The Accountable Christian

20 Mar

I was wrong. I felt pressured and I snapped at my wife and said somethings I’d later regret bitterly, but it was too late. What could I do to make it better? How could I smooth over those hurt feelings? She said it was “okay,” but I knew better and I felt awful. Have you ever done something like that? What makes you feel guilty and how do you deal with it? Flowers? Dinner out? Offer to do the dishes?

In ancient times, when people felt they had offended God, they offered costly sacrifices. Blood was shed. Our “sin” cost the lives of innocent animals. A priest arrayed in special robes performed a solemn ceremony and we expressed our sorrow with a price. The more elaborate the ceremony and the more costly the sacrifice, the more certain we were that the gift was effective in reconciling us to God.

But now comes Christianity and the end of sacrifice, clergy, elaborate rituals and a palatial temple. For many people, it just didn’t seem to satisfy their deepest need for reconciliation with God.

Do you remember the story of Naaman? He was a Syrian general afflicted with leprosy. Upon learning of the power of the Prophet Elisha, Naaman went to Israel to be healed, but it was too simple. “Go dip yourself seven times in the Jordan River,” the general was instructed. Listen to his response:

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage, (2 Kings 5:11, 12).

Likewise, sometimes the Christian Gospel seems too simple. Human beings seem attracted to pomp and circumstance. We love elaborate rituals and mysterious ceremonies. To simply be forgiven is just too easy and people felt the same way in the first century. Many of the Jewish Christians still felt a longing for the old ways of sacrifice and ritual. That’s one of the reasons the New Testament book of Hebrews was written. Notice chapter 10:

For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins, (Hebrews 10:1b,2)

The writer incisively points out if the temple sacrifices had truly taken away sin, why did they have to keep being repeated year after year? In fact, all the sacrifices did was serve as an annual reminder of our sins (v. 3). It would be like buying your wife an expensive gift to make up for your foolish actions, but every time you saw the present, it just reminded you again and again of how awful you were. Rather than reconcile, it just reminded you of your guilt. How futile! And so:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, (Hebrews 10:11).

Thus, true reconciliation isn’t a matter of repetition – offering the same sacrifice over and over again. Consider the Christian “Plan of Salvation.” It begins when our eyes are opened and we see things the way they really are. That is, we “believe.” Not only is that experience an eye-opener, it cuts us to the heart and we turn around: “repent,” but to ensure our repentance is genuine, we need to “confess.” That means admitting first to ourselves, then to God and to everyone else that we have sinned. At that point, believers are born again, that is, baptized, and their sins are washed away.

Now consider how the same steps can also work in relationships. When I realize, I have hurt someone (the believing stage), it genuinely cuts me to the heart and I begin to behave differently (repentance). It may take great courage, but I need to admit I was wrong (confess). My confession is believable because I have changed my behavior. This is an opportunity for a new beginning – a new birth if you will, in the relationship.

Notice how this approach is different from the first. The old way of dealing with our guilt calls for elaborate sacrifices. The new way calls for a change in behavior. The old way depends on someone else: a priest, a counselor, a friend. The new way places the responsibility on us for our actions. The old way didn’t involve the other person at all. The new requires confession.

Simple? Perhaps, but the Gospel is truly good news for every aspect of our life.

Yawning Your Way Through Worship

13 Mar

It’s something we have felt for a long time, but a book published in 2014 by George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless[1], confirms fewer and fewer Americans are attending church. In the 1990’s, 30% of Americans were classified as “unchurched.” That is “someone who has not attended a Christian church service, other an a special event such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months.” In the 2000’s that number rose to 33%, and in 2014, 43% of Americans were classified at unchurched.

Here is the breakdown for 2014:

  • 10% are “Purely Unchurched – they do not currently and have never attended a church.”
  • 33% are “De-Churched” – They once were active in church but are no longer.”
  • 8% are “Minimally Churched” the attend church infrequently and unpredictably.”
  • 49% are “Actively Churched” and Barna defines that as “Attend church at least once a month.”

The two groups classified as “Churched” are interesting, but the group that worries me most are the “De-Churched.” What happened? Why aren’t they part of our fellowship? I was relieved to learn, according to Barna, that we aren’t actively driving people out of our churches, but the sad truth is, we are boring them to death.

