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.”

Awkard Obedience

The date was July 3, 1863. The place was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For two days, that small community of 2,400 residents had been ravaged by war. The Union army was led by George G. Meade (1815-1872). The Confederate army was led by Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). The day began with a cannon fire. Both sides shelled the other for hours. The sound was deafening. They say the people of Philadelphia, 140 miles away, could hear it. Then, the cannons grew silent. The Confederates stopped firing because their ammunition grew low. The Union stopped firing because the smoke had grown so thick, they couldn’t see their targets. Lee thought the Union had stopped firing because they had run away, like they had done in the past. Desperate for a victory, Lee took a great gamble. He ordered General George Picket (1825-1875) to line up his men and march up the hill in open view to confront the enemy. Standing shoulder to shoulder that line of 12,000 men stretched out for a mile. At first, their ascent looked promising. Those few minutes were called the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Then, in a moment everything changed. At a single point on the battlefield, the Union army opened fire on their enemy. Within an hour, it was over. Lee’s gamble failed. Only half of those 12,000 returned. The Confederacy had not just lost at Gettysburg. It was the beginning of the end of the war, itself.

Here are some questions for you. Do you consider those 12,000 soldiers heroic because they obeyed their orders? Do you consider those 12,000 soldiers foolish because they obeyed their orders? If you were part of Picket’s Charge, would you have marched up the hill? If you were part of Picket’s March, would you have run for the hills? Obedience is a large part of the Christian faith. Speaking of obeying God, German-Dutch Christian writer Thomas a Kempis (1380-1871) once said, “Instant obedience is the only kind of obedience there is; delayed obedience is disobedience. Whoever strives to withdraw from obedience, withdraws from Grace.”  That takes us to our reading for today, Acts 9:10-19a.

When we last left Saul, he was hungry, thirsty, and blind. In Damascus, he was forced to do the most unnatural thing, wait! The scriptures do not tell us how long he waited. However, the scriptures do tell us that while he waited, God was at work. If Saul was going to fulfill his destiny and become the greatest evangelist in the history of the church, then he would need some help to get started. God drafted that help in the form of Ananias.

The name Ananias was a common name at this point and time in history. The name means “The Lord shows grace.” Ananias had the right name for the job. He would be forced to offer grace to a man who deserved no grace. Just think about it for a moment. Saul didn’t deserve a single ounce of grace. Because of Saul, people died. Because of Saul, countless lives were disrupted. Because of Saul, countless people were forced to leave their homes. Because of Saul, some mothers never saw their children again. Because of Saul, no one got a good night’s sleep. In his little corner of the world, Saul evoked the same emotions as Vladimir Putin (born 1952) in our world. Welcoming Saul into that early Christian community was like welcoming a Muslim Jihadist into our church. There is no other way to say it. Saul doesn’t deserve an ounce of grace, but grace was offered to him by a man who whose name means “The Lord shows grace.” There is only one problem. Ananias was reluctant to show Saul grace.

Don’t be too critical of Ananias. We have all been in his shoes. What God wants us to do is not a mystery. We know what God wants us to do, but we just refuse to do it. You can’t claim ignorance. Are you surprised that God expects us to care for those who live in poverty? The Third World is filled with poverty. However, we are doing nothing to help them. As a matter of fact, we do an excellent job of ignoring them. Is anyone here surprised that God wants us to love unconditionally? It sounds easy, but it is hard to do. God doesn’t see our differences (gender, age, race, nationality, education, and economics). God only sees what we have in common, what we all need, love and acceptance! However, we only love and accept people who are just like us. Is anyone here surprised that the Biblical standard for giving is the tithe, 10%? On our way to our next vacation, we cry “poor” and give about 2%. Is anyone here surprised that God wants us to live moral lives? We are ambassadors of Jesus Christ! We are representing Jesus. The problem is, we have accepted immorality as proper behavior. The truth is, we may live in the most immoral times in American history. Do I have to go on? Do I really have to go on? We are just like Ananias. The problem is not a lack of knowledge; we know what God wants us to do. The problem is we just don’t want to do it. Every day we are forced to choose. Are we going to do what God wants us to do and obey? Are we going to do what we want to do and disobey? That leads us to the question of the day.

