Wednesday, April 3, 2013


There is no other day quite like Easter Sunday!

Easter Sunday my wife and I rose early to attend the Sunrise Service at Mulder Church (UMC) in Elmore County. There we heard a forester, our son Tim, deliver the sermon for the 11th year in a row. The pastor, Craig Carter, has made it a tradition to have Tim deliver the message. Later I preached in two services at our church, Saint James UMC in Montgomery. Like millions of Christians around the world we eagerly celebrated the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Every Easter the Church declares on every continent the greatest of all good news: Christ is risen! Those three words are the most important declaration ever uttered because it gives us hope that the grave is not the end of life. No event in history has impacted the world more than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Since I was a child Easter has been the greatest day of the year for me. Even Christmas is no match for Easter. I owe my love of Easter to my parents. Every Easter morning they got the family up at 4 o’clock and drove from Elmore County to Cramton Bowl in Montgomery. Never one to be late for anything, Dad got us to the stadium early. Spreading blankets on those cold concrete seats we waited for the excitement to begin.
          As I recall we sat on the eastern side and on the other side of the football field there was a replica of the sealed tomb. Men dressed as Roman guards marched back and forth in front of it. Soon we watched as three women walked slowly from the south toward the tomb. There was an eerie quietness about the scene before us. There was no music being played. It was like watching one of those old silent movies.
Suddenly the silence was erupted by an explosion. We were all startled as smoke covered the tomb. We could hear a rumbling sound, like the beating of drums, designed evidently to simulate an earthquake. Slowly the smoke drifted away to reveal an angel, in dazzling white, standing at the tomb. The stone sealing the tomb had been rolled away. The frightened guards had fallen to the ground as though they were dead.
          The three women had been startled also. Now they resumed walking toward the tomb and as they arrived the angel began speaking to them. Over the speaker system we heard the shocking words of the biblical story:
          “Do not be afraid; I know why you are here,” the angel said. “You are seeking Jesus who was crucified, but he is not here. He is risen, as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he will meet them in Galilee.”
          We watched the women look quickly inside the empty tomb and leave in a hurry. The women, according to the Bible, were afraid but filled with joy to know that Jesus was alive. As they walked away from the tomb suddenly a man in a robe appeared before them. We realized it was none other than Jesus; he had been raised from the dead. Shocked once again, the women, awestruck, fell down before him.   
          The angel had told the women that Jesus was alive. Now they knew it was true. He was standing before them, alive! Repeating the message of the angel, Jesus calmed their fear. Then he sent them on their way to share the news with the disciples and tell them that he would meet them in Galilee.
          This was the drama I witnessed several times as a child in Cramton Bowl. Though the resurrection seemed incredible I saw no reason to doubt it. It never occurred to me that it might be a myth as some believe today. I believed it. Years later I would begin to wonder. Is it really true?  I struggled with that question for several years.  
          Finally I decided the story could not be a myth for this reason: It is impossible to explain the Christian movement unless Jesus was actually raised from the dead.
Could Jesus’ disciples have stolen his body from the tomb while the guards were sleeping and then convinced people that Jesus was alive? Saying that it was so surely would not convince anyone. Could a lie be perpetuated for two thousand years? Surely not!
          If Jesus had not been resurrected we would have never heard of his apostles. But we did hear about them; they were so convinced that Jesus was alive they were willing to suffer and even die for this new faith.  The evidence is overwhelming. The early Christians were willing to be martyred rather than renounce their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. I am persuaded that few people would be willing to die in defense of a lie.
Christians have no faith to proclaim if the resurrection is not true. Christ was raised from the dead by the power of God; that is the lynchpin of Christianity. The resurrection is the great deed of God in history, the most important event in the history of the world.
          If the resurrection is believed to be a myth there is little else in Christian faith that makes sense. If Jesus was not raised from the dead then Peter’s letters are a pack of lies. Had Jesus not been resurrected, we would have never heard of the Apostle Paul who wrote a great portion of the New Testament. The New Testament would not even exist had not the early disciples believed God had raised Jesus from the dead. 
          Some say there is no need to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. His great moral teachings are what matter; his spirit lives on like that of Socrates or Lincoln. But to believe this one must ignore what Jesus taught about himself. He believed that his death on the cross was God’s plan and that the shedding of his blood was necessary for people to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Can anything else he taught be true if this teaching is a hoax? Absolutely not!  
          Sunday morning I heard my friend Nathan Hamilton sings “He’s Alive!” My heart said “Yes He is!” I listened as our choir declared that the tomb is empty! Again my heart said “Yes it is!” I asked the congregation to sing with me “Up from the grave He arose” because He did! Then I loudly proclaimed “Christ is Risen!” And the people replied with gusto “He is Risen Indeed!”
          No other day on the calendar can match the excitement of Easter Sunday! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! + + +

