Sunday, June 10, 2012

Graduation Blues


     Bittersweet.  That’s how my high school career ended.  I didn’t even get to walk at graduation. No cap.  No gown.  No ceremony.  It was just over.  A relief – but bittersweet.
     This past week reminded me of that as I watched high school seniors from our town receive diplomas and make their memories.  Graduation can be one of the happiest moments in life.
     In January of my senior year my father’s new job moved our family away from my hometown and all my friends.  I transferred from a small town school to a large regional high school.
     I did make some friends there, but they were nothing like the ones I left behind.  Plus there was just five months before graduation and it was hard to ‘fit in’ at the new larger school.
     The curriculum differences between the two schools also caused problems that nearly prevented me from graduating that spring.  So, not only did I miss walking at commencement with my hometown friends, I didn’t get to attend any commencement.  It just didn’t seem fair!
     For many years afterwards I thought that, if there were one thing in my life I could change, I would’ve gone back and completed high school in my hometown.  Since I couldn’t do that, I sang the ‘Graduation Blues.’
     What I didn’t realize at the time is that it was all part of God’s plan.  In fact, I wouldn’t be where I am today or the person I am today without that difficult experience in my life.
     “Now hold on just a minute,” you say.  “Why do you think that was part of God’s plan?”
     Good question.  At first I didn’t.
     But, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe the Bible is true.  I believe it is the very words of God.  So, by faith, I believed when I read, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
     Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I’ve learned that “all things” includes both the happy times and sad times.  It includes good times and hard times.
     Because of my family’s move we attended a new church.  The Youth Leader there took me to visit a large Christian university he’d attended and got me interested.  A guest speaker at our new church knew the university president personally and wrote a letter of recommendation for me.
     The result was a change in my original college plans.  I was accepted at that university and sat under some amazing teachers who encouraged me.  It was exactly what I needed and confirmed my decision to become a pastor.
     I also had some wonderful experiences I would have otherwise missed had I gone elsewhere.  Experiences that included a part in a movie about the Spanish Inquisition. (Thank you, Mr. Umbach for encouraging me in drama during high school!)
     What is God doing in your life?  He is using your experiences, your decisions and other people to encourage you to draw closer to him and follow him so he can bless you.
     Maybe you are far from God.  To you the Bible says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”  If you trust in the Lord with all your heart, the Bible says he will direct your path.
     Perhaps you made a lot of mistakes when you were younger and it limits your choices now. God, however, can turn your failures into victories if you will let him write his story with the rest of your life.  But first you must trust him because he knows how to work all things for good.
     Wherever you are in life, no matter your circumstances, you have a choice.  You can ‘sing the blues’ when things go wrong or you can live by faith, trust God and sing thank-yous to him.
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

Monday, June 4, 2012

You Decide

     Once there was a wise man that could answer life’s most difficult questions. So a young man, a recent graduate, decided to stump him.  He was sure he could outsmart him.  To do so he hid a live bird in his hands and asked the old man, “Sir, is the bird in my hands dead or alive?”
     His plan was simple. If the wise man said it was dead, he would open his hands and let the bird fly away. If the wise man said it was alive, the young graduate planned to give his hands a quick squeeze and open them to reveal a dead bird.  It was a clever plan.
     Surprisingly, the old man never looked at the young man's hands.  Instead, he looked straight into his eyes and said quietly, “My son, it is whatever you wish it to be.”
     It’s the same in life. The life you live, the life I live, is the one we wish it to be.  We decide.
     “Now hold on just a minute,” you say.  “How can you say that?”
     Because we make hundreds of decisions every day that directly or indirectly set the direction for our lives.  So much so that one could say, “We win or lose by the things we choose.”
     Our freedom to choose is also vital in our relationship with God.  We can choose to personally respond to God's great love for us in Jesus Christ or not.  The decision is ours.
     Many people make wrong choices about spiritual things.  A person may do well on a test score or a performance review, but if they fail to make the right choices about spiritual things, they may waste years of their life before coming to their senses.
     The most important decision we make in life is who or what we will worship.  In the Ten Commandments the God of the Bible says, “You shall have no other God's before me.”  God later explains he doesn’t just want to be first among many.  He wants to be our only God.
     What god or gods do you worship?
     A person’s god is what he or she chooses to put at the center of their life.  It can be clothes, sports, school grades, career, family, money, a hobby, romance, pleasure, sexual orientation or anger.  Once we decide, our ‘god’ determines whether we are happy, sad or feel fulfilled in life.
     Many people call themselves ‘Christian’ because they believe Jesus Christ is God.  But they break the First Commandment by putting someone or something else in first place at the center of their life.  And by allowing something else to control them, they worship another ‘god.’
     The choice to give Jesus Christ first place is the most important decision in all of life – even more important than your career or whom you marry.  The simple reason is that this choice, above all others, is eternally significant. 
     While many may try to convince us differently, the Bible says that heaven and hell do exist.  And the choice we make about which god we worship determines where we will live forever.
     Because there is a choice, you must choose. To not chose, is a choice.  Why not choose Jesus Christ?  That is the question that the famous mathematician, scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal often posed to non-Christians.  It’s called ‘Pascal’s Wager.’
     Here was Pascal’s logic, “If I am wrong about God existing, then neither of us would even know it, because we would both die and cease to exist and all consciousness would disappear. But, on the other hand, if I am right and you are wrong, when we both die, I will go to heaven, and you will go to hell. Now, it seems to me that any intelligent person would bet on the right side of that wager.”
     The choice is yours.  You decide.  But remember, you win or loose by the things you choose.
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Close the Church


