What really strong people do in critical times

“When I am weak, then am I strong.”  –2 Corinthians 12:10

Jackie called me the other day.  He and I were classmates in high school but we’ve not seen each other in forty years or more.  We soon picked up the conversation like we were together last week.

He said, “Joe, my wife died ten days ago.  I am having a hard time dealing with it.  I know you’ve been through this when your wife died.  Can you talk to me?”

Wow.  Such a courageous thing he did, to reach out and ask for help.  I do not have words to say how much I admire him for this. (We talked for 30 minutes and prayed together.  Then, I sent him the book on grief my wife Bertha and I wrote last year about the deaths of our spouses of 52 years.  I’ve prayed for Jackie ever since.)

Asking someone for help takes courage and strength.  I’m well aware it feels otherwise, like we’re at the end of our rope and cannot think of anything to do.  But only the truly strong person will ask for help.  Most people will suffer in silence and pay the consequences.

Only. The. Strong. Will.  Ask.  For.  Help.

It’s another one of those truths which people call counter-intuitive.  That is, it might appear to be a sign of weakness, but it’s something only the truly strong can do.  Like yielding to the bully on the highway.  A weaker person would give vent to his anger and try to teach that guy a lesson. But the strong person knows no one can teach that guy anything, it’s not worth risking one’s own life to do, and his goal is to arrive at his destination safely. So, he controls his anger and goes forward safely.

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Half right; totally wrong: Shallow things religious people say

But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine.  –Titus 2:1 

We hear them all the time.  Something about these oft-repeated claims just does not seem right, we think.  So–let’s look at a few of them.

One. “Christianity is not a religion;  it’s a relationship.”

Sounds right, but it’s wrong.  Ask yourself one question:  As a follower of Jesus, that is one in a (ahem) relationship with Him, would it be all right if I joined a religion and became a Buddhist or Taoist or a Jew or a Muslim? After all, as a Christian I’m not in a religion as such (according to this thinking) and there would be no reason not to.   Of course those religions are incompatible with the way of Jesus Christ.

“The way of Jesus Christ”?  What we call The Christian Religion.

Friend, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well….

A religion may be defined as a systemized practice of worship involving a God, a place or places of worship, a system of beliefs, and in most cases exclusivity (that is, it claims to hold The truth).

Sure sounds like the Christian faith to me.

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Friends of the Cross

For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:  whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame–who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in Heaven….  (Philippians 3:17-21).

There is a reason each of the four gospels devotes at least a fourth of its chapters to the final week of Jesus’ life on earth.  His death-burial-resurrection is the heart of the story.

The cross is not just the heart of the story; it is the story!

In Philippians 3, Paul weeps over church members who claim to be authentic and present themselves as leaders and teachers but are actually “enemies of the cross of Christ.”  He does not say specifically what these trouble-makers are doing.  Often, when Scripture is silent on something crucial like that, I suspect it means the Holy Spirit does not want us to camp out on what these offenders did, lest we become too narrow in our focus.  Enemies of the cross of Jesus can be found across Christendom today and their emphasis may be entirely different from the shenanigans of the First Century.

Scholars think that in context, because of Paul’s indictment of them (their god is their belly, etc) these “enemies of the cross” were probably libertines, forerunners of the Gnostics, or Judaizers. Or both.  The first group taught that since they were saved anything they did afterwards did not matter, which brings great shame to the cause of Christ. The second group held that they were saved by their works.  In each case, the result was  to undermine and nullify the work of Jesus on the cross.

After all, if we go right on in the same wickedness and debauchery after being saved as before, what was the point of the cross?  And if we are saved by our good works, why did Jesus go to all the trouble of dying for our sins?

The good-time charlies and the rigid Pharisees are both enemies of the cross and have no place in church leadership.  (Let the church pay attention to this!  Everyone may enter the church without changing their lives; but only the faithful and godly should be given leadership positions.)

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They criticized the pastor. So, being a great champion for God, he resigned.

