Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Right Fit

Izzy Friedman was what you might call an unforgettable character.

Izzy lived on Deer Isle, Maine, where my mother was born and raised. He owned a clothing store on the island. It was probably the only one.

An outgoing man, Izzy was always excited to see people enter his store. And Izzy was always anxious to please his customers and get a sale. He was nothing if not enthusiastic.

Izzy Friedman was a natural born salesman. You might say he had the gift.

On occasion, customers would attempt to return clothing that didn’t fit. But first, they had to get by Izzy.

And one might say that getting by Izzy wasn’t easy.

“What’s the problem here?” Izzy would ask with a big smile.

When it was the fit, Izzy was prepared:

“If it’s too big,” he’d say, “it will shrink. Too small? It will stretch”.

Izzy didn’t claim that one size fits all. It was more like any size would fit anybody.

How often did Izzy’s logic – and his persuasive manner – prevail? That’s hard to say since I wasn’t there. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

A lot of churches and ministers today are like Izzy Friedman. They want customers and they want sales. Numbers is the game.

Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ too big? Is it too cosmic, too powerful, too holy, and too supernatural? They can shrink it. Is the Gospel too small? Is it too narrow, too intolerant, and too dogmatic? They can stretch it.

Whatever the problem, whatever the objection, whatever the reluctance, these religious salesmen aim to please. They’ll make the Gospel fit. They have to – it’s the only way to get people in the door and keep them in their seats.

Too many churches and too many pastors in America have tried too hard for too long to make Christianity palatable to the postmodern taste. They have used smoke and mirrors, sound and light, and tricks and gimmicks.

They have shrunk, stretched and twisted their message.

As our culture has slouched toward Gomorrah, these shallow attempts at popularity have appeared increasingly pathetic and desperate. People have ended up either cynically rejecting or naively embracing the latest church fad.

Truth can easily get lost in that shuffle – or worse -sacrificed upon the altar of what is mislabeled as “relevance”.

The contemporary church too often longs to be loved by the world. It seeks a credible acceptance of the Christian message – a message too willingly “tailored to fit” the “seeker’s desires”.

We work overtime to find new marketing techniques to sell Christianity to a world grown increasingly hostile to its claims. Tragically, the more we seek to win the world by becoming like the world the more the world holds us in mocking contempt.

That is the sad irony of all this. It cannot possibly succeed, not in the end. Clever tactics may fill a church but they empty the heart and mind of the rigorous truth of the Christian faith. The unsaved have no lasting respect for the apologizing and groveling Christian.

Bait and switch is a poor substitute for authentic Christianity.

The Gospel of Christ – the story of Jesus’ unchanging love and saving grace; his death and resurrection; his perfect humanity and sovereign deity – doesn’t need to be redesigned, reformatted or repackaged. It needs to be preached without compromise and without apology.

We don’t need more accommodation in the evangelical pulpits of this country – we need more courage.

We need more Jerry Mitchells – my friend from California who has been holding forth the Word of Life and preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God at the same church for over a quarter century. Jerry knows God doesn’t pay attention to polls – and neither does Jerry. A gifted communicator, Jerry might have more people at his church if he’d only compromise the truth – just a wee bit. But he’d rather have the approval of God than the praise of men.

May the good Lord increase his kind.

There’s nothing wrong with using technology and crafting creative and appealing strategies. It’s good and necessary that churches upgrade and update their methodologies. But let’s be careful that these methods are our servants, not our masters; our means, not our end.

When he bowed before his Father in the garden, Jesus prayed for us. He asked God to make us “holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth” (John 17: 17, NLT). Jesus added that you and I, as his disciples, would be hated by the world because we do not belong to the world. “The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world” (John 15:19, NLT).

So why should the church mimic the world? Why do we seek so often to fit in when we should stand out?

Jesus warned us against seeking “the approval of others … Popularity contests are not truth contests … Your task is to be true, not popular” (Luke 6:26, The Message).

