Living With Criticism

We find ourselves in the eleventh chapter of Acts, verses one through four and eighteen. Acts is known for the great story of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was moving, and the church was growing. New converts were being welcomed, including Gentiles. There is really nothing to complain about, but this is the church. Drama has been part of church from the very beginning.

According to the text, Peter had returned to Jerusalem. His spirit must have been high. After all, everyone wants a growing church, or do they? According to verse three, he is greeted by some negative voices. The author describes them as circumcised believers. We would call them “Completed Jews.” They want to know why Peter had broken a long-standing rule about associating with Gentiles. Peter defends himself by simply telling the truth. In the verses between our reading, Peter tells them exactly what happened. I looked at it in my previous blog, The Day the Law Died. God summoned a Gentile, Cornelius, to invite Peter to his community. When he arrives, he tells the group about Jesus, and before the end of the day, they are all converted. It is God who welcomed the Gentiles into the church by the sending of the Holy Spirit. There is not much to say. If God is for it, then who can be against it? Verse eighteen says it clearly, “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’”  I wish I handled all my critics so easily. 

I fell in love with this story the first time I read it. The point of the story is painfully clear. Peter is considered one of the greatest figures in the early church. Just think of everything he did for God. He followed Jesus for three years and experienced the Master firsthand. He was part of the inner circle, so he received special instruction. He was bold enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water for a few precious steps. He announced to the world for the very first time that Jesus was the Messiah. It was Peter who ran to the tomb on Easter morning to witness it for himself. It was Peter who spoke to the crowd before the winds of Pentecost blew. It was Peter who spoke to another crowd after the wind blew. It was Peter who healed the cripple (Acts 3). It was Peter who welcomed the Gentiles. Peter did so much; Peter was so much to the early church. If there was anyone who did not deserve to be criticized, it was Peter. But, in the story for today, Peter was criticized by people who had done nothing notable at all. 

It reminds me of the story of George Whitefield (1714-1770) He was an Anglican cleric and evangelist who was one of the founders of Methodism and the Great Awakening in America. However, that does not mean he was not without his enemies. He was not really concerned about them, because he was more interested in pleasing God.  At one point, Whitefield received a vicious letter accusing him of some wrongdoing. His reply was brief and courteous. He wrote:  

I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.  

With love in Christ, George Whitefield 

I wish I could handle my critics so easily. Let me ask you two questions.

When was the last time you were criticized? When was the last time you criticized someone else? It happens all the time. Everyone gets criticized. That is what makes being in a position of authority so difficult. Let me ask you this series of questions.

Have you ever criticized a doctor?

Have you ever criticized your local school board?

Have you ever criticized a politician?

Have you ever criticized a professional athlete or celebrity?

Have you ever criticized your minister?

Have you ever criticized God for the condition of our world?

It is my experience that people in positions of authority have grown deaf to all the criticisms. They know most critics lack knowledge or skill. They know most criticisms come from passion, not expertise. You can admit it. Everyone gets criticized. Everyone criticizes. It has been that way from the beginning of time. Aristotle (384 B.C.- 322 B.C.) once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” The goal is not to eliminate criticism. The goal is to handle criticism well. How well do you handle criticism?

One summer I returned to my church after vacation and discovered someone had mysteriously put up a suggestion box. I few days later the suggestion box mysteriously disappeared. Did you know the idea of the employee suggestion box started in Japan in 1721? That means it is 302 years old. Did you know, according to the NASS, the National Association of Suggestion Systems, only 3% of American companies have a suggestion box? I wonder why there aren’t more, because those companies who use suggestion boxes have saved two billion dollars. Could it be 97% of American companies don’t have suggestion boxes because they don’t want to open themselves up for criticism? That is why my church’s suggestion box mysteriously disappeared.

How open are you to criticism? I hope you are not like 97% of American companies. I hope you are open to criticism because constructive criticism can make you a better person. I learned years ago there are three things you must do when you find yourself being criticized. First, the next time you are criticized, evaluate the source. There are some people you want to listen to and some you don’t. Just because they have an opinion doesn’t make them an expert. You would be a fool to take advice from a fool. You would be a fool to listen to everyone. That sounds exhausting. Second, the next time you are criticized, evaluate your core values. That is what Peter did in today’s story. He was more concerned with pleasing God than man. Everyone’s core values are different. Did your action support your core values? In other words, who are you trying to please? Third, the next time you are criticized, evaluate your action. I do not want to shock you, but you do not know everything. You do not do everything perfectly, nor do I. The people who offer you productive criticism are the most valuable people in your life because they want you to become a better person. It is not easy to do but respect their honesty. In the scripture lesson for today, Peter didn’t run from the criticism. He didn’t ignore the criticism. Peter embraced the criticism and reminded himself that what he did was right! You may not be perfect, but there are times when you did the right thing! The best thing you can do with criticism is forget it.

In the spring of 1989, I was interviewed to be the pastor of a United Methodist Church in Garfield Heights, Ohio. I remember next to nothing about that interview, except the greatest challenge facing that church. It was a stagnant, aging congregation. They were hoping to rebuild their congregation. (Does that sound familiar? It sounds like every congregation in the mainline Protestant tradition.) Over the next five years, we experienced some success. We welcomed many new members, and I learned a great deal.

It did not take me long to discover why this church had been stagnant for so long. It had nothing to do with demographics. However, the community was predominantly retired Catholics. It had nothing to do with visibility. The building sat on a busy road. It had nothing to do with commitment. The people were devoted to their church. That congregation hadn’t grown for the same reason most churches don’t grow. A small group had seized control and smothered any new life. The small group does not mean to be controlling. Usually, they are sincere people who believe they know what is best for the whole. Sometimes, the controlling group includes the pastor. Sometimes, it does not. In that church’s case, the pastor had very little control. The controlling group was one family. I have changed their name to protect the guilty. Let me just call them the Peabody’s.

They ruled by intimidation. That family consisted of two generations. There was the father and mother. They had two adult sons, who had married nice women. The six Peabody’s dominated every committee within the life of that church. The church could have been called the Peabody United Methodist Church. If that church was ever going to grow, then the Peabody’s had to be dethroned from power.

I only had one thing going for me. I was the chair of the nominating committee. In my first two years in that parish, I nominated anyone who wasn’t afraid of the Peabody’s. The Peabody’s were controlling, but they were not stupid. They knew what I was doing. They confronted me in every way to hold on to the power. One thing was clear. The church had to choose between them and me. Without the support of other church members, I would have been gone. One man made it possible for me to stay. He changed my life and saved my career in the United Methodist Church. My last three years in Garfield Heights were wonderful, because the Peabody’s were gone. They left in a pile of ugly words pointed at me. They wrote those words down and sent them to the church’s administrative board chair, the Cleveland District Superintendent, and East Ohio Annual Conference Bishop.

I never heard from the District Superintendent or the Bishop. However, the board chair called me, and we met. Alone, he read me the letter with the ugly words. In colorful language, they said I was the problem because I was suffering from some kind of mental illness. He asked me if I wanted to respond. I responded by saying, “Maybe they are right? They are not the first to think I am crazy.” We laughed and the topic never came up again. When I left church, it was growing because the Peabody’s were gone. Let me end with three questions.  

Question #1: Have you ever been criticized? The answer is yes. You might as well admit it. Everyone has been criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, then do nothing at all. Then, people will criticize you for doing nothing. Being criticized is just part of the human experience. Perhaps, question #2 is a better question.  

Question #2: How do you handle criticism? You only have two options. Either you can ignore it, or you can embrace it. Dismiss the criticism that comes from fools or people who have an agenda. Embrace the criticisms that come from people who are trying to make you a better person.  