“Our surveys reveal that about one-quarter (24 percent) of the unchurched believe the typical church experience is boring or tiresome. In addition, they don’t see church as a place of meaningful community.”

Barna and I agree the answer isn’t to put on a better show – we don’t need to add pyrotechnics and improve our choreography – what we need is to “do things in and for your community that are valuable, visible, and memorable. … What does your church offer to the churched and churchless people that is too valuable, too meaningful, for them to ignore?”

That is not to say we must focus entirely on community service (as important as that is), but we need to learn to help people discover how relevant a relationship with God and one another is. “Churches should be places where we experience God’s presence in the company of his people. … People don’t come to church for the carnival rides. They come to meet God. … Our studies consistently show a large majority of people leave their church’s service without feeling as though they have connected with God.”

Brothers and sisters, as we gather for worship, fasten your seat belts because we have come to encounter God!

[1] Churchless: understanding today’s unchurched and how to connect with them: based on surveys by Barna Group/ Barna Group; George Barna and David Kinnaman, general editors, 2014.

The Cowardly Christian

6 Mar

Mountain Climbing on Mt. Rainier, Washington, USA

There is a passage in the Apocalypse that startles me. As the book is drawing to a close, Jesus tells John:

 “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death,” (Revelation 21:6-8).

The list startled me. I expected murderers, sexually immoral and liars to burn in hell, but cowards? As I continued to think about this, it dawned on me just how important courage is. Do you remember the Parable of the Talents? The one servant with the one talent failed because he was afraid:

24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you,’” (Matthew 25:24, 25).

“I was afraid.” How often has fear kept us from doing what we know is right? James, the brother of Jesus, said, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” (James 4:17). Theologians call this a “sin of omission.” Contrast that with a “sin of commission” – actively doing wrong. I suspect more people will fail to reach heaven because of sins of omission than any other. Again, Jesus told his followers, his disciples:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” (Matthew 25:41-46).

The more I thought about the sin of being a coward, the more I understood why Jesus is so appalled by the lack of courage in his disciples. A cowardly leader is so afraid of doing the wrong thing that he fails to act and the congregation suffers the consequences. A cowardly Christian is like outdated yeast that fails to leaven the dough and we end up with flat bread instead of a light, flaky, golden loaf. A cowardly church hides behind closed doors and fails to tell the world of a loving Savior.

So how do we learn to be courageous Christians? Courage isn’t something we think about. It is something we do. It’s time to step out of our comfort zones and be agents of change – the salt and light that Jesus expects us to be (Matthew 5:13-16).

 

Papa Was Right (Maybe)

27 Feb

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel

My grandfather was a huge influence in my life. He was a very small, dark Oklahoman, but had a ready wit and loved a good story. Papa was also very wise. For example, he noted that only fat people eat diet food, so if you want to avoid being overweight, you should avoid diet food, at least according to my grandfather. Likewise, Papa was a practical man. He insisted, “Life is uncertain so eat dessert first.” Papa also insisted that we should pray after meals instead of before so we would know just how thankful to be. It turns out, Papa wasn’t too far off base. The Jewish people, based on Deuteronomy 8:10, say the blessing after the meal!

“When you have eaten, and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”

On the other hand, Jesus gave thanks sometimes before (Luke 24:30), and sometimes afterwards (Luke 22:20). So why do Christians say their “blessing” over the meal before enjoying it? Some scholars believe the practice is tied to Jews and Gentiles eating together.

It must have been very hard for someone like Peter, a Jew, who had never eaten anything “unclean” (Acts 10:14), to enjoy a meal of forbidden food (Galatians 2:12). Perhaps that’s why Paul told Timothy, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” In other words, prayers make the food acceptable to eat, so it would make sense for Peter to pray before the meal.

But whether we pray before, after, or both, thanking God for our food is a wonderful practice. First, it cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” – an essential Christian virtue. I remember watching an old Walter Brennan movie where Brennan played a cantankerous old farmer. As he dug into the family meal his wife chastised him and insisted they say grace before they ate. I’ll never forget his bitter prayer: “Lord, we ploughed the field, planted the seed, hoed, watered and harvested the crop, but we give you thanks anyway.” His prayer reflected his sad character. How much sweeter is a thankful spirit!

