The Power of Truth

The Power of Truth
or
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.

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.

 

Book Review: The Life Assistance Agency

img_0829Scheduled for publication September 25, 2016

With a quirky title like The Life Assistance Agency, the offbeat concept, and the humor at the beginning, I was put in mind of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books. As a result, I was slightly disappointed when the wit went away after the first part of the book. That’s unfair, because the book really is a great read. It could benefit from just a touch more editing, but the free advance review copy that Urbane Publishing sent me may well get final touch-up before its release this week.

As best I can discover, this is Hocknell’s premiere novel. I certainly hope it’s not his last, because he does an excellent job of weaving together stories in two different timelines. It was consistently engaging, with pleasant twists and revelations along the way. The characters were interesting—even when not lovable. I will most certainly keep an eye out for future work from Thomas Hocknell. He’s an author I look forward to reading again.

Book Review: Searching the Scriptures

51ksvqxjcel-_sy346_(due for publication by Tyndale September 13)

In his introduction, Swindoll says that this book is an attempt to pass on what he learned from his beloved mentor, Howard Hendricks, and built upon in his 50+ years of ministry. And indeed, there are parts of the book that are very reminiscent of Hendricks’ work, Living by the Book (1991, Moody Press). Swindoll wrote the foreword for that book, which I’ve loaned out more copies of than I’ve had returned. But even if you have that book, Searching the Scriptures is a really valuable work.

He starts with two powerful chapters that address why we should bother studying the Bible–something many people have never really had explained. If you read these two chapters and do the exercises at the end of each, you will likely come away with a new hunger for Bible study.

The next four chapters describe–and give great exercises of–his four key steps of Bible study. I won’t throw in a spoiler here…I will say that they won’t necessarily be surprising, but you’ve likely never had them explained and illustrated so clearly. The advance review copy Tyndale gave me didn’t have some graphics that are supposed to be in the final version, but I still found it easy to follow.

Swindoll puts it succinctly: “Those who don’t learn to prepare their own meals from the Scriptures simply don’t know what God’s Word has to say. It simply isn’t possible to get the spiritual food our souls need in an hour on a Sunday morning.”

There are a few anachronisms, such as his insistence on the need for a concordance. Surely we can forgive a man who has been in ministry for 50 years a few quirks related to being a bibliophile rather than an online scholar with the ability to do a word search with a duplex of taps.

This is not a quick read that you breeze through. I received my review copy from Tyndale a few weeks ago, and am just now finishing this review. If you don’t take the time to go through the exercises at the end of each chapter, you will finish this book informed but not transformed. But faithfully following Swindoll’s wise techniques will prevent one from falling into common traps such as “proof-texting;” pulling one verse or part of a verse out of context and building a false theology around it.

This book will almost certainly give you a new hunger for, and a new ability to gain nourishment from, studying God’s Word. In fact, I would argue that it should be part of every single New Christian class around the world. Even the library of every Christian around the world.

Book Review: Closer Than Close

51walpeh4olby Dave Hickman
Tyndale House Publishers, 2016

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s good, because the cover of the advance review copy that Tyndale sent me is a really creepy eyeball and unfortunately the book cover misleads you about the book’s content. I also suggest you completely bypass the book’s Foreword, because it will paint the book’s author as someone you have nothing in common with, which makes it harder to relate to the content. That’s a shame, because the book does make some good points worth considering–at least in chapter 1 where he actually discusses what the back cover says the book is about.

He makes a somewhat confusing attempt to explain the Trinity in chapter 2, but if you stay with him to chapter 3, you see that it’s not quite the non sequitur that it seemed as you struggled through chapter 2. The truth is that Jesus said in John 14 that we would be in Him and He in us, just as He is in the Father, so trying to grasp the nature of the Trinity is important in understanding the level of union we have with God.

Unfortunately, in chapters 4 and 5 the author is still trying to explain the Trinity, and making no real progress toward helping me understand my relationship with God. It might well be a good book if you enter it with the right expectations, but the blurb for the book left me feeling like a victim of bait-and-switch.

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Why Christian Meditation is Different

When most of us think of meditation, we tend to think of Buddhist monks and other Eastern Mystics. I certainly did, and that has caused me no end of difficulty in trying to develop a habit of Christian meditation.

In the Eastern way of thinking, meditation is not about controlling our mind as much as becoming an outside observer. The frequently-used analogy is that of sitting on the bank of a stream. When an unwanted thought comes in, we are to simply observe it and allow it to flow away. In so doing, we are preventing the thought from becoming too much of an issue so that it will go away as quickly as possible without disrupting our peace.

