Thursday, December 29, 2011

Radical Commitment

What is your attitude toward obedience?
a.         I’ll do what I want.  I don’t care what God wants me to do.
b.        If God will give me what I want first, then I’ll give Him what He wants.
c.         I’ll give God what He wants first, with faith that He’ll give me what I want.
d.        I’ll give God what He wants, regardless of what He gives me.

I think most of us hover between c and d, right?  Well, I do anyway.  The problem is, though, that God isn’t asking us to “kinda, sorta, on my terms” commit to following Him.  He wants 100% commitment.
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’
 “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’        He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’“But the man replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’“ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
“Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’
“Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”  Luke 9:57-62
That’s rough!  Are we sure we’re ready for that kind of commitment?  What would that look like in someone’s everyday life?  Can you picture it?

It’s sort of hard to picture isn’t it?  What with daily life getting in the way and all.  But try this:  Picture what the life of a committed Olympic athlete would look like?

That’s a little easier isn’t it?  Check out what some committed athletes do everyday.  All of them say they get up early, anywhere from 4:30 am to 6:30am; then breakfast.  But those are pretty much the easiest parts of their days.  One runner starts her training at 8:30 am (after she’s already taken her dog for a 20 minute walk) by meeting “up with a group of elite runners, for practice, which lasts anywhere from two to four hours and 10 to 24 miles.”  Which she follows with an ice-cold bath.  (that’s what I said!)  Then she does weight training and then runs another four to six miles.  She says she hates parts of what she does, the ice cold bath, specifically, but running is something that she’s committed to.
Here’s a typical day for a water polo player:
“7:30 Time for weights; we lift four days a week, two for upper body and two for lower.
9:00 After weights, a strength circuit; we use stability balls, medicine balls, a slide board, a Spinning bike and wooden boxes to jump on and off of. It's usually about seven exercises, and it's never the same thing twice. By the end of this session, I'm already tired--and we haven't even gotten in the pool yet.9:25 In the pool for a freestyle workout. Through a mix of sprints and longer-distance swims, we cover between 3,000 and 4,000 meters.10:30 We bust out the stretch cords and medicine ball to do a leg circuit in the water. Final drill: Drag a teammate, who is dead weight, across the pool.10:50 Done with first workout.
1:30 Out the door for second practice.2:00 Warm up: Do some laps, throw the ball a bit.2:30 Technique-oriented practice, which sounds easy, but it isn't. If we're working on counter-attacking skills, we'll be swimming back and forth for 90 minutes straight.5:00 Done for the day. I may or may not shower; after being in the water for more than three hours. I'm sick of being wet.”
Now that’s radical commitment!  But do you know any Christians with that kind of commitment to serving God?  People who are willing to get up early, do things they don’t necessarily enjoy doing, training, working, and exhausting themselves for God until the end of the day?  Paul comes to mind, or any of the disciples for that matter.  Even though David, Daniel and Moses weren’t technically Christians, they definitely shared a radical commitment to God.

Some would say that that kind of commitment isn’t possible any more.  We have to have “real” jobs and can’t just spend all day witnessing.  What do you think?  Was being completely committed to God easier during Bible times?  Does God have a different set of standards for us?

You know, like lesson plans:  “Lillianne will complete her sabbath school lesson study 80% of the time with 75% accuracy, with only two verbal or nonverbal reminders.”  Folks during Bible times were responsible for 100% commitment but since life’s harder and busier now, we’re only responsible for 75 to 80% commitment.

I don’t think so!  Do you know that there are people today who are totally committed to Fantasy Football, video games, basketball, or any number of other things.  So what’s stopping you and me from being completely committed to Christ?

Good question.  In the early 1900’s, Lenin set down four “totals” that would be evident in people who were totally committed to communism.  They were:  “total acceptance of the cause, total dedication to the cause, total discipline in the cause, and total action for the cause.”  Those seemed to have worked for Lenin, for a while anyway.  But look at them again, those for “totals” could work for almost anything, couldn’t they?   A committed Christian will display total acceptance of the mission of Jesus; totally dedication to the mission of Jesus; total discipline toward the mission of Jesus and total action for the mission of Jesus. 

Do you accept the word of God as the central force in your life?  Are you totally dedicated to seeing the Gospel preached?  Do you have the discipline to incorporate the Word of God into every aspect of your life?  Are you willing to do something everyday to share the love of Jesus with someone?

That actually sounds like something I could do!  What do you think?

