Monday, August 30, 2010


AT THE MOVIES: The new film, "Eat Pray Love" is the basically true story of writer Elizabeth Gilbert and her decision to drop out of her marriage and travel abroad to find herself. She tours 3 countries(Italy, India, and Indonesia), enjoys great food, dabbles in some Eastern spirituality, and falls in love. The scenery is beautiful. The story is interesting. I have some real concerns, though.

Elizabeth offers a very poor example when it comes to marriage. The husband-wife thing is not just about love but about commitment, too(Genesis 2:24). Walking out and running away when there are misunderstandings or when one's partner's personality quirks irritate or when the grass looks greener someplace else may seem heroic or courageous or romantic but it's far from the ideal that God put in place. Part of genuine, mature love is working through our issues with our spouse, not bailing out at the first sign of trouble or discontent. Actually God may use our partner's weak points or irksome ways to refine and strengthen us! You'll rarely find the deep happiness you seek by gingerly skipping away from your mate or your family or your church in search of some fantasized better life elsewhere.

Jonah the prophet learned that lesson the hard way. God gave him an assignment in one place but he boarded a ship and went in the opposite direction. The Lord had to lead him through an exacting discipline process after that. Another Old Testament prophet, Hosea, obeyed God's command when it came to marriage and garnered vital insights about real love in the midst of great difficulty and personal pain. The very idea that joy and success and fulfilment in life can only be found somewhere else from where God has planted you is highly foolish and potentially dangerous.

And this whole business of "finding yourself" is suspect, too. Usually that's code for "doing what I want to do", being free, having no restrictions, satisfying my personal desires. In Matthew 10:39 Jesus said, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Apparently, then, the key to contentment is discovering what God wants and getting on the same page with Him. Even if that ultimately calls for serious sacrifice, a richness and a depth in living will result.

Mention is made in the movie about the "god within". That ought to raise a red flag among discerning Christian film watchers. Our God, the one true, living God, is transcendent. He is other than us. He is above and beyond and greater than us. He chooses to come near us, and to indwell us by His Holy Spirit, but that is not what Gilbert is talking about. We are not divine. We are not deity. That false idea is pantheism and must be rejected. It has many unsettling implications and is a demonic doctrine. It may sound all spiritual and mystical, but it is totally false!

Opportunities to travel and the appreciation of delicious foods and taking time to get away for vacations and rests that offer refreshment are all good things. They are gifts from the hand of a gracious God and should be gratefully received. Gilbert's approach misses the mark, however, and goes too far afield.

SERMON SERIES: I'm continuing to delight in the preparation of this collection of Sunday morning messages on popular sayings, slogans, cliches, and expressions in everyday conversation as we examine them through a biblical lens from various angles. We'll keep at this for a while. Thanks for your response...and for your suggestions of sayings to be included.

STUDY BIBLES: Christmas is less than 4 months away, and if you are considering purchasing a new Bible for someone this year let me encourage you to buy a study edition. They're more expensive, but the reader gets the benefit of not only having the text of scripture but many, many helpful explanatory notes, too.My favorites are the ESV Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible(now available in the great ESV translation) and the Life Application Bible. The NIV Study Bible is good, too.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bedroom Redecorating

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Don't count your chickens before they hatch. God helps those who help themselves. Don't burn your bridges behind you.

These and hundreds of other popular cliches and sayings are spoken in everyday conversation to wittily make points.

In my pulpit ministry this summer I've been bringing messages on several of those clever phrases and slogans and expressions. We've been taking a look at them through a scriptural lens, examining them with a biblical worldview to see if they offer anything in the way of truth or if they are just catchy statements used to spice up routine chats.

The other Sunday we put this oft-used saying under the microscope: You've made your bed, now lie in it. Apparently first recorded back in the late 1500's, this trite cliche seems to be a critical, sarcastic way of telling an individual that he must put up with the unpleasant results or effects of a foolish decision made or action taken.

Is it wise or helpful to speak these words to someone who has just made a mistake or a mess?

