our petition, but He purifies the petitioner as well, drawing our hearts closer to Him and giving us a renewed sense of our utter dependence upon Him. Pastor Stephen Lawson said, “Heaven is often silent. In such times, the only answer God gives is a deeper revelation of Himself. We learn that He is the answer we seek. Ultimately we must not trust a plan, but a Person. There is something about our questioning minds that longs for answers. If we only knew, we reason, we could handle our pain. Yet placing God’s infinite wisdom into our finite brains would be like trying to pour the Atlantic Ocean into a Dixie Cup. It just wouldn’t fit.  It’s too vast and deep.”

The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of Omnipotence.” Please continue steadfastly in prayer for Chaplain Herb Smith. Use the slender nerve of prayer to move the muscle of God’s almighty power to reveal Himself and His will for both the Smiths and us as well. To God be the glory.

Is There Life BEFORE Death?

While many have pondered the question Is there life after death? King Solomon, in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, chose to tackle another nagging question of mankind, Is there life before death? Solomon applied his mind and heart to explore whether life on this earth had any real meaning to it. The Nobel Prize winning American novelist Ernest Hemingway said, “œLife is just a dirty trick, a short trip from nothingness to nothingness.” He claimed that the only edge we have over death, because death claims all of us sooner or later, is to choose the time, the place and the method of our own death whenever we can. Sadly and tragically for Hemingway, even with all his earthly successes, life on this earth had little or no ultimate meaning. His answer to Solomon’s question was an emphatic, “No! There is no meaningful life before one dies.”

Surprisingly, in the opening words of Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to agree with Hemingway’s assessment of life’s futility writing, “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Eccles. 1:2). That seems pretty cynical coming from a man who seemed to have everything. In ways far exceeding Hemingway’s experience, King Solomon possessed just about everything life had to offer: Power, position, influence, education, wealth, relationships and worldly pleasure. In terms of being able to comment on what could or could not satisfy the soul of man, he was uniquely qualified, maybe over-qualified. Solomon said, “I applied my mind to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. . . I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccles. 1:13-14). Chasing after the wind is so descriptive of just how illusive real satisfaction can be when pursuing the things this world has to offer us. One of my college professors paraphrased Solomon’s oft-repeated phrase “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless” with the words, “Bubbles! Bubbles! Everything is bubbles!” His paraphrase vividly portrays the futility Solomon experienced as he sought to find meaning in life. So many of life’s pursuits seem so beautiful and promising, but just as bubbles vanish into thin air when a child seeks to grab them with his hand, life’™s pursuits often elude us and leave us empty at the end of the day.

Solomon wrote twelve chapters regarding his futile search for meaning throughout his entire life. He sought for meaning in wisdom and knowledge and yet, once he became one of the wisest men who ever lived, he found that goal came up empty in his hands just like a bubble in the hand of a child. We spend billions of dollars on education in our country and we still can’t seem to solve the problems and conflicts we experience in society. Solomon then decided to pursue pleasure with all his might. He wrote, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (Eccles. 2: 10). The Bible records that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 mistresses. Again, his pursuit for satisfaction came up empty. Bubbles. Bubbles. If a thousand women couldn’™t satisfy his hunger for pleasure, neither would ten thousand women. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus wrote, “To whom little is not enough, nothing is enough.” Solomon’s search wasn’t over, he poured his life into his work, but that too came up empty for him. He found it ultimately futile to work hard one’s whole life only to die one day and leave it all to those who didn’t do a thing to earn any of it. One pursuit after another came up empty for Solomon. He pursued advancement. Bubbles. Pursued wealth. More bubbles. Solomon groaned, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless” (Eccles. 5:10).

Have you ever asked yourself, When is enough ever enough? There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to material things. We get so excited about getting the latest greatest laptop computer and yet the minute we buy it, it is already obsolete. The next generation of laptop computers has already been developed and when they come out, they make our shiny new ones look old. The same thing happens with new cars, new clothes, new homes, and new toys. Trying to find ultimate satisfaction in things is a futile search that will never end. There’s nothing wrong with having things. It’s just foolish to think that material things can fulfill our spiritual hearts. The French mathematician, physicist and Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal once wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator.”

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (I Timothy 6:17-19). Paul wanted others to know that there is life before death, but it isn’t found in indulging oneself with all life has to offer, but rather it is found in a relationship with one’s Creator that in turn causes one to be rich in good deeds towards others.

At the age of 61, Ernest Hemingway’s sense of life’s futility drove him to take his own life with his favorite hunting rifle. Unlike Hemingway, Solomon’s sense of life’s futility led him back to God. In the final chapter of his book, he encourages young people, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” He ends his book by saying, “Now that all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Eccles. 12:13). We were made in the very image of God and we find our greatest sense of purpose and satisfaction when we see and experience life with Him at our side. Is there life before death? Those who walk with God respond with a resounding, “Yes!”

A Christian Perspective on Problems

The first century stoic Epictetus penned these insightful words, “It isn’t your problems that are bothering you, it is the way you are looking at them.” Another writer put the same thought this way, “Most of our difficulties in life boil down to: 10% circumstances and 90% perspective.” Contrary to what some television evangelists with permanent smiles would have us believe (i.e., walk with God and you’ll never have a care and If you have enough faith, you’ll always be healthy and wealthy), God Himself never promised any of His children a divine exemption from problems, trials, disappointments and hardship. In fact, Jesus said, “In this world, you shall have tribulation.” Difficulty, trial and suffering are a part of the human experience. What then should be our perspective toward such things? Groaning about our woes? Complaining about our lot in life? Blaming others and God for our difficulties? Many choose to respond to life’s setbacks in such ways. Complaining seems to have become a favorite American past time. But in all my years of ministry I’ve never seen groaning, complaining or blaming others improve anyone’s situation. Though I have seen such responses make bad situations worse. As strange as it might seem to us at first glance, the Bible actually encourages us to respond to life’s difficulties with joy. The apostle James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” James is not encouraging Christians to become masochists who love pain and disappointment. He’s challenging us to understand that God allows trial in our lives to produce endurance, staying power, and spiritual stamina. There’s an old saying in the weightlifting business, No pain, No Gain! Most of us have experienced difficult periods in our lives and given the choice we might not want to go through them again. But at the same time we can look back and say, “While I didn’t enjoy the problems, I did learn a lot about life from them and I’m a stronger person today because of them.” Such perspective can help us through the long days of life’s next trial. Through difficulty, God is trying to “make us” not “break us.” It isn’t your problems that are bothering you, it is the way you are looking at them.

After all, it is His Birthday

A friend of mine put up a nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in her front lawn. A somewhat annoyed neighbor asked her, “What does THAT have to do with Christmas?” I guess it escaped the notice of this neighbor that the name of Christ appears in the word Christmas. Actually the term Christmas is made up of two words, Christ and Mass, which refer to a religious ceremony designed to remember the death of Christ on the cross for our sins. Even the dictionary defines Christmas as “a holiday on Dec. 25 celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.” I suppose in the increasingly non-religious society in which we live, this neighbor has come to associate Christmas with things like Santa Claus, flying reindeer, toy-building elves and shopping at Wal-Mart than with Christ. The often-used abbreviation “X-mas” has come to be almost symbolic of our secularized American culture, which has no room for Jesus in their Inn. Millions go about their holiday shopping and preparations with little or no thought about the true meaning of Christmas. They have unconsciously “X-ed” Christ right out of Christmas. It would seem strange to me to have a birthday party for your 5-year-old daughter and have all the guests exchange gifts with one another and yet no one bring a gift for the birthday girl. Yet, that is exactly what millions of people do with Christmas. They brave the traffic and crowded malls to find the perfect present for everyone on their holiday gift list. Everyone, that is, except the birthday boy, the Lord Jesus Christ. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those grinch-type pastors who are against any kind of celebration at Christmas (i.e. no Christmas tree, no decorations, no presents, and no joy). Quite the contrary, I believe that Christians, of all people, ought to celebrate Christmas with great exuberance and joy. And while I believe it is a wonderful thing to express our love and appreciation to one another through the thoughtful exchange of Christmas gifts, the true meaning of Christmas has nothing whatsoever to do with our gifts for one another. It centers on God wrapping His Christmas Gift for us in swaddling clothes and having Him laid in a manger on that very first Christmas evening. As you celebrate the holidays this year, why not include the worship of Christ. After all, it is His Birthday.

What Ever Happened to Reverence?

A Christian friend of mine who moved to the Los Angeles area shared with me his frustrations in finding a new church home for his family. No doubt, we all get used to the atmosphere and emphasis of the churches we belong to, and there is the inevitable adjustment that must be made when joining a new church. However, his concerns went beyond adjusting to the differences. His concern was for the apparent loss of reverence among some of the churches he visited. It seems that many of the churches in his area were so geared towards being “user friendly” and meeting the “œfelt needs” of people that reverence for God had been sacrificed in favor of being attractive to people. He shared one example. A few of the churches he and his family visited had Christian coffee shops on the premises. One was called Jehovah Java and the other was named Holy Grounds. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the coffee shop concept. If it encourages people to stick around for awhile, get to know one another better, build better relationships as well as encouraging each other in the faith. I’m all for it (though I’m not sure I’d pay $5 a cup!). I’m sure such noble aims represent the reasons such “coffee shop ministries” were started. It’s not the idea of having a coffee shop at church that concerned my friend. It was the use of the cute and clever names of these ministries that bothered him. Such names represent a growing tendency in the church today to sacrifice reverence for results. I have no desire to judge the heart motivation of those who conduct such ministries. I am sure their motives are good. They, no doubt, desire to reach a new generation with the claims of Christ in an innovative fashion. At the same time, every follower of Christ ought to ask himself/herself from time to time, “At what price?” Are we willing to sacrifice even the sacred name of God (Jehovah) given to Moses on Mount Sinai for a clever name (i.e. Jehovah Java) for one of our ministries, all in the name of reaching people? Whether we realize it or not, there’s something contradictory in our message when we trivialize the sacred name of God or use the biblical word “holy” in a desire to be cute and clever. We tell people that we serve a great and awesome God who is transcendent above all creation. We tell them that our desire is to magnify and exalt the name of God in our worship services and then we associate His name with coffee beans. Isn’t a mixed message been communicated? Out of reverence for the LORD, the Old Testament priests would not even speak the sacred name “Jehovah.” The dictionary defines “reverence” as “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe.” The Hebrew word “holy” literally means “to be set apart.” The furnishings and items used in the Old Testament temple were called “holy unto the LORD” which meant they were dedicated to service of God alone and were never to be used or associated with common things or common use. The LORD God told Moses to remove the sandals from his feet as he approached the burning bush because he was standing on holy ground. There was nothing magical about the soil. It was the presence of God that set it apart from all other ground. We have sacrificed something sacred when we use the phrase “œHoly Grounds” to describe a place to drink lattes and cappuccinos. The word holy describes the essential nature of God’s Being. Of all the attributes or characteristics of His nature, only His holiness is ever ascribed to Him with triple emphasis, the angels of God cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I do not believe the great name of the LORD God Jehovah should be placed on the same level as a cup of coffee, nor should the concept of holiness be used to describe coffee beans. The clever coffee shop names are but one example of how we have sometimes been guilty of placing a higher priority on reaching people than upon the very glory of God. Every Christian and every church ought to seek to reach people with the good news of Christ and seek new and innovative ways to touch people’s lives for God. However, we should never seek to do this in any manner that makes God’s name common, never in a way that reduces reverence and respect for the LORD, never at any price.

The First Letter of Jesus

In the last book of the Bible, you’ll find a collection of letters. Now I know it’s not polite to read other people’s mail, but God had these letters of Jesus permanently recorded for us in His Word that we might know something of the heart of our Savior. Christ dictated seven such letters to the apostle John and instructed him to send each letter to a different church. The first of these seven letters was to the church in the city of Ephesus. You’ll find this letter in the second chapter of the book of Revelation. Christ begins with a few words of commendation and ends His letter with a strong word of correction. He commends this church for being a hardworking, sacrificing, steadfast group of Christians. These believers not only worked for God, they worked hard and long, toiling for the Lord and persevering in their labors (v. 2a). Jesus goes on to commend them for being serious about truth (v. 2b). No biblical illiteracy in this church! They knew their bibles and refused to compromise it’s truths in the face of pressures from false teachers. The last commendation the Lord Jesus gives to them is recognition of their willingness to suffer and endure for His name’s sake (v. 3). All in all, this church seemed to have it all together. They were a serving church, a sacrificing church, a steadfast church, a separated church and a suffering church. What more could one want for in a church? Read on in Jesus’ letter (verse 4). In the midst of all the good things going on in this church, Christ had one word of correction. He said, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” Simply put Jesus shares His disappointment with these Christians because they no longer loved Him as they once did, the way they did when they first decided to follow Him. For this church, doctrine & duty had replaced love & passion. Sad to say, many a marriage today understands the emptiness of service without love. Partners in such relationships still do things for one another, there’s just no passion left in doing them. And why? Because they, like the church in Ephesus, have left something very valuable behind them, their first love, their initial passion, their heartfelt devotion. You see, love for Christ is more important than service to Christ because you can engage in service without loving Jesus but you cannot truly love Jesus without serving Him. Love must come first. Love must be the motivating force that drives our service for God. The greatest commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind. Busyness in Christian service without love for God might impress men, but it is disappointing to the heart of Jesus.

Beauty Tips for the Tongue

Ever thought about how beautiful your tongue is? No, not the two-ounce slab of muscle which enable us to chew, taste, swallow and articulate words. I’m talking about our speech. Remember the old adage, Sticks & stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me? I guess who ever penned those words never read the Old Testament book of Proverbs. In that book King Solomon wrote, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). The use and misuse of our tongues can cause great damage to others or bring encouragement and healing to hurting souls. Proverbs has over 100 references to how we use our tongues! On the negative side, Solomon says some use their tongues to: spread strife (6:14); utter lies (6:19); seduce to sin (5:3-4); spread slander (10:18); destroy our neighbor (11:9); ruin one’s life (10:14); stir up anger (15:1); crush the human spirit (15:4); pour forth evil (15:28); separate the closest of friends (16:28); make a mockery of justice (19:28); curse one’s parents (20:20); deceive others (24:28). Whew! It seems that sticks & stones aren’t the only damaging devices in the world. Little things we say can do incredible damage to others and ourselves.

