Mr. Potter’s World

In 1946, Frank Capra (1893-1991) released the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Made for approximately $3 million dollars, he both produced and directed the film. It was. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. Today, it is one of the most loved movies in America. It is a Christmas classic that is viewed annually by many. I have watched it countless times. How many times have you watched It’s a Wonderful Life?

I love the scene in the movie when Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), offers George a job. For years, Potter has frustrated the people of Bedford Falls for personal gain. He is the perfect villain. The scene begins with Mr. Potter offering George some thinly veiled complements. George is a young man with high potential. The only logical thing to do is increase his income by going to work for Potter. At first, George is tempted by the offer. Then, he shakes Potter’s hand and everything changes. George begins to consider the consequences of his new position. With strong words for Potter, George races out of the office. You can feel his frustration. In just a few seconds, George goes from living on the mountaintop to living in the valley. In other words, he goes from living with hope to living without hope. In the end, he does what is best for others. Have you ever felt like George Bailey? At one time you had hope, but now your hopes are dead. They died from a terminal case of responsibility.

The reason It’s a Wonderful Life is so popular is we can relate to George Bailey. We live in a Mr. Potter world, and we all play the part of George Bailey. We are trying to stay hopeful about the future, but it is hard. The news is filled with nothing but hopelessness. The theme of every story depressing. The word that is used repeatedly is strife. There is strife between the political parties. There is strife between ethnic factions and strife among nations. There is strife between the economic classes. Our world is filled with strife and hopeless, hunger, pollution, and violence. Crime seems to be spreading to every community, so our prisons are filled. Our hospitals are filled with both the physically and mentally ill. How many people do you know are addicted to drugs or alcohol? Third World Nations are hopelessly in debt to the world banks. There seems to be a shortage of hope. Hopelessness has permeated our society. The by-product of our hopeless world is negative people. How many negative people do you know? The Dalai Lama (born 1935) once said, “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus on the brightness. I do not judge the universe.”

Maybe that is why we love Christmas? To the believer, Christmas is more than decorations, gifts, cards, and parties. It is more than community spirit, volunteerism, and family. Christmas is about the incarnation of God. American historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968) once said, “The primary source of the appeal of Christianity is Jesus – His incarnation, His life, His crucifixion, and His Resurrection.” Without Jesus, we would be living in a hopeless Mr. Potter world. Jesus changed everything and still offers the world hope. In the blog, I want to talk about the three forms of hope Jesus offers.

In Mr. Potter’s world there is only loneliness. Since the birth of Jesus, the world has the opportunity of having a companionship with God. Jesus was more than a baby. Jesus was the incarnation of God. He left the perfection of heaven and entered our imperfect world. He left the perfection of heaven to slum it with people like us. The question that has haunted the generations is, “Why?” This is the answer. God loves us and wants to relate to the human condition. There has never been a moment in your life when you were alone. God is always present. Jesus came to offer us companionship.

In 2012, America’s northeast was hit by Hurricane Sandy. It was a category three hurricane. For years, homes and community stood in that area. In a matter of a few hours everything was destroyed. It took years to rebuild those homes and communities. Many from around the country went to the New York City area to help. Some that needed help were firefighters who went to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the gulf coast in 2005. Some of the New Orleans firefighters traveled to the north to lend a hand and return the favor. They interviewed one of the men. He said there is a bond among fire fighters around the country. According to him, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy forged a special bond between the firefighters of New York and New Orleans. One New York fire fighter simply said, “It’s nice to know we are not alone.”  We are not alone. Jesus came to offer us companionship.

In Mr. Potter’s world there is ignorance. Since the birth of Jesus, the world can live in wisdom. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey struggled financially, but he was a rich man when it came to relationships. The same thing can be said about Jesus. When it came to personal finances, Jesus was a failure. He only owned the clothes on his back and traveled within a small geographic area. However, when it came to relationships, he was successful. Jesus showed us how to live. The wise know the key to happiness in life comes from our relationships. How rich are you?

During my time in the ministry, I would take the summer months and look at a single Old Testament character. One summer we looked at Ruth. She was the great-grandmother to King David. Do you remember her story? There was a great famine in the land of Judah, and many were forced out of their homes. One man who was forced to leave was named Elimelech. He was married to a woman named Naomi. They had two sons. The four of them settled in Moab. It was only natural that the sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. You can’t blame them. You know what they say about Moabite women! In time, all the males in the story die so the women are forced to live alone. Women had no rights in those days. They had nothing, so Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to return home. Orpah does and says, “Goodbye.” However, Ruth remains devoted to Naomi. She does not stay with her for some legalistic reason. She stays out of love. This Old Testament character teachers us a New Testament principle. The most valuable thing in our lives is our relationships. Jesus came to offer us companionship. Jesus came to offer us wisdom.

In a Mr. Potter’s world there is discord. Since the birth of Jesus, we can at peace with God. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior in December 1974. The one emotion I felt that day was peace. Since that time, I have lived at peace with God and no longer fear death. The apostle Paul said it best in Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified by faith, we live at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. 

In 1555, Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555) was the Bishop of London. He was burned at the stake because for his faith. On the night before his execution, his brother offered to remain with him in the prison chamber. Nicholas declined the offer. He wanted to go to bed early because he wanted a good night’s rest. He said, “Tomorrow, I am going to meet my Savior.” Those words reveal the truth. He was completely comfortable with his death and completely at peace with God. How at peace are you with God? How did you sleep last night? Jesus came to offer us companionship. Jesus came to offer us wisdom. Jesus came to offer us peace.

Christmas is just a few weeks away. This will be the first year in forty years, I will not be leading worship on Christmas Eve. It is an odd feeling. In the past, I led as many as three worship services on Christmas Eve, but the one I enjoyed the most was the last one, the 11:00 Christmas Eve candlelight service. I looked forward to it annually. The crowds were gone, and I could relax. I was comfortable with my message because I had already preached it twice. I just listened to the words of the sacred texts, the second chapter of Luke and the first chapter of John. I have heard those words our entire life. Every time those words move me. I am so humbled God entered this world.

Between now and Christmas, I would challenge you to simply read the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas narrative is so large it can’t be described by one author. Each one of the writers handles it in this own way. For some reason, Mark does not even mention the birth of Jesus. He is silent on the topic. John looks at the birth of Jesus in a logical way. You remember the verse. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.” Luke, the common man’s Gospel, tries to include the actions of that sacred night, including common people. He tells us about the no vacancy sign at the inn. He tells us about the manger. He tells us about the shepherds and the angels. Matthew, the Jewish Gospel, tells us about Jesus’ genealogy, the coming of the Magi and the Holy families escape to Egypt. There are so many parts to the story, so you must read all four Gospels, so you get the whole picture.

Don’t read them to preach it or teach it. Read the words for the edification of your own soul. I guarantee they will move you because your soul will be enriched. Be thankful you don’t life in Mr. Potter’s hopeless world. Be thankful you live in a hopeful world dominated by Jesus Christ. Christmas reminds us of our divine companionship. Christmas reminds us to value our relationships. Christmas reminds us of our divine peace. Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) once said, “Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”

It’s A Secret

History tells us Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) was a polar explorer. Once while on a South Pole expedition, he left a few men on Elephant Island, promising that he would return. Later, when he tried to go back, huge icebergs blocked the way. But suddenly, as if by a miracle, an avenue opened in the ice and Shackleton was able to get through. His men, ready and waiting, quickly scrambled aboard. No sooner had the ship cleared the island than the ice crashed together behind them. Contemplating their narrow escape, the explorer said to his men, “It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!” They replied, “We never gave up hope. Whenever the sea was clear of ice, we rolled up our sleeping bags and reminded each other, ‘The boss may come today.'” If you can understand that simple story, then you can understand this simple blog.

Did you know there are approximately 211 million websites on the second coming of Christ? I haven’t looked at each one, but they cover a wide range of opinions. Few topics are more controversial then the second coming of Christ. If you don’t believe me then bring it up among your friends. Generally, people divide themselves into three groups. Which one of these groups do you belong?

The first group believes Christ will never return. They are the same group that dismisses the resurrection of Jesus. They dismiss the second coming because they believe it is nothing more than an old wives’ tale. In their opinion, it resonates with an uneducated portion of our society, but it has nothing to offer to our sophisticated educated world. It is like the stories of the Paul Bunyan or the Tooth Fairy. It is just a tale to be told. Do you know of anyone who dismisses the second coming of Christ?

The second group believes Christ has already returned. These people are found in the academic world. For them, the second coming has to do with having a clear understanding of the trinity. Remember, God is father, son, and Holy Spirit. They believe Christ returned during that great day of Pentecost in the form of the Holy Spirit. You remember the story. The Holy Spirit swept through the world without warning. The believers and the non-believers were divided. The believers were touched by the divine power and were united with God. They formed this new organization called the church and began to spread the Good News. The non-believers, on the other hand, remained untouched. Do you know of anyone who believes the second coming has already occurred?