Still not convinced?  Consider this:  Without a radical commitment to Jesus, what will happen when the trials, tribulations and general tough stuff comes along?  Aha!  That’s why we need to be fully committed now – to keep us steady in present and future suffering.  If we don’t have Jesus to hang onto, chances are excellent that we won’t make it!
In his book, Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn talked about how he hung on during the awful interrogations that he endured at the hands of the Soviets:
“So what is the answer?  How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?  What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?  From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.  At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  I shall never return to freedom.  I am condemned to die—now or a little later.  But later on, in truth, it will be harder, and so the sooner the better.  I no longer have any property whatsoever.  For me those I love have died, and for them I have died.  From today on, my body is useless and alien to me.  Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’“Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogator will tremble.  Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”
Sound familiar?  “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”  Luke 14:33, and “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.   But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.  For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:” Philippians 1:20-23

Let’s make a radical commitment today to God’s word, God’s will and Jesus Christ so that when troubles and suffering come, we will be able to stand and not fall.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What’s My Motivation?

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 12.31.11

Why do we do the things we do?  Because someone is making us?  Because we’ll get some kind of reward?  To stay out of trouble?  What motivates a fireman to run into a burning building or a soldier to go into the most dangerous part of the battle?  Is somebody making them do it?  Is it because of a set of rules somewhere that says they have to?  What motivates a person to spend years in prison because of his (or her) beliefs?  What motivates a 21 year old to leave her family rather than give up her religion?
“A young Christian in Myanmar was forced to choose between faith and family recently when her relatives demanded that she recant her faith. On Sept. 19, 2011, 21-year-old Ying was preparing to leave for classes at an underground seminary when her relatives locked her in the house. They threatened to disown her, beat her and withdraw support — including food — if she continued to attend seminary or church. In addition, they threatened to send her to a remote village with no known Christians if she did not recant her faith. Instead of giving in to their demands, Ying ran away from home and left her family behind.”[1]
I’m pretty sure that most of the people reading this, right now, have not had to choose between our families and our beliefs; it’s really hard for me to imagine.  But why did she do it?  Why didn’t Ying just give up her Christian beliefs and go back to being Buddhist?

What motivates a person to do the “right” thing when it would be easier not to or when no one would notice or even care what he did?

“Within an hour of closing on his first home, Josh Ferrin, an artist for the Deseret News, used the keys to take his first official look inside. While taking it all in, he noticed a tiny scrap of carpet peeking out of a small door in the ceiling of a workshop at the back of the garage. He got a ladder and climbed up to explore the unseen space. It was dark and musty, but Ferrin could see a black metal box sitting there. It was a heavy metal box—the kind used to haul ammunition during World War II—and it was filled with cash (more than $45,000), old stamps, bond certificates, and other random memorabilia.
And he gave it all back!
“‘You can't make plans for money like this,’ Ferrin said. ‘It just doesn't feel right to do anything but give it back. So I immediately closed it, locked it in my truck, and called my wife. 'You won't believe what I just found.’ His wife Tara immediately knew the couple had to return the money to its rightful owners.
But Arnold Bangerter, the former homeowner, had passed away in November 2010, and his youngest son, Dennis Bangerter, the executor of Bangerter's estate, had just signed the 1950s red-brick rambler away. It took at least three hours for the Ferrins to sort and count the box-full of cash, all the while teaching a lesson of honesty to their two young sons, who wanted to keep ‘just one’ of the bundles and kept trying to slip coins into their pockets.
“‘The house needs some work,’ Josh Ferrin said. ‘I could use the $45,000 for remodeling, but he didn't save that money for us. He saved it for his family. I never considered the money mine. You can't allow yourself to think like that.’”[2]
I mean, come on, who would have known if the Ferrins kept that money?  The house was theirs now, wasn’t it?  The guy who’d put the money there was dead; what’s the big deal?  Would anybody say that Mr. Ferrin was living “under the law” because he felt he needed to give the money back?  Was he doing the “right” thing because someone was making him do it?

On the other hand, what motivates people to do the “wrong” thing…actually, maybe “wrong” isn’t the right word…you decide:
“Several years ago I knew a girl who had signed a contract to teach. In August she received another offer from a school closer to where she wanted to live. So she broke the original contract. Had she acted on the biblical principle in (Psalms 15:4), where God says that He is pleased with a person who swears to his own hurt and does not change, she would not have done that. The department chairman ... said her justification was ‘I have a peace about it,’ and he commented rather sardonically, ‘Isn't that lovely? She's got the peace and I've got the pieces.’”[3]
I guess that young woman would have said she was doing the right thing…doing what was best for her.  But it doesn’t seem like the honorable thing to do, does it?  She wasn’t acting with integrity.
“Integrity is keeping my commitment(s) even if the circumstances when I made the commitment(s) have changed.”[4]
Would anybody say that living with integrity is living “under the law”?  I guess that would depend on a person’s motivation.  Is he trying to “look respectable?”  Or would he act the same way if nobody would ever know the difference?

