For Believers Only

“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after he had by the Holy Spirit given commands to the apostles whom He had chosen….” (Acts 1:1-4)

People sometimes wonder what Jesus was doing in the 40 day period sandwiched between His resurrection and ascension. We may not know all the answer to that, but we are given a lot of information in the first chapter of Acts.

During that time, Luke says, Jesus gave four things to his disciples: Commandments, Proofs, Insights, and Promises.

What makes this unique is that each of these is given only to believers, no matter how we would like to stretch it or spin it. Certain blessings and responsibilities are provided only to people of faith, and no one else.

The fact that the four gifts of Acts 1:1-4 are given only to believers sends a much-needed message to the Lord’s people today.

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What I’d Like to Tell Your Church Leaders

We’re supposing here.

Suppose your church assembled a group composed of the following people: the pastor and staff, the office staff, the deacons, Sunday School teachers, committee members, and program leaders. And suppose I have 30 minutes to say anything on my heart. We meet in a room ideal for that size a group with no electronic devices or amplifications. I set up my easel in front and begin.

Now, supposing I had the undivided attention of the group, I would begin by telling this from Scripture.

A few weeks before Moses retired from the scene and Joshua stepped in to lead God’s people out of the wilderness into the Promised Land of Canaan, Moses had some final words.. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is the essence of what he shared, a recap of where they had been and what had happened in their recent past.

Moses strongly felt the need to impress one huge thing on God’s people as they were about to possess “a land of milk and honey.” We would call this a warning, in fact.

“You are about to come into a land filled with everything you’ve ever wanted. You’ll move into houses you did not build.

You’ll harvest crops you didn’t plant or cultivate.

You’ll drink from wells you did not dig.

You’ll gather grapes from vineyards and olives from groves you did not plant.”

“You will eat and be satisfied for the first time in your memory. And when that happens…

Beware lest you forget the Lord.”

Prosperity has a way of fogging up the spiritualities. Deadening the spirit. Dulling the memories. Derailing the well-intentioned.

Do not forget God. (Deuteronomy 6:12)

Do not desert God. (Deut. 6:14)

Do not test God. (Deut. 6:16)

Rather, be careful to obey Him. Do what is right in His sight.

And just in case anyone did not get that the first time, Moses repeated these words in Deuteronomy 8:12-14.

Leaders, your church is prosperous in a hundred ways. Your community is thriving. Personally, you are living at a higher standard than your grandparents ever dreamed of attaining. Furthermore, you do it with hardly a thought, as though this were the norm and anyone could do it if they worked as hard as you do.

You and I have forgotten how blessed we are.

Leaders, it’s time once again for you to:

–renew your thankfulness to God for His abundant blessings upon you, your church, your community, and this nation.

–recommit yourself to be faithful with what He has given you.

–restructure your lives to practice the faith you say you believe. The old structures (like some ancient bridges in this country!) do not hold up forever, but must be constantly inspected and often replaced.

Now, let me admit to you my minor disappointment with what Moses said.

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Parables: “They Answer A Question”

(Southern Baptists are studying the parables of Matthew’s Gospel in 2010, and as we’ve done for several years, I’m leaving a few thoughts on the subject and we’ll have some cartoons here…if I can get them done. I was making better progress on the drawings before retiring, and since then I haven’t had the time!)

Consult the various texts and commentaries on parables–there is no lack of them–and you’ll find scholars are not in agreement on what constitutes one. Is a parable a story and always a story, the way they appear so often in Jesus’ teaching? We think of “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan,” two of the Lord’s parables that are so well-known they have contributed expressions to the everyday speech of cultures all over the world.

No one doubts that those are parables, but what about “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world”? (Matthew 5) Are those parables, too?

What about “whoever hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock”? (Matthew 7:24) That’s not exactly a story, but more of a hypothetical situation. Most collections of parables include it.

At this point, my temptation is to issue something of a disclaimer and say, “Now, not being a Bible scholar, but merely a preacher of the Word, what I plan to do here is….” But it doesn’t work that easily, does it? I am a Bible scholar, and so are you.

The word “scholar” does not mean “expert” but “student.” And aren’t you and I that?

This may give me the right to express my opinion on our Lord’s parables, say, and that’s what I am about to do. It does not, however, automatically make those statements carry equal weight with either the more learned or the more thoughtful. Readers should take everything I say (and all the writings of the “experts”) to the Lord in prayer and not passively accept it as “gospel.”

