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.

The Bible Is…

I love this story. Famed scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) had one of the brightest minds in the history of the world. However, history tells us this genius struggled with some of life’s most basic functions. For example, one day he was taking the train home from work. He took the same train home every day. On one day he lost his ticket. As the porter approached to collect it, Einstein rummaged around in his coat, through his pockets, in his shirt, and everywhere else on his person. The porter saw him struggling and said, “That’s okay, Dr. Einstein. I know you ride this train every day. I can collect your ticket tomorrow.” “That’s fine for you, young man,” Einstein replied, “However, the problem is my lost ticket. The problem is without my ticket I don’t know where to get off the train.”

That story reminds me of the present-day church. We look like we know where we are going but we really don’t have a clue. Many believe the mainline protestant church is filled with lost people. They are not lost because they are not nice people. They are not lost because they are not hard-working people. They are not lost because they are not devoted to their local church. They are lost for one reason. They are lost because so many people in the mainline protestant church are spiritual weaklings. They are more interested in their opinions and beliefs then they are Biblical truth. How interested are you in Biblical truth? Actor Denzel Washington (born 1954) once said, “I read my Bible every day.” Do you read your Bible every day? How often do you read the Bible? Do you read your Bible at all? Could it be you are spiritual weakling? I hope the answer is NO!

Historically, Americans have always had an appreciation of the Bible. It is not just limited to one place or generation. Consider these quotes with me:

          George Washington (1732-1799) once said, “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”

          Patrick Henry (1736-1799) once said, “The Bible is worth all the other books that have ever been printed.”

          U.S. Grant (1822-1885) once said, “Hold fast to the Bible as the sheet-anchor of your liberties. Write its precepts in your hearts and practice them in your lives.”

          Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) once said, “In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength.” 

          Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) once said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”

Those are some powerful quotes about the Bible. Do you believe contemporary America still holds the Bible in such high esteem? After all, America has changed in many ways through the years. You know it is true. We have advanced in the areas of transportation, communication and medicine. No one would travel to Florida by stagecoach. Very few do not have an email address, regardless of age. I have never had a parishioner, who requested heart surgery using 1020s methods. America is at her peak when it comes to transportation, communication, and medicine. I don’t want to sound negative, but America seems to be eroding away in other areas. The American family is dissolving in front of our eyes. The mainline American protestant church is in a rapid state of decline. Our federal government has stalled and is divided by increasing partisanship. Many believe, our national soul is changing. If you don’t believe me then just look at the way our society views the Bible. The Bible was once viewed as the word of God! Now the Bible is viewed as a curious piece of historical literature, which has very little to offer the modern world.All this sets up our scripture lesson.

We are at the very end of the eighth chapter of Acts. We are told an angel of the Lord instructs Philip to go south to the road that runs between Jerusalem and Gaza. That angel is mentioned four times in the Book of Acts. Let me list them for you. Stephen mentioned the angel at his trial in chapter seven. The angel is mentioned twice in chapter twelve. The angel liberates Peter and strikes down Herod. This time, the angel instructs Philip to go to the desert road that runs between Gaza and Jerusalem. The distance between those two locations is fifty miles. Somewhere on that road he finds a unique traveler, an Ethiopian eunuch.

To say the least, he is an interesting person. We know two things about him. First, we know his nationality. How good is your geography? Could you find Ethiopia on a map? In those days, Ethiopia was in the upper Nile region. Second, we know his occupation. He oversaw the treasury of the queen of Ethiopians, Candace. He is a eunuch because he works with the queen and fornication will not be tolerated. Gentlemen can I ask you a question? Would you trade places with him? He had a wonderful job, but his personal life was lacking. In other words, his life is complex. No wonder he is on the side of the road studying the ancient text. His life is filled with questions. This is where the text begins to speak to us. When Philip finds the Ethiopian, he is reading the scriptures, but he does understand the scriptures. It is one thing to read the words. It is another thing to understand the words. When was the last time you played the part of the Ethiopian? When was the last time you read the Bible, but you didn’t completely understand the words? The good news the Ethiopian was he had Philip to help him.

