Perhaps the most profound thing our Lord ever said

“Except you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

What’s lacking in the great majority of religious experts–of all tribes, all beliefs, all everything!–is a childlike humility.

–I’ve sat across from the salespeople hawking Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine door to door and been amazed at the sheer gall and arrogance of these know-it-alls.

–I’ve sat in the auditoriums and classrooms when prophecy teachers were spreading out their charts and telling far more than they could ever know, pronouncing their anathema upon anyone daring to believe otherwise and taking no prisoners in the process.

–I’ve sat in massive conferences among thousands of my peers and heard ignorance spouted as truth but camouflaged with alliteration and pious phrases and encouraged and affirmed by thundering echoes of “amens” and “hallelujahs”.

In every case, I longed to hear someone say, “We see through a glass darkly….”  (I Corinthians 13:12).

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Full-bodied, three-dimensional preaching

I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:21)

Grady Cook, a wonderful Mississippi artist, told me how he had improved his technique. “The picture you bought from me last time,” he said, “was all right. But I still had a lot to learn.” I assured him Margaret and I thought it was fine and that it was hanging in our living room.

“Since then, I’ve studied under a wonderful teacher,” he explained, “and have learned how to add darkness to my work.” He said, “Here. Look at this.” Pointing at the picture I would buy from him a few minutes later, he showed the shadows and the blackness of the undergrowth of the forest. It made the picture far more three-dimensional than the earlier one. The trees stood out. It looked like someplace I’d like to explore.

We still have both pieces of art on display in our home, but since he explained the difference, I’ve enjoyed the last one far more.

“There’s something missing in this sermon,” I said to myself. On the surface, it seemed to work just fine. The “fruit of the Spirit” passage of Galatians 5:22-23 is a familiar and well-loved one. I’d studied it numerous times over the years and had preached it on several occasions. I like what it says about the effect of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer who abides in the Lord, that as he/she grows in Christ, they will grow all nine qualities of this “fruit” in his life. The nine qualities are the “fruit,” not “fruits,” and we do not specialize on one or two, but the indwelling Spirit will be producing all of them. Full-bodied believers, I suppose we could say.

And yet, trying to put myself in the place of my people and listen to my own delivery of the message, it felt rather blah. It just lay there, boring me–and if I was bored, how much more the poor hearers would be.  Something was wrong.

Then I realized what it was.

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How’s your joy?

This week I’ve been watching the Women’s College World Series, which is all about softball games.  Oklahoma and Florida State played a best-of-three, which the Sooners took 2-1.  Game two on Wednesday was unforgettable, not so much for the hits and fielding but for the all-out joy and enthusiasm of fans and players alike. Perhaps because their championship calibre team had dropped the first game, but the fans seemed unusually pumped and volatile.

Since Oklahoma City hosts this annual series and since the University of Oklahoma’s team was in the playoff, this was like a home game to them, which means the stands will teeming with Sooners. Not an empty seat in the house, perhaps 15 thousand strong, and they were over-the-top excited.  Every victory from their team, no matter how small–a strikeout, a single, anything–and the fans went crazy.  Furthermore, the team itself was constantly cheering one another, even coming out of the dugout onto the field for some kind of cheer/dance.  It was fun to watch.

Contrast that with the men’s game, which is scheduled for two weekends away.  I’m a big fan and will watch all I can.  Hey, I’m retired and housebound for a while due to a medical thing.  The players will be excited and hollering, but nothing like the women.  In fact, in men’s college football, referees will penalize them for “excessive celebration.”  How crazy is that.  The women are out-of-sight enthusiastic in their celebrating, and the men get penalized.

I’m thinking the men’s rules were set by some Scrooge somewhere, someone who hates the very idea of joy and excitement.

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The church where joy goes to die

“Joy is the business of Heaven.”  –C. S. Lewis 

What started me thinking of this was a line from former FBI Director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty.

“Although I have had a different idea of ‘fun’ than most, there were some parts of the Justice Department that had become black holes, where joy went to die.” 

He explained about his days at the Justice Department: “Places where morale had gotten so low and the battle scars from bureaucratic wrangling with other departments and the White House so deep, I worried that we were on the verge of losing some of our best, most capable lawyers.”

Sound familiar, pastor?

“Where joy goes to die.”  A fit description for a place–a business, a family, a team, a congregation–characterized by low morale, battle fatigue and discouragement.

I’ve worked in places like that. I’ve pastored a church or two like that.  And I’ve known several such congregations.

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Elevating boasting to an art form

He must increase, but I must decrease.  –John the Baptist.  (John 3:30) 

The speaker said, “As you know, I urge people to walk by the Spirit, to obey Him.  But I need you to know I am not anti-intellectual, not against education.  In fact, I am so much pro-education that I have my bachelor’s degree from a college, I have my master’s, and I also own a doctorate.  In fact, when I was working on my doctorate, the dean said to me that my dissertation was so profound that I should turn it into a book.  That book, you’ll want to know, is on the market right now and you can purchase it in the foyer at the end of this meeting.”

