It’s Not Just About Me

Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell” (NLT).

We read these verses often as Jesus expanding on the Old Covenant laws. Jesus is saying that it’s not just our behavior that we need to control, it’s also our attitudes. That’s hard teaching, and something that only happens over time as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification process. But did you know that these verses were never meant to stand by themselves? They’re part of a much larger thought from Jesus:

Matthew 5:23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.

25 “When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny” (NLT).

The first word of verse 23, which various translations render as “So” or “Therefore” ties these verses to the two that came before it. When we look at the whole thought, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t just talking about our own self-control, he’s talking about our relationships. Being angry with, or cursing someone, is damaging to our relationship with that person. But Jesus goes on to say that it’s just as important for us to be aware of the times the we have angered others! In fact, reconciling with others is so important that Jesus said we shouldn’t bother trying to worship God until we’ve done what we can to patch things up with others.

I’ve checked commentaries from Greek scholars and read this in multiple translations, and nowhere is there any mention of Jesus saying, “If it was your fault.” Fault isn’t what matters, it’s the relationship that matters. This is an echo of what Jesus taught in Matthew 3:18 when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Also James 3:18, “And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness”

Of course there are situations that we can’t fix. The NIV translation of Romans 12:18 says, If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (emphasis added).

Jesus values relationships above sacrifices. So whenever we have a strained relationship, we have a responsibility to do all we can to repair the relationship–even if we think the other person is wrong.


I Hope People Are Unhappy With You

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.”

I suppose that the title of this post seems controversial to some, but I believe it is highly biblical. Jesus made enemies. If we’re not making enemies, perhaps we’re not following him closely enough!

I thank God that this has not hit my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world as strongly, but in the U.S. we have a problem. We have become so concerned with “reaching the culture” that we have stopped being different from it. And even within our churches, we are too much like the church in Corinth that Paul became so angry with because they weren’t weeding out sin within their own walls. We have allowed sin within our churches to go unchallenged because we don’t want to rock the boat. After all, they might stop attending!

I find no verse in the Bible where Jesus asked us to go and make attenders! Rather, he was willing to let people leave if they weren’t willing to embrace everything he taught. Jesus never modeled building a large church; he wanted a committed church no matter how small.

We cannot let a desire for numbers get in the way of our true mission. We are to go and make disciples. Jesus was content to drive away thousands to keep a tiny core of those committed.

May we never lose sight of the example of He who we serve.

You Can’t Dispense Wisdom You Don’t Have

My target audience for this piece is spiritual leaders, but I believe that these words are true for everyone. I think we all would like to believe that our words can help others… but we can’t give others what we don’t already have.

Many of you will have had the experience of being in a situation and just the right Bible verse or story or quote came to mind. Personally, I give the Holy Spirit credit for that—though some may disagree. But whatever you give credit for those moments, those perfect thoughts could not have come to mind if you hadn’t already been filling yourself with the quality thoughts that you were able to express.

I used to confine my reading to topics of interest to me. That just makes sense, right? But what if your reading and study isn’t just about you? What if all of your reading and study is preparing you for some conversation or situation that you can’t anticipate?

I have found that the more time I spend in all parts of the Bible, and in reading books by wise people on all topics, the better I am able to respond in all situations. Of course the Holy Spirit is able to impart new, unique thoughts! But most of the time I find that I am prompted in conversations with things that I had read a long time ago and thought I had forgotten! But the Holy Spirit is able to bring these thoughts back to the front of my mind at just the right moment to be a blessing to others.

I don’t claim to be a wise person, but the more I fill my mind with quality reading, the more the Holy Spirit is able to bring the most appropriate Bible reference, illustration, perspective on a current event, or whatever it is to mind.

Folks, time spent in Bible study and reading of great works isn’t just for my edification. They provide a growing reservoir of knowledge that the Holy Spirit can bring to my mind in surprising everyday conversations. Yes, he can plant unique thoughts and provide us with words. But in my experience that happens most frequently by him bringing to mind things I had already taken in on my own.

I can’t encourage you strongly enough to be in regular reading of the Bible and other quality works on a wide range of things beyond what you might be teaching at the moment. Every morsel of wisdom you take in is another tool you have to help others in situations you can’t predict.

Empty Christians

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” — Rev. 3:20 (NRSV)

This verse has been used countless times through the years as an invitation to become a Christian. It has been the inspiration for numerous paintings. It is a wonderfully inspiring thought.

