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The Meanest Man

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  –II Corinthians 5:17

“The meanest man in Montgomery County,”  is how my uncle, Don Ledbetter (known as “Doodle” by relatives and hometown people), was described to his son, D.K., by a man who knew him from his hometown.  Doodle’s funeral was Sunday in a rural church in North Carolina.  Where he had pastored for 20 years (fresh out of seminary), in a church built during his time there, a packed congregation listened to the story of an amazing life.  For more than 50 years, as pastor, teacher, District Superintendent and a hospital chaplain he served the Jesus he loved.  He completed a doctoral program in his seventies.

He was more like a brother to me.  My mother, his oldest sister, was more like a mother to him because their mother had died when he was five.  We played baseball together, hunted, etc. and attended college together.  I lived with his family for a while during my college days.  Though I moved away and didn’t get to see him much in later years, he was always special to me.  He often would have me preach in his church when I would visit.

The impact of his life on so many was obvious from the stories shared and the conversations with former classmates and friends of his and mine.

If you wondered how he got from the “meanest man” to that, you probably have guessed by now.  He knew Jesus.  As Paul Harvey used to say here’s the rest of the story.  The man who called him “the meanest man…” continued.  “I’m not a Christian but if I were, I want what Doodle has.”  What better evidence of a changed life.

I hope people who know me would say the same: “I want what he has.”

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“God’s Children Bear A Family Resemblence”

I John 3:2 we are God’s children now; …we will be like him.

All important events in the life cycle are connected to certain rituals which most of us know and in which we readily share.  For instance—when a baby is born:

“Who does she/he look like?”
“He has his Dad’s nose.”
“Her face is shaped just like her mother’s.”

            Now, often that is not a fact so much as expectation.  We look for and expect a child to resemble its parents and family members.  As a child grows it usually exhibits more and more traits of family.  It may not be so noticeable to those who see it every day but is often obvious to others.

So when John says we are God’s children, it raises some expectations.  If you were reading this in the Greek text, it would say “NOW we are God’s children.”  The emphasis is on the “now.”  In context, it is clear that those who are trusting Jesus belong to God’s family.

To say we are God’s children has powerful implications.  Not the least of which is that it establishes our identity.  To know who you are, to have a sense of identity, may well be one of the most important factors in your mental and emotional health.  If you do not have a sense of identity, if you do not know who you are, chances are, you have some real problems in your life.  This is especially important in our day, because we live in a world where there is a tendency to treat a person as an object, to manipulate a person, to see a person as disposable, to see one as useful only as he/she serves me and my ends.

To have a sense of belonging, to have a sense of identity is also vital to our spiritual health.  Often when someone introduces me, they tell my name but add something to that.  He’s our neighbor, a pastor at Messiah Church, Alana’s husband.  And the less they know me personally, the more likely they are to do that, to identify me by my function, my job.

Probably you have been identified, not by who you are so much, as by some relationship—Joe Blow’s wife or Susie Blow’s husband, or by some job you perform.

But when we say we are God’s children, it establishes our identity, not by our function or even just our relationship but OUR NATURE.  The CHRISTIAN LIFE IS NOT SIMPLY TAKING ORDERS FROM GOD OR EVEN FOLLOWING JESUS’ EXAMPLE.  THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS LIVING OUT A NEW NATURE, being part of a new kind of people.  Obviously as to “behaving like God’s children” most of us have a ways to go.  The child is not yet what he/she may become.  But the genes are there and with normal growth and development maturity will come.

And we have that amazing promise: “We shall be like Him!”  “Not yet but shall be” is essential to being human.  There is always the tension between what I am (performance) and what I shall be.  As Gordon Allport has said, “All people are in transit.”

Are you anxious to be like Jesus?  Keep trusting him and following and it will happen.

Me First! ?

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake. I Peter 2:13.