Today, I want to make three quick statements about the Bible. Each one of these statements is obvious. Each one of these questions is designed to make you think. My goal is simple. I want you to have a greater appreciation of the Bible. Reading the Bible is not optional to your faith. Reading the Bible is vital. I don’t want you to be a spiritual weakling. Our world needs spiritually mature Christians.

This is statement number one. The Bible is complex. Only a fool would think the Bible is easy. There is nothing easy about the Bible. You know it is true. Sometimes, it is hard to understand the divine truth found in the Bible. There are sixty-six books in the Bible, thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. Have you ever read the Bible cover to cover? Have you ever stopped to consider how many kinds of literature are found in the Bible? Have you ever stopped to consider the age of each word found in the Bible? Have you ever studied the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew, and Greek, to expose some hidden meaning? The Bible is complex but what your mother told you is true. Anything worth having is worth working for. How hard are you working on your Bible skills? Spiritual weaklings don’t even try to understand the Bible.

This is statement number two. The Bible is practical. Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) once said, “Within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems man faces.” The Bible addresses a wide variety of practical topics. How would your life improve if you applied these Biblical models to your daily life? How many problems are you facing today would not exist if you would have followed the Biblical model from the very beginning? Are all your relationships healthy? Are your finances strong? Are you still worried about your salvation? The Bible covers these things because the Bible is practical. The Bible can help you with the biggest problem you are facing today!

This is statement number three. The Bible is eternal. The piece of scripture the Ethiopian is trying to understand is found in Isaiah 53, the suffering servant passage. Approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah was talking about Jesus. Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The great reformer understood the same real meaning of the Bible. The Bible is all about Jesus, our only hope of salvation.

In 1989, I was appointed to the Hathaway United Methodist Church in Garfield Heights, Ohio. I have nothing negative to say about that congregation. They were good to me, and we grew together. When I first arrived, I did my best to get to know everyone. I did my best to discover what kind of activities they would support. In the first few months, I took a survey to learn more about them. On the survey were a wide range of questions. One of the questions was: do you think this church should hold a regular Bible study? Ninety-eight per cent of the people said, “Yes!” So, I planned a weekly Bible study and decided to use the biggest room in the church. After all, 98% of the people said the church should hold a weekly Bible study. On the night I held the first Bible study I learned two things. First, I didn’t need the biggest room in the church. Second, I found out that evening I asked the wrong question. I should have asked would you attend a weekly Bible study. The survey told me 98% of the people said there should be a weekly Bible but less than 2% of the congregation came. It has been a long time since my unsuccessful weekly Bible study. Do you know what happened to the Hathaway United Methodist Church? It pains me to say it. The church is now closed. They say it merged with other congregations, but a merger is really a closing. Hathaway did not close because the people were bad. Hathaway did not close because the people were lazy. Hathaway did not close because the people were not devoted to their church. Hathaway closed for spiritual reasons. Hathaway closed because the church was a spiritual weakling. Why would God lead people to a church that was spiritually compromised? If you want to find out if your church is a spiritual weakling, then just find out how many people attend our weekly Bible study. If it can happen there, then it can happen anywhere. How important is the Bible to you? Do you read your Bible every day?

You’ve Fallen…But You Can Get UP!

We find ourselves in the eighth chapter of Acts, verses nine through twenty-five. The spotlight rests squarely on a man by the name of Simon. He came to Jesus with quite a colorful past. He was a local celebrity because he was known for his practice of sorcery. For this reason, he is remembered as Simon the Sorcerer. As the story goes, one day Simon accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior and was baptized into the faith. He must have been on a spiritual high. He should have walked away from his old ways, but that was not the case. Even today, the church will not tolerate the practice of the witchcraft or wizardry. His mixed-up priorities are exposed when Peter and John come to his hometown, Samaria, to introduce the Holy Spirit. Simon is impressed by the divine power and attempts to buy the Holy Spirit for personal gain. The apostles are shocked by his behavior. In verse twenty-two, Peter tells Simon to repent of his wicked ways and pray that he will be forgiven.