Perhaps after years of a monastic life that even works.

I have been on a silent retreat for several days now at the Abbey of Gethsemani, trying to calm my spirit and develop better meditation, peace, and communion with God. I spent much time attempting to find a calm center and allow my own mind to quiet enough to hear the voice of God. In the process, I have found that—at least for me—in trying to see those thoughts as leaves that disappear down the stream, they become rather large turds that foul the river completely. As Goll says in The Lost Art of Practicing His Presence, “One of the enemies of Communion with God is a mind busy with other things. It’s hard to hear the voice of God when you’re constantly hearing your own thoughts.”

I read a great deal of Merton, Nouwen, Foster, Guyon, and others, and found myself wondering what was wrong with me. They seemed to have achieved a state of serenity to which I can only dream. And, to be honest, envy.

This morning I tried something different. Instead of reading from these great contemplatives, I went to the Bible. (Oh, like you’ve never looked for answers in human writing rather than God’s Word!) There I learned that while it may indeed be as simple as letting thoughts flow by once you have achieved skill at meditation, that technique is not described in the Bible for beginners. Rather than a passive practice and hoping for the best, the Bible describes it as a much more aggressive practice. For example, aren’t the words of 2 Cor.10:3-5 just as applicable to our mental state as more external spiritual warfare?

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

Our inappropriate thoughts are not things that we simply hope will go away, they are mental strongholds that we must war against. The Bible doesn’t tell us to passively observe our thoughts, but to take them captive! Why, then, should we not take advantage of our mighty power by calling on the name of Jesus to eliminate these thoughts and allow us to commune in peace?

Surely when we are consciously trying to eliminate our own thoughts to listen for the voice of God, the thoughts that continue to interfere are sent to us from the Enemy. Of course he doesn’t want us hearing clearly from God! But James 4:7 tells us to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” This is not a passive state, but an active one.

In Romans 12, Paul calls us to “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” We tend to think of this as a passive thing, since it is up to God to transform us. But did you notice that Paul calls us to “let” that happen? In other words, it doesn’t necessarily happen automatically. God is willing, but gives us the freedom to prevent it. When inappropriate thoughts intrude on meditation, we need to actively reject them to call on God to change the way we think. In Ephesians 4:23-24 Paul tells us to “let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.” Again, we see that we have an active responsibility to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in renewing our thoughts. We don’t await a new nature, but actively work with the Spirit to “put on” our new nature.

Yes, these great Christian contemplatives make it sound easy. And after we have practiced as much as they have, it will likely come far more easily. But I believe Goll was right in saying, “Sometimes we have to fight before we can obtain an inner peace and serenity.” Otherwise, why would we need to follow the Ephesians 6:10-18 details for putting on the full armor of God and staying “alert” in our prayers?

Be Better Than the Media

The media, whether traditional or social, portrays an increasingly polarized and intolerant world. For all the cries for tolerance, there is more anger against those with differing viewpoints than I can ever remember. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way–and in fact it isn’t that way in many instances.

I have a friend who I’ve known for nearly 30 years. We come from different religious beliefs (I’m Christian and he’s Jewish) and differ on a number of social issues. And yet… I always enjoy being with him and talking with him, and I have an immense amount of respect for him.

First, let me tell you what happened. Like many, I have become frustrated with some things going on the world, even though they are out of my control. I am consciously deciding to spend less time on social media because of the intense anger that I see from both sides of every issue. I need to rebuild my sense of the beauty in the world rather than let these things (which I can’t control anyway) cause me to begin acting and speaking in ways contrary to the man I want to be.

As a result, I’ve begin spending a fair amount of time on artistic websites, appreciating the creativity, imagination, and skill of people with their drawings, paintings, and photographs. I’ve done some sketching and some watercolors. For a long time several years ago, I was seriously into photography, and greatly enjoyed it.

My friend has taken some incredible pictures through the years, and I mentioned to him that I hadn’t seen any lately. I told him that I was spending more time on beauty in my life, and was missing his pictures. I said that when I win the lottery (yeah, I know, you have to buy a ticket) I was going to get some high quality photography gear and get back into that part of my life. He responded that some physical issues prevented him from being able to get out and do the level of photography that he used to do. I sympathized with him, and dropped the subject so as to not make him more self-conscious of the limitations his current life has.

