“Wouldn’t It Be Great If We Didn’t Ever Have to Do Anything On Faith?”

I’m talking to pastors and church leaders now.

Wouldn’t it be great if the money was there before the need arrived?

Wouldn’t it be great if all we had to do was decide how much of our excess money went to which cause?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people automatically gave a tithe and beyond to the Lord’s work without church leaders having to challenge them? and without us having to show them what a difference their gifts will make.

And yet, there it is in big letters, in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament: The just shall live by faith.

It’s found in the Old Testament prophecy of Habakkuk (chapter 2, verse 4). The New Testament quotes it in Romans 1:17 and Hebrews 10:38.

Clearly, this business of living by faith is not an aberration, but was in the heart of God all along. As difficult as it seems to us, the Father in Heaven has decreed that those who please Him will live by faith. Which is, of course, the message of Hebrews 11:6, Without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

Here’s a little of what that means to us….

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Our Surprising Lord

As good as it is to have been almost literally raised in the church, it does have its downside. One of them is our constant familiarity with the Holy Scriptures. It’s great to be able to say with Paul of Timothy, “From a child you have known the Holy Scriptures” (II Tim. 3:15), but that’s not all good.

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. In this case, it’s not so much contempt which lifelong church members contend with so much as–how to put this now–boredom. We have heard it so many times, it has lost its edge.

One of the greatest achievements of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to continually sharpen our commitment to Christ and our enjoyment of Him. He alone keeps putting the edge on our faith.

When we drift from faithfulness to the Lord–and by that I mean nothing in the world so much as we quit praying and reading the Word–the Holy Spirit, who can take a hint and know when He is not wanted, turns to others who want His help. You and I are hardly aware that He has moved away. And we are the last to see that something else has happened….

We have lost our edge. We have become bored with our faith and boring in our proclamation of it.

When the Holy Spirit is in the ascendancy (I’m saying that the way horoscope people speak of some planet exerting great influence) in our lives, many things happen. And one of the best is this: We see the Scriptures through fresh eyes. And what a good thing that is.

Wouldn’t it have been great to have been there when Jesus began His ministry and to have observed Him with fresh eyes! No preconceptions, no sermons from our favorite teachers and pastoring clouding our vision, just the pure sight of our wonderful Lord stepping out and speaking Heaven’s revelation.

What would our reaction have been? We can know the answer to that, to a great extent.

–We would have reacted the way the people then did. Some believed, some wanted to hear more, and some rejected Him on the spot.

–We would have treated Him then the same way we treat Him now. Seeing Him in the flesh would hardly have altered that.

–And, and this is what I came to talk about today, we would have been surprised.

Nothing about Jesus was as people were expecting. Case in point: the first 3 chapters of Mark’s Gospel.

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It’s All About Jesus (II Peter 1:1-4)

No one comes into the Kingdom of God with it all figured out. Most of us learn by trying and falling, picking ourselves up, and trying again. If we are blessed, we’ll have big brothers and sisters in the faith standing nearby, making sure we don’t hurt ourselves or others in the process.

Early on, as a new believer, we’re prone to be so excited about the Christian life that we run on spiritual adrenalin. Eventually, as it always does, that divine-chemical-in-our-bloodstream subsides, and we are left to try to figure how we’re going to continue to live this Christian life.

That’s when we either make shipwreck on the shoals of temptation or discouragement or we learn the importance of daily time in God’s word and earnest, honest prayer to Him throughout every day. As we do this, we start learning the great lessons God has reserved for the faithful.

The Gnostics of olden times used to hold that God has special knowledge reserved for the spiritual elites. I am not saying that or anything close to it. But I do say that only those who stay with the Lord through thick and thin, good weather and foul, emotional peaks and spiritual valleys, only they learn the great lessons of the Christian life. All the others settle down in the Plains of Boredom where we profess one thing and live something almost entirely different.

Here’s one of life’s greatest lessons regarding the Christian life: It’s all about Jesus.

John the Baptist surely knew almost nothing of what you and I call “the Christian life,” but He absolutely had the secret of intimacy with God nailed down. He must increase; I must decrease. (John 3:30)

Here’s how the Apostle Peter felt on the subject. And keep in mind from all we know of this dear brother from the four gospels, he learned every lesson the Lord had for him in the hardest way possible.

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Love Those Old People!

My friend Jill Furr Noll reminded me on Facebook this week about her wonderful grandfather, a Baptist preacher from years back whose funeral I held in the mid-1970s. Rev. A. C. Furr was in his mid-90s when I became his pastor. He was sharper than I was (I was 60 years his junior), still drove his car everywhere, and was extremely active. Sometimes when he was heading to the nursing home to call on patients, he would tease, “I’m going to see the old people.” They were almost all younger than he.

I thought of this today while reading through two newspaper articles that mysteriously appeared on my desk at home. They are dated in and around my birthday (March 28) of 2004. Where they have been until now, I couldn’t begin to say. But I certainly can tell you why I kept them. They are both such keepers.

