Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 6

A young serviceman from our area was taken captive by an insurgent group in Iraq. Video footage of him was released shortly after his kidnapping. Later, a group claiming to be his captors released yet another video, allegedly showing his execution. The Defense Department has been unable to authenticate the latter video. That was months ago. Obviously, the anguish and uncertainty has been immense for the young man's family.

Fortunately, they have the support of many friends and a congregational family. The community has also surrounded them with care. One church after another has been praying for them and the family has been deeply appreciative.

In my former congregation, a man died under tragic circumstances. I went to visit his widow and family. While I was there, the doorbell rang probably three or four times. Each visit was from a neighbor, all committed Christians, dropping off food. The widow looked at me, and smiling beneath a mist of tears, told me, "There's a lot of love in our refrigerator."

In my previous post, I talked about the ultimate source of encouragement: The encouragement that is ours when we know we live with the approval of the God made known in Jesus Christ.

But of course, there's a problem. We Christians believe that Jesus has risen from the dead and is in heaven now. While there are times when we can sense His presence, the fact is that most of the time we must accept that reality as a matter of faith.

That can be hard. There's a story about a little boy who found it hard to fall asleep at night. (I first read a telling of it by Gerald Mann years ago and I've been re-telling it ever since.) The boy called for his father, who came to the little guy's room. "Couldn't you stay here?" he asked his dad. His father explained that he and the boy's mom were just down the hallway. "And besides," he said. "God is here." The boy told his dad, "I know. It's just that I want someone here with skin on him."

The New Testament calls the Church, "the Body of Christ." It's an imperfect body, for sure. The people who make up the Church are just like the rest of the human race. We're sinners. But we're forgiven sinners called to live so thankfully for God's gifts, granted through Christ, that we encourage one another and those outside our congregations, too, with the Good News that God loves and reaches out to sinners. The Church puts skin on God.

No doubt we fail at it. Earlier this week, I read a set of posts by one of the country's well-known political bloggers. She was railing against a prominent evangelical preacher who, from her perspective, seems to have made a career out of villainizing homosexuals. I wanted this bright and influential person to know that the position of most Christians on homosexuality is far more nuanced than this one preacher made it appear. Most Christians believe that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God's will--a sin--but they are welcoming to all people. The Church, in the language of Twelve Steps programs, is a place for recovering sinners to lay their sins before God, receive forgiveness, and tap into the power Christ offers to help us move our lives in God-ward directions. Most Christians are open to welcoming practicing homosexuals who are willing to struggle with the elimination of the sin of homosexuality from their lives, right alongside all the other recovering sinners who make up the Church.

Mark Allan Powell, a Lutheran Biblical scholar, has pointed out that the number one response Jesus was looking for when He spread His love, His message, and performed miracles was repentance. It is the main response Jesus is looking for from us today. He's looking for that response not because God is an ogre opposed to our enjoying ourselves or so that we can wallow in some religious guilt.

Jesus wants us to repent for the same reason that you and I might want a friend addicted to drugs or alcohol to turn their lives around. Sin is destructive of our souls, of our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. It corrodes our integrity and prevents us from realizing our full potential as human beings. It distorts our personalities. Repentance is the only sensible response to God's love, given in Christ. When we repent, we clear the space in our lives to let Christ in.

But what exactly is repentance? The Hebrew language of the Old Testament is picturesque and vivid, a counterpoint to the New Testament's more cerebral Greek. Yet each Testament's language teaches a lot about what is really the main business that happens in the fellowship of the Church. The Hebrew word for repent pictures a person who has been walking in one direction and then turns completely around, ending up walking in a different direction. Repentance happens when we stop walking away from God and turn toward Him again. (Like the prodigal son Jesus talks about in Luke 15:11-32.)

In Greek, the word for repentance is metanoo. It literally means "I change my mind." Christ calls us to be flip-floppers. We're to turn from selfish, self-willed ways of thinking and undergo what I often call a holy lobotomy. Through this change of mind, the Bible says, we become new people:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. (Second Corinthians 5:17)
Christ effects this lobotomy in our lives as a free gift, taking us as we are and helping us to become all that God made us to be.

But, Christians know, that just as Christ died before His resurrection could happen, unless Jesus returns while we live, we must die before we experience a resurrection. Then, we'll be fully free of our own sin and limits as earthbound human beings. Until then, we will struggle with our sins and strive to be our better selves. We do that with God's help and the encouragement of Christ's Body, God with skin on Him, the local church.

Don't think I'm being naive or idealistic. I freely acknowledge that there isn't a Christian in the world who hasn't been disappointed by the Church at one time or another. (Including me.) Sometimes, the Church's forgiven sinners aren't particularly repentant. Sometimes, church members can be as crass or hypocritical or prejudiced or nasty as the rest of the world. Sometimes more so. We bring our sins, faults, and bad habits through the church's front door. And often, we keep bringing them back for years and years.

But as C. S. Lewis once wrote, just think how much worse these faulty folks would be were it not for the presence of Christ and the fellowship of the Church in their lives. ( I cringe when I think about this relative to myself. I wouldn't like me much at all!)

Ultimately though, the imperfection of the church is provides some comfort to me. It reminds me that a perfect God loves and wants to be with people who are as imperfect as me. It makes His "grace," His charity, more accessible. It makes God more accessible.

I believe that it's Christ's plan for His Church not to send Jesus-Followers into the world to put people on guilt trips or to impose their morality on everyone else, although Christians should never flinch from saying what they believe to be right and wrong.

In his great book, How to Be a Transformed Person, the late missionary, author, and close friend of Gandhi, E. Stanley Jones writes:
In 1840 Bishop George Selwyn, missionary among the cannibal Maoris of New Zeland, wrote: "I am in the midst of a sinful people, who have been accustomed to sin uncontrolled from youth. If I speak to a native on murder, infanticide, cannibalism, or adultery, he laughs in my face and tells me I may think these acts are bad, but they are very good for a native, and they cannot conceive any harm in them. But on the contrary, I tell them that these and other sins brought the Son of God, the great Creator of the Universe from His eternal glory to this world, to be incarnate and to be made a curse and to die---then they open their eyes and ears and mouths and wish to hear more and presently they acknowledge themselves sinners and say they will leave off their sins."

This is illuminating---preach morality, and the moral life is largely unchanged; preach the atoning love of God in Christ, and conversion, a total conversion of the total life results, especially a moral renovation. [italics mine]
In Romans 2:4, Paul says that God's kindness--His patient, forgiving love--is what leads to repentance. The Church is meant to be part of what my friend Steve Sjogren calls God's conspiracy of kindness.

How does Christ use the Church encourage people?

