Monday, July 30, 2012

Fishbowl Christians

Whether we like it or not, someone is always watching us. Have you ever thought about that? Even when you think you’re completely on your own, in a place where you think you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, people are watching. Being a Christian only increases the number of people watching.

Why do people watch Christians so intently? Some folks would say it’s because they’re waiting for us to mess up. In a way they are. What they want to know is, “Why do we approach the world like we do?” “Why are we Christians?” and “Why do we stay Christians?” Often the answers to those questions are more obvious to others than they are to us.

There are just a few things that motivate everybody. Paul describes some of them in 1Thessalonians 2:3-6.
“For our exhortation did not come from error or uncleanness, nor was it in deceit. But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.”
In other words, Paul and Silas wanted the Thessalonians to know that they were not sincerely deluded – completely sucked into an elaborate lie. They weren’t Christians because of all the opportunities for affairs with women, and Paul and Silas weren’t scamming anybody to get something for themselves. And, lastly, they weren’t preaching the Gospel to make people like them better. Today we might say, that Paul and Silas were not motivated by money, sex, and power nor even the approval/admiration of the people around them.

What was the one thing that motivated Paul and Silas? In everything they did, they wanted to please Jesus.

Sometimes I think that this last motivation is so clear and other, times, it’s so subtle we may not even recognize it for what it is.

To begin with, no matter what your motivation, you’re going to look the same to the folks around you…for a little while. But then life intrudes and those folks, who are motivated by anything other than pleasing Jesus, are going to fall away. When those who have believed a lie find out the truth, they will become disillusioned and fall away. If a person is motivated by getting more power, when the power doesn’t come to them they decide to find the power through another avenue.

People who are willing to trick or deceive people to benefit themselves will move on as soon as those benefits quit coming in…or when they are caught in their lies.

Now I have to admit that I can’t think of anybody I know who is a Christian because of any one of those three motives. I know there are Christians out there, who are. I just don’t happen to know anyone whose motives fit any of those three categories.

The last category is a different story, though. Do we follow Jesus because we want to please Jesus? or because we want the approval and admiration of the people around us. That takes some real introspection. Would we still be Christians if our family and friends stopped having anything to do with us because we follow Jesus?

The answer to that question is what makes being a Christian sometimes a dangerous proposition. The disciples learned the hard way that they were not always going to gain the admiration of the people around them. In fact, we know that just saying that they believed that Jesus was the Messiah cost all but one of them their lives.
At this moment, American Christians are free to express their belief in Jesus openly, without fear of persecution, but what if …

What if you were the only person on your block who was a Christian? What if, instead of encouraging you to be a Christian like they are, your parents forbade you to become a Christian? What if you lost your job because of your Christian beliefs?

At some point, you would have to decide what is more important to you, the approval of the people around you, or the approval of God.

Why is all this important? Because people are watching. People are watching us Christians to see why we are Christians. Are we deluded? power hungry? scam artists? Will we change our allegiances as soon as things get uncomfortable? People are watching us to see what kind of God we serve and are we serious about our service.
“Author and educator, Howard Hendricks, sat in a plane that was delayed for take off. After a long wait, the passengers became more and more irritated. Hendricks noticed how gracious one of the flight attendants was as she spoke with them. After the plane finally took off, he told the flight attendant how amazed he was at her poise and self-control, and said he wanted to write a letter of commendation for her to the airline. The stewardess replied that she didn't work for the airline company, but for Jesus Christ. She said that just before going to work she and her husband prayed together that she would be a good representative of Christ.
“Doing it for Christ's sake adds another dimension to submission. You are submitting not just to your employer or husband or parent, but to the Lord, because of your love and gratitude for him.”[1. Lorne Sanny, "The Right Way to Respond to Authority," Discipleship Journal (March/April 1982)]

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ever was heard an Encouraging Word