The first came from USA Today for March 30, 2004. Robert Lipsyte, who is identified as a journalist and author of a young-adult novel, “Warrior Angel,” is writing about the way we only realize the value of the elderly in times of crisis.

The other article comes from the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal of Tupelo and is dated two days earlier. A medical doctor, Joe Bailey, is paying tribute to the M.D. who influenced his life. It’s an incredible story.

Robert Lipsyte writes, Whenever disaster strikes–from illness in the family to carnage on the evening news–I call my dad. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was murdered, I called Dad to make sure he was OK. After all, the old man was pushing 60. I called him after 9/11 to make sure I was OK. After all, I was in my 60s. Being a frequent subway rider in New York, I even called him after the recent train bombings in Madrid, which killed 190 people. I knew he would calm me down. After all, he’s pushing 100.

Pushing 100. Lipsyte’s article, now over 6 years old, says the Census Bureau tells us this country can point to more than 50,000 citizens of that age or better. “The so-called oldest old (over 85) are the fastest growing segment of the population. If we’re lucky, the rest of us will become them.”

And then Joe Bailey’s tribute to his mentor, Dr. H. O. Leonard.

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Music Hard to Sing

Someone has said that good music is music which is written better than it can be sung (or played).

I’m on a “Turandot” kick right now. I’ve loved this Puccini opera for two decades after discovering how different it is from all the others, but without knowing why. I’m not a musician or a singer to speak of. I just swoon at certain kinds of music, however, and this is one of them.

What was puzzling me for years was why Turandot was never as well known as Puccini’s other more popular operas (La Boheme, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly). Why fewer people had even heard of it. And today I found out why.

The liner notes on a CD of highlights from this opera explains that the soprano who sang the part of Princess Turandot was required to do things most singers cannot do. Here is critic Benjamin Folkman:

As late as the 1950s, facing two significant barriers, Turandot was a relative rarity in opera houses. First, it’s spicy harmonies was too modern for opera-devotees’ tastes. Second, the opera was (and is) too difficult to cast. Sopranos who would jump at the change to star in Puccini’s other operas all turned down the role of Princess Turandot. It requires a special type of voice. A Turandot must bring a supreme soprano’s tonal weight and thrust to a sort of unrelieved high-register writing normally comfortable only for piping soubrettes.

That’s what he said. I looked up “soubrettes.” It implies flightly, thin high-pitched voices.

What then made Turandot so popular today? After all, people today love it.

Folkman: The legendary laser-voiced Turandot with which Birgit Nilsson thrilled a whole generation of opera lovers. Also, Luciano Pavarotti brought Nessun Dorma into households and made it a favorite.

In other words, for over 30 years after his death, Puccini’s opera sat there waiting for the right singers. When they came and when they showed what could be done with that music, nothing has been the same since.

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Read Anything Great Lately?

My favorite kind of reading is that which lingers with me a day later and won’t let me go. It keeps nudging and prodding me, bobbing to the surface of my thinking, insisting that it needs to be thought through and applied and maybe passed along.

I shall now pass along several.

First, two from the op-ed page of Saturday’s Times-Picayune. Then, a moving story from the Madeleine L’Engle novel I’m reading, and a fascinating little story from the latest New Yorker magazine about how we elect our leaders. All are worth a few minutes of your time, I’m thinking.

“Creative Expression is a Lifesaver” is the title of Cecile Tebo’s colum. She’s listed as the NOPD’s Crisis Unit administrator.

Cecile tells about her post-Katrina depression. Her house had been flooded and ruined, her children placed with relatives around the country, she was living with a friend in New Orleans, and trying to hold down her job at her crisis unit. When a close friend ended his life, she about lost hers.

“For days I tossed and turned in bed unable to lift the veil that had descended upon my soul. ON the fifth night the unimaginable happened: I wrote.”

For some, that would have been no big deal. But for Cecile, she was facing her greatest fear. Writing had been a huge chore going back to childhood. But now, the thought occurred to her, she needed to write down what she was feeling.

“As I lay in bed watching sun rises and sun sets, I knew that I had something to say. I could feel it burning inside. My head was filled with thoughts–anger, sadness, disbelief, grief, confusion, fear. I felt that thes were thoughts that other people needed to hear, but I had no means to share except one way: to write.”

She turned on the computer and wrote for two hours. She sent it out to her friends, and a miracle happened. Next day the Times-Picayune and CNN both called, asking if they could use her letter.

And that started it. Since then, she has written more than 30 articles, with 15 being published.

Some of our readers will remember Rudy and Rose French, who came to New Orleans from Canada after Katrina and made such a difference here. When they left, a couple of years back, I suggested Rudy write a journal on their experiences. That writing turned into a book, “You Can Learn A Lot from a Hurricane.”

Many times when a pastor is terminated or goes through some other kind of trauma in the ministry, I will suggest he get a blank book and take 30 minutes each night and write his thoughts. To me, hand-writing is better than using a computer, but whatever works for you.

It could be a lifesaver.

Second article on the op-ed page is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Cynthia Tucker about Shirley Sherrod, the woman unjustly fired from the USDA last week due to a misrepresentation of a speech she had made.