Well, actions do have consequences.Galatians 6:7-8 makes that clear.King David in the Old Testament learned this the hard way after his sexual sin with Bathsheba. Even though he got God's forgiveness for the heinous act, he had to live the rest of his life with the devastating personal and familial aftereffects of his wrong choice. Sometimes in the passion and recklessness of youth our kids don't see that their deeds have longterm effects. We adults have to help them connect the dots. And we have to be reminded of the same lesson ourselves. Regardless of whether it's an adulterous affair or overeating or smoking or abusing drugs or gossipping or playing around in school and not studying, our actions will produce unintended negative results. Mark it down.

However, it may not be the best or most useful thing to condescendingly, condemningly exclaim this expression to a person who has bungled something or blundered in a big way. Our words have tremendous power. People who stumble or who flubb up need hope and redirection, not caustic barbs. Judgemental statements may actually harden and seal them in their poor behavior. Verses like Proverbs 12:18 and 15:23 and 18:21 suggest that with our tongues we can either wound and bruise and cripple or refresh and encourage and inspire. As Christians our homes and churches should be "grace places" where people who have floundered and failed know they'll be loved, accepted, picked back up, and pointed to a better path. Flippantly uttering this cold, heartless cliche to an individual who botched it only sentences him to regret and stagnation. We just leave our hurting friends in ditches when we blurt out that phrase in our frustration or exasperation at their actions. Many an adult still lives under the burden and curse of hearing "You'll never amount to anything" or "I wish you'd never been born" shouted at them in childhood.

It needs to be understood, too, that sometimes our beds are made for us.

There is such a thing as generational sin, patterns and practices that get passed down in families. It's possible to be predisposed to bad choices as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home. Anger or alcoholism or laziness or abuse in a family tree can be transmitted through several generations. God seems to address this in Exodus 20:5-6. The patriarchs of Genesis could tell us about how parental favoritism and sibling rivalry, for example, kept cropping up in succeeding eras until finally Joseph broke the cycle and halted the downward spiral by forgiving his hateful brothers. His example teaches us that we don't have to be victims or stay stuck in habits or trajectories that we inherited. We can acknowledge, and choose to move out of, harmful patterns and forgive those who handed them down to us, and then go forward in a new, positive direction.

It's hard to imagine Jesus using that cynical slogan. He didn't usually leave people as they were, in their mess. Even when the rich young ruler of Mark 10 ultimately rejected Christ and went his own way, which was a recipe for life failure, Jesus had a heart of tender compassion for him.

Jesus didn't consign the paralyzed men of Mark 2 and John 5 to permanent disability. He healed them. He didn't push away the adulterous woman of John 8 or the frequently divorced woman of John 4 but rather forgave them and offered them a new lease on life. Ditto the despised, cheating tax collector Zaccheus of Luke 19. These persons had no hope or had failed or had sinned miserably but Jesus lifted them instead of spouting off harsh words about their status. The power of salvation in Christ is life-transforming. So says 2 Corinthians 5:17. By placing our faith in Jesus we can be completely changed, despite our past or our failures. Spiritually speaking, we don't have to stay in "bedbug- infested cots".

Of course making the choice to refuse God's freely offered mercy in Christ finds us "making our bed" for an eternity of horrible exclusion from all the wonderful blessings and benefits of knowing the Lord. Revelation 20:15 describes that in stark terms. The uniqueness of Christ for salvation and the exclusivity of the Gospel are ideas hotly debated these days but texts like John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are hard to refute.

When it comes to making our beds, we all could use a little help.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Leader Lab

All of us involved in ministry should take advantage of opportunities to hone our skills. Pastors, staffers, deacons, and Sunday School teachers ought to jump at chances to attend seminars, conferences, and training events where insights and methods for more effective leadership are presented, whether offered by the state convention or the local association or some parachurch organization.

But right in our own backyard, so to speak, and much closer at hand, is an excellent resource for picking up hints and tips and strategies for successful Kingdom work. I'm referring to the Bible. As we scour the scriptures, studying the biographies of the major characters found on its pages, we can develop profiles of the men and women who led well, and, applying what we learn, can enhance our vision and sharpen our approaches as we guide groups and serve people.