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 7.28.12

Author, Mike Howerton remembers the two vastly different ways two of his high school coaches approached encouraging the team. During one game, Howertown remembers that on one occasion, his team was losing. During halftime; the two coaches would give two very different pep talks.
“Coach Crow [came] in growling, spitting disdain in his words at us: ‘What a bunch of losers. Whaddya say let's get your girlfriends suited up; they'd do a better job. Your flimsy arm-tackles make me wanna puke. I'm gonna go look for some diapers for you babies to wear in the second half; maybe then you won't embarrass yourselves so bad.’ He'd leave, and absolute silence would descend, virtually no sound except for the muffled sobs of Monty, our kicker, in the corner. Then our defensive head coach, Coach Rush, would come in. He'd look each of us in the eyes with his steely glint. When he began to speak, you could feel strength flow into your limbs. He would begin with something like this, measured, masculine, and building in intensity: ‘I don't see high school students. I see lions. This locker room is filled with lions. A bunch of lions is called a pride. A pride of lions hunts together. A pride of lions kills together …. Lions are majestic to behold …. Lions are the kings of the land, and this is your land. You are the pride here. But there's one thing I haven't heard you lions do tonight. I haven't heard you roar. Now we're gonna go out there … and everyone in this two-bit town is gonna hear you roar because you are LIONS and LIONS ROAR!’ And we'd erupt in an ear-splitting roar (even Monty) because we weren't seniors or juniors; we were LIONS and LIONS ROAR, and we'd go out to inevitable victory. When Coach Rush died unexpectedly a few years later, he was so beloved that there was a motion to name the stadium after him.”[1]
Which coach would you work harder for? Not much of a decision is it? It’s hard to keep doing your best job when all you ever get is negative feedback, isn’t it?

In the early scenes of the movie, Full Metal Jacket, the drill instructor seems to single out one particular recruit, then takes every opportunity to verbally abuse and denigrate this recruit until finally we see that the recruit has committed suicide. Clearly, whoever made up “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” did not understand the power of words. The marks made by sticks and stones heal, while the wounds left by words sometimes never do.

All the more reason, as we interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ that we take extra care about what we say. Paul seems to have understood how important encourage was to the Thessalonians:
“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father,” I Thessalonians 2-3
Can you imagine how differently things might have gone if Paul had started his letter with a laundry list of all the things the Thessalonians were doing that needed help? Do you think that their church would have been very successful if all they ever heard was what they were doing wrong? I’m pretty sure they would have gotten discouraged and given up.

How are we doing in our own churches? Check this out:
“There are many who, with proper encouragement, would begin in out-of-the-way places to make efforts to seek and to save that which is lost. The Lord blesses those self-sacrificing ones, who have such a hunger for souls that they are willing to go anywhere to work. But, in the past, how much encouragement has been given to such workers by their brethren? Many of them have waited for something to do, but no attention has been given to them.          
“If the ministers had given help and encouragement to these men and women, they would have been doing the work appointed them by the Lord. They have been the spiritual poverty of unworked fields, and have longed to do something to help. But it has taken so long for encouragement to come to them that many have gone into other lines of work.”(E.G. White, Spalding and Magan Collection, p 176)  
We need to be kind to our church families. It is so easy to gossip and back-bite. We get so close to each other that we can become hyper-critical, but that’s not what’s going to help us become effective Christians or a vibrant church. That’s not what’s going to help us show others how much Jesus loved us and how He died so that we could spend eternity with Him.

Stop and think. What’s something we can do right now that will show our church friends how much we appreciate them? How can we show them that our church family would be diminished if they were not with us? Is encouragement as simple as a quick hug in the foyer on Sabbath morning? a phone call? an email, note, or a text? It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. It doesn’t even have to cost any money. It’s as simple as saying to someone, “I appreciate you.”

This week’s assignment: Think of at least one person in your church family who you can encourage.
“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father,” I Thessalonians 2-3        

[1] Mike Howerton, Glorious Mess (Thomas Nelson, 2012), pp. 144-145

Monday, July 16, 2012

Keepin’ It Real

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 7.21.12

“Postmodern” is the descriptor for our world today. For me, the word dredges up mental pictures of grey post-apocalyptic cityscapes populated by grey, blank-eyed, place fillers.
In reality though, our postmodern world is peopled with armies of highly engaged individuals who can access a wealth of information on almost any topic with just a few swipes at the screen of their smartphone.