But did you know that Jesus spoke this words not to unbelievers but to believers?

This verse appears in the context of Rev. 3:14-22, which is Christ’s message to the church of Laodicea. You know, the ones he said he wanted to vomit out because they were lukewarm. Let’s take a moment to get the whole picture. From the New Living Translation:

14 “Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s new creation:

15 “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! 16 But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! 17 You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. 18 So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. 19 I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.

20 “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. 21 Those who are victorious will sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on his throne.

22 “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”

Jesus is speaking these words to a church. A church that believes they are doing great! No doubt attendance and giving was impressive. They probably had a top-notch music ministry. But Jesus said they had lost touch with what really mattered. Their riches and fine clothing were completely based on earthly values rather than the treasure of heaven. He said they deserved his discipline.

Jesus wasn’t knocking on the door of strangers, he was knocking on the door of people who already knew him—but had never invited him completely in. In church circles you often hear phrases used for Jesus like “Lord and Savior.” Those are two very different things. The church in Laodicea knew Jesus as Savior only, and Jesus said that making only that partial commitment deserves his correction and discipline—and does not constitute full victory.

Making Jesus Lord of your life means making him part of your life completely. Part of your every decision. In fact, part of your every motive and thought. It is impossible to have him that deeply inside you and be lukewarm. It is a much deeper level of commitment—and the only kind that Jesus describes as victorious.

Spiritual Success

We all have the desire to succeed at the things we undertake. It’s part of our nature. If you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, none of them say, “A failure.” Most are driven to do well at whatever they try. And I think this is especially true when someone is undertaking something for God. We’re aware of the eternal importance of what we are doing, and that naturally causes us to feel like success is even more important.

That makes perfect sense, but it does raise a fundamental question: How should we define success?

Perhaps you feel like you’ve been faithfully teaching God’s Word for a long time, and yet you’re not seeing growth—numerically, spiritually, or both. Have you failed?

By all counts, Ezekiel was a major prophet in the history of Israel. The 48 chapters devoted to his ministry make the book of Ezekiel one of the largest in the entire Bible! Over and over, he warned the people of their sins and the consequences God would bring. And Ezekiel wasn’t just poring over Scripture trying to interpret God’s Word in a way he believed would reach the people; he was delivering verbatim God’s actual message at the time he received it! In Chapter 3, he was tied up and speechless as an object lesson to the people. In chapter 4, he laid on his side on the street for 16 months, drinking only water, and eating only bread he made himself and cooked over burning cow dung in order to teach a strong lesson. Day after day, month after month, year after year, he delivered God’s message directly from the Father’s own mouth. And there is no evidence that anyone ever changed their ways because of him.

The story of Isaiah is much the same. He delivered God’s message faithfully for years—even preaching naked for three years at God’s direction—and his ministry appears to have had no effect. So would we say that Ezekiel and Isaiah failed?

Answering that requires us to look at a deeper question: What did God actually call them to do?

Here’s Ezekiel’s commission (from 2:1-5, NLT):
     “Stand up, son of man,” said the voice. “I want to speak with you.”
     The Spirit came into me as he spoke, and he set me on my feet. I listened carefully to his words.
     “Son of man,” he said, “I am sending you to the nation of Israel, a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. They are a stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for remember, they are rebels—at least they will know they have had a prophet among them.”

If you look at that passage closely, you see that Ezekiel has no responsibility whatsoever for the results of his ministry. In fact, God warns him that the people probably won’t listen! But their failure to listen is not a reason for Ezekiel to stop. Look at 3:10-11:
     Then he added, “Son of man, let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ Do this whether they listen to you or not.”

So Ezekiel was never directed to bring about great change. He was told to deliver God’s message regardless of the results. Look at 3:16-19:
     “Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. “Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. But you will have saved yourself because you obeyed me” (emphasis added).

We see three critically important things here. First, we are obligated to deliver God’s Word—even if it is a message we know people don’t want to hear. Second, if we don’t do that then we are responsible for their failure to respond. Third, whether they listen or not, we will be rewarded for simply obeying God’s direction.

Now don’t think that this is entirely a dreary message. Remember what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 3:5-7:
     After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.

Even when you don’t see any tangible results, you can be sure that you have planted seeds. You may never know when or if they germinate, and someone else may be their spiritual leader when it happens. But it’s not up to you to make the seed grow. That’s God’s job. It’s only up to you to scatter the seeds. And when you get frustrated as you look at those you are trying to influence, remember this part of the famous love chapter (1 Cor. 13:7):
     Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Are you focused on God’s definition of success for your ministry?

