The hazardous art of predicting the future

“And it happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a certain slave-girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortunetelling….” (Acts 16:16)

Some culture writers and half-serious columnists do it for fun, giving forecasts on life in the future.  Some, like meteorologists, work at it seriously to protect human lives. It helps to know the hurricane in the Caribbean may be headed our way or that the tornado season is upon us.

But then, there are those strange individuals who believe they are endowed with supernatural gifts of prophecy and fortune-telling.

If you have such a talent, I have a word for you.

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The pastor said, “No, we don’t believe the Bible.”

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)  and “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

Let’s see what you do and I’ll decide for myself whether you believe the Bible.

My buddy Kris was commenting on meaningless questions some of our Facebook friends suggested should be put before pastor search committees (our previous article). Most, she said, are useless because they presuppose the answer.

Asking a search committee “Does your church believe the Bible?” is meaningless, because they’re all going to answer in the affirmative, and you’re no better off than had you not asked it.

“Wait a minute,” Kris said, interrupting herself. “I just remembered a time when my pastor answered that differently.”

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Things a believer decided long ago

“For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).

In the late 1980s when the country of Lebanon was trying to self-destruct and life was hazardous for everyone, President Reagan ordered all Americans out of the country. The edict included missionaries also. And that created a dilemma.

One of my missionary friends protested, “This is when we do our best work, in a national crisis when people are fearful and disoriented. They become open to the gospel. Please leave us here.”

Another missionary agreed. “Whether our lives are in danger or not, we settled this a long time ago, the day we accepted the Lord’s call.  This is no time for us to abandon these people.”

Matters settled long ago do not need constant rehashing.

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What hypocrisy looks like and why the Lord hates it with a passion

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13,14,15,23,25,27,29).  “Woe to you, blind guides!” (Matthew 23:16,24,26).  “You serpents, you brood of vipers!” (Matthew 23:33).

The Lord has this thing about hypocrites.

He doesn’t care for them much.

You and I have learned something God hasn’t managed to do: to accommodate ourselves to those who say one thing and do another.

Take the beer company of St Louis, for instance. We read this and it sounds normal to us. It took a secular writer to point out the hypocrisy in their moralizing.

“We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code.” –Anheuser Busch, responding to recent scandals in the National Football League (TIME magazine, September 29, 2014)

Humor writer Ian Frazier nails the famous beer company for its duplicitous moralizing in the same issue of TIME magazine.

In recent weeks the NFL has been under attack for its mishandling of the serious misbehavior of players who, among other things, knocked out a wife in the elevator and was caught on tape doing it, and beat a four-year-old child leaving whelps and open wounds on his skin.

The famous beer company, known for its massive advertising throughout every sporting event available, takes the NFL to task for its pitiful reaction.  Such behavior is against Anheuser-Busch’s moral code and culture.

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If you’re not living the life, do not tell people you are a Christian

“If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

The politician convicted of racketeering tells the press that since Jesus is his Savior, he will be all right.

The businessman who taught a Sunday School class and gave millions to the Lord’s work is convicted of running a Ponzi scheme and swindling millions from people who trusted him.

The  preacher found guilty as a child molester insists that his faith in Jesus will see him through this crisis.

God’s people trying to get this right want to say to them, “Would you just shut up about being a Christian!  This is a time to keep it to yourself. You have not earned the right to go public with your testimony.”

Those who bring shame upon the Lord have no right to a public declaration of faith. Let them repent and “bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

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Things that conspire to keep you humble–and why that’s good.

“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5)

You and I resist the proud, too, don’t we?  The braggart who takes all the credit for work the whole team accomplished is deserting his friends, turning them into enemies and setting himself up as a target for their animosity.

Not very smart.

The next time he seeks our help or invites us to join his team, we think hard about accepting.  We know how he works and it’s not good. We resist him.

Pride looks good on no one, least of all followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in particular ministers of the Gospel. Pride is one adornment we should all reject.

I wish I could stand before you this morning and say all the Lord’s people have this down pat, that pride (or egotism, however we want to say it) is something we do not have to struggle with. But the evidence to the contrary is all around us. Christians sometime are the world’s worst prigs, pharisees, egomaniacs.  And some preachers are the chief offenders.

Lord, help your people.

Humility, let us say, means not to think down on yourself, to put yourself down, to crawl and cower and, in the memorable words of Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9:8, refer to yourself as a dead dog.

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A text the legalist cannot handle

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). 