Maybe a side effect of this information glut is our society’s relativism.
Relativism is defined as “the doctrine that no ideas or beliefs are universally true but that all are, instead, “relative” — that is, their validity depends on the circumstances in which they are applied.”[1]

Obviously, individuals who share that world view are going to be more difficult to engage when talking about what we believe to be truths that govern the universe: a creator God, a seventh-day Sabbath rest, a virgin birth and a risen Savior. Those ideas seem antiquated and restrictive to many people living today. They believe they have no relevance to their everyday lives. Old fashioned rules like the Ten Commandments have been pushed aside in favor of more lenient and “relevant” rules.  In fact, 
“Douglas Taylor-Weiss, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, has proposed a new set of Ten Commandments based on his observations of our culture:1. Have a good day.2. Shop.3. Eliminate pain.4. Be up-to-date.5. Relax.6. Express yourself.7. Have a happy family.8. Be entertaining.9. Be entertained.10. Buy entertainment."He forgot 11. Get in touch with your feelings.”[2]
This kind of relativism has given rise to folks who create their spiritual beliefs cafeteria style.

Steven Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band describes himself this way,
"I am a reformed Taoist, part-time Buddhist, Hindu, animist, pagan, Jewish mystic, and Christian. I always got along great with priests and rabbis and mullahs and gurus, even though I spend most of my life constructively criticizing them."[3]
In a 2005 interview with the New York Post, singer Sheryl Crow had this to say about her spiritual beliefs. 
“I believe in God. I believe in Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and all those that were enlightened. I wouldn't say necessarily that I'm a strict Christian. I'm not sure I believe in heaven.”[4]
How do we spread the Gospel to individuals who have these kinds of beliefs? How can we demonstrate that Christianity is relevant to their lives?
“Christ drew the hearts of His hearers to Him by the manifestation of His love, and then, little by little, as they were able to bear it, He unfolded to them the great truths of the kingdom. We also must learn to adapt our labors to the condition of the people—to meet men where they are. While the claims of the law of God are to be presented to the world, we should never forget that love, the love of Christ, is the only power that can soften the heart and lead to obedience.—The Review and Herald, November 25, 1890.”[5]
Paul ran into many of the same issues when He was preaching all those years ago (I guess postmodernism isn’t so different after all). He was spreading the Gospel to traditional Jews, Greek Jews, as well as people who followed philosophers and those who worshiped heathen gods. He knew he couldn’t approach all of those different groups in the same way and be an effective preacher. He had to know enough about each group that he could begin a discussion with them using terms and references with which they were familiar.
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law,that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
We’ve got some work to do, the gospel to share, a mission to complete...let’s keep it real –biblically speaking, that is.

[1]relativism. (n.d.).The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Retrieved July 13, 2012, from website:
[2]Martin Marty in Context (Feb. 1, 1992). Christianity Today, Vol. 41, no. 3.
[3]Steven Van Zandt, Rolling Stone (1-20-00), p.26
[4] Sheryl Crow, New York Post, September 2005
[5]E.G. White, Evangelism, p. 57 

Monday, July 9, 2012


Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 7.14.2012

Many of us, because of the time and place in which we’ve grown up, have never seen, in person, an actual, active battlefield. I am one of those people. All I know of battles, I have learned from movies and TV, and as realistic as those may try to be, they are not like really being there…thank goodness.
That’s not altogether true, though. We forget that we all are in the middle of, not just a battle, but a war. Satan and his angels still fight with God and His angels for the right to run the universe. In that war, the whole earth is the battleground, and the universe is watching.

What part do we play in this war? Well, we can’t actually say we’re the soldiers – they are God’s and satan’s angels. Depending on whose side we’re on, we’re either more like citizens who accept the status quo or we’re members of the resistance.