Question #3: How long do you hold on to criticism? I hope not long. The best criticisms are designed to improve your life, not damage it. This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) once said, The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

The Day The Law Died

We found ourselves in the ninth chapter of Acts, verses nine through twenty-three. According to the text, it is about noon, and Peter is near Caesarea. He finds the home of a fellow disciple and ascends the stairs to the fat roof. That sounds odd to our ears, but it was common in those days. Homes were built with flat roofs for privacy. Peter wanted to use that privacy to pray. However, prayer must have been difficult because he was hungry. Just think about it for a minute. It is noon and he is hungry. That means it is lunchtime.

I don’t want to shock you, but I like lunch. It is one of my three favorite meals. I am not a picky eater. I will eat anything for lunch, anywhere. Several times a week, I meet for lunch in a local restaurant with various friends. The best is when I meet my wife Kathryn for lunch. However, I never complain when I eat lunch at home. I have eaten many leftovers for lunch through the years. There is nothing better than a cold slice of pizza, cold pasta, or a cold baked potato with some sour cream. In my time, I have eaten gallons of ramen noodles. They are cheap and ready in just three minutes. I have never met a sandwich I didn’t like. There is nothing better than a roast beef and Colby cheese sandwich with horseradish. My favorite beverage with that is a tall glass of buttermilk. Don’t get me started on goose liver and onion on a cracker with mustard. I consider that the food of the gods. One time, when I was in Russia, I ate goat soup for lunch. It was kind of stringy. Do I have to go on? This is the point: I am not a picky eater.

Peter was a picky eater. He only ate certain things. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them. He had never eaten them because the Old Testament law did not permit them. Never forget, Peter was Jewish. From the very beginning of his life, his diet was controlled by the law. Leviticus 11 laid out what was permitted and what was not permitted. You must understand that fact to appreciate what happens next. According to the text, as he waits for his lunch to be delivered, Peter falls into a trance. He sees food. (Have you ever dreamed about food? I have.) He sees a giant picnic filled with everything he has never been permitted to eat. It is too good to be true. God basically says to him in verse 13, “Chow down!” Peter protests because change has always been hard. God tells him nothing is off limits, everything is good. Peter must have never forgotten that day. It was the day the law died. Without the law, Peter’s life became simpler. Just think about it for a moment.

Did you know the Old Testament contains 613 laws? Three hundred and sixty-five are negative in nature. Two hundred and forty-eight are positive. You can classify those laws into three groups. The first group are the self-evident laws, such as the law the laws against murder and stealing. The second group deals with religious duty or tradition, such as keeping the Sabbath holy. The third group is random laws. They don’t fall into any category. In addition to the 613 laws, the Pharisees, experts on the law, created other laws to protect the original laws. You would think 613 laws would be enough, but no. There are more.

In the mid nineteenth century, the world started working on something called “international law”. Countless hours were spent in the League of Nations and the United Nations trying to refine international law. It sounds simple but it is complex. How do you distill all the laws in the world and find common ground? Every culture looks at the world in a different way. International law has become a big deal because our world is growing smaller, due to advances in transportation and communication. International law is important if we are ever going to have world peace. There are so many international laws they can be broken down into three categories, international economic laws, international security laws, and international criminal laws. You would think that would be enough laws, but no. There are more.

Someone once said the United States, or any nation, is nothing more than a series of laws. On the Fourth of July the United States will turn 247 years old. Over that time, our government has produced many laws. They are necessary to regulate behavior. They are not all bad; some laws are good. I am all for the law that says you can’t drive your car down the sidewalk. Without it, people would get killed. I am for the law that says you must pass through airport security before you get on a plane. Our world is a violent place. I am for the law that says convicted sex offenders must register, because it protects our young. I am for the law that says that everyone can own property and vote. I am for the laws that bans any form of discrimination. I am against the Ohio law that says it is illegal to fish for whales on Sunday. However, I am for the law that prohibits dueling. You would think between international law and national law, and state laws there would be enough laws, but no. There are more.

Every organization has its own laws. The church is no exception. In the church, we call laws “rules”. They do the same thing. They regulate behavior. The United Methodist Church has certain rules we must follow. They are all found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Did you know we are required to audit the books of every financial account found within any United Methodist congregation annually. Did you know no alcohol can be consumed within any United Methodist Church building? Did you know there will be no gambling or games of chance, within any United Methodist Church building? When I served in the United Methodist Church, I was required to attend Annual Conference. Did you know every appointed minister is required to have an annual Charge Conference? Did you know, at my ordination, I had to promise to be itinerant? In other words, I must go where the bishop sends me. Did you know any United Methodist congregation can borrow money from itself, but it must be paid back?  The United Methodist Book of Discipline is filled with rules we are required to follow. You would think that would be enough law, but no. There are more.

Every local church has their own set of laws or rules. There are some churches who have more rules than they do people. In my opinion, that is part of the problem. My last church was no exception. We had our fair share of rules. How many rules can you name in your church? Most are based on common sense, but everyone has a different standard. Maybe you have heard these in the past? If you are going to use the kitchen, then clean the kitchen afterwards. If you are going to use a cup in the kitchen, then wash your cup. No food is to be left in the refrigerator. (That is why I left my food on the altar.) The last person to leave the church at the end of the day must make sure the doors are locked and the lights are off. If you want to be refunded for any church expense, then you must have a receipt. One of the reasons I never had office hours was I couldn’t remember all the rules. I don’t want to be reprimanded. How many laws or rules does your church have?

One of the reasons I love Jesus is that he only had two rules. I can remember them. They are found in Matthew 22:36-40. This is the first one: you are to love God with all your heart, mind and soul. In other words, you are to love God completely. This is the second: you are to love your neighbor as yourself. Church work is not hard; we make it hard. In the life of the church, all we must do is talk about Jesus and care about others. Everything else we do is optional. Everything else is distractive. Everything else can be eliminated. In the scripture lesson for today, Peter was told the law was eliminated; the only thing that really mattered was Jesus. It is still true today.

In 1994, I was appointed to the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio. I inherited a mid-week program by the name of Youth Club. At the time it was a popular program that was found in many churches. The concept was simple. On Wednesday, the children would come and gather for a lesson and dinner. Those who ran it did a wonderful job. Everyone, regardless of age, had fun.

One day in December the youngest class was out in the narthex, standing near the glass looking into the courtyard. They were all fixated on the courtyard because the Christmas decorations had just been put up. The life size plastic nativity set was on display. The group had their noses pressed against the window. It was like one of those Norman Rockwell scenes. The teacher tried to hold them back because there was a rule about touching the glass. The glass had to be spotless. I have never been a fan of rules. I said, “Let them go! That is why they make glass cleaner! We must keep Windex in business.” Then, I got a better idea. Why not let the class out into the courtyard and experience the figurines for themselves. They were just the right size. The class was the same size as the images. I walked to the door to open it when the teacher told me to stop. She said, “Russ, you are new. No one is allowed to go into the courtyard, especially at Christmas. Those figures are sacred.” I thought, those figures are plastic, and to be honest with you, they were tacky. I said to the teacher, “Aren’t we supposed to be introducing our children to Jesus?” She said, “Yes!” I said, “So let’s do it.”

I opened the door and the children flooded into cool fresh air. They didn’t go crazy. They were controlled, like they were walking on sacred ground. One of the students stood by the camel and grew still. One student hugged Joseph. One went eye to eye with a shepherd and smiled. One touched Mary’s face with his fingertips. One kid picked up Jesus and kissed him. He looked at his friend next to him and said, “This is Jesus!” Then, ever so gently, he passed Jesus to him. One by one they took turns holding Jesus. Those children knew at their young age there was something special about those plastic tacky figurines, because there was something sacred about Jesus. There always has been and there always will be. Without Jesus, we have nothing at all. Perhaps, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) said it best, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” The only thing that really matters in the life of the church is Jesus!