The third group is still waiting for Jesus to come. Regularly, they study the signs of the end that are scattered throughout the Bible. Some believe there are as many as 26 different signs of the end. For them, every current event signals our demise. Every war, famine or earthquake is a sign of the apocalypse. The problem is our world is filled with so many wars, famines, and earthquakes. It is like trying to read a street sign through a thick fog. There is something there, but you can’t make it out. Can anyone read the signs? People have been trying to make out the signs for a long time.

In the nineteenth century there was a Baptist evangelist by the name of William Miller (1782-1849). He studied the signs and believed that Jesus would return on April 3, 1843. All over the Northeast, half million of his followers called Adventists, waited for that day. Journalists had a field day. Reportedly some disciples were on mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others were in graveyards, planning to ascend in union with their departed loved ones. Some high society ladies clustered together outside of Philadelphia to avoid entering God’s holy kingdom amid the common herd. You know what happened. April 3, 1843, came and went. Jesus didn’t return and time moved forward. What do you believe about the second coming of Christ? I believe someday Jesus will return. However, I don’t worry about the signs. I just trust Jesus.

We find ourselves in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, verses 36-44. The topic is the second coming of Christ. I would encourage you to put all your opinions aside and just listen to Jesus. The Master said his second coming is the greatest secret in the history of the world. Verse 36 says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If there is one verse that everyone should memorize about the second coming it is that one. Only God knows when Jesus will return. Hollywood does not know when Jesus will return. The History Channel does not know when Jesus will return. That strange person in your life, who is always looking for signs of the end, does not know when Jesus will return. The Bible says nothing about the Mayan calendar or Rasputin (1869-1916). However, the Bible does say the second coming is a secret. The Bible does say Jesus will come without warning.

In this blog, I want to talk about the secret. This great secret is the ultimate challenge because it means you must always be prepared. If Jesus returns today, are you ready, or do you have some work to do? Do you need some self-improvement? Are there things you would still like to do? Are there things you would still like to accomplish? Are all your relationships healthy? Is your relationship with God healthy? Are you ready to die? Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I would encourage you to fix these things now. After all, Jesus could return at any time.

Years ago, I watched the History Channel’s series, The Men Who Built America. In the series they examined the lives of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), Henry Ford (1863-1947), and J. P. Morgan (1837-1913). Each story was fascinating, but it was Henry Ford’s life that really caught my attention. Did you know Henry Ford was born on a farm outside of Detroit? It was his father’s dream for Henry to take over the farm, but he had different ideas. At the age of 16, Henry left the farm and began as a machinist apprentice. Then he went to work for the Edison Illuminating Company. In time, he was their chief engineer. The whole time he was working he was saving his money so he could pursue his real dream, developing a car the common man could afford. He and a partner founded the Ford Motor Company with this in mind. When he introduced the assembly line to his plant, his dream became a reality. The Model T became an instant success. Did you know half of all cars on American roads in 1918 were made by Ford? I think his story is fascinating on many levels. However, what I admire most about Ford is that his dream became a reality. Have all your dreams reached reality?

If Jesus were to return today, what regrets do you have personally? What dreams do you still have that haunt you daily? The return of Christ signals the end. It means the end of my personal aspirations. What do you still want to do with your life? What books would you still like to read? What places do you still want to travel? What hobbies do you still want to explore? What causes do you still want to aid? What people do you still want to meet? The second coming of Christ signals the end! However, he still hasn’t come so you still have time to live out your personal dreams.

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Frank Capra’s (1897-1991) It’s a Wonderful Life. If you are like me then you have seen it countless times. You know the storyline. George Bailey is a young man with dreams. He wants to see the world, but his responsibilities keep getting in the way. He is trapped in his hometown of Bedford Falls and shackled to the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan. He is living a disillusioned life when matters get worse. The bank examiner comes to town and discovers the business is short $8000! You must factor inflation into the story! That would be like losing $123,000 today. George looks everywhere for the money, but he can’t find it. Then the unexpected happens. The people, who George had known and helped for years, step forward and give him the needed funds. He wasn’t the richest man in town because he had money. He was the richest man in town because of his relationships.

If Jesus would return today, what regrets do you have socially? Is there anyone in your life you have spoken to in years? Is there anyone in your life who doesn’t deserve a second chance? Is there anyone in your life you hate? Is there anyone in your life you don’t trust? George Bailey was guilty of not believing in the people in his life. How guilty are you of selling the people in your life short? What joys are you withholding from yourself because you have cut someone out of our life? The second coming of Christ signals the end! However, he hasn’t come yet, so you still have time improve your relationships.

According to a 2011 Ipsos Research Institute study, 51% of the world’s population believes in the existence of God. They surveyed 18,000 people from 23 different countries. I don’t know if that fact makes me feel better or worse. That is one of those facts that really doesn’t matter. Believing is the existence of God is not enough. Even Satan believes in the existence of God, and he is not going to heaven. Believing in the historical Jesus doesn’t really matter. The only thing that really matters is that you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. If you have accepted Jesus, then you go to heaven. If you haven’t accepted Jesus, then you go to hell. If Jesus would return today, what regrets do you have spiritually? In other words, do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? The second coming of Christ signals the end! However, he hasn’t come yet so you still have time to accept Jesus. You still have time to grab that ticket that leads to eternal life.

At the height of World War II, Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945) was imprisoned for taking a stand against Adolph Hitler (1889-1945). Yet, he continued to urge fellow believers to resist Nazi tyranny. A group of Christians, believing that Hitler was the Antichrist, asked Bonheoffer, “Why do you expose yourself to all this danger? Jesus will return any day, and all your work and suffering will be for nothing.” Bonheoffer replied, “If Jesus returns tomorrow, then tomorrow I’ll rest from my labor. But today I have work to do. I must continue the struggle until it’s finished.” It is not just the story of Dietrich Bonheoffer, it is our story as well.

Someday Christ will return! The question that has haunted the ages is, “When?” It is the greatest secret in the history of the world. Only God knows the answer. The angels in heaven do not know the answer. The Son does not know the answer. The entertainment world does not know the answer. Pastors and evangelists do not know the answer. Only God knows the answer. However, we do know the second coming of Christ signals the end. However, he has not come yet so you still have time to make some improvements. You still have time to live out your personal dreams. You still have time to fix those broken relationships. You still have time to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) once said, “A Christian is not one who never goes wrong, but one who is enabled to repent and begin over again after each stumble—because of the inner working of Christ.”

What Is Thanksgiving?

We find ourselves in the seventeenth chapter of Luke, verses eleven through seventeen. According to the text, Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem. Chronologically, the end is near. This is chapter seventeen; Luke’s version of the Palm Sunday experience is recorded in chapter nineteen. Geographically, the Master is traveling between the border of Samaria and Galilee. As he travels, he encounters various people.

On that list of people are the ten lepers. You may know their story. Leprosy was a highly contagious skin disease caused by a certain bacterium. The disease still exists in our world today. In the world approximately 140,000 cases are reported annually, according to Statista. In the United States approximated 100 cases are reported annually. However, today it is treatable. In the days of Jesus, it was not. In Jesus’s day victims of leprosy were forced to live in isolation, away from family and friends, in leper colonies. This is the story of the ten men in the scripture lesson. They are living with leprosy without any hope of a cure. Then, they hear the news that gave them hope. Jesus was coming! They have heard of his healing power. He is their only chance, so they want to run to Jesus. However, they can’t. They are mandated by law to keep their distance. The best they can do is yell at Jesus as he passes. This is the good news. Jesus not only hears their desperate voices, but he heals them. Jesus instructs them to go to a priest for inspection. That fact is important because priests had the authority to grant them permission to re-enter society. This is the fact you can’t overlook. In the story, all ten men were healed, but only one man returned to Jesus to say, “Thank-you!” That fact is disappointing, but it is not shocking. It is not just true of Jesus’s time. Ingratitude is still part of our world. American motivational speaker and author, William Arthur Ward (1921-1994) once said, Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.Never underestimate the power of gratitude!

There are many ways to express gratitude. I came up with a list of ten ways you can express gratitude. My list is not complete. You can express gratitude in other ways. However, you may have used one of these. You can:

          1. Write a thank-you note

          2. Buy a gift card

          3. Donate to a charity or a church

          4. Write a song or poem

          5. Donate food to a food bank

          6. Make and take a meal to a shut in

          7. Give a hug

          8. Preform some random act of kindness

          9. Send flowers

          10. Pray for the person

How do you express gratitude? It really doesn’t matter how you express gratitude. Doing nothing to express appreciation is not an option. That is what makes the nine lepers so shocking. I like to think, they did something. Perhaps, one of the nine ungrateful lepers wrote Jesus a poem?

Thanksgiving in America this year is Thursday, November 24! That means it is close. So, in this blog, I want to help you discover the true spirit of gratitude. I hope to do that by asking you the question, what is Thanksgiving? I will give you three answers. Each one is correct.