     Should we close the church doors? –Not just when services end, but permanently?
     “Now hold on just a minute,” you say. “You must be out of your mind!”
     Perhaps.  But think about this:  Every non-attending Christian and church member votes by his or her absence to close the doors of the church.
     In dictatorships tyrants close churches by decree.  In a democracy Christians close churches by indifference.  The intent is not the same, but the results are identical.
     Most church members would rise up in protest if the government tried to close their church.  But non-attending church members, by staying away, weaken the ability of the church to remain open and serve their community.
     Suppose the federal government called two million men to defend our country and one million said, “We believe the nation should be protected from outside enemies, but we’ll just stay home.  We’re for it but we want no part of it.” 
     How effective would their citizenship be?  How much would they be worth to the nation’s defense?  What are the chances our country would remain free?
     There's an enemy on the loose in our nation.  It's far more dangerous to American life than all outside forces combined.  The enemy is within us.  It's working silently, constantly and effectively.  What is it?  It's called ‘sin.’
     Sin is not so much the outward evil actions we often associate with it.  Sin is more the attitude behind the actions.  The attitude that says, “Nobody’s telling me what to do – especially God!”
     Sin is far more dangerous to America than all the terrorists and other enemies combined.  It degrades the character of our people.  It undermines the spirit of the average American to such an extent that he or she is easy prey for extremists, atheists and the cults.
     The only permanent solution to our sin problem is the forgiveness found by faith in Jesus Christ. And the Christian church is the one group commanded to bring that good news to our world.
     Don't ever forget that the liberty and freedom we enjoy are the result of New Testament Christianity.  Democracy, tolerance and kindness to others grow out of a Biblical morality, as well.  But America is a place where worship of the one true God – the God of the Bible – is in decline.
     Many people claim they don’t need to go to church to worship God.  They think they can worship God while fishing, playing golf or sitting on the beach. To that I say,  “You can, but you won’t.” 
     Fishermen pray to catch ‘the big one.’  Golfers ask God to help them make an impossible shot.  Sunbathers concentrate on their tans.  They don’t give one thought to worshiping God.
     If you are a member of a Bible believing, life-giving church – will you be there most Sundays and show you are for the Church of Jesus Christ?  Or will you be somewhere else and in effect vote to close your church?
     Some folks attend Sunday School classes only and then leave before the worship service begins.  That, too, is a vote to close the church.  What would happen to their Sunday School class if the church doors closed and there was no building to meet in?
     Perhaps you'd say, “My church is ‘dead.’” Fine. Then find one that's alive and serving others!
     The Bible says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ’s return] approaching.”
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Words of Warning