On the positive side, Solomon notes that we can use our tongues to: nourish others (10:21); speak words of wisdom (10:31); bring forth what is acceptable (10:32); calm an angry spirit (15:1); soothe others (15:4); bring healing to damaged lives (16:24). Solomon was right. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. In closing, let me share a couple of beauty tips for your tongue. 1)Learn to talk less. Proverbs 10:19 says, €œWhen words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.€ Someone once said, €œGod gave us two ears and one mouth so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak. €Good advice for anyone who desires a beautiful tongue. 2) Think before you speak. Proverbs 15:28 says, €œThe heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.€ The godly man or woman ponders how best to respond to others while the ungodly person just lets words fly without any thought. 3) Abstain from unwholesome talk. The apostle Paul instructed, €œDo not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful in building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29).€ There’s a familiar saying, €œIf you don’t have something good to say, say nothing at all.€ If we’re to cultivate beautiful tongues we need to concentrate on saying things that are helpful; things that build others up, things that benefit those who listen to us. Remember, the damage done by sticks & stones can heal in a relatively short time. The damage done by unkind words can last a lifetime.

Love or Justice?

A story is told about a king in a distant land which illustrates beautifully the balance of God’s justice and His love. One day, the royal treasurer came before the king and informed him he had discovered that someone had been embezzling funds from the royal treasury. The king ordered his guards to find this thief and to have him publicly flogged. News spread quickly through the realm. After a few days, the captain of the guard informed the king of both good and sad news. The good news was that the thief had be found. The sad news was that the thief was none other than the king’s elderly mother. Deeply grieved the king ordered the subjects of the kingdom to be assembled in the outer courtyard the following day. That evening, everyone in the kingdom wondered what the king would do. €œSurely the king will not flog his very own mother!€ some insisted. Others remarked, €œIf it were any one of us, he most certainly have us flogged!€ Would the king execute the sentence and flog his mother? Or would love triumph and justice be set aside? Love or justice, what would it be?

The following day at the appointed time the subjects of the kingdom gathered in the outer courtyard. Everyone present wondered what the king would do. One could feel the tension in the air as the king entered the courtyard and took his place at the throne of judgement. Two guards escorted the king’s elderly mother. The captain of the guard looked to the king. Moments seemed like hours. Silence filled the courtyard as the subjects of the kingdom awaited the order of the king. With grief in his voice, the king ordered his mother to be tied to the whipping post. Gasps of disbelief came from the crowd. The king’s mother began to sob quietly as she was tied to the post. The guard with the whip waited for the king’s command. The king rose from his throne, walked over to his mother and then did what no one ever dreamed he would do. He removed his upper garment exposing his own back and knelt down behind his mother. Wrapping his arms around his beloved mother, shielding her from the blows of the whip, he ordered the guard to proceed. He took the blows meant for his mother upon himself. In that one act of personal sacrifice he demonstrated both love and justice without compromise to either. The subjects of the kingdom knew now that the king would never compromise the demands of justice and they discovered the depths of his love for his mother. This story illustrates God’s love and justice. We, like the king’s mother, are guilty and deserving of God’s judgement because of our sin. But instead of sending judgement, God sent His Son. On the cross, Jesus placed His loving arms around us and was punished on our behalf. In that one act of loving sacrifice, Jesus satisfied the demands of both love and justice.

Down is Up!

The story is told of the late Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of the Tenth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia that he began his sermon to a great convention by crying out, €œDown is up!€ and after a lengthy pause, followed that with, €œ. . . and up is down!€ What was Dr. Barnhouse getting at? He was stating, in very simple terms, a spiritual principle taught by Jesus in the gospel of Mark 10:35-45. It seems two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, came to make a request of the Lord saying, €œTeacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of You!€ It was rather bold of them to instruct the Son of God to do exactly what they desired, but give them credit for being straightforward and honest about their desires. Our own prayer lists often degenerate into a €œDo-for-us-whatever-we-ask-of-You-Lord” kind of thing. We’re just less transparent and honest about our self-centeredness focus than they were. And what was their request of Jesus? It’s found in verse 37, €œGrant that we may sit in Your glory, one on Your right, and one on Your left.€ (Compare this with Matthew’s account of this incident and you’ll discover they even got their mom into the act! She wanted that same prominence for her two boys.) In a sense, they were saying, €œWe don’t want much, Lord. Just the two highest positions of honor in your kingdom next to you!€ How big of them not to ask for Jesus’ seat! Verse 41 tells us that when the other ten disciples heard all this, they became indignant! Why were they so upset with James and John? Because those two brothers were asking Jesus for the seats THEY wanted! How did Jesus respond to this clamoring for position and recognition? By teaching them the €œdown is up principle. First noting that the rulers in the world love positions of power and influence and prefer to €œlord over others, Jesus then said, €œBut it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all (verse 43-44).€ Jesus was teaching his disciples that the kingdom of God does not operate on the same €œdog-eat-dog, jockey-for-position, step-on-others, fight-for-the-top, look-out-for-number-one principle that the world seems so familiar with. Jesus taught us that true greatness in His kingdom is measured not by how many people serve you, but rather by how many people you are willing to serve. Down is up! Read Matthew 23:1-12. You will see the same spiritual principle illustrated again as Jesus contrasts true spiritual greatness with the public posturing of the religious leaders of His day. In Matthew 23:12, Jesus says, And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled [up is down]; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted [down is up]Want to be a great Christian? Learn to put others before yourself (see Philippians 2:3-11). Serve the needs of others rather than being self-serving and you’ll discover a greatness that is out of this world! Remember, Down is up!

Rich is Better! Oh, Really?

It was Sophie Tucker who said, €œI’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and believe me, rich is better!€ From a strictly creature-comfort point of view, she may be right. But material wealth is not without it’s drawbacks. It would be interesting to see a documentary on all the million dollar lottery winners about ten years down the road to see if their lives both public and private were really better off since winning. Society promotes the idea that €œmore is better and you are what you own. Jesus warned a materialistic man, Be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions (Luke 12:15). Simply put, Jesus says that you’re not what you own. Additionally, Jesus warned this man to be on his guard against the ill-effects of a materialistic view of life. On another occasion Jesus said, You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). You can have both. You just can’t serve both. The apostle Paul warned, The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (I Timothy 6:10). Paul’s statement often gets misquoted as saying, Money is the root of all evil. Money isn’t the problem, the love of money or greed is the problem! Being consumed with money and materialism is the root cause of all kinds of evil. Paul said that such greed for wealth caused some to wander away from their faith in God. Spiritually speaking, money and wealth can be a genuine handicap in our relationship to God and others if we fail to keep it in the right perspective. What are some of the dangers of financial success in terms of our spiritual lives? Here are a few: 1) Delusional thinking (believing we are more important than others because we have more possessions/money); 2) Temptation to compromise what is right to increase our wealth; 3) The problem of greed (lack of contentment — enough is never enough); 4The principle of ownership (what you own eventually owns you, demanding your time, attention, energies, etc.); 5The problem of diversion (so much time is spent on acquiring and maintaining our wealth and standard of living, little time is left for the more important things in life like our service to God and time with our families); 6) The problem of shortsightedness (the tendency to exclusively focus on things of this life and a failure to prepare to meet the Lord one day); 7)The serious and arrogant sin of self-sufficiency (failing to realize that the talents, abilities, opportunities, good health, etc., are all gifts from God without which we could never have earned a penny in this world). These are just a few of the problems associated with materialistic success. Little wonder Jesus warned that man ought to be on his guard against every form of greed in his life. Is being rich really better? Not when it pulls us away from the most important things in life.

Give a Gift to Jesus this Christmas!

Christmas is a time of gift giving. Shoppers hurry from store to store to find the perfect gift for those they love. But what about a gift for Jesus? After all, Christmas is the celebration of His birth in Bethlehem. The real message of Christmas centers on God giving the greatest gift of all, the gift of His own Son, Jesus. The gospel accounts record for us the worship of the simple shepherds at the manger scene and the offering of lavish gifts by the wise men called “magi” from the east. Why not join the magi this Christmas and present a gift of worship to Jesus? I’m not talking about a gift you can buy at the Mall nor am I referring to giving a monetary gift to your favorite Christian ministry. I’m talking about offering your life in service to Christ. The apostle Paul wonderfully explains the gift of God’s salvation in Christ in the first eleven chapters of the book of Romans in the Bible. Then in chapter 12, verse one he says, €œI urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship. In other words, in light of all that God has done for you, the proper response of any true worshipper of Christ is to reciprocate God’s love by offering up one’s life in honor and service to the Lord. Such a presentation of our lives to the Lord far outstrips any gift money could buy. The apostle Paul goes on to explain the way or manner in which we ought to offer our service to God in verses 3-8 of Romans 12. In verse three, he reminds us to be humble in the use of our gifts. We ought not to get an over-inflated idea of our own importance as we serve the Lord. The Lord alone deserves the glory for all we accomplish in His name. In verses 3 and 6, Paul instructs us to be real in our service. We’re to exercise our gifts according to the measure of faith He has allotted to each of us. That means we offer the best that we have, but we never try to exceed what God has called and enabled us to do. We need not try to be like some other servant of God. We can just be ourselves in serving Christ. In verse eight, the apostle tells us to be generous. As servants of Christ, we ought to be ready to give of ourselves to God’s service in a large way, never stingy with our talents, our time or our treasure. Again in verse eight, Paul reminds us to be diligent in the use of our gifts. Diligence means that faithful servants don’t shoot from the hip or wing-it or just throw something together at the last minute when it comes to offering themselves in service to God. Faithful servants spend time preparing themselves to give the best service they can possibly offer to Christ. Finally, Paul reminds us to be joyful. Cheerfulness in service is that extra touch that says we serve God, not because we have to, but because we’re glad to. This Christmas season, while you’re out looking for gifts for everyone else, why not pick up a gift for Jesus. Be sure to wrap it with humility, reality, generosity, diligence and joy!

Stars Do Not Shine But in the Night

Thomas Manton once wrote, Affliction maketh saints eminent. Stars do not shine but in the night. What Manton was getting at is that the true character of a Christian is seen more brightly in times of distress than in the good times of life. It’s easy to claim allegiance to the Lord when everything is going our way. It is quite another thing to be a faithful follower of God when the dark clouds form and the storm rages on every side. It is in those dark times that a genuine faith in God can really shine. A wise man wrote, Adversity introduces a man to himself. There’s nothing like adversity to help a person see what he/she is made of. There was a man named Job in the Old Testament who had life pretty good. You can read about him in the book that bears his name. The first chapter of Job describes him as a man of faith with a good reputation, a man with a beautiful family (a wife and ten children), good health and great wealth. It seems that things just couldn’t have been better for ol’ Job! The plot thickens in verse six with the entrance of Satan. Seems the Devil wasn’t as impressed with Job’s faith as the Lord was. He claimed that Job loved and served God only because He had so richly blessed his life. The Lord then granted the Devil permission to send adversity into Job’s life to prove that Job’s faith was the real deal. You can read about Satan’s onslaught on Job’s life in verses 12-19 of chapter one. In one day, Job suffered the loss his servants, his wealth and worst of all, his ten precious children. One devastating adversity after another in rapid succession. Job’s response is nothing less than remarkable. Most of us would be questioning God’s goodness or possibly worse. The Bible tells us that upon hearing this devastating news, Job fell down and worshiped the Lord saying, Naked I cam from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD. The last verse adds, Through all of this Job did not sin nor did he blame God. Read on and you’ll discover that things got worse for him. Satan was sure that if Job’s health and life were threatened that he would curse God’s name. The devil afflicted Job with sore boils from head to toe. As Job sat among the ashes of the garbage heap scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery, his less than supportive wife said to him, Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die! Job’s response? Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?The lesson of Job’s life is that even though bad things happen to good people, one’s faith in God need not cave in, but can grow deeper and stronger. Rather than sinning or blaming God, Job allowed adversity to draw him closer to God. In his hour of darkness, Job’s faith shone bright as a star. His affliction made him eminent in the eyes of God and man. Adversity can break us down or make us shine. The choice is really ours.

Looking for Opportunities to Touch Lives

In the Gospel of John, it says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. At first glance nothing seems to unusual about this statement. If you want to go from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north, you have to pass through Samaria. The problem was that in Jesus’ day, Jews never traveled through this region due to religious and racial tensions between Jews and Samaritans (see v. 9). Most Jews either boarded a boat and traveled around Samaria or crossed over the Jordan river only to cross back over again once past Samaria. So it is remarkable that Jesus decides to take his 12 disciples on an excursion through the œforbidden zone.â It was high noon when Jesus stopped at a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar. There at the well, Jesus had an encounter with a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water. He engaged her in conversation by asking for a drink. She snarled back, How is it that you, being a JEW, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan? Again we see the tensions which existed between these two peoples. The Lord proceeds to minister her. Where were the disciples when Jesus was reaching out to this spiritually needy woman? They had gone into the city to buy food. They were MEN ON A MISSION! Hungry! Need Food! Get Food! Eat Food! Know any men like that? The irony of this account is that these disciples were men being trained to minister to the spiritually needy but they had passed right by this woman on their way to the city. She was coming from the city to the well. They were going from the well to the city. These 12 men probably took up the whole road forcing her to get off to let them by. Upon their return, they even express amazement that Jesus would be talking to this woman (verse 27). This woman that the disciples had no time for, left her water pot (she’d come for water and left with something more valuable in her heart) and returned to her city telling everyone who would listen about Jesus. The whole city came out to hear Jesus teach. Great opportunity, right? Unfortunately, the disciples still had lunch on their minds (v. 32). They told Jesus it was time to eat! Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” In other words, ministering to people was more important than satisfying physical hunger. How did Jesus respond to his distracted disciples (vv. 35-38)? 1) Lift up your eyes! Stop the “tunnel-vision” of personal comfort. 2) Look on the harvest field! Take a look around and notice all those in need. 3) Get into the harvest! Whether as a sower or as a reaper, commit to being a part of reaching people for God’s kingdom. 4) Get ready to rejoice! (v. 36) All God’s workers will rejoice together in view of the final harvest. Don’t be too hard on the disciples. How many times have each of us been so focused on our own needs and personal comfort that we’ve missed great opportunities to minister to needy ones around us? We all need to look for opportunities to touch the lives of others.