Remembering William Borden

In 1904, William Borden (1887-1913), heir to the Borden Dairy Estate, graduated from a Chicago high school, already a millionaire. His parents’ graduation gift to him was a trip around the world. That trip changed his life. Traveling through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe gave Borden a burden for the world’s hurting people. Writing home, he said, “I’m going to give my life to prepare for the mission field.” When he made this decision, he wrote in the back of his Bible two words: NO RESERVES.

Borden arrived at Yale University in 1905. During his first semester, Borden started to pray group and Bible study with a friend. A short time later, a third student joined them. By the end of his first year, 150 freshmen were meeting for weekly prayer and Bible study. By the time he was a senior, 1,000 out of the 1,300 students were meeting for weekly prayer and Bible study. Borden was pleased because his goal was to win every soul at Yale University for Jesus. That wasn’t enough for Borden. Off Yale’s campus, he went to the darkest parts of New Haven, Connecticut to help those individuals’ society had forgotten. After graduating from Yale, Borden turned down many well-paying jobs and began studying for the mission’s field at Princeton University. At that time, he wrote two more words in his Bible: NO RETREATS.

After leaving Princeton, he dreamed of evangelizing the Muslims in China. He sailed toward China but stopped in Egypt to study Arabic. It was there the unexpected happened. He was diagnosed with spinal meningitis and died at the age of 24. Life can be so cruel. During his illness he wrote two more words in the back of his Bible, NO REGRETS. Those six words written in the back of William Borden’s Bible act as the perfect outline for this blog. That takes us to our scripture reading.

We are in the tenth chapter of John. This is not a pleasant time for Jesus. He is surrounded by conflict by conflict. He tells us something our generation still believes. Actions speak louder than words. His miracles and his teaching state the obvious. Jesus is the Messiah. However, it is not just true of himself. It is also true of his disciples. Actions do speak louder than words. It is one thing to say you are disciple of Jesus Christ, it is something else to act like a disciple of Jesus Christ. If you didn’t speak a single word about Jesus, would the people in your life know you are a disciple? To answer that question, let us look at William Borden’s six words and examine your own life.

No Reserves

The first two words William Borden wrote in his Bible were the words: NO RESERVES. In other words, he was totally committed to serving God. Mark Twain once said, “Traveling broadens a man.” Today, he would have said, “Traveling broadens a person. If you want to experience true poverty, travel outside of the United States. It is shocking at the level and the amount of poverty that exists in the world. When William Borden experienced true poverty, he had to respond. He knew he had to respond with his life. There would be no reserves. He was totally committed. Are you totally committed?

Recently my wife and I started attending our local Lutheran Church. It is odd sitting in a pew after leading worship for forty years. I am doing my best not to evaluate the service, the sermon, or the church. I am simply there to worship and feed my soul. On our first Sunday, a gentleman stood up in the front pew and announced he was looking volunteers to serve on a stewardship task force. Then, he went on to talk about the church’s budget. It was my first Sunday, so I didn’t have the heart to tell him that stewardship is not just about money. Christian stewardship is about maintaining and using wisely the gifts that God as bestowed. Annually, I asked my church this question: if everyone volunteered as much time, shared their God given abilities, and gave as much money as you, would the ministry of your church contrast or expand? It is my experience that 80% of everything in the life of the church comes from 20% of the people. It is an issue of true commitment. Are you totally committed? The first two words in William Borden’s Bible were NO RESERVES! How many reserves do you hold for yourself?

No Retreats

The second two words William Borden wrote in his Bible were the words:  NO RETREATS. He was always finding a new ways to serve God. The world is filled with needs. Some of those needs are physical. For example, many lack food, water, and shelter. Some of those needs are spiritual. Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Those words are offensive to our politically correct world, but that does not change the truth. If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing at all. What are you doing to combat the needs in our world. Are you still advancing or has your momentum ground to a haunt?

This is a hard time for the United Methodist Church. The denomination is dividing, and many congregations are opting out. The topic is sexuality, but there are many reasons to leave. Some churches are leaving because they are closing. Once crowded churches are down to a select few. The only generation that remains tells stories of events that happened years ago. The problem is not a lack of devotion or commitment. The problem is not Jesus. The problem is their lack of flexibility. Society changed, but they refused to change. They offer traditional worship to a society who continues to grow more informal. The truth be told, they have decided to close, instead of changing to speak to our new society. At some point all the energy stopped moving outward and started going inward. All the energy is needed just to exist. It has been said, the mainline Protestant church is on the verge of becoming the Amish of the twenty-first century. The second two words in William Borden’s Bible were NO RETREATS. When was the last time you attacked?

No Regrets

This week I found a list of ten things you will never regret. Maybe you can relate to one of these?

          1. Showing kindness to an aged person.

          2. Destroying a letter written in anger.

          3. Offering an apology that will save a friendship.

          4. Stopping a scandal that was ruining a reputation.

          5. Helping a boy or girl find themselves.

          6. Taking time to show consideration.

          7. Refraining from gossip.

          8. Refusing to do a thing which is wrong.

          9. Living according to your convictions.

          10. Accepting the judgment of God.

William Borden had his whole life in front of him. He was only twenty-four years hold when he died. To us, it really doesn’t seem fair. However, William Borden trusted God. The only one he was trying to please was God. The last two words he wrote in his Bible were the words NO REGRETS. How far do you trust God?

I have said it a million times. The only things that really matters are those issues that will matter in one hundred years. What is going to matter in one hundred years? The only thing that really matters in one hundred years is your relationship with Jesus! Are you living for Jesus or are you living for someone or something else? In the back of William Borden’s Bible were written these words: NO RESERVES, NO RETREATS, NO REGRETS. Those words summarized his ministry.

Can I ask you a really difficult question? What words would you write in the back of your Bible? What words summarize your service to God? Would you write down LOCK THE DOORS! Would you write down TURN OFF THE LIGHTS! Would you write down WE HAVE NEVER DONE IT THAT WAY BEFORE! Would you write down SAVE MONEY! Would you write down one word, NO! Could it be you have no words? What words summarize your service to God? Perhaps a better question. How serious are you about serving God?

My Mother

My mother’s name was Ruth. She was born on May 21, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York. She attended P.S. 92 and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School. During the Second World War, she went to Pratt Institute and studied dietetics. After graduation, she moved to Jersey City, New Jersey and worked in a hospital. She began working on her master’s degree but one night everything changed. On that night the work and the studies were placed to the side, and she attended a social gathering at the Marble Collegiate Church. The Second World War had just ended, and dances were held so returning soldiers could meet single women. She met a young dark-haired man from Ashtabula, Ohio. His name was Ron. At first, she wasn’t interested in him because she thought he was Catholic. That suddenly changed when she discovered he was a Protestant. In time, they married and moved to a magical place called Warren, Ohio. She returned to her trade and in more time, they had three children. I am the youngest, so I am qualified to say their simple house became a home. It was in that home I learned the valuable lessons of my life.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but we must live forwards.” I find that quote to be the perfect balance between wisdom and common sense. Recently, I celebrated my sixty-sixth birthday. Now retired, I have the time to look back on my life. Some memories are fun to remember. I have had a great life to this point. Some memories are painful. Like you, my life has been hard at certain times. During my time of reflection, I discovered something I have known from the very beginning. My mother had a great influence on my life. In many ways she showed me how to live. Let me give you three examples.

First, my mother was my Christian role model. If you want to improve the next generation then be a positive role model, yourself. With all the women who had lived God selected one to be the mother of the Messiah. Her name was Mary. In the second chapter of Luke, we are told Mary visited Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, during her pregnancy. Do you remember what Elizabeth said to Mary when the two met for the first time? Luke 2:42-43 says, “In a loud voice she (Elizabeth) exclaimed, ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you bare! But why am I so favored that the mother of the Lord should come to me?’” Elizabeth was the first to say what the world would come to know. Mary was a great person, which made her the perfect role model for son, Jesus. What kind of a role model are you for younger generations?