Second, thanking God for our meals teaches us to depend on Him Who provides us with food, and shelter and clothing (Acts 17:25).

Finally, saying grace is a wonderful opportunity to teach our children to pray. Don’t you remember how special you felt when your father asked you to lead the family prayer at the dinner table? So, go ahead, take a moment to bow your head and thank the Lord for his love at every meal – even if, as Papa advised, it’s after dessert.

Welcome Home

15 Feb
Church of Christ Groton, Connecticut

Church of Christ
Groton, Connecticut

We’ve come over 3,000 miles to settle into our new home on the Atlantic Coast of New England and the contrasts to San Diego are startling. The sun sets over the Pacific, but it rises over the Atlantic. Someone described Southern California as a “parking lot that moves at 70 miles per hour.” Rush hour on route 12 which runs in front of the church in Groton, Connecticut and our home, means four cars at the stop light turning into the Navy base. There are some obvious differences: San Diego rarely (if ever) sees snow. In fact, people there are startled by rain. Just after we unloaded the U-Haul truck into the parsonage, we had over a foot of snow to celebrate our arrival. Perhaps it’s the contrast to the dazzling, white, blanket of snow, but I’ve never seen such blue skies as those we have seen in the past two weeks in Connecticut.

On the other hand, some things remain the same. That’s the beauty of being a part of God’s Family. Wherever you go in the world, you are home. I remember many years ago when I was a young soldier away from home for the first time. I was stationed in Berlin, Germany and the first thing I did when I arrived was search out the church. It was different. Instead of calling themselves the “Church of Christ,” they chose to call themselves the “Gemeinde Kristi.” (The German word for “Church” is too formal and cold to describe the fellowship we enjoy.) Likewise, the little group of believers met in a large, two-story home instead of a formal building surrounded by a parking lot.

On that first Saturday, when I nervously knocked on the door, I was met by a wonderful, round-faced, white-haired woman, Marianne, who didn’t speak a word of English. That was okay because I didn’t speak nearly enough German to carry on a conversation. All she knew was that I was an American believer and that made me family. She welcomed me into her home, served me cookies and tea and showed me the family photo albums chatting away (in German) as if I was a long- lost cousin – and I was!

Jan and Dixie and I have come to work with the church in Groton, Connecticut. It’s much, much smaller than the church in San Diego and they don’t have nearly the staff (just me) or the finances that Canyon View enjoyed, but what impresses us isn’t what they lack – it’s what they have!

Our truck was met by Sue who had stocked the pantry and the fridge and even gave us enough home-made chicken noodle soup to eat on for a week! The next morning people just kept coming and coming and coming and carrying in our boxes and belongings. The woodshed in back was packed with firewood for the stove and Wednesday night after services (which consisted of a delightful meal accompanied by stories and songs and prayer) the men packed into our living room to demonstrate their fire-building skills in our wood stove. Everyone had advice and suggestions on how to get the most heat and survive a New England winter. Then right on cue, the snow began to fall.

Can you imagine what it felt like to sit in my chair in the living room with my feet propped up on an ottoman with a hot cup of coffee and a good book by the fire? Outside the bay window everything was buried under new fallen snow, but we were snug and even Phoebe our old cat was curled up by the warmth of the woodstove.

So, what does this little dynamo of a congregation have? First, leadership. I believe “A congregation is no stronger than her leaders” and we have two amazing Shepherds. Notice I didn’t say “managers” or “visionaries” (although they are that too.) Biblical leaders – call them elders or overseers, presbyters or pastors – are first concerned about people and their souls. Deacons can take care of the physical stuff, budgets and buildings, but Shepherds are called to care for souls. On the Judgment Day, the Shepherds won’t be questioned about paint chips and carpet samples. The Great Shepherd will want to know what happened to His lambs.

Murray and Dorothea are retired after serving twenty-years with East European Mission in Vienna. Murray’s ancestors helped settle Connecticut and their love for this area is obvious. We don’t say much about the role of an elder’s wife, but Dorothea is exemplary. She and Murray work together in a beautiful way as a team.