First, Thanksgiving is a holiday. Did you know Thanksgiving in America did not become a national holiday until 1941? However, Americans have been observing a day of thanksgiving for generations. Historians tell us the first recorded thanksgiving took place in Jamestown, Virginia. The winter of 1610 was harsh in Jamestown. Many settlers died. The group that once totaled 409 had been reduced to 60. Tradition tells us the survivors prayed for help, without knowing when or how it might come. When help arrived, in the form of a ship filled with food and supplies from England, a prayer meeting was held to give thanks to God. There is no mention of a feast. Maybe that is why it is not the famous Thanksgiving?

The famous Thanksgiving happened in 1621. Do you remember the story? The Pilgrims left Southampton, England in 1620. They wanted religious freedom. There was trouble from the start. As they sailed around the south tip of the British Isles one of the ships, the Speedway, was ruled unseaworthy. The two ships stopped and some of the Pilgrims went home. However, some of the Speedway’s passengers boarded the second ship, the Mayflower. History tells us the trip took longer than the estimated 66 days because the ship was heavier. They had navigation problems Too. They wanted to go to Virginia, but they arrived in New England. It was November and the weather was growing harsh. There was no time to build permanent shelters, so they survived that first winter in North America in crude temporary housing and on the Mayflower. In time, disease came, and the death toll began to rise. Only 51 of the original 102 saw the spring. The dead were buried in unmarked graves so the local natives would not know how small their numbers had grown. When the spring came, they were forced to make a painful choice. The Mayflower was a rented ship and had to return to England. Would they stay in America or return to England? The decided to stay and their luck began to change. Friendly Native Americans helped them plant 30 acres of wheat and build permanent shelters. By the fall of 1621, their homes were built, and their crops were harvested. They decided to observe a day of thanksgiving to thank God for his blessings. Part of that celebration was a feast. The story doesn’t end there.

One hundred and sixty-two years after the Pilgrims, George Washington (1732-1799) declared a Thanksgiving Day in 1783. The reason was simple. The Revolution was over, and America was free.  Eighty years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863, as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” Each year afterward, for 75 years, the President formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) set it one week earlier. He wanted to help the struggling economy by lengthening the shopping season. There were five Thursdays that year. In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday of November a national holiday, Thanksgiving! What is Thanksgiving? It is a holiday!

Second, Thanksgiving is an opportunity. Go back to the scripture lesson. The one who came back to thank Jesus seized the opportunity. The other nine missed their opportunity. They may have returned later to thank Jesus, but he was gone. They missed their opportunity. On Thanksgiving Day, you will be surrounded by the most important people in your life. Don’t be a coward; be brave! Tell them how you really feel. Thanksgiving is an opportunity.

Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? Matthew, Mark and Luke have their own versions of the same story. If you put them together then you get the complete picture. He had it all! He was rich so he could buy what he wanted. He was young so he had his health and a future. He was a ruler, so he had influence. He had everything but he didn’t have the most important thing, salvation. So, he asked the Master, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him if he had kept all the commandments that have to do with relationships. Had he never murdered, committed adultery, stolen, or offered false witness? He honored his parents. He kept those commandments. Then Jesus commands him to do something he could not do, sell his possessions, and give the profits to the poor. It is not a command of poverty. It is a question of priority. Jesus is saying God must be your top priority. The man left feeling bad for two reasons. First, he had to admit God wasn’t his top priority. Second, he felt like he missed his one opportunity at salvation.

I hope you don’t miss your opportunity! On Thanksgiving seize the opportunity to tell the people in your life how you really feel. Tell the oldest people in your life you love them. Tell the youngest people in your life you are proud of them. Tell that difficult person in your life you are sorry. Build a relationship with them one more time. Seize the opportunity that Thanksgiving presents. What is Thanksgiving? It is a holiday and an opportunity.

Third and finally, Thanksgiving is an attitude. The man in the story returned to Jesus in a spirit of gratitude. Verse 16 says he threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He demonstrated his appreciation. His attitude toward Jesus completes the story. Your attitude can make or break any situation. Do you have anyone in your life who can ruin happy gathering with a bad attitude? What is Thanksgiving? It is a holiday, an opportunity and an attitude.

My father-in-law’s name was Vern. We had a good relationship. So, I feel comfortable saying this. He would admit he had a bad attitude. He loved his bad attitude. He was a salty old guy, critical and negative. During the last several years of his life, he lived at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio with my mother-in-law. It is a wonderful place, but Vern was always so negative. I regularly made those trips to visit them. Every visit was the same. Vern complained about everything; only the topic changed.

One day he started on Copeland Oaks. He complained about the noise in the hallways because everyone was deaf. He complained about the food. Everything was tasteless and the deserts were too small. He complained about the gardening program. The residents were like slave labor. They grew the vegetables, but Copeland Oaks used them for their own purposes. He complained about the building. It was falling apart. One day, the elevator broke, and group of old goats were trapped in the elevator with a woman from the kitchen. He described her as ugly and smelly, wearing a hair net. That was Vern’s normal routine. He could ruin any happy experience with his bad attitude. However, that day was different. I really listened to him and began to wonder about Copeland Oaks. I had parishioners who lived at Copeland Oaks; I have referred people to Copeland Oaks.

I decided to check Vern’s story out by visiting a family friend, who also lived at Copeland Oaks. I had known Earl for years; he worked with my father. When I got to his apartment, he greeted me with a big smile. He gave me a big hug. I asked him, “How is life at Copeland Oaks?” He said, “It is great! I only regret is not moving here sooner.” I said, “Do you find the hallways noisy?” He said, “No! I love to hear people laughing and enjoying themselves.” I asked, “How is the food?” He said, “Look at me; I am getting fat!” I said, “I hear some of the residents have a garden.” He said, “I am a gardener. It is great! We sell the crops and give the money to various missions.” He began to pick up steam and started to tell me all the wonderful things about Copeland Oaks. I looked at my watch. It was growing late, and I had to get back. I said, “Earl, it was great to see you, but I must go. He said, “Let me tell one thing. The other day I was in the elevator with some of the guys. It stopped between floors. We were squeezed into the elevator with one of young ladies, who works in the kitchen. She is quite a looker! Her name is Debbie. She was pressed up against me!” He said, “Russ, I haven’t been that close to a young hot woman in long time. It was great! I think my heart went out of rhyme. The only problem is they fixed the elevator too fast. I could have stood there with Debbie pressed up against me for a lot longer! I like the name Debbie!”

How can it be that two people can have the same experience and experience two different things? The answer is one word, attitude! Are you going to ruin your Thanksgiving with a bad attitude? Are you going to ruin someone else’s Thanksgiving with your bad attitude? This is a better question. Do the people in your life find you exhilarating or exhausting?

What is Thanksgiving? First, Thanksgiving is a holiday. We have been celebrating Thanksgiving for over 400 years! Second, Thanksgiving is an opportunity. Don’t miss your opportunity to express your feelings about the people in your life. Don’t be a coward. Don’t miss your opportunity to say, “I am sorry.” Don’t miss your opportunity to say, “I am proud of you.” Don’t miss your opportunity to say, “I love you!” Third and finally, Thanksgiving is an attitude. Do the people in your life find you exhilarating or exhausting? What makes them happier? Are they happier when you come or are they happier when you go? There is an old Estonian Proverb you may want to remember on Thanksgiving. Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.

Living with Criticism

One of my favorite personalities in church history is English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770). He was one of the finest preachers the church has ever known. However, that does not mean he was not without his critics. 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 have been criticized many times, and so have you. There is no escape. However, how you handle being criticized says a great deal about your spiritual maturity. That is why our scripture reading speaks to us.

We find ourselves in the first four verses of the eleventh chapter of Acts, plus verse eighteen. When we last left Peter, the church was a happy place. The Holy Spirit was moving, and the church was growing. New converts were being welcomed, including Gentiles. There was really nothing to complain about, but this is the church. Someone must complain. I have never been in a church that was complaint free. Drama has been part of church from the very beginning.

According to the text, Peter returned to Jerusalem. His spirits 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 he had broken a long-standing rule, associating with Gentiles. Peter defends himself by simply telling the truth. In the verses between our reading for today, Peter tells them exactly what happened. It is the story we looked at in my previous blog. God summons a Gentile, Cornelius, to Peter. 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 these 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.’” The complainers were defused, and the ministry continued. I wish, I handled all my criticizers so easily.

I fell in love with this story the first time I read it. The point of the story was painfully clear. Peter was one of the greatest figures in the 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 winds blew. It was Peter who healed the cripple. It was Peter who welcomed the Gentiles. Peter did so much; Peter was so much. If there is anyone who does not deserved 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 is not just true of the church; it is true in life. Everyone gets criticized. That is what makes being a position of authority so difficult. Let me ask you this series of questions.

