Follow Through

Before the Storm

I was helping a friend move his boat from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico when one thing after another went wrong. We were nearly eighty miles off the coast of Ensenada, in the middle of a gale, when the drive shaft uncoupled from the engine. The boat began to fill with seawater as the storm intensified. We turned back but as we did the wind blew the mainsail into four ragged pieces and the bilge pump gave out. That night it looked like we were going to get wet.

For the next three days we struggled against the wind, the waves and exhaustion. Three times we tried to radio a “May Day” distress call but in the hurry to leave port, my friend hadn’t hooked up the antenna to the radio on his boat. The farthest we could broadcast was three miles and there wasn’t another boat for fifty. Things were going from bad to worse. The life raft hadn’t been serviced since 1976. Odds were it wouldn’t work. Our best hope was to press on under just the tiny jib sail and try to run aground somewhere on the desolate coast. We were alone – all alone.

I remember one twelve-hour stint at the wheel. Wave after wave broke over the boat drenching us. The wind chilled us to the bone as we huddled together in the cockpit trying to stay warm. Things were desperate. We found ourselves far to the south trying to push around a point and an island as the next day broke. All that stormy day we tacked back and forth, trying to move a little farther north against the wind so we could make our way into open sea. Suddenly, the useless radio crackled to life: “Sailboat, are you in trouble?” Someone saw us! Someone was out there! I can’t describe the emotions that swept over me. We weren’t alone! We talked and life was full of promise. Someone could help us! The sun went down and we spent another night on the stormy sea but it was going to be okay. Someone knew we were in trouble and could help us. We finally passed the island the next morning – but we never heard from our friend again.

Yes, another day and another night found us safely anchored in a little bay beside a wonderful village and our ordeal was over but I had to wonder, “What happened to that man who promised to help us?” Did some horrible fate overtake him or had he just lost interest? Was he distracted or was he insincere? I’ll probably never know. He promised to help us but never followed through.

People around us are lost in a far worse storm. We are God’s lifeguards and people need our message of safety and hope but it does no good if we don’t follow through. Jesus told a parable about two sons whose father asked to work in the field. The first said “No” but then changed his mind and went. The second said he would go but didn’t (Matthew 21:28 ff.). Judge for yourself who was the better son. It’s time for us to follow through!

Did Paul Ever Apologize?

 

Perga is a swamp. After the delights of their preaching tour through Cyprus, Perga in Pamphylia must have seemed like the end of the world. The air was stagnant and infested with mosquitoes. To refined Jews, the pagans who lived there must have seemed a godless race. On top of it all, Paul might have contracted malaria. John Mark had had enough. He packed up and returned to Jerusalem. Barnabas stayed with Paul and managed to get his friend inland, to a higher clime and a healthier environment. Later Paul wrote to the Galatians who lived in the highlands north of Perga, “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. … For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me,” (Galatians 4:13-15).

It’s easy to understand why John Mark fled home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13) and we can understand why Paul was reluctant to trust Mark after that experience (Acts 15:38). On the other hand, Barnabas was adamant about giving John Mark a second chance but Paul was equally insistent not to. Once trust has been broken, it’s very hard to regain. The dispute became so great; the two old friends went their separate ways. History tells us Barnabas and Mark went to Egypt while the Bible describes Paul’s journey with Silas and Timothy back through Galatia and on to Europe.

So why didn’t Paul forgive John Mark and let him go with them? I’d like to think Paul did forgive Mark for deserting him but does that mean Paul was obligated to go on as if nothing had happened? Trust is a precious commodity. It must be earned. Once it has been lost, it is hard to regain.

So how did John Mark react to all of this? When he heard about the plans for a second missionary journey, did he ask for a second chance? Or, was he so ashamed of his behavior he didn’t even dare to dream about going with them? Was it wholly Barnabas’ idea? After all Barnabas was John Mark’s relative. Did Barnabas seek Mark out after he and Paul decided to split up?

How would you react if you were given a second chance? Forgiveness is a beautiful, energizing thing, but here is the point. Mark didn’t talk Paul into trusting him. I like to think John Mark worked harder and longer and became worthy of the apostle’s trust. I know Mark’s reputation was restored. Peter calls him “my son” (1 Peter 5:13) and Paul told Timothy to “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry,” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Yes, trust can be lost, but our God is a God of new beginnings. Trust can be restored.  It was true for John Mark and it can be true for us.