Over the years I have received two criticisms which I consider to be two of the best compliments I ever got.  One was that I talked “too much about Jesus.”  I only hope that I have talked as much about Jesus as that suggests.  The other was that I had “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”  In this case, I believe that, in the best sense of the word, the Gospel is meddlesome.  It has to do with where we live.  Peter certainly thought so.  This verse is the heading for a section (2:13-3:12) on a Christian’s relationships.  It identifies a basic relationship principle: submit.  (Do not read this as “submit to evil” or unhealthy domination.  It is qualified by “for the Lord’s sake” and the other’s best interests.)

          The title of a little book by Paul Tournier,  names the fundamental human dilemma—To Resist or to Surrender.  He says,

“Whether it is a farmer selling a cow at the fair or two theologians discussing doctrine, an adolescent who is trying to extract a privilege from his unwilling parents or diplomats who are negotiating war or peace, there are always two interests, two convictions, and in the last analysis, two wills which confront each other” (Tournier, To Resist Or To Surrender, 13).

          The prevailing emphasis in our culture is on assertiveness and the Biblical text seems so naive when it makes submission the foundation stone of human relationships:  others first, give vs receive, serve vs be served.  Some sample Bible verses echo it:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  (Eph 5:21)
Honor one another above yourselves. (Roms. 12:10)
In humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of your should look not only to your owns interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3b-4)

Conventional thought says, “if you don’t watch out for yourself no one else will.”  The Bible says, “yes—the Christian will.”

          Since we live in a day, as someone has said, “The words of the Christian community have outrun its exemplary living,” we need to renew our commitment to this principle. (IB,113).

A Life Worthy of the Gospel

Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.-Philippians 1:27

Dallas Willard died last week.  Though I did not know him personally and never met him, I consider him to have been my mentor.  His writings never failed to stir my heart and challenge my life.  Two of his books, The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart were especially significant to me.  Just last year I led a Sunday School class study of The Divine Conspiracy.

In that book, he used the image of a bar code to illustrate a major problem among the Christian community.  He said that a lot of people had the bar code that said “Christian” but whose life really was something different.

It is sad but the lifestyles of many people deny their labeled identity as Christian.  Lifestyle is the result of character.  It is the form or expression given to a character when lived out in a world.  The dictionary defines “style” as a manner, a method, a way, a practice, a habit, as a characteristic behavior.  It has to do with a pattern of life, not just isolated incidents, not just a particular choice or action but a pattern of choices and actions.  Our jobs are involved, our leisure, how we spend our money, the food we eat, the goods we consume, the house we live in, how we raise our children.  Everything about our lives suggests a certain style of life.

A classic example is found in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”  the story of young men preparing for the 1924 Olympics.  One is a Scottish missionary to China.  His name is Eric Liddle.  Liddle qualifies for the Olympics, but on the ship with the British Olympic team in route to Paris, he discovers that one of the races he is to run will take place on Sunday.  He refuses to run.  He is pressured from ever quarter to change his mind even to the point of bringing in the Prince of England to persuade him to run “for the honor of the country.”

Eric Liddle’s refusal to run was not just an isolated incident or sudden whim.  It was a logical development from his pattern of life.  It was in fact predictable.

Now the manner, the style of life has always been a major concern for Christians and it is clearly reflected in numerous New Testament passages.  These are just a few samples:

-To the Corinthian Christians- “you are still of the flesh.  For while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving like ordinary men?”
– In Ephesians Paul raises the question in terms of conduct, talk, and labor.
-The book of Phillipians says, “I hope…Christ can be honored in my body. (1:20).
“As Christians we are to be “Lights in the world” (2:15).
-We read about some who by their conduct are “enemies of the cross of Christ.”
-Those at Colosse are asked, “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? (Col.2:20)
-“Give up living like pagans” (Eph.)
-There are those who profess to know God “but deny him by their deeds(Eph. 1:16)
-In Titus we read that we ought to live so that in “everything you may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

          From the beginning, there was never any doubt that those Christians were different.  Their style of living set them apart from the rest of the world.  But we are called not only to lives that are different, also life worthy of the gospel of Christ..