My mother was my role model. In other words, she influenced my understanding of the Christian faith. Don’t misunderstand me. My mother was never part of the professional clergy. My mother was not a missionary. My mother never went on a volunteer-in-mission trip. My mother could not quote chapter and verse from the Bible. However, none of means we wasn’t a wonderful Christian model. I never questioned her love for God or her concern for those who were in need. My mother was the embodiment of the quote, “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” My mother lived the Christian faith. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) once said, “No man is poor who has had a godly mother.” What are your actions and opinions teaching others about the Christian faith? I am thankful my mother modeled the Christian faith.

Second, my mother was a motivator. In the second chapter of John, we find Jesus and Mary at a wedding reception. Everyone is having a good time. They are having such a good time that the wine runs out. Mary looks at Jesus and says, “They have no more wine.” (verse 3) Jesus hears what his mother says, “They have no more wine” but he also hears what she means, fix the problem. Mary is encouraging Jesus to change the water into wine. She is encouraging him to perform his first miracle. She wants him to maximize his potential. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) once said, “My chief want in life is someone who shall make me do what I can.”  Are you motivating the younger people in your life to reach their full potential or are you making excuses for them? God expects you and me to reach our full potential!

Like Mary, my mother was a motivator. She never expected my sisters and I to get straight A’s, but she did expect us to do our best. From time to time, we needed to be motivated. From time to time, we all need to be motivated. Are you motivating the people in your life to live up to their potential? Or are you making excuses for their lack of accomplishments? Could it be you are enabling them to live second rate lives? If you want to be a better mother, if you want to improve the next generation, then you better be prepared to be a motivator. I am thankful my mother was a motivator.

My first childhood memory included my mother. I was of preschool age, three or four years old. I was in the kitchen of our family home. It was a cold winter’s morning, and I was still wearing my footy pajamas. The rest of the family had left. It was just my mother and myself. Normally, my mother would have rushed into action to clean up. However, that day was different. On that day she ignored the dishes and focused on me. She pulled out a chair and placed me on her lap. She began to read a book to me as the heat rushed through that floor register. I remember feeling safe and secure. It was as if time was standing still, and I was the only one who really mattered. It isn’t much of a story, but it is mine. I don’t know why I remember that morning, but I will never forget it. That is my first childhood memory.

That story reminds me, my mother was wise. My mother was wise enough to embrace that moment. My mother embraced every moment, regardless of my age. Motherhood does not end at high school graduation. Motherhood lasts a lifetime. I did what all children do. I grew up. That is not an easy time for many. Many struggle when their children grow up. They long for the days when their children were completely dependent on them. The goal was to make an independent self-sufficient person. You did a great job, but you struggle with your success. You long to be needed. Do you know of anyone who is mourning because their children are independent? Have you ever mourned the independence of your children? Let me give you some pastoral advice. The age of your adult children does not mean they don’t need you. They just need you in a new way. I am convinced adult children need their parents as much as babies. It is difficult being a sixty-six-year-old orphan because I no longer receive my mother’s approval. I no longer receive my mother’s love. I encourage you to be wise and embrace your children now because they need you.

It was early spring in 2002, I sat near my mother’s death bed. She was sleeping comfortably. My father died six years earlier and she was unhappy. My sister, Susan, and I did what we could. We were taking turns sitting with her so she would not be alone. It was my turn and I sat in the shadows of her room at the Crandall Medical Center at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio. The hour grew late, and I began to think of everything that had to happen the next day. In the silence of that room, I decided to leave. I leaned over and kissed her. I said, “I love you.” From some unknown power source, she opened her eyes and responded, “I hope so. I am your mother!” I believe I am a better person because she was. Proverbs 6:20 says, “My son, keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.”

What Do You Believe About Jesus?

We find ourselves in the seventh chapter of John, verses 37 through 44. Prior to our reading, we are told Jesus was in Judea. That fact is important for one reason: while Jesus was extremely popular in Galilea, he was extremely unpopular in Judea. It is safe to say, Jesus was a controversial character in that corner of the world. Our text emphasizes that fact. On the last and greatest day of the Feast of the Tabernacle, a holiday like the American Thanksgiving Day, a time to thank God for the harvest and the goodness in their lives, Jesus spoke in a loud voice to the crowd. He said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” Those words were meant to unite the crowd, but the crowd had the opposite reaction to those words. Those words divided the crowd. Some believed Jesus was a prophet. Others believed Jesus was the Messiah. Still others questioned his character. Everyone had their own opinion, and everyone was forced to answer the question, what do you believe about Jesus? It is not just a question isolated to that time and place. It is a question that has been asked since Jesus’s earthly ministry. It is a question that is asked in our time.

In 2015, the Barna Research group asked Americans what they believed about Jesus. While their findings are dated, their findings are revealing. I find them to be very interesting. I do not believe American’s beliefs about Jesus have change that much in eight years. In this blog, I will reveal their findings in the form of five questions. Never forget, it is not important what other people believe about Jesus. It is more important what you believe about Jesus. What do you believe about Jesus? This is question number one.

Do you believe Jesus was a historical character? When I was young, I was taught about Paul Bunyan. He was a giant lumberjack who lived in northern America and Canada. He had superhuman strength and was constantly accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox. He had a younger brother named Cordwood Pete. (How can you not like a guy named Cordwood Pete?) It was a sad day when I discovered Paul Bunyan never lived. He was fictious. He began as an oral tradition by North American logger. Freelance writer William B. Laughhead (1882-1958) popularized the myth. Like Paul Bunyan, some believe Jesus never lived.

The question is, do you believe Jesus was a historical character? According to the Barna Research group, 8% of Americans believe Jesus isn’t a historical character who walked the earth. They believe Jesus is fictious. I am part of the 92% who believe Jesus is a historical character who lived in the past, and I hope you are too. This is question number two.

Do you believe Jesus was God? Christmas is not just a time to send cards, give gifts, listen to holiday music, eat cookies, and spend time with family and friends. It is a time to ponder the incarnation of God in Jesus. In other words, it is a time to remember how God took human flesh and dwelt among us. We say we love our dogs, but would we really trade places with them? So, to speak, that is what God did. Love is the only reason God would leave the perfection of heaven and exist in the imperfect world. At Christmas we remember that Jesus was fully God and fully human. This is the question.

Do you believe Jesus was God? According to the Barna Research group, 44% of all Americans do not believe Jesus was God. He was simply a human being. This is the truth. Fewer Americans don’t believe that Jesus was God all the time. Younger generations struggle with this divine truth. Only 52% of millennials, people born between 1981 and 1996, believe Jesus was God. I am part of the 56% of Americans who believe Jesus was God and I hope you are too. This is question number three?

Do you believe Jesus was sinless? Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him who had no sin be sin for us, so that in him we may be the righteousness of God.” The sinlessness of Jesus is an important part of the Christian faith. Because Jesus was sinless, he was the perfect sacrifice for our sinful world. He endured the punishment that should have been ours. This is the question.

Do you believe Jesus was sinless? According to the Barna Research group, 24% of Americans strongly agree Jesus sinned like other people. Another 28% of Americans somewhat agree Jesus sinned like other people. I am part of the 31% who strongly agree Jesus was sinless and I hope you are too. This is question number four.

Have you made a commitment to Jesus Christ? Everyone’s testimony is different, and everyone’s testimony is important. Some stories include sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Other stories include church youth group and church camp. Some jump off the high drive into the faith and others wade in slowly. The testimonies really don’t matter but the commitment does. At some point in your life, you must make a commitment to Jesus Christ. I made my commitment forty-eight years ago. This is the question.

Have you made a commitment to Jesus Christ? According to the Barna Research group, 38% of Americans have never made a commitment to Jesus Christ. The group who are most likely to make a commitment to Jesus are older black females who make less than $50,000 annually. I am an older white male who has a good life, but I have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. I hope you have too. Research tells us 62% of all Americans have made a commitment to Jesus. This is question number five.