The Power of Truth

The Power of Truth
What is Your Church’s Attraction Model?

Today I was stricken by the fact that in my rush to get to Jesus I often skim over John the baptizer. The Gospel of Mark totally overlooks Jesus miraculous birth, and yet Mark takes time to talk about John the baptizer. This makes sense, since the coming of John was actually predicted by the prophets talking about the coming Messiah! Even his birth and family were special, but today my thoughts center around John’s ministry.

What did people see when they looked at John? Matthew and Mark both tell us that his clothing was a robe of coarse camel hair and a leather belt. The prosperous people of the time would have been wearing linen robes, and cloth belts with tassels. Less prosperous people would have been wearing wool with rope belts–often with tassels. Wearing a camel hair robe (or mantle) would indicate poverty. It gave an impression like bibbed overalls; someone who wears things that will last a long time because the person has a hard time and can’t afford to replace them frequently. He was not a preacher in a shiny suit, starched shirt, silk tie, and shined shoes. Nothing about his appearance gave the impression that following his teaching would make life easier or more prosperous.

What did people hear when they listened to John the Baptist? I can’t find a single place where he tried to entertain people. He didn’t encourage them, he exhorted them. In Matthew 3 and Luke 3, John is reported as giving a perfect example of the “turn or burn” message we often make fun of–including directly referring to being burned in fire. He gave the people instructions like, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” “Be content with your pay.”

Can you imagine a spiritual leader today telling people to be content with their pay? Especially coming from someone who looks like they don’t get any pay? From someone who eats grasshoppers?

This was a time when the people were under Roman rule. They had been conquered. They were subject to a foreign government that levied high taxes on them, and gave them new laws that they had never agreed to. But John didn’t tell them:

“You can’t help it, you’re just oppressed.”
“It’s the government’s fault.”
“You deserve better.”
“It’s the fault of the {insert people group}.”

No, what John told them is that they needed to change. Themselves. Us.

And yet the people left their towns and went out to the middle of nowhere to see and hear John’s teaching. By the thousands! And repented, and were baptized. Are you and your church having that kind of impact?

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul tells us that it is perfectly appropriate to tailor our approach to our culture. Each of us must decide the best way to do that. But we must never lose sight of the fact that our message is not based on our appearance, our entertainment, or our ability to make people feel better about their lives. Our message is based on confronting people with truth. Truth in love, absolutely, but not truth smothered by any other consideration.

The Mediterranean Love Plan

The Mediterranean Love Plan
Steve and Misty Arterburn
(Scheduled for release April 2017)

It comes at a price, but this book offers great, fresh ideas. The shelves are full of books and magazines filled with suggestions for your love life, but I really did find creative, practical fun ideas in this book. It’s the kind of book you will want to keep handy so you can refer back to the tips at the end of each chapter for new ideas.

The downside is the amount of time you have to spend floating down Ego River. You will hear about the boats he has owned, the awards he has received, his speaking engagements, his radio interviews, the ministries he has founded, his musical talent, his artistic talent, the extravagant vacations he has had, and the perfection of his family. You will learn that you should go to Spain, and Italy, and France. Look past all of that, and you will find great thoughts and ideas.

The free advance reading copy that Zondervan sent me had a lot of unsubstantiated claims that I hope will have citations in the final version. In this Internet era of false news, you can’t say things like “studies show” without naming credible sources, but I’m sure that will be cleaned up.

All in all, this is an impressive collection of great ideas that go beyond the typical fluff in modern relationship resources. My wife has already benefited from a couple of things I picked up, and I haven’t really begun to apply it proactively. These are great thoughts that are appropriate for everyone who is in, or who wants to be in, a loving relationship.

Doctor Who: The American Adventures

IMG_0955.PNGThe free advanced reading copy that the publisher, Diamond Book Distributors, sent me was incorrectly labeled as a graphic novel. It is, in fact, more of a novella.

It still baffles me that with all of time and space to explore, the Doctor’s adventures seem so frequently to occur on earth and within a relatively narrow span of time. Having said that, it’s refreshing that it wasn’t within 100 years, either way, from present-day London. Rather, it takes place in the United States in the mid 1800’s, during the Gold Rush–at least initially.

This adventure involves the Twelfth Doctor, as portrayed by Peter Capaldi. And for the most part, it captures his character well. I would say, though, that this proper Scottish Doctor would say “Yes,” not “Yeah.”