Do not be critical of Simon because there is so much of him inside of us. What worldly ways do you cling to as you walk with Jesus? You can be honest. We have all done it.

The details of the story are different, but the storyline is the same. It all begins with a promise made on a spiritual high. Perhaps it happened at some spiritual retreat weekend. Your words were sincere, when you said, “I believe.” The problem is the weekend ended and you had to go home. Perhaps it happened at the birth of a new family member. You marveled at creation and knew there was a God. The problem is the baby came home and the promise was forgotten during one of those sleepless nights. Perhaps it happened at the end of some personal crisis. You beat the disease or recovered from the accident. Thankful, you promised to follow Jesus. The problem is you resumed your life and responsibility got in the way. Perhaps it happened when the preacher found just the right words at just the right moment. You made that long walk down that short aisle and told your world you were a believer. The problem is the benediction was given and the crowd walked away. The details don’t matter. The only thing that matters is it happened. Like Simon, you promised God you will live a better life. You promised God to make Him your top priority. You promised God to be more like Jesus every day. You were not lying.

You made that promise with a sincere heart, but life, itself, has a way of eroding away the long-term impact of that promise. It happens to us all. It is hard to live a better life when you live in a world that has mastered the art of compromising. It is hard to live a better life when you are facing a mountain of problems. It is hard to live a better life when you experience one more disappointment. It is hard to live a better life when you are smothered with concerns. It is hard to live a better life when you are buried by responsibilities. It happens all the time. In many ways we are like Simon the Sorcerer. At some point in our lives, we promised God to live a better life, but old habits got in the way.

Spiritual backsliding is a part of life. We all fall or backslide occasionally. You are not the first person to backslide, and you will not be the last. This is the good news for today. Spiritual backsliding is not terminal. The Bible doesn’t tell us, but I like to think Simon corrected his ways. I like to think he learned from that experience and lived a better life. He may have been face down on the ground on that day, but he got up and moved forward. It is our story as well. Because of the grace of God, we have another opportunity to get up and move forward. Proverbs 24:16 says, “Though the righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.” The number seven in the Bible means “many.” In other words, a righteous man falls many times in life, but he always gets up to try again. How many times have you fallen spiritually? How many times have you gotten up? I hope you are never content lying on the ground. Get up on your feet and try again. This blog is written to anyone who wants to try again. Here are three quick words you need to remember to prevent falling.

The first word is the word regularly. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” In other words, you need to regularly examine your faith. Are you living a life that is pleasing to God? What in your life needs to be eliminated? What is God calling you to do? Regular examinations are vital. Only a fool would not take advantage of modern medicine. Only a fool would not turn to God regularly. When was the last time you gave yourself a spiritual self-examination? The word is regularly.

The second word is the word run. 2 Timothy 4:7-8 says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” What is Paul saying? He is saying life is a race. The goal is not simply running in the race. The goal of running any race is to win the race. No one runs a race hoping to finish in the middle of the pack. No one runs a race hoping to finish last. The goal is not just to finish the race. The goal is to win! As you run the race of life, are you keeping the finish line, heaven, in mind? Are you practicing today what you will do in heaven for eternity? The word is run.

The third and final word is the word remember. Hebrews 10:32 says, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering.” It is important to tell your testimony for two reasons. First, you need to tell others what God has done for you. Second, you need to remind yourself what God has done for you. How many times have you turned to him when life was hard? How many times has God gotten you through some difficult situation? The word is remember.

Several years ago, I officiated at a wedding. It was one of those weddings I do for non-church members. I will be honest with you. I don’t even remember the name of the bride or the groom. However, I do remember the wedding was traditional in nature. The ushers walked out of the side door with the groom. The bridesmaids walked down the center aisle ahead of the bride. The groom brightened when the back doors opened, and he saw his bride for the first time. They said their vows flawlessly. They exchanged the rings without mishap. They lit the unity candle on cue. Everything was perfect until the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer. Somewhere between “Our Father” and “Amen”, there was a sudden commotion. I looked over to my left and saw one of the ushers had passed out. The good news is he responded quickly and was back on his feet before ‘Amen’!

