Thursday, July 22, 2021

Lord, Please Knock 'Em Down a Peg

Suggested Reading: Matthew 7:1-5

Not long ago, I found myself making comments about a particular person who was getting under my skin. This person didn't do anything wrong, per se, but tends to just keep talking. This person is fairly intelligent but sometimes just misses the obvious, and (in my opinion) tends to talk about anyone who disagrees as someone who just hasn't thought through their position as well as they should have. The fact that this person also tends to respond to complete misunderstandings of the differing position simply adds to my irritation. And so I found myself making comments about this person. I know better and, usually, I behave better. But this person always came across as feeling so superior, so much more intelligent than everyone else, that I felt justified in making my comments. I eventually turned my comments to God, praying something along the lines of, Lord, could you please knock that person down a peg and take away that smug air of superiority.

Literally a split second later, God responded, but it was to take me down a peg as Jesus's words echoed in my mind. “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye" (Matthew 7:1-5, HCSB). It felt like a punch to the gut that knocked the air out of me. I realized that the primary reason this person's superiority bothered me so much was that it interfered with my own superiority. I was judging this person for doing the very thing I myself was guilty of.

But we do that kind of thing all the time, don't we? We look down on that lazy person over there while ignoring our own laziness. We judge someone's selfishness without realizing that we only notice it because it interferes with our own selfishness. We pity the hypocrisy we see in our co-worker without stopping long enough to examine our own double lives.

When we see a problem in another person's life, before we start pointing it out to anyone or allowing it to change the way we view them, we need to take a hard, long look at our own lives. Jesus said we would be judged with the same standard we apply to others. So before we start measuring other people we need to measure ourselves. If we would fail to live up to our own standard, we should start adjusting our own lives. Let's take care of the logs in our own eyes, then we might actually be able to help others with their specks.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Embracing the Muck

Suggested Reading: Proverbs 14:1-11

I am something of a contradiction when it comes to my work spaces. When I am working, I tend to make messes. If you have ever seen my desk when I am in the middle of a ton of research for a sermon or a paper or story, I often have papers and books strewn everywhere, covering every inch of desk space available. At the same time, however, I have to have my work space clean when I start something. So, even though the surface of my desk will become invisible once I get started, I have to get it clean before I can start working. Proverbs 14:4 talks about the kinds of messes that can accompany work from the flip-side of the coin. "Where there are no oxen, the feeding trough is clean, but an abundant harvest is produced by strong oxen" (NET). Translation: oxen are messy but they make it possible to be very productive.

A number of years ago, I served as a houseparent at a children's home in New Mexico that had a small farm/ranch attached to it. One of our responsibilities (and the youth's responsibilities) was to clean out the horse stalls, at least once a week but more often if required, and it was often required. The kids loved the horses, especially when it came time to ride them, but they absolutely abhorred cleaning out the stalls. If they wanted to avoid having to clean out a stall, then they simply chose not to care for a horse but that meant they didn't have a horse to ride.

Sometimes, getting things done in life requires a mess. Sometimes, that mess is literal: books and papers piled high on a desk or a stall full of manure or a kitchen stacked with dirty dishes and flour dusted counter-tops. And, if possible, I'm sure we would all like to avoid such messes. But messes are a by-product of productive living. If you never make a mess, you probably never get anything done.  Another way of saying that is, if you're only worried about keeping things nice and neat and uncomplicated, you probably won't accomplish much. Life is messy. Stuff happens. The only way to avoid messes for certain is to avoid doing anything of significance.

So what about you? Do you feel like your life is a mess? Or wish your house was always spic and span? Me too. But life isn't about staying neat and clean. In fact, having everything neat and in order and insisting that it stay that way is a good formula for a boring and insignificant life. If your life is messy, it is because things are happening! Yes, it's a good idea to clean up the messes from time to time. Yes, it's a good idea to take a break every now and then to get things in order, but mess happens. Don't let the fear of mess rule your life or nothing will ever get done.

Messes are a part of life. Don't try to avoid them. Balance your messes with what you are trying to accomplish. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Making a god of 100 mph Fastballs

Suggested Reading: Habakkuk 1:5-11

Back in the 90's a movie came out called Rookie of the Year. The movie embodied the fantasy of almost every adolescent boy who loves baseball. The movie's main character, a twelve year old boy, had fallen and broken his arm playing baseball. After weeks in a cast, something had mysteriously fused in his arm, creating a catapult-type action and allowing him to throw fastballs in excess of 100 miles per hour. Shortly thereafter he was discovered by an agent, signed with a major league team and began playing baseball with big-named stars he idolized. Of course, his sudden fame and success had unfortunate consequences as well. Before long, he began standing up his friends and forgetting to call them, getting an attitude with his mother and developing some of the less admirable grown up habits of his teammates. Before long, this young pitcher discovered that the very thing he had been gifted with was getting him into trouble, too.