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Going on in New Orleans

These days, the leadership of our Southern Baptist churches in metro New Orleans assemble on alternate months for our “Executive Committee” meeting. Under the leadership of Executive Director Duane McDaniel, we met Wednesday morning, July 21. Here are my notes from the gathering.

Those interested in where New Orleans is spiritually and/or where the Baptist work is locally will not get all your questions answered, but will find this of considerable interest, I think.

(At the conclusion, read my interviews with Pastors Dennis Watson and David Crosby.)

Pastor Eddie Painter (Barataria Baptist Church in the town of Jean Lafitte, LA) reported on his church’s involvement in cleaning up the recent disastrous oil spill. Presently 105 people are being trained for cleanup in his church. Some of them, Eddie is teaching to read. He said, “Guess what will be the first thing they will be reading!” Everyone laughed. No one answered. We knew he was referring to the Bible.

Eddie said, “For our July 4 outreach, we scheduled a barbecue for the community. The mayor asked if we could move it to Town Hall, a block down the street. Hundreds came. We gave away 4 cases of Bibles that afternoon. And when we had our VBS parents’ night, it was standing room only.”

“Agencies are serving 2500 meals a day out of Barataria Baptist Church. Some 200 are given to us to take directly into the community.”

Eddie concluded, “Want to see what Barataria Baptist Church looks like these days? Kick over an ant hill. That’s us.”

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Escape the Corruption (II Peter 1:4ff)

For by these He has given to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.

Blame it on lust.

James the half-brother of Jesus agreed with that. “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have, so you commit murder” (James 4:1-2).

Lust: uncontrolled desires of any kind. We can lust for food, power, money, sex, pleasures, friendship, and our neighbor’s lawn mower. A desire that was not necessarily bad in itself has now broken loose and sits in the driver’s seat calling the shots.

Lives are run and ruined by unrestrained passions.

A few years ago, Pope John Paul II created a minor furor in saying that lust has no place in marriage. All the johnny-one-notes in the world who refuse to think beyond the surface of anything jumped all over that. You would have thought he’d said that a man and woman must not have sexual appetites for each other.

Lust is a killer. It drove Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Saddam, Idi Amin, and a thousand others of their ilk. Lust drove Elvis, Errol Flynn, an uncle or two of mine, and probably someone you know.

It’s a cruel task-master.

A fellow gets a little taste of power over people and suddenly the appetite for control over the masses explodes within him.

She buys a few antiques to brighten up her home. Within days, the lust to own every beautiful chair and table she sees is all-consuming.

He drops in on a men’s club in the French Quarter. Until that day, he had lived without such bawdy entertainment in perfect contentment. Now, the desire for more sex in more exotic varieties eats away at his soul.

He takes a drink. She smokes a special cigarette. They pop a few pills. And they are gone. “Gotta have more.”

Lust is the culprit.

Corruption is the result.

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What We Know for Sure about Satan (I Peter 5:8-9)

No one enjoys a good joke about the devil more than Satan himself.

He loves it when you tell one to make him out a buffoon or the warden of hell who welcomes in various evil-doers and sends them to their infernal rewards. He really gets a high when you make him out to be so outlandish that no one in his right mind would believe in such a goon.

The devil honestly does not care whether you believe in him or not. There is not a word in Scripture that says one has to believe in the devil in order for him to do his dastardly worst in them or through them.

Millions of people today scoff at the idea of Satan, then turn around and do his dirty work for him.

The people who believe most in Satan are God’s choice servants. They who do combat with him on a daily basis have no trouble acknowledging his reality. That’s why the Apostle Peter felt he should give this reminder to those who take seriously their discipleship:

Be of sober spirit. Be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.

He’s out there. Watch out.

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How Cults Operate

In 1939, American journalist Virginia Cowles went to Russia. Two years later, she wrote about what she saw in “Looking For Trouble.” (Readers of this website know that one of my favorite things is to find old books with fascinating first-person accounts of life during the Second World War. This one is as good as they come.)

After a few days of trying in vain to get Russians to talk with her, Cowles found out why they were afraid. Stalin had just killed untold millions of his own people for what he called anti-Communistic actions. Some of those actions were nothing more than studying a foreign language or befriending a foreigner. Consequently, people were afraid to speak to any stranger.

Cowles then gives us her analysis of life in that sad country:

The chief distinction between man and animal is the critical faculty of the human mind. In the Soviet Union–just as in Germany–the critical faculty was carefully exterminated, so that the mass might sweat out their existence as uncomplainingly as oxen, obedient to the tyranny of the day. Truth was a lost word. Minds were doped with distorted information until they became so sluggish they had not even the power to protest against their miserable conditions. The ‘Pravda’ never tired of revealing to its readers the iniquities of the outside world, always pointing (out) how blessed were the people of the Soviet Union.

This is precisely how religous cults operate. They cannot stand for their people to think for themselves, have independent opinions, or ask troublesome questions. Dissension is treated as rebellion and rebellion gets you ousted.

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