Our other elder, Jim and his wife Denise, are perfect for the mission of this congregation. We are located just across the street from the main entrance to the Navy’s submarine base and Jim is a former submarine officer. He shares the responsibilities for leading singing and teaches the Sunday morning Adult Bible School class. I’ve never known an elder more loved by the children than Jim. Likewise, I’ve known churches where Paul’s admonition that elders be “able to teach” is brushed aside, but both Jim and Murray are excellent teachers.

There is one more imperative quality for an elder in my opinion and that’s having a heart for hospitality. Elders who open their homes understand how important that virtue is for church growth. Again, it’s an easy quality to dismiss, but damnable when it is lacking. I know it sounds trivial, but Jan and I were truly impressed when Jim and Denise opened their home to the entire congregation for their fourteenth Super Bowl party! There were TVs everywhere and food and drink and laughter and stories and Jan and I knew we had found a new home in Connecticut.

It takes more than just good leaders to have a dynamic congregation. It takes brothers and sisters with Nehemiah’s “will to work” and judging by how our new family welcomed us, Groton feels like home!

Leaders, family, and a love of the Lord: I’m excited about our future together.

A Cup of Coffee and Granny’s Bible

9 Jan

img_0262I had to get out of the office so I could focus on my class preparation. There were too many distractions and too many people dropping by, but when I settled down in the diner with my hot cup of coffee and my laptop, a young girl in the booth next to me asked, “What are you reading?” I took a deep breath, smiled and answered, “The Bible.”

“Oh, that old book,” she replied. “My grandmother left me her Bible when she died, but I just couldn’t get into it.”

“Did it sound a bit like Shakespeare?” I asked.

“Yeagh,” she smiled. “I guess it did. I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why should I bother reading the Bible anyway?”

“Was it important to your granny? I asked.

“Yes. She read it all the time. Kept it next to her bed in the home,” she answered.

I put down my coffee and looked at her. “It’s a curious book.” I closed my Bible so we could read the cover. “Do you see it’s full name?” I asked. “It’s called the ‘Holy’ Bible because the word ‘Holy” means ‘special.’ It’s a unique book, unlike any other.” She picked up her coffee and came over to my booth and we began to talk. “Let me see if I can give you some reasons to pick your Bible up again,” I said.

“The Bible is a very old book. In fact, some of the oldest parts of the Bible were written over 3,500 years ago and the most recent parts were written nearly 2,000 years ago. The fact that it has survived at all is amazing. It was originally written on perishable material like cured animal skins and a fragile material made from plants called “papyrus.” Many ancient books have perished through benign neglect, but the Bible has even survived determined efforts to destroy it!”

“There are a lot of really old books though aren’t there?” she asked.

“That’s true, but the Bible is different. For example, it doesn’t reflect the common errors of its day,” I answered. “Think about it. Egyptian medical books from the time of Moses prescribe animal feces, crocodile teeth, and other similar remedies for disease.”

“If men had written the Bible from their own unaided wisdom, the same silly ideas we find in other ancient books which treat scientific matters would be found in it. How shall we explain their absence in Scripture?” — Rubel Shelly.

She stopped for a minute to think. “So the Bible doesn’t do that?” she asked. Then she took a sip of her coffee and continued. “But I’ve always heard that the Bible contains a bunch of errors. In fact, I’ve heard it is filled with mistakes.”

Now it was my turn to sip my coffee. “The ‘errors’ of the Bible are a slippery lot. The list keeps changing! Relevant research by historians, archaeologists, and scientists have always settled every dispute. For example, before the 20th century, scholars thought the book of Acts was full of mistakes. Let’s look at just one. Luke, the author of Acts, called the rulers of the city of Thessalonica in Greece ‘politarchs.’ Scholars said that was an obvious ‘mistake’ since not a single inscription could be produced using this term. Today we can point to nearly 70 inscriptions that use it and over 40 percent of those are from Thessalonica itself!”[1]

“Yes, but I’ve heard that the Bible has been changed through the centuries. Couldn’t people just have edited out embarrassing stuff?”