Truth Matters

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. (John 14:6).” Not only does this statement teach us that Jesus is the way to God, it also serves as a needed reminder that the way that we should walk in is inextricably linked to the truth we believe. Additionally, both the way we walk and the truth we believe determines the quality of life we will experience. Our culture has largely abandoned the concept of absolute truth and then wonders what ever happened to the quality of life experienced by former generations. Little today is viewed as being right or wrong. Everything has turned gray. Truth has become a subjective thing, a personal preference. The Bible speaks of a time in Israel’s history when they were without a godly ruler, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).”Sound familiar? Most people today do whatever they deem as right in their own eyes. Most Americans have become increasingly intolerant of anyone who suggests that there are absolute truths upon which to build our lives upon. What most Americans fail to realize is that behavior (what we do) is based largely upon truth (what we believe). If there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, then we will increasingly find ourselves back in the days of the Judges in Israel with “everyone doing that which is right in their own eyes.” The Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colorado is a double tragedy. The first one is obvious, the terrible and senseless loss of human life by two teenage gunmen who, after gunning down dozens of their classmates in cold blood, turned the guns on themselves in the act of suicide. The second tragedy is less obvious. It is seen in the shock and surprise that so many Americans have expressed about this incident. The shocking thing is how shocked we are! What do we expect from a younger generation which has been told, “There is no such thing as absolute truth!”? It was our job to guard truth and pass on it’s value to the next generation. Instead, we have unwittingly sent them a message that human life is not sacred. Many call the taking of innocent life in an abortion clinic, “choice.” Some suggest that the murder of abortion clinic personnel is “justice.” Others glorify violence on television, in movies and video games and call it “entertainment.” We allow “music” groups to sing songs about killing cops and gang retaliation and then call it, “freedom of speech.” We allow underage criminals to receive little or no accountability for their crimes because they are “just kids.” And then after all of this, we are surprised that some of our young people have no sense of the value of human life? The second tragedy of Columbine is that we have failed to give our young people a place to stand. We have blurred the lines of right and wrong in order to justify our own sinfulness so we might do whatever we please. Unfortunately, we have passed that obscured view of truth onto our young people. Truth, behavior, quality of life all go together and the standard of truth, right living and quality of life can found in Jesus.

The New Religious Persecution

Many of those who founded this great country in which we live first came here to escape religious persecution. They came to America due to the severe intolerance expressed against them regarding their religious beliefs. In America, they were afforded the freedom of religious expression without fear of persecution or repercussion. With this in view, it is ironic that in the “land of the free,” people of faith are once again experiencing the intolerance our forefathers sought to escape. The modern cultural buzzwords of “diversity” and “tolerance” seem to offer a spirit of inclusion for anyone except people of faith. Americans have increasingly become intolerant of any and all religious expression in American life. In our own county, we’ve seen efforts by some to remove the cross from Mt. Soledad and Mt. Helix in the name of the “separation of church and state.” That phrase, by the way, is no where found in our constitution though many would swear that it is. Our constitution guarantees the freedom ofreligion, not a supposed “freedom from religion.” Many people today have grossly misread and/or misinterpreted the Constitution to suggest that it guarantees a supposed right not even to be exposed to religious thought or practice in American society. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If that were the intent of our founding fathers, why then would they invoke the name of God in so many of our nation’s most important documents including the Constitution? Why does our pledge of allegiance call us “One Nation Under God”? Why does our currency read “In God We Trust”? The Constitution never intended to eradicate religious practice or influence in American life. It simply prohibited the establishment of one State-sponsored religion to which everyone was required to adhere. One of the things which has made this country great is its ability to embrace those who are different by race, culture, gender and yes, even of religious belief. I was saddened recently by the comments of our own Imperial Beach City Council when voting down a proposal to have various IB clergy persons offer invocations at Council meetings. One member of the council said she was personally offended by people who offered invocations in the name of Jesus and then facetiously stated that “some of her best friends were Christians”. Why should any of us be offended when someone prays to the God of their choice? As a Christian, I believe that Christ is the way of salvation for all mankind. At the same time, I do not take personal offense when a Jewish rabbi offers a prayer to Yahweh or when a Muslim prays to Allah. Another council member warned about the “religious lunatic fringe.” People of faith have made a tremendous contribution to the American way of life. Some of the greatest leaders in this nation’s history like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have expressed and encouraged a profound faith and trust in God. They, along with responsible people of faith today, do not constitute a “lunatic fringe.” Religion should never be forced on anyone, but allowing religion to remain a part of American society forces no religious belief on anyone. In a day when Americans love to throw around the word “tolerance,” why not a little tolerance towards people of faith as well?

Speaking the Truth in Love

Few of us have escaped the uncomfortable position of having to “cut it straight” to a friend or loved one. Telling others the cold, hard truth is not an easy, nor an enviable task. We all need someone to be honest with us about issues in our lives, but few of us go out of our way to show appreciation to those who love us enough to “tell it like it is.” In God’s Word, the apostle Paul gives some insight on effectively passing on “the truth” to those we know. In Ephesians 4:15, the apostle says that Christians ought to “speak the truth in love” with one another. What a balanced approach to confronting others, speaking the truth but also speaking with love in our hearts to those we confront. In my ministry as a pastor, I’ve found that most people tend towards one extreme of that balance or the other. On the one hand, some simply will not be truthful with others regarding difficult subjects and/or situations. They hate any form of confrontation and run from it like the plague. They’re afraid of the negative fall-out that sometimes results from an honest word of correction or admonishment. Therefore, they choose to the easy route of expressing love and support for the person in need of correction, but leave the correcting to someone else. On the other hand, some people throw tenderness, love and consideration “out the window” in favor of the bulldozer approach to confrontation. They speak the truth all right, but they do so without any semblance of love or genuine concern. The apostle Paul suggests that we maintain a balance between truth and love, learning to love others enough to be straightforward and honest with them but also learning to express the truth in a manner which conveys a heart of love and concern. The Old Testament book of Proverbs, King Solomon said, “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable (Proverbs 15:2).” Wise men and women do not make truth more truthful, but they possess the ability to make truth easier to receive and accept. One translation renders that verse, “The wise person makes learning a joy!” Both Solomon and Paul are underscoring the need for wisdom, love and tact. Speaking the truth in a loving manner is using tact. Sharing the truth in a manner that is easier to hear, receive and accept is also using tact. Someone once noted that tact is like a girdle. It enables you to organize the awkward truth more attractively. Sometimes it helps to sit down and write out what you plan to say when you have to confront a friend, loved one or coworker. Remember, the cold, hard truth doesn’t always have to be presented with coldness or hardness. Learn to speak the truth in a loving manner. Remember, when and how we say something has as much or more to do with how others will respond to us than just the words we speak. Give adequate thought regarding the right time and place to share your insights. Affirm your love for your loved one or friend. Share the truth without attacking him/her. Ensure that the tone of your voice communicates genuine love and concern. Loving, tactful honesty will go a long way in helping those around you in reaching their fullest potential. It’s not an easy job, but someone’s got to do it.

Four Responses to Jesus

In Matthew 11, Jesus invites tired and burdened souls to come to Him. Matthew records four differing responses by various people to the person of Christ. In verses 1-6, we see the “The Response of Doubt” from John the Baptist. He asks, “Are you the Expected One or shall we wait for someone else?” Possibly the pressure and loneliness of his confinement in a dark and stifling prison cell had begun to wear on his faith. Wisely, John took his doubts directly to the Lord. Jesus reassures John that He truly was the promised Messiah. Sometimes when life hits us hard, we like John can wrestle with doubts about our faith in God. Follow John’s example and take your doubts to the Lord. By his Spirit and through His Word, the Lord can handle your doubting heart and renew your faith. In verses 16-19, we see the “The Response of Criticism.” Unlike John, these people do not have honest doubts about their faith. They have no faith. They want no faith. They’ve made up their minds to be critical of anyone who represents faith in God. Jesus says they are like children whom you can never please. If some kids decide to play the “wedding game” and play the flute, they won’t dance. If they change their tune to play the “funeral game,” the same kids refuse to be the “mourners.” In other words, these uncooperative kids have made up their minds not to play along. Jesus’ critics were just like those kids, determined to find fault with Him no matter what. Jesus says John came neither eating or drinking, a reference to his separation from participation with social situations. In response to this, these critics said, “The man’s beside himself! He must be possessed by a demon!” On the other hand, Jesus came eating and drinking, a reference to the fact that Jesus mixed with the crowds in social situations. What was the response of these critics? They said, “The man’s a glutton and a drunkard! He’s a known associate of unsavory types and sinners!” These verses describe people who made up their minds a long time ago to despise Christ. Their motto being, “My mind is already made up. Don’t confuse me with any facts!” The third response to Christ is found in verses 20-24. It is the “The Response of Indifference”. Jesus refers to people in three cities who witnessed many of His miracles and regularly heard His preaching. What was their response to such an overwhelming display of the Messiah’s presence? They did not repent. They went on living their lives as if He never came. They took no real note of Christ. Essentially, they ignored Him. Jesus’ strongest rebuke was reserved for those who chose this response. He said that it would be easier for cities like Sodom than for them. Amazingly, God has more tolerance for immoral, idolatrous, ignorant pagans than for self-righteous people who have no need of Christ and put their trust in themselves. With greater light, comes greater accountability. The last response is the preferred response. It is “The Response of Trust”found in verses 28-30. With childlike faith, these are the ones who accept Jesus’ invitation to follow Him. These are the ones who find rest for their souls. Is your heart wearied of the ways of the world? Is it tired of trying to find fulfillment in one dead-end after another? Why not respond in faith to the invitation of Christ? Christ guarantees to give you the rest you’ve longed for.

 God is Great, God is Good

I was not raised in a Christian home, but my father insisted that we offer thanks to God before every meal. He taught us a very simple little prayer that went like this: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. Amen.” It was easy enough to learn even for a little boy. My brothers and I got pretty quick at reciting that prayer (especially when we were really hungry). I never thought much about the meaning of that prayer until, as a pastor, I was preparing to teach a series of messages on the attributes of God. In thinking of all the attributes that the Bible ascribes to the Lord our God, it became clear that all of them fall into one of these two categories: 1) Attributes of Greatness; 2) Attributes of Goodness. The Bible teaches us that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, present in all places at every moment, self-existent and unchanging. These attributes are clearly marks of His greatness. God’s Word goes on to describe the Lord as holy, righteous, just, true, loving, gracious, merciful and patient. These attributes fall into the second category of His goodness. We, as human beings, ought to be very grateful that God is both great and good. How frustrating a life of faith would be if we served a God who was good, but not great. This would be a God who cared deeply for us and truly desired to help us but found Himself unable to do so because of the limitations of His greatness. For example, such a God would love to hear the prayers of His people but if He were not all-knowing and ever present, He could only take one call at a time. You and I might get a constant busy signal when we put in a call to the Lord. Such a God would be kind but also somewhat pathetic. In contrast to such an well-meaning yet impotent God, the apostle Paul describes the Lord as the One who is “able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope (Ephesians 3:20).” Thank God He is not only good, but also great in majesty, wisdom, power and glory! Now, think for a moment what it would be like if God were great but not good. “Good-but-not-Great” would be pathetic. “Great-but-not-Good” would be our worst nightmare! What would life be like if the Lord possessed all the attributes of infinite greatness, but was evil rather than good? Such a Being would know our every thought, see our every move, possess unlimited power over every area of our lives and yet because He was evil would seek our destruction and ruin rather than our salvation or our good. You and I could run, but there would be no where to hide! Fortunately for us, the God we serve is both great and good. He is absolutely holy, allergic to sin and unable to do what is wrong. He is compassionate, kind, patient and loving. He is merciful, gracious and forgiving. And at the same time, He is majestic and powerful, wise and discerning, available to anyone at any time in need. You know something? That little prayer my dad taught my brothers and me really says a lot when you stop and give it some thought. “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” And let us thank Him for who He is as well, a God both great and good!

In Everything Give Thanks

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul wrote, “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It’s easy to give thanks for some things. How many of us have given thanks when a healthy child is born into our family? How hard is it to give thanks when the life of a loved one has been spared through a dangerous and delicate surgery? Is it very difficult to thank the Lord for the privilege of living in a land of freedom and prosperity such as we enjoy here in the United States of America? When we stop and think of the great blessings in our lives, it isn’t very hard to give thanks to God. However, Paul’s command to give thanks was not limited to thanking the Lord for good things and blessings. He didn’t say, “In every good thing give thanks.” He said, “In everything give thanks.” That’s a pretty tall order when you meditate on the meaning of the word “everything”. “Everything” includes the good and the bad, the blessings and the trials. Does the Lord really expect us to thank Him for difficulties and trials in our lives? Does He want us to thank him when people treat us unkindly or speak evil about us? Is the believer required to thank the Lord when the doctor tells him he has terminal cancer? As hard as it is for us to grasp, the command in this verse is clear, in everything give thanks. Paul says this is the will of God for the believer. But how is it possible for us to thank God for life’s disappointments, heartaches and trials? Another verse of scripture might help us here. It is found in the book of Romans, chapter eight, verse twenty-eight. There the apostle Paul says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those that love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” The main reason you and I can thank God for everything is the realization that God has a good purpose for all that happens in our lives. Paul didn’t say, “And we know that all things are good.” He was wise enough to know that many bad things happen in our lives. However, the apostle was convinced that behind the hardships and difficulties in our lives, stands a loving and all wise God who orchestrates the events of our lives for His glory and our good. Paul says Godcauses all things to work together for our good. That means that good things come out of bad situations. Think of some of the good that comes out of tragedy. You discover who your real friends are. Families are often drawn closer together. Through our own sorrow, we learn how important it is to show compassion to others when they are hurting. We learn the importance of strength of character, perseverance, patience and faith in God. Our prayer life is deepened. Our dependence upon the Lord is increased. These are but a few of the good things that God produces in our lives through the bad things that happen. When you begin to look at life this way, you realize that God uses the trials and hardships to make us not break us. Some of the good things that come out of suffering and trial really are the best things we possess. Things like faith, hope and love. Compared to the material blessings in our lives, these things are among the greatest gifts we’ve ever received from the Lord.