When Paul was writing to the Galatians, he wanted to know that some people were motivated by, what we would call, legalism.  They wanted things to “look respectable” but they didn’t care much about what was going on inside or underneath (in the hearts of the new Christians).  Paul was worried that the church in Galatia was being misled, by the Pharisees, to do things just to make things look right.  The Pharisees wanted them to look respectable but didn’t care whether or not they lived with integrity

Legalism doesn’t care why we do something, as long as we do it.  Integrity cares about motivation first.  Does that make sense?
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  Galatians 6:7-10
So, what’s your motivation, respectability or integrity?  Can we do both?  Can we tell by looking at someone whether or not they’re living under the law or under grace?  Not always.  But God knows…

[1] “Faith Over Family” Voice of the Martyrs,
[2] Wendy Leonard, "Big Cash Discovery Becomes Lesson in Honesty for Bountiful Family," (5-18-11); submitted by Van Morris, Mt. Washington, Kentucky
[3] Paul E. Little in a sermon, "Affirming the Will of God" (in Great Sermons of the 20th Century). Christianity Today, Vol. 33, no. 16.
[4] David Jeremiah, Leadership, Vol. 10, no. 2.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sportin a tude

“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:” Deuteronomy 30:19
Isn’t that interesting?  Life and death mirrors blessing and cursing in that verse.  Do you think that means that if we choose a negative attitude – an attitude of cursing – that we also choose death?  That seems awfully harsh.  But a little research told me that in the Bible the word ‘rejoice’ comes up 240 times while ‘grieve ’ only got 47 hits.  I know that’s not an exhaustive study, but it tells me that the writers of the Bible spent more time telling us to be joyful than to be sad.  But doesn’t that seem a little artificial?  I mean, if I walk around acting happy all the time, aren’t folk going to think I’ve got some reality impairment? 

But have you ever noticed a person who walks around acting grumpy all the time?  Nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with him (or her).  That person might even describe himself as a ‘realist’ while I, the person acting happy, am often described as ‘having my head in the clouds’, or not facing the truth, or a nut-job.  Hm, what’s up with that?

So what do we do with verses like James 1:2   
“Reckon it nothing but joy, my brethren, whenever you find yourselves hedged in by various trials.”Weymouth New Testament; “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” 1Peter 4:13; Romans 12:12, “Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”; “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:” 1Peter 1:6; and 2Corinthians 7:4 “Great is my boldness of speech toward you, great is my glorying of you: I am filled with comfort, I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation.”? 
Okay, now that’s just crazy, right?  It’s one thing to choose blessings when things are going well, but being joyful when things are rotten?  How is it possible to “count it all joy” when we really feel like giving up or “bless those who curse” us when our heart is broken?   I think our mental picture of the incurable optimist who walks around smiling and whistling all the time is one of things that makes this seem hard.

But that’s not really an accurate picture is it?  I mean, look at Job.  He had huge things to deal with, not even counting his “friends”.  He didn’t deny any of the bad stuff that was going on or act like everything was okay.  He wept; he agonized; he mourned…but he never let go of God.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t feel like rejoicing or blessing during that time but look what he said: 
“The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” Job 1:21 
Job chose blessing; Job chose life even though he didn’t understand the whys or the wherefores what was happening to him.  Wow.

In Romans 5:3-5, Paul writes, 
“And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”  
He’s telling us two things.  One, we can “glory in tribulation” because we know that it is bringing us step by step closer to who God wants us to be.  And, two, that the Holy Spirit is right there with us, giving us the grace we need to bless the name of the Lord in even the toughest spots. 

Unfortunately, even though everyone faces trials, not everyone is drawn closer to God by going through them.  It is possible to leave God altogether and become bitter…to choose cursing and death.

My brother sent me a story this week that fits very well right here.

A young woman went to her mother started complaining about her life.  Everything in her life was so hard.  She didn’t know how she was going to make it, and she wanted to give up.  She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed like whenever she managed to solve one problem, a new one popped up.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water, put each one on a burner and turned it on high.  When the water in the pots came to boil she put carrots in the first pot, eggs in the second, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans. (I know, but the story doesn’t work with Postum) Then mom sat down at the kitchen table and let each pot boil. 

In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots, the eggs out and placed them in separate bowls. Then she poured the coffee into a cup. 

At that point, she turned to her daughter, she said, “'Tell me what you see.”

“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” the young woman replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. When she did, she noticed that they were soft. Then her mom asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg.

Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter tasted the coffee. “But, mom, what’s your point?”

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. But each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. After twenty minutes in the boiling water, however, it softened and became weak.
The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting in the boiling water, its inside became hard. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.
”Which are you?” mom asked. 'When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?

Think about it. Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity wilt and lose my strength?  Am I more like an egg that starts with a malleable heart that changed through some trial, until it became hard and stiff? Do I look the same on the outside, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and hard heart?