1. Have you ever criticized your doctor for some oversight?

2. Have you ever criticized your local school board for not doing it your way?

3. Have you ever criticized a politician for being out of touch?

4. Have you ever criticized a professional athlete or celebrity for being themselves?

5. Have you ever criticized your minister for not being there at the right time?

6. 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 criticism. They know what we are trying to deny. Just admit it, like or not, everyone gets criticized. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” The goal is not to eliminate criticism. The goal is handling criticism well. How well do you handle criticism? You and Peter have something in common. You have both been criticized.

Did you know the idea of the employee suggestion box started in Japan in 1721? That means it is 301 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? 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.

Here are three things you need to know the next time you are criticized.

  1. 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.
  • 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?
  • 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!

This was not the first time Peter was criticized. You remember the story. Peter once told Jesus he would never betray him, yet a short time later Peter did three times (John 18:15-27). He must have regretted those words. When the resurrected Jesus came back, he looked for Peter and reminded him of his betrayal. The Master reinstates Peter by asking him the same question three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter responded, “You know I love you” (John 21). For Peter, that must have been an emotional day. Yet, that wasn’t the end of Peter. He learned from that experience and moved forward. We never hear about his betrayal again. Are you stuck in the past, remembering that day you were criticized? You should learn from your criticisms, but you should never dwell on them. Just forget about it and move forward.

In the spring of 1989, I was interviewed to be the pastor of the Hathaway 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 world.) Over the next five years, we experienced some success.

Hathaway is now closed. During my time there, I learned why they hadn’t grown in decades. It had nothing to do with demographics. However, the community was predominantly retired Catholics. Hathaway didn’t grow 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 Hathaway’s case, the pastor had very little control. The controlling group was one family. They ruled by intimidation. That family consisted of two generations. There was the father and mother, Paul and Gladys. They had two adult sons, Jim, who can best be described as a “junkyard dog”, and Paul, who was a nice guy. They had two wives, Cindy, and Judy. The six of them dominated ever committee within the life the church. If that church was ever going to grow, then the six 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 six. The six 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 named Dick made it possible for me to stay. My last three years in Garfield Heights were wonderful, because the six were gone. They left with a pile of ugly words pointed at me. They wrote those words down and sent them to the church’s administrative board, my District Superintendent, and the 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 mental illness. He asked me if I wanted to respond. I did. I said, “Maybe they are right? They are not the first to think I am crazy.” We laughed and the topic never came up again.

Let me end this blog 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 life.

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 (1899-1993) once said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Everyone Welcomed?

One of the great iconic figures in American history is Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). He had a brilliant military mind and was respected by friends and foe. When the Civil War ended, he wanted to live on his own farm. That was impossible because of his celebrity status. Instead, he became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He served in that position until his death in 1870 at the age of sixty-three.

Near the end of his life, Lee was in Washington DC. Those were religious times in America, so on Sunday morning, he decided to go to church. It was Communion Sunday, so Lee went forward for the elements. As he was being served, a black man knelt beside him. Some in the congregation were shocked. An onlooker said to Lee later, “How could you do that?” Lee replied, “My friend, all ground is level beneath the cross.” If you can understand that simple story, then you can understand this blog.

We are in the tenth chapter of Acts, verses twenty-three through forty-eight. According to the text, Peter arrived in Caesarea and Cornelius was waiting for him. Peter had rock star status. When the two men meet, Cornelius is so blown away that he falls at Peter’s feet. Peter thinks this is ridiculous and reminds him that he (Peter) is only a man. Two thousand years later it is hard for us to see, but they were not just two men. There was a Jewish man and a Gentile man. That was not a big deal to our world, but to their world it was shocking. The Old Testament law did not permit Jews and Gentiles to associate. Peter reminds them of this law in 10:28a. That is why the scripture speaks to our generation. If it is true in the previous story about food, then it is true of people in this story. Nothing that God creates is impure or unclean (10:28b). By the end of the reading, both men had told their stories. Cornelius told about the angel’s message (10:30-33). Peter told them about Jesus (10:34-43). God must have been pleased with those words because the Holy Spirit arrived, and everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, were filled. Peter knew it all along. God does not show favoritism (10:34). He ordered these new spirit-filled Gentile believers to be baptized with water in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is a fun story to preach, and it is an easy story to understand. You do not need an advanced degree to get the point. Through the eyes of God, everyone is the same internally. Everyone needs forgiveness and salvation. Everyone needs hope for a better future. Everyone needs God. However, that does not mean that through the eyes of God everyone is the same externally. All you need to do is look around. Look at all the different kinds of people there are in the world. There are various races. There are various generations. There are many nations, so there are numerous political views. There are the extremely wealthy and the homeless. There are males and females. There are heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexual. There are the limited, and people who are whole. When you mix all those things together, one thing is perfectly clear. There are as many kinds of people as there are people. The church must be diverse to speak to our diverse world. The problem is the church has always struggled with diversity.

History tells us Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) read the Gospels seriously during his student days. At one point he even considered becoming a Christian. He believed the teachings of Jesus were the answer to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So, one Sunday, he decided to attend a Christian service and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with “his own people”. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” That usher’s prejudice not only betrayed Jesus, but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior.

Maybe that story is the story of the church today? Maybe the thing that you love about your church is the same thing that frustrates God about your church. Is everyone in your church basically the same? Remember, God is always looking for a diverse church to minister to our diverse world. In the text, the Gentiles added some diversity. How diverse is your church?

Let me ask you these four questions. There are more, but these will clarify the point.

How many races are represented at your church on an average Sunday? There is a good chance your answer is one. That may be fine with you, but it is not fine with God. The Almighty is color blind when it comes to race and is looking for diversity. God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

How many generations are represented at your church on an average Sunday? In many mainline Protestant congregations, the answer is one. If that is your answer, then your church has a problem. Through the eyes of God, the higher the number, the better. The church was never meant to be a senior citizens center or a childcare facility. All generations are needed. The church is the last place where all the generations mix. God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

How many political views are represented at your church on an average Sunday? Church is a place to worship God, not hold a political rally. However, church members are part of society, and everyone should have a political opinion. Does everyone in your church hold the same political views? I hope not because God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

How many theological viewpoints are represented at your church on an average Sunday? During my time in the United Methodist Church, clergy were judged my what seminary they attended. The liberals went to one seminary and the conservative another. There was theological tension between the two. God must have enjoyed that tension because God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

It goes directly back to the scripture lesson for today. In the early church, everyone was the same, Jewish. Then came this story. Peter had the audacity to bring in not just a new person, but a new kind of person, a Gentile. That was a good thing because the world was filled with Gentiles. The church is filled with Gentiles, non-Jews! The church must be diverse to speak to our diverse world.

Can I be honest with you? Diversity has never bothered me. Diversity intrigues me. Recently, I was in Istanbul. It is the largest city in the world outside of China, approximately fifteen million people. I found it fascinating because it was so diverse. During my time in the ministry, I could work with anyone because I went to high school with everyone. I didn’t think much about it then, but I do now.

I am a proud 1975 graduate of Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio. Every portion of society was represented at that school. There were students with white faces and students with black faces. There were students who came from white-collar homes and students who came from blue-collar homes. There were students who spoke only English. There were students who spoke Spanish. There were students who spoke Greek. There were students who were being raised by their parents and students who were being raised by their grandma. There were students who came from the richest part of the community, and students who came from the poorest parts of the community. There were preacher’s kids and children whose father or mother was incarcerated. There were students who had a bright future, and students who had no future. At Warren Harding in the mid-1970s, every part of society was represented, and no one really cared. We were used to the diversity. It was expected. We laughed at schools where everyone was the same. I got a wonderful education in Warren, but the most valuable thing I learned was how to tolerate others. When I get to heaven, I am going to thank my parents for not sending me to a school where everyone was not the same. The diversity I experienced as a teenager made me a better adult. I was prepared for this diverse world.

Years ago, I was celebrating my birthday. It is the custom in my home that the birthday person gets to pick the restaurant for the celebration. Since it was my birthday, I got to pick. I usually shy away from chain restaurants and pick a restaurant that is locally owned. That year, I decided we were all going to Charlie Staples, on W. Rayen Avenue in Youngstown, Ohio. I love those ribs because, as the commercial says, they are cooked with a “cup of love”. As the day got closer, I got more excited. I could taste those ribs. When the day came, I was the first one in the car. When my daughters got in the car they asked me, “Dad, where did you pick to have dinner?” I said, “Charlie Staples; their food is prepared with “a cup of love.” As we drove to the restaurant, the closer we got, the quieter the back seat grew. As I left my white world of the suburbs and drove into the city, they weren’t talking at all. Then a small voice in the back seat asked, “We are in the hood! Are we going to die?” Those words cut me to the heart. I had deprived my children of something my parents gave me. My children had never experienced diversity. They were raised in an all-white community. They went to an all-white school. In their school everyone spoke one language, English. We went to an all-white church and all their friends were white. All their extra-curricular activities were filled with white faces. The only thing they knew was white. The only thing they knew about the non-white world was what they saw on television or heard from racist white people. As I ate my birthday meal, I was ashamed. I felt like a failure as a parent.