That said, here are my two statements for today….

One: for our purposes here, the Parables of Matthew will deal only with stories Jesus told, and not with metaphors, similes, and suppositions. That will allow us to limit the numbers to something more manageable.

Two: I’m suggesting as a way of looking at Jesus’ parables that each of them answers a question.

Sometimes the question is evident such as in Luke 15 when critics attacked Jesus for “receiving sinners and eating with them.” He told the parable we call “the prodigal son” to say why was He doing that. (Because they are lost!)

Sometimes the question is unspoken and we have to do a little sleuthing. And that’s the fun part.

Take the seven parables of Matthew 13. And right away, we’re faced with a difficulty….

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Feeling Just Fine About Yourself

I’ve decided that my sketching capacity limit is set at four hours.

From 10 am until 2 pm today I sat in the hallway of Baton Rouge’s Crowne Plaza Hotel drawing participants in a statewide meeting of apprentices in various industries. One of the local businesses that participates hired me to represent them by sketching people on paper they printed for the occasion.

I did just fine for all four hours. But as I walked across the parking lot to my car, I realized I was pooped. I would not be good for anything the rest of the day. The 70 mile-drive home was about all I could have managed.

In mid-November, I’ll be sketching fellow Baptists at the annual meeting of the Alabama Baptist Convention in Huntsville for a couple of days. The state paper–the Alabama Baptist–has printed a poster announcing the hours I’ll be at their booth, from 9 to noon and from 1:30 until 4:30 that afternoon. That’ll work. But I can promise that at 4:31, I willl head back to the hotel room and collapse and not be worth shooting the rest of the day.

Something occurred to me today while–once again–trying to help the subject I was drawing deal with low self-esteem. It happens so frequently, I can see it coming a mile away. The party reluctantly slides into the chair opposite me, looks in every direction except mine, and when I manage to get his/her attention, refuses to look me in the eye. Asked to look at me and smile, the party mumbles a variation of “I don’t smile.” Or, “I don’t like my smile.”

Today, I said on two or three occasions with more than a little impatience, “Look, I could understand that if you were 13 years old. But you’re a grownup. Get over this. Everyone looks better with a smile, including me and definitely including you. Now, look me in the eye and show me a smile. You’ll like the picture a lot better.”

Then, when no one else was around, I tried something with this young woman.

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The Church’s Achilles Heel

Everyone I know who is a regular and faithful member of a church has something of a love/hate relation with it. So many things about our church we love; somel we hate.

Friends gave me a book with the title, “Lord, I Love Your Church, But….”

I would have bought it for the title alone.

The problem with the church today….

How many conversations have begun with those words, I wonder. Everyone has an opinion on the weakness of today’s church, everyone sees her flaws, we all want her fixed and well and effective in our world.

Here is my take on the situation.

The major flaws in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ today are not the result of the devil’s sabotage, the world’s opposition, or competition from other religions, as serious as all these are.

The church’s big problem is its friends.

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Going to Be Great! Oh? How Can We Know?

This week’s headlines announce that the local NBA team, the New Orleans Hornets, are optimistic about having a great year in spite of the 2-6 record they rang up during the just-ended pre-season.

What I wonder is which team in the league is NOT optimistic. I guarantee that this headline could apply to every one of the teams. In order to fill seats with paying customers, the team has to convince fans that “this could be our year.” Ask any New Orleans Saints fan; we’ve bought into that hype for over 40 years now, with little to show for it.

Is this the year for the Saints? Could be. A lot of sports experts and all the fans think so. Meanwhile, we’re optimistic.

The Richard Heene family fiasco is being played out before the world’s cameras these days. According to today’s news. Mrs. Mayumi Heene admits to the hoax of the 6-year-old in the balloon in order to get media attention for their family. And why did they want media attention, you ask. To land a reality show on television.

Would that work? No one knew, but Mr. Heene was optimistic.

Now, I’m all in favor of optimism considering that its opposite, pessimism, is a real downer. But there must be some grounds or reason for the optimism.

Pastors and church leaders, take note.

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The Preacher Writes His Favorite Stories

Some years back I was delighted to meet Bruce McIver of Dallas, Texas. For years people had been asking me if we were related. The last names were pronounced the same way, but Bruce spelled it wrong. He was well-known throughout the country as the esteemed pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church of Dallas.