A Gift Too Wonderful for Words

It is definitely part of Christmas tradition to give gifts to those we love. Retailers love this tradition because it means people are willing to stand in line to pay for their purchases. No other time of the year sees more consumers spending more money on gifts for others. Of course there is nothing wrong with purchasing gifts for those we love. We probably ought to express such affection more often. However, it doesn’t take a Harvard economist to tell you that we’ve gone a little overboard in this area. Excessive commercialism threatens, at best, to detract from the true meaning of Christmas and, at worst, totally obscure it. Have you ever stopped to think how many Christmas gifts are things that none of us really need? Pokemon dolls, Chia pets, Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling machines and the like do not exactly top the list of the basic necessities of life. As nice as it is to give gifts to those we love, the true meaning of the holiday has nothing to do with this custom. It isn’t clear where this custom of buying each other gifts at Christmas actually got started. Some have suggested it began with the gifts of the wise men called “magi” who came to worship the newborn Christ. Their gifts highlighted both who Jesus was andwhat He came to do. The Bible never tells us only three wise men came to worship Christ. That is assumed based upon the three gifts given to Christ, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold was a symbol of royalty. Frankincense was a very expensive fragrance. Such gifts were befitting one born King of the Jews. These gifts highlighted who Jesus was, the Messiah, the King of Israel. The third gift was somewhat of a strange gift to give a newborn. Myrrh was a substance used for embalming the dead. When mixed with wine it was also used as an anesthesia for pain. This gift foreshadowed the mission of Christ on earth to die for the sins of mankind. As Jesus hung on the cross, he was offered a mixture of wine and myrrh to ease his suffering. He refused it. This last gift reminds us that Jesus came to die. It points to the real meaning ofCHRISTmas. As great as the magi’s gifts were, they did not represent the true meaning of Christmas. The message of Christmas is not what we give to one another, nor what we offer to God, but rather it is about what God has given us. The most famous verse in the Bible (John 3:16) is a great Christmas verse,“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” No gift was ever purchased at so great a price. No gift has ever had a more profound and lasting impact upon the lives of those who received it. Little wonder that the apostle Paul said, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). Without a doubt, God’s gift of his own beloved Son is the greatest Christmas gift ever given. Paul was right, such a gift is too wonderful for words. What words can fully describe the meaning of “Emmanuel,” God with us? What words are adequate to plumb the depths of God’s love, mercy and grace in sending Christ to die that we might live? We should all join the shepherds and the wise men in worshipping Christ this Christmas. However, the indescribable gift of Christmas is not what we can give to God, but rather what He has given us, the gift of His beloved Son.

The Motivation of Love

Our church leadership team developed a core values statement for our church so that those visiting could clearly understand the things we value most at Westview. We came up with eleven core values for our ministry. The first two values we chose come directly from the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. When challenged by a lawyer as to which of all the Old Testament commands was the greatest one, without hesitation, Jesus responded, “’You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The Lord followed these two assertions with an incredible summary statement, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:34-40).” In other words, the whole of the Old Testament revelation of God could be summed up in these two important commands, “Love God, love others.” If you genuinely keep these two commands, you’ll carry out the spirit of all of God’s commands. Jesus is clearly teaching us that why you do is far more important than just what you do. The Lord wants our motivation for obedience and service to be genuine love for God and others. Sometimes we do the right things but we do them for the wrong reasons. Some people attend church regularly, but not because they love the Lord, but rather to impress others with their spirituality. Right thing. Wrong reason. Others volunteer to teach the first grade Sunday School class, not because they love the Lord, but because they felt pressured to do it by the pastor. Right thing. Wrong reason. Another person might give financially to the new church building program, not because they love the Lord, but because everyone else gave something and it wouldn’t look right if they gave nothing. Right thing. Wrong reason. Jesus wants us to do the right things, but he wants us to do them for the right reason, because we love Him with all our hearts. Christianity is supposed to be lived from the inside out, not the outside in. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, known as the Pharisees, lived their lives from the outside in. Jesus said they were like white washed tombs, pure and pristine in appearance on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside. What was their problem? They worked hard at outwardly doing all the right things, but they neglected the most important thing – the motivation of love for God. The Pharisees read their Bibles, they attended synagogue, they prayed, they gave ten percent of their income to God, but Jesus said they did their righteous deeds to be noticed by men. The bottom line with Christ is this, why you do what you do is more important than just what you do. Take a look at all you are presently doing in obedience and service to God. Are you doing those things because you love the Lord with all your heart or are they other motivations to drive your actions? The basic task of the Christian should be to maintain a high-level love relationship with the Lord. If you’re successful in this, everything else will fall into place.

Submission: A Matter of the Heart

Johnny kept getting up from the table without finishing his dinner. Johnny’s dad, exasperated by his son’s repeated defiance, spoke one last time in a stern tone, “Johnny, sit down! If you get up again, you’re getting a spanking!” Johnny plopped down in his chair and mumbled, “I’m sitting down with my body, but I’m standing up in my heart!” Unfortunately, Johnny’s attitude is much too prevalent in current society. Submission to authority seems foreign, even repulsive, to many today. Kids dislike submitting to their parents, wives to their husbands, students to their teachers, employees to their employers. Sadly, the spirit of insubordination has become prominent even within the ranks of the church. Many church members feel no obligation to submit to the leaders of their church or even to the authority of God and His Word. However, God’s Word consistently instructs us to show respect and honor to those in authority over us. The apostle Paul encouraged believers to embrace the same attitude that Jesus had (Phil. 2:5). That attitude was one of voluntary and humble submission to the will of God. Jesus willingly obeyed His Father from the heart. Genuine Christ-like submission, whether to our parents, our teachers, our church leaders or those in government is always first and foremost a matter of the heart. It involves voluntary obedience coupled with respect. If you possess a godly attitude of submission, then godly acts of submission will inevitably follow. However, you can go through all the motions of external compliance and fail to possess a God-honoring attitude. Did you ever wonder why the apostle Paul commanded wives to submit to their husbands, children to obey their parents and slaves to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 5:22, 6:1, 5) in a day and age when such compliance was not even considered a choice? Slaves did not have a choice of whether to obey their masters. They were slaves. In the first century, the lot of women and children was not much above slavery. According to Roman law, a man had absolute authority over his wife and children even to the point of putting them to death for disrespect or disobedience. I’m not suggesting we return to such a barbaric system of totalitarian family rule. My point is this, if these three groups of people had no choice but to submit and obey, why then does Paul command them to do so? What choice did they have? Their choice was simple, mere external compliance or submission with an attitude of respect. They could choose to respond like Johnny at the dinner table or like Jesus at the cross. One writer described the great freedom submission to authority can bring by saying, “It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get things our own way.” Voluntary and respectful submission may seem demeaning to a rebellious and insubordinate society. However, it can be a badge of honor for those who wish to follow Jesus’ example. George Matheson wrote of this ironic freedom, “Make me captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; force me to render up my sword and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand; Imprison me within Thine arms and strong shall be my hand.” Johnny or Jesus? The choice is yours.

Ministry Excellence

Someone once said, “Efficiency is getting the job done right, effectiveness is getting the right job done, excellence is getting the right job done well.”Excellence requires a person to take pride in what they do. It means going the extra mile, adding that extra effort that takes one’s work beyond efficiency and effectiveness to true excellence. The apostle Paul shares five principles for excellence in life and ministry in Colossians 3:16-25. Principle one, “Obeying the Right Book,” is found in verse 16, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” The word “dwell” means “to live in” or “to be at home.” To excel in Christian service, God’s children need to learn, meditate and apply the truths of God’s Word to their everyday lives. Paul says that the Word is to “richly dwell” in our lives. Far from being rich in their understanding and application of God’s Word, many Christians today are closer to being biblical paupers. The Bible is God’s template for life and ministry. The Christian who knows it well and consistently obeys it is on the road to excellence in his life. The second principle, “Possessing the Right Attitude,” is also found in verse 16, “Singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The ministry is no place for disgruntled, complaining, duty driven people. Two people can do the same job and yet one person’s performance stands out because of their attitude. W.C. Stone said, “There is little difference in people, but that difference makes the BIG DIFFERENCE and the little difference is ATTITUDE.” The attitude Paul encourages here is joy and gratitude. The Christian who serves with an attitude of joy and thankfulness to God rather than merely with a sense of duty puts a divine sparkle on their service for Christ. Principle number three, “Reflecting the Right Person,” is seen in verse 17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” What does that mean? It means that Jesus Himself could sign His name to our words and conduct. The Bible also says,“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31).” This basic principle of godliness elevates even the mundane activities of our lives to a higher level. As Christians, whatever we say or do is a reflection upon the Lord we serve. Remembering this responsibility promotes excellence in our lives. The fourth principle, “Maintaining the Right Motive,”is found in verses 22-24. Here Paul goes beyond our words and deeds to the motivation of our hearts. Are we seeking to please men or God? Do we possess a sincerity of heart and a fear of the Lord or merely a preoccupation of how we appear to others? The phrase “sincerity of heart” literally meant “singleness of heart” or “having an undivided heart”, a heart with but one focus – pleasing the Lord we serve. This brings us to the final principle of ministry excellence, “Expending the Right Effort.” Verse 23 says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” The word “heartily” literally means to “work from the soul.” In other words, we should put our heart and soul into our service for Christ. Which means we are committed to do our best. It means we pay attention to detail. It means we are willing to work hard for what we believe in. Remember these principles and Jesus will one day say to you, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”

On Being a Faithful Father

A wise man once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Powerful thought, isn’t it? Our children, while at times apparently hard of hearing, somehow end up very much like us. Our strengths and weaknesses are oftentimes right there in plain view in the speech, conduct and life of our kids. It’s important, therefore, to provide a godly example for our children to follow. In the Old Testament book of First Samuel, chapter 12, verses 22-24, there are four important principles on being a faithful father. The first principle is seen in the faithfulness of God our Father (v. 22). A faithful father always keeps his word. The Lord God made promises to Israel and the fulfillment of those promises were based on His great name and His unchanging character, not upon the faithfulness nor upon the performance of His children. Dads, be careful about the promises you make to your children. Make sure they are things you can deliver on. Be someone that your children can count on. When my girls were little, when I told them I’d do something with them, they would often follow up my statement with a one-word question, “Promise?” They knew if I said, “Promise” it was locked-in, done deal. I fulfilled those promises to them because I wanted them to know that the Lord their God (who is far more faithful than their earthly father) can always be trusted to fulfill His promises to them. Principle two is found in the example of the prophet Samuel (v. 23a). A faithful father consistently prays for his children. He said, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.” Dads, do you consider it a sin to neglect your sacred responsibility to daily pray for your children? Our kids face tremendous pressures and temptations in this sinful world. We need to give them a fighting chance by backing them up with the power of prayer. Principle number three is also found in verse 23. A faithful father takes responsibility for the spiritual instruction of his children. Too many a Christian father leaves it to others to teach their children in the “good and right way” of God. Faithful fathers do not pawn off their responsibility to be the spiritual head of their home to mom or to the youth leaders of their church. They stand up and grab hold of their own personal responsibility to raise up their children in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. The fourth principle is seen in Samuel’s instruction to the children of Israel (v. 24). A Faithful father leads by example from a life that is genuinely devoted to God. The prophet Samuel encourages the children of Israel to “fear the Lord and serve in truth with all your heart.” We may be able to fool some of our friends and neighbors regarding the depth of our own spiritual walk with God, but our children know better. They know if their dad is a man who possesses a genuine reverence for God in his life. They know if their dad serves the Lord with all his heart or if he’s just playing church. If you want your children to love and serve the Lord, give them an example in your own life to follow. Joseph Joubert said, “Children need models rather than critics.” Before we criticize our children for some shortcoming in their lives, maybe we ought to ask ourselves first if they’re just imitating their father’s life.

Nothing But a Blessing

Over the past twenty plus years in the ministry, I have often thought of coming up with a special award for people God sends our way who are nothing but a blessing. Some always seem to be causing problems for themselves, the church and its leaders. Others are takers, but never givers, always wanting someone to minister to them but never willing to serve others. Some are a bit of a blessing and a bit of a burden. A very select few fall into the “Nothing But a Blessing” category. Such people make a pastor’s job a joy and a blessing. Members who are a blessing: 1) Believe the best about the character and decisions of their leaders. They refuse to involve themselves in the ungodly practice of talking down their pastor and church leaders. 2) Love the brethren.The Colossian Christians had a love for all the saints (Col. 1:3-4). All of us love some of the saints. Some of us love many saints. A few of us love most of the saints. “Nothing but a blessing” Christians love all of the saints. 3) Edify the Body of Christ. Every church member has the responsibility to build up others in the church (Eph. 4:11-16). The church maintains its health when each member seeks to encourage the rest of the body. When cells in the human body begin to attack other cells, we call that “cancer”. It is not normal. It’s neither healthy nor desirable. Sometimes it’s fatal. When members of a church attack other members, spiritual cancer is threatening the life of the church. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 4) Show appreciation and support to those who serve. The apostle Paul encourages members to appreciate those who serve and to esteem them very highly because of their work (I Thess. 5:12-13). Why are we so ready to gripe and complain when things don’t go the way we want and so neglectful to show appreciation to those doing a good job? Why not get out there and catch somebody doing good and let them know how much you appreciate their faithful service? 5) Serve alongside their leaders. Be a part of the team that gets things done in your church. Help the ministry move forward. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in serving the needs of others. It’s easy to sit in the stands and criticize those on the field. Paul commended Phoebe to the Roman Church as a true servant and a helper of many (Rom. 16:1-2). Are you actively serving in your church or sitting on the bench? 6) Intercede on behalf of their leaders. How often do you pray for your pastor, your leaders or your church? One writer noted, “The Church often gets the kind of leadership it has prayed for.” If the church’s success was solely based on your ministry of prayer, how successful would it be? 7) Never assist the Adversary. Satan hates the Church and wants to destroy it by causing division within its ranks. The New Testament word for “devil” literally meant “slanderer”. Godly members refuse to assist the Devil by talking poorly of others and causing division in the Church (Eph. 4:29). 8) Grow in Grace and in the Knowledge of Christ. The apostle John said, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth (3 Jn. 4).” The greatest blessing to a pastor’s heart is to see members of the Church truly growing more and more like Christ. These eight marks spell out the word “B-L-E-S-S-I-N-G” not only in this outline, but also in the life of the Church.

Volunteers or Draftees?