The big question is, then, whose side are we on? Do we decide to let things go on the way they always have, or do we try to show people that there’s a better way? The decisions you and I make as we go along, ultimately will decide where we spend eternity. Which side are you on? The decisions we make as we go through our day determine for which side we’re working.  If we pick the resistance side, our job is to recruit citizens to work with us to spread the Gospel all around the world and recruit more people to the resistance. If you’re on the status quo side, your job is to interfere/slow down/block any progress the resistance might be able to make. Let’s think about this for a second. Who’s got the easier job – recruiting or obstructing? No contest, right? It’s actually ridiculously easy to make someone else’s job harder to do. While the Christian (resistance) job is to show that Jesus’ love is for everyone, all the other side has to do to counteract that is to point out times when Christians were not acting in loving ways – to point out all the mistakes Christianity as a whole and Christians as individuals have ever made, as well as bringing  envy, jealousy and gossip into the Christian community. Here’s an example: “James Emery White tells the following story about his visit to the Eagle and Child pub in Great Britain, the place where C. S. Lewis and his friends used to meet.
“One day, as I sat at my favorite little table, and another stream of tourists entered—and left—I heard the manager muttering, "Bloody Christians." I was enough of a regular to feel comfortable asking him what he meant. “‘Take a look at this,’ he said, holding up a menu. ”’They cost me two pounds each. Two pounds! I ordered hundreds of them, and now I only have ten because they keep getting nicked.’
“‘You mean people are stealing them?’ I asked incredulously.
“‘Yeah, the bloody Christians take the menus, while the bloody students take the spoons and ashtrays.’
“‘… Why the menus?’
“‘I don't know, it's what they can get their hands on, I suppose,’ he answered. ‘It got so bad I started making copies of the menu that they could take—for free—but they still take the good ones.’ …
“He paused a moment, and then said, ‘What gets me is that all these people who come in for Lewis are supposed to be Christians, right?"
“Yes, I thought to myself, they are.
“The irony is bitter; the manager of The Eagle and Child pub holds Christians and, one would surmise, Christianity itself, in disdain because of the behavior of the Christians who flock to pay homage to Lewis. Many wouldn't dare drink a pint [of beer], but they will gladly steal.”[1]
Satan works very hard to make sure that Christians look as bad as possible to non-Christians. On the other end of the spectrum, satan is working just as hard to discourage people from becoming involved with Jesus. Paul and the other apostles experienced all kinds of bad treatment at the hands of both the Jews and by their own new Christian churches. 
“But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.” And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things.” Acts 17:5-8
That’s some pretty rough treatment! Paul upset the wrong people apparently – people who preferred the status quo to any new information that these Christians were going to give. They didn’t want the safe, neat little world disturbed by this radical new information. People today still have those reactions to new information, don’t they? They’d often rather continue going the wrong way than to change to the right way. It’s human nature, but satan really uses it. I remember some friends of my family accepted our invitation to come to a crusade. They came to every meeting, but when it came time for a decision, they said, “We really believe that what  we’ve heard is the truth, but all of our friends go to this other church.” In other words, we prefer the status quo.

Satan works hard to make sure that the truth is less appealing, less popular and more trouble to maintain. He loves it when Christians behave badly. He wants the world to believe that God is vengeful and arbitrary, so when God’s people act that way, he jumps at the chance to point it out.
And, as Christians, we make it so easy for the enemy. We gossip and allow ourselves to become bitter and jealous; we end up fighting amongst ourselves rather than spreading the love of Jesus to a world that is starving for it.

It seems hopeless sometimes, but then there’s this: Jesus died so that He could be with us in Heaven, and, even though we still live on the battlefield, the war is won.
“Satan left the field a vanquished foe, peremptorily dismissed. At the word of Christ, ‘Get thee hence, Satan,’ the powerful fallen angel had no choice but to obey. Angels that excel in strength were on the battleground, guarding the interest of the tempted soul, and ready to resist the foe.”(E.G. White, The Review and Herald, April 24, 1894.)

[1] James Emery White, A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom, (InterVarsity Press, 2012), pp. 26-27

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Not Ashamed

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 7.6.12
Yesterday I was so mad at my father! He took this beautiful little lamb out behind the house and he killed it. Can you believe that? He said this guy, Moses, told him to, for some dumb reason. Dad tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t want to hear it. Especially when I heard that mom was going to cook up the cute little critter and we were supposed to eat it this last night.
Believe me, supper last night was definitely the strangest meal I’ve ever eaten. We stood around and ate all dressed like we were going on a trip. And while mom was getting the meal ready, my dad did something really weird, and kind of gross. He took a branch from a bush and a bowl with the lamb’s blood in it and painted it all around our front door. I just could not wrap my mind around the explanation he gave me. It was from that Moses guy again, something about some kind of plague thing that was going to happen to all the firstborns and whatever. It all sounded like some kind of superstitious mumbo jumbo to me, and I was pretty embarrassed to think that my father had been one of the ones taken in by it.