Monday, July 23, 2012

You Can Defeat False Teachers by Setting a Good Example

          Shallow teaching is deplorable. False teaching is evil. Sound teaching is imperative if people are to understand God’s truth. It was for this reason that Saint Paul admonished Timothy to Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
The young church was in grave danger of being destroyed by false teaching before it even got started, and Paul meant for Timothy to oppose it with all his might.
          Paul leaves no doubt as to what sound teaching is. It is truth that came from Jesus. It is the faith that has been handed down from Jesus and which now must be guarded against profane myths and lies. It is teaching that honors Jesus Christ as the Savior of all people.
          For Paul any teaching that was hostile to the Christian movement was demonic. Opponents of the Christian faith were deceitful liars whose false teaching must be strongly rebuked. Paul would have laughed at the idea of compromising the truth for the sake of peace with these false teachers. They were not merely troublemakers; they were evildoers opposed to God.
          We can learn from the Apostle’s stringent attitude. The culture of our time, like that of the first century, is hostile toward Christianity. In the face of this hostility some people counsel Christians to give up their inflexible beliefs. Bend a little for the sake of peace. So we are tempted to water down the gospel to make it more acceptable to those who object to our teaching that salvation is available through Jesus alone.  
          Some false teachers try to persuade us that Christians should be open to a more syncretistic approach, accepting the truth of other major religions. The basic idea of syncretism is unity. The best beliefs of the major religions would be unified to create a new religion that would be more palatable to the human race. Paul would not mince words about such a proposal. He would say, “Have nothing to do with it! Let the demons take it back to hell where it was conceived!”
          Paul was convinced that the church must stay connected to the faith that God had “entrusted to the saints.” To embrace false teachings would be disastrous to the followers of Christ. For Timothy to instruct wisely his brothers and sisters in the faith would make him “a good servant of Christ Jesus.”
          Right belief affects our conduct. Paul knew it was not enough to believe the truth; we must demonstrate the truth by the way we live. So he calls upon Timothy not only to teach the pure gospel but to back up his teaching by living an exemplary life before believers.
          We cannot overestimate the value of a good example for Christian teachers. We need to “hear” the Spirit imploring us with the plea Paul made to Timothy: “Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
          The power of our example is extraordinary. Many people are Christians today because of the example of their parents. Drayton Nabors, Jr. is one such Christian. The former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court credits his mother’s example for his faith in Christ.
          In his book, The Case for Character, he praises his mother for her example in teaching her children the faith when they were small. He describes her as a humble, faithful, praying woman, full of patient hope, who modeled in her life the two keys to virtue – self-denial and perseverance.
          His mother read to him and his two sisters every night. She enlisted his dad to read to the children also. The result of this reading is not surprising. Drayton observes, “We heard stories about virtuous people from the Bible and from classic children’s stories and fables. These, too, modeled and engendered a desire for a morally good life.”
          Albert Schweitzer, famous Christian missionary of the 20th Century, once said: “There is one way and only one way to influence others, and that is by example.”  Would you suppose he was influenced by the character and example of his parents? Consider this: On Sunday afternoons young Albert’s devout parents sat with him on the front porch and read stories of missionaries to the lad!
          Winston Churchill was a man recognized for his strong character and Christian faith.  For decades he influenced nations by his example and decisions. I learned of Sir Winston’s strong Christian principles in a book on his life written by Stephen Mansfield, The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill.
          Mansfield tells of the influence not so much of Winston’s parents but of his nanny – Elizabeth Everest. Churchill said he loved his mother “at a distance,” but he adored Mrs. Everest. She taught him the Scriptures. She taught him to pray. She taught him to trust God. In times of trouble as an adult, on the battlefield when his life was in danger, he found himself praying prayers he had learned at his nanny’s knee. Throughout his life a picture of Mrs. Everest sat on his desk. When he died her picture lay at his bedside.
          Little wonder that Paul urged Timothy to pay close attention to himself and his teaching. He knew that what we teach, and the way we live, will encourage others to embrace our Savior and become followers of the truth or, God forbid, persuade unbelievers to ignore the faith and our Savior.
          John Wesley abhorred watering down the gospel. He insisted that our primary source of truth is the Bible, not the traditions of the church or the teachings of its finest theologians. We shall be wise, like Wesley, to be people “of one Book, the Bible.” We endanger the church if we stray from its sacred, God-breathed teaching in our conduct or our beliefs. + + +

