Thursday, September 18, 2014

Heart Check

The post on Facebook read, “We don't need religion to be moral – in our hearts we know what's right.' It’s a popular sentiment. “Just follow your heart.” It sounds so good, so logical, so easy. But is it wise?

What if your heart and my heart disagree? And what if our disagreement means we’re at polar opposites on an issue that demands conflicting actions? Let’s assume we both, at the same time, come upon a man ready to jump off a bridge and commit suicide. . I want to let him jump and you want to stop him. I believe he has a right to do it, and should be allowed to do it – after all, it’s what his heart is telling him to do. So I will do whatever is necessary to be sure he jumps.  But you believe it’s wrong and that he should be stopped, and will do whatever is necessary to stop him. How do we resolve our differences – after all, we can’t both do what our heart tells us to do without major conflict.

There’s a powerful scene in the Bunyan’s classic “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Christian asks Ignorance, “What leads you to believe that you have given up all for God and Heaven?” Ignorance responds “My heart tells me that I have.” The conversation continues. “But is your heart reliable? The Bible says, ‘He that trusts in his own heart is a fool.’” (Prov. 28:26) ”That is spoken of a fool. I’m no fool. My heart is wise and good.” “But how do you know that? What means have you of testing your heart?” “My heart comforts me in the hope of Heaven.” “That may be through its deceitfulness. Jeremiah the prophet said, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ (Jer. 17:9) A man’s heart may give him hope when there are no grounds for his hope.” “But my heart and y life agree, so my hope is well grounded.” “What proof have you that your heart and life agree?” “My heart tells me so.” “Your heart tells you so! Except the Word of God bears witness, other testimony is of no value.”[i] “When it’s heartfelt, check your heart.”

We may not agree on what the standard should be, but the fact is we need an unchanging standard - a holy, righteous guide. The Bible qualifies. “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:12) The ‘one to whom we must give account is Jesus, the holy righteous one who knows our hearts. “… God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. I am He who searches hearts…For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come…”  (Lk. 16:15 & Rev. 2:23 & (Mark 7:21) “When it’s heartfelt, check your heart.”

Jesus exposes our hearts so we can open them to His Spirit. Only when our hearts are Spirit-filled, and in tune with God’s Word, can we trust our hearts.  Ezekiel prophesied, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezek. 36:26-27). So “When it’s heartfelt, check your heart.”

[i] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English, Moody Publishers, Chicago, © 1992 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, p. 139

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nickels & Dimes

As a ninth grader I looked forward to high school. I was auditioning for the High School choir, which was one of the best in the state. My sister was already in the choir – you need to know that she was a 4.0 student and had gained high respect for her academic work. Her reputation had preceded me. So the choir director looked at me and asked, “Are you Shirley’s brother?” “Yes I am,” I responded. “Are you as smart as she is?” he continued. “No!” I replied. “I didn’t think so,” he said. “You don’t look it!”  It’s a good thing my image wasn’t bound up with my sister’s! As has been said, “The most important opinion you’ll ever have is the opinion you have of yourself.”  

Image is extremely important to our self-esteem; how we see ourselves determines how we act. Consider the great Oliver Wendell Holmes; he was only five feet tall and was often asked how it felt to be so small. His response was classic: “I feel like a dime in a group of nickels.” That’s a great self-image! And in our multi-media culture, there is no shortage of images to choose from. Our youth, especially, are bombarded with a constant stream of both overt and subtle messages about what’s supposedly important to their image. Wanting to fit in, not wanting to be bullied for being different, youth are vulnerable. The result is mass confusion, emotional instability, and in extreme cases, psychological depression. And I’m not so sure it’s much different for us adults.

So where should our image come from? “When it’s all about image, remember your image.”  God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female… God formed Man out of dirt from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. The Man came alive—a living soul! (Gen. 1:27 & 2:7 MSG). Our identity comes from God – we have a chip of God’s DNA within us. “When it’s all about image, remember your image.” We have divine roots, a God-given dignity, and a holy destiny. Nothing can change it. We can forget it, to our shame; remember Adam and eve? We can ignore it, to our peril; People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand. So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us.” (Rom. 1:18-25 MSG). Or we can remember our identity: “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior .I gave Egypt as a ransom for your freedom I gave Ethiopia and Seba in your place. Others were given in exchange for you. I traded their lives for yours because you are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you.” (Is. 43:1-4 NLT).  The reality is, Jesus was given in exchange for us; “His life was traded for ours. For God took the sinless Christ and poured into him our sins. Then, in exchange, he poured God’s goodness into us! (2 Cor. 5:21 TLB) When it’s all about image, remember your image.”

This week, no matter what our culture, or other people, say, may you remember who you are!

“When it’s all about image, remember your image.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Nothing to Say

PRINCIPLE: “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.”

Thought it was back in 1975, I still remember it well. We were living in Sioux Center, Iowa. Out of seminary a little over a year I had quite the week. Since the Sr. Pastor was on vacation I wound up with my first wedding and first funeral on the same weekend – and then had my second wedding and second funeral the next weekend. Both funerals were of relatively young parents who died of cancer and left behind spouses and elementary school-age children. But it’s the second funeral that is especially memorable – in fact not even so much the funereal as what preceded it. Since this young father died at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where his wife was at his bedside, his brother and sister-in-law called me in the dead of night and asked me to join them when they broke the news to the children. What could I say? I quickly dressed, said a quick prayer, and nervously drove to the farmhouse.

All the way there I kept wondering what I would say to these now fatherless children – who deeply loved their dad. God just didn’t seem to give my anything. Unfortunately it was a short drive and I arrived before anything developed in my mind. When I got there, the brother and sister-in-law roused the children and sat them around the kitchen table. The children already knew something was wrong – I mean, why would the minister be there in the middle of the night? Suddenly everyone was there and my mind was still blank – I, for one of the few times in my life, was at a loss for words.

And that’s when God’s grace kicked in. No – he didn’t give me wonderful words to say. He used the brother and sister-in-law who beautifully spoke to the children and explained what had happened. They carried the conversation with their nieces and nephews. Occasionally I chipped in. When they asked me to pray, the words were not many but they were God-given and adequate. I left, feeling somewhat embarrassed and let down that I said so little. Yet sometime later the brother and sister-in-law expressed their deepest thanks to me for ‘all you did for us and the children’ as they shared the time together. I guess that’s when I first began to learn about the ministry of presence. “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Sometimes our mere presence is enough.

Sometime later I was directed to the book of Job. When were Jobs’ friends the most helpful? When they sat there in silence with him. Their ministry of presence gave him comfort and support. It’s when they began to offer their ‘wisdom’ and advice that the heated discussions arose. “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Still today, in tough situations, I recall that night, or I see Job sitting on his ash heap surrounded by his silent friends. It helps me realize I don’t always have to have great words to say. Sometimes just sitting there with someone in the silence with no advice, no pearls of wisdom, or no answers is all they need and all God wants us to do.

It’s been a life-long journey unpacking all that this ministry of presence means – and in our age of communication technology some new possibilities have entered the discussion and made possible some new dynamics in having a presence (although face-to-face is still the #1 was to be present when possible.) So I’m still learning. And I haven’t always gotten it right. But I like to think I’ve made some progress.

As leaders, and wonderful Christian people, you often end up in places and situations where it’s tough to know what to say. If God gives you the words – and you’re sure they’re from God – speak them. But remember that it’s okay sometimes to have nothing to say. And, “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him. Their names were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.” (Job 2:11-13) “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.”