Now that’s the right fit!

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For Now

He knelt on one knee and narrowed his steely eyes. With a grim but determined gaze he surveyed the broad horizon that lay beyond the fields.

He was deep in thought.

His devoted field hands watched and waited.

The farmer was silent.

This tall, lanky man of the soil, weathered over the years by the unrelenting elements, looked down at the ground and pulled up a solitary plant. Then he again looked up and stared into the distance.

Finally, he spoke.

“An enemy has done this,” he said in a low voice of certainty.

The farmer had planted wheat and had hoped to harvest a good crop. But the enemy had quietly crept in during the dead of night. While the tired laborers slept after planting all day, the evil adversary had sown tares – weeds – among the wheat. Then he had craftily slipped away into the darkness.

After several weeks, as the wheat began to grow, the workers noticed a strange thing. There, growing right alongside the wheat, were weeds! A lot of them.

How could this be?

The foreman came into the farmhouse. “Sir, you better come and look at this.”

“We know the seed you planted was good. You planted in good soil. Now this field is full of weeds.” The foreman’s well-lined face was cast in anguished bewilderment.

“Where did these weeds come from?” he asked in dismay.

The wise farmer knew in an instant. It was the enemy – he had done it.

The workers volunteered to pull up all the weeds. This would aggressively deal with the unwanted infiltration. It would be a decisive defiance of the one who had committed this dastardly midnight deed.

It was the right thing – the only thing – to do. They must have been stunned when the farmer said no.

“If you do,” he explained, “you will also uproot the wheat – sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference -they look alike.”

The farmer rose to his feet and faced his workers.

“No, let them both grow together for now. When the harvest time comes, I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds from the wheat. They’ll know what to do. We’ll gather the wheat and put it in the barn. Then I’ll have the harvesters take all the weeds and bundle them up and burn them in the fire.”

With that, the story Jesus told was over.

The crowd was silent.

The looks on his disciples’ faces must have mirrored the puzzlement on those of the farm hands in this parable. Because as soon as Jesus left the multitude and took his disciples “into the house”, they asked him to explain the meaning of the story. Matthew alone records this particular parable in his gospel (Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43).

Jesus explains it.

He tells them that the field is the world. The good seed “are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world and the reapers are the angels” (Matthew 13: 38, KJV).

When the end of the age comes, Jesus, who is represented here by the farmer and referred to as the Son of Man, “shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire …” (Matthew 13: 41-42, KJV, emphasis added).

This is the great separation – and it shall come.

Some of us might enjoy pulling up a few weeds – now. Battling for social, political and religious reform has been a zealous and time-honored tradition for centuries. Christians and the churches they attend have found no difficulty condemning all that is wrong in the world. Rooting out “all things that offend” in the kingdom of God has been a self-appointed task for many believers. After all, there is much that needs to be set right, much that needs to be changed and much that must be opposed.

The scriptures commend Christian action; courage in the midst of corruption; boldness in the midst of timidity and conscience in the midst of compromise.

For the Christian, there is a God-given charge to keep. In the keeping of it, you and I must be wise as serpents, harmless as doves – and brave as lions.

But in this story, Jesus reminds us that the wheat and the weeds, for now, grow together. This is his plan and his purpose. In every society, in every nation, in every culture; in every church and yes, in every home, weeds will grow. And they will grow alongside the wheat.

They grow too in every heart and in every mind; in every life. None of us escapes it. This is our inner struggle; our constant temptation.

The tension between morality and immorality; between justice and injustice; between good and evil will last until God’s final end game is played out.

Then – and only then – will righteousness finally and forever triumph.

What about those of us who have struggled to grow as wheat amidst the weeds?

What becomes of us in the end?

“Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43, KJV).

It ends well.

But for now…

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Undaunted

People?

They’re only human.

Sometimes you and I are pleasantly surprised.

Someone rises to the occasion and we’re impressed and gratified. Our faith is restored, our hope enlarged.