“A lot of people think that,” I said. “Some people believe the church changed the wording. Others think books were added to it and still others believe things were taken out. What do you think?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, a lot can happen over 4,000 years!”

“William Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago. How can you be sure the Romeo and Juliet we are reading is the same as the one he wrote?” I asked.

“Can’t we just look at his first manuscript?” she asked.

“We don’t have it,” I answered.

Of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, no manuscript in his autograph is known, and much the same is true of the productions of the other playwrights who worked in the great period of drama from 1580 to 1642. …. The facts can be summarized in this way: no play by a professional playwright which was successful on the stage and which was printed before 1642 is known to have come down to our time or near it.[2]

I continued. “So what scholars do is gather up as many copies as they can find from ancient times and compare them. The more copies we have, the more certainty we have about the veracity of a reading.”

“Well that makes sense I suppose.” The waitress refilled our cups.

“With the risk of boring you,” I apologized, “let me share some statistics with you. You’ve heard of Julius Caesar?” I asked.

“Roman Emperor,” she answered.

“A Plus! The Emperor is famous for his book the Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.). There several manuscripts of it, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day.”

“Okay,” she replied.

“The same is true of most ancient books. There are only a handful of copies and most of those are dated hundreds of years after they were originally written.”

Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC-AD 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of has two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogue dc Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals. — F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

“Now let’s look at the New Testament written about 2,000 years ago. There are over 5,000 ancient Greek manuscripts and over 20,000 ancient translations so we’re pretty sure we know what it originally said.”

“Okay, okay,” she said moving towards the outside edge of the booth.

“Wait,” I pleaded. “Before you go, let me give you two suggestions that will help you read it and three good reasons why you should.”

“This is beginning to sound like a sermon,” she protested.

I laughed and said, “That’s what you get when you drink coffee with a preacher!”

How to Read the Bible

  1. Use a Good Translation – the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. Keep Granny’s Bible with your precious keepsakes, but read the Bible in a modern translation.
  2. In the beginning, some parts of the Bible will be more interesting than others. I recommend new readers start with the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Then get involved with a good Bible class to help you read the rest of this amazing book

Reasons to Read the Bible

  1. The Bible has an amazing history – It’s a very old book that is just as popular today as it was thousands of years ago. No other book compares in terms of popularity and circulation. The entire Bible is available in 554 languages. The New Testament is available in 518, and parts of the Bible have been translated into another 2,932 languages and dialects.
  2. No other book has had as much influence on western thought and literature. If you want to understand culture, you need to be familiar with the Bible.
  3. But the most important reason of all is the claim that the Bible makes to be the Word of God. Think about it! If it truly comes from God and not just people thinking about God, then no other book is as important as the Bible. When you read the Bible, God is speaking to you!

 

[1] Politarch. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

 

[2] Elizabethan Handwriting, 1500-1650: A Manual, by Giles E. Dawson and Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton (1966)

 

A 200 Year Old Solution

30 Dec

mcheyneRobert Murray M’Cheyne (pronounced “Mak-shayn”) was a minister for the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) from 1835 – 1843. Although he died of typhus at age 29, M’Cheyne left an incredible legacy. He was a very pious young man, praying for two hours every day (and six on Sunday), but what he is best known for is his “Daily Bible Reading Plan.” It’s a very simple schedule that allows the reader to completely read the Bible through once a year and the New Testament and Psalms through twice. It only requires reading four chapters a day.

Let’s look at the reading schedule for January 1st. John R.W. Stott calls these readings the “Four Beginnings.” Read Genesis 1 – the beginning of the world. Then read Ezra 1 – the new beginning for Israel, followed by Matthew 1 – the beginning of the Gospel, and finish with Acts 1 – the beginning of the Church. On January 2, read Genesis 2, Ezra 2, Matthew 2, and Acts 2. On January 3, read Genesis 3, Ezra 3, Matthew 3, and Acts 3. Simple! Now notice the beauty of this system.