“Christ also suffered for us…when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him who judges righteously….” (I Peter 2:21-25).

Quotes on enduring criticism abound.  Go online and pull up a chair.  Here are a few we found in a few minutes….

–The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.(Elbert Hubbard)    -You can’t let praise or criticism get to you.  It’s a sign of weakness to get caught up in either one. (John Wooden)   –A critic is a legless man who teaches running. (Channing Pollock)    –You are a glorious shining sword and criticism is the whetstone.  Do not run from the whetstone or you will become dull and useless. Stay sharp.  (Duane Alan Hahn)

Pastor and church leaders:  You do not want to live and work where there is an absence of criticism.

You think you do. But you don’t.  Only in the harshest of dictatorships is there no criticism.  But in a free society–like ours–criticism abounds.  If the society is indeed free, much of the criticism is fair, just, and well deserved.  Likewise, much of it will be unfair, unjust and unmerited. A leader who survives has to develop discernment in order to know what to ignore and what to treasure and learn from.

A friend texted:  “Joe, write something about criticism!  Some good pastors are resigning because not everyone in the church likes them!”

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Let the pastor create aphorisms…briefly. Memorably.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”  –Anonymous

You may not be what you think you are.  But what you think, you are.”  –Someone very clever.

What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues are yet to be discovered.” –Emerson

“A weed is any plant that is out of place.” –Jerry Clower

An aphorism is a short pithy and memorable statement of some truth or lesson.  It may or may not be funny, clever, witty, or cute.  But it encapsulates a truth and someone thought it worth remembering.

Adrian Rogers loved a great aphorism and used many.  This legendary pastor of Memphis’ Bellevue Baptist Church received as much acclaim for his preaching ability as it’s possible for this denomination to bestow.  If you were in his audience, you felt the need to grab a pen and jot down some of his great lines.  To my knowledge, he never claimed credit for creating them but rarely did he give credit.  I’ve heard him say many times, “I got this from someone who got it from someone who got it from God!”

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Welcome to the Holy Spirit Beauty Shop

He has made everything beautiful in its time.  (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

People my age do not ordinarily go around thinking about what makes others beautiful or handsome.  They certainly don’t obsess about it for themselves.

I must be the exception (about people in general, not myself!).

The reason the subject hangs around me is that I’m always sketching people. They sit before me, and I ask them to smile and look me in the eye. “How long do I have to hold the smile?” they will invariably ask.  “One minute.”  Anyone can do that.

I quickly study their facial features, the shape of their eyes, the location and direction and fullness of their eyebrows, and all the other details. I try to whip it out in a minute to 90 seconds, then go on to the next person.

Okay, it may not be great art, but I am often surprised at how close the likeness is.

At conventions and large events, I’ll sometimes sit for hour after hour, drawing nonstop. They’ll have me a table off to one side and provide a volunteer to herd people this way.  I bring all the paper and pens. (In answer to your question, yes, they often pay me nicely. But in many cases I volunteer my services.)

Last Friday night, I sketched for hours at a retirement dinner.  Thursday, I sketched all the attendees at a women’s luncheon where I was the speaker. And Saturday, I’ll sketch for four hours at a local church’s fall festival.  In all, in these three events, I’ll have probably drawn 500 people.

Okay.  Now….

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How to blend in at the new church

USA Today’s travel reporter, Christopher Elliott writes on how tourists can blend in while on vacation.  They want to do this for safety’s sake.  “This summer, four visitors cycling in Tajikistan were targeted and killed by terrorists.  The U.S. State Department is continuously warning Americans about travel abroad, sometimes advising them to stay away from touristy areas.”

So how does one go about not looking like a tourist, Elliott wonders.  “It’s a combination of wearing the right clothes, visiting the right places, and behaving in an un-touristy way, say experts.”