(1) By empowering Christians to be servants to others. One of the coolest things that the congregation I serve as pastor does during this time of year is participate in Operation Christmas Child. Throughout much of the year, our people collect toys, personal care items, pens and pencils, booklets, mittens, hats, and other things. They place them in shoe boxes. Then in November, we have a Christmas Wrapping Party after worship, prepping the gifts to be sent to children in Third World or war-ravaged countries. We've been participating in this effort of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian organization, for about five years.

Of course, the children we never meet benefit. For many of them, our gift-laden shoeboxes and the millions of others that Christians from throughout North America and western Europe share each year may be the only gifts of kindness they receive. That has to be an encouragement to them and their families.

But an unexpected benefit from our service is that we feel better for it. Our faith is encouraged as we realize that God can use even our simple gifts in shoeboxes to spread His love. We learn that the globe is a neighborhood that all of God's children share. God doesn't call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves because it's nice, but because in ways none of us fully understands, we truly need one another.

A few weeks ago, I shared a short letter that had been dictated for us by the mother of a seven year old Zimbabwean girl our congregation has been sponsoring through World Vision for more than four years. The mother spoke of the seasons in her country and talked about making fire. She asked how we made fire. When I read those simple words, tears came to my eyes. I wondered how I could explain the lifestyle of ease that I and so many people enjoy in this country. It made me want to do what I can to encourage and create a better life for all my neighbors. (That's also one reason I write this blog.)

The New Testament book of Acts tells the story of the early Church, from the time of the resurrected Jesus' ascension into heaven in c. 30 A.D. until about 60 A.D. At one point, it recounts one of the adventures of Paul. He had been imprisoned for his faith in Christ and was being transported by ship. While at sea, a storm came on and the others on the ship were frightened. One surmises that Paul felt some fear too. But, no doubt owing to his faith, he militated against his fear and cared for and fed others on the ship. "Then all of them were encouraged..." we're told (Acts 27:36). Christians who serve bring encouragement to others. The Church empowers Christians to do that!

(2) By empowering Christians to be followers of Jesus on Mondays as well as Sundays. A few weeks ago, five different members of our congregation spoke on What Friendship Church Means to Me. Each of the presentations, three minutes apiece, were moving and varied. One fellow---Mike---said something that really caught my attention. He said that the impact of our congregation on his life was the same that Jack Nicholson's character attributed to that played by Helen Hunt in the movie, As Good As It Gets. Mike told us, "You make me want to be a better man."

I've always thought of Sunday worship and Bible studies as Christian pep rallies, times when we get energized and prepped for the sometimes demanding, but always gratifying, work of being God's new creation people in the everyday world.

This is nothing new. Back in the first century, when Paul was preparing to come to visit Jesus-Followers in Rome, he said that one of the main reasons was that they could be "mutually encouraged by each other's faith..." (Romans 1:12)

(3) By letting all the world experience Christ's love through us. One of the things that visitors to our congregation almost always say is, "These people amaze me. They're ordinary people. But they're so friendly and loving and good-natured. I can see God is here." That's what happens when people, in the words of the old U2/B.B. King song, let "love come to town."

Of course, the Church encourages and fosters encouragement in countless other ways. But I've gotten a little windy.

In closing, let me encourage you to be an encourager. Doing so will be a wonderfully subversive act, empowering people to do good and positive things with their lives. And if you need encouragement to take on the important role of encourager, I suggest that you take two steps:
  • Ask Jesus Christ to come into your life and call the shots
  • Get involved in an encouraging, loving congregation

Middle of the Night This and That

United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan is under increasing fire and this New York Times article suggests that he has lost the confidence of the US government. It appears that no matter how personally culpable Mr. Annan may be, an awfully lot of bad stuff has occurred on his watch. If Mr. Annan goes, I hope that the United Nations will give serious consideration to replacing him with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.


Tod Bolsinger has a great series on the "incarnation" of Jesus and its meaning for our everyday lives. Tod is a fine writer and an encouraging person.


Mark Roberts has the best series of articles about what he rightly describes as "the killing of the innocents" in the Netherlands.


Chris Matthews had a great interview with Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, on Friday night's special edition of Hardball. She talked about a run-in that she had with a doctor when her father was in the relatively early stages of his Alzheimer's Disease-related dimentia. This doctor spoke to about her father's condition in the third person in his presence. When she objected to the insensitivity of this, the doctor dismissed her concerns by saying, "He doesn't understand us."

I think that this was not only insensitive to the humanity of his patient and his family, it was also extremely naive on this doctor's part. Years ago, I routinely visited with a woman who languished in a nursing home in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. I never knew her in any other state. She was tied to her bed. She was fed through a dropper. Her eyes, when open, were vacant and distant. My visits usually consisted of a silent prayer and a few brief words, never acknowledged.

Except for one day. I went into the woman's room and said a silent prayer. I then called her by name and said, "God loves you." "No, he couldn't," she objected. It was a chilling moment. When I tried to continue the dialogue, the woman sunk back into her dimentia.

I have often wondered just what happened at that moment. One possibility must be akin to what both Davis and Matthews (whose mother suffered from Alzheimer's) suggested tonight. Davis says that just before his death, Ronald Reagan opened his eyes for the first time in many weeks, that their deep blue seemed to return after a long absence of color, and that they seemed to clearly focus on her mother. Matthews related that after being under the incommunicative fog of Alzheimer's for a long time, she seemed to "come to" briefly one day and call her husband by his name.

Beneath the assault of Alzheimer's, its victim still exists. At some level, I believe they understand what's going on around them as the disease has its way with their minds and bodies. It's too easy to objectify other human beings when they become less than "fully functional." That, to me, is a terrible mistake and a grave injustice.


I can't stop listening to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2. It's fantastic!


On Friday night, I traveled to the Dayton area for a funeral home visitation. Bill Gunter, the architect-construction manager who designed our church's first building facility (now almost two years old) and whose firm supervised its building, died this past week. He was a great man and a real blessing to me, to our congregation, and, given the huge numbers of people at the visitation tonight, countless others as well. Here's what I said about him in an email to our congregation yesterday:
I just received news that Bill Gunter, architect and construction manager, proprietor of the firm with which we worked on the design and construction of our building, passed away late on Tuesday evening.

Bill had survived a 1997 heart transplant surgery and a 2002 stroke. Recently, a malignant tumor was found on a bronchial tube. Aggressive treatment involving both chemotherapy and radiation five days a week seemed to be going well. But on Tuesday, while watching television, he began bad coughing jag. It's thought that the treatments had weakened the walls of a number of arteries in his chest cavity and that his violent coughing triggered hemmorhaging. He died shortly thereafter.

Bill was an extraordinary man! He designed and/or built more than 600 church buildings. His aim was never to become wealthy, but to make a living while helping churches reach out to their communities with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Bill's whole approach was one reason that we at Friendship were able to construct our facility so economically.