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Prayer changes us so we can change things

 Prayer Changes Things” is a common expression among Christians. It affirms the efficacy of prayer.  That is good. However, the statement seems a bit inadequate. I always feel that more needs to be said.
Actually prayer does not change anything. God changes things when people pray. And what God changes is people, and changed people then affect things or circumstances. So it would seem wiser to say that God changes things when people pray.
I learned this from Oswald Chambers who said “Prayer changes me and I change things.” Authentic prayer, Chambers said, “alters the way in which a man looks at things.”
As we mature in Christ we finally realize that we do not pray in order to get our way but to obtain the grace to accept God’s way. We do not pray so that God will do what we want him to do; we pray so that we may know and embrace what God wants us to do. Otherwise, God is merely a cosmic bellhop to do our bidding – and that he is not.
One cannot read Paul’s letters without observing the importance of prayer to the apostle. Paul prayed for his friends. He prayed, after the example of our Lord, for his enemies. He makes sure that Timothy understands that Christians should pray for everyone – including people we may not like.
It was Chambers who taught me also the importance of praying about everything as well as praying for everyone. There is great wisdom in his advice:
“Get into the habit of dealing with God about everything. Unless in the first waking moment of the day you learn to fling the door wide back and let God in, you will work on a wrong level all day; but swing the door wide open and pray to your Father in secret, and every public thing will be stamped with the presence of God.”
When we swing the door of our lives wide open, we realize the need to pray for those who are antagonistic towards us, those who have hurt us by word or deed, and those terrorists on the nightly news who want to destroy us and our way of life.
Admittedly it is difficult to know how to pray for our personal enemies much less the terrorists who hate America. Only the Holy Spirit can teach us how to pray for these persons. We can be sure that he will for Jesus promised us that the Spirit would teach us “all things.”
Only the Spirit can help us love our enemies as Jesus said we must do. Love and prayer are surely linked together for it is impossible to pray for someone without loving them just as it is impossible to love someone and not pray for them.
We are tempted to limit our praying to our family and friends – the people we feel comfortable being around. Paul insists that we widen the circle by remembering that salvation is for everyone – even the people we do not want in our fellowship.
We need to remember that God does not exclude anyone from his saving grace nor must we. A few years ago I found it difficult to welcome certain men into the church – men who wore ear rings or men with hair in pony tails, for example. The Spirit gave me an attitude adjustment by reminding me that God looks on the heart, not one’s outward appearance.
When we begin praying for people, we begin to experience the power of God at work in our prayers. We begin to have love for people we had not been able to love before. We begin to care for people who are different from ourselves, remembering that Christ died for them too.
Sometimes we are so impressed with ourselves that we pray for God to change other people. Often we need simply to pray for God to change us. This beautiful chorus says it all:
“Change my heart 0h God
Make it ever true
Change my heart 0h God
May I be like You