Most of the congregation didn’t notice. We finished the service and the day continued. It was while they were taking pictures, I found the young man. At that moment he looked fine. I think his name was Shawn and he was a Marine who was home on leave to be in his friend’s wedding. I asked him the question, “Are you ok?” Before he could answer, his significant other spoke up. She was a little mousey girl with a low-cut dress. She kept pulling up the top of her dress so she wouldn’t expose herself to the world. She looked at him and said, “He is fine. He drank too much last night, got up early to go golfing with the other ushers and hasn’t eaten a thing so he would be hungry at the reception. He is fine! He is an idiot, but he is fine. The only thing damaged is his big Marine ego.” I said, “I am glad you are OK, and I glad you recovered quickly.” There are days when you are going to be just like that young Marine.

The question is not if you are going to fall. You are going the fall. The question is, how fast are you going to get up? Like that young Marine, I hope you get up so fast that your world doesn’t even notice. That is possible if you can remember these three words. 1. Regularly – regularly examine your faith. 2. Run – Run the race to win. 3. Remember – Remember what God has done for you. English Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) once said, “Men fall in private long before the fall public.”

God’s Misunderstood Commandment

“Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work, your judgment will be surer…Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller.”  Those words were uttered by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). He excelled as a painter, sculptor, poet, architect, engineer, city planner, scientist, inventor, anatomist, military genius, and philosopher. He knew the value of work, but he also knew the value of rest. When was the last time you relaxed? When was the last time you took a true Sabbath? This takes to our scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, verses eight through eleven. The main character in the story is Moses. Many consider him the greatest character in the Old Testament. You remember him. He is the one who looked like a young Charlton Heston (1923-2008). He was the one who was born to a Hebrew couple but was raised in the palace of the Egyptian Pharaoh. He was the one who killed the Egyptian solder and ran from the authorities. He was the one who worked for his father-in-law, Jethro, but confronted the Pharaoh. He was the one who commanded the plagues and led the people out of Egypt. He was the one who lifted his arms and parted the Red Sea, allowing the God’s Chosen to pass through safely on dry ground. He was the one who dropped his arms, allowing the water of the Red Sea to destroy the Egyptians. He was the one who led the people in the wilderness. And he was the one who ascended Mount Sinai and interacted with God, Himself.

He was the one who descended Mount Sinai and delivered God’s Ten Commandments to the people. The Ten Commandments would forge the relationship between God and His people. They are central to the ethics of the New Testament and central to the ethics of our laws. They are still relevant to our world today. The first four deal with our relationship with God. The last six deal with our relationships with one another. Our scripture reading is one of the ten commandments: number four. It says: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Listen to what I am about to say. God gave us the fourth commandment because he loves us. He knew we needed to take one day each week to rest physically and recharge ourselves spiritually. The fourth commandment is simple. It is people who have made it very complex. Just think about it for a moment.

Do you know of anyone has restrict the Sabbath? That is what you find in second chapter of Mark. According to the story, Jesus and the disciples are walking through a wheat field. The text says it clearly. It is the Sabbath. As they walked, they picked some heads of grain. I would not call it heavy labor. It is easy to visualize because nothing really happens. No one really cares, except the Pharisees, the experts of the law. They cried, “Foul!” The disciples are not really doing anything wrong. However, the orthodox leaders of the day are right. Technically speaking, the disciples were harvesting on the Sabbath. Technically speaking, they broke the fourth commandment, remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. The leaders knew the law, but they had lost the Spirit of the law. The fourth commandment does not exist to limit our fun. It exists so we can rest physically and recharge ourselves spiritually.