We didn’t know he had it in him.

On the other hand, who among us hasn’t been disappointed by something someone said or did? It was dumb or rotten, or both. There’s hardly a day goes by when we don’t shake our heads in amazement at the foibles and frailties of the human condition.

Then again, I need not look any further than the mirror to see a prime example of the fallen state of man. From the moment I rise in the morning until I turn off the light that night, I’ve had the world, the flesh and the devil chasing me – whispering in my ear, toying with my pride, distracting me from the better angels and clawing at my conscience.

No wonder I cling to Romans 7.

“I know that nothing good lives in me,” Paul laments, “that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t” (Romans 7:18-19, NLT).

Has ever there been such a candid confession from such a great man? Has there ever been a more brutally honest description of what and who we truly are? The reality may be harsh but it’s the truth of our predicament.

How often have I cried with the apostle, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24, KJV).

The bad news is we’re a mess – fallen creatures living in a fallen world. Unable to save ourselves or even much help ourselves.

The good news is you and I are loved with a love so extraordinary it strains the credulity of heaven itself. Peter says angels have wondered at the love of God and longed to discover its eternal secret. It is a mystery so deep, so broad, so long and so high, Paul tells us it’s the greatest glory of all.

It’s indescribable Paul concludes.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we behold the extreme love of God in all its painful heartbreak and joyful triumph. Nothing reveals the Divine grace more than the Atonement. Nothing assures our eternal future more than the light of Easter morning.

God loved you and me when there was nothing in us to love.

As we enter this most sacred season in Christendom, we need to remember the central transformative truth of what we celebrate.

God loved us in our miserable depravity. He loved us before we could love him or even before we knew him.

Paul writes to Titus on the island of Crete:

“Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other” (Titus 3:3, NLT).

Not a pretty picture. But an accurate one.

On Easter morning, when we go to church, we’ll be tempted to think we’re doing OK. Sure, God saved us, but look what we’re doing for him. We’re not so wretched. We might even deserve our best life now – health, wealth and the entitled blessings of our godly lives.

When we think this way – when we see ourselves in the fabricated countenance of our self-congratulations, we underestimate the love of God and sell short the cross.

What does Paul do in Romans 5?

He glories in the very depth of God’s love. He points to the majesty of the cross.

He lays out our situation with the bark off. He tells it not like we would wish it to be or how we might convince ourselves that it is. He makes us confront ourselves as he once had to confront himself.

Paul challenges us to see ourselves as we truly are. He tells us to survey that wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died – and then pour contempt on all our pride.

“When we were utterly helpless,” he writes to the Romans, “Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners” (Romans 5:6, NLT).

Sinners. That’s what we were – it’s what we still are. Helpless sinners.

You and I might be willing to die for a member of our family – or perhaps a dear friend. We might even be willing to die for a really good person (Romans 5:7).

God went far beyond that.

He sent his only Son to the cruel cross on our behalf while we were the enemies of God.

There wasn’t a blessed thing in us that warranted God’s love – or even his concern. There still isn’t. Before we were born God looked at our lives. He saw the worst in us from the first. He loved us just the same.

When it comes to you and me, God is undaunted. He’s never surprised, never let down, never disillusioned by anything we say or do. He knows who and what we are.

God doesn’t give up on us.

God’s love is amazing. The cross of Jesus Christ is the one symbol of how amazing it is.

We love God only because he first loved us. We chose Christ only because he first chose us – before the worlds were made.

We glory in the cross of Christ because on that cross we see the love of God undaunted.

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He Had a Friend in Him

Thirst.

We need it quenched.

Our bodies can go without many things but we all need water to survive.

The planet needs water. A drought is a devastating thing when it hits. It parches, deprives, and shrivels the life it touches.

Because we can find ourselves in an emotional or spiritual drought, all of us need to be refreshed from time to time. We need some temporary relief from the trials and challenges of living in this world.

A friendship that refreshes is a rare blessing.

The old pop song reminds us that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Of course, that depends.

