Saturday, July 12, 2003

(Comments on passages from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that have jumped out at me in my studies through the years.)

Proverbs 3:5: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.

Relying on our own “wisdom” ends in disaster. I know! God is the reliable source for wisdom, insight, and guidance. That’s why we should precede our decisions with seasons of prayer, Bible study, and gathering good information and advice.

Proverbs 3:6: In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.

God forgive me the many ways I have failed to acknowledge you in my life! I have caused myself untold trouble and wasted effort in my life by following crooked paths of my own design, rather than following the straight and narrow way laid out by God.

Proverbs 3:7: Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

This is a call to repentance! (Repentance means to turn away from rebellion against God and to turn to following God.) Being wise in [our] own eyes is certainly a prescription for disaster. God wants us to be confident, I think. But our confidence should reside in an awareness that the actions we’re undertaking in life are rooted in Him, not our own limited insights and wisdom. One of my major problems in life has to do with my trusting what I think, rather than what God wants! I become conceited regarding my ability to think, failing to remember that my ability to think comes from God. Galatians 5:26 says, "Let us not become conceited..."
“The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day...I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me, and 90 percent how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes.” (Charles Swindoll, quoted in Richard G. Capen, Jr., Finish Strong: Living Your Faith in the Secular World and Inspiring Others in the Process, p.121)

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God 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, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.

"Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the Name that is above every name..." (Philippians 2:5-9)

Many things happen to us in life. But each of us can choose how we react to the things that happen to us. Jesus chose to give Himself, no matter what. Because He did, He won eternity for all who trust Him with their lives (John 3:16).

Anybody who dares to follow Jesus is freed from worrying about his or her place in the world. Followers of Jesus are guaranteed a place with God now and forever. So, we're empowered to flush self-centeredness, to embrace God-centeredness, and to love our neighbor.

The love of Jesus Christ at the center of our lives enables us to live life with different attitudes. And these new attitudes can enable us to change our worlds, one person at a time.

Among the books I'm reading these days is John Powell's Happiness is an Inside Job. In one section, Powell remembers a column by humorist Art Buchwald titled, "My Friend, the Cabbie, and New York City."

Buchwald's friend was intent on changing the world, starting with New York. He decided to have a different attitude toward those around him and to give people as much praise and affirmation as possible.

After a particularly harrowing cab ride in which this man and Buchwald were passengers, Buchwald's friend told the driver, "You are one of the best drivers I have ever seen. If you had one more coat of paint on your car, you would have hit several of those other cars. But you missed them, and I want to congratulate you."

At first, the cabbie thought that Buchwald's friend was crazy. But when the friend said he meant what he said, the driver broke into a smile that may have lasted the whole day.

Christians have a real advantage in undertaking a program for changing the world like Buchwald's friend: Jesus has already changed our worlds.

He changes us from enemies to friends of God.

He changes us from listless people to people with purpose for living.

He changes us from sinners without hope to forgiven sinners with an eternity of hope.

Jesus is our strong foundation and from that foundation we can freely choose new attitudes of love, affirmation, and praise for the world around us.

Do I always live with this new attitude? No, the old sinful me is still alive. But I feel like a voting public following a November election in which they threw the old rascals out. I know that the old Mark is on his way out. Christ has given me a new me (Second Corinthians 5:17).

That's the way it is for all followers of Jesus. Prayerfully, we ask God to help us live with the attitudes and values of our new and better selves. Every time we do so, evil takes another hit and the lives of those around us are made a little better.

Consciously adopting this attitude, leaning on God to help us be our better selves, also changes us. Last night, my wife, daughter, and I saw Michael W. Smith perform. He sang his song, "Live the Life" which contains the line: "Every act of love will set you free."

I believe that. We need to surrender our lives to Christ and then live lives of surrender, starting with taking on the attitudes of loving servants.

That's God's plan for changing the world, really, and it's fun being part of it!

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

(Comments on passages from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that have jumped out at me in my studies through the years.)

Proverbs 1:32-33:
For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.

These two verses give the promise of wisdom: those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.

Proverbs 2:3:
...if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding [then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God, v.5]

Here, we’re exhorted to ask for wisdom and understanding. James picks up on this in the New Testament. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, Who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5) God wants to give us the wisdom to understand Him and ourselves and our niches in life. But God will not force anything upon us. He gives us the freedom to ask or to ignore Him.

Proverbs 2:6:
For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding...

God is the Author and Giver of wisdom. Receiving wisdom is intrinsically tied to the fear of the Lord (1:7).