Do you believe Jesus is your only hope of salvation? According to the Pew Research Group, 73% of all American believe in the existence of heaven. Only 62% believe in the existence of hell. Most believe they are going to heaven. In my time in the ministry, I worried some believed they could save themselves by their good works. That is called works righteousness. That is why I repeated time and time again the divine truth. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. This is the question.

Do you believe Jesus is your only hope of salvation? According to the Barna Research group, only 15% of Americans do not know what will happen to them when they die. However, 63% believe they will go to heaven because they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. I am in that 63%, and I hope you are too.

John 3:16 has been called the Bible in a nutshell. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. That whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. The scripture says it clearly. You must believe in Jesus, but what do you believe about Jesus? It is an excellent question to ask yourself.


Her name was Kitty Genovese (1937-1964). In 1964, she lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City. In March 13 of that year, Winston Moseley (1935-2016) stabbed her to death. As shocking as that crime was, the reaction, or the lack of reaction, of her neighbors was even worse. Many heard her cry out for help, but no one responded. Her neighbors were guilty of a sin of omission. They knew there was a problem but did nothing to prevent or stop it. In the science of sociology, it has been called the by-standers effect or diffusion of responsibility.  I would like to say it was an isolated case, but it happens all the time. Our world is crying out for help, but very few respond. It is sad but true. That leads us to our scripture lesson.

We are in the first thirteen verses of the sixth chapter of John. Jesus is in Galilea, which means his popularity was high. According to the text, Jesus went to the side of a mountain with his disciples. From that high elevation, he saw the crowd that had been following him. The Master was popular because the news of his miracles was common knowledge. He made the lame walk, the blind see, the demoniac whole. He, in time, would resurrect a dead man named Lazarus. Those miracles were important to the masses because everyone needs to believe there is hope. Instead of resting on his laurels, Jesus seized the opportunity to challenge his disciples. In verse five, we are told Jesus looked at Phillip and asked, “Where shall we buy bread for all these people to eat?” Phillip does the math and admits the funds are not available. It would take eight months wages to buy enough bread. He was right, yet he was wrong. Money was not the only one option. There is always God. Never underestimate the power of God. By the end of the day, everyone was physically satisfied, and the power of God was obvious. 

This story teaches us two divine truths. First, with God all things are possible. How else can you explain how Jesus fed 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two small fish? It must be from God. Second, it reminds us that Jesus cared not just about the spiritual needs of people, the Master cared for their physical needs too. He could have sent them away hungry, and no one would have cared. This is the question you must answer: how concerned are you about the physical needs of our world? Our world is crying out for help. How are you going to respond?

Never forget, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. That means you are supposed to be a little more like Jesus every day. Are you striving to be like Jesus, or are you satisfied with your present state? Do you care about the needy of this world, or are you preoccupied with yourself? In this blog, I am going to ask you three questions. I warn you up front, they may make you a little uncomfortable because they are so revealing. These questions were originally asked by United Methodist clergyman James W. Moore (1938-2019). This is question number one.

Do you see others like Jesus? When Jesus looked and saw the multitude surrounding him, he saw their need. They were hungry. Jesus knew they had to be fed because they didn’t have resources to feed themselves. Jesus didn’t just care about their spiritual needs, Jesus cared about their physical needs too. Do you see the physical needs of others, or do you look the other way? Many in our times would have said the hungry crowd was foolish. “They should have known better and packed their own lunch.” Do you see the physical needs of others? Do you see others like Jesus? This is question number two.

Are you empathic like Jesus? When Jesus looked at the hungry multitude, he was empathic. Webster defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In other words, Jesus didn’t just see the hungry multitude, he shared in the emotions. In other words, he felt their pain. Do you feel the pain of those who are less fortunate than you? Do you worry more about your family pet’s happiness or the basic needs of human beings? Do you look at people, or do you look through people? Are you empathic like Jesus? This is question number three.

Are you compassionate like Jesus? In the nineth chapter of Matthew, Jesus is once again traveling through Galilea. He encountered many along the way. In Matthew 9:36, it says, “Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were harassed and helpless.” Never underestimate the compassion of Jesus. Compassion is defined as the response to the suffering of others that motivates people to help. While empathy leads to feeling compassion leads to action. You are supposed to be making a difference in this world in the name of Jesus, so what are you doing to eliminate human suffering? How compassionate are you? Are you compassionate like Jesus?

Nearly fifty years ago, I had the great fortune to travel with my church youth group to Great Britain. I have many wonderful memories of that trip, but one stood out as I wrote this blog. We were walking through the heart of London. Without warning it began to rain. Everyone began to hustle to stay dry. When we got to an intersection, the rain intensified. Shoulder to shoulder, everyone began to run. Then, someone in front of me slipped on the wet pavement. When I got to the spot, I found a homeless man in the middle of the intersection. He was the picture of despair. He was soaking wet, crying, the knee of his pants was torn out. Some people yelled at him to get out of the way. Others ignored him, but a friend of mine was helping him. He had his arm around the stranger, covering him with his own coat. In the next few minutes, he got the man up and out of the street. He placed him near a building, which offered him some shelter from the rain. My friend offered the needy stranger some money and walked away. The homeless man simply said, “Thank-you.” Later, we asked our friend about that experience. He simply responded, “It was the right thing to do. I couldn’t just leave him in the street calling for help. It just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

It wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the Christian thing to do. Many in our world have fallen, and no one is helping them up. Our world is filled with problems and the victims are crying for help. It is not a matter of physical deafness. It is a matter of lack of caring. Do you care about the needy in our world, or are you too preoccupied with yourself? Actor Jackie Chan (born 1954) once said, “Sometimes it only takes one act of kindness and caring to change a person’s life.” Jesus cared and responded. You must care and respond too because you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is your choice. Are you going to respond, or do nothing at all?

For The Spiritually Mature

We find ourselves in the fourth chapter of John, verses four through twenty-four. According to the very first verse of our reading, Jesus is in Samaria, near the town of Sychar. It is about noon and the Master was near Jacob’s well (Ge. 48:21-22). He was warm from his journey, so he approached the well for a cool drink of water.Normally, people drew water from the well at the end of the day because the heat had passed. For this reason, Jesus must have been surprised to see a woman at the well. She was a solitary figure. It is important to note Jesus is the one who initiated the conversation. In doing so he broke several of his society’s boundaries. First, men never talked to women in public in their society. Second, Jews never talked to Samaritans. The hatred between the two groups is well documented. Regardless, Jesus interacts with this Samaritan woman because he recognized she had a problem. He wasn’t wrong.

Her life was a mess and filled with regrets. She just couldn’t find a decent man; she was a repeat offender. She had been married five times and was living with another man. In our society, only fifty percent of first-time marriages last. Every time you marry, your chances of a successful marriage are cut in half. That means, on her fifth wedding day her chances of a happy marriage were down to 3.1%. If she would have married number six, it was down to 1.6%. She was at the well in the middle of the day, alone, to hide from the harsh tongues of the other women in the community. She was the punchline of every joke in her community, and she knew it. This is the oddest thing about the story. Jesus chooses this mistake-filled woman to talk about spiritual maturity.

We are more like the Samaritan woman than we care to admit. I do not want to sound harsh, but it is painfully true. Our churches are filled with sinful, spiritually immature people. I have met very few spiritually mature people. Spiritually mature people stand out in our society because there are so few. Can I ask you these questions? Do the people in your life consider you spiritually mature? Do you consider yourself spiritually mature? The Samaritan woman struggled with Jesus’s words because she was spiritually immature. Could it be we struggle with God’s ways because we are spiritually immature?

The topic of spiritual maturity is common on Christian websites and blogs. I read several to gain some insight before I wrote this blog. They were are all different, yet they were the same. I morphed the information on those platforms into five questions. By answering these five questions you will discover your level of spiritual maturity. Remember three things. First, your answers are not for public knowledge. They are a self-discovery tool. Second, it is important that you answer these questions honestly. Dishonest answers are of no help. Third, it is important that you answer these questions in balance. In other words, don’t be too critical of yourself and don’t think too highly of yourself. Never forget, God expects us to grow spiritually. This is question number one.