When people set out to read the Bible, they either begin with Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, or they begin with Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. If you begin with Genesis intending to read through the entire Bible sequentially, most people give up somewhere in the dense book of Leviticus when we encounter all the rules for the Jewish people. On the other hand, if you begin with Matthew, the first chapter contains the genealogy of Jesus. Just pronouncing the names is a huge challenge for most people and, frankly, not that inspirational so many good intensions are shipwrecked here.[1] M’Cheyne’s plan avoids this problem. He surrounds Matthew 1 with the story of the creation of the world in Genesis 1, Ezra’s amazing story in Ezra 1, and the inspiring story of the beginning of the Church in Acts chapter 1 and so it is for the rest of the Bible. Brilliant!

In our next article, we’ll try to answer the question, “Why read such an old book?” Meanwhile, here is M’Cheyne’s plan for January:

Daily Bible Reading for January

Daily Bible Reading for January

[1] Although time spent studying this text is truly rewarding! See my articles, “Count Down to Christmas,” parts 1, 2, and 3.

Heaven, We Have a Problem

25 Dec

john-with-bibleAccording to Pew Research, America has a literacy problem. “When was the last time you read a book? For almost 1 in 4 of us, it was more than a year ago, according to Pew Research. That’s three times the number who didn’t read a book in 1978.” [1] The problem is even worse than that because, although Christians claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God, we aren’t reading it.

“A recent LifeWay Research study found only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40 percent of the people attending read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost 1 in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible—essentially the same number who read it every day.”

What about in Great Britain? The United Kingdom Bible Society surveyed British children and found many couldn’t identify common Bible stories. When given a list of Bible stories, a staggering 59% didn’t know the story of Jonah came from the Bible and almost 1 in 3 didn’t know the story of the birth of Jesus was in the Bible! Parents didn’t fare much better. Around 30 percent didn’t know the stories of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the Good Samaritan are in the Bible! Worse, 27% think the story of Superman is in the Bible. 1 in 3 believes Harry Potter is a Bible story and more than half (54%) believe The Hunger Games is or might be a story from the Bible!

It shouldn’t be this way! Nine out of ten American homes (Christian or not) have at least one Bible in them. The average American (Christian or not) owns at least three Bibles.

What can we do?

  1. We need to confess our lack of study and ask God for forgiveness.
  2. Set aside a regular time – even five minutes a day – to read the Bible.
  3. Use a Daily Bible Reading plan to guide you. I highly recommend Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s.
  4. Join one a small group to help you study. A recent study “shows that as Christians increase their participation in small groups, their Bible engagement scores go up.”

Where should I start?

In my next blog, I will introduce my favorite Daily Bible Reading plan. It was written by a Church of Scotland minister over 200 years ago and it still blesses my life.

[1] All of the quotations used in this article were downloaded from http://www.smallgroups.com/articles/2015/epidemic-of-bible-illiteracy-in-our-churches.html?paging=off published by Christianity Today.

Failure Isn’t Final

19 Dec

boatyardOnce Jesus told a story about a rich man who took a journey to a faraway land. Before he left, the rich man entrusted his money to three men. To one man he gave five bags of gold. To another he gave two bags of gold and to the third man, he gave a single bag of gold. It was more money that the poor man had ever seen before. Can you imagine him holding the bag? Looking inside? Weighing and worrying about so much money? Worse, the wealthy man expected his three servants to put the money to work. The first two did so and reaped enormous profits. They doubled his wealth. Five became ten and two became four, but the man with a single bag of gold was so frightened he buried the money and waited for the rich man to return. Let’s listen to the conversation:

“Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 25:24–30). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

I’ve often wondered what the Master would have said if the fearful man would have tried and failed? “Master I did my best, but I failed.”

Have you ever considered the virtues of failure? Failure should be a learning experience. I’ve been told Edison burned up hundreds of filaments as he was trying to invent a practical light bulb. When asked about his failures, he objected strongly. We haven’t failed! We’ve just learned another material isn’t suitable. There is a true story about a project manager at IBM who lost the company 10 million dollars. Dejectedly, he walked into the president’s office and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ll want my resignation. I’ll be gone by the end of the day.”           The president’s response showed his understanding of the value of failure. He said, “Are you kidding? We’ve just invested 10 million dollars in your education. We’re not about to let you go. Now get back to work.”

