Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Men of Vision -- How This Looks at Church


Philosopher Immanuel Kant had a saying, “Always treat a human being as a person, that is, as an end in himself, and not merely as a means to your end. The personality of ourselves we feel very intensely, and we are outraged when others seem to ignore that personality in us, but the personality of others we do not sense so keenly.” This thought, in a nutshell, really describes what is taking place in the passage that we are going to consider today.  Perhaps we can relate? I hope not…but, probably so.  If there is one thing that we humans are aware of, it is our own wants and desires.  And when we juxtapose this against the way of the cross, there is always going to be conflict – do I do what I want, or what Jesus wants. Well, it is interesting to see how Jesus’ disciples respond to Him (Matthew 20:21-28) after His third announcement concerning His death, burial and resurrection. (20:17)  They did not have the advantage of the New Testament, history and hindsight that we do. Jesus’ message does not penetrate their hearts at this time.  The big problem is that the disciples are focused on themselves, their desires, and it hinders their spiritual sight. They need to be refocused on what really matters, and Jesus helps their understanding in this way.

In contrast to Jesus’ announcement of suffering and death, we have the request of James and John…and their mother. Jesus has been speaking of the cross, but they, on the other hand, are more interested in a crown.  What is interesting is that this follows up a similar conversation that has already taken place over in Matthew 18. So, we can see the intensity of this thought on the part of the disciples. This, not so ironically, follows after Jesus twice displaying that the disciples need to be “as little children” in their innocence (Matthew 18, 19).  We do get the impression that the mother of James and John is the real inspiration behind this request, and that it is she who is interested in promoting her sons…she simply wants to be certain that her boys get the best reserved seats in heaven. So, every football dad and soccer mom can take a deep breath…they are not the only ones who do this. :-)

First, let’s notice some commendable features in this event. They do believe in prayer and they dare to believe the promise that Jesus has given them about “sitting on the throne.” (19:28)  But, several things are wrong with their request. First, it is born out of ignorance -- “You do not know what you ask,” is Jesus’ reply. They do not understand that “the path to the throne” is very difficult.  It is important to note that James would be the first of the apostles to be martyred, and John would endure some exceedingly hard days on the Isle of Patmos.  A second problem with their request is their lack of heavenly direction.  They are thinking like the world, just as Peter does in chapter 16.  It seems that James and John, perhaps unwittingly, want to “lord it over” the other disciples, the way that the pagan rulers lorded over their subjects.  I mean, after all…they have been “two of the three chosen to be in the inner circle.” And John understands that he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” No doubt, they feel relief that they approach Jesus with this request before Peter is able to do so. In reality, they are selfishly seeking glory for themselves, and not for the Lord. Jesus warns the mother and her sons that “thrones are available to those who are worthy of them.”  What He means is that humility must be the focus of the lives of those who follow Him, and not pride.

And what is the result of this request?  Indignation on the part of the other disciples. Surprise! Not really. Some of them may think – “How could you be so worldly?”…perhaps for others, “Why didn’t I think of it first!” Selfishness only results in dissension and division.  All of this presents Jesus the opportunity to teach a practical lesson in leadership. In His kingdom, we must not follow the example of the world, (in most cases) be like the corporate president or wealthy celebrity…our example is Jesus.  And what did Jesus reveal and display? “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (vv. 26-28) This is as clear as anything Jesus ever shares.  Jesus came to give His life, therefore we should give our lives in service to Him and to others. In our churches today, there are a lot of people who “want attention”…but, not so many who want to serve.  If there is one thing we can take away from this message it is that the key to greatness is not found in position or power, but in character. We will “sit beside Jesus” by living lives worthy of such a placing.

