“How Important Am I?”

Over the last 40+ years of ministry, I have been involved with, and watched, lots of catastrophic disasters in our country.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, fires, and floods; those are just a few of the things we have seen.  What always impresses me, is the way that people respond to a series of events like this.  It is not just an outpouring of money, it is an outpouring of people putting themselves on the line to help someone else.

We have all seen examples, particularly this past week, of people risking their own lives to help others.  Regardless of race, sexual preference, religion, or any other division that we tend to make among ourselves — people helping people has become the shining light through this tragic time.  People are coming from all over our country, and even other countries, to help the people of south Texas.  Oh, there have been a few that have tried to make political statements and push their issues from what is going on — but, by and large, it is about one person helping another.  Sort of the way that God intended for us to act.

This is the post that I intended to write yesterday morning, before I had PC and internet connection problems (and did not have time to get it straightened out).  For the last week or so, I have been reading Galatians for my morning devotional, and yesterday I finished it for the third time, from a different translation each time.  After reading the ESV and the NIV, I read the New Living Translation — and there was a verse from it, that just reached up and slapped me in the face!  Slowly take in what this verse says :

If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.  You are not that important.  (Galatians 6:3, NLT).

My reaction to that was probably enhanced by all that I have seen and heard over the last few days.  When you live in an area that just received 50″ of rain, there is no one that is too important to lend a helping hand.  There may be some that think they are, but they … are only fooling … themselves!  I thought it would be appropriate to cite a variety of other translations of that verse, before I make one final point.

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (ESV)

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. (NIV)

For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  (HCSB)

For if a man thinketh himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.  (ASV)

If a man thinks he is “somebody,” he is deceiving himself, for that very thought proves he is nobody.  (Phillips)

If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.  (The Message)

The verse right before this, instructs us to fulfill the law of Christ, by bearing the burdens of one another.  The NLT may not be the word-for-word translation for what the original says, but it captures the heart of the message, in my opinion.

The real challenge is, for all of us, after time passes and we forget the calamity; how will our attitude be about those that need help?  Will we maintain the “spirit of Houston,” or will we go back to being a divided, cynical nation again?  Will we divide over race, sexual preferences, sexual identity, religion, and economic status?  Or will we learn that we are all just a moment’s notice from being a people in dire need?  May God help us to learn the lesson that is right in front of us.  Peace.

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“A Servant’s Heart”

If someone were to ask you: “Who do you know that has the heart of a servant?”  Who would come to your mind?  I’m sure that each one of us, know at least one individual that is always there, ready to help anyone that has a need.  It doesn’t matter who it is, or what they need — they will do their best to assist.  There is never any thought of what they will get in return, only the need of the individual is what matters.  They are the kind of people that inspire us to do better.

Over the years, almost every church that I have had the privilege of being involved with, has had at least one, and most of the time more, servants as a part of their fellowship.  They are not the kind of people that you would mention their name, because they would be embarrassed by the attention (and would likely scold me, if they saw it or heard about it).  They come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and occupations; but one thing stands out about them, they have a big heart!

For about the last 10 years, I have teaching a small group Bible study that has a core group of about 5 couples — the group has fluctuated, adding one or two couples, and then losing a couple.  The group is spread out over parts of 3 counties, and our meeting places vary (at the different homes of the members).  We try to meet once a month during the school year, but there are times that schedules (and weather) have interfered.  We had our first meeting this past Sunday, and the decision was made to study Paul’s letter of Philippians.