Why are we so reluctant to obey God’s commands? There are several reasons. One is illustrated for us in the scripture reading. Ananias tries to reject God’s instructions because he is afraid. He has heard what Saul has done to others and he doesn’t what it to happen to him. You really can’t blame him. When was the last time you were afraid?

In 1996, Kathryn went to the former Soviet Union for the first time. Everyone responded to those trips in a different way. Some were excited and interested. Some did everything to discourage her. Some man said to me, “If she was my wife, I wouldn’t let her go! Russia is a dangerous place, and you can’t trust the Russians.” I responded by saying, “You don’t have to worry. She would never marry you. As a matter of fact, she wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole.” He has not been the only one through the years to try to discourage us.

I can honestly tell you that every mission experience I have had in my life has been coupled with resistance. The destination didn’t matter. It happened when we went to the Philippians, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, and Haiti. It happened when we organized Mill Creek Workcamp and brought 400 young people to our community, Youngstown, Ohio, to help our poor. It happens every year we send our youth on a mission. Someone must play the role of the negative person. The question is, why? Sometimes, it is over-exposure to 24/7 news. They can’t give us enough negative information. However, more often it is old fashioned fear. They don’t want you to go because they would never go. They would never go because they are afraid. When you go on a mission trip, you make them look like a coward. Listen to what I am about to say. If you don’t feel God calling you to get involved in missions, then don’t. However, don’t discourage someone who is called. You are nothing more than a tool in Satan’s work belt. God expects us to help the needy in our world! Sometimes people disobey God because they are afraid. Sometimes they disobey God for another reason.

Years ago, I visited a friend. He is not a member of this church, nor do I want him to join. He helps me escape my church responsibilities. His son was getting married in a few months, so I began to ask him about the plans. He didn’t know anything. I asked, “Why don’t you know anything? He said, “They don’t tell us anything!” The bride was inside the house, so I summoned her. When she came out, I began to interrogate her. I asked her everything. What are the colors? How many in the bridal party? Are there children in the wedding party? Is her wedding dress white? Where is the reception? What is the menu? Is it a live band or a DJ? Are you going on a honeymoon? Where are you going on your honeymoon? This was my final question: “Have you had any problems planning your wedding?” She responded, “Just one, the minister. He requires premarital counseling. The groom doesn’t want to go.” I asked, “Why doesn’t he want to go?” She responded, “You know him. He doesn’t want to be told what to do.” I thought, he is going married, and he doesn’t want to be told what to do. This marriage will never last!

Maybe that is why we have such a hard time obeying God. We just don’t want to be told what to do. That is why so many have fallen in love with God loving us. We can do whatever we want because God loves us just the way we are. The problem is that while God loves us the way we are, God expects us to change to be a little more like Jesus every day. Never forget, someday you are going to stand accountable before God. When God commands us to do something, He expects us to do it. Do you remember what Thomas a Kempis said? “Instant obedience is the only kind of obedience there is; delayed obedience is disobedience. Whoever strives to withdraw from obedience, withdraws from Grace.”

Fred Craddock (1928-2015) taught homiletics at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. I consider him one of the finest preachers of the twentieth century because no one can tell a story quite like him. Let me tell you one more of his stories.