Proverbs 3:1-2:
My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.

In the hubbub of life, it is so easy for me to forget God and His wisdom for my life. James talks about this too. “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing.” (James 1:23-25) Pray, soak up God’s Word, live it, go back to praying again. Without the twin disciplines of time with God and living what God teaches us, we too easily fall prey to our own covetousness and the evil around us.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

"I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic--there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others." (C.S. Lewis in his classic, Mere Christianity)
Over the past several years, I've made a regular look at the Proverbs a part of my routine in life. These maxims, nuggets of wisdom given by God to the Old Testament King Solomon give all sorts of practical, uplifting guidance for the living of life. People like Billy Graham, world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, church planter Steve Sjogren, and numerous leaders in business, politics, and the Arts have all made Proverbs an element of their daily lives. So, on a regular basis, I will present outstanding verses from the Proverbs here, along with my reflections on them. Here's the first installment...

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel.

For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young--Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.
(Proverbs 1:1-6, New Revised Standard Version)

Proverbs 1:1-6 This constitutes a “mission statement” for the book of Proverbs. It’s ambitious. I think it’s interesting that in verse 5 it says, “Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill.” Nobody has ever fully “arrived.” There’s always more wisdom God can give to us.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)

Proverbs 1:7 If the first six verses present the book’s mission statement, this verse gives its underlying premise. Awe, respect, reverence, fear for God is the beginning of true wisdom. Conceit, self-will, seeking “wisdom” for my own selfish purposes---all these things squeeze out God. We cannot be wise without a reverence for God, a recognition that God is God and we’re not.

Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors. (Proverbs 1:19)

Proverbs 1:19 Covetousness in the end, kills the coveter--either physically or in some other way in this life and most certainly in the life to come. Coveting is a “foundational sin,” one that leads to other sin--stealing, idolatry, adultery, murder. The words of Proverbs 1:10 offer simple advice, My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. Resist temptation. Flee temptation. Depend on God.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Changing Your World:
By Being a Witness
Mark 6:1-13

Our Bible lesson for this morning finds Jesus sending His twelve closest followers out into the world to call people to turn to Him for life. Jesus does this at a very interesting juncture in His ministry. I suppose some might question His motivational methods. Right after the people of His hometown of Nazareth are so disbelieving that Jesus can’t get His message through to their hearts and because of their failure to trust Him, He’s unable to bring much healing to those in need, He calls His followers together. He tells them, “Okay, guys, it’s your turn. You get to be My witnesses.”

The disciples might have been as inclined to tune Jesus out as most contemporary Christ-followers are when the preacher reminds them that we’re all called to be witnesses. But Jesus bolstered the disciples’ confidence by giving them a strategy for witnessing. It’s a good strategy for you and me as well.

So, here’s Jesus’ five-part strategy for rescuing the dying people you and I encounter every day.

First: We need to make sure we have support. Jesus sent the disciples out in groups of two. Like police officers wading into challenging situations, when you make bold to share Christ, always have a buddy. As witnesses for Christ, at the very least, we need buddies who are supporting us in prayer. I want you to know that every day, I pray for you. I ask that God will help the people of our congregation to resist temptation and sin, to have our reputations protected, and to help us all be faithful in taking the opportunities we have to share Jesus with others.

Second: We need to remember that we go with Jesus’ authority to be His witnesses. Jesus told the disciples that they had His power over the unclean spirits of the world. Elsewhere, He says that we have that same authority and that as His followers, we have the capacity to accomplish the same deeds He accomplished while He was on the earth...and more! One of the songs our kids sang for us last Sunday reminds us, “we don’t need excuses” when we are God’s hands and feet! We have Jesus’ authority to be His witnesses. And you needn’t worry if you’re not an eloquent speaker. Saint Francis of Assisi was fond of saying, “Preach often and if necessary, use words.” When Jesus is at the center of our lives, He can use our whole lives to help others know Him.

Third: We need to depend on Jesus. Jesus told the disciples not to worry about taking a lot of props with them. One person walking faithfully with God can accomplish everything that God expects of them.

Fourth: Focus on one relationship at a time. I call this the no-flit rule. Jesus told the disciples that when they came to a new town, they were to go to one house and so long as those people welcomed them, to stick around. As it applies to us in our less peripatetic lifestyles, I think that means we’re not to give up on people. We’re to befriend them and pour the love of Jesus into their lives. Every one of us needs to be genuine friends to people who don’t know Christ and so long as they will have us in their lives, we’re to stay the course. We need to love them, support them, encourage them, and be there for them. If we can share Christ with one person and they come to faith, they in turn can pass Christ onto the next person. Jesus’ kingdom grows by just such simple addition and multiplication. We’re to befriend others and then introduce them to our best friend, Jesus. For many months now, I’ve been meeting regularly for Bible study with an unchurched man. I have no idea if it’s changing his life yet. But I am committed to continuing to meet with him. I owe that to Christ and to him.