You only had to spend a little time with Bill to know how much he loved Jesus Christ. He was truly an inspiration to be around and, before ever talking "business," insisted on talking about what Christ meant to him and how Christ had blessed him in his life. He regarded the seven years he lived after receiving his heart transplant as a "bonus time," which he totally dedicated to God.

A member of our congregation and I were speaking about Bill just a few moments ago. We both agreed that God sent Bill to Friendship Church at precisely the right time. We needed to build our first building unit if we were going to keep growing as a congregation---which we have. But had we proceeded by conventional means, we wouldn't have our building. God sent Bill so that Friendship would have a church facility to share with our community! Our facility was the last one Bill designed.

Baseball and Steroids

Baseball has had about as bad a public relations week as the United Nations has. Both are going to have to do something to restore their credibility, it seems.

In the case of baseball, nothing less than the integrity of the game is at stake. Performance-enhancing, muscle-rippling (and ultimately, life-threatening) drugs are, to my thinking, as great a threat to the game as gambling by its players or managers. These drugs distort players' true abilities and cheapen the game.

It seems to me that events of this past week demand that baseball institute some sort of drug-testing policy similar to that of the National Football League (NFL). By all accounts, that league's policies have effectively eliminated steroid use by its players.

Furthermore, if firm determinations are made that players were using banned substances in past seasons, all personal statistics compiled while using should be erased. And yes, if Barry Bonds, is among the number of those in this category, his home runs since becoming "buff" should be eliminated from the record books. Hank Aaron worked hard to compile his lifetime home run record. Nobody should be allowed to surpass it on the cheap, if that's what Bonds has been about.

Baseball is my favorite sport, a great game. I hope that everyone--the commissioner's office, owners, players union, and the players---can get together on this. Baseball has been under a cloud too long. It's time to fix this situation.

[One other thing: Wouldn't you like to know who leaked the secret Grand Jury testimony in this case? And what their motives were?]

My Prayers Tonight...

...are with the people of Ukraine. I salute the courage of all those who have braved the frigid temperatures in Kiev to demand democracy as well as the judges of their Supreme Court for negating a severely flawed presidential vote. I'm praying that there will be peace in Ukraine and that democracy will take hold.

...are with our military personnel in Iraq, as well as with relief workers and the peaceful people of that country. I'm praying that God will bring peace there.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 5

Not long ago, I was talking with a friend. In the course of our conversation, I shared some of the things that have happened in my life. None of them are earth-shaking, really. But if you've been walking around this planet for fifty-one years, a few things do come your way and not all of them happy or uplifting.

My friend asked, "How have you turned out so normal?"

Normal isn't usually a word people use of me, so I laughed and asked, "What do you mean?"

"I mean how are you so functional? I've seen the way you are with your family. You and your wife have done a good job with your kids. You have friends. You seem happy. How have you turned out to be so normal?"

I knew the answer to the question. But I hesitated to answer. After a short pause though, I forged ahead. "To the extent that I am 'normal,' whatever that means, it's because of my relationship with Christ," I said.

I believe that the ultimate source of encouragement any of us can have is Jesus Christ! How does Christ encourage us?

First: By demonstrating to us that our lives matter to God. He shows that in an almost incomprehensible way. The New Testament is clear in its witness that Jesus was (and is) God in the flesh (see here and here). Yet God became one of us. (Jesus is the answer to Joan Osborne's old song, "What if God was one of us?" He was!)

The Gospel of John in the New Testament calls Jesus the Creator-Word of the universe and then says:
...the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen His glory (John 1:14)
And Paul says of Jesus that:
...though He was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form... (Philippians 2:6-7)
Second: Jesus not only demonstrates that we matter to God, He shows how much God loves us. The problem with the human race, of course, is the "S" word. We are sinners who sin. That means that we live distorted lives. Deep down, all of us know that our lives aren't what they're meant to be. Sin describes our basic human condition. It's the gap between who we are and our true God-selves. The condition of Sin, in turn, causes us to commit individual sins: dishonesty, cheating, gossip, adultery, selfishness of all kinds, greed, violence, and so on.

God is very clear in saying that these things deserve death, separation from God and the life that only He can give. But God has refused to give up on us. In Jesus, God came into the world and took the punishment we deserve. Jesus, called God's Son, died on a cross and then, as the guarantee of His power to give life, rose from death on the first Easter.

That's love!
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Third: Jesus also demonstrates His love for us by promising to stick with us no matter what! "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20), uttered by Jesus before He ascended into heaven, is the greatest promise ever!

When you put all these three elements together and let them infect your life, you begin to understand that followers of Jesus Christ have what Pastor Gerald Mann calls, "God's cosmic okie-dokie." Knowing that through Christ, God has given your life His approval, forgiveness, and acceptance, brings an inexhaustible supply of encouragement to one's life.

Does that mean that Christians live with a constantly upbeat attitude? Speaking for myself, the answer would be, "No." There are several reasons for that, I suppose. But one stands out for me above all others. It's this: I experience a constant ebb and flow in my faith, what C. S. Lewis called spiritual undulation. Sometimes my faith in God is strong and I sense His presence and His approval. At other times, I feel distant from God and my sense of His encouragement is almost nil.

I go through times when I feel that I'm close to God and that everything is going well. But after awhile, things are going so well and I become so caught up in doing the things of my successdul life, that I begin to function as though I don't need God. A sense of self-satisfaction can be a dangerous thing. Smugness can't long co-exist with faith in Christ.

In Old Testament times, David was known for his closeness to God. But one Spring, after he had consolidated his power as king, David decided to slack off on his duties and not join his soldiers in battle. He stayed home in Jerusalem. In short order, he filled his idle time with an affair with a soldier's wife. When she became pregnant, he had her husband murdered by "friendly fire."

It wasn't until David repented for his sin and turned back to God that he sensed God's encouragement coming back to him. David found, as I have, that it's only when we're dissatisfied with ourselves that we once again become vulnerable enough to let God's reassuring, encouraging presence back into our lives.

As an imperfect human being, I can do (and often have done) things to mess up my relationship with God. I'm thankful that when that happens, I can turn to God and receive forgiveness and the power to live. When that happens, God floods my life with His encouragement again.

Another reason that Christians experience discouragement should be sort of obvious. On an episode of the classic TV series, M*A*S*H, lead character Hawkeye Pierce felt deeply depressed and guilty over the death of a wounded soldier he thought that he had saved on the operating table. The usually buffoon-like commanding officer, Henry Blake, tells Hawkeye that at command school, he was taught that were two immutable laws combat surgeons needed to remember. Rule number one was that in war, soldiers die. And rule number two was that doctors can't do anything about rule number two. His voice dripping with rage and sarcasm, Hawkeye asks, "What's that supposed to mean?" Henry replies, "I don't know. If I knew, I'd be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this look like the Mayo Clinic?"

