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The Great Experiment

Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven. -Matthew 5:16b

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. It is the birthday of this country, what has been called “The Great Experiment.” Christians living that experiment have become different from most other Christians in history. We have enjoyed a favored status. The government and larger culture have accommodated, even in some ways supported those calling themselves Christian. Many have seen this as a “Christian” nation, at least in name if not in fact.

Christians in most other countries for most of history have had a different and often more difficult journey as followers of Jesus. They have had to live as minorities with governments and societies less than friendly toward them or even hostile. So they have learned to live the life more nearly matching Jesus’ words, “in the world you will have tribulation.”

But things have changed for Christians in our country. We are becoming a more secular country and more and more find ourselves in opposition to decisions of our government and opinions of our neighbors. And we often do not know how to react.

Some express and become motivated by anger, fear or defeatism. None of these are characteristics that Jesus has taught and modeled for his followers.

So, how can Christians in our society avoid either compromising our Biblical principles or becoming angry and bitter self-imposed cultural exiles?

I believe the answer is found in one word—grace. We saw it modeled in Charleston. We heard it proclaimed by President Obama at the funeral for the slain pastor. It shows when we don’t get our way, when we are good losers. So when a law is passed by the democratic process which we don’t agree with, we respect it. It shows when we are mistreated, misunderstood or misrepresented. We don’t return evil for evil or hatred for hatred but overcome them by good, by love.

The “Great Experiment” was that people, all kinds of people would live together with their differences intact but accepting of each other. Jesus’ followers in such a place are to be “salt and light” and full of grace.


To Tell the Truth

The truth will set you free. -John 8:32

Have you ever thought about how hard it is to tell the truth in church. Surprised? Do you believe the church is the place of truth? Do you assume that unlike other institutions, places, and people the church is different because here we find the truth? Of course, the church is the custodian of truth, specifically the gospel truth. Of course the church is the place where you don’t expect people to lie to you, and most of the time they don’t.

So when I talk about it being hard to tell the truth, I don’t mean we tell lies to each other (though it’s not unheard of). Rather, it is how we often fail to think about or talk about the negative, the problems, the unflattering things. Of course some people see only negative and some who are never happy with anything. Some of them use every chance possible to point out shortcomings (real or imagined).

We are often guilty of trying so hard to “sell” our story, our church, ourselves to others that we distort the truth by only talking about the positive. Sometimes, we also hide unpleasant matters by “creatively” interpreting facts so that we maintain an upbeat atmosphere.

We sometimes “kid” ourselves about our own spiritual condition. We don’t express our real opinions because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or cause problems. We accept shoddy efforts because after all, they’re just volunteers.
Usually this is not done for wrong motives but because we have mistaken notions about protecting image and feelings. In some cases we just don’t think. I know that I’ve probably been guilty myself. I want people to feel good about the church, themselves and (I have to admit it) me. So I don’t notice or don’t mention anything that might prevent that.

Now some of this is simply using good judgment. For example you don’t write a brochure for prospective new people and talk about negative issues (You don’t mislead either). We see that the positives far outweigh the negatives, and rightly emphasize them to prevent a “negative spirit” from discouraging us.

The point of all this is that we need to learn to trust each other and God enough so that we can face real problems and issues that affect our ability to grow as disciples, to reach the unchurched and make all disciples. As a church we have a lot of strengths but like all churches we also have weaknesses. While I do believe we need to focus on our strengths, we also need to deal with weaknesses. Identifying them, acknowledging them, talking about them is never easy but necessary so that we can deal with them in constructive ways.

My prayer is that God will help us be honest with ourselves and speak the truth to one another in love.

The Difference Maker

My former District Superintendent, Chuck Kellogg, tells this story from his time in Vietnam.  He said his unit lost 19 men in combat.  One of the men a Californian, Bill Rhodes, was killed on February 6, 1971. “Bill was not a believer in Christ.  But a Sgt. Avery frequently witnessed to Bill and the rest of us about matters of faith and prayed for all of us.