Making Memories

Life is a joyous, glorious adventure! Of course Yvonne Chouinard, the famous mountain climber, points out, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong!” But that’s what makes a good story isn’t it?

When I was preparing to officiate at my first wedding, I was very nervous. That was back in the days when weddings were very formal affairs with strict protocols. The friends of the bride sat on one side and the friends of the groom sat on the other. Everyone had to stand at a particular point and sit at a different one. I was really worried about getting it right so I visited my octogenarian mentor, Maurice Meredith. Maurice could “wax an elephant” (speak eloquently) in the ol’ time style but he also had a bit of a joyful imp in his soul. He loved riding an old “beach cruiser” bicycle round the trailer park grinning like a kid with what little hair he had streaming out behind him in the wind. But on a good day Maurice could string together a sermon that would bring the strongest men to tears. So I sat down on a stack of books in his study (there were so many books in his tightly packed office, there wasn’t any room for chairs) and he walked me through the wedding ceremony one more time.

“Now when you get to the part about exchanging the rings,” he said, “and if everything has gone perfectly…” I could tell this was the important part – a secret to be passed down from one generation of ministers to the next. I leaned in to hear with my pencil poised over my notebook. Maurice looked around, grinned and whispered conspiratorially, “… drop the ring.”

“What?”

“Drop the ring,” he repeated seriously.

“Why?” I objected.

“Because if you don’t, they won’t have anything to remember,” Maurice concluded and he sat back to let this truth sink in.

That’s brilliant! Think about the weddings you’ve attended. We remember “the little flower girl” or “Uncle Henry” or the photographer who fell into the baptistery. It’s true. If everything goes according to plan, we have nothing to remember, nothing to talk about.

So think about Maurice’s advice the next time things don’t go the way you’re expecting and just say to yourself, “We’re not making mistakes – we’re making memories!”

Lip Synch Christianity

My third grade teacher was a frustrated music major. All year long she tried to turn us into a children’s chorus. The pressure was on. If you wanted good grades, you had to sing well, smile and learn the steps to her choreography. Having grown up in the church, singing was easy. Without my front teeth, smiling was a bit more challenging but I never could get the dance steps down.

Be that as it may, I found myself standing with the chorus as Mrs. French was making her final selections of the members for her choir. I was sweating bullets! She conducted with both hands, mouthing the words and listening to us. When she found someone who didn’t quite fit in, she would look at them, grimace and then jerk her head. You were out and had to sit at your desk with the other rejects. I sang with all my heart. “Buffalo girls won’t you come out tonight, come out tonight come out tonight!” (What is a “buffalo girl” anyway?)

Then she was looking at me! My stomach was turning flip-flops. I couldn’t escape her gaze. Suddenly I came upon a brilliant plan. Instead of taking a chance on singing the wrong note, I just wouldn’t sing at all! I could mouth the words and pretend to sing. It was brilliant. I was lip-synching before lip-synching was cool! Now I was truly smiling but Mrs. French cocked her ear and then looked directly at me. I was busted. She jerked her head and I took my seat. The shame, the guilt was overwhelming. Never again would I sing with the chorus.

It reminds me of a story Jesus told about three men who were entrusted with sums of money. The first two invested their trust wisely and made a profit for their master but the third man was so afraid, he didn’t even deposit the money in the bank to draw a tiny amount of interest.

Have you ever let fear keep you from trying? How many Christians are content to simply “lip-synch” their faith by putting their time in sitting on something called a “pew” rather than boldly participating in the greatest adventure of their life?

Stop lip-synching your faith and start to sing!

Honest to God

Preachers point out how hymns often make liars out of us (“Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold…”). Maybe we can excuse that as poetic license or just stating our good intentions. On the other hand, people are often dishonest in prayer: “Thank you for the wonderful day” but inside it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.

How can we be dishonest in prayer? It’s human nature to think some matters are too trivial to pray about. “The Creator of the Universe isn’t interested in my frustrations with the phone company.” That’s not true. God has invited us to share our whole life with Him. He is interested in our growth and that requires transparency on our part.

Likewise there are some things we’d rather not talk about. That’s true in marriage (or any relationship for that matter) and it’s true in prayer. A man came home drunk one night. He staggered into the house and his sweet wife helped him into bed. As she pulled the covers up and kissed his head she asked, “Charles, would you like me to say a prayer?”

In his drunken stupor he mumbled something she took to be a “Yes” and so she began, “Heavenly Father, please forgive my drunken husband…” The startled man opened his eyes and objected, “Don’t tell him I’m drunk! Tell him I’m sick!”