To Henry, the Mayo Clinic represented perfection. In any condition short of perfection, he was telling Hawkeye, bad things, inexplicable things, difficult things can happen.

The world in which we live isn't heaven. It isn't perfect. "For now we see in a mirror dimly..." Paul writes in First Corinthians 13:12. He goes on to say: "Now we see only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known [by God]."

God has great plans for every human being. He loves us and is committed to us. Those who follow Jesus Christ live in the certainty that God only wants what is best for us. Our surest bet for overcoming the discouragement that so often can shake us is to keep focused on Christ, or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, to "seize the hope that Christ gives" (Hebrews 6:18).

Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of encouragement.

More on the power of encouragement coming...

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 4

On April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was asked to come from the US Capitol Building, where he had just presided over a session of the Senate, to the White House. Steve Early, President Franklin Roosevelt's press secretary, who had telephoned, was clear that it was urgent.

Once he arrived at the White House, Truman was taken to the second floor private quarters where Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin's wife, awaited him. David McCullough, in his masterful biography of Truman, writes about what happened next:
Mrs. Roosevelt stepped forward and gently put her arm on Truman's shoulder.

"Harry, the President is dead."

Truman was unable to speak.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" he said at last.

"Is there anything we can do for you," she said. "For you are the one in trouble now."
I suspect Mrs. Roosevelt said this for two reasons:

(1) No matter what decisions leaders take, there will always be those who question their wisdom, integrity, qualifications, even their sanity. Eleanor Roosevelt knew that. She had observed at close-hand just how vicious critics can be toward leaders.

(2) Even more importantly, she had also seen the terrible burdens that can go with leadership. She knew that leaders, even those with whom we may disagree most of the time, need our encouragement. That's because we all have a stake in the success of our leaders---whether they exercise leadership over our PTA, church, labor union, business, college, or country.

This isn't new wisdom. In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelite leader, Moses, that he must encourage his successor, Joshua:
"Encourage him, for he is the one who will secure Israel's possession of [the promised land]. (Deuteronomy 1:38)
Later, Moses, who knows that he will soon die, tells the people:
"But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over [the Jordan River] at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see." (Deuteronomy 3:28)
In the New Testament portion of the Bible, there are numerous exhortations in the letters of Paul to the members of first century churches to pray for and be supportive of leaders, be they in government or in the churches themselves.

The fact is that leaders, whether those gifted in its arts, or those who ambitiously crave leadership and its varied "glories," or those forced into leadership though preferring to be foot soldiers or peons, all learn a common lesson: Leadership is demanding.

One reason that leadership demands so much is that no matter what decisions leaders take, there will always be someone who thinks they've messed up. And usually, leaders' critics don't keep quiet. The average leader gets an earful of discouragement at least once a week. I'm convinced that when we encourage our leaders, we help them to become better leaders, lifting their spirits and enabling them to confront their challenges with a positive frame of reference.

It's especially important for Christians to encourage leaders. One reason I say this is that so many Christians appear to be negative, judgmental, and cranky. It's both jarring and refreshing for leaders (and others) to run into Jesus-Followers who are instead, affirming and compassionate.

Another and more important reason that Christians should encourage leaders can be found in these strange words of Jesus:
"You [Jesus-Followers] are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." (Matthew 5:13)
In Jesus' time, salt had two basic functions: to season foods and to act as a preservative. From Jesus' words, I take it that Christians aren't to engage in strong-arm tactics, imposing their worldviews on everybody else. Nor are we to be carping, whiny, petty critics.

Instead, like pinches of salt shaken onto the life of the world, we can, bit by bit, change the world's "taste." We do that by embodying and giving voice to the loving Lordship of Christ.

I also surmise from Jesus' words that Christians are to act to preserve "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, [whatever is of] excellence...anything worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8) in our world.

So, a few suggestions on how we can be encouraging to leaders.

We can express appreciation for their accomplishments. Earlier this year, the school board in our district had to find a new superintendent. I knew that the members had worked hard on this important decision. Ultimately, they chose a person I'm certain will do a great job. He has a good record in education, possesses common sense, is a hard worker, and has boundless creativity and energy. (He happens to be a friend of mine. So I know of whence I speak, as they say.) When I learned of the school board's decision, I picked up the phone and called each member to congratulate them on making what I thought was an excellent choice...even the ones I don't know. Later, a staffer at the school district's main office told me that she was sure the board members had appreciated my call. Typically, she said, the only people to call them from the community are those who complain or who want something from them.

We can offer our help. You're no doubt familiar with the 80-20 Rule. This rule---an observation, really---says that in any given organization, twenty per cent of the people will do eighty per cent of the work, twenty per cent of the conrtributors will do provide eighty per cent of the funding, and so on. Many leaders observe this to be true and it's a real downer for them, especially in volunteer organizations like churches and social service agencies. You will give tremendous encouragement to leaders if you make a decision to break this rule. Help your leader, in whatever context, by lending a helping hand.

Go out to lunch with a leader. Okay, you and I likely can't do that with Presidents, governors, CEOs, university administrators, bishops, or popes. (I can't imagine that I'll ever have a pastrami sandwich with the Pontiff.) But we might be able to have lunch with a local school principal, parish pastor, county commissioner, or township administrator. No ulterior motives. Just take them out and offer your friendship.

Last November, I went to lunch with Mike, a member of our congregation. He surprised me when he said, "You spend so much time helping people with the issues in their lives. But what I'd like to know is, 'How is Mark?' What's going on in your life right now?" It was such an encouraging thing for him to say to his pastor.

Finally, and those of you who know me or have read much of what I've written can almost guess what's coming next, pray for leaders. Frank Laubach, founder of a worldwide adult literacy movement, was also a fervent pray-er. In his book, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, first published in 1946, Laubach shared some of his passion for praying for world leaders:
We do not "persuade God to try harder" when we pray [for world leaders]; it is our world leaders, our statesmen and church men [sic] whom we persuade to try harder [through our praying]. We help God when we pray. When great numbers of us pray for leaders, a mighty invisible spiritual force lifts our minds and eyes toward God. His Spirit flows through our prayer to them, and He can speak to them directly [italics mine].

We can do more for the world with prayer than if we were to walk into Whitehall, London, or the Kremlin in Moscow, and tell those men what to do---far more! If they listened to our suggestions, we would probably be more or less wrong. But what God tells them, when they listen to Him, must be right. It is infinitely better for world leaders to listen to God than for them to listen to us.