Do you have an appetite for meat? Infants drink milk regularly, but in time they ask for solid food. When a twenty-one-year-old asks his mother to spoon feed him mashed potatoes, it is creepy and dysfunctional. When a nursing home resident can’t take a single bite, it is sad because the end is near. Spiritually mature people can’t get enough meat. In other words, they can’t get enough of the Bible. They study the Gospels. They study the entire Old Testament. They study the epistles. What part of the Bible are you studying right now? Are you studying the Bible right now? Have you ever really studied the Bible? Or is the Bible just too hard to understand? Maybe that is the reason you are spiritually immature. Spiritually mature people have an appetite for meat. Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature.”  This is question number two.

Are you easily offended? Experience has taught us that mature Christians seldom get offended. The reason is simple, they see the big picture. When Jesus turned the tables over because people were using the law for personal gain, people were upset with him. Jesus didn’t care because he saw the big picture. The temple was a house of prayer, not a place of profit. Do you see the big picture, or do you only see yourself or your personal interests? The only thing that matters is Jesus! Our churches are filled with offended people because our churches are filled with spiritually immature people. Philippians 1:18 says, “In every way Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes. I will rejoice.”  This is question number three.

Is your conscience formed by scripture or opinion? One of the great attributes of a mature Christian is grace. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. It is a simple truth to understand, but it is a hard truth to live out. I have grown tired of negative, critical, and judgmental people. No one needs your permission; no one must live up to your standards. Spiritually immature people are always critical of others. I have grown tired of people being critical of me. Spiritually mature people understand that we are saved by grace. Romans 14:1 says, “As for one who is weak in the faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”  This is question number four.

Do you serve humbly? God uses sinners in this world to do good things because there is no one else to choose. Have you ever known anyone who boasted about what they did for their church? Have you ever known someone who boasted of something they did for God in this world? If so, then you have the perfect example of a spiritually immature person. Spiritually mature people get it. They know it is not about us, it is all about God. Do the people in your life consider you humble? 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Do the people in your life consider you arrogant? This is question number five.

Do you credit God for success? We live in a culture that idolizes people. It may be a well-loved pastor or the pope. It may be a historical figure, like George Washington (1732-1799) or John Wesley (1703-1791). That is a true sign of spiritual immaturity. Spiritually mature people understand the truth. People, both contemporary and historical, are nothing more than tools in the hands of God. It is God who deserves all the credit. I Corinthians 3:7 says, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

So how did you do with your little quiz? Did you find you are a spiritually mature person? Or did you find you have some work to do? So let me summarize. Spiritually mature people can’t get enough of the Bible, are seldom offended, are interested in Biblical truth, humble, and give God the credit for personal accomplishments. Spiritually immature people are Biblically illiterate, easily offended, preoccupied with their personal opinions, arrogant, and promote their accomplishments. So, are you spiritually mature or spiritually immature? Never forget God expects us to grow spiritually.

When I was young my grandmother came to visit twice a year. She lived in Brooklyn, New York and we lived in Warren, Ohio. I can remember going to the Greyhound bus station to pick her up. Later, she flew into the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. It really didn’t matter how she traveled. It was always exciting to pick her up because she came with gifts. Every reunion was the same. I would run up to her and give her a big hug. She would always square my shoulders and say, “Let me look at you. You have gotten so big.” My dad, who hated those visits because he didn’t like her, always responded, “I would hope so. If he wasn’t growing, there would be something wrong.” I think he missed the point, but he wasn’t wrong. We expect children to grow. If they don’t grow, then is something wrong.

My wife, Kathryn, has a non-profit called Project Orphan Outreach. The focal point of that ministry is orphans in the former Soviet Union who will never be adopted. We have traveled to Eastern Europe several dozen times, visiting Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. We learned that children are the same around the world. Each one deserves to be loved. Thanks to the pandemic and Vladmir Putin (born 1952), those visits were suspended, but will resume this Summer, when we travel to Estonia.

One of my lingering memories of my trips to Russia came from a single orphanage. It was the Renewal Orphanage in Dmitrov. It is approximately fifty miles north of Moscow and the home of approximately one hundred emotionally, physically, and mentally disturbed children. Each one of those children had a story. Each one was sad. One of the boys in the orphanage stood about four foot tall. That would be fine if he was a preschooler, but he was a teenager. I don’t remember his name, but my heart went out to him. He stood with crutches and always had a smile on his face. The other children liked him and considered him a leader. Every time I saw him, I wondered what was wrong. We expect healthy children to grow. This is the truth.

God expects you to grow, and God expects you to mature spiritually! When God looks at you does he say, “Look how big you have gotten!” Or does God say, “What is wrong?” Never forget, we are to be a little more like Jesus every day. It is your choice. Are you maturing spiritually or just growing old?

Experiencing God

Approximately two years ago, I had emergency surgery in Chicago. Thanks to the good people at Northwestern Medical, I am here today to write this blog. Unable to fly home, a good friend drove to Chicago to take my wife, Kathryn, and me home. I will never forget her kindness. However, complications set in, and I was admitted into the Cleveland Clinic. During my ten-day hospitalization, I received excellent care and was tested for a variety of things. I was given a variety of painkillers which my system did not handle well. That takes me to an experience, I wish I could forget.

One evening, they took me for a test. I don’t remember the exact test because I was heavily sedated. Assuming I would be gone for a few hours and the hour was late, Kathryn left me to drive home. When I returned to my room, I was confused. To be more exact, I was completely disoriented. I didn’t recognize my room or any of the surroundings. I was told later, I acted oddly. Odder than normal. In that state I experienced something new in my life. For some unknown reason, I felt alone and unloved. I felt like God had abandoned me. I felt like everyone in my life had forgotten me, my wife, my children, my extended family, my friends, my church family. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember panicking. In an emotional state, my roommate came to my aid. He said, “Russ, everything is ok. You are back in the room and your wife will be back early tomorrow morning.” Slowly the pieces of my life came back together again. I was relieved I was not forgotten.  I was relieved I was loved. I was relieved I was not alone, because God was with me. May we never forget that God is always with us. May we never forget God has always been with us. That takes us to our scripture reading.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name means God is Salvation, but we simply call him Isaiah. His audience was the people of Judah. To be more exact, his audience was the people of Jerusalem. The Old Testament book that carries his name has been dated between the years 740 BC and 680 BC. In his sixty-six chapters, he speaks of both immediate judgement and future restoration.

We find ourselves in the sixth chapter, verses one through thirteen. It is the climax of the first major section of his prophecies. To be blunt, Isaiah is experiencing God. Let me break down those verses. In the first four verses, Isaiah sees the glory of God. In verses five through seven, Isaiah recognizes his own uncleanness. In verses eight through thirteen, Isaiah discovers his purpose. Clean and forgiven, Isaiah sets his sight on God’s rebellious people and delivers his message of judgement. The words in this passage are both foreign and intriguing to us because they are about a person experiencing God. Experiencing God is one of the deep desires of our life. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.”

The other night, my wife was busy, so I went to a local restaurant to eat. I was alone and the place was busy, so I sat at the bar. The seat next to me was open, but a few minutes later, it was occupied by a man who ordered his food to go. The service was slow, so we sat there in awkward silence. After a few minutes, I spoke to him about the service. Seconds later we were talking. He told me his name. He was married with two children, a boy, and a girl. They lived in a neighboring community. Seconds later, he asked me where I worked. I confessed I was retired, but I had been in the ministry for forty years. He was a little uncomfortable with my answer. We sat in silence for a few seconds, then he asked me, “What do you miss?” I answered, “Not much. I didn’t retire to get away from my liturgical duties, things like preaching, weddings, and funerals. I retired because I grew tired of the pettiness of the church. Unchurched now, he was raised Russian Orthodox. He confessed; he missed the sacredness of that tradition, but he left because of the pettiness of his church. Then he asked me a question that caught me off guard. He asked, “Have you ever experienced God?” It was an excellent question and I have been thinking of my answer since our encounter. As I look back of my life, I have had several experiences with God. They may not have been as vivid as Isaiah’s experience with God, but my experiences with God changed my life. Let me talk about three.