On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the Imperial Navy of the Empire of Japan launched a surprise aerial attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date that will live in infamy.” The unprovoked surprise assault at Pearl Harbor was designed by the Japanese to cripple America’s ability to wage war in the Pacific. What was meant to be a crushing blow instead became a battle cry for all Americans. Virtually overnight, America was transformed from a country desperately trying to avoid involvement in the war into a unified nation galvanized to win it. Men, both young and old, rushed to recruiting stations to enlist in the service and fight for their country. Many were turned away for either being too young or too old to serve. It seemed everyone was eager to serve. Twenty-five years later, America again needed soldiers to fight on foreign soil. This time the conflict was in the tiny Southeast Asian country called “Vietnam”. Unlike WWII, very few enlisted to serve in the armed forces. Most of those who fought in Vietnam had to be forced into service through a mandatory military draft. Many chose to dodge the draft by leaving the country. My point in sharing this contrast isn’t to discuss the pros and cons of fighting for one’s country in WWII or Vietnam. It is simply to point out that the contrast between being an eager volunteer or aforced draftee can still be seen when it comes to serving in the “Lord’s Army”. Every church has some folks who are eager to serve the Lord and others. Their love for God is so passionate and genuine that they will sacrifice whatever it takes to see God’s work move forward and touch lives for Christ. No one needs to ask them to serve because they are volunteers after the WWII model. Unfortunately, they are becoming a shrinking minority within the church. There is a growing majority of Christians who resemble more of the Vietnam model. They seem to do everything they can to avoid service in the “Lord’s Army”. Some of them are conscripted into service through lengthy and pressured appeals. And when they do end up serving, it is only out of a sense of sheer obligation and duty, not from joy and eagerness. Often, these “servants” only sign up when no one else will and then they commit for the shortest term possible. Which model best describes your approach to Christian service? The WWII model or the Vietnam model? Are you eager to use your God-given gifts to serve the Lord and others? Or do leaders have to come looking for you and compel you to serve? A growing number of Christians today are looking for a place to be served rather than a place to serve. Jesus said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).” He told his disciples that true spiritual greatness is directly linked to the measure of our service to others, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all (Mark 10:43-44).” In God’s eyes, greatness is never measured by how many people serve us. True spiritual greatness is measured by how willingly and sacrificially we serve others. The Lord is looking for volunteers for service within His Church. Which model of service best describes you, eager volunteer or forced draftee?

Full of Grace and Truth

In John 1:14, Jesus is described as being “full of grace and truth”. Few descriptions demonstrate so clearly the divinity of Christ than this one. It marks the huge difference between fallen mankind and the glorious perfection of the Son of God. There are some among the sons of men who are very gracious people, but only Jesus could be described as being “full of grace”.Others are known to be very truthful people, but only Jesus could be described as “full of truth”. The Roman ruler Pilate when forced to interrogate Jesus in order to justify the demands of the angry mob who wanted Him crucified told the crowd, “I find no fault in him.” That’s quite a remarkable statement. Had Pilate interrogated any of us, he would have been able to return much more quickly and declare, “I have the list!” When it comes to grace and truth, we all fall short, but Jesus excels. The example of Jesus’ life is conclusive proof that Christ was no ordinary man. Jesus never told a lie. Jesus never gave a false impression. Jesus never shrunk from declaring the truth of God even when it was unpopular. Jesus was full of truth. One need not look very hard at the life of Jesus to see that He was the most gracious man who ever lived. The word “gracious” means, “disposed to show grace or favor, kind, benevolent, courteous, merciful and compassionate.” While some of us can be gracious at times or even much of the time, Jesus surpasses us all because he was always gracious. He was full of grace. Read the eighth chapter of John and you’ll see the graciousness of Christ on display. A woman was dragged before Him who had been caught in the very act of adultery. The angry crowd wanted her stoned to death. Jesus quietly told the crowd, “He that is without sin, cast the first stone.” The Bible records that one by one, starting with the oldest to the youngest, they all quietly left until Jesus was alone with the accused. The Lord asked gently asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers?” She said, “They have all left, Lord.” The Lord Jesus, who was the only person qualified to throw a stone, graciously said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” According to the law of the day, she deserved the death penalty. Jesus did not give her what she deserved. He gave her grace instead. The word grace means “undeserved favor”. H. A. Ironside said, “Grace is the very opposite of merit . . . grace is not only undeserved favor, but it is favor shown to the one who deserved the very opposite.” Time and time again in the ministry of Christ, He demonstrated God’s grace to those who deserved the very opposite. Two thieves were crucified with Christ. They both began to ridicule and blaspheme Christ. But one of them had a change of heart. He reprimanded the other thief saying, “We’re being punished for crimes that we have done. This man has done nothing wrong.” Then he asked for mercy from Jesus saying, “Lord, please remember me when you enter your Father’s kingdom.” Graciously, Jesus replied, “This day you shall be with me in paradise.” Jesus was full of grace. Not only was the thief undeserving of such kindness, he truly deserved the very opposite. But God is gracious and merciful to those who recognize their sin and come to Him in faith. How fortunate we are that we have a God who is both full of truth and full of grace.

Republican, Democrat or Christian?

What an extraordinary series of events have transpired in our country since November 7th! We have all witnessed the closest presidential election in U.S. history. I actually woke my children up to watch as the returns came in. I told them, “You will never see a presidential election this close ever again.” I wanted them to be aware that history was truly in the making. It was a roller coaster ride into the early hours of the morning. Since Election Day, things have turned from the truly suspenseful and exciting into polarizing and partisan. Everyone it seems has an opinion on the notorious Palm Beach butterfly ballot or whether the courts should decide the fate of this election or the necessity or fairness of hand counting the vote totals from certain counties or the vote deadline set by the Secretary of State in Florida. And the debate goes on and on and on. Most of what I’ve heard on the news programs has been so clearly drawn down party lines, Democrat or Republican. While everyone claims they want what’s best for the country, they usually follow such claims with clearly partisan comments about the best ways to resolve the dilemma. Of course, the “other political party” is only up to no good, while their party is taking the high road. All the bickering and posturing can serve to only further dishearten people about the whole political process. For all the negatives that have come up in this messy process, there are some positives. One we should never take for granted is that God has blessed this country with a peaceful transition of power for over 200 years. I have no doubt, that while it may be complicated and at times messy, Americans will again witness the peaceful transition of power from one Administration to the next. The bombs and bullets and military coups so commonplace in some parts of the world will not be the way America solves this dilemma. Secondly, this election will certainly “wake up” parts of the apathetic electorate who seem to love to say, “My vote doesn’t really count anyway, so I’m not voting for anyone.” The right to vote is a precious privilege to have one’s voice heard. I believe many Americans who haven’t voted in years will get out and vote in the next major election. This will be good for America. Thirdly, I think many of our young people and not a few older folks have had a real “civics lesson” on the American electoral system. People are better informed than ever before about the Electoral College and the pros and cons of such a system. I have encouraged folks in our church to be thankful for these things. I have encouraged them not to allow themselves to be involved in divisive speech and harsh responses that only serve to polarize our communities and our nation. I’ve reminded them that there is a Democratic response, a Republican response and a Christian response to all of these events. I believe it is important, as Christians, to focus on the Christian response regardless of one’s political party affiliation. The Bible urges Christians to offer prayers and thanksgiving for kings and all in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity (I Timothy 2:1-2). We need to pray for our governmental leaders. Their actions affect our lives in very tangible ways. They need divine wisdom to exercise properly the duties of the offices in which they serve. President Bill Clinton has not represented many of the values I believe in, but he is my President and I have prayed for him for the past eight years. Regardless of who wins this election, I will encourage the members of my church to pray for him and his administration as well. As Christians, our foremost response to all of these unbelievable events should neither be Republican nor Democrat but rather the Christian response of faith and trust that God is sovereign over the affairs of men and that He is ultimately in control of who occupies the White House in January. Republican? Democrat? or Christian? Which response will be your first and best choice, Christian?

Good Tidings of Great Joy

Two thousand years ago, the angel of the Lord told the shepherds near Bethlehem, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).” That announcement was a message of “great joy” designed for all the peoples of the world. And while Christmas should be a time of joy for all, not everyone among us sees it that way. Some find the holidays a particularly difficult time to endure. That difficulty may be due to some tragedy experienced during the year like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or perhaps a bitter divorce. The holidays serve as a painful reminder of such deep losses. Unintentionally, the joy of others serves to highlight their pain and acute sense of loss. Statistics show that between Thanksgiving and New Year more people take their own lives than during any other time of the year. As many as two to three suicides a day occur countywide during the holidays. Some in law enforcement refer to this as “Suicide Season”. It is painful to realize that many people around us have become so distraught in life that suicide appears to be the only viable option for them. Sadder still is the realization that regardless of what you and I choose to do to intervene, some will succeed in taking their own lives. I’m not suggesting that everyone who is hurting during the holidays will choose suicide as a way to end the pain. Most hurting people will simply endure their hurt in quiet loneliness as others celebrate. It is important for us to be sensitive to the hurting folks around us. We must realize that nothing we say or do will take their hurt or sense of loss away. However, by being available to the hurting and letting them know they are in our thoughts and prayers, we can ease the pain and help them survive the holidays. I would love to be able to communicate to everyone who is hurting that they are not alone. God understands the depth of their pain and the agony of their losses in ways no one else can. He loves them and sent His only Son on their behalf. Christmas is truly a message of “great joy” meant for all people. To those who believe, Jesus has given the joy of sins forgiven, the joy of divine strength in facing life’s difficulties, the joy of belonging to the family of God, the joy of answered prayer, the joy of undeserving grace, the joy of peace with God, the joy of wisdom for the hard decisions of life, the joy of hope in the midst of darkness and the joy of life eternal. The apostle Peter said, “Although you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (I Peter 1:8).” Peter was right. The joy Christ gives is inexpressible. Words alone can never convey to others the conquering power of Christian joy. Maybe you could use such joy in your life. As difficult as it might seem at this point in your life, Christ can bring joy into lives consumed with sorrow and filled with pain. The angel said that the birth of Christ was a message of “great joy” for all people and that includes you as well.

You Must Be Born-Again

One of the classic dialogues to be found in all the Bible is recorded in John chapter three between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is a sobering reminder that being religious is not enough to enter God’s kingdom. John tells us that Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews” which meant that he was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jews. The Pharisaic order was committed to very strict observances of the Old Testament Law. They went to extraordinary lengths to define what constituted adherence to the Law’s demands. When the Law prescribed that no one should work on the Sabbath, they set out to define what “work” was. For example, one could not carry any food that weighed more than a dried fig on the Sabbath. One could not carry milk that was more than one gulp. You get the idea. The Pharisees were consumed with a religious system of do’s and don’ts. They believed that entrance into God’s kingdom was based upon human merit cumulated over many years of such strict religious observances. In verse ten, Jesus refers to Nicodemus as the teacher in Israel. He was obviously a very prominent religious authority and instructor. Yet, to this highly respected and very religious man, Jesus says, “Unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (verse 3).” Nicodemus understood that Jesus was talking about a new beginning. The rabbis had a saying, “When a proselyte embraces Judaism he becomes as a newborn babe.” Nicodemus was clear on the “What?” question. He was yet unclear on the “How?” question. In verse four, he says, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Let’s give this highly educated teacher more credit than to assume he was referring to a crassly literal interpretation of Jesus’ words suggesting some kind of physical gynecological miracle. It had taken him years, even decades, to get to this point of achievement in his religious life. He was telling Jesus it was too late for him as an older man to start all over. Nicodemus was referring to a man-made external system of do’s and don’ts. Jesus was talking about an internal spiritual transformation by the Spirit of God. Nicodemus’ religious system required years of strict observances. Jesus’ new birth could be appropriated in a moment by faith in God’s Son. In verse six, Jesus notes the difference between Nicodemus’ idea of a new birth and His own, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Man-made religion can only have man-made results. New birth from God’s Spirit changes a man from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. Verse 16, shows how one can be born-again by the Spirit of God. It says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Religion can only change external practices. Jesus desires to change our hearts by the power of His Spirit. Verse 8 reminds us that while we cannot see the Spirit, we can see the results of his work in our hearts and lives. The only requirement to receive this new birth is faith in Him. Being religious is not enough. Which system are you committed to? Jesus said, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Our Own Worst Enemy

Watchman Nee wrote, “God will no longer be a cause of dread to me. I very soon find, however, that I am going to be a great cause of trouble to myself.”Two things became very clear to Nee once he gave his life to Christ. One, he no longer needed to fear God’s wrath. Two, his own sinful heart would be one of the chief obstacles to his own Christian growth. The apostle Paul highlighted this truth in Romans 7:15, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate.” Paul was discouraged by his own tendencies to fail to do the right things and ending up doing the wrong things. This cycle of failure pushed him to cry out, “Who will deliver me from the body of this death (verse 24)?” It was like a living death to him. Fortunately, God taught him some important lessons by observing this repetitious cycle in his life. One such lesson was that there is no hope in self-dependence. Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not (v. 18).”It’s the old truth of the spirit being willing, but the flesh being weak. Paul finally learned that leaning upon his own power and strength would fail him every time. He could genuinely desire to honor God with all his heart, but if he leaned upon his own strength, failure would be inevitable. It isn’t only our pride or selfish lusts or wrong motives which trip us up in our Christian journey. Many times, it is also our godly desire to do the right things coupled with the foolish notion that we can accomplish those things in our own strength. That’s a recipe for frustration and failure. The old gospel song warns, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus. Stand in His strength alone. The arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own.” In Martin Luther’s great hymn, he underscored the same truth,“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He . . . and He must win the battle.” In Romans 8:7-8, Paul asserts that those who depend upon the flesh cannot please God. He says that the mind set on the flesh is not even able to subject itself to God’s law. Human strength is unable to produce divine results in the life of the Christian. In Romans 7:24-25, Paul puts his finger on the only hope of deliverance from the frustrating cycle of failure. He says, “Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”Notice that Paul says who, not what, will set him free from that vicious cycle of failure. Too many of us as Christians are always asking, “What can I do to deliver myself from failure?” We think if we just do this or that then victory will be ours. Paul asserts that just trying harder in our own strength will only end up in more failure and greater frustration. The answer is not in what we can do. The answer is in who we should turn to for deliverance. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (John 15:5).” Christianity is not another self-help program. Fruitfulness in the Christian life is dependent upon abiding in Christ, not trying harder. The secret of success in the Christian life is not about trying harder. It’s about drawing closer.