Most of us will never enter the White House and offer advice to the President. Probably he will never have time to read our letters. But we can give him what is far more important than advice. We can give him a lift into the presence of God, make him hungry for divine wisdom, which is the grandest thing one man ever does for another. We can visit the White House with prayer as many times a day as we think of it, and every such visit makes us a channel between God and the president.
Leaders have particularly difficult tasks in American society, where we sometimes value individualism at the expense of the bigger teams of which we're a part. Americans have always been resistant to authority and leaders find it difficult to get people to row in the same direction. Yet, we clearly need leaders. When we encourage them, they become better leaders and every endeavor they lead is more successful for it. That's a win-win situation.

More on encouragement coming...

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 3

I've read or heard the story many times and I believe it's true. It seems that a little boy went to a Vacation Bible School at a church near his home and on returning, tearfully recounted to his mother what a terrible experience it had been. Some of the kids saw that his ears were outsized for his small head and began to make fun of him, calling him, Ozzie the Rabbit, over and over again.

The mother listened to her son pour out his anguished heart and then said, "You know, you do sort of look like a rabbit. That's a good nickname for you." So, the boy's own mother picked up where the bullies had left off in tearing down his self-esteem.

Can you imagine how crushed that little fellow must have felt that day? Now imagine the burden on his psyche of year-after-bruising year of being subjected to those kinds of emotional assaults by his own mother.

Ozzie grew, not surprisingly, to become a misfit. He succeeded at nothing in his life. His wife regularly berated him, just as his mother had.

Perhaps it was to prove to the world that he could accomplish something, even if what he accomplished was a horrific crime, that Ozzie---Lee Harvey Oswald---took a high-powered rifle to the sixth-floor of the Texas Book Depository on November 22, 1963, to shoot and kill President John Kennedy. Within days, Oswald's short and pathetic life would be brought to an end when an emotionally unstable nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, shot him.

Nothing can justify Oswald's crime, of course. But a pathologically discouraging mother may go a long way toward explaining why he killed our President.

Martin Luther, the sixteenth century church reformer, was fond of saying that there is no higher responsibility in the world than that belonging to a parent. Nobody---not kings, presidents, star athletes, or pop stars---has as great an impact on the life of a child than does a mother or a father.

And among the most important parental responsibilities is that of being an encourager for our kids. Speaking to a decidedly patriarchal society in which fathers ruled families like dictators govern police states, the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul gave this advice to dads, conveying the Christian perspective:
Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. (Colossians 3:21)
My wife and I have been blessed with two great kids, now aged 23 and 20. We certainly have made our mistakes as parents. But from the time our children were small, we tried to make our home an oasis of stability, love, acceptance, and faith in a sometimes turbulent and psyche-bashing world. We hoped and prayed that we could give encouragement to our kids.

Here are a few of the informal principles that we tried to keep in mind as our kids were growing up:

(1) Our children are only on loan to us. They are not our possessions. God gives children to we parents and charges us with two key responsibilities:
  • to prepare them for independent adult livng and
  • to introduce them to the God Who loves them and wants what's best for them (even more than we do as parents).
(2) It's okay to say, "No" to our kids. But we should do it for the right reasons. I once read the advice of a child psychologist who said that if parents aren't telling their kids, "No" about seventy-five per cent of the time, they're doing a disservice to the children. I don't know about the percentage. But the advice rings true to me. Too many parents say, "Yes" to their kids' whims and demands because they feel so guilty about spending so little time with the children. They try to fill the gaps and holes in their relationships with money and stuff.

Furthermore, kids who are told "Yes" all the time have an unrealistic understanding of the world. Let's face it, life can be difficult. As adults, we run into disappointments and difficulties. The world tells us, "No." It's good for kids to know this and to be prepared for it.

On the other hand, parents often tell their kids, "No" for illegitimate reasons. Moms tell their children that they can't participate in athletics or go to the mall with friends because she doesn't want to make the effort of carting the kids back and forth. Dads keep eyes glued on sporting events they don't even care about, rather than saying, "Yes" to games of catch.

(3) Be involved with your kids' education; see their teachers as teammates. I know a number of people who are involved in education professionally. To a person they tell me, "It's usually the parents who don't need to be there who come to the open houses and parent-teacher conferences." The parents who need to be there don't take the time to show up for these events or to try setting up separate meetings with their kids' teachers if necessary. These are also the same parents who don't make sure the kids are doing their home work and often, have no idea where their children might be from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. on school days. (This is also why I'm a huge supporter of the Boys and Girls Clubs.)

(4) I first heard psychologist James Dobson say it: The way parents spell love is T-I-M-E. When people talk about spending "quality time" with their children, it's just responsibility-dodging rhetoric. Any parent of an adolescent knows that the first four or five times you ask a teen how their day was, you'll get answers like non-committal shrugs, or "Okay," or "It was alright." It's only after you spend some time with a youngster, TV turned off, that they start to open up. Spending sufficient time with our kids is what creates the quality in our relationships with them.

(5) Remember that unconditional acceptance and clear, consistently-enforced limits are two sides of a single coin. That coin is love and nothing so encourages a child than a parent's love.

(6) Pray for your child each day. This is the most important one of all. Ask God to watch over your kids because God can accomplish things in your child's life that you might not even think of. I've seen that time and again.

On the days my wife told me that she was expecting both of our children, I began to pray for them daily, an unbroken habit to this day. All these years, I've even prayed regularly that God would help them to have and be faithful Christian spouses. In August, our daughter returned from an eight-month internship at Walt Disney World and told us that she had met her Prince Charming. I can tell you that her fiance is just what I was praying for all these years...a made-to-order husband for our girl, surely sent by God. Their wedding next Summer will be a tremendous celebration of how God blesses when we parents are humble enough to admit that we don't have all the answers and that we need God!

Now, let's be clear. Each of these principles have been our ideals as parents. My wife did a better job of conforming to them than I did. But I believe that I can report that they worked for us. I believe that they'll work for all parents.

The Danger of Labels

Recent posts by two bloggers I really enjoy demonstrate how dangerosuly inaccurate stereotyping can be.

Mark Sides, a lawyer in Minnesota, is a committed Christian who is politically conservative. He supported George Bush in the recent presidential election.

Deborah White is a committed Christian who is politically liberal. She was an ardent supporter of John Kerry.

You may find their posts interesting.

Here is Mark's. (Scroll down to his November 29, 2004 post called, "Cities for Life---NO to the Death Penalty.")

Here is Deborah's. (Hers is titled, "Abortion is the New US Prohibition---A Plea to the Democrats.")

Their posts suggest that not only is it dangerous for others to stereotype Christians, it's also problematic when some Christians (and neither Mark or Deborah do this) claim that their political views are the Christian ones. Christians have many varied political opinions.