The orthodox leaders of Jesus’s generation were experts at restricting the Sabbath. Did you know there were 1,521 manmade laws protecting the Sabbath during Jesus’s generation? Some, quite frankly, were impossible to keep. Some sound ridiculous to our generation. According to the manmade law, one could not cook a meal, light a fire, look in a mirror, pick up a needle or lift a baby on the Sabbath. According to the manmade law, you could not save a drowning man, shave your face, or take a bath on the Sabbath. According to the manmade law, you could not ride a horse, move a lamp, or take your medicine on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath you could save your ox that had fallen into a hole, but you could not get yourself out of the hole. I could go on, but I won’t. The orthodox leaders of the faith restricted the life out of the Sabbath. The fourth commandment exists so you can physically rest and be spiritually recharged.

Do you know of anyone who has restricted the Sabbath?

During the 1830’s Ohio passed a series of Ohio Blue Laws. They were not unique to Ohio. Many states had such laws. The United States was not unique. Many western countries had such laws. The Blue Laws prevented certain businesses from opening on Sunday. The laws were passed not to promote church attendance. They were passed to promote a day of rest. Officially, the Ohio Blue laws ended in 2019. The loophole in Ohio was businesses were permitted to open to assist travelers. That permitted hotels, restaurants, and drug stores to stay open on Sundays. I remember the only store open in our local plaza on Sundays was the old Gray Drug so my father could buy Sunday edition of the Youngstown Vindicator with all the inserts. If you are older than me then you remember things being restricted on the Sabbath. There was no dancing, card playing, or alcohol sales on Sunday. It was a time for church, prayer, and Bible study. Maybe people went to church in those days because they were simply bored sitting at home? That is not the best reason to go to church. Can I be honest with you? I’m glad those days are over! The manmade rules made the Sabbath too much work. The fourth commandment exists so you can physically rest and be spiritually recharged. Do you remember when the Sabbath was restricted?

Do you know of anyone who has redefined the Sabbath? The word “Sabbath” means ‘seventh day’. The seventh day of the week is Saturday. The Jewish world still observes their Sabbath on Saturday. We observe our Sabbath on Sunday because Jesus was resurrected on Sunday. We worship on Sunday morning because Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday morning. Every Sunday is designed to be a little Easter. For the Christian world, Sunday is a time for Jesus. How much time are you spending with Jesus?

Several years ago, I read an article about a company that was having a horrible problem with drugs. The problem became so great, the company began random drug testing. The CEO of the company said they would test their employees on Monday because people party on the weekend. If you are Jewish, then your Sabbath is Saturday. If you are Christian, then your Sabbath is Sunday. Think about it for just a moment. It is very sad. Those days were designed to be the Lord’s days, but they have become party days.

Do you know of anyone who has redefined the Sabbath? What pops into your mind when I say the word SUNDAY? If you answer church, worship, or God, then you are in the minority. Many people in our land equate Sunday with a day off. You know what I mean. It is a day to get some extra sleep. It is a day to slow down. It is a day to watch football and do what you want. There was a day when church attendance was expected. Now, church attendance is optional. According to the Pew Research group. only 22% of all Americans attend church weekly. If you go to church weekly, then you are in the minority. If you do not believe me then just observe your neighbors. How many of them have decided not to go to church? Everyone believes, they deserve a day off! You really can’t blame them.

To a certain degree you can’t argue with them. They make two very good points. First, we believe in an omnipresent God. In other words, we believe you can experience God anywhere. You can experience God on the beach. You can experience God on the golf course. You can experience God walking in the woods. You can experience God at your favorite fishing hole. You can experience God in your bed. God is everywhere. If God is everywhere, then why go to church? Second, we have a surplus of ugly churches. You have heard the stories. Some professional clergy have done some ugly things. Some lay people have done some ugly things. Every church seems to have their share of ugly politics. When I am really frustrated, it seems like every church has become blind to the primary mission of the church: making disciples for Jesus Christ. However, this is also true.

Even with these imperfections, your best opportunity to experience God is at church. Be honest. Have you ever experienced God at the beach, at the golf course, in the woods, in your boat, or in your bed? I guess you could, but I don’t think so. The best place to experience God is at church. I am convinced only one kind of church will survive in the future. They are not churches that have fine-tuned their fundraising skills. They are the churches where people experience God regularly. When was the last time you experienced God? The fourth commandment exists so you can physically rest and be spiritually recharged.