Over a school break, Fred decided to go back home for a visit. It is no place special on the map. It was just a little town in Arkansas. On the first morning of his visit, he ventured downtown. He walked into the diner that had been there for a hundred years. Fred just wanted to sit there, eat breakfast, and remember simpler times. He said the place had not changed. Everything was identical to his youth, even the owner. As Fred waited for his fried eggs, the owner walked up to him and said, “I know you! You used to live here. You went on to be a preacher! I need to talk to you.” Fred nodded yes, but he thought, “Just go away! All I want is breakfast and some quiet.” The owner pulled up a chair and began to talk. He said to Fred, “I don’t know what to do.” Fred said, “About what?” The owner responded, “About the curtain!” He motioned to the curtain and Fred looked. The curtain had been there for years. Fred remembered that curtain from his childhood. The curtain wasn’t there just for decorative purposes. It had a practical purpose. The curtain was there to separate the white customers from the black customers. The white customers would enter the restaurant through the front door and ate on that side of the curtain. The black customers entered through the back door and ate on that side of the curtain. Just then, Fred’s breakfast was delivered. He wanted the owner to finish up his story because his eggs were getting cold. To hasten it along, Fred asked the owner, “So what is the problem?” (Fred knew the problem.) The owner said, “Should I take the curtain down or should I leave the curtain up?” Fred gave him a blank look and the owner continued. “If I take the curtain down, I will lose my business. If I leave the curtain up, I will lose my soul!” The owner knew what God wanted him to do, but he was afraid. The story doesn’t change.

We are just like Ananias. We know what God want us to do, but we refuse to do it. Sometimes we are afraid. Sometimes we just don’t want to do it. Are you going to take the curtain down, or are you going to leave the curtain up? Charles Stanley (Born 1932) once said, “The bottom line in the Christian life is obedience, and most people don’t even like the word.” Take the curtain down!

The New You

We are in the first nine verses of the ninth chapter of Acts. The persecution of the church continues. However, this time the focal point is not Jerusalem, it is Damascus. That point is important because it was in the Roman province of Syria. Like Jerusalem, it boasted a large Jewish population. Saul has been given authority to look for Christians there. If found, they will be arrested and taken back to Jerusalem, where they will be imprisoned. The distance between Jerusalem and Damascus is approximately 180 miles. On foot, it would have taken Saul about a week to travel. That journey was made alone because he had limited contact with his guard. With every step, Saul was thinking. He may have been thinking about his future task, or he may have been thinking about his past regrets. I wonder how much time he spent thinking about the death of Stephen. Perhaps, all that thinking set the stage for what happened next?

As Saul approached Damascus, the unexpected happened. A bright light from heaven was focused on him. Instinctively, he fell to the ground and heard a voice. In the next few moments, two questions were asked. The first was asked by Jesus, himself, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When you persecute or criticize the church, you are persecuting or criticizing Jesus. After all, the church is the bride of Christ. No one has ever seen an ugly bride. The second question came from Saul, “Who are you, Lord?” It was a question that was asked to fill the silence. He knew the answer. The man who ordered commands, suddenly was asking for direction. He was to go into Damascus and wait. He waited in complete darkness because his eyesight was taken away. He was in that state for three days, without food. Just like Jesus was dead for three days. It was the turning point in Saul’s life. Nothing would be the same again.

In this blog, I want to talk about three changes that took place in Saul’s life that day. They are the same changes you must make in your life if you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ. These points are not original. The came from United Methodist preacher James W. Moore (1938-2019). He was a graduate of the Methodist Theological School of Ohio. They are worth examining.

If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you must have a new focus. That is what happened to Saul. In the first chapter of Mark is the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. It is a story of instant obedience. They instantly leave everything and follow Jesus. Mark does not give us any prior history the disciples had with Jesus, they just left. When I was young, it did not seem logical, or responsible. However, as I have grown older, I have grown to understand why they did it. I believe, they accepted Jesus’ invitation because they needed something new in their lives. Their lives had grown stale, and they hungered for change. You can say they wanted an adventure. Time reminded them that life in this world is limited. They wanted to leave this world a better place. Jesus offers his followers a new focus. If you are going to follow Jesus, then be prepared for a new focus. The temporary is no longer vital. Saul no longer was concerned about worldly success. The eternal suddenly becomes all consuming. How important is eternity to you?

It is interesting only John died of old age. Some believe he lived to be 100. The other eleven dyed as martyrs. Tradition tells us, Peter died in Rome. He was crucified upside down at his request. He was not worthy to die as Jesus died. Andrew was also crucified and died in present day Russia. James was stoned and clubbed to death in present day Syria. Thomas was in India where he was pierced through the side by four solders. Philip went to North Africa and was tortured. Bartholomew was martyred in Ethiopia. Simon the Zealot traveled to Persia and was killed for not worshipping the sun god. Just think about it. Eleven of the twelve died of unnatural causes for the Gospel. Not even one complained because their eyes were fixed on eternity. They had a new focus. Their eyes were fixed on eternity. Are you more concerned about the temporary? Are you more concerned about the eternal? Where are your eyes fixed? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new focus. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new future.