Healing from Legalism

The account of Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man in John 5:1-18 serves to highlight one of the most serious problems facing the Christian church today, the problem of legalism. In this account, we see the Lord Jesus graciously healing a man who had been paralyzed for almost four decades. The Lord told him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” The man was immediately healed and picked up his pallet and began to walk. John mentions that this healing occurred on the Sabbath day. Up to this point in the account, everything was just great. This had to be one of the greatest days in this man’s life. No doubt he was overcome with joy by this gracious act of God. Everyone who knew him should have been thrilled on his behalf, but such was not the case. Here come the legalists! In verse ten, John tells us of the criticism of his fellow Jews. They were saying to him, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” They should have been saying, “Hey Jacob, what happened to you? Look you’re walking! This is fantastic! Praise God for His wonderful grace!” That’s what they should have said. Instead, they criticize him for breaking one of their man-made legalistic rules about doing any kind of work on the Sabbath day. Search the Old Testament all you want, you will never find a verse that says, “NO PALLET CARRYING ON THE SABBATH DAY!” That rule was one invented by legalists. The Jews in Jesus’ day had tons of these legalistic interpretations of the Law of Moses. The rabbis said one had to be careful spitting on the Sabbath. Spitting on a rock was o’kay, but if you spit on the sand, it might cause a little furrow in the soil and that could be construed as “plowing” on the Sabbath. People were warned against wearing false teeth on the Sabbath because, if they fell out, picking them up would constitute “working” on the Sabbath. These legalistic rules went on and on. Jesus purposefully chose to heal this man on the Sabbath. Jesus told this man, on the Sabbath, to pick up his pallet and walk. Why? First, because Jesus had compassion on this suffering man. Second, Jesus wanted to rebuke the foolishness of legalism. The critics of this healed paralytic wanted him to think he was breaking the law of God. In a sense, they were saying, “What do you think you’re doing buddy! Listen, everyone knows you can’t carry furniture on the Sabbath day. We know it. The Pharisees know it. The chief priests know it. The rabbis know it. Everybody knows it!” Everyone that is, except Jesus. The Lord Jesus would never have told anyone to do something that violated the true law of God. It wasn’t God’s law being violated, only the man-made rules of legalists who had the audacity to think they had standards higher than those given by God. Max Lucado wrote, “Legalism has no pity on people. It makes my opinion, your burden, your boundary, your obligation.” As Christians, we are obligated to obey every genuine command given in God’s Word. However, we are under no obligation to allow legalistic people in the church to control our lives by their personal preferences and strong opinions. One writer noted,“Nothing will keep a Christian more immature than trying to keep a list.” If you allow critical and judgmental people to control your life by their man-made rules and disapproving frowns, you’ll end up more paralyzed than the man healed by Jesus.

The Beauty of a Godly Mother

In a society that seems obsessed with youth and physical beauty, how refreshing it is to be reminded what true beauty is really all about. I’m talking, of course, about the celebration of Mother’s Day. In the book of Proverbs, King Lemuel recalls the wise words of his own mother, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the LORD will be greatly praised (Prov. 31:30).” King Lemuel’s mom was an insightful woman! She realized that physical beauty and social charm are but passing mirages. They might get some attention for a young woman for a short period in her life, but the woman who lives her life in reverence of God and love for her family constitutes both a genuine and a lasting beauty in the sight of the Lord and her family. The king says that a hardworking, dedicated wife and mother is a rare gem who is “worth more than precious rubies (verse 10).” In other words, she is a priceless treasure. He goes on to state, “Her children stand and bless her; her husband praises her (verse 28).” The true beauty of a woman is not determined by how many magazine covers her face adorns, but rather, by the number of lives she has touched by her example, hard work and love. The godly mother earns for herself the greatest praise of all: the admiration and respect of her husband and her children. Lemuel’s mom reminded him, “Reward her for all she has done. Let her deeds publicly declare her praise (verse 31).” In other words, the proof is in the pudding. It doesn’t matter how good the recipe looks on paper. It’s the end result that really matters. Charm can be very misleading and physical beauty doesn’t last even for those who are blessed with it. Long after people quit noticing the former beauty queen, the godly mother will still be cherished, still be respected and still be loved. The deeds of her life will far outweigh the outward appearance of youthful beauties. They will bring well-deserved public praise on her. The result of all her efforts on behalf of her family will constitute her best and final eulogy. In the meantime, take a tip from Lemuel’s mom and reward your mother for all she’s done. Since they didn’t have “Mother’s Day” when the King penned these words, there’s no doubt he meant honoring your mother and rewarding her on a regular basis throughout the year. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making Mother’s Day as special as we can for the true beauties of American society, our moms.

The Legacy of a Godly Father

Father’s Day is a good time for dads to ask themselves, “What kind of legacy am I building into the lives of my children?” Someone once said, “If you want to leave a lasting legacy, begin by writing your own obituary and work back from there.” In other words, the things we’d like to be remembered for when we die are things we must invest in and live out in our everyday lives. No one knows the unvarnished reality of what our lives are really all about like our children do. They live with us everyday. They see us at our best and witness us at our worst. They can tell others what is most important to us because they see firsthand what we invest most of our time, talents and treasures on. What kind of a legacy do you desire for your children, dad? What’s the most important thing you want to pass on to your kids before your time with them is up? The apostle John said, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth (2 John 4).” Of course he was speaking of those whom he had led to faith in Christ, but for godly fathers, there can be no greater joy than raising children who love the Lord. The apostle Paul provides a great template for being a godly father in I Thessalonians 2:1-12. Take the time to read this important passage, it reveals seven important principles on leaving a lasting legacy for our children. Principle #1: Be willing to stand up for Christ, even when it’s the hardest thing to do (v. 2). Your children are watching your faith closely. If you buckle and break when things get hard, they’ll conclude that the Christian faith isn’t worth standing up and fighting for. Principle #2: Live your life before an audience of One (v. 4). If God is the only one you ultimately seek to please, your children will be set free from the tyranny of always trying to please everyone around them and learn instead to focus on honoring the Lord who knows our hearts. Principle #3: Be honest in your speech towards others (v. 5). Paul avoided “flattering speech” and so should we. Children hate duplicity. Remember they’re listening all the time. They can tell if you have one “face” for people when you’re talking with them and another when you’re talkingabout them. Be straightforward and honest in your dealings with others and your children will learn to do the same. Principle #4: Tell your children how much you love them (vv. 7- 8). The apostle Paul was not embarrassed to tell his “children” of his gentle care and fond affection for them and neither should we. Kids need to know how much they mean to their father’s heart. We may never understand how powerful the words “I love you” can be in the lives of our children. Principle #5: Work hard to provide a spiritual heritage for your children (v. 9). Godly dads are willing to put in the time and effort to share the gospel as well as the principles of the Christian life with their children. This may well be one of the greatest privileges God can ever give a dad. Principle #6: Set a godly example for your children to follow (v.10). Paul said that his spiritual children were witnesses to his devout, upright and blameless behavior. More than anything else, your children will emulate your own life before the Lord. If you want them to walk in the truth, you’ve got to show them how by walking with God yourself. Principle #7: Learn the importance of expressing your heart’s desire for your children’s spiritual future (v. 11). Paul uses the words exhort, encourage and implore in expressing his desire that his children walk worthy of the Lord. When was the last time you opened up your heart and shared your hopes for your children’s spiritual future? Your children need to hear the “spiritual heartbeat” of their father as you exhort, encourage and implore them to live for God. There you have it. Seven principles for leaving a godly legacy for your children. If we want to be remembered for principles like these, the time to put them into practice is now.

 True Seekers

You hear a lot in Christian circles today about the importance of ministering to “seekers”. Seekers are defined as non-Christians who are looking for something meaningful for their lives. They are seeking fulfillment, inner peace, valued relationships and significance but they aren’t sure where to find such things. “Seeker Services” have become a very common model for Christian worship services. Such services are designed to be comfortable, non-threatening and appealing to non-believers. A desire to reach out to those who do not know the Lord ought to be a priority of every true Christian. However, there must be some guidelines determining just how far one will go in trying to make seekers feel comfortable among the ranks of the redeemed. Unfortunately, some ministries today seem willing to do just about anything to draw a crowd. Christians today seem to be fascinated and almost intoxicated by crowds. The Lord Jesus, on the other hand, was not. The apostle John tells us that the crowd that had witnessed Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand followed Him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He records the fact that the crowd “came to Capernaum seeking Jesus” (John 6:24). Many Christians today would have been thrilled to see such a large number of people “seeking” Christ! Instead of rejoicing, Jesus rebukes the crowd for their self-seeking motivation in following Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled (v. 26).” He points out that the only reason the crowd showed any interest in Christ is because they were interested in another free lunch! They were interested in Jesus only for what they could get out of Him. This rebuke of Christ reveals that there is a right way and awrong way to seek the Lord. Theirs was the wrong way. It is sad to see many today who “seek” the Lord with the same less than honorable motivation, “What can Jesus do for me?” Sadder still is the fact that many churches today not only refuse to challenge such a self-centered interest in Christ, they actually encourage such a base motivation by catering to such selfishness. Dr. James Montgomery Boice wrote, “I am convinced that in our day in American Christianity there is a lamentable tendency to focus on human need rather than on God Himself. I am equally convinced that this is the worst possible way to actually have the need met and to achieve a healthy Christianity.” What a glaring contrast between the teachings of Christ regarding humility before God, repentance from sin, denial of self and willingness to carry one’s cross, and the “Jesus is here to meet your every need” focus of so many churches today! Dr. Boice warns, “. . . it is tragically possible to so focus on our needs that we are actually focusing on ourselves rather than on Jesus, and so never get to the solutions to our problems that Jesus wants to bring.” Are we guilty of engaging in an unintentional form of “bait and switch”? Do we lure people into our churches by making little or no demand on their lives (often even failing to challenge them regarding personal sin) and then once they join, do we switch our message to one of challenging them to self-sacrificial service to Christ? The Lord Jesus had one consistent message for the unbelieving crowds,“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me, cannot be my disciple (Luke14:27).” Some of us, as believers, need to rethink our approach to reaching and challenging the lost. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let them return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (55:6-7).” This has always been the right way to seek the Lord. Interestingly enough, John tells us that the same crowd that came to Capernaum “seeking” Jesus (John 6:24) began to grumble against Christ (vv. 60-61) and finally chose to withdraw from the Lord and no longer walk with Him (v.66). The prospect of losing a crowd by boldly proclaiming the truth never intimidated Jesus from challenging them about their sin and need of repentance. We need to boldly proclaim the truth of the gospel and allow that same truth to reveal true seekers from those whose only interest in Christ is what they can get out of Him.

 The True Window of the Soul

Someone once said, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” The idea being, if you look deep into someone’s eyes, they often reveal what’s going on within their heart. Sometimes this is true, while other times it can be misleading. Jesus gave us a much more reliable “window” to the soul when he said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).” Another translation renders that verse, “Whatever is in your heart determines what you say.” Jesus goes on to say, “A good person produces good words from a good heart, and an evil person produces evil words from an evil heart.” See what I mean about the “window to the soul”? A person’s words tell you a lot about what kind of heart they possess. What people fail to realize is that the words of a gossip often reveal more about that gossip’s heart than they do about the lives of those he/she is talking about. Why? Because the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart! The apostle James warns us not to use our tongues to give praise to God in one breath and then talk down others in the next (James 3:9-12). He asks, “Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?” Well, when it comes to springs, the answer is always “no”. Unfortunately, when it comes to sinful human beings, the answer is sometimes “yes”. James says with our tongue “we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God (James 3:9)”. He then adds, “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way (v.10b).” Praising God in one breath and talking down others in the next does not reveal an alternating heart that moves from good to bad and back to good again. James’ point is that the sweet water is not genuine if from the same spring comes bitter water designed to tear others down. In James 4:11, the apostle warns, “Don’t speak evil against each other, my dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize each other and condemn each other, then you are criticizing God’s law.” (which commands us not to speak this way). The apostle Paul said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29).” What insight into the true condition of someone’s heart can be gleaned from the words that regularly come out of their mouths! The one who speaks unwholesome things reveals an unwholesome heart. The one who speaks helpful things that build up others in Christ reveals a heart truly surrendered to the Lord Jesus. Those who consistently speak poorly about others are really speaking poorly about the condition of their own hearts. A judgmental tongue reveals a judgmental heart. A bitter tongue reveals a bitter heart. An unkind tongue reveals an unkind heart. Such persons do not have speech problems as much as they have heart trouble. Trying to bite one’s lip and refrain from saying critical and harsh things about others provides only temporary relief. If the heart is bad, the bad words will come out. If we want our speech to be wholesome and edifying to others, we need to begin with the attitudes of our hearts. Sometimes, we ought to stop and listen to the words that regularly come out of our mouths. Whether we realize it or not, they speak volumes about the content and condition of our hearts. Our words are indeed the true window of our souls. What are your words telling others about who you really are?

A Prayer for Our Nation

Several months ago, I wrote an article entitled, “The New Religious Persecution” which highlighted the growing intolerance towards religion in American society. I pointed out that the founding fathers believed in the freedom of religion (i.e. the government would never mandate how or even if a person chooses to worship), not freedom from religion. While the founding fathers were comfortable with references to Almighty God even in the Constitution, some people today seem to think faith has no place in American society at all. I cited an example of this erroneous view of the “separation of church and state” (a phrase not even found in the U. S. Constitution) by referencing to the Imperial Beach City Council’s decision not to allow invocations at it’s meetings. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, Mayor Diane Rose extended an invitation to come to the next Imperial Beach Council meeting and offer a prayer on behalf of our country. Since I offered a critique of their earlier decision not to have invocations, I believe it is only right that I commend both the Mayor and the City Council for their courage and leadership in asking for prayer for the nation. I believe that by their decision, they displayed sensitivity to the grief and heartache so evident within our community. One of our most beloved patriotic songs, “America, the Beautiful,” offers the simple prayer, “America, America, God shed His grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11th, I believe God is answering that prayer with a unity among Americans not seen since Pearl Harbor. The following is the invocation offered at last month’s City Council meeting:

“Almighty God, we come before You this evening to pray on behalf of a grieving nation. Mere human words cannot express the deep anguish and horror of our hearts as we witnessed the unspeakable acts of terrorism against our country, our fellow Americans and all humanity. As Americans we weep with those whose sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, loved ones and friends were so violently taken from them. Minister to their grieving hearts in this, the hour of their grief. Give them the grace and courage they will need to face the difficult days ahead. We pray on behalf of the hundreds of firefighters, police, emergency workers and volunteers who, even as we speak, are risking their own personal safety in the hope of rescuing others who may still be trapped in the midst of that treacherous pile of rubble and twisted steel. We pray for their safety O Lord, and even at this late hour, we pray for their success. We lift up our nation’s leaders to you Lord, especially our President, George W. Bush. None of us can even begin to imagine the magnitude of consequence that rests in the decisions that he must make in the days and months ahead. Truly the weight of the world rests upon his shoulders. His decisions will affect the destiny of millions both in our country and the world abroad. In the lonely hours of such momentous decision, grant him Divine wisdom to choose what is right for America and the world. Protect the men and women of our Armed Forces as they will inevitably be sent into harm’s way. Keep them safe as they execute their mission. And finally Lord, we pray for the citizens of our country. We have all been deeply shaken by what we have witnessed this past week. Assist us Lord to live courageously in the days ahead. We thank You that although our nation’s heart has been broken, our nation’s spirit is stronger than ever. As we seek true justice, preserve us from hearts of hatred and vengeance. Encourage those in our Arab-American and Islamic communities who feel threatened by the handful of misguided individuals who by their hatred and criminal acts have proven they are no better than the terrorists who attacked our country. While tragedies such as this bring out the worst in some, we are truly grateful that it has brought out the best in the hearts of most Americans who are pulling together to help one another. Help each of us, O Lord, to do our part in the healing of our land. Grant that all of our federal, state and local officials provide true leadership in moving us forward in these trying times. Bring us together as one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. We ask these things, in Your Great Name. Amen.”