But then, somewhere after midnight my dad woke me up and told me we were leaving Egypt right then. We gathered all of our things, met up with all our neighbors and started walking. There were so many people and animals, all walking together.
As we walked along I heard other people talking to each other about what had happened to the Egyptians at midnight. Every firstborn had died – every single one. I even heard people say that some Jewish families had lost firstborns. Apparently those families hadn’t listened to Moses when he was telling them about putting the lamb’s blood around the door, or they thought it was just some kind of superstitious mumbo jumbo.
My heart started beating faster and my head felt like it was filled with bees. I felt beads of sweat forming on my forehead as the realization hit me – I am a firstborn! What if my father had not done the necessary things yesterday? I tried to think of what he’d said. “Without this blood, no one can be saved.”

Have you ever been embarrassed to admit that you are a Christian? When someone characterizes all Christians as uneducated and superstitious, do you try to shrink into the background? Are you ever afraid that someone will ask you if you’re a Christian? Many of us are.

Have you ever been in a situation in which your survival depended completely and totally on someone else? I have a friend whose kidneys have stopped working. She needs a new kidney – that is her only chance to get well. A couple of weeks ago, an old friend of hers offered to donate one of her kidneys.  My friend is overwhelmed at the thought of someone she knows being willing to give her such an incredible gift. “How do you thank someone for saving your life?”

Do you think my friend is embarrassed to talk about what this other friend has done for her? Absolutely not! She is awed by the gift, but never embarrassed.
“For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” 2 Timothy 1:12
Sometimes we like to think that those of us who are alive right now have a harder time than people who worshipped Jesus a long time ago. Maybe that’s true, but God’s people have always been at risk for being portrayed as less intelligent than those who don’t believe.
“In a piece of ancient graffiti discovered in Rome that dates back to about the time of Paul, we can get a glimpse of the type of razzing and contempt that Christians must have experienced as a result of their faith. … It depicts a crucifixion scene where the individual on the cross has the head of a donkey but the body of a man. Beside the cross a young man can be seen kneeling in worship. Scratched below the cross is the statement: ‘Alexander worships [his] god.’ The point is obvious—Christians were seen as stupid for believing in Jesus.”[1]
Clearly, some things never change. Many people think now as people did then, that Jesus Christ failed at His mission because He died. We know that’s just not true and that His death was valuable and necessary to pay for our sins.
“Christ was the one who consented to meet the conditions necessary for man’s salvation. No angel, no man, was sufficient for the great work to be wrought. The Son of man alone must be lifted up; for only an infinite nature could undertake the redemptive process. Christ consented to connect himself with the disloyal and sinful, to partake of the nature of man, to give his own blood, and to make his soul an offering for sin.”(E.G. White, Signs of the Times, March 5, 1896
Jesus did what had to be done. In fact, He and God worked out all the details before They ever created Earth. He knew that we would fail and had His plan ready when we did. Jesus was not ashamed to leave His place of King of the Universe to become a lowly human on Earth. Jesus was not ashamed to be the Son of an unwed mother who lived in a town with a bad reputation. Jesus was not ashamed to work as a carpenter. Jesus was not ashamed to be found in the company of prostitutes and tax collectors.

Jesus knew what He had to do to ensure all of us a chance to live with Him forever and He was not ashamed to do it.
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” Hebrews 12:1-4
Read it again, it says, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame …” Not only was Jesus not ashamed to become one of us, He did everything He did “for the joy that was set before Him.” What was that joy that caused Him to willingly do the terrible things that needed to be done?

You and I are that joy.

I am not ashamed to be the joy of Jesus. What about you?
“For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life.” John 3:16 AMP

[1] Carl P. Cosaert , The Lesson in Brief and Learning Cycle, Lessons 1–13, Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide – Teachers’  Edition