The double edged sword this young pitcher faced is something that we all deal with from time to time. Very often, the thing that can bring us the most success can also cause us the most problems. Such was the case for the Babylonians (also called the Chaldeans) in the Old Testament. God had chosen them to bring his judgment on Israel and several other nations because of their great strength and military might. But God eventually declared judgment on them through the prophet Habakkuk, saying, They are guilty; their strength is their god (Habakkuk 1:11, HCSB). The very thing which allowed God to use them eventually got them into trouble because it became too important to them.

Sometimes we take very good things and ruin them by making them to too important to us. Pastors who are very good at ministry neglect their families to continue the ministry. Fathers who work hard to provide for their families turn their jobs into idols. Mothers are so good at their jobs they neglect their families. A keen mind becomes an excuse to look down on people who seem less intelligent. Talents God has given us get practiced and nurtured at the expense of our walk with Christ and the neglect of serving people. We must remain vigilant so that the things in our lives that have the most power for both good and ill are not transformed into curses by our own mismanagement and selfishness.

What talents or skills do you have? God has given you those abilities to make a difference in the world, but you must manage them wisely and maintain a proper perspective. Otherwise, the very things God intended gave you to bless people can turn into something very ugly.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Driving Your Heavenly Daddy Batty

Suggested Reading: James 4:1-16

When they were very small, both of my children went through a phase when they insisted on doing everything for themselves. Most children go through this phase at some point, but my children nearly drove me crazy with it. They wanted to do everything for themselves whether they were actually capable of doing it or not. And if I tried to help or (God forbid!) to do it for them then I would hear, "I can do it myself, Daddy!" At times, I got so frustrated with their stubborn refusal of my help that I started saying, "You're gonna drive your daddy batty!" Eventually, though, they both reached the point where they realized that wasting two hours on something Daddy could do in thirty seconds wasn't worth it until they learned to do it a little better.

Sometimes, because we are all children, we treat our Heavenly Father the same way, arrogantly insisting that we can do things ourselves, especially when coming up with our own plans for life. Jesus' brother James warned us, Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16, HCSB). There is nothing wrong with making plans for the future. In fact, it's a responsible thing to do. But boasting about our own plans or stating for a fact that we will carry out our own plans means we have forgotten two very important things. One, we have forgotten that God probably has plans that far outshine our own, and, two, we have forgotten that we are children of the Father and must do what our Father wants.

Making plans is good. Learning to account for variables and strategize and plan is one of the many ways we can grow into becoming more and more like God. But we must constantly be comparing our plans to God's, listening for the changes God would make and obeying so that we can improve our own planning, slowly becoming more and more spirit-led in our planning. But learning and growing in that manner demands a humility from us which recognizes that our plans are neither perfect nor certain.

What plans have you begun banking on?  Do you have plans that have become so important to you that you no longer seek God's guidance, afraid that God will change them? Have you been getting frustrated that your plans keep falling through? Perhaps you need to remember that your planning skills don't yet match your Heavenly Father's. Perhaps God is trying to warn you that your own plans have become too important to you. Or maybe you just need to remember that God is the master planner and has a plan waiting for you if you are willing to follow it.

Don't get hung up on your own plans. Make them, but then take them to the Master Planner and learn how He would improve them. Don't waste years doing your own planning when God could help you through it.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Being Terrified by Your Friend's Magical Powers

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:35-41

The BBC program Merlin took place in a time when sorcery was outlawed. Naturally, that made things a little difficult for the infamous sorcerer who helped Arthur become the king of legend. In the series finale, Merlin finally revealed his magical nature to Arthur as the king lay dying. Though Merlin was trying to save Arthur's life at the time, Merlin's magical nature scared the king more than his own terminal condition, at least at first. The king eventually came to terms with Merlin's abilities, but when Arthur first got a glimpse of who Merlin really was, it frightened him to be in the presence of someone with so much power.

The episode is reminiscent of a passage from Mark 4. Jesus and his disciples had gotten into a boat to cross the lake and Jesus had taken the opportunity to get some sleep. A massive storm swept up and began to threaten the boat so Jesus's disciples woke him up, worried that they were going to die. Jesus immediately spoke to the storm and stilled the winds and waves, and then he rebuked his disciples for demonstrating so little faith, i.e., freaking out. But even though they had feared for their lives before, after Jesus saves them is when they were terrified and asked one another, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey Him!” (Mark 4:41, HCSB).

Most of us entered into a relationship with God or began our walk with Christ with the understanding of God's love for us because of what God sent Jesus to do on the cross for us.  But because we don't often experience things like the sudden calming of powerful storms or watch dead men rise from their caskets, we can sometimes forget how powerful our God is.