I always knew they should have gone to Harding. I learned the most valuable things in life at Harding. They were not ready to enter a society where people were different from them. I am glad they grew up to be wonderful, open-minded women despite me. As adults, they are comfortable with diversity. Can I ask you a question? How comfortable are you with diversity? Are you going to spend the rest of your life surrounded by people who are just like you? Are you brave enough to experience something new? God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world. Never forget the old American proverb, “variety is the spice of life.” How welcoming is your church?

The Day the Law Died

We find ourselves in the tenth chapter of Acts, verses nine through 23. According to the text, it is about noon, and Peter was 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 makes it lunch time.

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 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 is a tall glass of buttermilk. Don’t get me started on goose liver and onion on a cracker with mustard. I consider that treat the food of kings. One time I even ate goat soup for lunch. 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 they were not permitted in the Old Testament law. 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 not to murder or steal. The second group deals with religious duty or tradition, such as keeping the Sabbath holy. The third group are 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. The problem is the world is always creating more laws.

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 our 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. We have a long way to go. According to the Council of Foreign Relation’s Global Conflict Tracker, there are twenty-seven wars raging in our world today.

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 turned 246 years old. Over that period, 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 says everyone can own property and vote. I am for the laws that bans any form of discrimination. I am not so sure about the Ohio law that says it is illegal to fish for whales on Sunday. However, I am for the law that does not permit dueling. You would think between international law and national law, we would have enough laws. But wait, 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. 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 account of every organization in the local church 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? Did you know we are required to have an annual Charge Conference? Did you know I am required to go to Annual 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 we are permitted to borrow money from ourselves, but it must be paid back? The United Methodist Book of Discipline is filled with rules we are required to follow. I find it to be exhausting. But wait, there are more!

Every local church has rules. There are some churches who have more rules than they do people. In my opinion, that is part of the problem. We are no exception. We have our fair share of them. How many rules can you name? 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, then wash your cup. There will be no food left in the refrigerator. You will make sure the entire church is locked if you are the last one out. You will make sure all the lights are out in the entire church if you are the last one out. If you want to be refunded for any church expense, then you must have a receipt. One of the reasons I didn’t spend a great deal of time in my office is I couldn’t remember all the rules. I don’t want to be reprimanded.

One of the reasons I love Jesus is that he only had two rules. I can remember them. (Matthew 22:36-40) First, you are to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. In other words, you are to love God completely. 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 help the poor. 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. Jesus is bigger than the law.

When I went to my last United Methodist appointment, I inherited a mid-week program by the name of Youth Club. It was not unique to my church. 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 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 plastic Christmas figures were 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. They were 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. What is more important to you? Rules or Jesus? In the life of the church, the only thing that matters is Jesus.

Discerning God’s Will

There is an old preaching story about a man trapped on the top of his house during a flood. Perhaps, you have heard it in the past. The water is swiftly rising. As this man sits on his roof, fearful of being swept away by the current, he cries out to God, “God, please deliver me.” A few moments later, a farmer friend arrives with his boat. “Hey, friend, want a ride to safety?” he asks. “No,” replies the man on top of his house. “God is going to deliver me.” An hour later, the water is up to the gutters. A person comes by in a yellow raft. “Hey, let’s get you off of there—and on to safety,” he yells. But the man on top of his house refuses to go. “God is going to deliver me.” Another hour passes and now the water is halfway up the roof. Roof Man is now on top of his chimney, nervously looking down at certain death and destruction. Fortunately, a Red Cross volunteer swings by in a canoe and offers to ride Roof Man to safety. But Roof Man refuses. “No, God is going to deliver me.” A couple of hours pass and the water sweeps over the top of Roof Man’s house. He is carried away by the current and drowns. When he gets to Heaven, he meets Jesus and says, “I thought you were going to deliver me.” Jesus looks down at Roof Man and says, “I sent a boat, an inflatable raft, and a canoe—but you refused each one.” We know that story for one reason. It resonates in our souls because we all hunger to know God’s will. If you have ever desired to know God’s will, then this blog will speak to you.

We find ourselves in the tenth chapter of Acts, verses one through eight. We found ourselves in Caesarea. That community was named in honor of Augustus Caesar and was the headquarters for the Roman forces that occupied that land. For this reason, the military was well represented in the population. One of the soldiers stationed there was a man by the name of Cornelius. We are told that he held the rank of centurion, so he oversaw one hundred men. That was an important position in the Roman army; they offered stability throughout the entire empire. However, there is more to Cornelius than his job.

There was his spiritual side. Verse two tells us that he and his family were “God-fearing.” What does that mean? It does not mean that he is a Christian. He had not yet been completely enlightened. He had not yet claimed Jesus as his Lord and Savior. However, he was close. He prayed to just one god and gave to the needy. Those sincere acts impressed God. According to the text, at 3:00 in the afternoon, the time for Jewish afternoon prayer, Cornelius had a vision. He is told to get Peter and bring him to Caesarea. The centurion followed his orders and Peter came. The two men are united. The story is easy to understand. However, I must make a confession.

When I read the text for the first time, one thing stood out. Cornelius’s understanding of God at this point is limited, but his communication with God was perfect. God told him what to do and he did it. I read the text countless times, and each time I became more jealous of Cornelius. He didn’t even see the big picture, but God spoke clearly to him. Why doesn’t God speak clearly to me? Why doesn’t God speak clearly to you? It isn’t just true of Cornelius.

It is true of so many in the Bible. God is always communicating clearly with Biblical characters. How many examples do you need? In the story of Adam and Eve, the Bible says God walked in the garden with them. God talked to Adam and Eve face to face. In the story of Cain and Abel, God spoke directly to Cain and asked him why he was upset. God spoke directly to Noah. God said, “I am going to put an end to all the people.” God spoke directly to Jacob and Joshua. God spoke directly to Samuel and Solomon. God even spoke directly to Hosea and told him to marry a prostitute. God spoke directly to the crowd at Jesus’s baptism. Do you remember? God said, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” God spoke directly to Peter, Andrew, James, and John at the transfiguration. He said, “This is my Son. Listen to him!” God even spoke directly to that heathen, Saul, on the Damascus Road. God is always speaking to people in the Bible, but seldom speaks directly to us.

The more I read about Cornelius and the others, the more I wondered why God doesn’t speak to us. It is almost like we are being ignored by God. A word occasionally, wouldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t it be nice for God to say, “Good job,” when you were driving home from a soup kitchen? Wouldn’t it be nice if God said, “Thanks!” on the way home from the trustee workday? Wouldn’t it be nice to have God to say, “Thanks for remembering,” early on Easter morning or late on Christmas Eve? Wouldn’t it be nice for God to say, “I am proud of you,” at the instant you wrote a generous check to help feed someone in the Third World? A word of encouragement is always accepted. A word of acceptance is even better. The problem is, God doesn’t say a single word. We spend our lives struggling to discern what God wants us to do. We spend our years struggling to hear God for one reason, Satan. The Adversary does an excellent job of frustrating our communication with God. That brings us to a very interesting question. Do you really want to know what God has to say?

One of the most known stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. He is remembered as the reluctant prophet. You remember his story. In the first few verses, God spoke to him directly. God said, “Go to the great city of Nineveh.” Jonah’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t understand the words. His problem was he didn’t like what he heard. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because the residents aren’t like him. He was a Hebrew, and they were Gentiles. The Hebrews hated the Gentiles. They were considered nothing more than kindling for the fires of hell. For this reason, Jonah runs away from Nineveh. He goes to Joppa and catches the first boat that is going in the opposite direction, Tarshish. With that story in mind, let me ask you this question.

Do you really want to know what God has to say? They may not just be words of love and acceptance. They may be difficult words. God may want you to do something you don’t want to do. Like Jonah, God may want you to love someone you have always hated. God may want you to forgive someone who has not forgiven you. God may want you to sacrifice for someone else’s child. God may want you to go to a place that can’t offer you security. God may want you to stay in a place when all you want to do is go. Do you really want to know what God has to say? Like Jonah, you may want to run in the opposite direction.

One of the great things I have in my life is my calling into the ministry. I don’t know why God called me. There are certainly people more intelligent and gifted. However, I do know God did call me and has given me the gifts to succeed. No one enjoys their job more than I did. No one is more passionate about their job than I was. If I look back on my life, I can hear my calling clearly from the very beginning. However, when I was younger, it wasn’t so clear. If I could live my life over again, I would go from high school, college, Seminary and out. That isn’t my story. When I graduated from college, I got a job. Do you know what I did? I worked in a bank. I can honestly tell you I hated every single day. I consider those days my “wilderness experience”. When I left the bank, I sold ad space for a newspaper. I found that to be pointless. However, I did enjoy the relationships I had with my customers. I surrendered to God when I was twenty-five years old and enrolled in Seminary. Do you know why I didn’t go to seminary right out of college? I was afraid of public speaking, and I was filled with self-doubt. Doesn’t God have a sense of humor? Now, I am now addicted to preaching, and am confident I will succeed. I have very few regrets in my life, but those lost three years are one of them.