The Folly of Ignoring Jesus

The dictionary defines the word “bold” in both favorable and unfavorable terms. On the positive side, to be bold means to be valiant, courageous, fearless and brave. The negative definition means to be brazen, presumptuous, forward, even defiant. This negative kind of boldness is clearly seen in the eighth chapter of John’s gospel by the enemies of Christ. When the Lord offered them deliverance through the truth of God, they rudely rebuffed his offer by claiming they needed no such offer (verses 31-33). Like many people today, they boldly declare that they have no need of Jesus. Their boldness becomes more brazen in verse 41 when they insinuate that Jesus was born to a mother who was impure. They said to Jesus, “We were not born of fornication.” Suggesting that Jesus was. Their defiant boldness sinks to name-calling in verse 48 as they call Jesus a demon-possessed, half-breed Samaritan (a truly insulting thing to call a Jew in Jesus’ day). The ultimate act of defiance against Christ is seen in the last verse of the chapter when they picked up stones to throw at Him. It is easy to see that their boldness was a product of their blindness. If these antagonists of Christ had any idea who it was they were dealing with, such brazen defiance would never have darkened the words of their mouths or the attitudes of their hearts, much less led them to pick up rocks to kill him. It’s clear that they were clueless about the true identity of Christ. The Bible reveals Jesus to be the Creator of heaven and earth, the promised Messiah, the Lord of hosts, the Ancient of Days, the Savior of mankind, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. How much damage can be done to the eternal Son of God by a handful of stones? If their attack upon Jesus were not so tragic, it would almost be comical. If Jesus was who He claimed to be, very God in human flesh, then it was both ridiculous and ludicrous to think they could eliminate Him with a handful of stones. How effective could rocks be against the Rock of Ages? The Lord of glory cannot be so easily eliminated from one’s life. In today’s world, men do not use rocks, they use human reason to try and eliminate Christ from their daily lives. They ignore Christ. They neglect Christ. They deny Christ. Some attack Christ. But if Jesus is who He claimed to be, such attempts are as much a human folly as trying to eliminate God with rocks. Even during the Christmas holidays, many have all but eliminated Christ from Christmas (a holiday originally established to celebrate the birth of Christ). If people today had any idea regarding who Jesus truly is, they would seek to worship Him like the wise men of old. They would offer their best gifts in adoration and praise. They would proclaim with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!” But just as blindness led to brazen boldness in Jesus’ day, blindness leads many to ignore, neglect and reject Christ today. The apostle Paul said, “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).” Try as they may, men will not ultimately succeed in ignoring Christ. The Bible says that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11). Jesus said, “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33).” John 8:59 says that when they picked up stones to throw at Him, Jesus hid Himself from them and passed them by. The sobering truth of this account is that if we want to ignore Christ, He may decide to return the favor. How different would our attitude toward Christ be if we had any idea who He truly is. May God graciously open our eyes to behold the true identity of Christ so we may come and worship Him, rather than foolishly seeking to eliminate Him from our lives.

The Secret to a Happy New Year

Of all the holidays celebrated by mankind, it seems that New Year’s celebrations are the most universal. Some celebrate Christmas and others celebrate Hanukkah or Kwansaa, but everyone it seems looks forward to a brand new year. The cheers of “Happy New Year” seem to be pregnant with the hope that the coming year will bring good things to those we love. In light of the horrific events of September 11th, many no doubt wonder if 2002 will turn out to be a year of happiness. The encouragement for the Christian is the realization that our happiness does not rest upon the course of world events, nor upon the conditions at our place of employment, nor upon the actions of those around us, nor upon any event or circumstance that becomes our lot in life. The enjoyment of the year 2002 rests solely upon one’s personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. As long as Christians fall for the old Satanic lie that happiness and enjoyment of life is based upon what other people do to us or upon the circumstances of our lives, we will never learn the genuine freedom of enjoying life in Christ! While incarcerated in a Roman jail cell, the apostle Paul instructed his fellow believers with these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4)!” Rather strange advice for a man in prison, wouldn’t you say? Realizing his readers might think they were witnessing some typographical error, the apostle emphasizes his instruction by stating it twice. He not only encourages them to rejoice, but insists that such rejoicing should be the uninterrupted experience of their lives by adding the word “always.” Paul was a prisoner facing possible execution and yet he says that believers should always be rejoicing in the Lord. One of the secrets to genuine happiness in life is coming to the realization that true joy in life is dependent, not on the things that happen to us, but rather upon what happenswithin us. Paul’s words remind us that Christians need not be victims of their circumstances. In the next verse, Paul says, “Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.” A forbearing spirit is a tenacious spirit, it is a triumphant spirit, an indomitable spirit that refuses to allow circumstances (even difficult and trying circumstances) to dictate one’s response to life. Paul is saying that even in the face of grave circumstances, the Christian need not “wig out” or “come apart at the seams.” He/she can respond calmly. Why? Because the Lord is near. This is not some kind of mindless Bobby Ferrin brand of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” type of attitude that suggests that we try to ignore the hardships of life. Paul was a realist. He experienced genuine hardships in his life. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-26, he writes concerning some of his trials in life, “. . . in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes [forty was designed to kill a man]. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have often been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.” Whew! Not exactly an assignment on easy street, wouldn’t you say? In spite of all this and more, the apostle still insists that believers, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Why? Because the Lord is near and He is in control of the circumstances of our lives. Some of the most miserable people in the world are those who always need to be in control. The reason that’s a recipe for misery is that, try as we may, we simply cannot control what goes on around us, not the people, not the circumstances, not the events, not the course of human history. The first step in learning to rejoice in the Lord is to relinquish control of our lives to Him and learn to rest in His sovereign will for our lives. The old gospel song reminds us of the truth Paul is seeking to convey, “He’s got the whole world in His hands!”. And He’s got your life and mine in His hands as well.

The Happiest You’ll Ever Be

On the very night that our Lord would be betrayed by one of his disciples, he shared a principle for happiness with his disciples through the use of an object lesson. They had gathered in the Upper Room to observe the Passover together. It was customary for someone, generally a servant, to wash the feet of guests as they arrived for supper. The dusty roads of Judea and the fact that they all wore sandals meant that their feet would be dirty and in need of washing. Couple that with the fact that guests reclined on the floor around low tables and it is easy to see the practicality and courtesy of such a practice as foot-washing. John 13:4 reveals that the Lord allowed some time for any of His disciples to attend to this matter, but unfortunately not one of them chose to do anything about this. Jesus then decides to get up during the meal to take care of this unfinished business by laying aside his garments, girding Himself with a towel, pouring water into a basin and washing the feet of His disciples. In so doing, Jesus sought to pass on an important principle of Christian living, serving the needs of others before one’s self is a real key to personal blessing. In verse 17, Jesus said, “If you know these things [humility and serving others], you are blessed if you do them.” Many Christians know that Jesus teaches us to be servants, but they miss out on the blessings that only come in putting others before themselves. John goes on to tell us of Peter’s initial shock at Jesus’ attempt to wash his feet, “Lord, do you wash my feet? Never shall you wash my feet! (vv. 6, 8).” To Peter, such a menial task was below the dignity of the Master (apparently also below Peter’s dignity since he chose not to wash anyone’s feet either). In Peter’s mind, being a servant was an undesirable position in life. To Jesus, the exact opposite was true. The very incarnation is symbolized in this act of foot washing. Philippians 2:5-8 tells us that though Jesus existed in the very form of God, He voluntarily took upon Himself the form of a servant in order to die on the cross for our sins. Selfless sacrifice for the good of others is at the very core of the Christian message. Jesus would tell Peter, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter (v. 7).” In other words, the Lord was telling Peter and the others that the lesson he was teaching by example would go right over their heads for the time being but that some day they would finally learn the importance of this object lesson. Luke 22:24 reveals how true Jesus’ words really were, “There arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.” Compare the two passages and you’ll realize that this argument on who was the greatest occurred after supper. This personal bickering and posturing with one another followed the foot-washing lesson. Talk about being clueless. This preoccupation with personal importance and prestige came after Jesus had said, “If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him (vv. 14-16).” Don’t be too hard on the disciples. How many times have we been taught some truth during church on Sunday only to violate that very same principle before the sun goes down? Eventually Peter would learn and embrace the importance of selfless sacrifice and service to others. Read his two epistles in the New Testament and you will encounter a different man than the one in the Upper Room who thought washing feet was below his dignity. You’ll find a man who urged leaders in the church to shepherd and care for God’s flock, not because they think they have to, but willingly and eagerly on behalf of Christ. Someone once said, “The happiest you will ever be is when you’re giving of yourself to others.” It took Peter and the other disciples quite some time to learn that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but they finally learned about the genuine blessings associated with serving others. How long will it take us to learn the same lesson?

The Secret of Great Gain

Epicurus wrote, “To whom little is not enough, nothing is enough.” This philosopher understood that contentment is not a matter of what one has but rather the attitude of one’s heart. The apostle Paul reminded his protégé Timothy of this truth when he wrote, “Godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into this world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content (I Timothy 6:6-8).” Can you imagine learning to be content with the basic necessities of food and clothing, especially in the consumer-oriented society in which we live? How much time and energy could we save if we learned to be content with what we already have? For most of us, what we have goes well beyond just food and clothing. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul noted, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).” Make no mistake about it. Contentment is a learned behavior. It doesn’t come natural to most of us. The irony of it all is that the more we have the less appreciative we often are for what God has blessed us with. Several trips to the missions field and ministering to those in situations of poverty has impressed my heart with this irony. Many of the Christians I met who had little to nothing of this world’s goods were deeply grateful to God for all He had given them. Upon my return to the United States, their gratitude for so little stood in stark contrast to the sound of complaining from many of us in this country who have been blessed with so much. Poverty can teach a person to be grateful for everything he receives while abundance has a tendency to deaden one’s appreciation for God’s blessings. Unfortunately, many of us do not appreciate many of God’s blessings until we no longer have them. In both passages mentioned above, Paul notes that one’s focus on God is a vital part of learning the art of contentment. He is not advocating a Spartan lifestyle for every Christian. He said he had learned to be content whether with humble means or in abundance. Part of the secret of contentment is learning that God knows what we need and will supply those needs accordingly. Jesus said, “Do not worry then, saying `What will we eat?’ or `What will we drink?’ or `What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you (Matthew 6:31-33).” Seeking to do what is right in God’s eyes and seeking first the priorities of His kingdom in our lives frees us up from the worry and burden of a discontented heart. Paul was confident that he would be able to accomplish God’s will in whatever circumstance he found himself in through Christ who strengthened him. Another part of the secret of contentment is learning to be thankful for everything God sends our way whether it seems good to us or not. In Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul wrote, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Gratitude is one of the key marks of a contented heart. The person who can learn to trust God for what he needs, focus on doing what is right in His sight, put God’s kingdom first in his life and give thanks for all things will be well on his way to cultivating genuine spirit of contentment in his life. Such contentment protects one’s heart from the fluctuations of life’s circumstances. Epicurus wrote, “To whom little is not enough, nothing is enough.” To those who put their focus on God and not upon their circumstances, whatever He provides is seen as enough.

 The Gift of Hearing

I recently met a man who was partially deaf. His speech was unclear because the sounds of the human voice have been unclear to him his entire life. It made me realize how precious our sense of hearing really is. It truly is a gift from God. In a similar way, the ability to hear the voice of God is a gift as well, one that everyone does not possess. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John is commanded by Christ to write seven letters to seven churches. Each letter contained unique words of encouragement and admonition but every one of them ended with the exact same benediction, “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” My prayer as a pastor every time God’s Word is proclaimed is that those present might possess ears that hear what the Spirit is saying to them. You see, in every congregation there are those who have ears that hear the voice of God and those who haven’t got a clue what’s going on. The latter have ears that hear the audible sounds of the preacher but who fail to hear the prompting of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to apply the spiritual insights of the message to their hearts. To them, the proclamation of God’s Word amounts to little more than so many words of a human preacher. Applying the prophecy of Isaiah to His generation, Jesus said, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes (Matthew 13:14-15).” He then told his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear (v. 16).” It is indeed a blessing from God to be able to possess spiritual insight and discernment, to be able to hear God speaking to your heart whenever His Word is taught. Proverbs 20:12 says,“The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both.” Another translation renders that verse, “Ears to hear and eyes to see – both are gifts from the LORD.” What a wonderful gift it is to possess a sensitive heart to the leading of God’s Spirit, a listening ear to the voice of God. In John 10:27, Jesus said that one of the distinguishing marks of genuine sheep of God is that they hear his voice. The apostle Paul prayed on behalf of believers that “the eyes of their understanding might be enlightened” and that God might grant them “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17-18). This is one of the most important prayers any pastor can pray on behalf of his congregation. It is one of the most important prayers any parent can pray on behalf of his children. It is one of the most important prayers one can offer on behalf of a friend. One can experience ups and downs in their Christian walk, but if they maintain their ability to listen when God speaks they will both safeguard their life and ensure they are going in the right direction. For those who harden their hearts to God, they open up their lives to grave spiritual dangers. The author of Hebrews wrote, “The Holy Spirit says, `Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when Israel provoked Me as in the day of trial in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:7-8).” He went on to note that because of their unbelief, they went astray in their hearts, they did not know God’s ways and they did not enter God’s rest. Instead, they wandered in the wilderness for four decades. The lesson of hardness of heart and dullness of hearing is obvious: You can wander if you want to! Just like the loving father let the prodigal son leave his house of blessing only to waste his inheritance on riotous living, our heavenly Father will not force us to listen to His voice. However, failure to hear and heed the voice of God always comes with a price. It costs a generation of Israelites entrance into the Promised Land and four decades of barrenness and wandering. We can choose to ignore God and do our own thing but many of us know from experience that the promised land of God’s blessing and rest beats out the spiritual dryness and aimlessness of wandering in the wilderness every time. Do you see just how important your spiritual sense of hearing is? It affects the quality and direction of your life for better or for worse. Just like the deaf man whose words were unclear because that’s all he ever heard, if you and I fail to listen to the voice of God what comes out of our lives will be distorted as well.