On the Slippery Slope to the Culture of Death in the Netherlands

This story about the apparent sanctioning of infant euthanasia in the Netherlands is deeply troubling. Those in favor of euthanasia have long argued that terminally ill patients should be allowed to decide when to end their lives. Apparently, many in the Netherlands now believe that parents and medical professionals should have the right to make such decisions for infants. I'm going to be praying about this situation.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 2

As a young pastor serving in a church in rural northwestern Ohio, I loved my work. I loved the parish and all its people. But as a city kid, I found the winters in that flat one-time swampland depressing and difficult. The grey skies of the season reached right down to the earth, enveloping my whole world with a cold grimness. Every winter, I got depressed.

But each winter, just as I was feeling my bluest, it seemed, my office telephone would ring. On the other end would be my colleague and mentor, Pastor Ron Claussen.

"I was wondering," Ron would start, "if you'd like to go out for lunch?"

I always said, "Yes."

When we had our lunches, Ron didn't say much. He'd just ask how things were going and I would vent. Ron asked clarifying questions and when I sought his advice, offered wise counsel.

It was many years later that I learned the truth about Ron's uncannily-timed lunch invitations. My wife, concerned about my blue moods, would call Ron up and say, "I think it's time." Then, Ron would call me in order to set up a time for reconstructing my battered little psyche. He did that largely, by making himself available to simply listen to me.

In my first post on the power of encouragement, I said that encouragers can make a tremendous difference in people's lives. But what do those who encourage others actually do?

I suppose our usual mental picture of an encourager is of a person who rattles off words of inspiration, a glad-handing personal cheerleader. But I've learned that may not be the case. Saint Francis of Assissi is often cited for saying, "Preach the Gospel every way you can and if necessary, use words." I find this also to be true of giving encouragement: Often we encourage others without using words, or at least, using them sparingly.

Here are a few the less verbal ways that we can encourage others.

First: We can listen. That's what Ron did for me when I got blue as a young pastor. In the Old Testament book of Job, as I mentioned in my series called When Suffering Hits the Innocent, a good man, Job, undergoes one tragedy after another. Understandably, Job wonders why all this has befallen him. He even wonders about God's fairness and love.

Three friends come to visit Job, a wonderful gesture. For a long time, they listen to him. But then they make the mistake of opening their mouths, trying to explain Job's situation.

As the story unfolds, we see that while they were listening, Job's friends were helpful. When they spoke, they made matters worse. There's a lesson for all of us in their experience.

When we listen to others, we tell them that we value them, that they're worthy people. In his classic (and admittedly, sometimes shallow) book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells the story of a woman who made a point of listening to her child. Once, in the midst of one of her youngster's talkfests, the little boy said, "Mommy, I know you love me very much." "Of course I do, dear. But what makes you say it now?" "Because you always listen to me."

By listening to others, we validate their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. After my talks with Ron, I felt like a more capable, competent, and worthy person. The skies didn't seem so oppressive any longer. Possibilities that my blue funk obscured were visible again.

Second: Another verbally sparse form of encouragement we can offer others is prayer. In his fantastic book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Quaker theologian and writer Richard J. Foster talks about how a teacher friend of his dealt with some of his students. Foster writes:
[This]...friend...teaches emotionally handicapped children [and] decided God wanted him to pray for them. Of course, he did not tell the children what he was doing; he simply did it. When one of the children would crawl under his desk and assume a fetal position, my teacher friend would take the child in his arms and pray silently that the resurrected Christ would heal the hurt and the self-hate within the boy. So as not to embarrass him, the teacher would walk around the room continuing his regular classroom duties while he prayed. After a while the child would relax and was soon back at his desk.
Foster reports that for the balance of that school year during which his friend sensed God's call to pray for his students. he found creative ways to do so. Then, Foster writes:
By the end of the school year, every child but two was able to return to a regular classroom. Coincidence? Perhaps, but as Archbishop William Temple notes, the coincidences occur much more frequently when he prays.
I've certainly found that to be the case. Years ago, a woman approached me and said that while she loved her husband dearly and was committed to their marriage, he was so prickly and crabby that she could hardly stand to be around him. "Would you be willing to talk with him?" she asked me. "If he wants to talk with me, yes," I told her. But I cautioned her that unless he wanted to talk with me, any conversation we might have on his relationship with her would be futile.

"But," I asked her, "could I suggest something else? Why not pray for him?" I think that she was a little miffed by this suggestion. It seemed so cliche, just what you'd expect a preacher to say.

A few months later, I was speaking with this woman when she said, "Mark, do you remember when you suggested that I pray for my husband?" "Sure," I told her.

"Well, I really thought it was sort of a silly suggestion at the time. But you know what? I started doing it and it really seems to work." She went on to say that she couldn't be sure whether she or her husband had changed more as a result of her daily prayers for him. Either way, he had clearly been encouraged to behave differently.

A final verbally spare form of encouragement we can offer to others is a good example. One of the boldest things that the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul ever wrote was, "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us." (Philippians 3:17) These would seem like the words of an egomaniac if you didn't otherwise know about the humility of Paul. But because he knew he lived a life of constant repentance and renewal from God, Paul felt comfortable in calling others to follow his example.

What sort of example is your life? Does it give encouragement to others?

I have to confess that much of the time, my life may not be much of a positive encouragement to other people. I sin and make mistakes. I dig in my heels when I'm wrong. I have a boatload of bad habits. Still, I ask God each day for the ability to be an encouraging example of faithful living. God seems to answer that prayer..when I don't get in the way!

When my son was in middle school, I coached his recreation league basketball team. Over three years, we compiled an unbelievable 0 and 33 record. For me, the experience was incredibly frustrating and I could hardly believe it when, at the conclusion of the last game of that third season, several players and their parents asked me when our first practice for the next year was going to be. I'd had it. I hung up my whistle and never looked back.

About five years later, I got a telephone call. It was a young man who had played on the team. Shortly after that final season, he and his family moved to another state. He was back in town, visiting his grandmother. "I wanted you to know how much I appreciated playing for you," he told me. "All these years, my grandma has been sending me copies of your newspaper columns and I keep them in a scrapbook. You were the best coach I could have had and I had to tell you that I just volunteered to coach a rec-league basketball team. I want to be a coach like you."

When I hung up the telephone, I had tears in my eyes. Suddenly, all those practices and games when I felt frustrated because ten young men couldn't run a single play as instructed seemed worthwhile. It turned out that I'd coached a basketball team not to coach basketball, but to encourage a few young men in their personal growth and development. I felt guilty about all the frustration I'd felt and sometimes vented. And I felt grateful for the opportunity God had given me to be an encouragement to those guys over the course of three years.

There are many ways we can encourage others and we don't always do it through our words. Sometimes we encourage others by listening, by praying, or by asking God to help us to be good examples.