You are the potter
I am the clay
Mould me and make me
This is what I pray.”
          When God changes our hearts he usually helps us to see others as he sees them. It helps me to pray that the Lord will help me see people through the eyes of Christ. Sometimes I experience his power when he replaces my disgust for someone with compassion and patience. In such moments I am aware that the Lord has given me love that I could not produce in myself; it happens only because Christ is in me.
On occasion I am tempted to pray for “the unlovely.” Then gently the Lord whispers to me, “Does that mean you are lovely? Surely you must realize that to some people you are one of the unlovely.”
When the Lord says that, I ask his forgiveness for my arrogance and to change me and make me more like the Master. He always reminds me that he is more willing to change me than I am willing to be changed.
There is power in prayer because God has the power to change hearts that are willing to be changed. When we become willing to pray for everyone, we truly experience the power of God at work in our prayers. He changes things by changing people – one at a time!                                             

Friday, July 20, 2012

What I learned from a humble college professor in Kansas

We do not become authentic Christians by osmosis. A disciplined spiritual life is necessary to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus.. The serious practice of what the church has called “holy habits” is imperative.
The basic spiritual discipline is that of prayer. All of the other disciplines flow out of this bedrock relationship to God. Daily communion with God gives us both the desire and the power to practice the other disciplines.
Praying can lead to problems. It did for Daniel of the Bible. His prayer life got Daniel in trouble. With most Christians it is the lack of prayer that results in difficulty.
Daniel made the mistake of praying to the wrong God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By doing so he violated the law of Persia that prayer should be offered to no one but Darius, the king. The penalty for breaking this law was death (thrown to the lions).
The officials of the king were smart enough to know that Darius was a mortal man, not a god. If nothing else they would have learned as much by observing the behavior of Darius’ predecessors, Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar. But the officials were jealous of Daniel’s popularity with the king; they did not want to share their power with Daniel. So they deceived the king into passing the ordinance forbidding anyone to pray to any god other than King Darius.
The naïve king did not realize that the ordinance was treacherously designed to eliminate Daniel. So, caught praying, Daniel was hauled before the king and thrown to the lions. Even though he expressed to Daniel the hope that his God would save him, the king went on his way, assuming the worst for Daniel.
The next morning the king found that Daniel was alive. God had closed the mouths of the lions. Darius was “exceedingly glad” and immediately decreed that all his people of Persia “should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, enduring forever.” Daniel’s courage and faith in God made a difference for the entire nation.
Daniel’s trust in God was so strong that he did not panic in the face of death. Centuries later the Apostle Paul demonstrated the same confidence in God. He kept the faith despite persecution and threats of death. Both Daniel and Paul were disciplined in prayer. Their confidence sprang from daily communion with God. Their examples inspire us to pray and trust God.
There are special people whose examples motivate us to seek a more disciplined spiritual life. God used the writing and the example of Richard J. Foster to inspire me to take more seriously the holy habits of the spiritual life. Foster is the most highly respected Quaker author of our time.
I met Foster before his books made him the best known Quaker in the world. When I arrived in Wichita, Kansas, to speak to the student body at Friends University, Foster met me at the airport. Then a professor of theology at the university, he had volunteered to serve as my host for the week. We loaded my luggage into his rundown station wagon and headed to the campus.
His casual dress, and his warm and unassuming manner, made me feel welcome and comfortable. His gracious hospitality made me feel at home in a town I had never visited before. I told him how much I had enjoyed his book, Celebration of Discipline. The book had been published about two years before and was becoming quite popular. At the time neither of us had any idea that his book would sell more than a million copies and be named one of the top ten books of the 2oth Century.
I realized later what a beautiful thing had happened to me. Foster made no effort to impress me. He put aside his own work and took the time be my host. Months later it dawned on me that Richard Foster, the most famous man ever to serve as my chauffeur, was simply practicing the simplicity that he describes in his books as one of the basic spiritual disciplines of devout Christians. His book, Freedom of Simplicity, is one of the best I have read.  And I know from personal experience the man practices what he preaches!
Foster divides the holy habits into three groups: the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study; the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service; and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
When I read Foster’s Celebration of Discipline from time to time, I try to guard against heaping shame upon myself for my lack of discipline. Shame seldom propels us into growth. When we examine our spiritual life honestly, most of us come away feeling guilty. We feel we do not measure up very well compared to the zeal of a Daniel or a Paul.
Guilt hinders our spiritual progress if we allow it to hang around and whip us down. But guilt can help us if we let it motivate us to forgive ourselves for past failures and make a fresh start in living a seriously disciplined life for Christ.
The best way to approach spiritual disciplines is to set aside some time and get into them one day at a time. We should make sure we have the right motive – not to become more pious than other believers but to become more useful to our Lord Jesus Christ. The greatest reward of spiritual growth is a deeper friendship with God.
I know a man who runs a hundred miles a week. He wants to become as strong as he can be so he can compete well in his next marathon run. He is disciplined for a purpose. If he can practice discipline in order run well, surely I can practice holy habits in order to please my Lord and become a more effective servant of the One who died for my sins.
It makes sense to do the best we can to become the best that grace can make us. Our growth in grace honors our Lord. That makes it worth any price we must pay.
Where shall we begin? Each of us must decide. As for me, I feel the Spirit nudging me to improve the simplicity of my life. Freedom from the tyranny of things is a reward that will bless me – and make me a blessing.
Begin anywhere the Spirit leads you. Don’t wait for someone to join you. Be a self-starter. Be a Daniel. Be disciplined regardless of what others may think. For most of us the room for improvement is the biggest room in our spiritual house. Get started – now. + + +