In December of 1974, I was a senior in high school. My soul of restless, and I was uncomfortable with my own mortality. It shouldn’t have been that way. I was raised in the life of the church. My parents were active church members, who made sure I was involved in the life of the church. My home church offered a wonderful youth group, and I looked forward to our weekly meetings. I still consider my fellow youth group members to be the finest people I have ever known. It was one of my fellow members who asked me a question that changed my life. She asked, “Russ, would you like to go to heaven?” She was the prefect person to ask the perfect question.” I responded, “yes,” and we prayed. I felt a peace in my soul that has never left me. I was no longer afraid to die. Let there be no doubt about it, God was there. I could have put my head on his shoulder. That was my first experience with God.

My second experience with God came when I was in college. At that time, the University of Mount Union was called Mount Union College. I had wonderful friends during those days. Each one was planning on going into the ministry. That was not my story. I was studying Business Administration. Looking back, I know God was calling me into the ministry too, but I was filled with self-doubt. Once again, my soul was restless. To escape the school and to be alone, I walked through the backstreets of Alliance, Ohio. As I walked, I prayed, looking for direction. Without warning, God suddenly appeared. My senses became keener. Everything I looked at became more vivid. Everything thing I touched took on a new texture. The air itself became fresher. My heartbeat faster and my spirit jumped to life. When I went back to campus, I was surprised the whole world hadn’t changed. Looking back, I understand that experience to be on sanctification. Like Isaiah, God was setting me aside for a divine purpose. My time in the ministry came naturally to me because God was leading the way. That was my second experience with God.

My third experience with God came during my time in the ministry. It was probably twenty years ago. I was the pastor of the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio. On Easter morning, I preached four times. During the last service the church was full. I was glad to say the benediction because I was tired. I stood in the back of the church shaking hands. As the line grew shorter, I noticed a young couple standing off to the side. They were visitors. Their little girl stood by their side and the mother held an infant. When everyone else was gone, they walked up to me with a request. With tears running down the father’s face, he asked, “Can you pray for my son?” Wanting to be more specific, I asked to hear the story. The baby’s head was growing fast because there was something wrong with his brain. I took them to the altar and prayed. A few days later, I was in their home, and we prayed again. As that visit came to an end, I asked them to bring the baby back to church the following Sunday, so the whole church could pray for him. They did and during that service I asked for prayer warriors. The entire congregation stood up and came forward. Those in the front touched the baby. Those who couldn’t touch the baby touched his parents. In the end everyone put their hand on someone else’s shoulder. I prayed for healing and ended with the Lord’s Prayer. I will never forget standing in the middle of that small mass. As we prayed that prayer together, the Holy Spirit washed over us. On that day my church went from being an organization with committees to an organism, part of the body of Christ. Everyone who left church that day knew the baby was healed. The aftershock of that experience was felt in that church for years to come. That was my third experience with God. Years later, it is impossible to look back on that day and not smile. I am happy to report that the baby grew up and is how a chemist, using his fully functioning brain daily.

These are not my only experiences with God. I have had many. I cannot imagine living without God. Perhaps God is like the air we breathe. He is invisible, but He is vital to our existence. I do not understand people who say they don’t need God or who do not believe God exists. I need God every day and so do you. Who wants to live unloved and alone. Internationally renowned author and speaker Wayne Dyer (1940-2015) once said, “The purpose of life is to know God.” When was the last time you experienced God?

Why Did Judas Do It?

From the very beginning he was destined for greatness. At the age of 14 he ran away from home and fought in the French and Indian War. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he joined the American army and as a colonel in 1775 and shared a command with Ethan Allen in the capture of Ticonderoga. Later he led 1000 men into Canada where he fought in the battle of Quebec. His courage in battle won him a promotion to brigadier general. His future looked bright and then something went horribly wrong. Thoughts of compromise ate away at his patriotic zeal. Soon the unthinkable happened. He offered his services to the British, and in 1780 devised a plan to surrender West Point to British. You know the name of the man of whom I speak, Benedict Arnold (1741-1891), the greatest traitor in American history. In this blog, we remember the greatest traitor in the history of the world, Judas Iscariot (3-30).

We are instructed today from the twenty-sixth chapter of Matthew. The scene is familiar to us. It is Thursday of Holy Week. Much has happened but there was still much work to be done. In a few moments Jesus will leave to go to the garden to pray. His earthly ministry is nearly complete, and he finds himself in the middle of a political storm. He knows the outcome. He will be arrested, put on trial by his own people for blasphemy, then put on trial in front of the Roman governor, Pilate, as an enemy of the state. The outcome is obvious. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, the perfect one, the Son of God, will be found guilty and will be executed. I cannot say this too strongly. There is not much time left and every second must count. One of the things he must do is assemble the disciples together for one more meal. He is building for them a living memorial. It is at this meal that Jesus talks to the disciples about the one who was going to betray him, Judas Iscariot, the greatest traitor in the history of the world.

It is Jesus who brings up the topic of betrayal. The disciples cannot believe their ears. Verse 22 says, “They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?”  It is not possible that one of them was going to betray Jesus. They had been through so much together. Jesus himself had selected every one of them. They had sacrificed together and ministered together. They had heard Jesus’ teachings together and had witnessed the miracles. They had felt the power of the Master’s presence and had dreamed of the future. They could hardly believe it when Jesus identified Judas Iscariot was the traitor, they had even trusted him their money.

Through the generations people have wondered why Judas Iscariot did it. Biblical scholars tell us there may be as many as six reasons why Judas Iscariot did it. Let me list them for you.

          1) Maybe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because he was the only none Galilean of the disciples. Iscariot is not a last name it is a location. He was from Kaerrioth. Maybe he got tried and bitter from being the odd man out?

          2) Maybe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to save his own skin? He knew in the political game of the day that the Romans were a safer bet.

          3) Maybe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because of old fashion greed? He betrayed Jesus for about $10,000 in today‘s money. What would you do for a quick $10,000?

          4) Maybe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because he grew to hate Jesus? He wasn’t part of the inner circle. Peter, Andrew, James, and John got more attention and were privilege to more information. What made them better then him?

          5) Maybe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because of his name? Iscariot is not a derivative of the Hebrew Ish Kariot as much as it was a form of the Greek word that meant “Dagger Bearer.” Now the Dagger Bearers were a band of violent nationalists who were prepared to use every means available to them, including assassination to free Palestine from Roman rule. Perhaps Judas had set his hopes on a Messiah who would deliver his people from his oppressors. And then in bitter disappointment he betrayed him.

          6) Maybe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because hoping to force his hand? He saw the Master’s power, but things were moving too slowly. He never intended for Jesus to die that day, instead he hoped to force his hand, so that when he was betrayed, he would use his power to liberated Israel.

The truth is we will never know why Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, but we do know Judas Iscariot brayed Jesus. That was not a wise choice. Judas Iscariot lived to regret it. In the chapter beyond our reading, Matthew 27, we are told that Judas Iscariot regretted his choice to betray Jesus so much that me committed suicide, he hanged himself. Matthew 27:3-4 says once Jesus was handed over the Roman governor, Pilate, Judas Iscariot tried to return the money. The problem was it was too late. According to the text, Judas Iscariot threw the money into the temple and left to hang himself. The authorities used the money to buy a plot for him to be buried.