Or am I like the coffee bean? Instead of being changed by the boiling water, the bean actually changed it. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you. When the hour is the darkest and trials are their greatest, do you begin to sing and praise God, witness to those around you? How do you handle adversity? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?
“The Lord does not desire His people to be sad and disconsolate. He does not want His obedient followers to cover the altar with their tears, but to walk happily and cheerfully along. ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation,’ He says, ‘but in Me ye shall have peace’ ‘"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you.’ ‘"These things have I spoken unto you that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.’” The Signs of the Times, February 10, 1909, "Rejoice in the Lord Alway" Mrs. E. G. White

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 12.24.11

We live in a world that tells us to take ours first and let everybody else fend for himself.  Just this week, I was chatting with a couple of co-workers when one of them said, “You have to grab what you want and hang onto it; that’s what life’s all about.”

I was so stunned that, before I thought, I blurted, “No it’s not.”  To which the reply was, “You have to take care of yourself, nobody else is going to.”

And I should have replied that Jesus takes care of us…but I’m afraid I just stood there with my mouth mentally hanging open.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m free of the whole “me first” way of thinking, I’m totally not.  I was just shocked to hear it said out loud as a life philosophy.  Where my co-worker embraces that way of looking at life, I bury it under layers of self-delusion and guilt.  Whether it’s obvious to the people around us or not, everyone has some “me first” tucked away somewhere.

You think not?  Check this out:
“A 2011 paper by a team of psychologists at UCLA analyzed the values of characters in popular television shows for the past four decades. They evaluated TV shows that were popular among a preteen audience—Andy Griffith and The Lucy Show (from the 1960s); Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days (from the 1970s); and American Idol and Hannah Montana (from the past decade).
“The researchers observed the following shifts in values:
“The number one value of recent popular TV shows for preteens was "fame." In contrast, from 1967-1997, the number one value was ‘community feeling, or being part of a group.’
“In 2007, ‘community feeling’ had dropped to eleventh place.
“In 2007, the number two value from 1997—‘benevolence or being kind to others and helping them’—had fallen from second to thirteenth.
“The value of ‘tradition,’ which was ranked fourth in 1997, had dropped to fifteenth place in the 2007 study.
“One of the researchers said, ‘I was shocked, especially by the dramatic changes in the last 10 years. I thought fame would be important but did not expect this drastic an increase or such a dramatic decrease in other values, such as community feeling. If you believe that television reflects the culture, as I do, then American culture has changed drastically.’
“Although Disney shows like Hannah Montana and Jonas L.A. may be fun and entertaining, the not-so-subtle message is clear: if you want your life to count, then find ways to be famous. As another member of the research team said, ‘The rise of fame in preteen television may be one influence in the documented rise of narcissism in our culture …. Preteens are at an age when they want to be popular, just like the famous teenagers they see on TV and the Internet.’”[1]
The drive to be first, though, can ultimately lead to frightening levels of indifference: what I want takes precedence over everything and everybody else.
“The following is a dialogue from the once-popular sitcom, Seinfield, between Elaine and her boyfriend.
“Elaine asks, ‘Do you believe in God?’
“‘Yes,’ her boyfriend replies.
“Elaine asks, ‘Is it a problem that I'm not religious?’
“‘Not for me,’ her boyfriend answers.
“‘How's that?’ she asks.
“Her boyfriend says, ‘I'm not the one going to hell.’”[2]
And then we hear the laugh track:  “Ha, ha, ha.”  Does it bother anyone that even someone who claims to “believe in God,” has a philosophy that says, “As long as I’m okay, who cares about you?”

Isn’t that the same kind of spiritual trap that the Pharisees fell into?  God wanted them to share the truth with the world, but they hoarded it instead.
“On April 12, 1999, Elie Wiesel … world-renowned humanitarian and author spoke about ‘The Perils of Indifference’:
“‘What is indifference? … Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?
“‘Of course, indifference can be tempting—more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are [sic] of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. …
“‘Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. …
“‘Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor—never his victim, … The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees—not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.’”[3]
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  Galatians 6:2-10
If I truly believe that I am saved by grace (and I do), what must my “philosophy of life” be?  Do I have any excuse to exclude anyone from the saving love of Jesus Christ?  Is anyone less worthy than I am to receive His salvation?