Fifth: Don’t be discouraged when people reject your witness for Christ. It will happen. The first church office I had as a layperson was chairperson of the elders at our home congregation in Columbus. Part of my job was evangelism and the other part was rounding up the members who had quit coming to church. I decided that I would start visiting people, making appointments to see the lapsed church members and going door to door in the neighborhood near our home church’s building to invite them to worship with us. I had lots of doors shut in my face. And it wasn’t just the non-churchgoing folks who did that! Try to share Christ and you will get some people who reject you. Our Bible lesson shows us that even the folks in Jesus’ hometown turned their backs on Him! But like Jesus, we need to keep on keepin’ on. When people spurn us, Jesus says, we just shake off the dust and move on. There is a dying world in need of the only One Who can give it life: our best friend, Jesus! Good fishermen don’t worry about the ones who got away; they savor the ones they catch!

Babe Ruth once gave his strategy for success as a batter in baseball: “I keep swinging until I hit one.” As successful as Ruth was, he still missed getting on base about seven times out of every ten at bats. Our call as witnesses for Christ is to keep on making friends so that at least some of the time, we can connect the love and hope that only Jesus gives to people who need Him. Even if we sometimes fail at this central mission for our lives, we need to keep swinging. We need to be Christ’s witnesses. Nothing we can do with our lives is more important or more fulfilling!
Changing Your World:
By Being a Witness
Mark 6:1-13

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 6, 2003]

There’s a true story told of a Russian novelist whose hobby was catching and mounting butterflies. One day while out on an expedition, he spied a specie of butterfly not yet included in his collection. He caught it and came home to his wife, excited about his find. Then, as an afterthought, he mentioned that while out in the rough hills, he’d encountered a man who had fallen and was bleeding badly. “Did you help him?” the writer’s wife wondered. “No,” he said blankly, “I had to catch that butterfly.”

We hear stories like that and we shake our heads. We wonder how people can be so cruel and insensitive. Yet, when I examine my life with something approaching objectivity, I realize that I too can be cruel and insensitive. I sometimes wonder how often in my lifetime I’ve had the ability to give someone encouragement, hope, or life and have failed to do so. How many times have I been so hung up on my agenda that I have overlooked the people around me who have been laid low by life, who are dying in one way or another?

The Bible makes it clear that without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we human beings have no hope for this life or the next. Jesus came into this world to show the compassionate face of God to the whole human race. Although every person is born a slave of sin, Jesus can set us free. When we repent—that means to turn away from sin and turn toward Christ—we receive forgiveness for our sin. The wall that exists between us and the perfect God of the universe from the moment we’re born is torn down for us by Christ. When we trust Jesus as our only God and Savior, we become reconciled to God and we have life with Him forever.

And every person who has received the gifts of reconciliation with God and new life through Jesus Christ has a mission. We’re called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. It’s okay to spend time catching butterflies, or playing football, or writing poetry, or selling software, or installing plumbing, fixing cars, raising children, reading the latest Harry Potter book, savoring a pizza, or any of the millions and millions of other things we might do in the course of our days. But we’re not ever to be so focused on those things that we neglect our highest goal as human beings and our greatest task as followers of Jesus Christ: to rescue people who will die unless they know Jesus too. We are to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.

I know...just the phrase “witnesses for Jesus Christ’ conjures up images of high pressure zealots going door to door with literature or of sidewalk preachers yelling at people to repent. But being a witness for Christ doesn’t have to be a negative thing. A man I know is a successful businessperson and a committed follower of Christ. A co-worker of his had always spurned Christ and the Church. But as this co-worker observed the purposefulness and the joy of his believing colleague and how he seemed to maintain his balance and his hope even when bad things happened, he was impressed. When the co-worker’s life hit a terrible snag, he approached my friend and asked why Christ made such a difference in his life. My friend was able to say that while of course, neither he or his life were perfect, it was Jesus Christ Who made all the difference in his world. Through that man’s witness, that co-worker came to faith in Christ and his life has changed dramatically for the better. Witnesses for Christ are the ones who turn aside from catching butterflies in order to bring life to a world that is dying without Jesus!

[more to come below...]