     “I’m warning you!  One more time and I’m coming down there!”
     That’s how parents talk when children fight or misbehave.  Why?  Because there comes a time when parents can’t put up with disobedience any longer.
     The Bible says that God loves us.  And that he is forgiving.  But it also says there comes a time when he says, “Enough!”
     That point came in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It says, “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence…So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.  I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.’”
     God hates violence.  So he used a worldwide flood to create a fresh start with Noah.
     Later God gave Moses a moral code (the Ten Commandments).  Then he sent Jesus to make it possible for us to have new hearts - hearts that want to obey God.
     The Bible challenges us to “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” It tells us “Now is the day of salvation.”  But only a few listen to the Heavenly Father.
     Meanwhile violent stories once again fill the news.  There are reports of murder and abuse.  Even small towns have their share of violence.  Ask the school principals and police chiefs.
     Violence seems to be everywhere.  Neither atheistic nor religious countries are exempt.
     Our entertainment is full of violence.  Most TV dramas focus on murders.  By the time we’re adults we’ve seen so much violence that we’re numb to it.
     Violent video games and movies are defended as entertainment.  Sporting events turn into brawls when tempers flair.  Parents, athletes and fans alike come out swinging.
     Even though God gave humanity a fresh start after Noah’s flood, violence is in our nature.  And a day of reckoning is coming.  Again.
     According to the Bible, God gave the rainbow after the flood as a sign he would never destroy the earth again with water.  But the Bible also warns us “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”
     God’s advice?  “Since everything will be destroyed this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives…. Our Lord’s patience means salvation.”
     “Well, hold on just a minute!” you say. “What’s all this talk of judgment?  Isn’t God patient?”
     Yes, God is patient.  “He is patient with you not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.”  But his patience has a limit.
     We now have judges in America that disdain and reject the Judeo-Christian foundations of our civilization.  People who believe and practice the morality of our country’s founders are called bigots, haters and worse.  What happened to our sense of shame?
     If Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were to return today, would they recognize the nation they founded?  They might demand to know what we did with it!
     I wonder how close God is to saying, “I’m warning you!  One more time and I’m coming down there!”  It might be sooner than we think.
     At one time America was the envy of the world.  God blessed America.  But no more.
     The solution?  “Return to me, declares the Lord Almighty, and I will return to you…Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.”
     We see the sickness.  We hear the warning.  Will we take the ‘medicine’? That’s the question.
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Missing Manners


     Someone does something nice for you so you say, “Thank you.”  And what response do you get?  “No problem.”  In other words, “I did it and it’s no big deal.  You don’t owe me.”
     What happened to a polite, “You’re welcome”?  Apparently the same thing that happened to “Please”!
     Next time you’re in a fast food restaurant, listen to what customers say as they place an order:  “I need a number three combo with a diet soda.  Gimmee a large.”
     Well hold it right there for just a minute!  What happened to our manners?  They’re missing.
     My mother taught me to say, “May I please have a number three combo?”  And to say, “You’re welcome” after someone says “Thank You.” Didn’t yours?
     Here’s the problem:  We know what to say – we just don’t want to say it.
     I called a manager aside once and asked if he knew the proper response to “Thank you.”  He replied, “You’re welcome.”  So I asked why his employees didn’t say it.  He didn’t know.
     It seems many have a problem with graciousness and gratitude.  Impatience and rudeness rule the day.  Maybe it’s because others are nowhere near as important as we are in our own eyes.
     Many suffer from the WIFM syndrome – “What’s In It For Me?”  If the answer is “Nothing,” they don’t waste their time.  And for many, manners seem like a waste of time.
     Sociologists don’t have an answer for this problem.  At least none that I’ve seen.  And the reason is (if we do what comes naturally) we’re totally and completely self-centered.
     Some will say, “Others don’t deserve to be treated nice.  They’re morons.”
     Well there’s an attitude that will make you a lot of friends…or not!
     Just suppose there was someone graciously willing to give us far more than we deserve.  Willing to overlook our snooty self-centered attitudes, forgive our angry outbursts and stick with us no matter what.  Sort of an FBF – a Forever Best Friend.
     That could be life changing, wouldn’t it?  And that’s exactly what God does for us in Jesus Christ.  Jesus left his Heaven to come to our earth to rescue us from ourselves. To give us what we don’t deserve – and that’s the essence of grace.
     Blindly following our self-destructive instincts, we would never and could never change.
     Justice demands consequences for our self-centered, self-serving ways.  Condemned by our own actions and failures, our future was bleak.  We need a full pardon!  And when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, taking our punishment on himself, pardon became possible.
     That possibility becomes a reality when we take God at his word and put our trust in Christ to pardon us from our ‘just desserts.’  It gives us a whole new way of living!
     Once you receive grace, it’s much easier to be gracious.  After you’ve been forgiven, it’s much easier to forgive others. When you’ve been served and loved, it’s much easier to serve and love others.  Gratitude has that effect.
     So the next time you wonder what happened to people’s missing manners, remember this:  manners and politeness grow out of our hearts.  What we say to others reflects our true nature.
     Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”  Pastor and author Chuck Swindoll adds, “The tongue is only a bucket which goes down into the well of the heart, dips out what is there and pours it forth upon the world.”
     The only way to see people change for good is to change the heart.  God knows that and he offers a new heart to us through faith in Christ.
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Real Deal