[1] Stuart Wolpert, "Popular TV Shows Teach Children Fame Is Most Important Value, UCLA Psychologists Report," UCLA Newsroom (7-11-11); submitted by Jared E. Alcantara, Princeton, New Jersey
[2] John Fehlen, Stanwood, Washington
[3]Elie Wiesel, "The Perils of Indifference,"; submitted by Jerry Deluca, Montreal West, Quebec, Canada 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Doesn’t Kill Ya…

“In the parable, the foolish virgins are represented as begging for oil, and failing to receive it at their request.  This is symbolic of those who have not prepared themselves by developing a character to stand in a time of crisis.  It is as if they should go to their neighbors and say, Give me your character, or I shall be lost.  Those that are wise could not impart their oil to the flickering lamps of the foolish virgins.  Character is not transferable.  It is not to be bought or sold; it is acquired.  The Lord has given to every individual an opportunity to obtain a righteous character through the hours of probation; but he has not provided a way by which one human agent may impart to another the character which he has developed by going through hard experiences, by learning lessons from the great Teacher, so that he can manifest patience under trial, and exercise faith so that he can remove mountains of impossibility.”  E.G. White, The Youth’s Instructor, Jan.16,1896
Hm, character building…Some places call it character education; it’s the same thing – an effort to do exactly what Mrs. White said could not be done – impart character to another person.  Some schools where I have worked try very, very hard to get the concepts of good character into the heads and hearts of their students.  They put up posters; they have a character trait of the month; they have the students make posters of things that represent a particular character trait.  It may work for a few students, but I haven’t seen very much success.

The biggest part of the problem, in my opinion, is that you can’t teach character without being willing/able to use the best example: Jesus.

Here are the principles of good character as listed by one character education organization:
Your character is defined by what you do, not what you say or believe. (Really?  I thought what we believed it completely defined our characters.)Every choice you make helps define the kind of person you are choosing to be.
Good character requires doing the right thing, even when it is costly or risky.
You don't have to take the worst behavior of others as a standard for yourself. You can choose to be better than that.
What you do matters, and one person can make a big difference.
The payoff for having good character is that it makes you a better person and it makes the world a better place.
I mean, those are nice and all, but compare those principles with these:
“Goodness, meekness, gentleness, patience, and love are the attributes of Christ's character. If you have the spirit of Christ, your character will be molded after His character.” E.G. White, That I May Know Him (1964), page 94.
Which list would you rather live by?  Absolutely!  But, but how do we get there?  How do we get the spirit of Christ so our characters can be molded after His? 
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” 2Corinthians 4:8-11
Pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, struck down…I’m thinking that doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

I guess I have a decision to make.  Do I want to be “a better person” or do I want to be like Jesus, even if it means I have to go through all that pressing, confusion, striking down and persecution stuff.  OK, I lied, it’s not really much of a decision at all…I want to be like Jesus, and Paul tells me in Romans 5:3-4 how I get there.  “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

That’s pretty specific, isn’t it?  Suffering produces character.  But what is suffering?  Doug Goins wrote an article/sermon called “Seeing Suffering from God’s Point of View” in which he talks about the “diversity of our suffering” and he includes job troubles, health issues, marriage difficulties, a death of a loved one, a rebellious child, unrequited love, and those are upsetting and uncomfortable situations.  But are they “suffering”?  Well, maybe it’s an issue of perspective.  If we were coming from a third world country, we’d probably say that most of those things don’t qualify as suffering, but I’m not sure it matters.

What matters is, what is it going to take to get us to quit thinking about ourselves and look to God.  C.S. Lewis said in his book, The Problem of Pain, page 91:  
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain:  it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Do we trust God enough to let Him do whatever it takes to mold us into someone He can use?  Am I willing to experience the pain of “the refiner’s fire” if it means I will be more like Jesus because of it?  Do I believe it when Jesus says that He will never leave me or push me farther than I can go?  Do I really, really believe that His grace is sufficient for me?

I read a story, this week about a lady names Helen Hayworth Lemmel.  Does that name mean anything to you?  It didn’t to me, but listen:

Helen was born into a wealthy family in England.  She was a well-known songwriter.  She married an English nobleman.  Things looked pretty rosy for her.  But then she became blind, and her husband divorced her because he didn’t want to be married to a blind person.  Well, eventually she ended up in Seattle, Washington, destitute, living in a room in a home where her rent was paid by the county.  But when people asked her how she was, she always answered, “I am fine in the things that count.”  Helen experienced suffering, but she never let go of God’s hand.  And she wrote one of my all time favorite hymns:
O soul, are you weary and troubled?No light in the darkness you see?There’s a light for a look at the Savior,And life more abundant and free!RefrainTurn your eyes upon Jesus,Look full in His wonderful face,And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,In the light of His glory and grace.Through death into life everlastingHe passed, and we follow Him there;Over us sin no more hath dominion—For more than conquerors we are!RefrainHis Word shall not fail you—He promised;Believe Him, and all will be well:Then go to a world that is dying,His perfect salvation to tell!Refrain
I’ve got one last poem to share; its author is anonymous, and you’ve probably read it before.
I asked for strength, and God gave me difficulties to make me strong.I asked for wisdom, and God gave me problems to solve.I asked for prosperity, and God gave me brawn and brain to work.I asked for courage, and God gave me dangers to overcome.I asked for patience, and God placed me in situations where I was forced to wait.I asked for love, and God gave me troubled people to help.I asked for favors, and God gave me opportunities.I received nothing I wanted; I received everything I needed.My prayer has been answered.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Living The Fruity Life