“I believe it is beneficial to consider what “servant” really means.  "Servant" in our English New Testament usually represents the Greek doulos (bondslave). Sometimes it means diakonos (deacon or minister); this is strictly accurate, for doulos and diakonos are synonyms. Both words indicate a man who is not at his own disposal, but is his master's purchased property. Bought to serve his master's needs, to be at his beck and call every moment, the slave's sole business is to do as he is told. Christian service therefore means, first and foremost, living out a slave relationship to one's Savior.” (1 Corinthians. 6:19-20)  Paul certainly recognized this, as most of his letters begin with him calling himself “the bondservant…or slave…of the Lord.  “What work does Christ set his servants to do? The way that they serve him, he tells them, is by becoming the slaves of their fellow-servants and being willing to do literally anything, however costly, irksome, or undignified, in order to help them. This is what love means, as he himself showed at the Last Supper when he played the slave's part and washed the disciples' feet. When the New Testament speaks of ministering to the saints, it means not primarily preaching to them but devoting time, trouble, and substance to giving them all the practical help possible. The essence of Christian service is loyalty to the king expressing itself in care for his servants (Matthew 25: 31-46). Only the Holy Spirit can create in us the kind of love toward our Savior that will overflow in imaginative sympathy and practical helpfulness towards his people.” From James Packer, Your Father Loves You, Harold Shaw Publishers,

I have to say I have seen a lot of good things done for the cause of Christ in His churches, especially when The Golden Rule is at work.  Or, as I like to put it – a lot of good can be accomplished for the Lord in the church as long as nobody cares who gets the credit.  Problems only arise when selfishness, power-mongering take place, or in other words, “when someone needs the credit.”  When I hear other preachers and elders say, 80% of the people do 20% of the work (and I have been in such places), it is a truism that plays out in many churches and organizations.  This should not be the case with churches where people are taking the lead in being the servants that the Lord has called them to be.  We are all busy.  But, most of us have the opportunity to prioritize our lives and schedules in such a way that we can serve the Lord and the community. Considering how to be a man (or woman) of vision at church means closing my eyes to myself, submitting myself first to Christ, and then to others.  Let’s consider this principle and make the necessary preparations and arrangements to do just this.  True leadership (servant-hood) does not seek its own, but what is best for the other person…what is best for the body of Christ. This is Jesus’ style.

I want to close with one final story that captures what it is I am trying to share – that famous writer “anonymous” shares this:  Driving down a country road, I came to a very narrow bridge.  In front of the bridge, a sign was posted – “Yield.” Seeing no oncoming cars, I continued across the bridge and on to my destination.  On my way back, I came to the same one-lane bridge, now from the other direction.  To my surprise, I saw another “Yield” sign posted.  Curious, I thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.”  When I reached the other side of the bridge, I looked back.  Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge.  Drivers from both directions were requested to give the right of way.  It is a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision.  The same applies in life and relationships…when the Bible commands us to “be in subjection” this is what it means – whether to the Lord, or to one another.

Blessings, Don

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Men of Vision -- How This Looks at Home


A Christian businessman tells this story -- the sun was shining brightly on a cold January day, and I was running late to work.  The only thought I had was – “I’ve got to get to my office as quickly as possible.”  As I approached a red light, I noticed a stalled truck on the right side of the road…and I gave him a passing thought – “poor guy.” But, then my busy mind hurried on to how I was going to handle the problems that I knew this day would throw in my lap. The sound of a knock on my window caused me to jump – it was the driver of the stalled vehicle. “Do you have a moment? My truck won’t start and I just need someone to give me a boost -- I have the booster cables.” I looked at my watch.  As late as it was, I didn’t even have five minutes to spare.  My boss would be frantic…I could even lose my job. My response was a stammered – “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t today…I am already late for work.”  “I understand,” he said, and then he walked to the car stopped behind me. I told myself that surely one of the next few cars that came by would have time to help this poor guy.  In reality, when the light turned green, I drove away feeling awful! I couldn’t help but think of the story of the Good Samaritan – was I the Priest or the Levite? To ease my conscience, I even mentioned the incident to my boss later that day.  As expected, he commended me for my decision to press on. His confirmation didn’t help ease my guilt…however – how often do I follow my own agenda ahead of the one that my heavenly Father has set out for me? All too often, when I ask God to sit in the driver’s seat of the car of my life, I act like a back seat driver – “Don’t turn right!” “Be careful!”  “Slow down!” Oh, there are also times when I put my back seat driver’s license in my pocket – these are the times when I literally wrench the wheel out of God’s hand on my personal autobahn of life.