The other night I read an article that spoke to me. I wish I would have read it years ago, when I was trying to discern God’s will for my life. It was written by a man by the name of Ron Edmondson (born 1955). The article was called Five Questions to Discern God’s Will. Edmondson says, when you are facing a choice to ask yourself five questions. If you answer them honestly, then you will be closer to God’s will. These are the five questions.

1. Does what I am considering conflict with scripture? That means you must read the Bible. There is something about reading the Bible that stirs us spiritually.

2. Does what I am considering conflict with the counsel of others? I am not just talking about any friends. I am talking about spiritually mature Christian friends – people who love you enough to tell you the truth.

3. Does what you are considering conflict with the spirit within you? In other words, how does it feel to you? To a point, emotions can be trusted.

4. Does what you are considering conflict with your life experiences? Life is one big classroom. You have experienced all kind of things in your life. Have you experienced anything like this in the past? What did you learn from that experience?

5. Does what you are considering conflict with your passion? Our passion and our purpose go hand in hand. Are you excited about it?

Those five questions remind me of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. That is how John Wesley, the founder of the great Methodist movement, discerned God’s will. They are scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Regardless, maybe if I would have asked those five questions years ago, I would not have lost three years of my ministry. Time should never be wasted. I believe, next to Jesus, time is our second greatest gift. God spoke to Cornelius, and he knew what God wanted him to do. We aren’t so fortunate. We are going to have to work on it. Lead Pastor of the Flesh Life Church in Utah and Montana, Levi Lusko (born 1982) once said, “Discerning God’s calling is more a relationship than a route, more journey than destination. It’s about who you are becoming more than where you are going. Perhaps it’s less about what you do and more about how well you do whatever you do.”

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson (1843-1826) sent James Monroe (1758-1831) to France. The President was hoping to buy the city of New Orleans to open the Mississippi River for shipping. The French were willing to sell much more. They were willing to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. The territory covered 828,000 square miles at a cost of approximately $15,000,000. The problem was, the constitution did not give the President such power. Jefferson was in a difficult spot. He had to act quickly to seize the opportunity. Did he let all that land go at a bargain price, or did he follow the letter of the law of the constitution? In 1803, he bought the land, doubling the size of the United States. Over two hundred years later, I think it is safe to say he made the right choice. Is every choice you make, correct? Satan is doing an excellent job of frustrating our communication with God, but that does not mean God isn’t speaking. We just need to work on it a little harder!

Discerning God’s Will

There is an old preaching story about a man trapped on the top of his house during a flood. Perhaps, you have heard it in the past. The water is swiftly rising. As this man sits on his roof, fearful of being swept away by the current, he cries out to God, “God, please deliver me.” A few moments later, a farmer friend arrives with his boat. “Hey, friend, want a ride to safety?” he asks. “No,” replies the man on top of his house. “God is going to deliver me.” An hour later, the water is up to the gutters. A person comes by in a yellow raft. “Hey, let’s get you off of there—and on to safety,” he yells. But the man on top of his house refuses to go. “God is going to deliver me.” Another hour passes and now the water is halfway up the roof. Roof Man is now on top of his chimney, nervously looking down at certain death and destruction. Fortunately, a Red Cross volunteer swings by in a canoe and offers to ride Roof Man to safety. But Roof Man refuses. “No, God is going to deliver me.” A couple of hours pass and the water sweeps over the top of Roof Man’s house. He is carried away by the current and drowns. When he gets to Heaven, he meets Jesus and says, “I thought you were going to deliver me.” Jesus looks down at Roof Man and says, “I sent a boat, an inflatable raft, and a canoe—but you refused each one.” We know that story for one reason. It resonates in our souls because we all hunger to know God’s will. If you have ever desired to know God’s will, then this blog will speak to you.

We find ourselves in the tenth chapter of Acts, verses one through eight. We found ourselves in Caesarea. That community was named in honor of Augustus Caesar and was the headquarters for the Roman forces that occupied that land. For this reason, the military was well represented in the population. One of the soldiers stationed there was a man by the name of Cornelius. We are told that he held the rank of centurion, so he oversaw one hundred men. That was an important position in the Roman army; they offered stability throughout the entire empire. However, there is more to Cornelius than his job.

There was his spiritual side. Verse two tells us that he and his family were “God-fearing.” What does that mean? It does not mean that he is a Christian. He had not yet been completely enlightened. He had not yet claimed Jesus as his Lord and Savior. However, he was close. He prayed to just one god and gave to the needy. Those sincere acts impressed God. According to the text, at 3:00 in the afternoon, the time for Jewish afternoon prayer, Cornelius had a vision. He is told to get Peter and bring him to Caesarea. The centurion followed his orders and Peter came. The two men are united. The story is easy to understand. However, I must make a confession.

When I read the text for the first time, one thing stood out. Cornelius’s understanding of God at this point is limited, but his communication with God was perfect. God told him what to do and he did it. I read the text countless times, and each time I became more jealous of Cornelius. He didn’t even see the big picture, but God spoke clearly to him. Why doesn’t God speak clearly to me? Why doesn’t God speak clearly to you? It isn’t just true of Cornelius.

It is true of so many in the Bible. God is always communicating clearly with Biblical characters. How many examples do you need? In the story of Adam and Eve, the Bible says God walked in the garden with them. God talked to Adam and Eve face to face. In the story of Cain and Abel, God spoke directly to Cain and asked him why he was upset. God spoke directly to Noah. God said, “I am going to put an end to all the people.” God spoke directly to Jacob and Joshua. God spoke directly to Samuel and Solomon. God even spoke directly to Hosea and told him to marry a prostitute. God spoke directly to the crowd at Jesus’s baptism. Do you remember? God said, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” God spoke directly to Peter, Andrew, James, and John at the transfiguration. He said, “This is my Son. Listen to him!” God even spoke directly to that heathen, Saul, on the Damascus Road. God is always speaking to people in the Bible, but seldom speaks directly to us.

The more I read about Cornelius and the others, the more I wondered why God doesn’t speak to us. It is almost like we are being ignored by God. A word occasionally, wouldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t it be nice for God to say, “Good job,” when you were driving home from a soup kitchen? Wouldn’t it be nice if God said, “Thanks!” on the way home from the trustee workday? Wouldn’t it be nice to have God to say, “Thanks for remembering,” early on Easter morning or late on Christmas Eve? Wouldn’t it be nice for God to say, “I am proud of you,” at the instant you wrote a generous check to help feed someone in the Third World? A word of encouragement is always accepted. A word of acceptance is even better. The problem is, God doesn’t say a single word. We spend our lives struggling to discern what God wants us to do. We spend our years struggling to hear God for one reason, Satan. The Adversary does an excellent job of frustrating our communication with God. That brings us to a very interesting question. Do you really want to know what God has to say?

One of the most known stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. He is remembered as the reluctant prophet. You remember his story. In the first few verses, God spoke to him directly. God said, “Go to the great city of Nineveh.” Jonah’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t understand the words. His problem was he didn’t like what he heard. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because the residents aren’t like him. He was a Hebrew, and they were Gentiles. The Hebrews hated the Gentiles. They were considered nothing more than kindling for the fires of hell. For this reason, Jonah runs away from Nineveh. He goes to Joppa and catches the first boat that is going in the opposite direction, Tarshish. With that story in mind, let me ask you this question.

Do you really want to know what God has to say? They may not just be words of love and acceptance. They may be difficult words. God may want you to do something you don’t want to do. Like Jonah, God may want you to love someone you have always hated. God may want you to forgive someone who has not forgiven you. God may want you to sacrifice for someone else’s child. God may want you to go to a place that can’t offer you security. God may want you to stay in a place when all you want to do is go. Do you really want to know what God has to say? Like Jonah, you may want to run in the opposite direction.

One of the great things I have in my life is my calling into the ministry. I don’t know why God called me. There are certainly people more intelligent and gifted. However, I do know God did call me and has given me the gifts to succeed. No one enjoys their job more than I did. No one is more passionate about their job than I was. If I look back on my life, I can hear my calling clearly from the very beginning. However, when I was younger, it wasn’t so clear. If I could live my life over again, I would go from high school, college, Seminary and out. That isn’t my story. When I graduated from college, I got a job. Do you know what I did? I worked in a bank. I can honestly tell you I hated every single day. I consider those days my “wilderness experience”. When I left the bank, I sold ad space for a newspaper. I found that to be pointless. However, I did enjoy the relationships I had with my customers. I surrendered to God when I was twenty-five years old and enrolled in Seminary. Do you know why I didn’t go to seminary right out of college? I was afraid of public speaking, and I was filled with self-doubt. Doesn’t God have a sense of humor? Now, I am now addicted to preaching, and am confident I will succeed. I have very few regrets in my life, but those lost three years are one of them.