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 12.17.11

Now, before anybody gets too worried, by “the fruity life” I mean the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”  Galatians 5:22-23
That’s quite a list, isn’t it?  I think we all skim through it like it’s a checklist, mentally ticking all the traits we’re pretty sure we’ve mastered, right?  We’ve got this whole fruit of the Spirit thing under control; we’re good to go…in our own minds.  Ahem…time for a reality check.
“Here's some good news: if you're like most people, you're way above average—at almost everything. Psychologists call this the state of ‘illusory superiority.’ (It's also called ‘The Lake Wobegone Effect,’ from Garrison Keillor's fictional Minnesota town where ‘all the children are above average.’) It simply means that we tend to inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.
“Numerous research studies have revealed this tendency to overestimate ourselves. For instance, when researches asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60 percent of students believed they were in the top 10 percent; 25 percent rated themselves in the top one percent. You'd think college professors might have more self-insight, but they were just as biased about their abilities. Two percent rated themselves below average; 10 percent were average and 63 were above average; while 25 percent rated themselves as truly exceptional.
“Of course this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: ‘It's the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.’ Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that the ‘Lake Wobegone Effect’ reveals our pride. He writes, ‘One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”[1]
Wow!  No wonder Paul reminds the Romans: 
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”  Romans 12:3
So, IRL (I’ve just learned from my children that IRL stands for In Real Life) can we be so quick to assign all the elements of the fruit of the Spirit to ourselves?  I’m not saying that we don’t have one or two of them at one time or another, unless there’s a big deadline at work, or somebody else got a raise/promotion, or our kids/spouse/pets are making us crazy…but, you know, anybody would lose it under those circumstances, right? We don’t have to have all those attributes all the time, do we?

Let’s look at the verses around 22 and 23:  
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”  Galatians 5:16-26
Hang on there, there’s another list we need to read through carefully.  It’s pretty easy, once again, to decide we don’t have a problem with any of those “acts of the flesh.”  I meant, sorcery? Really?  Heresies?   Murders?  Don’t be silly!

But there are some other things on that list:  hatred, envy, jealousy, and a couple of things the New International Version calls “fits of rage” and “selfish ambition.”  That hits a little closer to home, doesn’t it?

The truth is that we can try to create the fruit of the Spirit ourselves, but sheer force of will, and we might be able to manage things for a little while, but our “flesh lusts against the Spirit.”  It wants to pitch fits and be jealous and envious and petty; we just cannot resist the pull toward the “acts of the flesh” on our own.  It isn’t possible.
“Love, joy, and all that other good stuff are the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our efforts. We can't produce them on our own. Period. The fruit comes only as we submit our lives and let the Spirit control us.”[2]
That’s why Paul tells us over and over again to “walk in the Spirit.”  And “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”  The fruit of the Spirit only becomes a part of us when we quit fighting ourselves and surrender completely to Jesus.
“The fruits of the Holy Spirit are, it seems to me, largely fruits of sustained interaction with God. Just as a child picks up traits more or less simply by dwelling in the presence of her parent, so the Christian develops tenderheartedness, compassion, humility, forgiveness, joy, and hope through ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’--that is, by dwelling in the presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son.”[3]  
I’m ready to live the fruity life.  I want to admit that I’m less than I would like to think I am, that my only chance is to stop struggling against “the flesh.”  It’s time to surrender and, as the Alcohol Anonymous folks say, “Let go; Let God.”

[1] Matt Woodley, managing editor,; sources: "Study: Self-Images Often Erroneously Inflate," ABC News (11-9-05); Mark McMinn, Why Sin Matters (Tyndale, 2004), pp. 69-71
[2] Susan Maycinik (now Susan Nikaido), editor of Discipleship Journal, "Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit?" Discipleship Journal (Issue 91)
[3] Robert C. Roberts in The Reformed Journal (Feb. 1987). Christianity Today, Vol. 32, no. 10.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good News?

“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:”  1Peter 2:21
Think of it, because Jesus suffered, we are called to suffer as well.  Do you know that there were organizations way back then that considered themselves “Christian-esque” but they didn’t believe that Christ actually suffered?  They claimed that He only seemed to suffer, that He could not experience pain or death, in fact, that Jesus just seemed to be at all.  That’s interesting when you read 1Peter 2:21 where we’re asked to suffer like Jesus did.  If He didn’t suffer, does that mean we don’t have to?

There are several other groups of people who would have us believe that suffering is not, or should not, be a part of the Christian, or even the human experience. 