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I remember nights when the attic fan pulled cool air across my bed

          Everywhere I turn people are asking, “What happened to springtime?” The usual answer is that we had only a few days of spring this year. The sweltering heat of summer is upon us. And the next cool spell may not show up until November.
          These are days when I battle with family members about the setting of the AC thermostat. I keep raising it and they keep lowering it. The 90-degree heat makes some of us want the house to be a cool 72 degrees. My suggested setting of 75 seems too warm. Air conditioning, I fear, has spoiled a lot of us, especially the younger generation.  
          Two things help me to feel comfortable with a higher thermostat setting. Obviously one is the power bill. It costs money to cool a house in the summertime. It makes sense to save a little by raising the thermostat. When the monthly electric bill comes in during the summer, I wish I had set the thermostat on 80 degrees.
          My memory is the other thing that helps me. In my childhood days the windows of our home had screens. We had no heating and cooling system. We endured the heat by opening the windows and the doors. Back then we had screen doors and we never locked them unless we were away from home for a spell.
          Kerosene lamps provided light at night before REA finally reached us with electricity. In the winter we heated the house by burning wood in several fire places. I recall that one of my earliest chores was cutting wood with an ax and bringing it into the house, large pieces for the fireplaces and smaller pieces for the wood-burning stove that Mamma cooked on.
          During the 1940s Dad decided to rent a Propane Gas tank and install “space heaters” in the house. One was positioned in each fire place, thus retiring the fire place and heating with wood. We felt like we were “moving on up” as a family when we began using those space heaters. We had little awareness of how dangerous they were. Fortunately we never experienced an accident with the heaters.
          Years later Dad removed the space heaters and replaced them with much more efficient and less dangerous electric heaters. They did the job until finally they too were replaced by an air conditioning system that used duct work to cool the whole house.
          When electricity became available in the mid-thirties Dad and Mom used small electric fans, usually one in each room. They were helpful but not as nice the larger window fans we secured later. The fans did not cool the air but they did move it. Moving the air provided us a bit of an indoor breeze that helped us endure the heat. They were cheap fans and the coil would burn out frequently. That left us nothing to do but sweat until we could go into town on Saturday and buy a replacement.
          Dad  finally got up the money to buy a large electric attic fan. He installed it in the hall in the center of the house. What a blessing the fan was during the summer!  All of our beds were beside a window. At night we opened the window slightly, about five or six inches. The powerful attic fan would suck the air across your bed and allow you to sleep in heavenly comfort.
That was our first air conditioning “system.” As the temperature dropped at night the air coming across our bed became cooler. By midnight we might have pulled a sheet up over us but never a bedspread. During those attic fan days we felt we were “up town;” we were really living. Never having heard of air conditioning we had no reason to feel deprived.
          In this age of “entitlements” some people may feel they are “entitled” to cool air at someone else’s expense. Those who think like that are badly mistaken. Cool air is a luxury which millions of people cannot afford. We who enjoy it should not take it for granted. Remembering what life was like in “the good old days” can inspire an attitude of gratitude.
          There are more important issues of life than the room temperature. We should not allow minor issues to become major. That I try to remember when I find the thermostat turned down so low that if my Dad were still alive, he would say “It feels like hog-killing time in here!” + + +