The other night I read an article that spoke to me. I wish I would have read it years ago, when I was trying to discern God’s will for my life. It was written by a man by the name of Ron Edmondson (born 1955). The article was called Five Questions to Discern God’s Will. Edmondson says, when you are facing a choice to ask yourself five questions. If you answer them honestly, then you will be closer to God’s will. These are the five questions.

1. Does what I am considering conflict with scripture? That means you must read the Bible. There is something about reading the Bible that stirs us spiritually.

2. Does what I am considering conflict with the counsel of others? I am not just talking about any friends. I am talking about spiritually mature Christian friends – people who love you enough to tell you the truth.

3. Does what you are considering conflict with the spirit within you? In other words, how does it feel to you? To a point, emotions can be trusted.

4. Does what you are considering conflict with your life experiences? Life is one big classroom. You have experienced all kind of things in your life. Have you experienced anything like this in the past? What did you learn from that experience?

5. Does what you are considering conflict with your passion? Our passion and our purpose go hand in hand. Are you excited about it?

Those five questions remind me of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. That is how John Wesley, the founder of the great Methodist movement, discerned God’s will. They are scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Regardless, maybe if I would have asked those five questions years ago, I would not have lost three years of my ministry. Time should never be wasted. I believe, next to Jesus, time is our second greatest gift. God spoke to Cornelius, and he knew what God wanted him to do. We aren’t so fortunate. We are going to have to work on it. Lead Pastor of the Flesh Life Church in Utah and Montana, Levi Lusko (born 1982) once said, “Discerning God’s calling is more a relationship than a route, more journey than destination. It’s about who you are becoming more than where you are going. Perhaps it’s less about what you do and more about how well you do whatever you do.”

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson (1843-1826) sent James Monroe (1758-1831) to France. The President was hoping to buy the city of New Orleans to open the Mississippi River for shipping. The French were willing to sell much more. They were willing to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. The territory covered 828,000 square miles at a cost of approximately $15,000,000. The problem was, the constitution did not give the President such power. Jefferson was in a difficult spot. He had to act quickly to seize the opportunity. Did he let all that land go at a bargain price, or did he follow the letter of the law of the constitution? In 1803, he bought the land, doubling the size of the United States. Over two hundred years later, I think it is safe to say he made the right choice. Is every choice you make, correct? Satan is doing an excellent job of frustrating our communication with God, but that does not mean God isn’t speaking. We just need to work on it a little harder!

Winners and Losers

We are in the ninth chapter of Acts, verses 36-43. According to verse 36, Peter is in the town of Joppa. That community still exists today. However, today it is called Jaffa and is considered a suburb of Tel Aviv. Like many communities in that part of the world, it has a rich history. Archaeological evidence shows it was inhabited generations before Christ. The reason for her early inhabitance was her location. She is located along the coast.

When Peter arrives in Joppa, he is welcomed by long faces. One of the saints had just died, a woman by the name of Tabitha. Technology has changed the world, but human behavior remains the same. Just like today, the people were grieving because a loved one was lost. Tabitha’s death is so recent, her body has not yet been buried. It is upstairs, washed in accordance with the customs of the day. Verse 39 pierces my heart. It says the widows were crying as they told Peter about Tabitha. They knew the painful truth. They will never hear Tabitha’s voice again. They will never see Tabitha’s smile again. If death is nothing else, it is final. Any logical mind knows the truth. When you are dead, it is over. However, there is nothing logical about God. According to the text, Peter dismisses the grieving women. Alone, he gets on his knees and prays. A few seconds later, Tabitha was resurrected. In other words, just like Jesus on Easter morning, Tabitha returned from the dead. Her resurrection is God’s forgotten resurrection. Let’s dissect this story together.

There are three main characters in the story. The first is Peter. He comes with a great deal of credibility. After all, he had spent three years with Jesus. The second is Tabitha. Her life testimony is impressive. She was always doing good and helping the poor. The third character in the story are the widows. The only thing we know about them is that that are grieving. However, that is enough. It is easy to relate to them in their broken state. I can’t relate to Peter because he is so perfect. I can relate to the crying widows because they are so much like me. They were victims in a harsh world. Have you ever felt like a victim in our world?

In this blog, I want to transform you from feeling like a victim to a victor. After all, you are a child of God. Tabitha’s resurrection reminds me of Jesus’s resurrection. I am going to use Tabitha’s resurrection to illustrate my points about Jesus’s resurrection. After all, Jesus’s resurrection changed everything. Jesus’s resurrection is not just something that is part of our past. Jesus’s resurrection is not just a point of theology reserved for scholars. Jesus’s resurrection is contemporary. It is practical. Because of the resurrection, you should feel like a victor. Just think about it for a second. Jesus, the only son of God, died and was resurrected, for us. How can you be a loser?

You are a victor because the resurrection reminds us that our disappointments are premature. In the end, God will prevail. In the scripture lesson for today, the widows had been on an emotional roller coaster. Death is the end of a long ride. I do not know if Tabitha’s death came at the end of a long illness. It may have come suddenly. The only thing we know for sure is that she is dead. She may be in a better place, but her loved ones are left behind. Those who were closest to her felt the worst. So, to say the least, they were disappointed. Without the resurrection, it is over. However, with the resurrection it is just beginning. In the Christian faith, disappointments are always premature. In the end, God wins!

One of the great frustrations in my life are my eyes. I am not exactly sure what to call it. It is a form of dyslexia. When I read, my eyes don’t focus on a single line. One eye focuses on the line above; one eye focuses on the line below. I have always struggled with this condition. I have painful memories of being in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade. When the teacher called on me to read that paragraph in reading class, I couldn’t do it. My classmates laughed at me and called me “dumb”. There were many days I felt like they were right.

I have spent my life compensating for this condition. I read and write in the morning when I am not tired. That is when my eyes work the best. I have someone else read the scripture because I struggle. I have eliminated nearly all responsive readings because I cannot distinguish between your part and mine. I deliver sermons from memory for one reason. I cannot read them. I will be the first one to admit it: I have a great life! However, if I could change one thing in my life, it would be my eyes. However, our disappointments are often premature. In the end, God will prevail.

I interviewed to be the pastor of this my last United Methodist appointment in the spring of 1994. I met with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. They asked me many questions that evening. One question stood out: When you preach, do you read from a manuscript? I didn’t want to say that evening, “I can’t!” I wanted the job. Instead, I answered, “I can honestly say, ‘No.’” My first Sunday here was July 3, 1994. I remember walking out from behind the pulpit to show people I wasn’t reading to them. I couldn’t believe how people responded. Someone said, “When you left the pulpit you became one of us.” Some said, “By not reading your sermon you are more sincere.” “You preached from the heart, not a piece of paper.” I was humbled by those words because I can still hear those kids laughing at me in fifth grade school. I am not Billy Graham, but I believe I am a better preacher because my eyes do not work properly. My poor eyes made me a better preacher. Our disappointments are premature. In the end, God will prevail. What disappointments did you bring to church today?

Paul Allen (1953-2018) was one of the richest people in the world. He is the co-founder of Microsoft, along with Bill Gates (born 1955). Years ago, Allen wrote a book called Idea Man. (Why does a billionaire need to write a book to make more money?) He was interviewed to promote that book. In the interview, he talked about the early days of Microsoft. To say the least, his relationship with Bill Gates is complex. At first, his money grabbed my attention. He was worth approximately $16 billion. If he wants it, he buys it. He owns two professional sports franchises, a yacht the length of a football field, a submarine and various properties around the world. However, there are some things money can’t buy. Money can’t buy health. Allen has battled cancer twice. Money can’t buy love. The interviewer asked him if he still wants to get married. He answered, “I hope there is someone out there for me.” When I heard him say those words, I felt sorry for the billionaire. There was a loneliness about those words. Just think about it for a moment. He battled cancer alone. If you were battling for your life, what would you want? A person next to you, or a submarine?

You are a winner because the resurrection reminds us that God wants to have a relationship with you! Tabitha’s resurrection is great because the relation between her and her friends continued. Jesus’ resurrection is better. It shows that God wants to have a relationship with you. The one thing that makes Christianity different from all the other world religions is the word ‘relationship’. The storyline of the Old Testament is God trying to have a relationship with his Chosen People, the Jews. The storyline of the New Testament is God entering the world in the person of Jesus to have a relationship with all people. Jesus died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice. Sin no longer stands between us and God. On Easter we celebrate his resurrection. On Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. God is no longer limited to a single body; God can be in all places all the time. In other words, God is omnipresent. Christianity is a relationship. You should never feel like a loser because the God of the universe wants to have a relationship with you!