Christian Science is one of those organizations. In an article by an individual who was raised as a Christian Scientist, I read that 
“members of the church hide their illnesses from one another…no one ever acknowledged the obvious illnesses or infirmities of any other member.” Caroline Fraser,“Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church”, Atlantic Monthly, April 1995.  
According to Fraser, the theory is that “their illness is not real and that the pain they feel is not a part of the real world—God’s world.”  So, suffering is not something that can be experienced.  Again, how does that fit with the text from First Peter?

Other modern Christians also seem to argue that suffering is not in God’s plan for us.  Those folk who teach prosperity doctrine would argue that God’s legacy involves only health and wealth.  Suffering and pain only happen to people who lack the faith to claim God’s prosperity for themselves.

Non-Christians also jump into the discussion with the assumption that “the ultimate good is served by a lack or absence of suffering.”  J.David Hoke, Romans: By His Grace – For His Glory, “Don’t Waste Your Sorrows”, June 30, 1996.  And with that tidy definition are able to open the door to all kinds of things like euthanasia, abortion and genetic engineering, because they will supposedly eliminate pain and suffering.

Other unbelievers use the reality of suffering as an argument against God.  Their logic, according to C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Problem of Pain goes this way: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But His creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both.” Ouch.

That’s disturbing enough, but Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s, in his book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, deals with the problem of human suffering by doing away with God’s omnipotence and then encouraging us to go ahead and love God and “forgive Him despite His limitations.”

Excuse me? My God does not have any limitation…HE’S GOD!

I think that’s pretty sad, when even a Rabbi feels like he has to diminish God to make a reasonable explanation of why suffering exists.  Those approaches don’t leave the people who believe them with many options of how to handle suffering in their own lives when it comes.

One way to deal with pain and suffering is despair.  You’ve met those folks, right?  Their motto could be: “Life stinks and then you die.”  Not only is life bad for them now, they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop because things can always get worse.
Another coping mechanism that some people use in the face of suffering is what the Greeks called Epicureanism.  This guy, Epicurus taught that bad stuff was going to happen to everybody, but the individual’s job was to make sure that he (or she) experienced more pleasure than pain.  The person who lives by this philosophy spends his life trying to balance the scale.  Their motto might be:  “Life’s hard; party harder.”

Another way that many people deal with life’s unpleasantness is with another Greek hand-me-down, stoicism.  A stoic’s motto might be, “Life’s hard; what’s your point?”
I’m really glad to say that as a Christian, I have something better.  Check it out:  
“…,but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:3-8
God has promised over and over again, that we don’t have to worry about the why of earthly suffering; we just have to hang onto Him.  He knows how weak we are.  He knows the people He wants us to become.  And He won’t ever leave us to suffer alone.  In fact, He promised that the hard stuff would make us stronger and better.  As weird as it sounds, suffering isn’t a waste of time.  It actually does us good.  In fact, Romans 5:3-5 tells us three very specific things we can gain from following “our calling” from God to suffering.

Suffering produces perseverance – patience, endurance, doggedness, steadfastness, tenacity and persistent determination.  Those are all things we desperately need for the spiritual and earthly battles we have to fight every single day.  Remember the old poster with the picture of the kitten hanging on a rope?  It said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
That’s perseverance which produces character.  Character is not an easy concept to define.  But think about the people that have made a real difference in your life – people you deeply respect.  People like that are usually individuals who have had lots of different kinds of experiences in their lives: both joy and sorrow. They’ve responded appropriately and emerged stronger, wiser and closer to God.  They have learned that they can trust God no matter what is happening around them.  Those folks are the ones who can truly say,
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  Psalm 23:4
And the third benefit that grows out of suffering according to Paul?  Hope.  “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”  If you grew up here in San Antonio, you probably went on the little train at Brackenridge Park at some point.  On that train ride there is a man-made tunnel that is just long enough, with just enough of a curve in it that for a few seconds you are in complete darkness.  It never failed; my heart would pound, and I would breath faster.  I would grab my father’s hand and hang on.  I know I was a fraidy-cat, but that tunnel scared me to death, because it was completely dark just a little longer than I could stand.  When I could finally see that light from the end of the tunnel, I was so relieved.  The light at the end of the tunnel was my hope that the dark would end soon and everything would be okay.  The hope that God is with us and things will get better is sometimes the only thing that helps us through the day.

Remember what Paul said in Romans 8:28-32?  
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
 Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?
He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

“Then I Will Go With You.”