Perhaps you can relate to this person in some way…I know that this has been “me” from time to time. Luke shares a story with certain similarities in relationship to two sisters, Mary and Martha…Jesus’ friends…and how they respond to Him. In referencing this particular Bible story, I want to keep in front of us the importance of the ladies in our lives and the influence they have on us…because, if we are married, our greatest responsibility at home is to treat them with love and respect.

In Romans 12:1-2, the apostle Paul helps us to understand that a general definition of worship, latreia, is at the heart of all that we are and all that we do in the Christian life. We are to live lives of service for the Lord as we “work out” our salvation, living as “Good Samaritans”. But, before we can effectively minister in these ways, we need to spend some time with our Master and learn from Him…taking some “time to be holy.” Mary of Bethany…one of several “Marys” in the New Testament…is seen three times in the gospel record, and on each occasion, she is in the same place – at Jesus’ feet!  In John 11:32, it is in relationship to her agonizing over the death of her brother Lazarus, and in 12:3 it is in relationship to her anointing Jesus feet. Mary, and her sister Martha, are often contrasted as though each believer must make a choice -- you can be a worker, like Martha, or a worshiper like Mary (Luke 10:38-42). This does not necessarily make worship and work an “either/or situation,” but it seems evident that, at least in the situation that is presented here, that one takes precedence over the other. Consider…Martha receives Jesus into her home, and then, as it appears, she neglects Him as she prepares an elaborate meal that He does not necessarily need.  There is nothing wrong with her doing this, in and of itself, but the point is – what we do with Jesus is more important than what we do for Jesus.

Mary has likely done her share of work in the kitchen…I am sure a few of you can relate…but she then goes to “feed” on the Lord’s teachings. Soon, Martha feels neglected after Mary leaves the kitchen…and so she begins to complain, suggesting that neither the Lord nor Mary really care!  Martha would have profited from what Jesus shares in John 15:5 that says – “without me, you can do nothing.” We may be on the go, go, go…just like we’re on that autobahn, speeding along…and we wonder why we do not have the spiritual energy or fortitude to deal with all of life’s offerings and struggles(?). Few things are as trying, and perhaps even troubling for the Christian, as trying to work for Christ without taking time to commune with Christ. In this situation, Mary chooses the better part…the part that could not be taken from her.  She knew that she could not live on “bread alone” (Matthew 4:4).

Writer and sociologist, Gordon Govier says, “Time affects us all equally, although there are those who believe that it seems to pick up speed as we get older.  But, most of us agree that we don’t have enough of it.  When Charles Hummel wrote his classic essay, Tyranny of the Urgent, in 1967, he identified the telephone as among the worst offenders against our peace and contemplation.  And that was before we carried it with us everywhere, embellished with e-mail, computers, cameras, downloadable ring tones and music files.  Hummel passed away in 2003, but his concept remains.  The main issue, Hummel states, is not so much a shortage of time, as a problem of priorities…or as a cotton mill manager once told him – “your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”  The essay points to the gospel accounts of Jesus who never seemed to be in a hurry, even when His friend Lazarus was dying.  Quoting Mark 1:35, Hummel saw the secret of Jesus’ life and work for God in that “He prayerfully waited for His Father’s instructions.”  Govier concludes in a way that is thoughtful and helpful…several years ago, I felt the weight of undone and half-done obligations weighing on me and realized that a big part of the problem was perspective.  Instead of complaining about why I was getting loaded down with so many responsibilities, I concluded that I should thank God that He was allowing me to be involved in many good things that I enjoyed doing and was really interested in.  Sure, I should be smart about not over-committing myself, but I was conscientiously and prayerfully considering my schedule in relationship to what I felt God wanted me to be involved in…then, I felt I could trust Him to make certain the priority things got done.

