Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Seasons

I took a brief walk a few minutes ago. It is a beautiful day. Perfect weather for late Spring. A question occurred to me as I walked.

It is well-known that modern Americans (and Westerners in general) are fighting levels of depression unknown in previous generations. Could it be that the lack of seasons in our lives contributes to this? Now, you may be tempted to ask, “What do you mean ‘lack of seasons’? Don’t we have four seasons, just like we always did?”

No, I do not think that we do have four seasons, just like we always did. Our houses are kept at about 68 to 72 degrees, year-round. We still have snow in this part of the world, but with our cars, plows, and snow blowers, winter is no longer the battle it was. It gets hot in the summer, yes, but we retreat indoors, turn on the air conditioning, get ice from our freezers and are soon quite comfortable. Food comes from the supermarket, not from the garden. They cycle of seedtime and harvest has been broken for most of us. From the point of view or our ancestors, we no longer have yearly seasons.

Emotionally, we tend to reject the seasons of life. Children are forced to face grownup decisions too soon; they react by then acting like children once they become legally adult. We often see grandmothers dressed like schoolgirls, and hear grandfathers talking like teens.

Could it be that the lack of seasons in our lives contributes to our instability, uncertainty, to many of the social and emotional problems of this generation? I am not going to claim to know the answer. Somehow, I think just asking the question might be enough.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Everlasting Future

Rudyard Kipling was not, and did not claim to be, a Christian. But occasionally he said things that Christians cannot help but admire. Here is one such gem.

“And since he cannot spend nor use aright
The little time here given him in trust,
But wasteth it in weary undelight
Of foolish toil and trouble, strife and lust,
He naturally clamours to inherit The Everlasting Future"

We are saved by grace, not works (Eph 2:1-9). We are saved by what Christ has done for us, not by what we are doing. But we were created for good works (Eph 2:10); and are commanded to use our time wisely (Eph 5:15-16). How are we doing? Is it reasonable of us to expect an everlasting future when we waste so much of the time given to us here?

If we have given our children watermelon and found that they waste it by throwing it at one another, what will we do when they later cry for something cool to eat? Will we waste more watermelon on them? Why would God grant eternal life on those who have wasted the limited life that he has given them? Only because of his grace. Only because of his grace. Only because of his grace.

None of us will enter glory having perfectly used our time down here; but could we not get into a little better practice? Could we not spend a bit less time on “weary undelight of foolish toil and trouble, strife and lust” and more time in “working heartily as for the Lord and not as for men” (Col 3:23)?

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Ikea Effect

A recent BBC article spoke of “the Ikea effect.” To sum the article up, people value things more if they put some effort into the items. In fact, research seems to indicate that many people will pay more for furniture they must assemble than for a similar item already assembled. That into which we put little or no effort will normally be dissatisfying to us. That into which we have put significant effort, we will value.

It is also true that, when we put significant effort into something, other people are more interested in it.
Last Thursday a man named Dean Oliver came by my office. I had not seen Dean in forty-four years. As we talked the clock on my desk chimed the hour, which led to a question and to a walk across to the house so that Dean could see the first clock that I ever built. He was not interested in seeing a clock purchased at Walmart, but something I had worked on with my own hands interested him.

How valuable is the church to you? How interested are your friends in knowing about the church? There may not be a simple and direct correlation, but the answer to those two questions will relate closely to the question of how much effort we put into the church.

Araunah the Jebusite offered to give King David a piece of land, and some animals for sacrifice, but David replied, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Sam 24:24). What are we offering to the Lord? Do we have any “sweat equity” in the church? If we are not satisfied with the church, could it be because we have put little effort into it?

Friday, April 19, 2019

A New Home

In the summer of 1968 my family moved. It was the first of many moves I would experience in life. For the first eleven years of my life, home had been in the little frame house with the big yard. Now it would be the big brick house with the very small yard. It took some time to get used to the new place. Since we moved again five years later; I cannot say that I ever felt completely at home in the brick house. In the last 43 years, Chery and I have lived in 16 different houses (in five U.S. states and five other countries). It is not always easy to feel at home. In some of these places we never did feel at home.