Beginning on Monday of this week, as my devotional reading, I have been reading Philippians (from a different translation each day); and, you might have noticed, my devotionals and “tweets” have been coming from what I have been reading.  This is the second devotional from Philippians, and so far Paul’s letter has been tough on me!  Tuesday (8-8-17) we talked about the practice of prayer, and the how of doing it and the need for consistency in our prayer life.  This was drawn from the first chapter, as Paul talked concerning the how and what of his prayers for the church in Philippi.  This morning, my mind was forced to think about what it meant to be a servant, and the people that I have been privileged to know that were servants; and to admit to myself, that there are some areas of serving where I am not what I need to be.  Observe what Paul says:

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others.  Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.  Don’t look out for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.  (Philippians 2:3-4, NLT)

The challenge we face is to really think like that!  I don’t remember where I saw it, but in the last week, I scanned an article that affirmed that most “white southern evangelicals” believe that people in need are there because of their own lack of effort and initiative.  If that is true, are “we” really living out the attitude that Paul says that we need to have.  Are we hindered in our ability to serve, because we don’t have the “heart of a servant”?  Do I regard myself as “better”, because I am the one being asked to serve?  What does that say about my heart, and my relationship with the Lord?

Notice what Paul says next:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.  (Philippians 2:5, NLT)
What attitude is that?
     Though he was God;
          he did not think of equality with God
          as something to be cling to.
     Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
          he took the humble position of a slave
          and was born as a human being.
     When he appeared in human form,
          he humbled himself in obedience to God
          he died a criminal’s death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:5-8)
The question that I have to ask myself is, what if Jesus had looked at me in my need; and
thought of me, like I think of those in need in my world.  Where would I be now?

Luke 9 — “Buses, Fighting, Fishing, and being Least”

Back in the early to mid 1970’s, the bus ministry approach to evangelism and church growth was booming among churches of Christ.  At this particular time, Florence, Alabama was the epicenter of what was going in this ministry (among churches of Christ).  The Darby Drive church, was at this particular time, as successful as any church in our fellowship for the number of children, number of buses, and effectiveness in evangelism through buses.  The evangelism workshop, hosted by International Bible College, was one of the largest gatherings of “lay” members wanting to learn about how to be soul-winners in our brotherhood.  Alan Bryan had started a business called “Success Dynamics”, that specialized in items that were being effectively used in bus ministry.  It was one of the most exciting times that I can remember in our fellowship, as far as evangelism and the potential for growth was concerned.

I know there were other times, like when our preacher (Bill Sherrill) came back from working in the New York “World’s Fair” — the excitement he instilled in our congregation an excitement for the impact that could be made in the world.  There were other times, in the mid-60’s for example, when churches were having area-wide campaigns and baptizing great numbers.  The church where I attended with my parents, had led the effort in two of these; using Jimmy Allen and Leon Sanderson, in 1964 and 1965 — and baptized over 100 in each of those meetings.  But in my limited perspective, I had never experienced anything that was seeming to gain momentum “brotherhood wide” like the bus ministry did.

Because of the leadership in the Florence area, several preachers in the area were conducting workshops all over the country, dealing with the subjects of evangelism, soul-winning, and bus ministry.  One that was involved in those efforts was the preacher at the Darby Drive church, and my next door neighbor, Albert Hill.  Albert was the one, that got me my first preaching appointment in the area, preaching one Sunday at the Gaines Street church of Christ in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.  He was very encouraging and supportive of me, and my efforts as a student at IBC.  Because of that, I was not surprised when he called me and asked me to go with him to a Bus Ministry Workshop at the Sylvan Hills church of Christ in North Little Rock, Arkansas.  We would go over on a Friday morning, the workshop would be Friday evening and Saturday morning, and we would come home Saturday afternoon.

As we were driving through north Mississippi, we passed two small churches of Christ that were not a 1/2 mile apart, and the only thing between them was one house.  It was apparent that this really bothered Albert, and about a mile down the road, he turned around and went back and pulled into the driveway of the house.  As he got out of the car, he motioned for me to come with him, and we went to the house and knocked on the door.  When a man answered the door, and after introductions, Albert explained that we had noticed the two churches; and wondered if he could tell us why there were two.  I will never forget the man telling that the people in the two churches could not get along, so the one church there had split and become two.  Albert thanked him for his time, and then asked if he went to one of the churches.  The man said no, he didn’t; that he could not along with either group, so he went to the church over in the neighboring town.  Well, as you might imagine, that incident became a somewhat focal point of what Albert talked about that weekend.  His conclusion was that some of our brethren would rather fight than fish.