If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you must have a new vision. Do you have someone in your life that will not let you forget the past? It may be a mother or a father. It may be a brother or a sister? It may be a friend. Is there someone in your life you hate seeing because they are constantly reminding you of your mistakes or failures? Maybe this is a better question, how much time do you spend resenting your past?

William Glasser (1925-2013) was an American psychiatrist who made his impact on the world of psychiatry. He has developed something called “reality therapy.” His approach is a little blunt, but it sounds good to me. While most of the fields of psychiatry spend a great amount of time untangling your past. For example, why you hate your mother and why you resent your brother. Reality therapy spends time on your future. It says you have the rest of your life to live, get over your past and do something with your future. Do you spend too much time in your past? Do you have someone in your life who spends too much time living in the past? Wouldn’t you like to tell them to get over it and start living today?

Jesus may have been the first reality therapist. He did not care about Saul’s past. He was not worried about what Saul had done. He was more concerned with what Saul could do. This is not an isolated case. Have you ever noticed how little time Jesus spent talking about the past? He is much more interested in his future. It was not just true of Saul. It was true of everyone. When he found the woman in the adulterous relationship, he forgives her and says, “Sin no more.” (John 8:11) When Nicodemus appeared on that dark night with the question Jesus told him to move forward in life. You must be born again. (John 3:3) In the parable of the prodigal son the young brother messed up but they father accepts him back and has a party. (Luke 15:11-31) Jesus is not interested in your past. The same is true for you. He is more interested in what you are going to do in the future then what you did in the past. When you learn to completely follow Jesus you can expect a new future. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new focus. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new future. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new lifestyle.

If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then have a new lifestyle. In February of 2016 18-year-old Malachi Love-Robinson was arrested in in West Palm Beach, Florida for pretending to be a doctor. He impersonated an anesthesiologist at the St. Mary’s Medical Center. He was found guilty on 14 charges and served three and a half years in prison. I find that story interesting because the one thing people will not tolerate is a fraud. Our society values people who are genuine. It is especially true of the Christian community. Our society will not tolerate a hypocrite.

Our society is extremely critical of the church and our society is extremely critical of individual Christians. That means your world is watching you to see if you are a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. Four times in the New Testament says we are Christ’s ambassadors in this world. That means you are representing Jesus. What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your behavior? What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your attitudes or opinions? What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your words? Jesus loved everyone unconditionally. Jesus forgave everyone regularly. How are you doing serving as Christ’s ambassador in this world?

Let me ask you these two questions. You can consider them a test of your genuineness. What have you said about our new president in the last few days? What have you said about our former president in the last few days? Remember, you are an ambassador of Jesus Christ? Are you a follower who is embracing a new lifestyle, always forgiving, and always loving, or are you a leader who refuses to change? Jesus loved everyone. Jesus forgave regularly. The great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said it best, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”  On this inauguration week, let me end with this patriotic story.

In 1789, an uncertain George Washington (1732-1799) was urged to seek the presidency of the United States by Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Morris was a man of great influence. He was a delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. From 1792-1794, he served as the Ambassador to France. From 1800-1803, he served as a United States Senator. He saw Washington as a natural leader. Morris wrote Washington these words: “No constitution is the same on paper and in life. The exercise of authority depends upon personal character. Your cool steady temper is needed to set the tone for a new government.”

Here is the good news for today! No one is asking you to be the president. (Aren’t you glad?) No one is even asking you to be a leader. The only thing I am going to ask you to do is be a follower. Follow Jesus and experience life as God intended from the very beginning. When you learn to follow Jesus, you will discover a new focus, a new future, and a new lifestyle. How much has the Gospel changed your life? So, let me ask you the question of the day one more time. Are you a leader? Are you a follower? Jesus is looking for followers.