About a week later, a box arrived at my house. It was a high-end Nikon camera body, a top-notch zoom lens, the original battery and a spare, a high-capacity memory card in unopened packaging, a polarizing filter to get rid of sun glare, and an excellent third-party camera case. My friend decided I needed the camera more than he did. In fact, he was unable to find the original manual for it so he paid to get a new one to include in the box.

He could easily have sold the set for hundreds of dollars. Instead, he bought a new memory card, bought a new manual, and paid for it to be packed well and shipped to my home. I wonder how many Christians I know would even have Jewish or Muslim friends, much less sacrifice hundreds of dollars and go out of their way to do something nice for those friends.

Now I should prevent some who claim Christianity from getting upset with my “heresy” and refusing to read further. Let me rush to assure you that I wish my friend would become a Christian–and he knows that. Those who claim to follow Christ have no choice but to adopt two of his key teachings:

  • “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  • “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’* The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Jesus said that we are to love everyone else as much as we love ourselves, and that He is the only way to reach God. So it’s impossible for Christ-followers to accept a “lots of roads lead to God” attitude, and it’s equally impossible for Christ-followers to unlove others so much that they don’t want to see them accept Jesus.

But.

Did you know that it is not your responsibility to convert people? The Bible talks about us planting seeds and watering them, but it also says that only God can bring the harvest. Jesus himself said, “For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.” So how should we live with people who disagree with us, even after we’ve given them our best “come to Jesus” pitch?

We love them. We pray for them. We don’t expect them to live according to Christian principles.

That doesn’t mean we agree with them on everything. That doesn’t mean that we condone things that are wrong. That doesn’t mean that we compromise our principles. But we love them through it all.

My friend dramatically portrayed a beautiful picture of what Judaism means. What picture of Christianity do the Jews and Muslims around you get from how you treat them?

Why You Should Celebrate Maundy Thursday

Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a faith tradition that never celebrated Maundy Thursday. It was relatively late in life before I even heard the term for the first time, and my first thought was, “What’s a Maundy?”

It turns out that the word “maundy” comes from the latin word for “mandate.” The celebration comes the day before Good Friday, because it commemorates The Last Supper. And when I realized what it means, I realized how poor my faith tradition was without this holiday.

Evangelical churches tend to focus on The Great Commission as Jesus’ last words to the Church. (That’s especially true of Baptist churches, because it means we get to dunk ’em.) But Maundy Thursday reminds us of Jesus turning the tables on theology before His death and resurrection. John 13-17 tell the story of The Last Supper, and I’m afraid that all too often we just think of that time as the beginning of the ordinance of Communion. But nearly the whole of His words and actions that evening revolve around this statement in John 13:

34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

From the time of Moses to this very moment, the Jews’ commands had been centered completely on the Law and following the rules without fail. In these three lines, Jesus turns that upside down and says that from that point forward theology should be based on His love for us and our response to that with love for each other. It was the new mandate that we remember on Maundy Thursday.

As we think of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter, we’re missing a lot if we don’t also remember His mandate on Maundy Thursday. These days the Church is not known for its love of Jesus or each other. In other words, we’re not following Christ’s last command in human form.

Valentine’s Day is about agape, not eros

There are many stories about the legend of St. Valentine—and they conflict greatly. The one thing we’re most certain of is that God healed an official’s daughter when Valentinus placed his hands over her eyes.

Not particularly romantic, is it?

Today, Valentine’s Day has become all about romantic love. Greeting card companies, candy makers, florists, and jewelers (just to name a few) are delighted. But let’s face it, romantic relationships already have things like anniversaries to celebrate annually.

The Greeks have three words for love, and all three appear in the Bible. Eros is the word for romantic love, phileo is the word for brotherly love, and agape is the word for a surpassing, sacrificial love. Now that’s something we need to celebrate!

Valentine’s Day is a difficult day for some people in our society; people who are not experiencing romantic love. Our warped view of Valentine’s Day makes it something that actually causes pain to some people—people who are frequently among the most loving people in the world!

How unfair!

Our world doesn’t need more people who are in love, our world needs more people who love. There are single people in my life who are incredible people, and share love without limit. Valentine’s Day should be a day of celebration of their love, because my life would be immeasurably poorer if they weren’t in it.

I can’t afford to buy flowers for all of you, but I want you to know that on this Valentine’s Day I’m thinking of you, I’m celebrating you, and I’m thanking God for you. Today is not a day for you to think you’re missing something. Today is a day for you to be reminded that I love you, and I would be missing something without you.