More to come...

Monday, November 29, 2004

Just for Fun: My Five Favorite Bands of All Time

While tooling around my van these days, I'm enjoying the new release from U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, a belated fifty-first birthday gift from my son. It's a stunning piece of work! Lyrically challenging, musically satisfying. Even appreciative reviews have pointed out that U2 doesn't cover any new musical ground in this LP, eschewing the experimentation that marked collections like Achtung Baby. But what they have done is further flesh out the style they have been perfecting since their first records in the 80s. U2 is an original band, but you can also occasionally hear them pay homage to their musical influences---including Roy Orbison, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and others. The Edge's guitar work on this collection is absolutely on fire. And of course, U2's passion for Christ and for people is very much on display.

So, just for fun, here are my five favorite bands of all time (at least tonight)...

1. The Beatles
2. U2
3. Switchfoot
4. Delirious?
5. Audio Adrenaline
[Honorable mention: The Eagles]
[Special mention: The Dave Clark Five]

Who's on your list?

The Power of Encouragement, Part 1

In the twenty-one years I spent as a student in schools, stretching from the day I entered Kindergarten at age four through my time at The Ohio State University and later, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, I had lots of really good teachers. But three of them stand out.

The first was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Everett. In Room #1 of Westgate Elementary School, Mrs. Everett ran a tight ship. There, a prophecy of my dad's, uttered after the first parent-teacher conference of the year, proved prescient: "If Mark doesn't learn from her, he can't learn." Well, I did learn. To this day, some forty-two years later, lessons that Mrs. Everett taught, academic and otherwise, still reverberate in my mind.

Then there was my twelfth grade English Composition teacher, Mrs. Rosemary Leuchter. Her life was the stuff from which novels are made. Before I met her, she had been the only teacher in a one-room New England school house; a physical therapist who cared for wounded soldiers and sailors returning from World War Two's Pacific theater; and a teacher of English at Columbia University. She so prepared us for the challenges and rigors of college work that in proficiency tests I took at the outset of my undergraduate career, I was given credit for all my required English classes at Ohio State, fifteen hours-worth of course work. In my four years of college and four years of seminary graduate training, though an indifferent student, I rarely scored lower than an A on research papers. Mrs. Leuchter had taught us how to do them successfully.

The final outstanding teacher of my academic career was one of my professors of New Testament, the late Bruce Schein. Pastor Schein, who had his doctorate from Yale University and had served for twelve years as pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Jerusalem, taught us by the interrogative method. He expected us to do our reading and research on the day's topics in advance of each class period and then, through a series of sometimes pushy questions, Schein extracted insights from us that we hadn't even known were there. It's an odd thing to say about students at an overtly Christian institution, but frankly, some of my classmates almost hated Bruce Schein. For my part, I must say that I learned a lot from him. In addition, his obvious and enthusiastic faith in Jesus, co-existing with a first-rate mind engaged in impressive scholarship, had a huge impact on me.

Each of these three teachers were demanding and stern, in their ways.

But they all had some other things in common. Chief among them is that they cared and they encouraged each of us.

They did so not with compliments or hugs, both of which can be used appropriately to bring encouragement to people. Instead, it was in their stringent demands for excellence that they showed how much they cared and by which they encouraged us to do our best.

For a person like me, prone to a lack of self-discipline, their styles were hugely encouraging. Their approaches to us expressed their belief that we could do better than any of us might have dreamed possible.

Over the next several days, I'll be talking about the power of encouragement. One thing that I've learned is that anybody can be an encourager. That includes you and me.

In two different letters which appear in the New Testament portion of the Bible and that are the handiwork of the first-century preacher and evangelist, Paul, a man named Tychicus is mentioned. We know very little about Tychicus. But Paul mentions him in two places: in a letter to the Ephesian church and in another to the church in Colossae.

To the church at Ephesus, Paul says that he's sending Tychicus to "encourage your hearts," assuring believers there that Paul was okay.

To the Colossians, Paul says, "I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts."

Great biographies have not been written about Tychicus. But it's obvious that Paul, clearly a great and important person himself, thought highly of Tychicus and of the power of the encouragement he could bring to people.

Encouragement comes in many different forms. We'll be talking about those in these posts. But it's always the result of a conscious decision by one person to infuse another with the courage and the hope to become and to do their very best. The decision to be an encourager is one that I hope you will make, if you haven't done so already. The impact of that decision can be extraordinary!

In his great book, Bringing Out the Best in People, Alan Loy McGinnis tells the true tale of a girl raised amid the scrub brush of a large ranch in Arizona. The four-room adobe house where she grew up had none of the modern conveniences. There wasn't even a school close-by. But this girl's parents sought to create an intellectually-stimulating environment for both her and her brother. They subscribed to many magazines. They taught the children at home until they were old enough to go off to boarding school. One summer, their parents loaded the two children into a car and went to every state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Said the girl's brother: "We climbed the dome of every building until finally we had to come home."

Ultimately, the girl, named Sandra, went to Stanford University and then to law school. In time, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Writes McGinnis:
On the day of her swearing in, the Day family was there...During the ceremony [Sandra's brother Alan] watched her closely as she put on her robe, then walked to her seat among the justices. "She looked around, saw the family and locked her eyes right into ours," said Alan. "That's when the tears started falling."

What causes a woman like Sandra Day O'Connor to go so far? Intelligence, of course. And lots of inner drive. But much of the credit goes to a determined little ranch woman sitting in her adobe house at night, reading to her children hour after hour, and to parents scampering up the stairways of capitol domes, their children in tow.
In these posts, I want to encourage you to be an encourager. I believe that if all of us can learn to bring encouragement to others, the positive impact on our lives and on the world will be incalculable.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

How to Wait (First Sunday in Advent)

Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
[This message was shared this morning with the people of Friendship Church. The three major lessons extracted from the Romans passage which I talk about here are taken from a message written by Pastor Billy Compton and appearing in the Abingdon Preacher's Annual 2004. They distill the passage well.]

Years ago---long before most of the members of Friendship were born---the late Peggy Lee wrote and recorded a song called, Is That All There Is? The words are so depressing, you'd swear it was a country song. It was really sort of a proto-rap tune because the verses were spoken, the chorus and bridge were sung.

The first verse begins with the song's narrator describing a fire that destroys her childhood home. After the flames have died down, her father asks, “Is that all there is?”

In the second verse, she goes to a circus and watches the spectacle, but still feels that something is missing. “Is that all there is?” she asks.

Next, she turns to a love that didn’t stand the test of time and is led to ask, “Is that all there is to love?”

Lee’s chorus, drenched in the heartsick worldliness and sensual cynicism that were her trademarks, says, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing; Let’s break out the booze and have a ball; If that’s all there is.”