I was reminded of that story this morning, as I was reading a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples in Luke 9.  Listen with me to their conversation:

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”  (Luke 9:46-48, NIV)

This was an ongoing argument among the disciples, as they exhibited a very human characteristic — wanting to be recognized, and regarded as important.  I’m sure that there were times that when Jesus heard them start; He just shook His head, and wondered if they were ever going to get it.  In the New Testament, this argument didn’t stop with them.  Think about how many times the writers stress learning to get along with each other.  I know that it is framed with different language, like “submit to one another,” “consider others more important,” or “loves the preeminence;”  but you can understand the emphasis behind the language.

It is still a very real problem today!  It seems to me, based on my experience and what others have told me, that most problems in local churches begin because of a conflict of personality.  The conflict usually has to do with leadership and authority, and from there a Biblical concept is found that they can argue about  Now, I’m not saying that it is  planned to happen that way, it is just the nature of the beast.  I have preached at a church where the elders were divided, and were for a long time; until something came up, that galvanized the division.  In the struggle for power, I was fired and rehired in the same meeting.  As a young preacher, I sought advice from one of my mentors, and I will never forget him saying, “This won’t be the last time you see this happen.”  It happened in Corinth, and it is still happening today.

Somewhere, along the way, we are going to have to learn what it means to be a servant.  If we don’t, we will continue to fight more than we fish.  Peace.

 

Mark 10 — “Servant of All”

This morning I want to tell you a story, actually two stories; and both of them involve the same preacher.  There is a city, and for a city it is relatively small; but there are a lot of churches in this city.  There are all kinds of churches, of every size and denomination; but in particular, there are several from the Stone-Campbell heritage.  Many years ago, one of the larger congregations in that fellowship hired a new preacher, and most of the other preachers don’t trust him for some reason.  He doesn’t talk like they do, and he seems to handle Scripture differently.  These preachers began to listen to the tapes of his sermons, being sure that what he is saying is according to the Scripture.  Many of them decide that what he is preaching is dangerous, and begin to write bulletin articles and preach sermons about his error.  It is not long until he is ostracized by most of the preachers in town, and talked about by other preachers all over the country.

Another preacher in that city accepts another job, quite a distance away.  He has been one of those that wrote the bulletin articles, and preached the sermons about preacher #1.  After he moves, he writes a letter to all the preachers of his fellowship in the previous city, asking them for a favor.  You see, he has four sons; and three of them are preachers — the 4th one has quit going to church.  In this letter, he asks these preachers to go and visit his son.  Some of these preachers are his friends, most of them are acquaintances, and then there is the one that he wrote about and preached against.  One preacher goes to visit his son.  Can you guess which one?  Yep, you’re right.

A number of years later, a young preacher from a small town outside of that same city, is sitting with his wife, at the hospital of the city.  Their son has just been taken into surgery, and they are there by themselves.  The preacher from the large congregation comes in , and sitting down beside them; says that preachers don’t have preachers to sit with them at times like this — so he is there to sit with them, and pray with and for them.

This morning, as I was reading in Mark, I read a story that reminded me of these events.  Listen to what Mark has to say:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:35-45, NIV)
This morning as I read that passage, I thought of the stories that I have just shared.  How at times we can become so impressed with our own self-importance, that we forget to be a servant.  It doesn’t have to be something like watching for the “soundness” of those that we disagree with.  It can be something as simple as getting involved in what we do, that we lose the servant heart.  That what we are doing is so important, we’re so important; that we don’t have time for things like that.  Even if we think we are saving the brotherhood, if we do not exhibit the heart of a servant in our actions; we are failing.
This morning, I confess that I have struggled making time for people.  It’s not because I think that I am better, or even that I am unconcerned.  It’s leaving the comfort of where I am, and going to a”strange” place is really hard on me.   I know that is just an excuse, and I am trying harder to do better.  Because, passages like Mark 10, drive home the importance of having that servant heart.  May God help me learn from the example of the preacher that I told you about this morning.  Peace.