I mention this for a simple, practical and spiritual reason. The church is called the household or family of God (Gal 6:10; Eph 2:19; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 4:17). Some people who have been in the church for a long time feel that it really is. But for some, when they first come to Christ, it takes a while to feel at home with the church. For some, the world has been their home, their biological family has been their family, and they do not feel comfortable with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember, it takes time to feel at home.

Those who have been in the church a long time, and who feel at home here, must learn to reach out to newcomers and try to help them feel at home. I think that we do a pretty good job of that at Flanders Road, but let’s stay alert for anyone who seems to not feel at home. Let’s try to help them.

Those who are new to the congregation must realize that it may take some time to feel at home. Do not be unreasonable in your expectations. The new brick house seemed strange to me after all my previous life had been spent in the little frame house. But mom and dad, grandma and grandpa were there, so I tried to think of it as home. [Some days I wished that we had left my brother and sisters behind at the old house – but that is another story for another time.]

The church is God’s household. Because he accepts people by grace, we have members in this family who are far from perfect. Sometimes we might get on one another’s nerves a little, but out of respect for our heavenly Father, we learn to get along. For the most part we enjoy one another’s company. Little by little we begin to feel at home; and that is good. The Father’s plan is for us to be together forever; so it is good if we learn to think of the church as our family, our real home.

“For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50, ESV).

Friday, April 12, 2019

"And That's The Way It Is"

I grew up watching the CBS Evening News. We knew not to trust what Walter Cronkite said. We noticed, even back then, intentional warping of the facts. For example, my dad noticed that they cut his uncle’s house out of the film footage when they ran a story about Four-States, West Virginia. A successful miner did not fit their storyline, so they cut his house out and showed only the houses owned by drunks. But we liked to hear Cronkite talk. Maybe I should not say it, but the truth is the way that man lit his pipe at the end of every program was almost a work of art.

While we applauded Cronkite’s abilities, we did not feel obligated to tune in every evening. If the lawn needed to be mowed, or there was a ball game to attend, we would miss his broadcasts. He was a good talker, but not that good. We could miss his show without much regret.

I thought of that recently. Someone praised my morning sermon, but did not bother to come in the evening. My morning sermon was good, but not that good. This does not really surprise me. I do not claim to be as good at talking as Walter Cronkite (nor am I much good at lighting a pipe). So obviously, those who come to hear someone talk, or who come because they like acapella singing, will feel no obligation to come back again on Sunday night. That makes sense if, and only if, the purpose of our assembling is to sing and to hear a professional speaker.

If on the other hand, the purpose of our assembling is to honor a Lord to whom we are infinitely indebted … I will leave it to you to finish that sentence.

It hurts me deeply when someone praises my sermons but wilfully misses our assemblies. It does not hurt me because I think their praise insincere. It hurts me because I feel certain that they have missed the whole point. It is not about me; it is about the Lord. If you are out there doing something that honors him more than being in our assembly would honor him, then by all means do it. But when someone praises a sermon, and then stays home to watch a ballgame, the sermon is being treated as the main show, and the Savior is being treated as a sidelight.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Sound of Silence

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10, ESV)

A recent New York Times article noted that, “We live in a culture obsessed with personal productivity. .... We worship at the altar of hustle and boast about being busy.” But busy is not always productive, nor is it often peaceful.

Christians are not immune to the busyness fad that is sweeping our world. We too can be guilty of overloading our life and even our worship with busy-work. Of course we are to be hard workers, diligent workers (Col 3:23-24). But we are also supposed to be meditative, thoughtful people who are not always busy. Sometimes we need to be still.

I believe firmly in the value of daily Bible reading. But what is the value of reading the Bible if we never take the time to meditate on what it says and to consider how it might apply in our lives?

I believe in the need for Christians to serve others. But what message are we sending to others if we are so busy serving that we seem never to have time to savor the beauty and blessings of creation?

Yes, we are to be busy in the Lord’s work, but there are also times to be silent (Psalm 62; Eccl 3:7). I love to be in the Lord’s presence singing his praises; but there are times to sit silently before him (Hab 2:20). Of course our delight in the instruction of the Lord will cause us to tell others about it; but it will first cause us to meditate on that word (Psalm 1:1-2).