People are quite different.

Some people lift us up, others drag us down. Some people will bless us while other people bleed us. Being around some people can encourage us. Being in the presence of others is like sitting in a bathtub filled with ink. They depress us. Some folks replenish our strength, others deplete it.

You know them: the people you love to see coming into your day and into your life. They make you glad when they arrive. Being in their company is like uncorking a bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, there are others who simply make you relieved when they leave.

We don’t consider it much, but every one of us, in a multitude of unseen ways, is the dispenser and the recipient of influence.

We impact others – and others impact us.

When he was in prison in Rome, Paul wrote his letters to his young protégé Timothy. In much of this correspondence Paul is wistful and contemplative. These are the great apostle’s last letters before his martyrdom for the cause of Christ.

In his second letter, Paul reflects on the recent events of his active and fascinating life; his ministry of the gospel. He reminds Timothy:

“As you know, everyone from the province of Asia has deserted me –even Phygelus and Hermogones.” (II Timothy 1:15, NLT).

We don’t know anything else about these two men, except that once they were loyal and now they are not. Once they were with Paul, now they have abandoned him. Once they were stand up guys, now they have folded like a bad hand in a poker game.

Perhaps Paul singles them out because in the beginning – when hope and spirits ran high – Phygelus and Hermogones were thought the least likely to jump ship. But jump they did.

In the end, Paul faces death alone.

But as Paul remembers these two who left, he also commends one who didn’t.

“May the Lord show special kindness to Onesiphorus (pronounced “on –ee- sif o- rus”) and all his family because he often visited and encouraged me.” (II Timothy 1:16, NLT, emphasis added).

The King James Version renders Paul’s words: “He oft refreshed me.” (emphasis added). That’s a better word.

In the original Greek in which the apostle wrote, Paul’s meaning is made richer:

“Onesiphorus …often showed me kindness and ministered to my needs – comforting and reviving and bracing me like fresh air!” (The Amplified Bible).

In this narcissistic age of celebrity and self-promotion, it’s easy to overlook the unsung hero. You won’t find a star for Onesiphorus in the Bible’s walk of fame. You won’t read his name in the hallowed Hall of Faith. You won’t meet any children named after him – for obvious and understandable reasons, one supposes.

Yet of all those saints Paul mentions in his various letters to the churches, none is accorded a kinder or fuller tribute.

Notice Paul’s use of the word “often”. Onesiphorus was a faithful friend. He refreshed Paul and bolstered his spirits more than once. And Paul always looked forward to seeing him and staying at his home and visiting with his family.

Paul also remembers: “He was never ashamed of me because I was in chains.” (II Timothy 1:16, NLT). Onesiphorus was a loyal friend who loved and supported and encouraged Paul without question, criticism, condemnation or embarrassment. He was proud to be Paul’s friend, even – and perhaps especially – when the apostle was in prison.

And Paul reminds Timothy that when Paul was in Rome, Onesiphorus “searched everywhere until he found me.” (II Timothy 1: 17, NLT). Onesiphorus was a committed friend. No obstacle, no hardship, no inconvenience, no barrier would ever come between him and the friend he loved and cared about.

Paul praises Onesiphorus for his hard work in the church of Ephesus: “And you know very well how helpful he was …” (I:18, NLT). Onesiphorus was a beneficial friend. He made a positive difference in the lives of others.

Here is the kind of friend we want – and need and should want to be.

I’m thankful I have such friends. What a rich blessing they’ve been to my life.

In the droughts of Paul’s life and ministry – and we know he had them – his precious and loyal friend Onesiphorus was always there to refresh and replenish – to lift up and to cheer and to listen – to laugh and to cry and to pray with Paul.

It’s what friends are for. It’s why we need them – and why they need us.

And so, while his fame is not great, Onesiphorus’ reward in heaven is.

He was Paul’s friend.

What is our impact on others? What sort of an influence do we have in their lives?

What sort of a friend are you?

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