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Sunday, September 30, 2012

How Do You Explain All the Bad Things in God's Creation?

Our church has several different prayer lists. One of these lists the people with cancer. It is the longest of the lists. In fact, it is the longest list I have seen in a church our size.

Many of these people will stay on this list for years. Some will be dropped because they die. Most people want to keep their names on the list even if their cancer goes into remission. The fear that it will return is constant.

Do you ever wonder why God allows cancer to remain in His creation?

I know I do.

Yet, I remember something that I can't escape. We live in a fallen world. This world which was created good was corrupted by sin. Sin invades all that is good. It brings trouble to all of God's creation. Sin has brought this difficulty to us. A fallen creation rife with sin can bring terrible times for those who know or do not know God. It bears no prejudice.

I think a lot of people think that God cursed the ground because of Adam's sin. I believe that creation itself was cursed because of Adam's sin and not because God pronounced a curse. It is like the wife who says, "You have damaged our marriage," to the husband who has been caught in adultery. She is merely making a statement of truth. Her words do not make it true. They simply acknowledge the truth. (And for those of you who wonder if this applies to the woman's pain in childbirth the answer is yes.) Sin brought a corruption to the earth. It no longer worked in harmony with God. It works on its own now just as sin has caused us to work.

Jesus said that we would have trouble in this world. No one should be able to doubt that we have. Yet, He was not causing the trouble with His statement. He was acknowledging it.

So, there are cancers and hurricanes and car wrecks and tornadoes and all sorts of evil which is not directed toward us but exists because it is simply a fallen world.

Asking whether God could stop all this evil is like asking if He will stop all the evil I will do. The answer is that He could but that He doesn't. He allowed Cain to kill Abel. He allowed David to commit adultery. He allowed Judas to betray Jesus. He allowed me to commit a myriad of sins throughout my life. He allows the world to continue in its corrupted state.

Yet, I do pray for those with cancer, heart disease, and any other thing that has brought them trouble. Sometimes God intervenes. He heals, He provides and He works miracles both before me and in my absence. Still, most ofthe time His creation simply continues in its fallen state. It often takes the lives of those for whom I have prayed.

Jesus, after stating that we would have trouble in the world said, "But I have overcome the world." That is a comfort to me. Ultimately, I will see a fallen creation receive redemption.

But for now, I continue to pray.

Genesis 3:17 (NIV) 17 To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.

John 16:33 (NIV) 33 "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is God Really a Just God?

I don't ride my bicycle to work on rainy mornings. I just can't stand being wet and cold. So, I take my car. I have to go through a school zone so I slow to the posted 25 mph. Most of the time other cars whizz past me. They pay absolutely no attention to the flashing lights, nor even to non-flashing lights school zone. They would be speeding no matter what time they drove through. Or course, that all changes as soon as a policeman is stationed on the route. I find myself being the fastest driver even though I am obeying the speed limit.

Naturally, I want a policeman to swoop out of a side street on those days that people are flying past me. I want justice to be swift and terrible. I want to smirk as I watch them grovel before the policeman who writes their tickets with glee. I want to feel justified for driving the speed limit.

None of this has ever happened. I continue to drive the speed limit and others continue to exceed it. Where is the justice in that?

Then, there is God who is said to be absolutely just. So, why does evil exists with impunity? Shouldn't God swoop in with some lightning or fire from heaven to whack all the evil doers? I think a little complete destruction would go a long way in righting the things that are wrong with the world. Yeah! That's what I want! Maybe not.

If God whacked sinners as they sinned, where would I be? I would have been whacked a long time ago. I would probably have complained with something like, "You have to give me another chance! I'm only human," or something like that. I am sure that this would have seen just if I had been the one whacked. It just doesn't seem just for those who are trying to walk the straight and narrow.

And what about all the sins that I have committed that I didn't realize I was committing when I committed them? Sometimes I sin without any thought that it is a sin. I tell a story that will be hurtful for someone else and never think that it is gossip. I secretly loathe a person in my heart. I disregard something God has told me to do. Sometimes my own lack of holiness results in failing to notice the unholiness in my life. Shouldn't I get whacked, too?

Then, there is this thing that God has about being patient with us. He really does give each person the opportunity to repent. Most people don't take the opportunity. They think that God is impotent because they haven't seen anyone whacked lately. Thus, they continue on while He loves them and waits for their repentance. Does justice require an opportunity to repent? No, but love does. And God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but would receive everlasting life.

In the end there will be God's justice. It will be swift and terrible. In the end I will, like all others, kneel before the Lord Jesus. I will also stand before the judgement seat of Christ to receive what is due me while in this body. I wonder if I will be crying out for justice or mercy then. I think I know the answer.

2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 (NIV)
6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Time Alone with God

It seems very arrogant to admit that I must make myself have a time alone each day with God. After all, He is the Almighty; who am I? Doesn't it make more sense that He would have to force Himself to meet with me? Yet, I have always found Him when I sought Him with my whole heart.

We either lie to ourselves and others or we admit that we cannot live this Christian life without a daily time alone with God. We must go to Him for each day's direction, strength and grace. We will never be able to faithfully walk through life's trials without walking with Him. We will never be able to know His presence by being casual with Him. We will never know His purpose for our lives without listening to Him. We will never know today's real grace without acknowledging Him.

The Christian life is only made complicated by our own maneuvering to make it such. We excuse our inattention to God with complicated schedules. We excuse our hatreds, backhanded remarks and lack of forgiveness as defending ourselves or simply telling the truth or as acts of righteousness because we are acting on His part. Yet, there is no way we can say these things with any certainty if we have not had a direct word from Him. He does not give His word lightly. Our hearts must be in tune to hear it. We need that daily tune up in order to know His word. We need His presence to make sure there is no vindictiveness, envy, greed or any other sin which hides itself as righteous.

This morning God told me something in my time alone with Him that I know that I would never have known otherwise. He said that I (and other Christians) should love so distinctly that the world cannot love like I (we) love. I know that I do not have the ability to do this without coming so close to Him that I love like He loves. I know that I must have this daily time alone with God.

I did not always appreciate my seminary training. Today, I know that I am a better minister because of it. I have learned things that I use almost every day. However, this will never substitute for a time alone with God. The education that He provides does not come with a day on this earth after graduation day. We graduate into His full presence.

So every day is so important in my walk with Him. It is daily that I follow Him, deny myself and take up my cross. And from experience I assure you that the day I don't have a time alone with Him is a day which has already started without following Him, denying myself and taking up my cross.

Then he said to them all, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Luke 9:23 (NIV)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Receiving Criticism

The way I receive criticism tells more about me than I would like to admit. My first reaction is to defend myself. I get angry. I justify what I have done. I accuse the person who criticizes me. And all this happens whether or not this person is right in what he or she has said.

Of course, I also look for some nefarious reason for the criticism. I do this even if it is evident that the person is looking out for me. I guess the real problem is admitting that I was wrong in what I have done.

Now think of this: Shouldn't you carefully consider what someone says when that person has shown that he or she has had your best interests at heart? Why should it be so hard to come to that conclusion?

I guess humility doesn't come easily. Most people have whatever is easy to attain. Humility just isn't one of those things. Yet, you will often find humility when you look at those who have throughout their lives done great things. Napoleon was not humble but he also wasn't one who did great things throughout his life. Abraham Lincoln was humble and brought a nation through her darkest days. More people refer to Lincoln when speaking of great leadership than Napoleon.

So, the first reaction to criticism should be asking whether or not this person is attempting to keep your's or the organization's best interest at heart. This doesn't mean this person is wrong if he or she doesn't but it is a good indicator whether or not you should immediately listen.

Then, you should ask how this person came to this conclusion. One way to do this is to ask the critical person why he or she believes what you have just been told. Sometimes the answer may seem obvious but the question should still be asked. Of course, it may be that the person simply says, "I just feel this way." That is a valid answer for him but not so much for you.

A Christian must also consider whether or not others feel the same way. Too often a Christian leader can surround himself or herself with those who will always agree with any decision. Sometimes they do so because they like you or don't want to hurt your feelings. They may not understand that they aren't really supporting you when they allow you to do things that are hurtful to yourself.

Receving criticism takes a look into your own heart. That may be the hardest part. Why do you want to keep doing things like you have done? Do you already know it is wrong? What are you afraid of if you stopped doing what you have been doing? Have your emotions overruled your sense of right and wrong? Does the critical person have any suggestions how things should be done? Is the purpose to simply remove you from being able to make these decisions? Is this a person vendetta with a history?

All of these things go deep into the heart of the one being criticized. It can be very discouraging if you see this as a reflection on who you are rather than an event that can make you stronger and improve what you are doing.

Of course, I think that receiving criticism takes a lot of wisdom. That comes from the Lord simply by asking. (James 1:5)

Proverbs 15:31-33 (NIV) 31 He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. 32 He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding. 33 The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom, and humility comes before honor.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Yes, It Is about the Numbers

I have been guilty of trying to emulate just about everything that Jesus did. That is wrong. i am only to do the works of Jesus that He has called me to. That sounds strange doesn't it.

Jesus' main mission was to be the Savior. Yes, He taught. Yes He raised the dead, healed the sick and walked on the water. If  I am to do everything that Jesus did I would have to do all those things to. I see so many preachers who preach that very thing but I have never seen them strolling on the Sea of Galilee. Why is that?

Jesus is the Savior. He is the Son of God. He is God's only Son which is a relationship that I do not have. I have God's love. I am His son but I am not God as Jesus is God. I do not have the wisdom that Jesus has. I am not capable of understanding the whole world at one time as Jesus does. I cannot manipulate the physical laws because I am not the God who created them.

But Jesus said that I, as His disciple, would do the things that He has done and, in fact, greater things than He has done. How can that be? What is more than raising the dead or using your ability to create to feed thousands? I can't fathom that.

So, the things I do cannot be greater in each category. They must be greater only in scope. You see, Jesus only preached in a very small country. Jesus must have been telling His followers that what they (and we) would do is see the gospel go far beyond what He saw when He walked on the earth. We would see His few followers turn into millions. We would see the whole world turned upside down by His message.

Too often I hear someone say that my goal in reaching people is all about numbers. They see that as an impersonal gospel. They point to the fact that many left Jesus because He preached a gospel that would change their paradigm. They exclaim that Jesus was a failure if it was all about the numbers. Somehow they think that anyone who is preaching to a small number of followers is being more spiritual than those who preaches to thousands. That means that Jesus lost His spirituality at times, doesn't it?

That couldn't be farther from the truth. The Bible records numbers so often it should make us realize that numbers matter a great deal. There is a whole book called Numbers. A tithe is about numbers. The miraculous feeding records numbers. At Pentecost the numbers baptized were recorded. The Great Commission is tacitly about numbers because you can't continue to reach people without increasing the numbers.

Most people who say its not about the numbers are doing so because they want to make something they are doing extremely spiritual when it may be nothing more than a failure to do what God has called them to do. They ignore the scripture that says that we will do more than Jesus did on earth.

Have there been people who reached no one for a period of time? Yes, of course. Did that last forever? No. Their complete obedience to Christ was rewarded with numbers of followers. Sometimes these followers came after they died but they were long dead.

So, I count the numbers and pray for one more every week. I hope I never say it is not about the numbers. Each number represents a soul. Each soul who comes to Christ for salvation changes eternity. Jesus has promised me that I will do greater things that He. I must be obedient to see those things done.
In my obedience I continue to tell the gospel story. I keep baptizing new believers. I keep counting those who are saved, discipled and reaching others.

Is it all about the numbers? No, but in the end the numbers are there. We exist to give God glory, thus we bring people to Jesus.

Jesus said:

John 14:12 (NIV)
12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 15:8 (NIV)
8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is Your Pastor Distracted?

I drove 532 miles one-way to attend a funeral this week. It gave me a lot of time to think. It also made me aware of what people do when they are bored while driving. Cell phones were the least of my worries. People were eating, reading and playing with their radios or iPods.  Most of the people kept their cars in their lanes as they did other things. A few didn't.

Of course, it doesn't take gadgets to get us distracted. We admire a rainbow or look at the mist coming over the mountains. The beauty causes us to gaze a little to long. Its easy to slip out of your lane, hit the warning bumps and refocus your attention.

We aren't only distracted while driving. We can be distracted while doing anything which is important in life. In fact, we can forget what we are supposed to be doing. The urgent demands crying for out attention can keep us from every doing what we should be doing.

I arrived at the funeral of the first pastor I served under after seminary graduation. I heard three of his children, two of his former staff members and someone who sat under his preaching and advice give testimonies about him. Each one told about how he loved God's word and how much time he spent preparing to preach it.

He had moved his study to his home just before I was on his staff. He got a great deal of criticism for this while I was there. People felt that he wasn't really working if he wasn't at the church. I now believe they were saying that he was not really available at a moment's notice if he was studying at home. I think they thought he should be like a retail salesman who waits for the customers to arrive so he can meet their needs.

But this man did not give into criticism. He had a room set aside in which he studied his Bible and prepared his sermons. He prepared three different sermons each week. I know this is not what the typical preacher does today. He felt that it was that important to preach the word. Thus, the church had three true worship services each week. The Sunday morning, evening or Wednesday night services  were not much different from each other. He preached to a fairly full sanctuary at each of these services.

Maybe that is why I heard so many people tell his widow stories of what he meant to them as I stood in line to tell my story. People came from states all around to tell their stories of the time when they were members of the church. Each one told of his sermons and how at that particular time in their lives they needed to hear what he had to say.

I thought to myself, "Why am I taking every call that comes when I should be preparing to preach the word? What difference will it make if I don't get involved in the landscaping, air conditioner maintenance or church insurance? What happens if I don't get involved in the upgrade to the computers?" Very little I am sure.

But what happens if I give a half-baked sermon? What happens if I fail to present God's word accurately and with some depth? Am I not producing half-baked shallow Christians? I can't help but say that I am.

It is so easy to get distracted. It only takes a phone call or someone who comes in with what they perceive to be a crisis. I drop the word of God and give grease to the squeaky wheel. Then, I give the congregation the left overs.

I also criticized the pastor for moving his study home. I now understand. He just didn't want to be distracted.

2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)
2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Power of Influence

This week the first pastor I served with after seminary graduation passed away. He had a profound impact on my life. I am so glad that years ago I wrote him a letter telling him so. He didn't realize the impact he had on my life because he was just faithful in passing on the faith. He wasn't trying to pick up all the glory along the way.

I gave my life to Christ the day before Easter 1973. I was a college freshman. The semester was almost over. However, because Baptist had been instrumental in my salvation, I went to the Baptist Student Center (We called it the BSU back in those days.). Bob Burch was the BSU Director. He led a noon Bible Study. He said that God was leading someone to lead a Bible study through the book of Romans when he or she went home for the summer.

I didn't know much about the Bible. I hadn't been a Christian for a month. I didn't know that Romans is probably the most theologically deep book in the Bible. I just said, "I can do that." So I went home, asked the Baptist church if I could use a room during the week for a Bible study and started teaching the book of Romans. I made notes in my Bible. I read it carefully but I didn't know about things like commentaries. Man, I didn't even know that the thing was originally written in Greek. There is no telling the heresy I taught.

The summer ended and I didn't connect with any church. I just slept in and drifted farther and farther away from the Lord. Eventually, no one would have detected that I was a Christian.My life became miserable in the next eighteen months.

The Christmas holidays came almost two years later and I had to stay in the college town because of work. All my friends left. In fact, the apartment complex was completely vacant except for me. I dint' have a tv so I read books each night. One night, very late, I was reading Of Human Bondage when I began to lament over my dismal life. There was no joy in my life and in my anguish I threw the book against the wall. I sat on the edge of my bed wondering what I would do next.

After a few moments I decided I would simply read another novel. I had bought several classics and stored them in my closet. I started rummaging through this pile of books when I came across my Bible. I got it out and turned to the only book in it that I had really ever read. Funny but the Bible actually opened to that book without my effort. I suppose that is normal when it is the only part of a book you have read.

There in the margins were my penciled notes. I remembered the joy in which I led that Bible study and came to my senses. I knelt down and began confessing my sins. The Lord visited me that night and I told Him that I didn't want to come back to this place again. I wanted Him in the center of my life.

I wouldn't have taken me back but He did.

School started and I went to the BSU again. There was a new BSU director. I decided I couldn't make the Christian life without help and determined that I would get involved. I did. God began doing wonderful things in my life.

I met my wife at the BSU. I was at a BSU training conference when I decided to apply as a Campus Evangelism Coordinator after graduation from college. That experience was instrumental in my call to the ministry. Of course, that meant that I would go to seminary for training a few years later.

Just before I graduated from seminary, I got a call from Calvary Baptist Church in Knoxville, TN.  They needed a summer intern. A friend of mine was on staff there. He recommended me. I prayed about it and got a very clear word from the Lord that I would be on that church staff. A couple of weeks later the friend called and said they had chosen someone else. I was confused.

But God continued to confirm that I would be on that church staff so much that my wife and I flew to Knoxville on our own to visit the church. It was there that I met the pastor of the church. He was Bob Burch, the former BSU director who said that someone should lead a study in Romans that summer after I was saved. I had never met him before.

Four months later Calvary decided to fill a new staff position at the church. They, again, considered me. This time they called me to the church.

Bob taught me how to do weddings. I pattern my preaching after his. He was very influential in who I am today.

He couldn't have known any of this when he did what he did. He just passed on his faith. Bob never took the place of the Holy Spirit. He did have an amazing power though. He had the power of influence because he was faithful to what the Holy Spirit led him to do.

I just hope and pray that I will always be that faithful.

2 Timothy 2:2 (NIV)
2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.