There are also times when we are angry with God but we are afraid to admit it. “Why did this have to happen to me?” Still we say our prayers and pretend everything is fine. Job had the courage (or the maturity) to ask the tough questions. He was honest with God and we call Job blessed.

The point of all this is growth. Before we can be honest with God, we must be honest with ourselves and so the discipline of prayer calls us into a totally transparent relationship with God. It calls us to be honest to God.

A Delicious Sin

Some wag once observed, “Christians don’t gossip, they just share ‘prayer requests.’” Gossip and slander are damnable but the problem, as Solomon points out is, gossip so “delicious.” Whole magazines at the checkout counter are devoted to it and unfortunately, you can hear otherwise good Christians slandering other Christians. In hushed voices tinged with concern they begin:

“I love brother Smith dearly but…”

“If they were my children…”

“You know the trouble with …”

“It’s so sad. I really want to help…”

“If I were in his shoes…”

One of my favorite authors, William Barclay, describes:

“The word that James uses for to speak harshly of, or, to speak evil of, is the verb katalalein. Usually this verb means to speak evil of someone else in that person’s absence, to criticize, to insult, to slander someone when he is not there to defend himself. This sin of slander and of insult and of evil-speaking is condemned all through the Bible…In the Pauline letters katalalia, the noun, is translated back-biting.… Katalalia is the sin of those who meet in corners and gather in little groups and pass on confidential tidbits of whispered information which destroy the reputation and good name of those who are not there to defend themselves.… People are slow to realize that there are few sins which the Bible so unsparingly condemns as the sin of irresponsible and malicious gossip.”

No sin is so universally condemned! God condemns it, “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off,” (Psalm 101:5). Paul condemns it (2 Corinthians 12:20). Peter condemns it (1 Peter 2:1). James condemns it (James 4:11-12).

You can guard against gossip by asking yourself three questions before you open your mouth:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary?

Before I close today’s article, did you hear about ….

Purple

We take colored cloth for granted but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, in days gone by, the cost of a piece of fabric was directly related to its color because of the expense and the difficulties in dyeing material. The most expensive color of all was purple.

Purple dye was extracted from the glands of certain tiny mollusks. According to Greek legend, Hercules discovered this secret when his hungry dog began eating the shellfish on the beach and the meat dyed the dog’s lips purple!

In 1204, when Byzantium was sacked, the last of the men who knew the secret process for making “Tyrian Purple” died, however Pliny the Elder had recorded the process long ago and in 1993, a retired English chemist, John Edmonds, uncovered the secret. (You can see it on YouTube: http://www.imperial-purple.com/clips.html .)

The dye was extremely expensive to produce. David Jacoby remarks that “twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single garment.” It was so expensive that only royalty could afford it hence the phrase “born to the purple.”

Purple plays an important role in the New Testament too. Herod Antipas arrayed Jesus in one of his old purple robes to mock the Lord (Mark 15:17). The Rich Man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus “was clothed in purple and fine linen,” (Luke 16:19). The Great Prostitute of Revelation “was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls,” (17:4).

Since only the very wealthy could afford true purple garments, there was a demand for a cheaper imitation. The people of Thyatira discovered the root of the madder plant that grew there could produce a very similar color inexpensively and so Lydia from Thyatira, the first convert in Philippi, had a very lucrative import business as a “seller of purple,” (Acts 16:14).

In contrast, Christ the King is clothed in white – “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” (Mark 9:3) – and, if we are faithful, so will we: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life,” (Revelation 3:5).

Casting Stones

One of the most beloved stories from the life of Christ involves a scandalous sinner. She was caught “in the very act” of adultery and dragged before Jesus to test him:

 

They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

— John 8:3-6

 

Do you remember what Jesus did next? He didn’t argue with them. He didn’t give a long sermon. He just stooped down and started writing in the dirt with his finger.

Have you ever wondered what he was writing? Some say he started writing scripture quotations. Others say Jesus looked at each one in the crowd and started writing down their sins like a spiritual accountant. I don’t know what he wrote, but I do know what he said after “they kept on questioning him.”

Jesus stood up and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” At that the crowd melted away in shame.

The Apostle John was there that day and heard Jesus speak. Much later in his life John wrote to Christians, “If we,” (John was speaking to us) “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:8, 9).

 

We’re not perfect – Just forgiven!