You are a winner because the resurrection reminds us that God wants to have a relationship with you for eternity. On that day, Tabitha was resurrected but she could not escape death forever. At some point down the road, she died again. Jesus’s resurrection was God’s final answer to the problem of death. There was a mansion waiting for her in heaven. Let me say this clearly. There is a mansion waiting for you too. Never feel like a loser. Why? God wants to spend eternity with you! One of the perks of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is that you will never die. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

It had been a long week and I was ready to go home. The excitement of being in Haiti had faded, replaced by the reality of that desperate nation. Haiti is a country of noes. There is no postal system. There are no street addresses. There is no public school system. There is no health care system. There is next to no electricity or clean drinking water. The Haitians themselves have no hope for a better future, and I have no clue how to fix the mess. Money doesn’t solve every problem. It will take much more. That island nation is like a big campground, where no one gets to go home. I was filled with emotions as I rode in the bus on the way back to Port-au-Prince. I was excited about going home, yet I felt guilty going home. There was only one difference between me and the Haitians. I was born in America, and they were born in Haiti. If I won a cosmic lottery to be born here, then they were the losers. The Haitians are victims of life, itself. Can I ask you a question?

Do you know any victims? You don’t have to go to Haiti to find them. They are right here. Their lives are hard. Sometimes, it is because they are forced to live with a poor decision. Sometimes, they have done nothing wrong. Something just happened. Could it be you feel like a victim today? You have a broken relationship in your life. You have bills that will never be paid. You have a past story that will never be forgotten. You are squeezed between your aging parents and your growing children. You are battling a disease and you will lose. Does anyone here feel like a victim? If so, then stop whining and accept the truth. You are a child of God! That fact changes everything.

Discipleship 101

Once upon a time, there was a fire in a small town. The fire brigade rushed to the scene, but the firemen were unable to get through to the burning building. The problem was the crowd of people who had gathered to help put out the fire. They all knew and liked the fire chief. So, when a fire broke out, the people rushed out to help their beloved fire chief. Unfortunately, the townsfolk were seeking to extinguish this raging inferno with water pistols! They’d all stand there, from time to time squirting their pistol into the fire while making casual conversation. The fire chief couldn’t contain himself. He started screaming at the townsfolk. “What do you think you’re doing? What on earth do you think you’re going to achieve with those water pistols?!” The people realized the urgency of the situation. How they wanted to help the fire chief! So, they started squirting more. “Come on”, they encouraged each other, “We can all do better, can’t we?” They squirted a few more drops. Exasperated, the fire chief yells again. “Get out of here. You’re achieving nothing except hindering us from doing what needs to be done. We need fire fighters who are ready to give everything they’ve got to put out this fire, people willing even to lay their lives on the line. This is not the place for token contributions!”

That story was originally told by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). He told that story for one reason. Discipleship is more than token contributions to the church and a few good deeds. Discipleship requires wholehearted and total life commitment. In other words, it is time to put your water pistol down and get serious about Jesus.

When we last left Saul, his conversion was complete. He was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. Those must have been curious days in his life. This should have been a happy time, but the joy was stunted by loneliness. Just think about it for a moment. He walked away from his old life and his old relationships. His former colleagues must have viewed him as a traitor. His parents now considered him a disappointment. Former friends tried to figure out what went wrong. What really happened to Saul? There must have been rumors of mental illness and emotional breakdown. There would be no going back but going forward was equally difficult. To say the least, Saul came with some baggage. He was not welcomed by everyone in the church because he wasn’t trusted by everyone. Yet, the scriptures do not say a single word about his loneliness. Instead, the scriptures tell us of his commitment. Verse 20 says, “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the son of God.” I find that fact to be truly amazing. Instantly, his entire world changed, but the only thing that mattered to him was Jesus. Being passionate about Jesus is the most important thing in discipleship. It is Discipleship 101. The only thing that really matters is Jesus. I think that will preach!

Every time I preach, I say the same prayer.

Father, we have three great confessions. We confess we have all made mistakes and need forgiveness. We confess that negative news and people have worn us down and we need hope. We confess that our own mortality bothers us because we want to live forever. When we have Jesus, we have the answer to these three problems…

It is true. When we have Jesus, we have forgiveness. When we have Jesus, we have hope for a better world. When we have Jesus, we have eternal life. In other words, Jesus is affecting the way we remember the past, experience the present and anticipate the future. I do not know how people can’t live without Jesus. I need Jesus more every day.

Discipleship 101 tells us it is all about Jesus. The Master must be number one. However, one of the great challenges in your life is keeping Jesus number one. It is so easy to let Jesus become a secondary priority. I am not talking about intentionally substituting Jesus with something sinister, drugs or crime. I am talking about substituting Jesus, the best, with something that is only good. How many times have we substituted Jesus, the best, with something that is only good? Our lives are filled with so many good things. It would be easy to make any of them our top priority. Let me give you just a few examples.

In the fifteenth century, Ivan the Great (1530-1584) did something no one was able to do in the past, defeat the Tartars and unite Russia. He had a brilliant military career, but his personal life was lacking. He was so consumed with military conquests that he never had time to marry and produce a single heir to the throne. Recognizing his deficiency, he told his adviser to find him a suitable wife. After a careful search, it was announced that Ivan would marry the daughter of the King of Greece. There was only one thing Ivan had to do, become Greek Orthodox. Ivan consented. He was instructed in Greek Orthodox doctrine and traveled to Athens, along with his 500-member palace guard. As a sign of loyalty, the guard requested to be baptized at the same time as Ivan. To make a long story short, they were baptized together in the Mediterranean. It must have been quite the scene. In front of a huge crowd, Ivan, his 500 guards and the 500 Orthodox priests entered the water. Soldiers wearing full military uniforms and priests wearing black robes. All the Russians were baptized in a single moment. However, the guards got the last laugh. When they were baptized, they held their swords out of the water as a sign of loyalty to Ivan.

That story reminds us that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. Either you are completely baptized, or you are not baptized at all. One of things I struggle with is civil religion. That is when we mix our religious beliefs with our patriotism. That drives me crazy because it is so dangerous. The news is filled with religious zealots who are fighting for both God and country. It is so easy to wave religion as a flag during a military conflict. The problem is real religion, any religion, doesn’t condone such behavior. World history has seen the rise and fall of many nations. We live in the most wonderful country in the history of the world but it has some limitations. America can still offer hope to future generations, but America can’t forgive your sins. America can’t promise you eternal life. Jesus can do all three. That is why Jesus must be the top priority in your life. It is Discipleship 101.

I served the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio for twenty-eight years. I am proud of that fact. Over that period, we have seen so many changes. They have been good years for that congregation. They have not been as good for many of our United Methodist congregations in the area. The church that may have been hit the hardest was the Mahoning UMC. At one point, they sold their building for $305,000. (That would be good news if we were in the real estate business, but we are not.) The few members which remained faced a questionable future. My heart goes out to anyone who has ties back to Mahoning. Churches should never close. I know it is not just a building but so many things have happened with that structure. That building was such a large part of so many lives. How many people have been married there? How many babies have been baptized there? How many saints have been buried from there? How many souls were saved there? How many memories have been made there? Walking away from a church building is like walking away from an old friend. How can you do it? There is so much there? However, this is the truth.

The church is not Jesus. The church, itself, can’t forgive you. The church, itself, can’t offer you hope. The church, itself, can’t make eternity possible. The church is just a vehicle used by Christ to offer those things to their community. The church is nothing more than another organization. Like people, churches have a lifeline. At some point every church was born and at some point, every church will close. That is why you can’t make your church your top priority. That is why the top priority in your life must be Jesus. It is Discipleship 101. Saul knew from the very beginning what we must never forget. It is all about Jesus! Everything else, no matter how good, is secondary.

Years ago, I was on a volunteer in mission trip in Russia. We were in the orphanage playing with the children. We were working on crafts and giving them candy. The children couldn’t have been any more excited. A young couple on our team decided to give the children something they had brought. It wasn’t more candy. It was something called “Jesus Blocks.” It contained six blocks, each one a section of a picture of Jesus. If you laid the blocks just right a single image of Jesus came up. If you turned it one way, it was a picture of Jesus’ birth. If you turned it another way, it was a picture of Jesus on the cross. If you turned it another way, it was a picture of the resurrection. I will never forget the effect those blocks had on the children. I didn’t think they would be interested, but those blocks grabbed their attention. One young man grabbed his blocks and studied the details of every picture. He took his fingertips and felt the smooth surface. At one point, he kissed his “Jesus Blocks” and held them up to his cheek. After doing so, he looked up at me and said in perfect English, “It is Jesus!” He was right! It is Discipleship 101!

You have to be passionate about Jesus! If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing at all. Without Jesus, we don’t have forgiveness. Without Jesus, we don’t have hope for a better tomorrow. Without Jesus, we have no hope of eternity. With Jesus, we can have it all! Jesus must be the top priority in your life. It is Discipleship 101! Mother Teresa (1910-1997) once said, “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”