Wednesday, May 30, 2012

There is Unity In Heaven and Should Be Here

The number one proof that demonstrates that a person has been called out of darkness into light is that virtue we call unity. It's not a word we think much about these days. It likely wouldn't be first on our list of discussion points. Unity is described as the ability to stick together.

This is what makes the fierce friendships that are stronger than the disappointment or difficulty that always comes in human relationships. It's the exact opposite of getting your feelings hurt and leaving. It is unity of a church.

Unity is what Jesus asked the Father to give His people. Remember the night before he died? He said, "Make them one the way we're one"—one in shared values, one in shared outlook and perspective.

 People who struggle alone are like a bowl full of BB's. They share their nearness to one another, but they are each separate—not in unity. What Jesus prayed is that the Father would somehow melt those BBs together and make them one family, one purpose, one team, one unit, one life. Can't you hear the Savior saying to the Father, "make them one; give them unity?" In other words, make them more like a tub of butter, instead of a bowl full of individual BBs.

 Why? Because when the turmoil inevitably comes, and you turn over a bowl full of BBs, they scatter everywhere. Do the same thing to a tub of butter and it stays intact. So, in a very real sense, the tub of butter should be like the church, not the bowl of BBs.

 Unity is not a natural thing. It's not what happens in the fleshly life. The fleshly life produces chaos, not unity.

Whenever you see unity operating, it's a function of the Holy Spirit. He is breaking down the ego, breaking down the self, breaking down the privileges we give ourselves to be apart from the rest of the folks. And when you see this unity happening, it's always a God thing.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Politics and Eternity

There is probably no one out there who is more tuned in to the politics of our current election season, but I feel it is incumbent upon me to keep reminding us that whatever decision we make in this year's election is going to have very little to do with the most important decision we will ever make. That important decision will decide where we spend eternity. Who you vote for in the election is going to decide only what our country will be like until the next election. There is another election that will decide one's eternal destiny. I feel we need to keep reminding people of that more important election.

Will you elect Jesus, or not? That is the truly epic decision of one's life.

It is a bit of fun to tune in to the promises of the current candidates. I keep up with all that. My own congressional district is being viewed as one that is decisive for democrats. If they do not win my district, they likely will not have a majority in congress. At least that is what the analysts say. My congressman currently is a Hispanic republican who, by all accounts, has done a worthy job. But, the powers that be in the democratic national headquarters do not like the fact that a Hispanic is a republican and they want him out. It is all quite amusing. The promises being made by the candidates pales in comparison to the promises made by Jesus to keep us for all eternity.

My state currently has two republican senators in Washington. One has chosen to opt out of running for re-election, so there has been a flurry of candidates trying to take her place. The four main republican candidates consist of a lieutenant governor, a trial lawyer who is trying to redefine himself for the benefit of the Tea Party, a former big city mayor and a former football player-analyst. All of them call themselves conservatives and all four of them are trying to sell themselves as the most conservative. Again, it is somewhat amusing to watch. While it will be an important decision for Texans, it is a decision that will only affect the next six years. Not nearly as important as the decision that will affect eternity.

And then there is the race for president. Perhaps the most amusing thing to watch, if it were not so serious, is the current president trying to redefine himself as a fiscally responsible leader. That flies in the face of his adding to the nation's debt more than all former presidents put together. His opponent is a man who the president says is only interested in making a profit for the wealthy investors in his former business. The president says that is not a qualification to be president, forgetting that his own qualifications for running may be somewhat lacking. To the knowledge of most of us his only jobs have been as a professor, a community organizer and a two-year stint as a senator, hardly an overwhelming resume' for the presidency. On the other hand, the management skills of his opponent are well known. He is credited with saving the Olympic games in the USA, and making tons of money for himself and his investors at Bain Capital. All in all only a business man's resume'. Not really presidential material? We shall see. Again, this would be amusing if it were not so important for the well-being of the nation. So, while this decision will be an important one for the country for the next four years, it pales in comparison to the decision every person must make about where he will spend eternity.

This political season provides us an opportunity to play off all the important decisions people will make at the polls and try to convince them that the most important decision they will ever make will NOT be at the ballot box, but at the altar of worship when they choose whether or not to follow Jesus. What an opportunity we have to take advantage of this political season, when people will make important decisions, to encourage them to make the most important decision of all—where they will spend eternity.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hearing is Not The Same As Listening

For the past three months our church's Bible study has been in the books of four eighth century B.C. prophets. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. All of these prophets had virtually the same message. It was that God hated the ritualistic, meaningless worship of His people, was offended at the fact that they had incorporated idolatry into their worship just to get along with those around them, and that they treated poor people badly, taking advantage of them for personal gain. They also had something else in common—the Hebrew people heard the message, but refused to listen to it. 

For their complacency toward the prophet's warnings, the nation of Israel, both kingdoms (North and South), was utterly destroyed and the people taken into exile. As our church studied these lessons we asked ourselves why we had any reason to believe God would change His mind regarding these offenses and allow any nation to act the same way Israel acted and get away with it. Does God no longer get offended by idolatry (even if the idols aren't made of metal or stone)? Does God no longer mind that we continue to worship without any change taking place in our hearts? Is God somehow now forgiving of those who take advantage of the poor just to further enrich themselves?

Of course the answer to all those questions is a resounding "NO!". Consequently, any nation that still seeks to get away with such as this will find itself as ancient Israel found itself—utterly destroyed. When we read about these things in the Bible, we somehow forget that God is patient. It took hundreds of years in some cases for God to finally allow what was prophesied to transpire. For example, the Southern Kingdom of Judah existed for more than a hundred and thirty years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed.

The New Testament warned us not to be deceived, that God will not allow Himself to be mocked. It is my belief that America is sliding into the same crevice of heathenism that Israel found, and if we do not repent, we will not escape destruction. What is happening in Europe these days should be a warning to us here in "the colonies." God has blessed this nation for more than 235 years. The resources He gave us, the principles we established under His watchful, all-seeing eye have been a blessing all these years, but it seems we have assumed we are somehow going to be more protected than His chosen people were when we do the same things that offended God in ancient times.

We have theologians now telling us, "Yes, but we are different. We now live under grace, not the law of the ancients. God will never do to us what He allowed to happen to them." As I see it, the problem is that we have started to believe that drivel.

While it is true that we now live under grace, in my opinion that only makes us more responsible. The grace of a merciful God is even more of a reason than law to obey His commands. How much more ungrateful we will appear if we ignore the wishes of the Lord after all He has done for us. By sacrificing what was dearest to Him, so that we could make the wise choice regarding eternity, He has placed us in a position of even more responsibility than those who existed only under the law.

People in our culture may be hearing these things, but the evidence is they are not listening, choosing rather to worship their own self-designed version of God. Preachers, we better tell people the truth.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Obama’s Stance Means Little

In the grand scheme of things, President Obama's support for gay marriage means very little. According to many conservative pundits, this declaration on the president's part is nothing more than a distraction from the dismal economic news on which the president does not want people to focus. However, according to many conservative theologians, including most Southern Baptist pastors, this presidential declaration is at most an anti-biblical stance, and at least another reason to doubt the president's commitment to his professed Christianity.

The truth is, what anyone believes about gay marriage or the homosexual lifestyle will not determine where they spend eternity. While I believe homosexuality is a sinful choice, one that is abhorrent to scripture, I also know that it is not a sin that will determine one's eternal destiny. There is only one sin that will keep a person from experiencing heaven. That is the sin of unbelief—the rejection of God's Son, Jesus Christ. It would be well if we could all remember that when we start our anti-Obama rants and our anti-homosexual sermons.

Trust me, I know that what I have just written will cause the radical right wing of our faith to jump on me with both feet, but if they doubt what I have written, scripture will confirm it. I repeat—what you believe or practice regarding homosexuality will not determine whether or not you spend eternity in heaven. Thus, in the grand scheme of things, eternal things, what the president has stated is inconsequential, except that it may lead some people to feel better about their sinful activity.

While I do not believe that we should legalize gay marriage, mostly because I do not believe God honors it, I also do not believe that people who choose that life style should be vilified. We should remember above all that God loves them unconditionally. That fact alone should cause us to turn down the rhetoric. Now, I understand that some will view this as somehow supportive of homosexuality. That would be a mistake. I believe it is a sin and I could not in any way support it, any more than I can support the commission of other kinds of sexual sin. I do not understand why we insist on making one sin more heinous than another. In the eyes of God any sin is a sin against Him and pains Him. ANY sin.

I guess when we get to heaven we might gain some understanding of why this particular sin causes such hatred among God's people. I have seen otherwise nice people become extremely hateful regarding homosexuals. We would do well to remember homosexuality will not keep anyone out of heaven. I know some believe that any saved person could not choose to be a homosexual, but that idea appears to be in conflict with the Bible. According to scripture, "All of sinned and come short of the glory of God." For you to say that their sin is worse than YOUR sin is an affront to the Sovereign God.

We would also do well to remember that Christ died for the sins of ALL those who claim Him as their Savior. Christ loved us so much that "even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." And He also died for THEM. That is the truth of the gospel. That is the main thing. I have spent my life preaching the gospel that Christ died for all. Let us not forget it.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sole Survivor Found Life’s Secret

Aside from the fact that she won 1.1 million dollars as the winner of "Survivor-One World" on CBS, San Antonio's Kim Spradlin also found the secret of winning in life. That secret? Relationships. The twelve year, 24-season reality show, one of the most successful in television history, "Survivor" has presented us with some of T.V.'s most hated villains. But, it also has shown us what it takes to win. Miss Spradlin said, "I made it a point to get to know all the competitors."

This lady got it right. With those piercing blue eyes, she made it a point to find out all she could about those with whom she played the game. While they were speaking, she was listening. When they finished speaking, she spoke, and she convinced each person that she really heard what they said and cared about them. She made them believe that she really did think it was important for them to know that she understood. That's exactly what relationships are all about. Most of us are so busy trying to talk, to get our message over, that we don't take time to listen to what is important for the other people with whom we share this planet. Kim understood the first rule of relationships—try to understand the other person before trying to make yourself understood.

If I could give some advice to any pastor-friend it would be this: listen first. Then speak. And when you speak, at least try to make it appear that you heard and understood what the other person said. Success in church life is about making people believe you understand their issues and problems. You don't even have to solve those problems—just understand them. It is amazing how far that will take you on the road to success. That is how you relate to people. By understanding them.

It goes without saying that most people in the church have the same aspirations for eternity. Most people in the church believe there is an eternal life and it is called heaven by most of us. So, by using that belief as our common ground, we can concentrate more on what this world is about than what the next one is about. Since we are not worried about the next world, our concern should be about this one. How can we navigate the potholes of this world, while we make our way to the smooth streets of the world to come?

Most of us will one day come to understand that success is more about what we can do to help people navigate their way through the present life. Understanding what each of these folks face every day forms the basis of our relationships with them, and the more we can learn about the difficulties each person faces here, the deeper our relationships with them will be. And the more relationships we can form here, the more successful we will be.

You may not win the million dollars, but your life will be like that of a millionaire, with a myriad of rich relationships along your path to the eternal life you seek.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Our Greatest Need….A Vision Of God

The greatest need most people have is the need to see and understand God. I am convinced that the greatest shortcoming in our generation is the inability to see and understand God. If there were some way for us to communicate a vision of God completely, there is no doubt in my mind that people would flock to Him.

It is appalling how woefully ignorant our generation is about the Creator. It seems as though everyone wants a designer God, created just the way they like to think about God, and doing only what they want Him to do. They don't want a God Who gets in the way of what they believe. They don't want a God Who is going to affect their behavior in any way. They don't want a God Who speaks in "Thou shalt nots…." They want a God Who will say, "Oh all right. Go ahead." We do not want a God Who gives us moral absolutes, or Who imposes Himself on the decisions of our lives.

When I hear people talk about the kind of God they serve or want, I am even more amazed at the people of the Bible. Think about the kind of faith a man like Abraham must have had. God came to him in the desert and told him to gather his family and belongings and move to a land He would show him. Can't you just hear the discussion with a modern wife if we had experienced what Abraham experienced?

"We're going to do what? We're moving? Where to?"

"I don't know", we reply.

"What do you mean you don't know?", she asks. "Who is guiding us?"

"God," we say.

"What God? Did you see Him? What did He look like?"

"No," we say. "I didn't see Him—but I heard Him speak to me."

The wife replies, "Now let me get this straight. You heard a voice but saw no one. He told you to pack up your family and move and you don't even know where we are moving?"

That's the kind of conversation most of us would probably have, but I suspect Abraham's wife was much more faithful. She knew her husband, so she went with him to that unknown land. Just think about the kind of faith it took to do what they did for no other reason except that God asked them to do it. Wouldn't you like to think you had that kind of faith?

We live in a world that doesn't really understand when we say we know God, that we have a personal relationship with Him. If you say something like that to many people they will look at you like you are some sort of weirdo. People in our culture do not want to believe in anything they cannot see, hold and touch. Ours is a world that has to see God in order to believe in Him.

So it is that I conclude, the most pressing need we have in our generation is to the need for a fresh vision of God. But, we will not have it, at least not the way most people want it. Why? Because if God were to physically show Himself to us, we would not need faith. The Bible says we are saved through faith…there would be no faith…no need for faith, if we could see everything about God. So, without that vision we are left to other devices. One device we rely on is the Word of God. In God's Word we are given a wonderful collection of pictures of God.

One of the best is in, Isaiah 6. Isaiah said, "I saw the Lord." God gave Isaiah a vision of something wonderful when He called him to be a prophet. If only we could have a vision like that. How different things could be!

Perhaps the first Christian rock musical was "Tell It Like It Is." I remember it so well because my daughter had a solo in it and I listened to her practicing it over and over. The song she was singing was a song about how different people saw God. She had one verse and several other young people had a verse.

The first verse of the song went something like this: 

"When I see God He has a long white beard, and He brings me gifts at the end of the year. But the big one comes in the by and by from the Santa Claus up in the sky."
Another verse went like this:
"When I see God He is a vending machine. I drop in a coin and He makes the scene. Touch the right button and what you've got is instant first aid…on the spot."
Another young person sang:
"I think of God as a great computer…feed Him the facts, He's the instant Tutor. He's gotta be right sure it's plain to see, since the stars haven't fallen into the sea."
And the verse my daughter learned was this…

"I think of God like in a museum…kept under glass where I can go see Him. It's such a comfort to see Him there…near me here and not off somewhere."

Any of those sound familiar? 

There isn't a subject that can raise an argument quicker than a discussion of what God is like. Everyone seems to feel his kind of God is just as good as anyone else's, since no one has seen God. At least that is the rationale for some. Some have just never gotten past the God of their childhood…the "fyshudeye" God. In fact I heard one woman testify that she was completely grown before she understood what "fyshudeye" meant. You know…"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. "Fyshudeye" before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

The truth is, God has allowed us to see and understand Him. His Word, His Son have given us a picture of the God Who created the universe. I contend that what we need today is a renewed vision, a fresh picture of God and a fresh encounter with Him. Some of us are still running on our childhood vision of God. We have not moved beyond that because we have not had any new, fresh encounters with God since we were saved in childhood. I contend that we all need to have our vision of God renewed once in a while. Once in a while we just need to appear before God and admit we haven't been close to Him for a while, so our vision is blurred and our behavior has been affected.

Not only do individuals need a fresh vision of God, so do churches. When we get to the point where we think we know better how to run our lives and His church, we need a fresh vision of God. We have got to come back to the point that we are all clamoring with our shouts of "I want this or I want that"…and ask afresh and anew, "What does God want?" But, we won't come to that point without a fresh vision of God.

Before you can know God's vision for your life or the church, you have to renew your vision of God. There can be no vision from God until there is a vision of God.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

You Can Respect But You Do Not Have to Adopt

There is a trial going on down at Gitmo, putting on trial those who were responsible for planning the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings September 11, 2001. The female lawyer who is defending one of the men showed up in court the other day dressed like a Muslim woman, which she is not. She has asked the judge to declare that every woman who shows up in court be dressed the same way, "out of respect for my client's religious beliefs." She believes that her client should not have to betray his religious beliefs by seeing a woman dressed the way American women usually dress.

This brings up an on-going argument about the disparity between our views of eternity and those of the radical Muslims. We do share one truth, that is we are all going to experience an afterlife. In the view of the radical Muslim, God will be running a brothel for them, placing at their disposal 72 virgins. It is this viewpoint that encourages their radical activity. They feel they will be rewarded by having at their disposal 72 previously untouched women, presumably for the pleasure of these men.

This is the religious view we are asked to respect. This and the arcane demand that women in this life dress so modestly as to never allow any part of their flesh to be seen, from the top of their heads to the soles of their feet. To accomplish this they dress in what is called a burqua.

Now, I have no problem respecting anyone else's religion, no matter how out there it may be. However, in respecting their religion I am not required to adopt it. Women dressing as the defendant's attorney has requested would be tantamount to adopting the religion of these radicals, which goes way beyond respecting them.

I have a different view of the eternal afterlife than my Muslim counterparts. I expect them to respect my view, but I will not be surprised nor offended if they do not adopt it as their own. If their idea of heaven is a 72-girl playpen, that is their business. It is not my view and never will be. The fact that they believe such a thing is not a product of their religion, but of those who teach their religion. Apparently, Muslims place a lot of faith in those who preach and teach in their holy places. Much more so than Christians do, it appears. Some radical religious teacher came up with the 72-virgin idea as a means of encouraging young men to blow themselves up in public places, taking as many "infidels" as possible with them to the eternal life.

If the idea of playing with 72 women for eternity appeals to these young men, so be it. My idea of eternity is something different. I respect their idea, but reject it for myself. I will not be adopting any tenet of the Muslim religion as my own.

Respect? Yes! Adopt? No.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Yes, Lord….But……

When Isaiah said, "Here am I. Send me." He likely didn't know exactly what it was he was saying "Yes" to. It was only after saying "Send me" that the Lord told him he would be preaching to people who would not listen, who had eyes that could not see the reality of things and ears that would not hear the truth. Be honest, now. How many of us would say "Here am I. Send me." if we knew ahead of time that the Lord would be sending us to a virtually fruitless ministry. We like to think Adoniram Judson would still have gone to Burma, even if he had known that he would labor for five years before getting one single person to convert to Christ. But, he did go, and for his labors Burma today has more Baptists than any other country in the world except the USA. Consequently, it is easy for us to look back and say he would have gone even if he had known how long it would take to get one convert.

A whole lot of us would join Isaiah in saying, "Here am I. Send me." However, a lot of us would put a "but" on that declaration. Send me, Lord, but please not to a little church out in the boonies where no one will ever hear about me. I wonder if today's commitments have a lot of "buts" attached.

We sing, "Wherever He leads I'll go", but in our hearts we say, "but please, Lord, not there."

Today's post is a tribute to those hundreds of ministers who left off the "but" and went where the Lord sent them. There are literally thousands of good preachers laboring in virtual obscurity in a little church in a small town somewhere. And they labor without whining and crying about their circumstances. They are being paid a meager salary, barely enough to buy the necessities of life and not complaining about it or exhibiting the least bit of jealousy at the much larger salaries of their suburban counterparts.

I personally know and have known so many of these men. In my book they are heroes. They answered the call to go where the digging was hard—almost impossible, in fact. But they kept at it. Week after week, month after month, year after year they kept on plugging away, doing what they had been called to do. They watched as the meager fruits of their labors would come into their church, only to leave for a larger, more activity-filled congregation nearby. Knowledgeable observers knew what was happening. They knew that the people who were joining their larger churches, coming from the small ones elsewhere, were not the fruit of their own labor, but that of some hard working pastor in some small church down the way.

In fact, John Bisagno, when he was pastor of First Baptist Church in Houston, was once heard to say, "I will get my church to sponsor every new church that is needed, because I know that eventually the people they reach in that new church will end up in mine." The pastors in those small churches knew that, too, but they kept on plugging away, doing what they were called to do.

So, today I salute all those guys who are laboring away in a small church somewhere. Were it not for their work, reaching the lost in their community, there would be precious little evangelism being done at all. Whereas it takes about twenty of his members to reach one convert, it takes nearly sixty of that large church's members to reach one new convert. That's just a fact. What that says is that the small church is three times more likely to win a new convert to Christ than that larger church. The most efficient evangelism is being done by the smaller churches. So, join me in a salute to the small church pastor who is doing the really hard digging. May his tribe increase. May whatever denomination he labors in recognize the work he is doing and reward him lavishly.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Simple Call In A Complex World

When you get right down to it, the call of God on those of us who are asked into full-time vocational service, is pretty simple. When you stop and think about it, like Ezekiel, sometimes we are called to preach to cemetery-like people (valley of dry bones), and sometimes we are called to preach in a world that is not going to listen to us unless we somehow embellish the message (see Isaiah 6). We were never promised that we would spell-bind people with our superior oratory so that they would come flocking to us like they did Billy Graham, who made a career out of preaching a simple gospel message, by the way. We were never promised we would always be in places (suburban cities with multitudes of people) where the numbers would make us look good and we could compose a superior resume.

Most of us have found that God put us in places where it was hard to get people to respond and where they pretty well had their minds made up before we ever got there about how much time they were going to give to the church activities we design for them. More of us identify more with Ezekiel and Isaiah than with Billy Graham. After all, Graham did not have to put up with those deacons that we had to answer to each month. More of us identify with fired coaches than with those million dollar winners in the big schools.

Seventy percent of the churches in the BGCT, for instance, run less than 100 in worship each week. Only a small handful of churches in our denomination can be viewed as mega churches, and every pastor dreams that he will one day be in such a church.

But, back to my opening sentence. When you get right down to it, the call of God on those of us who are asked into full-time vocational service, is pretty simple. Wherever we are the message is the same; "Eternity is coming. Each of us will die. Only those who have accepted Jesus as Savior will live eternally with Him in heaven. Will you accept Him today?" Whatever else you may be preaching is virtually irrelevant. In the final analysis, that should be the sum and substance of every sermon we preach. Whatever path you take to get to that proposition, that is the message and proposition we have been called to deliver.

The message of the cross, resurrection, and coming again of our Lord Jesus is becoming far too obscured in present day preaching. Every sermon I listen to these days I look for how that message is being delivered. Now—there are lots of ways of getting to that message, and many scriptures on which we preach that will propel us toward that message. The truth is, either by design or by accident, too many sermons never get there. There is a lot of preaching today about how God deals with lonely people, hurting people, confused people. While it is true that God does care for them, the character of His caring is that He wants them to enjoy the prospect of eternal life with Him.

Oh, I know there are a lot of sermonic themes that are valid and helpful. Many in the small churches are preaching to people who have been saved for many years and a message of salvation by grace seems wasted on them. What they need is a message that will challenge them to get off their duffs and talk about Jesus with their friends. And many of them need messages of encouragement, because they despair about their church appearing to slowly die. I know all that. But I also know that God never allows His message to go to waste. If each of your sermons includes information for how people to come to Jesus, perhaps people would be encouraged to bring someone to hear that. If people knew that anyone they brought to church would hear the gospel, perhaps they would be inclined to bring someone.

I know all the reasons why we preach they way we do. I have done it for years. But, I also know what we were called to do when God called us to preach His Word. I sincerely believe we were called to a gospel message and that we allow too many sermons to go by without including the gospel message. When we get caught up in the psychological complexities of the world into which we were called to preach, and forget what we were called to do, we are being less than true to our call.