Wineskins

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. -Mark 6:22

In his book, Aquachurch, Leonard Sweet wrote, “If you’re doing church the same way you were a year ago, you’re falling behind and failing.”  Never has change come so quickly to a society and the Church is not exempt from the consequences.  Yet for many of us the Church is where we seek refuge from the dizzying pace of life.  It is where we look for stability and security, something familiar and comfortable.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  For God in Christ is our stability and security.

However, the containers in which we experience God in our life and share it with others have to change and adjust, flex and give or we lose him.  Jesus was talking about that when he said “you can’t new wine in old wineskins.”

Our problem is that we sometimes have trouble separating the wine (Jesus) from the container.  That is often why we have trouble keeping up with and accepting the changes necessary to be faithful.  It doesn’t matter where it’s in music, or forms of ministry or worship.

It can be scary.  But it’s also exciting to have an opportunity to share Jesus in new and different ways.  For be sure of one thing, Jesus is still the greatest need people have.

Be My Valentine

For God so loved…that He gave…His son…. John 3:16

Today, Valentine’s Day, love is on everybody’s mind, everywhere you look and crosses lips where it’s seldom at any other time mentioned.  We are told by retailers to say it with flowers, chocolate, jewelry and anything else they’re trying to peddle.

But we have a problem with the word “love.”  We say, “I love ice cream, my house, baseball, to swim, listen to good music and my wife” (not necessarily in that order).  We can really get confused about what love means.  I once heard Stuart Briscoe say we think love means “to like an awful lot.”  However, it is possible to love someone and not like them at all.

The benchmark, the standard of love’s expression is found in these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever heart-cross-thumb12673094believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  And that provides us with the clearest idea of love.  It is not in words but deeds.  It is not about how we feel (as nice as that might be) but what we do.

Even in the church we are not always clear.  I heard someone say that Jesus came to show us God’s love.  It is as if our only message to the world is “smile, God loves you.”  It’s great to know that but the real message is because of God’s love Jesus died on the cross for my sins (yours too).

Then Jesus really set the bar for us when He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Nothing less than to love the way God loves will do.  The only way that can happen is to receive God’s love and let God express that love through us.

Thanksgiving

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thess 5:18)

Someone has said, “The most intense moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, but when difficulties abound.” It was that attitude that led Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the first official Thanksgiving Day in the midst of our country’s civil war.

Some people simply do not know how to give thanks.  The London Times reported this story several years ago:

Thousands of letters sent each year to God end up in a sorting office in Jerusalem. According to the Associated Press, the letters arrive from all over the world in the city’s undeliverable mail department. “We have hundreds of thousands of letters sent either to God or Jesus Christ, and for some reason they come to Jerusalem,” said post office spokesman Yitzak Rabihiya.

In one letter an Israeli man asked God for 5,000 shekels ($1,000), to ease his poverty. Postal workers were so moved that they sent him 4,300 shekels.

“After a month, the same person wrote again to God,” Mr. Rabihiya explained, “but this time he wrote, ‘Thank you, God, for the contribution, but next time please don’t send it through those postmen. They’re thieves; they stole 700 shekels’.”

In the classic story, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the Grinch expects cries and wailings after he steals all the village gifts and even food.  Instead he hears them singing a Christmas carol.  And he learns, “Christmas resides not in things but in the heart which is thankful.  He could not steal their gratitude.”1

In Joe Batten’s book, Tough Minded Leadership, he says that gratitude is “highest form of mental and spiritual health.”   It creates humility.  I defy you to maintain pride while thanking God.  It also produces generosity and overcomes discouragement.

But most of all it leads to praise which honors God.  In the last book of the Bible when God’s great plan is coming to its conclusion these word reverberate through all creation: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign.”  (Rev. 11:17)

My prayer for you and me is for a grateful heart.

1Brett Blair, http://www.eSermons.com, November, 2003