John 19 — “Acts of Kindness”

One of the most touching movies of all time, in my opinion, was the movie called “Pay it Forward.”  You may remember that it starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment.  It is the story of a young boy that lives in a troubled  home, that is challenged by his teacher to come up with a plan that can make a world-changing  difference.  He comes up with the idea that instead of paying back acts of kindness (good deeds), you pay them forward to three other people.  The movie watches the impact that doing good can have in the lives of people, and how acts of kindness can spread.

We all have opportunities to do good for other people.  It may not be some great feat, but may just be something like “giving a cup of cold water” to someone that is thirsty.  It always seems to be so rewarding to do something nice for someone, especially when it is not expected.  The smile, the genuine thank-you, is a feeling that is hard to forget.  Acts 10:38 says that Jesus went about “doing good”, and his example is one that we need to remember.

In the devotional reading for this morning (John 18-19), there was an act of kindness that sometimes we just don’t consider.  Listen to what the text says:

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.  (John 19:38-41, ESV)

We get from that text that Joseph is a disciple of Jesus, although he didn’t want anyone to know it.  John 3 never gave us any indication of how Nicodemus responded to the teaching of Jesus about the “new birth”; but since he knew that Joseph was a “secret disciple”, it would seem likely that he was (or at least had leanings that way).  I believe that what they did for the body of Jesus, would have to be called an “act of kindness”.  It was also an act of kindness that came with great risk.  Joseph was afraid for the Jews to know that he was a disciple, because he was afraid of what they would do.  Going to Pilate, and asking for the body, was exposing himself, at the very least, as someone that cared.  Nicodemus joining with Joseph, placed himself in harm’s way, IF the Jews decided to retaliate.

Mark tells us that Joseph “took courage” (15:43) when he went to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus.  This morning, let’s take courage and get out of our comfort zone, and begin to pass around unexpected, random acts of kindness.  Let’s begin to put into practice the example of Jesus, of going around “doing good”; and modeled by Joseph and Nicodemus.  These acts of kindness will be a witness to what Jesus means to our lives.  Wouldn’t you rather be known as Christian, because of “acts of kindness;” than some of other things that are identified with Christianity in our world.  Pay it Forward.  Peace.

 

Luke 17, Hard Sayings of Jesus

Several years ago, Intervarsity Press did a series of paperback books about Jesus, called The Jesus Library.   One of the books in the series was written by F. F Bruce, and was entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus.  Evidently, it was a very popular book, because they soon came out with other volumes on the hard sayings of Paul and a couple of volumes on hard sayings in the Old Testament.  Eventually they published a large, hard cover volume entitled Hard Sayings of the Bible, which brought together all these smaller volumes.  I recommend it as a volume that will be used over and over — but that is not the purpose of this devotional.

It was in the introduction to the paperback, that Bruce made the point that there are two kinds of “hard sayings” of Jesus.  The first kind, are those things that that Jesus says that are difficult to understand.  I would imagine as you read that sentence, you were thinking of verses that are difficult for you, that you wished that you had a better understanding.  The other kind of “hard sayings”, are those that are easy to understand; but, so very difficult to practice in our lives.

This morning, in the devotional reading from Luke, he records a statement of the apostles to Jesus:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5, ESV)

In the context of that verse, it would appear that the disciples are struggling with what they are hearing Jesus say.  Now they may want more faith to understand; OR they understand what He is saying, recognize the difficulty of practicing what he says, and are asking for faith to be able to live like He is saying.  I believe that it is the latter.   Jesus has been talking about the law and the kingdom, divorce, and who will listen to the message.  But, then, He says something that slaps them in the face, and they ask for faith to be able to do it.

Pay attention to yourselves!  If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” you MUST forgive him.”  (Luke 17:3-4, ESV, emphasis mine).

They may have gotten a stunned look on their face, and thought to themselves, “I can’t do that.  I can’t forgive the same person seven times in one day!  I will to have more faith to even get close to doing that!”  I imagine that we all understand that, because I don’t think that humans are a very forgiving group.