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stop whining and smell the fragrance of the broken

          Recently I read again about the accidental death of Maria Sue, the five-year-old daughter of Steven Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman. That tragedy reminded me of a profound idea I had gleaned from an earlier story about this popular Christian singer.
          The idea was capsulated in the phrase, “The fragrance of the broken.” The words came to Chapman during a walk in the woods. He had gone into the woods to pray, desperate for release from a drought in his soul. Pleading with God for a breakthrough, he gathered some rocks, stacked them into a makeshift altar, and began to pray.
While praying he began to smell cedar, so strongly that it distracted him from praying. Opening his eyes he soon spotted a little cedar tree that he had snapped in half by stepping on it. The broken tree was the source of the smell that Chapman felt was a sign from God. Quickly he wrote down the words, "The fragrance of the broken."
God does provide a "fragrance" that we may learn to cherish as we wrestle with our brokenness and that of our loved ones. Like the little cedar tree, it may not be easily recognizable.  We have to look for it as Chapman did. Finding it, we begin to enjoy what may be called the "aroma of grace."
Each of us must learn to handle brokenness of one kind or another. How we deal with it determines whether we live well or merely endure life until it ends. Misfortune can make us better or bitter. The good thing is that we have a choice.
         My friend "Miss Jimmy" was a poet. In retirement she became legally blind. But she declined to complain. Instead she chose to think of her blindness as a blessing. “There is so much I would have missed had my sight not failed,” she said.
 “I had not bothered to read the Bible very much," she told me, "but when I became blind, I began to listen to the Bible on cassette tapes. Only then did I understand why it really is the greatest book every written." My wife and I enjoyed tea with Miss Jimmy many times. While we admired her poetry we admired her spirit even more. She was not a whiner.
Fanny Crosby and George Matheson were blind hymn writers but refused to complain about their blindness. Both composed beautiful songs which millions still enjoy singing. They refused to let their brokenness "blind" them to their opportunity to live useful lives.
Alabama’s famous Helen Keller became blind and deaf as a young child. Her attitude was profoundly inspiring. She regarded her handicaps as “mere impertinences of fate.” She said, “I resolved that they should not crush or dwarf my soul, but rather be made to blossom, like Aaron's rod, with flowers.” Can you say “Wow”?
         A good friend made a trip out west one summer. He and his wife drove their motor home through Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, and California to see the sights. He explained why, "I had been diagnosed with an eye disease which could result in blindness in a few years. I wanted to see all that I could see while my vision was still good."
He could have stayed home fretting about the question, "Why is this happeningto me?" Without complaining he began to adjust to the possibility of brokenness. Instead of whining he used his time to design a plan to cope with blindness if it happened.
Brokenness comes soon or late to us all. Whining about it, or asking "Why me?" gets us nowhere. Pain is inevitable but misery is a choice. As we face the pain with honesty and hope, something wonderful can occur. Character can happen. We can become finer people because we have faced our troubles with courage. Courage is contagious. Deal with your brokenness bravely, with a positive spirit, and your example is bound to encourage someone else.
Thankfully you have a choice. You can refuse to whine. You can find a way to smell the "aroma of grace" in your pain. Then the fragrance of your brokenness becomes a sweet perfume to all who savor the essence of your life. + + +