On our autobahn of life, it is really important to – stop.  We have simply got to take some time to slow down, and even stop, in the midst of our busyness and spend some meaningful time with the Lord, and with our family. We need to make and take time to be the men, husbands, fathers that the Lord would have us to be.  We need to spend some time in prayer every day…by ourselves, but also with our wives, and with our kids.  We need to do the same thing as it relates to reading the Word of God.  We also need to spend some meaningful time with our wives and kids.  If we are going to be “men of vision,” we must close our eyes to the whole world swirling around us on a regular basis and focus on the matters of life that truly matter. And I really can’t tell you how that “looks”…what “your vision” should be, individually or collectively.  But, I do hope to consider an effective vision of what the Lord wants for us. We serve a Master to whom a “day is to a thousand years and a thousand years is to a day.” He knows our busy schedules…he certainly understand us better than we know ourselves.  And as I have been known to say – I am not really going to be any good for the church or anyone else if I am not taking care of my business at home with my wife and family.

In Matthew 14, Mark 6, following the death of His cousin and friend, John the Baptist, Jesus needed to have some time alone with His Father. “Now when Jesus heard of it, He withdrew from there to a lonely place by Himself” (Mt 14:13). Still, people would follow after Him.  But, even later in the chapter (14:23), we see that He would go up to the mountain to pray after sending the multitude away.  Jesus knew how to “Stop” and “Yield.” We live in a culture where it is so easy to be seduced by the secondary, and distracted from what matters by sports, the internet, work, family, etc…all good things. Friends…the embodiment of the ancient faith is all about a personal relationship with Jesus.  We need to follow the example of our Lord and so many other faithful believers who make the time to spend some time, one of one with the Lord.  It is here that we meet our Lord in the most basic of ways through prayer, study, and meditation.  Then, our lives…ministry, work, play…can truly be efficient and effective.

Blessings, Don

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Gentle Healer


Peter Kennedy shares this story concerning Brian Birdwell, Republican politician from Granbury, TX. -- On September 11, 2001, Lt. Col. Birdwell stepped into a Pentagon hallway when the fireball from the hijacked plane hit him. After recovering from the initial shock, Birdwell realized he was on fire. "Jesus, I'm coming to see you," he remembers praying. When doctors finally attended to him at the Washington Burn Center, they found second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of Birdwell's body. To save him, they performed several skin graft operations. On September 13, while lying in his bed in the burn center, Laura Bush visited Brian's room and spoke to him for about a minute, all the time as if they were life-long acquaintances. She then turned to Brian's wife, Mel, who had been at the hospital for about two-and-a-half days. She was dirty, grimy, and wore a bloodstained shirt. Despite this, Laura gave her a long hug, as if she were a close family member. Laura then told them that there was "someone" there to see him. The President walked in. Standing by Brian's bedside, the President told Colonel Birdwell that he was very proud of them both and regarded them as heroes. The President then saluted Brian. Brian slowly began to return the salute, taking about 15 to 20 seconds to get his hand up to his head because of his bandaged arms. During all of this, President Bush never moved. He dropped his salute only when Brian was finished with his. Birdwell lives now with renewed purpose. "I'm a walking miracle. Christ got me out of the fire. In him not taking me, that means I have a mission to complete.” He and his wife now operate, Facing the Fire Ministries, an organization that serves to help burn victims, and he is currently serving in the Texas Senate.

What we can learn is that our Lord is a compassionate God, one who is with us in our most hurting times. He is one who knows our pain and one who can deliver us for a purpose. We can thank the Lord for healing, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, or eternal. As we come to Matthew 8, it is important to understand that lepers, Gentiles and women were considered outcasts by many Jewish people, especially the Pharisees. Many Pharisees would pray each morning, “I give thanks that I am a man and not a woman, a Jew and not a Gentile, a free-man and not a slave.”  Yeah, nice folks. There are a number of afflictions that the Word of God classifies as leprosy. The dreaded infection forced them to live apart from others and cry, “Unclean, unclean!” when others approached, so they would not be defiled. This would certainly be humiliating.  Jesus recognizes their plight and has mercy on them.  We see a number of stories involving Jesus cleansing lepers in the gospels.