Another time, the visiting preacher, an older fellow, wanted our church to know that he was somebody, I suppose.  Early in the service he told how he had started a church many years ago and stayed with it through the years until his retirement, that during this time he had baptized so many, and had enjoyed seeing the membership climb to (whatever).  He showed a photo of the huge plant on the screen.  He must have talked about his former church for five minutes.  We never did know why.  We did not need to know of his successes to hear him.  In fact, his scars probably made him a better preacher than his awards.

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Our pastor is not very friendly. What to do?

A man who has friends must himself be friendly, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.  –Proverbs 18:24

When someone told me she belonged to the First Baptist Church in a certain city, I said, “I know your pastor very well.  Great guy.”

That’s what started it.

“Great guy?  I guess so.  Yes, I’m sure he is,” said the new friend.  “However…”

I did not like the way this was going.  This pastor is pure gold, I was certain, and surely there were no glaring negatives.

“However, he’s not very friendly.”

I said, “What do you mean?  I always thought he was.”

“I’m sure he is to you and other preachers.  But he is reluctant to walk up to someone and greet them, never seems to know anyone’s name, and will sometimes pass you on the street without speaking.”

Oh my.  Not good.

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Gluttony: My favorite sin

Let all things be done in moderation.  –Philippians 4:5 

I read somewhere that Diamond Jim Brady, a character in American life a few generations ago, loved food so much, his stomach was 6 times the size of a normal belly.

Now, that, we think, is a glutton!

Can we talk?

How ironic that the season during which we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus provides us the perfect excuse to over-indulge.

Like the megalopolis that now stretches from Washington to Boston or from Dallas to Fort Worth, this eating holiday dominates our calendar from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

Walk through any modern large-box store, and study the edibles they’re offering during this season. It’s not just turkey and dressing and yams and egg nog any longer. It’s chocolates like you would not believe, in every kind of assortment and combination. It’s cookies and cakes and pies coming out your ears. Books pour off the shelves telling homemakers of new recipes for the latest taste sensations for these holidays. Restaurants offer special smorgasbords for the holidays with prices approaching $100 per person.

The wonder is that Americans are not all 400 pounds.

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Gentleness: The Christlikeness God is trying to produce in us

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness…. (Galatians 5:22-23)

“Would the gentleman from North Carolina please yield the floor?”

“The gentle lady from California makes a good point.”

The U.S. Senate may be the last place in this country where people are recognized as being gentle. It’s a nice trait. “Gentle” means you are not bombastic, not mean-spirited, not rude or unkind or harsh.

My goal is to become more gentle in this life.

Various translations make this “kindness” and “goodness.” Same difference, I suppose, although there is something about “gentleness” that weighs heavily on my mind.

Did you hear about the preacher who was protesting a “gay and lesbian pride” march winding its way through the French Quarter? According to the reports, the minister was preaching to the participants in harsh and condemning tones. At one point, a woman decided that this angry man of God (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) needed a hug. So, she stepped out of the crowd, walked over to him, and kissed him.

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Rescuing ourselves from bondage to our emotions

“Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh”. ” (Galatians 5:16)

Brothers and sisters. If you would be spiritually mature and successful in the Christian life, you must rescue your spiritual life from bondage to your emotions. –J. Sidlow Baxter, speaking to Mississippi Baptists in the mid-1970s.

The church lady said to me. “If I don’t feel like doing something, my heart would not be in it, and the Lord said we are to serve Him with all our heart. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

I said, “So, if you don’t feel like reading your Bible or going to church or apologizing to a neighbor, you don’t do it. Right?”

She: “Right. It would be hypocritical.”

Me: “Well. May I ask you, do you ever wake up on Monday morning and not feel like going to work? Or, when you were a teen, were there early mornings when you did not feel like getting up and going to school?”

She: “That’s different.”

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Those blessed frustrations: How God matures us!

I don’t handle frustrations well. A story or two to make that point…

When we lived in the New Orleans area, a few blocks from my house was a diner which had received rave reviews from the Times-Picayune. The owner, a master chef from some New Orleans restaurant, knows his business, we read. So,  when a pastor friend suggested we meet for lunch, we decided on that cafe.  When he had to cancel at the last minute, I went alone.

I entered, saw the place was fairly crowded, and took a stool at the counter. After maybe two or three minutes, I hailed a woman busing tables and asked for a soft drink. She brought it, I studied the menu, and I waited for a waiter or waitress. Ten minutes later, I dropped a couple of bucks on the counter and walked out. With service like that–okay, a lack of service–they’ll not be in business long. If that is indeed indicative of how things are there.

As Yogi Berra said of a certain restaurant, “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.”

So….

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