Really, these are the kind of “hard sayings”, that when we read them — we understand exactly what he is saying and wonder if we will ever be able to practice them.  Just listen to a few verses from Luke, that we have seen thus far; and consider the difficulty:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  (Luke 6:27, ESV)

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.  (Luke 6:45, ESV)

For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?  (Luke 9:25, ESV)

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  (Luke 14:11, ESV)

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  (Luke 14:27, ESV)

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.  (Luke 14:33, ESV)

You know what that short list of “sayings” from Jesus makes me do?  They make me go in prayer and ask for more faith, to be able to practice what they teach.  How about you?  Peace.

 

Matthew 20:25-28

Reader’s Digest used to have a regular monthly feature, called “My Most Unforgettable Character”.  I suppose that all of us, if we were pressed to fill that place in our lives, might struggle to pick just one.  Of course, a lot of it might be how you define “unforgettable,” as there are a lot of reasons that someone might be unforgettable.  The Lord has put a lot of individuals in my life, that could be called unforgettable – for a lot of different reasons.  There are things about so many people that I remember, some good and some not so good.

One of my instructors at International Bible College, is unforgettable because of all the short, pithy sayings he shared.  Basil Overton was a wonderful man, and influenced a lot of students that came through the school.  The year that I enrolled in the Bible College, was his first year as an instructor.  He had this ability to walk up to an a group of students that were in some discussion (about most any subject), listen for a few moments, and then drop a “golden nugget” and walk away.  Usually that discussion would end, as the students would begin to contemplate what he said.

I remember one day, when a group of students (me, included) were discussing some preacher.  Honestly, I don’t remember the preacher, or why he was the subject of our discussion; but, I do remember what Brother Overton said that day.  He walked up, listened, made some remark, and then said “But he has a problem with the perpendicular pronoun.”   Hmmm ….

Probably, all professions have the capability to cause one to think of themselves more highly than they ought; but, preaching, is one that is especially full of those traps.   A young man is selected to stand in front of the congregation and make a talk.  Everyone in the congregation comes by and tells him what a good job he has done, and encourages him to do it again.  The young man allows all the good things that are said to go to his head, and gets a little too proud of himself.  It may be the only thing that he has ever done that people bragged on him.  I have a framed letter on my office wall, that Glenn R. Steward (an elder at the old Thompson St. church) wrote (June 3, 1967) to a little congregation outside of Springdale (AR); asking them, to allow me to preach one Sunday.  I’m sure that if I had known about that letter, then, my head would have grown a few hat sizes.

Jesus turned a lot of things “upside down,” as he explained the coming kingdom.  One of the things that He did, was really mess up what people understood about “greatness.”  In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John, came to Him and asked that her sons be given places of power and prominence in the kingdom.  Jesus, in part of the response to that question, said:

…”You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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.” (Matthew 10:25-28)

Greatness in the kingdom is not determined by a position of power and prominence, it is determined by what kind of servant you are.  I once heard a Bible class teacher referring to the different roles that an individual can serve in a local church, as “climbing the ladder of success.”  My thought then, is the same as it is today, if there is a “ladder of success” in the church, it is pointing down.  Each opportunity that we are given, is a greater opportunity to serve people.  We need to examine ourselves, and be sure that when we talk about “ministry,” that we understand that it is all about serving.

You know, I really can understand why preachers would struggle with a “perpendicular pronoun”.  We are invited to work with a church, we become the “spokesman” for God at that church.  When people have questions, about Scripture or life, they, usually, come to us looking for answers.  If we are blessed to show talent and ability, other churches notice.  We are asked to speak on special occasions, or to move to a bigger church with more opportunities (and more money).  People tell us how good we are, and we start to believe them.  Then, in spite of our best intentions, we have created a problem in our life.  I have a personal feeling, that is only binding on me; I don’t want a title for what I do, other than “minister.”  I need to remember, every day, regardless of what people say, how I feel, or what my salary is; I am still just a “servant”.  If the Son of Man came to serve, that is what I need to be doing.  Peace.