We should not always be busy. We definitely should not always be in the midst of noise. We need to balance our busyness with the sound of silence; we need to seek quiet moments and to use quiet moments to listen to our Lord.

Friday, March 29, 2019

No Bananas in Africa?

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25, ESV).

Do not get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for real research and experts who are really experts. But a lot of people in our nation today are claiming to be experts regarding things they know nothing about, and claiming to be able to change what God settled long ago.

Last Sunday was the birthday of one of our grandsons, so naturally we phoned to sing “Happy Birthday.” While talking with him, he told us of a recent encounter with an “expert.”

The family was on vacation in Florida and had toured one of those places where children are supposed to be able to learn about nature. They were in the part of the exhibit supposedly devoted to African fauna and flora. The guide asked, “Tell me something that grows in Africa.” Jacob spoke up and said, “Bananas.” The guide, so sweetly and condescendingly said, “I’m sorry, but bananas do not grow in Africa.”
Well, I am sorry to contradict, but we had bananas growing right outside our house for years. Here was someone posing as an expert on Africa, and she had probably never even been to Africa.

So it goes. Someone is put in a position of seeming authority and they pronounce their opinion as if it is proven fact. In many cases, they may know little, if anything, about the subjects on which they pontificate.

Today (Tuesday, 26 March, 2019) it was announced that Duke University will pay a fine of $112 million dollars because several medical research projects supposedly carried out at Duke never really happened. The “results” were announced and used to sway public opinion and government decisions, but it was all fake.

So, next time someone claims that research has proven something that contradicts the teaching of scripture, just reply “pork fat” or “bananas” or “Duke.”

As I said, I have the utmost respect for real research. But real research does not contradict God. Figures don’t lie; but boy are the liars figuring!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Ukulele Music and Similar Matters

As I type this I am listening to Ukulele music. I like all kinds of music, but rarely listen to anything played on the Ukulele. But I was feeling a little blue, so I did a quick search for happy sounding music, and this is what came up. It is not a cure-all, but it helps. Music affects our mood. So do colors, temperature, and posture. As Screwtape reminded Wormwood, “…they can be persuaded that bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they are constantly forgetting, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

The fact that someone is kneeling does not prove that they are offering a humble prayer. The fact that someone is running does not prove that they are not offering a humble prayer. But, the one position is more conducive than the other. A person might be happy while listening to sad sounding music. A person might be sad while listening to Ukulele music, but the odds are somewhat against it.

When I was in high school the dress codes were beginning to be relaxed. We were allowed to wear jeans to school. Most of the time I kept to the old dress code (dress shirt, dress trousers and dress shoes), but occasionally I wore jeans, a work shirt, and my combat boots. I never got in a serious fight at school, but a couple of times I was tempted to try those boots out on someone. The clothes did not set my mood, but they had an effect on it.

So, what am I saying? Am I judging you according to your clothes? No. No. And absolutely, No.

I am just suggesting that how we dress, what we listen to, our posture, and even the colors around us have an effect. So let’s keep that in mind. If you get down, put on some upbeat music, turn on brighter lights, dress up in your best clothes, and smile. [I tried it just then and it did not hurt (well, not much).] If you struggle to pray, try a different posture, or even a different place. Sometimes getting out into God’s creation can help a lot with this. For certain kinds of prayer, kneeling can sometimes be a significant tone setter.

Screwtape was right. What our bodies do has an effect on our souls. Let be aware of this fact and respond appropriately.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Good Book Getting Better

I have never cared for the “new and improved” label. Vista was new, but it was not an improvement over XP. The Chevy Vega was not an improvement over the Nova. But the latest changes to Howard Belben’s book The Mission of Jesus will be welcomed. The text of the book is unchanged from the way it was republished last year. But we have added a “reflection and discussion guide” to help those who might use it in a small group setting, or even for individual reflection. The cost is unchanged, it is still $5.75 in paperback and $2.99 in the Kindle edition.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Not The First Generation

We live in a dark and sinful world. It is discouraging. But we must remember that we are not the first generation to live in a climate of spiritual and moral decline. The world is dark and sinful, but no more dark and sinful than it was when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That is the last sentence in the book of Judges. When the context is considered, it may be the most discouraging verse in the Old Testament. What many of them considered right was clearly wrong – very wrong.