For nearly twenty-five years, my wife Kathryn owned a cottage at Lakeside on Marblehead peninsula. There was a time when the cottage was the focal point of my family life; however, the times changed. Our children grew up and Lakeside lost her magic for them. We sold our cottage years ago. I would like to say I miss it, but I do not want to lie to you. I never caught the magic of Lakeside. I miss absolutely nothing about it. I always felt like an outsider. I don’t miss the gate fee. (It is now over $30 to get into Lakeside, plus your parking permit.) I don’t miss my neighbors (they were odd, not cool like me J.) I don’t miss the annual repairs. (It was built in 1883 and I am not a handy man.)

The only thing I miss about Lakeside is my annual trip to the cottage to close it up for the winter. I miss those trips. It was like a twenty-four-hour retreat. I was alone and all my neighbors were gone. The place was empty. For once, I did what I wanted to do. After the work was done, I would walk through those historic streets, take a nap and work on my next sermon series. In the evening, I ate at my favorite restaurant and drove to the Confederate Cemetery on Johnson Island. At dusk, I would drive to the Marblehead lighthouse and watch the sun go down. If I close my eyes, I can remember everything. The air was cool, and the water was calm. There were boats in every direction. The sun was brilliant. As it drew closer to the horizon, it generated a million shades of red. I would sit on the rocks in silence until that luminous ball disappeared.

Have you ever thought about a sunset? No two are the same. Every time, I thought about the timelessness of that sunset. It has been setting long before I was born. It will set long past my death. That made me feel small. I felt even smaller when I thought about God, who placed that sun in the sky. I felt humbled when I thought about the vastness of God. Why would he care so much for me? Why would he call me, with all my imperfections, into the ministry? Every time I made that trip to the lighthouse and experienced one more sunset, I was completely at peace with God. I hope I didn’t break the rules. I had my Sabbath in the middle of the week. I miss those trips. I physically rested and I was spiritually recharged. When was the last time you observed a Sabbath? Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”

Is God in Charge?

We find ourselves in the eighth chapter of Acts, verses two through four. These few verses are challenging for anyone who assumes God will eliminate life’s hardship. It does not matter how you turn this story; you find pain and suffering. Listen to what I am about to say. It makes the story harder to accept. The people who are experiencing the pain and the suffering did nothing wrong. Stephen did nothing wrong. He was doing what he was told. He was telling the world about Jesus and for his evangelistic efforts he was killed.  The members of the early church did nothing wrong yet verse three tells us they were imprisoned for their faith. Pain and suffering have been part of the church from the very beginning. There is no shortage of pain and suffering in our world today. And with the pain and the suffering comes the question, is God in charge? In this blog, I want to unpack that loaded question.

When I was in seminary a professor challenged us to develop a theology of suffering. On that day, I did not know the importance of that assignment. It was just one more requirement. However, I learned about the importance of that assignment in my forty years in the ministry. Through the decades, I sat with countless people, who withstood great suffering and hardship. They were good people who did nothing wrong. No one expected me to solve their problems, but everyone expected be to care. In every case, I would explain my theology of suffering. It is two-fold.

First, the origin of life’s hardships is Satan, not God. I believe you should learn something new every day. Do you know what I learned the other day? I learned that the Vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. That is a misconception. The origin of that misconception comes from the ancient Christians in southern Europe who feared the northern Europeans. The southern Europeans portrayed the northern Europeans in art with horns on their helmets to alien them with Satan, who is symbolized by a horned goat. Like, Jesus is symbolized by a lamb. That means the helmets of the Minnesota Vikings wrong. Many have accepted that misconception about Vikings wearing horns in their helmets. I did!

That is not the only misconception in history. Maybe you have accepted one of these?

  1. Ben Franklin did not discover electricity. (He was simply trying to prove the electric nature of lightning)
  2. The Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon.
  3. Marie Antoinette did not say, “Let them eat cake.”
  4. Witches were not burned at the Salem Witch Trials. (However, 20 women were hanged.)
  5. Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. (He was 30 miles away when the fire broke out.)
  6. Lady Godiva never rode her horse in the nude.