Do everything you can to make sure your church does not put legalists in charge of anything. Doing so is a death sentence for all they touch.

“The letter of the law killeth; the Spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The legalist is a self-proclaimed Christian who reduces our duties to God to a list of rules. Legalists delight in the Ten Commandments, of course, but since the New Testament does not codify a list of tasks we must do in order to please God, they do it for Him.

How kind of them to help God out.  (I’m recalling an old definition of a legalist. He says, “I know God didn’t require this in the Bible, but He would have if He’d thought of it.”)

The legalist has God figured out.

To the legalist, everything God does has to do with our grades, our performances.  And for us to insist, “He has not dealt with me according to my sins nor rewarded me according to my iniquities” just does not compute.  Such a teaching does not work in his system.

This is the text–and grace is the doctrine–which the legalist cannot abide.

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Minimizing risk…in all of life

“Also, keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins” (Psalm 19:13).

There are no guarantees in this life.

I can eat whole grain foods, take my vitamins and supplements, stay with organic and get plenty of exercise, and still get hit by a Volvo while crossing the road.

Almost every magazine that comes to my house will have the occasional article telling how to cut down on life-shortening factors.  After reading several of these, you learn to predict their advice: cut out tobacco and sweets, eat more fruits and veggies, walk some every day, and laugh a lot.  Take vitamins, especially this one or that one.

I’m for all that, incidentally.  I do all those things. Well, except for avoiding the sweets.

Soldiers in combat discuss whether there’s a bullet “out there” with one’s name on it.  If such a thing exists, some will say, there’s nothing you can do, so take risks and live life to the fullest.  On the other hand, many soldiers have survived their terms of combat and reported they they took steps to minimize the risks.  They kept their helmet on, kept their armor on, looked before they jumped, maintained their guns in great shape, stayed close to their buddies, and a thousand other things.

On the highway, minimizing risk is a big deal for me.

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Be careful about the little things

“A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Galatians 5:9).

Take care of the little things.

In art, the difference between mediocre and masterful is often attention to details.

In wartime, attention to the little things can mean surviving.

I wonder if Goliath thought something like this in that millisecond before he expired: “This cannot be happening.  A giant like me, a champion of warriors, massive and mighty, undaunted and undefeated–taken down by a kid with a rock in a sling.”  He must have thought, “I hope my brothers never hear about this.”

Up in your state penitentiary you will find quite a number of good guys, people with impressive credentials and strong convictions and good records of achievement.  But mixed in with their outstanding accomplishments was the leaven: a single habit they could not control, a friendship out of bounds, a secret vice, a weakness.

At this moment, the Christian community is discussing a prominent pastor for whom the world was his oyster, as the saying goes. He was a star among the ministerial heavens.  He built a great church, wrote popular books, was in demand for every program and conference.  And now, look at him.  Felled by such a little thing.  No one is more shocked than he.  “How could this be?” he’s wondering at this moment.

Who am I talking about? Which preacher with what problem? Take your pick.  There are so many to choose from.

I’ve been reading “In Your Face: Cartoonist at Work” by Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer-Prize winning artist for newspapers such as the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, and Newsday.  At the time he did editorial cartoons for these papers, he was also turning out “Kudzu,” a syndicated daily strip with wide distribution.  He published many books and received all the awards and accolades a cartoonist could hope for.

Doug Marlette was younger than me and should still be around doing what he did so well, satirizing our foibles and turning out books about Will B. Dunn, the cartoon preacher. His clippings adorned refrigerators and professors’ doors far and wide.   Marlette, who would have turned 65 later this year, would probably still be with us except for one little thing.

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The wimp in me hates to be criticized.

“Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite?  Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him” (2 Samuel 16:11).

There’s something about us preachers that loves compliments and runs from criticism.

We preachers can be the biggest wimps on the planet.

Maybe it’s that way with everyone, I don’t know.

Let a preacher receive an anonymous note outlining what he’s doing wrong or a phone call dissecting last Sunday’s sermon and he is done for the week. He will be needing the attention of a good therapist.

We could learn a lot from politicians and others in the public arena. I’ve read that President Eisenhower enjoyed something like a 65 percent approval rating all eight years of his presidency, the highest of anyone since.  This means 35 percent of the America public thought he was a failure.  And yet, he is lauded as a winner.

Let 35 percent of the typical church give their preacher a vote of no-confidence and he’s enduring sleepless nights, unable to focus on anything, and scheduling himself for career counseling at his denominational headquarters.

All of this was prompted by two things.

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