The next sentence in the Bible reads, “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” That is the first verse of the book of Ruth. Truly, there was a terrible famine in the land at that time – spiritual as well as physical. But the LORD, unseen by human eyes, was working through the lives of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz (and even through the deaths of Naomi’s husband and sons). God was preparing the man who would become the benchmark leader for the nation. Several generations would pass before David became king. But the faithfulness of the few, people like Boaz, would help to prepare the way for David.

We are not the first generation to face discouragement; ours is not the first generation to struggle against spiritual and moral decay. The Hebrew writer remembers those who were tortured and those who suffered mocking, flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. He says that “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy…” (Hebrews 11:37-38, ESV).

J.C. Ryle wisely pointed out that “It is not ‘the good and successful servant,’ but ‘the good and faithful servant,’ to whom He will say, ‘Enter into the joy of your Lord.’”

We may not be successful in trying to brighten this dark world; but let us be faithful. And let us remember that while we are to be the “light of the world” (Mt 5:14) Christ did not mean that any one of us could brighten the whole world, or even our whole community. Sometimes we have to merely brighten our little corner.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9, ESV).

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Which is the Bigger Issue, Opportunity or Attitude?

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might…” (Eccl 9:10)
Many years ago I read of a young man who grew up in a poor neighborhood where there was very little to do. He wanted to stay in shape, but had no money for a gym membership. For exercise the young man used to push a car up and down the street.

Eventually he went from pushing the car to tackling running backs. He was pretty good at it. My brother once had the opportunity to speak with NFL running back Ron Johnson. He asked him, “What is it like to be tackled by Dick Butkus?” If I remember right the answer was, “A lot like being run over by a train.”

Dick Butkus could have become bitter about his lack of opportunities. Most American kids have more than a junk car to entertain them. But then, most American kids do not sign a contract for $200,000 as soon as they leave college. Most do not end up with a net worth of 8 million.

What is the lesson here? Perhaps the lesson is that sometimes our lack of opportunities, if responded to properly, become our opportunity.

So, if you do not have the opportunities that you wanted and prayed for, if God does not seem interested in giving you the gifts and ministries that you sought, maybe you should find an old car and push it. I am not suggesting that it will lead you to a net worth of millions, but I am sure that it will lead to something better than you will find by crying over the lack of opportunities.

If you cannot do the big jobs, do the small ones. If you cannot find the jobs that will gain you notoriety, do the ones no one will notice. But whatever you do, do it with your might – the best of your ability. Even if no one else notices, the Lord will know. Deep down you will know also, and you may in the end find more satisfaction in the simple and homely tasks than you really would have in the things you dreamed of doing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Balanced Perspective

The following is a statement that I have heard and even used myself. It is, within the right context, a very true and useful statement. “If one has done his best, no one can do any better than that.”

Sometimes we have tried our best but things have not gone well. Sometimes we lack the skill for the task at hand. Sometimes factors beyond our control kept us from succeeding. In those situations, the words of J.C. Ryle are helpful, “It is not the good and successful servant, but the good and faithful servant, to whom He will say, “Enter into the joy of your Lord (Mt 25:21).”

But while all of the above is true, it could be over-extended and misapplied.

On July 11, 1970 I attempted to preach a sermon about heaven. I collapsed a few minutes into the sermon and never finished it. I had done the best I knew how at the time; but frankly, it was not a good sermon and it is remembered only because I fainted, not because the content was worth remembering.

I had done the best I could at the time, and that is okay. But it would not have been okay for me to have taken the attitude, “That was my best and God will accept it.” Surely, if that had been my attitude, it would have been a sinful attitude. Surely, while taking some comfort in the fact that I had done my best at the time, it was only right that I should desire to improve my best.