So, what can we learn from the greatest traitor in the history of the world? Consider these four things. Maybe someday we will look at them in detail. 

                   First, sin never delivers what it promises.

                   Second, it is possible to be near Christ and still not be truly                               saved.

                   Third, we are responsible for our own decisions.

                   Fourth, remorse is not the same as repentance.

The First Battle of Bull Run might not have been a smashing Confederate victory without the flowing curls of Rose Greenhow (1814-1864). On July 9, 1861, she hid a message in her lovely tresses; when she combed out her hair for Rebel officers, they learned that Union troops were about to march on Richmond. A second message contained the invaders’ strength and marching orders. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard (1818-1893) later said that Greenhow “lived in a house within rifle shot of the White House.” Her house became the heart of a Southern spy network, and at the height of her activities Greenhow directed more than 50 agents. To the Confederacy she was a hero. To the Union she was a traitor! How close was Jesus’ traitor? He was closer than a rifle shot. He was so close he dipped his fingers into the Master’s bowl. Can anyone question your loyalty?

The Crowd

We find ourselves in the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, verses one through eleven. According to the text, a great crowd had gathered in the city of Jerusalem. It was time for the Passover. The law required the people to attend, but no legislation was necessary. Everyone wanted to be part of the great holiday. It was a time to do three things. First, they made their annual animal sacrifice at the temple. Second, they paid their annual taxes. Third, it was a time to reconnect with family and friends. It is for that reason everyone wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to 2,500,000 on that Passover, and the name on the lips of everyone was Jesus.

Each one of the Gospel writers emphasizes the size of the crowd. Matthew calls it a very large crowd (Matthew 21:8). Mark says many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut palm branches from nearby fields. Some people followed Jesus; some people ran ahead of Jesus (Mark 11:8-9). Luke says the crowd was so great the religious leaders encouraged Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 19:39). John tells us a great crowd had gathered for the festival (John 12:12). All the Gospel writers tell us the crowd cheered for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem. You can’t question the fact that the crowd was large. You can’t question the fact that Jesus was the eye of the storm on that first Palm Sunday. However, you can question the commitment of the crowd. In the end, the cheers of Palm Sunday were replaced with the tears of Good Friday. The massive Palm Sunday crowd disappeared. The crowd was large, but the crowd wasn’t committed. Do you think Jesus was more impressed by the size of the crowd on Sunday, or the commitment of the few on Friday?

It was the crowd that grabbed my attention as I write this blog. What caused the crowd to abandon Jesus? It is a fair question. However, one thing is clear. The problem was not Jesus. The Master was consistent throughout the week. The problem was the crowd, itself. There were many reasons why the crowd abandoned Jesus. In this blog, I want to look at three of the most obvious. I would like to say those reasons died with Jesus’s generation, but I can’t. People are still walking away from Jesus for the same reasons. I hope that isn’t your story. As we begin our annual Holy Week pilgrimage, I hope you are truly committed to Jesus. Let us look at the three reasons.

This is reason number one. Some found themselves in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday because Jesus was a celebrity. Let us call these people “trendy”. What does trendy mean? It means fashionable. The name on everyone’s lips that day was Jesus. Why was Jesus so popular? Jesus was popular because Jesus was known as a miracle worker. Everyone knew the stories. Because of Jesus the blind could see, the lame could walk, the deaf could hear and the demoniacs were made whole. However, according to the Gospel of John, the greatest miracle was the resurrection of Lazarus. I can’t say this too strongly. Jesus was a celebrity! Trendy people wanted to be near Jesus because Jesus was fashionable. Do you know any trendy disciples?

Years ago, my brother-in-law introduced me to the term “C and E People.” You know who C and E People are. They are the people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. They make up a significant number. We experienced them at ever church I served. Some of the people you will see on Easter morning will not be seen again until Christmas Eve. That isn’t being mean; that is being honest. Don’t get me wrong. I am always glad to see the C and E People. However, I must make a confession: I worry about them because there is more to Jesus then his birth and his resurrection. It bothers me that they have so little exposure to Jesus. However, it doesn’t seem to bother them. Do you think they will come to church on Easter to learn about Jesus? Or do you think they will come to church next week for other reasons? Do you know of anyone who comes to church on Christmas and Easter because it is fashionable? Then, you know a trendy disciple. Someone once said, “You can be committed to a church and not be committed to Jesus. But you can’t be committed to Jesus without a church.” Some in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday were there because Jesus was trending. That is reason number one.

This is reason number two. Some found themselves in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday because they needed something from Jesus. The Master healed many people, but Jesus didn’t heal everyone. There was no shortage of suffering in their world. They heard Jesus was coming and they had someone in their life who needed to be healed. Everyone knew someone who needed help. They came because, maybe Lady Luck might smile on them. It was like playing the lottery. You can’t win if you don’t play. You can’t really blame them. Jesus was their only hope. Do you know of anyone who has ever tried to use Jesus for a personal favor? Do you know of anyone who has ever tried to bargain with God? Do you know of anyone who is mad at God? They would like God if God did things their way.

For many years, my wife Kathryn worked with Russian orphans who would never be adopted. Several of them stayed in our home as they got their prosthetics. We formed a friendship with those young men. Many were curious about them and asked questions. One person felt like it was his duty to make a statement. (People are always saying odd things to me. This person was no exception!) This person said, “They are an example of why I don’t go to church. Why would a loving God create handicapped people?” I didn’t respond because I was clueless about what to say. I guess, he was saying he would go to church if God gave him what he wanted. We live in such arrogant times. Why are there so many people who think God must live up to their expectations? Why are there so many who are mad at God? They can be mad at God, but the truth is, God doesn’t care. Never forget it. God is God! It is God who sets the agenda and creates the venue. We are nothing more than nameless characters on the stage of world history. Some in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday were users. Do you know any users? This is reason number two.

This is reason number three. Some found themselves in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday because they were misinformed. One of the reasons this scene is so loved is that it is easy to imagine. If you use your sanctified imagination, then you can picture Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on that simple animal. However, while it is easy to imagine the scene, it is hard to completely understand the scene. For to completely understand the scene, you must understand the politics of that day. (Does anyone here understand the politics of our day?) The politics of that day revolved around foreign domination. The Roman Empire had come to their little corner of the world and oppressed the people. The Jews hated the Romans. They prayed for their liberation and longed to be rescued. They prayed that God would respond and send them a Messiah, a savior. They hoped Jesus was that political Messiah. He seemed to be just the one. They wanted Jesus to lead a political revolution. They wanted Jesus to be a political Messiah, so they did political things. They waved palm branches like he was a conquering military warrior. They yelled political slogans: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!  The problem was, he was not a political Messiah. Jesus was not interested in politics. That section of the crowd was misinformed. He was a spiritual Messiah. Do you know of any misinformed disciples?

Don’t be misinformed. Jesus was not just one more historical religious figure in history. Jesus was completely different. Jesus was the incarnation of God himself. That is why we celebrate Christmas. God became one of us, and He never committed a single sin. Your understanding of sacrificial theology may be thin but get this point. The sinlessness of Jesus made him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. The sinlessness of Jesus made him the perfect sacrifice for your sins. Let me tell you one more time. You can’t earn your salvation. It is a great gift from God. We are saved by grace and by grace alone! The only way to say, “Thank you” to Jesus for dying for your sins is to be like Jesus. I hope you are a little more like Jesus every day! Some in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday were there because Jesus was trending. Some were in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday because they were users. Some were in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday because they were misinformed.

A missionary society once wrote the famous missionary David Livingstone (1813-1873) a letter. They wanted to send him help, so they asked, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know how to send other men to join you.” Livingstone wrote back, “If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” What was Livingstone saying? He was only looking for the truly committed, and so is Jesus. Founder of Saddleback Church in California Rick Warren (born 1954) once said, “Nothing will shape your life more than the commitments you make.”   This is the question: are you committed to Jesus, or just one of the crowd?