How many of those misconceptions have you accepted? Our world is filled with misconceptions. This is one more.

Do you know of anyone who has accepted the misconception God creates hardship and suffering to draw us near to him. That simply is not the case. God uses hardships but God does not create the suffering. The true origin of all pain and suffering in our world is Satan. God may have created the world, but it is Satan who brings hardship and suffering to the world. That is why Job’s story still speaks to our world. Everyday Satan did horrible things to him, so Job would denounce his faith. Every day Satan does horrible things to us, so we will denounce our faith. However, we won’t do it because the foundation of our lives is God! Yet, it is painfully clear. We are living in Satan’s playground and with every horrible story there is another Satan sighting. With every story we shake our heads and wonder why? It is vital to your faith that you reject the misconception that God creates hardship and suffering. The origin of all suffering and hardship is Satan. We must confess our ignorance when it comes to the origin of hardship and suffering. The origin of life’s hardships is Satan.

Second, our emotions blind us to divine outcome. In 2013, the Colonial Hills Baptist Church of Indianapolis suffered a great tragedy. They had sent their youth to a church camp in northern Michigan. It was a successful time away and everyone was excited about returning home. Everyone must have been thrilled the 365-mile trip home was nearly complete. Then, tragedy struck. One mile from the church the bus’s brakes failed. The bus slammed into a wall and overturned. There were 37 people on the bus. Dozens were injured. Three were killed, including the youth pastor, his pregnant wife, and a chaperone. The youth minister was the senior pastor’s son. The parents who had assembled at the church to pick up their children were shocked. Their happy reunion was replaced with sadness. Does that story make you wonder? That story makes me wonder.

We must confess our emotions blind us to the divine outcome. That story has stuck with me through the years. It fills me with questions. How do you worship after such a horrible accident? How do you sing songs of praise after such a horrible accident? How does the minister stand up and preach after such a horrible accident? He did not just lose a member of his staff. He lost his son. He lost a daughter-in-law. He lost an unknown yet loved grandchild. How does a mother move forward after losing a child? Just like in the scripture lesson, they were doing nothing wrong, yet they were suffering.

Emotions are funny things. They can propel us to the mountaintop, and they can drag us down to deepest valley. They can sharpen our insights and blind us to the most obvious. Have you ever wished you were more emotional? Have you ever wished you will less emotional? Have you ever hidden your true emotions? Have you ever had to work your way through some emotional experience to experience something new?

The scripture lesson ends with a word of good news. The church is moving outward. This did not happen because the governing body passed a new rule. There was no capital funds drive for new church starts. The grant application was not accepted for some new ministry. The church was moving outward because it was forced to move outward. Because of the persecution, it wasn’t safe to stay in Jerusalem, so they moved to other places taking the Gospel message with them. There is no reason to believe they would have moved without the persecution. Have you ever noticed how God can use Satan’s bad things and produce something good? It happens all the time.

Taryn Davis said she felt lost and isolated after she buried her husband, Michael. He was serving our country in Iraq when he died at the age of 22. Due to her young age, 22, everyone tried to dismiss her grief by saying, “You are young. You can remarry.” People did not know how to treat her, so they left her alone. In her isolation, Taryn did something that brought her both great pain and relief. She contracted the widow of another soldier who was killed with Michael. Their meeting had no real agenda. They simply got together and shared. Then they decided to contact other young military widows and in time they founded the American Widow Project. It is open to any age, but the average age is 25. It has been years since Michael died. She still misses him, but she has found a new family. She has found her purpose. Have you ever noticed how God can use Satan’s bad things and produce something good? How often do our emotions blind us to the final outcome? Helen Keller (1880-1968) once said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.”