            Sgt. Avery felt compelled to visit Bill’s mother (Avery lives in California).  He was very apprehensive about doing so.  Upon arrival Bill’s mother warmly greeted Sgt. Avery.  She has a letter in her hand written by her son, Bill.  He said he had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and Lord and he wanted her, his mother, to be the first to know.  The letter was dated February 5th.”

            Prayer, what a mystery—what a power!  We often never know the effects of our prayers.  But God assures us they are effective—James 1:16b The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

            Want to make a difference in a life, in the world?  Pray.   Check out Messiah’s Prayer Team Ministry.

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.”

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..

We have found him

We have found the one -John 1:45

“The     Exciting Discovery—“We Have Found Him”

             Have you ever tried to tell someone of something that is so unusual, so different from the normal or expected that you knew when you told it you wouldn’t be believed.

Try to imagine John’s task—to tell of something so wonderful, so absolutely unique as to be unbelievable.  Then read and watch as he lays the groundwork, then builds his case to prove that the creator becomes flesh and blood and lives on this earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:19-51).

He begins by calling some eye witnesses.  First, he calls the most prominent and influential religious leader of his time—John The Baptist (called simply John by writer). 

The Baptist has raised quite a stir with his preaching, baptizing and a group from the religious establishment has been sent to find out what he’s all about?  Who could he be?  Is he the one to look for? The one God has promised?  Are you he? 

To John’s credit, he makes sure they are pointed to Christ and not a substitute (himself).  Do you know hard that would be.  John is the most popular person around, with all the acclaim and success which goes with that.  And he must now begin to point the crowds away from himself.  He immediately begins to fade into the background.  I am a voice only.  He is greater than I am.  Can you imagine a politician, a great religious leader downplaying his importance?
He tells his own disciples, the time has come, he has come.  You are not to follow me but him.   The faithfulness of John in doing his job is now clearly seen—“they followed Jesus.”

And immediately they become evangelists, that is, they began to tell others.  “We have found him.”  So the cycle begins all over.  Those who find Jesus want to…must, tell others about Him.

“Hallelujah, I have found Him who my soul so long has craved!   Jesus satisfies my longings; through his blood I now am saved.”  (From the hymn, “Satisfied” by C.T. Williams)

Squeezed by Life

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?…How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? … But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. -Psalm 13

Do You ever complain?
Do you ever complain to God?
Get angry with Him?
How do you feel about that?

            Did you know there is a whole group of Psalms that are characterized by complaining to   God—Psalms of Lament.
            Furthermore, there are other Biblical examples of holy people, God’s own people saying things to God we would never expect—complaining, accusing, etc.  Listen to the great prophet Jeremiah:

He tells God he is suffering for Him, he has  fed on God’s words, they were his joy and heart’s delight.
            I never sat in the company of the revelers,
              never made merry with them;
            I sat alone because you hand was on me
              and you had filled me with indignation.
            Why is my pain unending
              and my wound grievous and incurable?
            Will you be to me like a deceptive brook [“liar”-King James trans.],
              like a spring   that fails? 

            What we have here is the real life of God’s honest believer living in a world where we get squeezed by life and the practical example of how they have reacted.  These people are human, fallible, struggling, yet believing.
            I was introduced to Brian Sternberg years ago in a book by Philip Yancey called Where Is God When It Hurts.  As I was working on this I did some research and came across the following from a sermon by R.J. Tusky just last month:

            Once upon a time, Coach Grant Teaff wrote a book called “I Believe.” It’s about a young man who was once the world’s greatest pole-vaulter. His name is Brian Sternberg.
            In 1963, Brian was a sophomore at the University of Washington. He was not only the world’s best pole-vaulter, but also America’s trampoline champion. Teaff says:  “Word around track was that Brian Sternberg was the most self-centered, young athlete to come along …in a long time.”
            Teaff tells how he watched Brian perform the day he broke the world’s record. He says: “The thing that caught my eye was his poise, self-confidence, and that he never smiled.”
            The next day at breakfast, Teaff was stunned when he read the newspaper headline: “Brian Sternberg Injured.”  Brian had been working out, alone, in the gym. He did a triple somersault and came down on the trampoline …off-center. His neck hit the edge of the frame, snapping it and leaving him totally paralyzed, able to move, only …his eyes and his mouth.  Brian was left a helpless, hopeless cripple, and …a very …very …bitter  …young man.
            Five years later, Coach Teaff saw Brian again. It was at a convention for coaches and athletes at Estes Park, Colorado.
            Once everyone was seated, the auditorium was totally darkened. Suddenly, a movie projector lit a large, panoramic screen. There was Brain Sternberg …racing down the runway, executing that record-breaking pole-vault. Every coach and athlete in the room “oohed” and “aahed.”
            Then the auditorium went totally dark again …except for a single, brilliant spotlight, illuminating a single chair, with arms, on the, otherwise …bare, stark stage. It looked like some tractor-beam from a spaceship, locked onto that chair.
            Then, out of the stage-shadows, came a huge, nationally-known, football player named, Wes Wilmer. In his arms was what looked like a large ragdoll. Its long arms and legs hung limp at its sides and flopped this way and that, as Wes Wilmer walked across the stage. The ragdoll was six-foot, three-inch Brian Sternberg, all 87 pounds of him.
            Wes placed him in the chair and carefully, propped him up with pillows, so he wouldn’t fall over. Then, in a raspy voice, Brian Sternberg began to talk:
            “My friends-Oh, I pray to God that what has happened to me, will never happen to one of you.  I pray that you will never know the humiliation, the shame…of not being able to perform one …single …human …act.  Oh, I pray to God you will never know the pain I live with everyday.  It is my hope and my prayer that what has happened to me will never happen to one of you.  Unless, my friends …that’s what it takes for you to put God …in the center of your life.”
The impact of Brian’s words on that particular crowd was absolutely electrifying. No one there will ever forget them.

            I read somewhere that it was said the place to go if you wanted encouragement is Brian Sternberg’s house.
            Brian, Joni Eareckson Tada (paralyzed in a diving accident) and untold multitudes more, squeezed by life find in Jesus Christ meaning and purpose.  And they become shining examples of how life with God overcomes all obstacles.
            Brian once closed a Look magazine article this way: “Having faith is a necessary step toward one of two things. Being healed is one of them. Peace of mind, if healing doesn’t come, is the other. Either will suffice.”1

1 “The Spirituality of Suffering,” http://www.theaword.org

Tell Me More

whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. –I Corinthians 10:31

The Asbury Herald sometime ago had this story by J.D. Walt, Jr.:
“It was almost closing time, and the wait staff hurriedly prepared the place for closing. Upon seating our sixsome, the waiter dealt us our menus like playing cards. Taking our orders, he shot each of us an “I’d rather be home watching The Practice” look.  We tried to engage the fellow in some friendly conversation. Upon learning he was a college student, we inquired if he had found a local church home. His reply, “Yeah I go to church…on Christmas.” We laughed politely along with him. My wife invited him to come to the college group at our church.

Suffice it to say, the evening did not improve. The food arrived cold, our glasses stayed empty, and the whole meal was a bust. One of the couples graciously picked up the entire bill and called it a night. As we continued visiting, the waiter approached our table with a puzzled look on his face. “Did your friend not want any change?” he inquired. “Apparently not,” we replied. A few minutes later he reappeared at our table. Still dumbfounded, he asked again, “Are you sure they didn’t want any change?” We began to wonder just how large the tip had been. Our waiter was being transformed before our very eyes. “Tell me more about your church’s college group,” he asked as he took a seat at our table….”

The Bible calls it grace, receiving what we do not deserve. That is the reason it is called “amazing grace.” It is what God has done for us by offering us salvation through Jesus. But it is also about how we are to live our lives as devoted followers of Jesus.  When others see it, it can open doors so that we can “tell…more” about Jesus.  One of my preaching professors, Dr. James Roberson, a Scotsman, used to pray in this rich Scottish brogue that our lives would “adorn the Gospel.”

Does my life “adore the Gospel,” that is , make it attractive?  Does yours?   As we move through the days of Lent toward Easter, let us pray and seek ways that it will be so.