What put Bruce “on the map” for a lot of people, however, was the book he wrote titled, “Stories I Couldn’t Tell While I Was a Pastor.” (As with almost every other book published in the last hundred years, you can buy it on line at your favorite source. Mine is www.alibris.com.)

I’d almost be willing to bet you that every pastor who read Bruce’s book got at least two or three sermon illustrations out of it. It was that good. He followed it up with one titled “Just As Long As I’m Riding Up Front.” (I would include a couple of them here but the best ones are fairly long and involved.)

Roy Smith was a Methodist preacher a long time before they put “United” in their name. His book of “personal experiences worth retelling” is called “Tales I Have Told Twice.” Dr. Smith died in 1963, the book was published a year later, and I bought it for a dollar a few years later. In the flyleaf, I have scribbled, “The best-spent dollar!”

And now, Dan Crawford has given us his stories. “Mud Hen in a Peacock Parade” has as its subtitle:”A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven.”

Dr. Crawford is senior professor of evangelism and missions and occupies the chair of prayer (emeritus) at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has turned out 17 books over the years including “God’s Formula for Genuine Happiness” and “Giving Ourselves to Prayer.”

But don’t be fooled. In addition to being a Godly man and a distinguished professor, Dan Crawford is one funny dude. The book is proof a-plenty.

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Listening to Myself Preach–Aargh!

A few days ago, Bo Brown, pastor of Maylene, Alabama’s Community Baptist Church and as nice a brother as you’ll ever have, handed me several CDs and one DVD.

“We recorded your sermons from the revival. And Saturday when you did the deacon session, we video-taped it. It’s on the DVD.”

I was delighted for several reasons. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the churches I pastored were on live television and so every word I uttered, practically, was recorded and preserved. From 1990 onward, the FBC of Kenner, Louisiana, was not broadcasting its services, but they made periodic tapes of the sermons. I suppose they’re collecting dust in some box somewhere.

Recently, a friend in Michigan invited me up in early December to do the pastors/spouses banquet for his association. He said, “We’ll find a couple of churches for you to preach that Sunday, too.” But in order to do that–that is, to let the pastors see what they’re getting–he needed me to send him some of my recorded sermons.

Driving home from Lanett, Georgia, Thursday of this week, I decided to see what I’ll be sending Director of Ministry Bobby Gilstrap and popped the Sunday morning CD into the player.

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In a Good Place

These days, according to baseball people, Yankee star Alex Rodriguez is “in a good place.” That means he’s hitting and fielding well. Having come through tons of personal problems–most of his own doing, if I’m any judge–and physical difficulties, he’s now living up to the hype that has surrounded him through the years.

Yankee skipper Joe Girardi said on TV the other night, “Alex is in a good place.” A few minutes later, Rodriguez said, “I’m in a good place right now.” And sure enough, someone else said it of him a minute or two later. Apparently, it’s the hip testimonial du jour.

I identify with the term.

To be “in a good place” to me, as a minister of the Gospel, means you’ve reached a point in your spiritual and professional development where you are doing your best work.

It will seem strange to some for me to make that kind of assessment about my own preaching. But it’s true. Absolutely true.

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Sunday Morning’s Alarm Goes Off

Later this morning, as I write, I’ll walk into the fellowship hall of the First Baptist Church of Lanett, Alabama, and address their deacons in an abbreviated (30 minute) synopsis of what is normally a 2-3 hour training session.

I’ve done it in an evening and a morning, in two hours, and now in 30 minutes. I’ve done it in a roomful of deacons from several cities and in one church that had no deacons but wanted their potential leaders to have the training. Flexibility.

Being retired, I’m trying to take most of the invitations that come my way, although obviously if a date is already committed, the answer is “sorry; please ask me next time.”

I’m learning what full-time evangelists and consultants know all too well: be prepared for anything. Two weeks ago, the host church put me up in a bed and breakfast. Last week, it was an apartment in the home of a member. This week, it’s the Holiday Inn Express. (Next week, I’m home!)

I’m in Alabama, but oddly, it’s the Eastern Time Zone. There’s a little section of the state that abuts Georgia and that state’s time zone seeped over here, I suppose. (They say it goes back to when locals worked at mills just across the Georgia line and in order to avoid confusion about times, this area changed from Central to Eastern time. The mills have all shut down, but the change remains.)

Churches, I’m finding–although I guess I knew this–are all alike and completely different.

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