As much as you and I would rightly call Peggy Lee’s song a real downer, I suspect that it speaks for more of the human race--even the Christian parts of the human race--than we might want to admit.

So many of the things we invest our hope in---from romantic love to the dream job, from the nice house in the nice neighborhood to the perfect holiday seasons--prove either elusive or flat-out disappointing. As wonderful as any of these things can be, none are capable of delivering the happiness, peace, or sense of fulfillment we often demand of them.

One California pastor has recently put me onto a book about contemporary America, written by journalist Craig Easterbrook called, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. It seems that in this era of immediate gratification, millions are still asking, “Is that all there is?”

Baptist pastor Billy Compton tells about a phone call he received from his college student-son at one in the morning. He’d just experienced a “defining moment” in his life and was anxious to share it with his dad. His son then began to describe how, after arriving on campus, he began indulging in all the activities he simply presumed were normal for college students. He explained that he’d been under the wrong impression that “everybody” did these things for four years, graduated, and then settled down, grew up, and did the normal things “like getting a job, marrying” and so on.

But now, Compton says, his son told him: “He had not planned on God intervening in his plan for a ‘normal’ life. When he would go to bed at night...he remembered verses of ‘Amazing Grace’ he had learned growing up in church. The song caused him to think of his life’s condition.”

He realized that this life style wouldn’t be so easy to discard if he held onto it for four years. He remembered people he’d known who themselves had graduated and really hadn’t moved on. They were still mired in constant partying and immaturity. Compton writes, “My son felt God speaking to him, seeking him out to end his lifestyle, and make his life count as a Christian.”

Both of our Bible lessons for today talk about waiting. That’s really what this Advent season that we begin today is about. Not only is it a four-Sunday period during which we await Christmas. It's also about the time when, at the end of our days on earth, all with faith in Christ will meet Him in eternity. And it’s also a time when we’re reminded that we await the return of Jesus at the end of time. When Jesus comes back to the earth, He will set everything right and He will kick off the final fulfillment of His never-ending kingdom.

Meanwhile, you and I are called upon to adopt a lifestyle composed of three elements. Paul talks about them in his words to us from Romans today. They’re the very elements present in that college student’s “defining moment.”

First, we need to wake up and see the true condition of our lives. In his story, The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis writes about two children from our world sent into the alternative universe of Narnia. There, they’re joined by an amphibias-like creature named Puddleglum and are charged with the task of liberating a prince imprisoned in the depths of the earth by the spell of an evil witch. The children and Puddleglum break the prince’s spell. But as they prepare to make their escape, the witch arrives. Like the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve, she uses subtlety to try to convince the prince and them that the artificial world she has created and over which she presides is the real one, not the places where they once lived and ran and thrived. It wasn’t until they “woke up” from the sleepy state her spell had induced that they saw things as they really are.

The reason for so much of the disappointment and cynicism people feel is that they’ve put their ultimate hope in the dying stuff of this world. Instead of putting their hope in the endless riches of God’s love, they live their lives for the riches of money. Instead of placing their hope in the love of Christ that liberates us to become our best selves, they expect spouses, children, and friends--like well-trained pets--to love them and make them happy.

Whether we’ve never surrendered to Jesus Christ or we’ve been walking with Him our whole lives, we will need to spend our lives, in the words of an old hymn, shaking off “dull sloth,” trashing the sleepy inertia that comes from being lured by sin and the values of this world. We’re in constant need of letting God wake us and shake us to the new life that can be ours as we surrender yet another part of our lives to Christ.

So, we need to wake up and see the true conditions of our lives.

We also need to assess our lifestyles. Do they conform to God’s will for our lives? The happiness experienced by those who live without God in their lives is shallow and short-lived. (Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. I have tried many times, even in my years as a Christian, to try to live my way rather than God's. God's way is better!) Those who strive each day to follow God have a happiness that does not end, even when life gets hard.

Take a seemingly insignificant example. A man I know recently told me that increasingly lately, he’d found himself falling into the pattern of taking God’s Name in vain. He wasn’t cussing anybody out, really. He was just using God’s Name as an apostrophe or a space-filler in his sentences. He didn’t even notice at first.

A fellow Christian and a good friend saw this and finally told him, “You know, Ted, I’ve noticed that you’ve been doing this a lot lately. I’m not God. But I wonder what this new habit might be doing to your relationship with God and how others see your faith.”

To his credit, Ted, took his friend’s words to heart. He remembered Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of the Second Commandment: “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain” and realized that God gave us the privilege of using His Name only for “prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.”

Ted had been using God’s Name for purposes other than those for which God had given it in the first place; in other words, he’d used God’s Name in vain. He also realized that over the months that this habit had taken hold of him, there had been a slow erosion of his respect for God. He felt sure too, that his unchurched friends had heard him and thought less of him and of the God he claimed to follow.

Ted’s assessment of this one element of his lifestyle led him to repent for his sin and to ask for God’s help in treating His Name with greater respect.

We need to see the true conditions of our lives and we need to assess our lifestyles.

We also need to change our wardrobe. I’m not talking about changing our clothes. Paul says that we need to put off the works of darkness---that means life without God---and instead, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s all very fine for us to know our faults and want to turn from them. But until we cover ourselves with the forgiveness and power of Jesus Christ, we will be incapable of living the lives that both God and we expect of us.

The writer of our Bible lesson, Paul, wrestled with this himself. In another part of Romans he writes: “I can will what is right [in other words, I can make all sorts of resolutions], but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do.”

Have you ever felt that way? I sure have and often do. Several shelves of my books at home contain programs of self-improvement. But the fact is that until I let Jesus Christ take control of me---all its nooks, crannies, relationships, and habits---I am incapable of doing little more than tweaking around the edges of my life. Jesus Christ can change us from the inside out, if we will only let Him. But it's a process, one with which God is willing to be patient and with which He asks us to be equally patient.

Today, we’re waiting for Christmas, we're waiting for the moment when we see Jesus face to face, and we’re awaiting the return for our Savior Jesus at the end of the world.

All of these events will prove disappointing, the latter eternally disappointing, unless we learn how to wait.

Christmas morning will arrive, the ends of our lives will come, and the world will end and we’ll ask, “Is that all there is?”... unless we can make the three elements of holy waiting that Paul talks about in our lesson today become integral to our lifestyles.
  • We need to wake up and see the true conditions of our lives.
  • We need to assess our lifestyles.
  • We need to cover ourselves with the love, grace, and power of Christ.
If we open our hearts and wills to Jesus this morning, our question will change. We’ll no longer ask, "Is that all there is?"

Instead, we'll ask God, “Is there no end to the goodness You bring to me, Lord?”

And God will say, “No, My Child, the good stuff will be yours forever and ever.” Amen!