Consider what these great men have said about failure:

  • Admiral Hyman G. Rickover said, “Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.”
  • Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, promised, “Success is on the far side of failure.” He also observed, “If you want to double your success rate, double your failure rate.”
  • Winston Churchill said, “Success is never final. Failure is never final. It is courage that counts.”
  • D. Mattiesen observed, “Failure is the true test of greatness.”

Perhaps one man illustrates the failure principle best:

  • 1831 He failed in business
  • 1832 He was defeated in legislature
  • 1833   He again failed in business
  • 1834   He was elected to the legislature
  • 1835   His wife to be died.
  • 1836   He had a nervous breakdown
  • 1838   He was defeated for Speaker of the House
  • 1840   He was defeated for Elector
  • 1850   A son died
  • 1855   He was defeated for the Senate
  • 1856   He was defeated for Vice President
  • 1858   He was defeated for the Senate
  • 1860   This man, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President.

So, while we don’t know for sure what the Master would have said to the one talent man if he would have tried and failed, I suspect this adage would have applied: “A friend is someone who, when you fail, doesn’t think it’s a permanent condition.”

Alan Loy McGinnis, in his book, Bringing Out the Best in People, wrote: “strong people make as many and as ghastly mistakes as weak people. The difference is that strong people admit them, laugh at them, learn from them. That is how they become strong.”

Philip C. Brewer composed these, “Paradoxes of a Man of God:”

 Strong enough to be weak;
Successful enough to fail;
Busy enough to take time;
Wise enough to say, “I don’t know”;
Serious enough to laugh;
Rich enough to be poor;
Right enough to say, “I’m wrong”‘
Compassionate enough to discipline;
Conservative enough to give freely;
Mature enough to be childlike;
Righteous enough to be a sinner;
Important enough to be last;
Courageous enough to fear God;
Planned enough to be spontaneous;
Controlled enough to be flexible;
Free enough to endure captivity;
Knowledgeable enough to ask questions;
Loving enough to be angry;
Great enough to be anonymous;
Responsible enough to play;
Assured enough to be rejected;
Stable enough to cry;
Victorious enough to lose;
Industrious enough to relax;
Leading enough to serve.

Finally, Emilie Griffin believes, “The Lord loves us — perhaps most of all — when we fail and try again.”

 

Leadership Paradoxes

15 Dec

John McKeelOver the years, I’ve accumulated a few scars. Some of them are expected. Once I received a phone call from a counselor warning me his client had made a credible threat against my life for helping his wife escape to a safe house rather than being repeatedly abused. Another time my Army training helped me protect a teen girl who was escaping her pimp, but those are expected wounds. Those are the scars you can point to with pride. But there are other scars – lasting wounds that will never fully heal. Those are the scars that come from people claiming to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Big fish in little ponds have no interest in expanding their world.
  • You are often treated like a “hireling” by people who should know the difference between your ministry being “just a job” or a divine calling.
  • Some people believe just because you are a minister, they can say anything they like about you or your family or the people you care about. You’re a safe target. You won’t strike back.
  • It doesn’t matter that you have 12 years of education, know five languages, and have 40 years of experience, your answers mean nothing if they don’t happen to agree with their opinions or translation or favorite preacher.
  • Worst of all is the gossip, but of course Christians don’t gossip. They just share prayer requests.

At times like that, I fanaticize about becoming a parking lot attendant, but I can’t give it up. There is a fire in my bones that I can’t explain. So, I weep in the middle of the night. I spend more time in prayer and I reach into my “Bad Day File.” There I’ve saved letters and cards to show me my ministry has made a difference. There I keep inspirational tidbits that remind me why I am doing what I am doing.

I’ve lost the original source for this list of “Leadership Paradoxes,” but they have been a great comfort to me over the years and I hope they will inspire you not to give up either!

Leadership Paradoxes

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest ideas. Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  9. People really need help, but may attack you if you do help them. Help them anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best anyway.

The value in an action lies, not in the response it will receive, but in the quality of the action itself. Doing what is right, because it is right and honors God, is abundantly worthwhile, whether or not it is understood, appreciated, or reciprocated.