From One Dad to Another

In the fourth chapter of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, King Solomon passes on to his sons words of wisdom he received as a child from his father David. This passage offers fathers today some valuable principles in the art of mentoring and guiding their children. Principle number one is realizing the important role of training our children is not just mom’s responsibility. David took the responsibility to instruct Solomon. Solomon follows his father’s example and takes the responsibility to teach his own sons. Far too many Christian fathers today are leaving the spiritual training of their children in the hands of their wives or even to their children’s Sunday School teachers and youth workers. While these other avenues of instruction are invaluable, Christian dads need to step up to the plate and realize their own important contribution to shaping and guiding the direction of their children’s lives. The second principle for fathers in this passage can be found in the words of David shared with his son Solomon in verse four, “Let your heart hold fast to my words; keep my commandments and live . . . .” There is no doubt that the commandments David gave to Solomon were the commandments found in the Law of Moses. Yet, David does not refer to these commandments as God’s law or Moses’ law, but rather, my commandments. The use of the possessive pronoun here indicates that David internalized God’s Word into his own set of values and beliefs. God’s commands were his commands. He had made them his own. The principles of God’s Word had become part of the fabric of his being. Men, we will have little success in passing on the principles of God’s Word to our children if they cannot see those very same principles being lived out in our daily lives as well. Most of what we teach our children is caught not taught. By that I mean, our children will tend to behave as we behave, do as we do and not just what we tell them they ought to be. While no one is perfect, we as fathers need to work hard to provide a consistent example of commitment to God and the principles of His Word. If others asked your children, “Do you think your father is committed to the principles of God’s Word?” what do you think they would say? Solomon was deeply affected by his father’s passion for godly wisdom. As a young boy he listened as his dad told him, “Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding! Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her and she will guard you; love her and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring get understanding. Prize her and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a garland of grace; She will present you with a crown of beauty (vv. 5-9).” These words of David serve to highlight principle number three: Be passionate about the things you really believe in. When our children are young, they are very impressionable. As Christian fathers, we need to seize the opportunity to leave godly impressions of spiritual wisdom by opening up our hearts and sharing our values and beliefs with them with the passion demonstrated by King David. As you contemplate your role as a father to your children give some thought to the advice given from one dad to another in Proverbs chapter four. I’m sure there are some pearls of wisdom your dad passed on to you that your children need to hear shared from the lips of their father. Think about it! Have a happy Father’s Day!

One Nation, Under God

Recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase “One Nation, Under God,” found in our Pledge of Allegiance, is unconstitutional. The basis of their ruling is their understanding of the Constitutional provision regarding the“separation of church and state.” Those who support such a ruling cite the fact that the phrase “One Nation, Under God” did not appear in the original pledge to our nation’s flag but was added in the 1950’s in response to the godless philosophies of communist Russia. Whether or not the phrase was in the original pledge, it is an apt description of our nation when it was first formed. Contrary to popular opinion, the phrase “separation of church and state” doesnot even appear in the Constitution. That phrase is actually based upon a letter written by Thomas Jefferson seeking to calm the fears of one religious denomination that the government being formed would provide “a wall of separation” between the church and the state. This “wall” was designed toprotect churches rather than punish them. Jefferson’s words were designed to assure religious groups that, unlike the persecutions they experienced in England for not being part of the State enforced Church, this new government would not intrude on their freedom of religion. The first amendment of the Constitution actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The words“separation,” “church” or “state” are not only not found in the Constitution, they appear in no founding document of our nation. The founding fathers explained what their intent was in framing the first amendment to the Constitution in the U.S. Congressional records June 7 – September 25, 1789. They stated that they wanted to prevent what they had experienced in Great Britain and preclude the government from mandating one national denomination ruling the nation. Those who seek to eradicate the mention of “God” from the very fabric of American public life are entitled to their opinions and beliefs. However, to suggest that this is what the founding fathers had in mind when they established this new form of government is to be guilty of the most blatant form of revisionist history. One of the founding fathers, Fisher Ames, according to the Congressional records on September 20, 1789, was responsible for the final wording of the first amendment. He obviously understood the intent of the that amendment since he wrote the final version adopted by the founding fathers. Ames wrote in a national magazine in January, 1801 that the teachings of the Bible form the source of morality and sound behavior in America and that we should never allow it to be separated from the classroom. The use of the Bible in public schools obviously did not violate Fisher Ames’ view of the intent of the first amendment and he was the one who wrote it. I’m not suggesting that schools be required to teach the Bible. However, to suggest that the founding fathers concept in the first amendment mandates the exclusion of all references to God and religious principles in the public arena is a modern idea and not one conceived by those who framed the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If the pledge of allegiance is unconstitutional because it refers to God, then the Declaration of Independence with it’s reference to the Creator who grants to all men certain unalienable rights should also be deemed unconstitutional. As such, it should not be displayed in public schools or even the National Archives in Washington (since it is a building paid for by our taxes). In fact, the Constitution itself should be deemed unconstitutional since it, like the Declaration of Independence, makes reference to God. George Washington in his farewell address as our nation’s first president stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars.” Clearly, George Washington would have had no problem describing America as “One Nation, under God.”

Who Needs a Bumper Sticker?

How can you tell if someone is a Christian? Is it the clever bumper sticker on their car with a religious message? Or is it the cross they wear around their neck? Upon visiting a Christian bookstore recently, I saw a very large selection of Christian t-shirts called “Witness Wear.” Most of them were spin-offs of popular images and slogans in American culture tweaked to communicate a Christian message. It’s great whenever believers want to stand up and be counted for Christ. However, Jesus gave his disciples a sure-fire way to communicate to the world that they were followers of his. In John 13:34-35 he told them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you . . . By this all men will know that you are My disciples.”Francis Schaeffer called this “The Final Apologetic.” In other words, the genuine Christlike love Christians demonstrate to one another is the final and best argument of the reality of their faith in Him. It proves that we are followers of Jesus. Unfortunately, as J. C. Ryle lamented, “Of all the commands of our Master, there is none so much talked about and so little obeyed.” Most Christians know enough of Jesus’ teaching to realize the importance He placed on loving one another. At the same time, many Christians pay only lip service to this new commandment of Christ. Paul warned Christians against biting and devouring one another encouraging them instead to lovingly serve one another. No doubt when a watching world sees Christians biting and devouring one another it is tempted to ask in the words of Matthew Henry, “O Jesus, are these Thy Christians, these passionate malicious, spiteful, ill-natured people?”All too often, those who name the name of Christ are no different from their non-Christian counterparts when it comes to loving others. They tend to express love only to those who they consider close friends. Jesus challenged his disciples in Matthew 5:46-47, “If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.”Sadly, the attitude of some Christians is reflected in a statement found in Leslie B. Flynn’s book, Great Church Fights, “Believe as I believe, no more no less, that I am right and no one else, confess; Feel as I feel, think as I think, Eat as I eat and drink as I drink; Look as I look, do as I do — Then and only then will I fellowship with you.” If the only ones we love and reach out to are mirror images of ourselves, we are actually just loving ourselves and not others. John boldly asserts in his first epistle, “Beloved, let us love one another. . . . He that does not love his brother does not know God.” Just as loving each other proves we are disciples of Christ, a failure to love one another proves that we really don’t have a relationship with God at all. Jesus’ new commandment had a new and higher standard than that of the world. He told his disciples to love one another even as He had loved them. Jesus wants us to love one another just like He loves us. That’s a tall order! Because Jesus loved us even while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus’ love never gives up on us for He promised He would never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Jesus loves us unconditionally, sacrificially, consistently, constantly, compassionately, patiently, fervently, tenderly and eternally. The love of Jesus is a love that serves (Gal. 5:13), a love that promotes unity (I Cor. 12:25), a love that encourages and builds up others (I Thess. 5:11), a love that motivates others to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25), a love that covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8), a love forgives (Col. 3:12-13), a love that goes beyond words to tangible action (I John 4:16), a love that sacrifices for the good of others (John 15:13), a love that is fervent and from the heart (I Peter 1:22-23), a love never grows tired of doing good (Gal. 6:9), a love that goes the extra mile for fellow believers (Gal. 6:10), a love that bears the burdens of others (Gal. 6:2) and a love that is always growing, increasing and abounding (I Thess. 3:12). If we loved each other like that, who needs a bumper sticker on their car?

Preach the Word!

Back in the eighties, Fleetwood Mac sang, “Tell me lies. Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.” Unfortunately, that song lyric could be used to describe a growing number of people who claim to be followers of Christ. Uncomfor-table with sound biblical teaching, such persons prefer a more user-friendly brand of preaching one might call “Christianity Lite – More Entertaining, Less Convicting.” I had a Christian recently emphasize to me how important the “Fun Factor” was in Christian ministry. His point is that if church isn’t fun, people won’t come. I enjoy having fun as much as the next guy, but in all my reading of the teachings of Christ I never came across any teaching on the “fun factor.” Many a church growth “expert” encourages pastors and church leaders to find out what people want and then tailor their ministries around that information. I’m not here to question the motives of those who embrace such an approach. I have no doubt that their greatest desire is to reach out to people who do not know the Lord with the hope of influencing them with the gospel. However, it is important to understand that one can have a pure motive and a misguided methodology at the same time. In his dying words to Timothy, the apostle Paul gave him a final solemn charge: Preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1). It is clear from verse six that Paul understood that the day of his execution was drawing near. This letter to his protégé in the gospel ministry would most likely be his last. As a pastor, I’ve been with people when they knew that death was imminent. As I have listened to them speak to their family, their friends and to me, I have been struck by how they limit their words to the most important thoughts in their hearts and lives. Nothing trivial or superficial at times like that. In the same manner, Paul uses his dying breath to emphasize to young Pastor Timothy the most important priority in the ministry: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing, preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate to themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, and turn away from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).” Apparently Paul hadn’t heard of the “fun factor” principle. He warns Pastor Timothy that the time is coming when people will no longer want to hear the truth. They will prefer to have their ears tickled (Tell me lies. Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.). He notes that such persons will not abandon church, just the truth. With little or no tolerance for sound biblical teaching, they’ll just find a preacher who will tell them want they want to hear. Due to this, Paul says that they will eventually embrace manmade myths (i.e. popular human ideas that have no biblical foundation whatsoever). In the face of such defection, Paul doesn’t tell Timothy, “If you can’t beat `em. Join `em. Make worship fun or people won’t come!” He tells Timothy to be sober in everything he does, to prepare himself to endure hard times, to share the gospel and to fulfill his sacred calling to preach God’s Word. He tells him to do this both in season and out of season. In other words, when it’s popular to do so and also when nobody cares to hear that kind of preaching anymore. He gives this solemn charge in view of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the final judgement. Why should Christian pastors commit themselves to preach the word? One major reason is that in spite of what people want to hear, the Word of God is what they need to hear. With great patience and instruction, it is our pastoral duty to reprove, rebuke and exhort God’s people with His Word. But more importantly, Christian pastors have a sacred responsibility to Christ Himself. In His Great Commission, Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations and to teach them everything He commanded us (Matt. 28:19-20). One day, as ministers of Christ, we will give an account to Him as to how faithfully we discharged that duty. On that day, what people think of our ministry will not matter at all. The only thing that will matter is to hear Christ say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Dare to Be Different

In the first chapter of the Old Testament book of Daniel we read of the account of a young man who was willing to stand alone in order to be true to his faith and his God. That young man was Daniel and he was about fifteen years old when he and his friends were taken captive from Jerusalem to far away Babylon. As was their custom, the Babylonians sought to assimilate certain young people into their culture and train them to be overseeing governmental officials. They even gave these young men Babylonian names to accomplish this purpose. Daniel’s name which means “God is my Judge” was changed to Belteshazzar, “May Bel [a pagan god] protect his life.” Daniel’s friends also received new names, Hananiah, meaning “Jehovah is Gracious,” was changed to Shadrach, “Command of Aku” (the moon God). Mishael, meaning “Who is What God is?,” was changed to Meshach, “Who is what Aku is?” Azariah, meaning “Jehovah has helped,” was changed to Abed-nego, “Servant of Nebo.”The Babylonians wanted to erase any connection their captives had to their native land, culture and religious faith. King Nebuchadnezzar gave the order to train these young men from Judah in the literature and language of the Chaldeans and to feed them with the king’s choice food and wine. The problem for Daniel was that to partake of this diet was to compromise his commitment to the LORD. Not only was this food not prepared in accordance with the Law of Moses, it was customarily offered to pagan gods in Babylon. It is apparent from the text that only Daniel and his three friends took exception to partaking of the prescribed diet. That meant that the vast majority of their fellow captives simply went along with the program. In face of the pressure to conform to the worldly culture around them, most of these Jewish youths just gave in. Maybe they thought the cost of disobedience was too high. Maybe they thought conformity would grant them favor with their captors. Maybe they gave in because “Everyone else was doing it.” One can only guess what excuses and rationales were used to violate the convictions of their faith. Verse 8 of chapter one states, “But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself.” Though the commander respected Daniel, he was not willing to risk his life to defy the king’s order. Undeterred, Daniel made a proposal to his immediate supervisor that he and his three companions be allowed a ten-day trial of eating vegetables and water rather than the king’s diet. He challenged the supervisor to see if Daniel and his friends were not just as fit or more at the end of the trial. Amazingly, the supervisor agreed. Obviously, the character of Daniel so impressed his supervisor that he was willing to put his life on the line to give Daniel a chance to maintain his religious convictions. After the ten-day trial, Daniel and his friends were actually healthier than those who had compromised their faith. These young men went on to excel in the training and not only ended up at the top of their class, they even surpassed veteran government officials in their knowledge and skill. The pressure today for young people to conform to the standards of the world around them is tremendous. Many if not most young people just want to fit in and be accepted. Daniel serves as an example of the courage and dedication needed to stand up for what you believe in and to dare to be different. Daniel teaches us that beliefs are something you hold, but convictions are what hold you. Convictions make the difference between compromise and conformity on the one hand and integrity and faithfulness on the other. Daniel teaches us that convictions start in the heart. He first made up his mind not to defile himself. Personal convictions really has nothing to do with what is popular, nor with what everyone else is doing or wants us to do. If we want to stand up for what we believe, we must first make up our mind to do so. By respectfully requesting a change in diet and offering alternatives, Daniel proved that it is possible to maintain your convictions while being gracious and respectful of others. In a day and age when the motto of so many is “Just Go With the Flow,” it is refreshing and inspiring to read about someone like Daniel who dared to stand alone, who dared to be different.

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