Think about Elijah, for example.

This famous Old Testament prophet stands out as a model of productive leadership. Practical lessons abound as we examine his ministry style and techniques.

Obviously it needs to be said that the key to his success was prayer. Even a New Testament writer comments on that, in James 5:16-18. We see illustrations of his commitment to conversation with the Father in 1 Kings 17:20-21, 18:36-37, and 19:4, 10, and 14, and it seems like he carried on a running dialogue with God throughout his tenure of work. To dare to think that we can accomplish anything of lasting spiritual value without a dependance on the Lord in supplication and intercession is sheer folly. Overreliance on human tactics to the exclusion of waiting on God for direction is a dead end.

Elijah appeared to grasp the reality, too, that there are polarities in ministry which require balance. Sometimes you deal with individuals(17:1,10;18:7-8;19:19) and at other times with groups(18:19). Occasionally the situation calls for confrontation(17:1; 18:40;2 Kings 1:16) and at other moments for mercy and compassion(17:10-16). There are seasons to be with people(18:19) and periods of being alone(17:2-7). Sometimes the presence and intervention of God is dramatic and almost overpowering(!8:38;2Kings 2:11) and then at other times He speaks gently(19:11-13) and works slowly and progressively(18:43-45). There will be days of routine and waiting(17:2-7) and then bursts of intense activity(18:20-40; 2Kings 2:1-11). We're wired and gifted by God in certain ways to serve Him along definite pathways, but to keep us on our toes and to surprise us with His greatness and creativity and to expand and grow us and keep us out of ruts He'll take us through some ministry patches where we have to develop and utilize some different skill sets. In God's work, you soon learn to expect the unexpected!

Let's not forget, either, that God had to teach this prophet to take care of himself. In body and in soul. Read all about it in 1 Kings 19. After Elijah's supernatural victory on Mount Carmel he got depressed and stressed and anxious and burned out(ever notice how spells like that sometimes arise after revivals or building campaigns or serious counseling sessions or painful committee meetings?) He was tired and he was lonely. He was ready to quit and prayed to die. The Lord was patient with him, though, and took him through a gradual healing process that restored him physically, mentally, spiritually, relationally, and vocationally. Only then did he recommission and reassign him. We make a grave mistake if we don't protect and safeguard our spirit and our body. If we're always pushing and rushing and don't take time for proper diet and exercise and periods of slowing down and reflecting we're probably gonna crash sooner or later. It is a smart minister who builds into his schedule ample time for rest, recreation, family outings, vacations, and seasons for just listening to God. And the lesson that God taught Elijah in 19:11-13 shouldn't be lost on us--it's not just in the big churches or the big days or the spectacular miracles or the loud, exuberant worship gatherings that the Lord is at work. He works in a myriad of ways. That concept ought to free all of us up!

We also can learn, too, from the way this man of God closed out his ministry. In 1 Kings 19:19-21 the prophet chose and summoned his successor. 2 Kings 2:1-14 indicates that he spent time with and mentored Elisha as well as some prophetic bands in different cities. He stuck close to the guy who would take his place and explained the ropes to him. He strengthened his connection with Elisha as the day of his departure grew closer(rather than emotionally pulling back). A very smooth transition was forged and a great ministry was continued even though Elisha was his own person and pursued his service a little differently. It has often been said that the real test of the success of our labors is what happens after we leave. We bequeath a legacy of effectiveness and ensure a bright future for those who will take up our task if we prepare carefully and give them the tools they'll need to be at their best when we're gone. And by the way, when we say goodbye, we need to leave! Elisha's ministry was every bit as scintillating and productive as Elijah's had been even though he served along some alternative tracks. But there is no record that Elijah ever swooped back down from Heaven to ask his successor why he wasn't doing his job just like Elijah had done it!

Go off to those classes and symposiums and learn all you can about strong leadership. Make sure, though, that you don't overlook that best manual on spiritual service ever written,right there at your fingertips--God's Word. Sure saves on travel expense, too.