     Did you ever see someone you thought you knew in a restaurant, call out their name and then suddenly realize it’s not the person you supposed?  It can be embarrassing.
     The same thing happens with Jesus.  Some people mistake him for someone else. 
     “Now hold on just a minute,” you say.  “How could you mistake Jesus for someone else?”
     Well, some think he’s just a baby in the manger scene at the Sunday School Christmas program.  Or they think he’s just the man on the cross in the Easter play, a great teacher or a martyr for a good cause. 
     But Jesus is more than just an infant in a manger, an actor in a play, a great teacher or a martyr.  He’s the real deal.  He’s the Son of God.
     Now some people think Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God.  They believe he was just a rabbi, a great teacher whom other people called “the Son of God.” 
     However, when the Jewish High Priest asked him, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus answered, “Yes, it is as you say.  But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
      Now that’s not something a ‘great teacher’ would claim to be.  So, when others called him the Son of God, Jesus should have straightened them out.  At least he should have done that if he was no more than just a good teacher.
     To claim to be the Son of God when you’re not would make you either a liar or a lunatic.  And neither of those would make a good model for others to imitate.  But what some of the people of Jesus’ day didn’t reckon with was that he was telling the truth.  His miracles, his messages and his resurrection from the dead demonstrated and confirmed his deity.
     People make the same mistake today.  They fail to see who Jesus really is.
     The fact that Jesus is who he claimed to be changes everything.  It confronts everyone who hears this about him and forces them to make a decision. They must decide whether or not to believe and trust in him. 
     Someone once asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”  He answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
     It is not enough to just understand.  It is not enough to just agree.  Jesus said we must believe in him – to trust and rely on him to save us and forgive our sin.  To voluntarily and personally choose him to be our Lord, our Savior and our God.  To obey him and live for him.
     If you mistake Jesus for somebody else, you will lose a shepherd for your soul, a provider for your life and a protector for your family. You will also miss out on his church, a place where you can be loved and accepted for who you are.  And where you will be encouraged to be all that God made you to be. 
     If you mistake Jesus for somebody else, you will pass up the purpose for your life.  Plus, if you confuse Jesus for someone he is not, the result will be more than a brief embarrassment.  It will cost you dearly for all eternity.
     But to find Jesus – to discover who he really is – and put your trust in him, that is no mistake.  Because Jesus is the ‘Real Deal.’
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Wishful Thinking


     What would you call someone who doesn’t believe what Christ taught?  A Christian?       Probably not.  You might call them a non-Christian.  That would make more sense.
     Well what about people who call themselves Christians but disagree with Jesus?  I’d say they’re practicing wishful thinking.
     “Now hold on for just a minute,” you say.  “How can a Christian disagree with Jesus?”
     Good question.  My dictionary defines a Christian as one who believes Jesus was sent by God to save the world.  It also says that Christians accept and follow his teachings and example.
     A person was called a Christian in the first century because he or she believed Jesus was the Savior and they turned to him for forgiveness of their sins. ‘Christian’ means ‘Christ follower.’
     According to eyewitness reports, when Jesus Christ walked on the earth he claimed to be God in human flesh.  Not just another teacher or prophet.  God.  He offered his miracles as evidence.
     Those who believed him followed him and became his disciples.  When he taught them that Heaven was a real place and that he was going there, they wanted to know the way to get there.
     Jesus’ simple answer leaves no room for misunderstanding.  He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”
     Another time he added, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.”
     It’s clear that Jesus taught he is the only way to salvation from sin and an eternal home in heaven.  He said he was “THE” way and “THE” door.  Not just “A” way or “A” door. 
     According to a Pew Forum poll, 70 per cent of Americans, including 57 per cent of Evangelical Christians, believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”
     While we might wish it were so, no evidence exists to support the view that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”  But Americans seem to think we can vote on everything–even truth!
     Only one person has ever claimed to be the Son of God who could prove it. That was Jesus Christ. He predicted that when he was killed, he would rise from the dead.  And he did.
     Those who followed Jesus also found that faith in him transformed their lives.  As a result, the Bible records they taught what Jesus taught–that salvation is found in Christ alone.
     They preached (and the Bible proclaims), “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
     Does that sound like “many religions can lead to eternal life”?  It doesn’t to me either.
     As author A.W. Tozer observed, “Jesus is not one of many ways to approach God, nor is he the best of several ways; He is the only way.”
     We must choose between the Church of Wishful Thinking and following Jesus Christ.  The Church of Wishful Thinking offers a “hope so” religion.  Jesus Christ offers truth and assurance.
     The Bible says, “This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
     A Christian believes in Jesus Christ and follows him.  And at least one thing involved with following Christ is obeying him.  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
     Those who don’t believe what Jesus taught and don’t obey him may be religious but they’re not following Christ.  For them to think they’re a ‘Christian’ is just ‘Wishful Thinking.’
     Listen to the Bible; it’s great for your soul!

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