A key factor in the dynamics of any adventure of Doctor Who adventure is the identity of his companion. In this book, however, there is none. I do think the story lacks something from the great by-play between the Doctor and his companion of the moment–in the case of the Twelfth Doctor, usually Clara.

The feeling is a bit more matter-of-fact than we expect from the Doctor’s adventures, without the character interaction and development of the others involved. It feels like a disconnected set of vignettes, which is implied by the title of “Adventures” plural. If you stay with it, though, the author does bring them back together into a coherent story…or at least that was my hope until the last page.

I hope that when this book is released they make it clear that this is a collection of short stories. I found them a bit too straightforward for my tastes, but diehard Whovians might find it worth their time.

Performance Enhancing Drugs

That’s the title I gave this humorous image when I posted it on Imzy. And yes, I appreciate it as a joke. But it got me thinking…

Most of you will recognize this as a take on the classic Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr around 1934:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This meme substitutes coffee for courage, wine for serenity,  and removes wisdom completely. I can’t shake the feeling that that’s a metaphor for our culture.

Feel a bit drowsy, drink coffee. Want an extra edge, try an energy drink. Having trouble sleeping, try Ambien. Feeling edgy, have a drink. Feeling lonely, try Häagen-Dazs. Feeling bored, distract yourself with some mindless entertainment. Feeling anxious, surf the Web for hours to allow yourself the false feeling of accomplishing something. Artificial solutions that mask symptoms without solving problems.

It seems to me that people are spending a lot of time, energy, and money seeking external quick fixes for things that are really resolved only by internal changes. No amount of chemical additives will change our bodies’ natural need for the right amount of quality rest. Numbing our minds doesn’t solve anything, it only delays it—which often makes it worse. Triggering the pleasure receptors in our brain with our drug of choice (I’m partial to Goobers) is just as ineffective as numbing our minds.

Courage is not necessarily the absence of fear. It may be doing the right thing despite your fear. It may be realizing that you can’t “fail” because the results are ultimately up to a Higher Power. Courage is built by the character that comes from consistently doing the right thing, no matter the consequences. It is strengthened by the knowledge that God never asks you to “succeed,” he only asks you to obey.

Serenity can be mimicked for a short period of time, but true serenity can never be produced by external means—yes, even if they legalize cannabis. It’s a state of inner peace that transcends outer stimuli. It is cultivated by prayer and meditation. It is strengthened by developing a spiritual, eternal viewpoint that doesn’t expect worldly institutions to resolve spiritual problems.

Wisdom isn’t the same as knowledge. Knowledge can be abstract, wisdom is applied. Wisdom helps us discern what is too petty to worry about. Wisdom helps us see underlying causes rather than visible problems. Wisdom helps us see the difference between “making our point” and helping resolve a situation. Wisdom sees the difference between arguing small nuances of one biblical verse and living the Bible’s big messages.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. But we should be on guard to prevent external things from distracting us from taking on the true, prolonged inner battles.

Love isn’t convenient

You’ve probably heard the old cliché that love is a verb. It’s true.

Those great old romantic movies that portray love as a feeling are touching, but they’re based on an emotion that can be fleeting. True love is a commitment, and those are not fleeting. It’s a commitment to act in certain ways that display that love. A couple of things have happened in the past week that illustrated that.

Last Saturday was the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Berea. I led a team in fundraising in support of my mother. I received a donation from someone we had helped through a rough time a few years ago, and the donation was very much appreciated. But then he asked for the address of the walk, because he wanted to come down to be there in person. This man, his wife, and their beautiful little girl, drove an hour and a half each way to come from Campbellsville and walk with us in support of my mother. They’d never met her, but he loved me and wanted to show it.

Yesterday my wife had a fall and broke her ankle. Today, friends drove down from Lexington to deliver a dinner for us tonight. They didn’t come to our home, because they didn’t want her to feel like she had to “be ready for guests.” They met me at work and dropped off food, a bottle of wine, and a rose, tea, and chocolates for Tiffani.

I’ve come to believe that love is most visible when it’s not convenient. It’s the things we do going out of our way that speak love most clearly. Jesus frequently praised people who went out of their way, such as the Good Samaritan, those who visit prisoners, and those who care for people in need. He said true love is laying down your life for someone else.

I thank God for showing love for me in the most inconvenient way imaginable; the sacrifice of his Son. I thank God for bringing people into my life who demonstrate love. I pray that He will continue to develop me into a more and more loving person to others.