Our God is so immensely powerful that the entire universe flowed from his imagination, that he can create people from dirt and drop brimstone bombs to level cities with less effort than it takes us to bat an eye. The power that our God wields should terrify us no less than it did the disciples. But being aware both of the power God has and of the ways in which God has worked it for our benefit should fill us with gratitude and inspire us to use our own power to save and serve people when we have the chance.

Our God is powerful enough to destroy us on a whim but chooses to save us instead. How are you using your power?

Thursday, July 1, 2021

I'm Not Evil, I'm Just Not a Hero

Suggested Reading: Mark 3:1-6

One of the most iconic scenes in comic book history has been played out a dozen different ways, both on the page and on the big screen. Peter Parker, with newly developed spidery super powers finds himself watching a crime in progress. He has the power to stop it. But the person being robbed has ticked him off and has it coming. So, Peter Parker allows the robbery to occur and let's the criminal escape. A little while later, Peter discovers that the man he let get away has killed his uncle Peter. The discovery is tragic and it turns Peter Parker into Spider-Man, but the scene is a classic, however it plays out, because we have all been tempted at times - not to hurt someone - but to simply not help them. We've all known someone we thought deserved something bad to happen to them and been tempted to let it happen.

Sometimes, we convince ourselves that there is a difference between hurting someone and letting them be hurt, that as long as we are not the ones inflicting pain that we have escaped blame. But Scripture teaches us something very different. In Mark chapter 3, the Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus, to tempt him into breaking the Sabbath so they could discredit him. As such, they watched very closely when Jesus came into contact with a man in need of healing. Jesus, knowing their intentions, said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do what is good or to do what is evil, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent (Mark 3:4, HCSB). Jesus didn't simply ask if it was acceptable to do good on the Sabbath, but made them choose between doing good and evil. As far as Jesus was concerned, having the ability to do good and withholding it was evil. James echoed this sentiment in James 4:17, saying, Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it (NLT).

As followers of Christ, we do not have the option of choosing not to help when it is within our power.  We do not have the option of allowing someone to be hurt simply because we think they deserve it. If we have the ability and opportunity to do good, to make a positive difference in someone's life and we choose not to do so, we have chosen to do evil.

The good news is that, like Peter Parker, we can use those failures from the past as lessons and motivation for the future. We serve a merciful and forgiving God who doesn't immediately reject us because we have failed Him. Let us seek God's forgiveness for our failures to do good and move forward. From here on out, let us never skip an opportunity to do good when we have the power and opportunity to do so.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Diagnosing Slips of the Tongue

Suggested Reading: James 1:19-27

A couple of years ago, a Pittsburgh couple got into trouble for selling their neighbor’s dog on Craigslist. Two dogs had wandered into their backyard and the couple had initially called the police asking what to do. The police told them to take the dogs back. The couple took one of the dogs back but decided to sell the other on Craigslist (I guess it was rather valuable). After giving several false statements to the police and covering their tracks, the couple almost got away with it. What got them into trouble was a slip of the tongue. Apparently, they had discussed selling the dog in front of their five year old. When the police stopped by one last time to question the couple, their five year old mentioned something about mommy giving the dog to a lady from the internet. All the money they had earned from the sale and all of their hard work covering their tracks was wasted because they said something they shouldn’t have in front of their young son.

Our tongues can be very troublesome things at times. James, the half-brother of Jesus addressed this problem in James 1:26, saying, If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself (HCSB). Our tongues are not only very troublesome things but very powerful things. We can spend years building relationships with people, caring for them and extending friendship and love, but destroy nearly all of those efforts with a few misplaced words. Proverbs 18:21 tells us, Life and death are in the power of the tongue (HCSB).  Wanting to let us know just how powerful the tongue can be, Scripture described the creation of the world with the words, God said, “Let there be light”.

We let our tongues “slip” far too often.  We speak before we think, allowing thoughtless words to inflict pain on others. We allow harsh, vulgar terms to escape our lips which destroy much of the work we’ve already done in building our witness. But more than that, failing to control our tongues demonstrates our own lack of maturity. Claiming to follow Christ while we continue to let our tongues wag freely means we are only fooling ourselves about our walk with Christ. We can do all of the good things we want to hide the true condition of our hearts but our tongues will eventually blow that disguise away, revealing who we truly are. 

Jesus told us that "What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart" (Matthew 15:18), which means that controlling your tongue requires that you focus on what is going on inside you. Controlling your tongue means that you guide your thoughts and feelings rather than letting them guide you, that you practice self-control when things you don’t want to exist inside try to bubble out of you, that you allow the Holy Spirit to reform and reshape you from the inside so that what comes out of your mouth is different because you are different. 

Don’t dismiss slips of the tongue as aberrations and exceptions. Deal with them immediately. Examine your heart and your thought processes. Otherwise you’ll just end up deceiving yourself.

Lord, Please Knock 'Em Down a Peg

Suggested Reading: Matthew 7:1-5 Not long ago, I found myself making comments about a particular person who was getting under my skin. Th...