In preaching, teaching, singing, praying, in giving, serving, and in all that we do, it is one thing to say “I did my best” and something very different to say, “I did my best and God will have to accept it.” No!!! As soon as we add that second part to the thought, we have said too much. If we are not striving to improve on our preaching, teaching, singing, praying, giving, serving, and all that we do, then we are sinning and God decidedly will not accept it.

Dr. Bob Whitaker, assisted by my oldest son, attempted a brain surgery. Dr. Whitaker was not a brain surgeon. But the man was going to die if someone did not do something, so Bob tried his best. The man died. But Bob did not take the attitude, “Well, I did my best and I will do the same again next time.” Living where he did, he knew that this would come up again. So he asked Dr. Charles Branch (a neurosurgeon) to teach him how to do the surgery right.

God may accept our best, if it really is our best. But our best should be getting better. If it is not, then probably it is not really our best.

Monday, January 14, 2019

What Price Are We Willing to Pay?

While not the most famous words of his inaugural address, this statement by President Kennedy was significant. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

It was understood in January of 1961 that anything worthwhile in life had a cost. It was understood that there are burdens and hardships to bear. It was understood that a man or woman seeking only their own comfort was a man or woman without significance, meaning, or purpose.

At that point in our history, the worth of pain and the might of self-sacrifice were understood by many. The mindset of our nation at that time was still heavily influenced by the scriptures. We were not really a Christian nation, but we were a nation strongly influenced by the faith that has a cross at its center. We are no longer such a nation.

Today the question is not “what can I do for my country?” but “what is the government going to do for me?” That shift in attitude may be the most destructive force in our national life. But I am not writing primarily about our national life.

Is it any different with Christians? Has our faith and focus also drifted? Do we gather to sing our favorite songs and to see our friends? Or do we gather to honor the Lord? Do we live as consumers, trying to get the best bargain we can from the local merchants, on the Internet, and from the Lord? Or do we live as those who “have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15)?

I am sorry to ask such challenging questions. But somehow I don’t think the church was built by means of positive thinking pep talks, and I don’t think that is what will restore it to its original purity and purpose. What price are we willing to pay, what burden are we willing to bear for the cause of Christ? Admittedly, it is a challenging question, but then most worthwhile questions are.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Pork Fat and Faith

I do not pay much attention to the news. I do not take the paper; I do not listen to the television or radio news. On those occasions when I want to be a bit depressed, I can always look up the news on the BBC web-site. I suppose it was our years in Africa that made the BBC my favorite source for news (although it was only by means of shortwave radio in those days).

New Year’s Day I saw an article on the BBC site that claimed to list the 100 most nutritious foods (hwww.bbc.com/future/story/20180126-the-100-most-nutritious-foods). I ran through the whole list rather quickly, reading the details on only a couple of items. The biggest surprise was “pork fat.” That is right; they listed pork fat as one of the most nutritious things we can eat, and said that the rumors of it causing heart attacks have been proven false.

For more than forty years we were told to avoid pork fat. Now, a group of 100 nutritionists have listed it as one of the best foods. Frankly, I do not know (or care) who is right on this particular matter. I just want to make one simple point.

The next time someone tells you that there is scientific evidence that homosexuality is unavoidable for those who have the “homosexuality gene,” you could say, “Pork fat.” The next time someone claims that scientific evidence supports the idea that children should not be made to mind their behavior, just say, “Pork fat.” The next time someone claims that monogamy is bad for us, just say “More pork fat” and keep going.

The sad truth is that the so-called scientific community is full of people who are anything but scientific. Some of these people manage to prove (to their own satisfaction) whatever it was they set out to prove. No matter what they claim to have proven now, they will someday be busy proving the opposite. On matters of faith and morals we will do best to just stick with what God has said, and let the manipulators of statistics go their merry way. We really do not want to go where they are going anyway.

If God says something is bad for us, it is. If he says something will eternally separate us from him, it will. If he says that a given action is evidence that the person engaging in it has an arrogant and sick mind, they do.

One of the great things about being a Christian is that we do not have to keep up with the constantly changing claims of contemporary theorists. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).