Buy a Box of Bandaids

Jesus reserved some of his sharpest criticisms for the Pharisees, the extremely religious people of his time. Even the rabbis described seven different kinds of Pharisees. One of them was called the “bruised and bleeding Pharisee.” This poor man had trouble dealing with the temptations that were all around him. When he saw a beautiful woman, he would shut his eyes and, as a consequence, he was always tripping over things and walking into walls, hence “bruised and bleeding.”

It’s easy to identify with this poor fellow. Temptations seem to be all around us and it’s hard to know how to deal with them. Jesus didn’t make it any easier on us when he said, “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell,” (Matthew 5:28-30).

Let me make four suggestions. First, be careful how you dress and how you behave. It is one thing to be attractive and it is quite another to cause other people to sin!

Second, even if you are careful, temptation is bound to come. Have you ever been surprised by the results of an innocent internet search? Just remember Martin Luther’s observation. “You may not be able to stop a bird from landing in your head but you can keep them from building a nest!”

Third, remember the old adage: “nature abhors a vacuum.” If you want to get a handle on your thoughts, you have to think about something else. Just try not thinking about poisonous snakes. How are you doing? It seems all I can do is think about rattlesnakes crawling out of the canyon and into my garage until I substitute a different thought – like thinking about chocolate!

Fourth, keep it in context! It is wrong to treat people as things and that’s exactly what lust does. It is the desire to use someone. But if you put a person “in context” – she is someone’s wife, daughter, sister (or he is someone’s brother, husband, son) – that helps counteract the sin. Paul gave Timothy just this advice. “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers,  older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity,” (1 Timothy 5:1, 2).

Of course you could just try closing your eyes but you better invest in a box of bandaids.

Your Golf Clubs Will Thank You

I’m going to interrupt my meditations on Ephesians 5 and publish some “golden oldies” — articles I’ve written in the past but never posted on the Internet while I continue researching Ephesians 5. (Paul tells us to recite psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to one another and I am researching Psalms in the New Testament. It’s fascinating and I’ll share the results with you in the near future.) 

— John

 

Ray was a nice guy. I couldn’t do what he did. Ray was a bus driver and every day had to deal with bad drivers and irate passengers. He was responsible for people’s safety and he took that responsibility seriously but Ray had a problem. He was the angriest man I ever knew.

Playing golf with Ray was a unique experience. If a shot went foul, Ray’s face would turn red. The veins on his neck would begin to flare. A string of profanity would pour out of his mouth and he would bend his club over his knee and fling it into a tree or the water trap. That would make him even angrier and balls and clubs would soon be pouring out of his bag in every direction.

Perhaps it was therapeutic. All day long from morning till night Ray had to be reserved and polite. He couldn’t indulge in road rage and the bus company frowned on their drivers using firearms or martial arts on brain-dead passengers. So Ray would smile and laugh and hold it in until he couldn’t take it any more. Then pity the poor golf clubs and the people he played with on the weekends. He wasn’t pleasant to be around and his wife finally gave up. Who wants to live with a volcano?

You couldn’t say Ray was happy. Life robbed him of joy and his future prospects didn’t look good. What advice would you give him? Here are some of the things we talked about at the nineteenth hole.

God created us with emotions, including our anger. Jesus wasn’t a Stoic and we shouldn’t be either. However, there is often a world of difference between the anger of Jesus and our explosive outbursts. The anger of Jesus was righteous (justified) and he became angry at injustice. Think of the hard-hearts of the Pharisees (Mark 3:5) or the way the merchants took advantage of the pilgrims in the Temple (John 2)

Second, Paul advises us not to let the sun go down on our anger. That means not saving up slights! When I was a little boy, merchants gave out green stamps that you could save up, paste into books and redeem for items in their catalog (like my first pup tent). Sometimes we’re like that. Something happens that upsets us but it’s not a big enough deal to become truly angry about so we just file it away until we have enough little annoyances to redeem for a good fight.

Third, sometimes I go looking for a trouble. The other day Jan and I were in the mood for a great hamburger. The line was long (just like I expected) and I saw an arrogant, rich man walk right to the front of the line and place his order before the rest of us and especially a little family whose turn it was. They were just about to order when this guy and his painted wife pushed by them. I was furious and was just about to say something when he pulled out his wallet and paid for the little family’s meal. “Thanks Uncle Ralph.” The funny thing is I was disappointed I couldn’t express my righteous indignation! I think I was just looking for a fight. Ouch.

No, the best advice I could give to Ray (and myself) is to learn the power of patient forgiveness. Paul told the Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12:17-21).

Your golf clubs will thank you.