Thoughts on the Sabbath School lesson for 12.10.11
“There is an old story [probably apocryphal, according to one Lincoln historian] that Abraham Lincoln went down to the slave block to buy a slave girl. As she looked at the white man bidding on her, she figured he was another white man going to buy her and then abuse her. He won the bid, and as he was walking away with his property, he said, ‘Young lady, you are free.’
“She said, ‘What does that mean?’
“‘It means you are free.’
“‘Does that mean,’ she said, ‘that I can say whatever I want to say?’
“Lincoln said, ‘Yes, my dear, you can say whatever you want to say.’
“‘Does that mean,’ she said, ‘That I can be whatever I want to be?’
“Lincoln said, ‘Yes, you can be whatever you want to be.’
“‘Does that mean I can go wherever I want to go?’
“He said, ‘Yes, you can go wherever you want to go.’
“The girl, with tears streaming down her face, said, ‘Then I will go with you.’”[1]
Whether or not that story is true, can we argue with the girl’s desire to go anywhere with the person who bought her freedom?  Wouldn’t we think it strange, though, if the girl, having just been freed, stepped back onto the slave block and allowed herself to be sold back into slavery?  We’d think that she was ungrateful and, quite frankly, crazy to give up her freedom.

What if, on the other hand, the girl accepted her freedom from Abraham Lincoln, but without so much as a thank you very much, ran off and, say, became a bank robber or a prostitute?  Yes, she’d technically be free, but would she be experiencing her freedom in the way Mr. Lincoln had hoped she would?

Jesus has bought and paid for our freedom from Satan.  Paul reminds the Galatians to be careful not to let their freedom slip away from them.  
“IN [this] freedom Christ has made us free [and completely liberated us]; stand fast then, and do not be hampered and held ensnared and submit again to a yoke of slavery [which you have once put off].” Galatians 5:1 AMP
Paul seems to be worried about two specific problems that the Galatians were running into.  The first, Paul has been talking about all through the first part of Galatians:  legalism.  The other extreme, though, is also a threat.  
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”   Galatians 5:13
So, on one end of the spectrum we have legalism (I can save myself), and on the other end we have licentiousness (I can do whatever I want).  In the middle we have justification by faith.
It’s tough to stay in the middle isn’t it?  Most of us are so much more comfortable when we are given specific instructions for accomplishing something.  We like checklists and step-by-step instructions. 

Think back to when you were a teenager, becoming an adult.  You’d come to your parent for advice about what you should do in a certain situation.  When you were a little younger, your parent would have told you what to do, but now, he (or she) says something like, “It’s your decision.  Do what you think is best.”  Can you remember that frustration?  You wanted to be told what to do (even though if your parent had told you what to do, you would have argued about it).

One year in high school, the band needed to raise money for a trip we were taking.  We all split up and some people had bake sales and all kinds of sales or service projects.  My brother, some friends and I wanted to have a car wash, but we didn’t have a good place to have one, so we came up with an idea.  We would load up our parents car with hoses, buckets, and soap; go to a neighborhood and knock on doors and ask if the people who lived in the house would like us to wash their car.  Now the brilliance of this plan was not so much house to house part; it was the part where we didn’t set a price.  We did the job and when the people asked how much they owed us, we said whatever they thought the job was worth, or whatever they thought was fair.

That really put people off their guard.  They had to generate their own price.  Well they didn’t want to short change us because there we stood, sweaty, sunburned, soaking wet…we really made a lot of money that day.  And yes, we turned it all over to the band, but that was really an eye-opening experience for me.    People are much more comfortable when things are spelled out for them.
“An Arab chief tells a story of a spy who was captured and then sentenced to death by a general in the Persian army. This general had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and the big, black door. As the moment for execution drew near, the spy was brought to the Persian general, who asked the question, ‘What will it be: the firing squad or the big, black door?’
“The spy hesitated for a long time. It was a difficult decision. He chose the firing squad.
“Moments later shots rang out confirming his execution. The general turned to his aide and said, ‘They always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. Yet, we gave him a choice.’
“The aide said, ‘What lies beyond the big door?’
“‘Freedom,’ replied the general. ‘I've known only a few brave enough to take it.’”[2]
What do you think?  Are you brave enough to take the freedom that Jesus has paid for with His life?  Am I?  If we accept that freedom, we also have to accept the change in our relationship with Jesus and with the world. 
“Christian freedom means receiving a new nature that institutes an internal transformation of behavior rather than an external regulation of behavior. The bicycle’s chain attaches to the rear sprocket and, from the center of the radiating spokes, transfers power that mobilizes the entire bicycle. Some motion could be accomplished by turning the tire outside the rim, but such motion is superficial when compared with the power radiating from the centered sprocket. Civil government does bear some responsibility for regulating society so that such egregious evils as violence, robbery, and so on will not go unchecked; but history has shown that spiritual revival is exponentially more effective in transforming behavior than is imprisonment and punishment. The Holy Spirit’s power, radiating from the completely surrendered heart, is humanity’s only realistic hope for lasting transformation and survival.”[3]
How will I serve my Savior?  By remaining a slave, by ignoring His wishes, or giving myself completely to Him?

[1] Steve Brown, Preaching Today, #58
[2] "Reasons to Fear Easter," Preaching Today, Tape No. 116
[3] Dan Solis, “Freedom in Christ,” The Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide