Thursday, December 10, 2015

We Needed a Christmas Tree: an Unexpected Blessing

It was our fourth Christmas together, and it was time for our annual hunt for a tree. While my family had used an artificial tree for many years, Tina was convinced that only a “real” tree was acceptable. Just a month before our annual hunt I had left my job as an associate pastor to accept my first lead pastor, actually solo pastor, position. My new church had come through a difficult couple of year, although they were paying me all they could, it was southern California and everything was more expensive than it should have been. That was particularly true for the cut Christmas trees that were imported from far away. We shopped and shopped, but even my wife, the Christmas nut, was not prepared to break the bank for a tree that would be in our apartment for less than a month. So, reluctantly, she went with me to K-Mart to look at artificial trees. Tina had to admit that they looked better than she thought they would and we picked one out. Of course, the one we wanted was about the most expensive one they had. We looked at it, and looked at it. We rationalized that if we spent the money on it, it would be several years before we would need to buy another one.  But still… it was just more than we could spend. It was a big deal to Tina and she was almost in tears. That made it a big deal for me too. Just then we heard a small voice say, “Do you kids like that tree?” The voice belonged to a little old lady who was standing near us. Tina said, “Yes, it is very beautiful, but it is kind of expensive.” The woman said, “I have one just like it at home that my husband and I bought last Christmas. We love it.” After a brief pause she went on, “Or I should say, I love it. My husband passed away last summer.” We made the normal clumsy attempts to say something comforting. She thanked us for that, and then said. “I am going to my daughters for the Holidays so I am not putting up a tree this year, and I have plans move into an apartment some time next year, so I don’t need a big tree anymore.” She started to tell us about her family, and even though the last thing we wanted was to be rude to this sad little lady, we really wanted to get on with our shopping.  We began looking for a way out of the conversation with this stranger when she said, “I came here today to see if I could find someone who might like my tree. Would you kids like to have my tree?” Tina said, “That would be nice, how much do you want for it.” She replied, “If you are willing to come by my house and get it, you can have it.”

In amazement we made arrangements to stop by her house the next day. It was a nice home where she had raised a family and made a life with her husband. We could tell she loved the place, but it was lonely for her to live there by herself. She invited us in and gave us cookies and coffee. We spent several minutes talking with her, which she seemed to enjoy very much, and so did Tina and I. That sweet lady was at the other end of life from Tina and I. We were not yet parents. Her children had grown, moved away and had children of her own. Tina and I were only a little more than newlyweds. She had outlived her husband. We were dreaming of glorious Christmases ahead. She was remembering wonderful ones of the past.

We took her tree home and used it for many years after that. Because of our memory of her generosity and her story, we hated to retire it. For several years we exchanged Christmas cards with her. Then one year none came from her and we were pretty sure that she was celebrating once again with her husband, this time in Heaven. It was a loving thing she had done for us that Christmas. The love she shared with us grew out of her love for her husband. She just wanted us to enjoy our Christmases together just as much as she had enjoyed her cherished Christmas memories.

She showed us something else. An act of kindness does not have to be huge to be greatly appreciated. The nice lady went out of her way to find a good home for her tree. I guess that is the key, sometimes the greatness of a gift, is in its timing, the story that goes with it, and the love that accompanies the gesture. We get so busy at Christmastime we sometimes miss the opportunities God sets before us to share love with friends or strangers. This season is going to be exceptionally busy for me, but I’m going to try to keep my eyes open for ways to be a blessing to someone. Why don’t we all ask God for the chance to share His love in a special, even unusual, way this year? Perhaps we can be used by God to lighten someone’s load and brighten his/her outlook of life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Second Coming of the Church

 All my life I‘ve heard people who were convinced that the time for the second coming of Christ was just around the corner. Today, with the turmoil in the world and the rejection of Judeo-Christian values by our society, that teaching is especially loud. Those teachers could be right. This might well be the time. I’ve even heard some folks say they wish Jesus would come now and put an end to all this tumult. I can understand their point, but we, the church, have a job to do, no matter what the circumstances are. We are still under orders to love God, love others, be witnesses to the love, hope, and salvation we have received from Him, and make disciples of people from the world over and from all walks of life. 

Perhaps, instead of wishing and praying for the second coming of Jesus right now to bail us out of this wicked world and to punish the wicked ones, we should be praying for a second coming of the church. Isn’t it time for the church to redouble its effort to accomplish the mission Jesus gave us before He ascended? I think the church needs to quit worrying about less important things like our comfort, Starbucks’ cups, worship styles, and our difference over the methods we use to share the Gospel message. Instead, we need to get on with being the church Jesus wants us to be.

I can hear some folks say, “But it’s so hard today. People don’t hold the church in high esteem and they don’t know the Bible. Besides that, our culture seems to be marching away from biblical principles as fast as it can.” My response to that is a very profound, “So what.” The church was born into the 1st Century Roman world, which knew absolutely nothing about the church, nothing about Jesus or the Bible, and their culture was built on paganism and secular philosophy. This is precisely why what is needed now is a second coming of the church. The tiny band of Jesus’ followers ignited a complete cultural change. The church gathered so much influence in the relatively short time of 300 years that Emperor Constantine felt it necessary to declare Christianity the religion of Rome to keep his army together. Remember that the church was able to do that in a day without mass communication, without the printing press, without the computer, without air travel or powered sea and land travel. By simply relying on the yielded lives of Christ’s followers and the power of the Holy Spirit the church spread the Word through the entire Roman world and far beyond. Just imagine what the Holy Spirit can do today through Christ-followers who are fully yielded to Him and have access to all the communication and transportation tools of the 21st Century.

Could such a “Second Coming of the Church” happen? Could a New Great Awakening come across our land and the entire world? Of course it could! Is that God’s will? I believe it is, because the Great Commission has never been rescinded! What I’m afraid is lacking is a church that is motivated to accomplish it. Jesus challenged His disciples with reaching every person with the Gospel and, finally, in this century, it is possible to answer that challenge. However, making disciples is more than simply telling the story. It’s helping people choose to believe and then learn to follow Jesus. The second coming of the church will not happen until the church turns its focus to fulfilling Jesus’ commands. Let’s quit fretting over minor things and make the main thing, making disciples, the main thing. To accomplish this He must be the main thing, not only in our church program, but also in the fabric of our everyday lives. I want to see the Second Coming of the Church.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Under Orders from the King

We were buying a house—a brand new house. It was about to be built just up the hill from the model home. Tina’s (my wife) mom came to visit; of course, we took her to see the lot and the model home. We were young; in fact, I was young enough to think that we would do a quick walk through of the model and then go to lunch. Can you tell I had not been married very long? Somehow Tina produced a tape measurer and she and her mother began measuring all the windows and sliding glass doors so they could get started picking out, and/or making curtains, drapes, etc. They were talking about colors and accents, and all the stuff I didn’t care about. So I sat down on one of the couches in the living room and watched the other people who came in to look the model over.

As I sat there enjoying the couch and listening to my stomach begin to growl for lunch, a man, probably old enough to be my father, sat heavily in the easy chair next to me. He was a talkative guy. At times I have been accused of enjoying the sound of my voice too, so we got into a conversation. Apparently, his daughter was looking for a house. I excitedly told him we had already bought one and it would soon be under construction. When we exhausted that line of conversation and our women-folk hadn’t reappeared, he asked me what I did for a living. I was in my very first lead, actually solo, pastoral assignment, so I excitedly told him that I was the pastor of Church of the Foothills, gave him directions, and invited him to join us any Sunday morning for worship.

He asked me what kind of church it was. I told him what I always say when people ask me that:  “We are a non-denominational church affiliated with the Church of God of Anderson, Indiana. It’s sort of a non-denominational denomination.” He said, “Just so long as it’s not one of the those evangelical churches.” I asked him what church he belonged to. He said, “I’m Jewish.” So I asked him what was wrong with “evangelical” churches, and told him that our church could be considered evangelical. He went into a rant for several minutes about how his daughter had been going to an evangelical church and they wanted her to become a Christian, and why couldn’t we just let people be what they were born to be. At the end of his monologue, he was pretty red in the face and he asked me if I tried to get people to become Christians. I told him I did, and he asked why I thought I should try to get people to believe as I do. After a minute or two he again stopped talking and I told him that the last thing Jesus did on this earth was tell His followers to go into all the world and make disciples. I told the man, we have to try to persuade people to join us. We believe God’s Son ordered us to do so. He huffed a time or two and then got up to go find his family. Tina and her mom came back and said they were ready to go about then and we left. I never saw that man again, but that conversation has stayed with me.

We are under orders to bring the world to Jesus. Doing the Great Commission is not something we can do when we get around to it. It is what the Lord calls all of us to do. Some people will laugh at you. Some will get angry. Some will avoid you. But some will believe. Praise God, some will believe! The proper way to share the Good News about Jesus is by building relationships with people who don’t know Him and sharing our lives with them. It is more than can be done in a few minutes on a doorstep … or in a model home. It’s about loving folks who need the Good News and earning the right to be heard. I didn’t have the opportunity to do that with the man on the couch that day, but I think someone was building that kind of relationship with his daughter. I hope at some time someone came into that man’s life and got to share with him on a deeper level than I had the opportunity to do. He was very resistant to me and, I think, to anyone at that time, but maybe later someone got the opportunity to help him know our Savior.

It’s a big job that Jesus gave us. If we do it right it changes lives, cultures, and history. It has done so in the past, and it can again. In recent months several things have happened that demonstrate that the influence of Judeo-Christian values has lessened on our society. That needs to change, but it won’t be changed by winning elections and passing legislation. If the change comes, it will be because hearts have turned to God. That only happens as we build relationships with neighbors, colleagues, teammates, whoever we do life with who don’t know Christ. It only happens when we risk being ostracized and even hated. It will only happen when people see Christ’s love in us. Remember, we are under orders. Jesus did His part on the cross. The Holy Spirit will help us. We must do our assignment.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Grow the Church by Sharing Your Faith the Way the Disciples Did

We have an amazing example from the disciples when it comes to sharing our faith. Well at least from one of the disciples: Andrew. You see, I believe the best chance, perhaps the only chance, for the church to influence the world in the 21st century is to imitate Andrew. If we do that, Joe and Jill Christ-follower will share their faith with Josh and Amy who live next door, or share a cubicle, or go to the same fitness center, or who are involved with the same children’s school, sports team, or dance class. Even in this time, when communication is everywhere and unbelievably fast, when we can see and hear great speakers on our TVs, our computers, and our phones, the human one-on-one touch of a Christ-follower with his friend remains the most effective way to communicate with people who need the Lord. At this time, at least in America, other means of communication saturate our ears. We have learned to be apathetic, and even skeptical of the things we hear and see on mass media. When a friend shares not only his faith, but also his life, with a friend he has a chance to introduce him/her to Jesus. We have a blazing example of how this works in the New Testament. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was not in the inner circle like Peter, James, and John, and we don’t see him preaching in Acts, but we do see him witnessing one-on-one 3 times.

First of all, he witnessed to Peter (John 1:40-42). After Andrew heard what John said about Jesus and decided to follow Him, the first thing he did was tell Peter all about Jesus and what he believed about Him. The next thing he did was to introduce Peter to Jesus. That is all Andrew did; Jesus took it from there. So Joe and Jill Christ-follower simply need to introduce their friends and relatives to Jesus like Andrew did. Then they need to do another thing that Andrew did:  trust Jesus to take it from there.

The next time we meet Andrew is when Jesus spoke all morning to a crowd and then challenged the disciples to feed lunch to everyone (John 6:1-13). They were dumbfounded. Finally, Andrew told Jesus about a little boy in the crowd whose mother had packed him a lunch—five barley loaves and two small fish. I don’t know how Andrew knew about the boy’s lunch. He must have made friends with the boy and perhaps the boy showed him the lunch he brought. The point is, Andrew introduced the little boy (and his lunch) to Jesus. Jesus did the rest. He took what the little boy brought and made an amazing miracle.

One more time we see Andrew witnessing in this way (John 12:20-26). It seems that Phillip didn’t know what to do with the Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus. They were different. They weren’t “their kind of people.” Andrew did what he had done with Peter and with the little boy. He simply introduced the Greeks to Jesus then stepped back and let Jesus do His thing. (He told the Greeks they would need to follow Him and serve.)

In each of these instances Andrew simply introduced Jesus. Today Joe and Jill Christ-follower need to step up and simply introduce their friends to Jesus. Andrew didn’t need to know all the answers. He didn’t know what Jesus would do with Peter, with the boy and his lunch, or with a group of Gentile Greeks. He didn’t have to know. All he had to do was introduce Jesus and believe that Jesus would do whatever else needed to be done. That’s exactly what we need to learn to do. Too often we make witnessing complicated; really it’s not. It’s simply telling what Jesus has done in your life and inviting your friends to believe in Him, too. Now, more than anytime since its founding, the United States is ignorant of the Bible, and of the Jesus who came to give them hope, love, and eternal life. The calling for all of us is to be Andrews and introduce our friends to Him.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Salt or Sand?

Jesus told the disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” This was an amazing declaration of His faith in His followers to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of individuals that we meet. When preacher-types like me talk about this verse we remind folks what salt does: it adds flavor, it keeps foods from spoiling, and it melts ice. All are great metaphors for what Christ followers are to be in the world.

One of these metaphors has become more meaningful for me recently. I have spent most of the last two winters in the Chicago, Illinois area. Wow, do those folks know how to have a winter! Snow lands on the ground around Thanksgiving and may finally be gone by Easter, providing Easter does not come too early on the calendar. It gets cold and stays cold. And yet people live and function through it all. They get to work, to the store, usually to church, and always to the sporting events even as the snow piles high and temperatures drop.

I grew up in Wichita, Kansas. It’s not exactly one of the great vacation spots in the winter either, but there are respites between terrible cold spells and any snow they get tends to melt in just a few days. It only seems longer. When it snows in Wichita, it’s a big deal. They know it will come, but they seem to deny it, at least on the roads.

In Northern Illinois they put salt and other similar chemicals on the roads as soon as snow threatens. Ice usually melts on the road as soon as it forms. The roads usually remain passible. I was reminded when I was in Kansas early last winter how different things are out there when it snows. Instead of using salt to melt the snow and ice on the roads, the Wichitans put down sand. I guess their philosophy is that the sand will give vehicles traction on the ice. While the road department in Northern Illinois believes it’s better to just get the snow and ice to melt and go away, in Wichita, after a big snowstorm people slip and slide for several days, and hope the snow melts on its own.

The point of all this is actually a question I want to ask:  Are you being sand or salt to the world? Is your life—your actions and attitudes—melting the icy cold of sin in your community, in your family, at work, or even at church? Or, are you contributing to the grit? Do your actions and attitudes act like an abrasive to people who are already troubled by their sins?

You can be salt by coating all you do with Christ’s love, especially when you confront sin. Remember when the woman was caught in adultery (John 8)? He didn’t accept her sin, but neither did He rebuke her as a person. Instead He gave her hope by telling her to go and sin no more. He showed her that he believed she could do better. He melted her heart and dissolved the sin.

In this same story the Pharisees were sand. They caught her in the act. They had her dead to rights, and they wanted her dead. They did nothing to melt the sin in her life, nothing to redeem her. They were only abrasive grit. While Jesus offered her hope, they offered her only condemnation.

So again:  Are you salt? Or are you sand? Are you a change agent of hope, or are you an agent of condemnation?