Nothing identifies you more as an American visitor than wearing white Nikes, they say.  Elliott writes, “Sometimes blending in means staying away from clothes marketed to travelers.” That means not wearing zip-off pants (whatever that is) and breathable mesh shorts.  “Cameras are also a dead giveaway.  As is walking around with a map in your hands.

I would add to that list: Saying y’all a lot, wearing a cowboy hat and western boots, and asking the policeman to direct you to the nearest McDonald’s.

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What to do when preparing to teach a Bible study at church

Somewhere I read that G. Campbell Morgan, the great British pastor and expositor, would read through a book of the Bible at least forty times before teaching it. Any less and he felt unprepared. 

We pastors often set aside a few days on the church calendar for an intensive Bible study on a particular theme or book of Scriptures.  Our denomination–the Southern Baptist Convention–has for many years promoted a “January Bible Study” or “Mid-winter Bible Study.” This time–January, 2019–it will be Revelation 2-3, “The Letters to the 7 Churches of Asia Minor.”

I’ll be teaching this for several days at a church near Birmingham, Alabama, and hopefully another place or two.  But months in advance, I’ve been working on it, trying to learn all I can in order to feel competent to teach it.  Never mind that I’ve taught through Revelation several times and preached sermons on these seven churches in the past.  None of that means much at the moment.  The challenge is not to dig out old notes and rehash ancient messages, but to listen anew for what the Holy Spirit is saying through His always-up-to-date Word.  The Word does not change, but its application to our daily lives is as fresh as it’s possible to get.

Furthermore, I’ve changed. I’m not the same person as decades ago when I pastored churches. So, I open the Scriptures and tackle this delightful project with excitement about what the Father has in store.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how this Bible study develops.

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The absolute worst way to listen to a ball game (and why I have trouble with some church people)

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” –Judas  (John 12:5)

We were on the highway returning from a ministry event in a nearby state.  This being Saturday afternoon, the airwaves were filled with football games. And since I subscribe to Sirius XM radio just for this purpose–to hear the games while traveling, no matter how isolated the highway!–I was going back and forth between two stations, keeping up with the two games.

One was a baseball game in which “my” team was in the playoffs, headed, we hope toward the World Series. The broadcast originated in the home city, the announcers were “our guys,” and the crowd was pulling for “my team.”  And, since the good guys won, it was all sweetness.

The other was a football game between my favorite college team and an arch rival. Our guys were the visitors and Sirius XM was airing the broadcast from the rival’s station. This meant the announcers were unknown to me and clearly partisan, just as they should have been.The crowd–all 90,000 of them–were really into the game.  The score was up and down, the fortunes of the teams waxed hot and cold, and the crowd alternately cheered and groaned.  Eventually, the host team won, handing our team its first loss of the season.

So, I’m switching back and forth between the stations. And yes, while driving.  (It’s not as bad as it sounds. Bertha will tell you I’m a safe driver.)

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Taking a stand against wickedness: What to do?

Unrighteousness is being aggressive.  Evil is on the march.  The world, the flesh, and the devil are having a field day. What should God’s people do?

A lot of people who call themselves Christians disagree with Scripture’s answer to that question.

In most cases, this aggression takes very specific forms.  A new city ordinance discriminates against churches and makes it impossible to do ministry.  A perversion of sexuality has become acceptable and local authorities insist that it be taught as the norm in schools.  A decent public figure with traditional values is being targeted by wicked people and slandered.  The list is unending.

Many calling themselves followers of Jesus Christ would say, “Organize! Confront! No more Mister Nice Guy! Take the fight to the enemy!”  “Show them you can be as mean as they can!”  “We have the power of God on our side!”

“After all,” they will say, “Jesus took a rope and cleansed the temple!”  “Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.”

When God’s people begin name-calling, verbally attacking, and using the world’s methods, eventually someone will get a gun and go calling.  In recent years, we’ve had extremists in the pro-life movement shooting up abortion clinics and murdering doctors.

Never mind replying that “You and I are not Jesus” and “Neither are we Old Testament prophets.”  He has not sent us to do such things.

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