None of the above business concerning how lepers should act, shouting “unclean,” deters one particular leper who, upon seeing Jesus, violates the code as he runs up to Him. This is evidence that this fellow has great faith that Jesus would heal him.  What happens next is nothing short of remarkable in a number of ways – Jesus reaches out and touches him.  He knows how important it would be to him, Who knows how long it had been since that had happened for this person? Nonetheless, the Lord is willing to take on the leper’s defilement, although it would have no effect on Him, and in turn, bring healing back to the man. The leper does not question Jesus’ ability to heal…he only wonders if Jesus will be willing to heal him. But, this act is just a small reflection of the greater reality that Jesus comes to heal and save man from his sins. Jesus commands the man not to tell others, but to go to the priests and declare him restored and able to back into society. It is interesting that the man does not obey Christ, as he tells everyone what the Lord has done. Mark’s account (1:45) reveals that the healed lepers witness forces Jesus to avoid the city…and yet the crowds still come to Him.

Another story of healing takes place concerns a centurion, which once again, is recorded in other gospel accounts.  A centurion is an officer who commands a hundred men in the Roman army.  Every centurion mentioned in the gospels is a man of high character and sense of duty…and this man is no exception. The fact that he is concerned with a lowly servant who has palsy (or is paralyzed) indicates this fact. Much like the leper, it would seem that everything about this man would prevent him from coming to see Jesus – he is a soldier, Jesus is a man of peace…he is a Gentile, while Jesus is a Jew.  But, this man has great faith!  He understands that Jesus is under authority, but that he also has authority.  All Jesus has to do is speak the word and the servant will be healed.  It is recorded only twice in the gospels that Jesus marveled…and this is one of those times.  He finds the great faith of the centurion wondrous!  This appears to be an early indication that the Jews are not going to believe, but that the Gentiles are going to do so.

Finally, we see Peter and Andrew letting Jesus know that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill.  She is in bed with a fever, but Jesus heals her with a simple touch.  She then gets up and serves them.  So, we see Jesus heal two people by touching them, and heal one from a distance…there are no obstacles to what Jesus is capable of doing in healing those in need.  This seems like a “minor miracle, but the results are major.  At sundown, the entire city gathers at the door that the Lord might meet their needs.  The change in one woman’s life leads to miracles in the lives of many people.

The movie about the acclaimed book, Heaven is For Real, came out on dvd a few weeks ago.  It is the fascinating story concerning Colton Burpo, who suffers a near-death experience in which he claims to have visited heaven.  When their young son Colton enters the hospital with a life-threatening illness, devastated parents Todd and Sonja Burpo are uncertain whether he will make it out of the operating room alive. But in what Colton's doctors credit as "a miracle," he survives -- and with an incredible story that seems to confirm the existence of heaven. Later, despite Colton's accurate and intimate revelations about people he has never encountered -- including his sister who died in utero and his late grandfather -- skeptics hastily dismiss any possibility that the young boy's fantastic claims could be true. Meanwhile, his astonished parents seek meaning in the alleged miracle that has turned their once-peaceful lives completely upside down.

Regardless of where you fall concerning the story, it is a fascinating read.  And it highlights something very important for everyone to consider.  Jesus is about seeing people come to Him.  This is what His ministry was all about.  He did not go out of His way for anyone…they were His way.  We live and seek to serve as Jesus did, and in this we emulate our Master.  We may not be able to perform the miracles He performed, but we might just have the opportunity to see one sometime. Kent Brantly contracted Ebola as the result of working as a doctor in Liberia.  Thanks be to God that he has been completely healed of the virus.  Yet, as often as there are great stories of healing, there are others who do not experience such healing, at least physically.  And as one person shared with me when they were asked what to pray for when someone is gravely ill, they replied…just pray for healing. Healing takes place…whether it be physical, or eternal.  As difficult as it is, for those who are in Christ, healing is a blessing either way.

Blessings, Don