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from the ninth chapter of Mark. Peter has just identified Jesus as the Christ. It was one of those pivotal moments in the Bible. Things would never be the same again. To underscore the importance of that insight, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain. It is at this moment the story grows strange. Without any warning, Jesus’ appearance suddenly changes. The Bible says he was transfigured. We would describe him as glowing. Suddenly, with this transfigured Jesus and the disciples were with Moses and Elisha. I don’t know how they identified them. (Maybe they were wearing name tags?) Why Moses and Elisha? Through the eyes of the disciples, they were the greatest characters in the Old Testament. Moses was the great law giver. Elisha was the greatest of the prophets. Both were endorsing Jesus. It was one of the greatest moments in the life of the disciples and they don’t want t to end. Peter offers to put up tents for their honored guests. However, the best is yet to come. Suddenly, they are engulfed by a bright cloud and God, himself, begins to speak to them. God says it clearly, “This is my son, whom I love; with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The disciples are overwhelmed by the experience, but it is suddenly over. Do you remember what happens next?

On their way down from the mountaintop they are confronted by a man whose son is demon possessed. The contrast between the two stories is shocking. Isn’t that life? On the mountaintop everything is perfect. There is Moses and Elisha. There is God. In the valley there is imperfection, hardships, and suffering. There is the demon possessed boy. How much imperfection have you witnessed in your life? We may visit the mountaintop occasionally, but we live in the valley. This is the question.

Is God in change? The answer is YES! However, you are never going to see it until you understand two things. First, the origin of suffering is Satan. God created the world, but we live in Satan’s playground. Second, you must confess your own emotions have blinded you to the divine outcome. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) once said, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

Be Prepared!

We find ourselves today in the book of Acts. The reading begins at 7:54 and ends at 8:1. At the very heart of the scripture is the uncomfortable topic of death. One of the leaders of the early church, Stephen has died. His death sent a shockwave through the early church because he was so respected. He was the first one outside of the Apostles to perform a miracle. That miracle was important because it demonstrated to the people that God was still with them. Everyone was excited about the miracle except one small, yet powerful, group, the Sanhedrin. They were the Supreme Court of the orthodox faith. Like Jesus and Peter in the past, they had Stephen arrested. His trial does not go well. In the section prior to our reading, we are told he addresses them with little respect. In bold words, he tells them about God’s plan of salvation. Jesus was the final act of love. That was not what they wanted to hear. According to our reading, they reacted to his words in a violent way. In an emotional rage, they drag him out of the city and stone him. It must have been a horrific scene. The light that shined so brightly in the beginning of the day was now extinguished. It is at this moment the text begins to speak to us. There is no other way to say it. Stephen is dead. On the day he was born, his world shed tears of joy. Now, his world was shedding tears of sorrow.

Death is an uncomfortable topic. It shouldn’t be. Just like birth, it comes to each one of us. No one gets out of this world alive. The mortality rate of the world is 100%. Some will leave sooner; some will leave later. However, everyone must leave. Death does not discriminate. It takes the young and the old. It takes the educated and the uneducated. It takes the rich and the poor. It takes every race. Have you ever wondered how long you will live? Have you ever wondered what month you are going to die? Have you ever wondered what day of the week you will die? I never have liked Tuesdays. Have you ever wondered how you are going to die? Will your death be a long-drawn-out affair, spending your final days alone in some institution? Will your death be sudden, like Stephen’s? That is how I would like to go.

This blog is wrapped around three questions about your death. I have the license to ask these questions because part of my job for forty years was to prepare people for eternity. The correct answers to these questions are illustrated in today’s text about Stephen. However, this message is not so much about dying. It is about living life to the fullest! Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said, “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”  This is question number one.

Are you prepared to die socially? In the fourth chapter of Genesis is one of the great stories of the Bible. How well do you remember your family history? Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. They came from the same biological parents but they, personally, were completely different. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. In time, both men sacrificed to God. Cain brought fruit; Abel brought meat. You can call it favoritism, but God preferred Abel’s offering, the meat. (Can you really blame him?) Cain gets his feelings hurt and positions himself to do something ugly. The story ends when Cain kills Abel. This story teaches us a variety of things. One of those things is the value of human relationships. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships with one another. Are all the relationships in your life healthy? Are there any relationships in your life that are near death?

The Bible does not really give us much detail, but it is safe to say Stephen had healthy relationships. Everyone in the church respected him. It is safe to say everyone in his life respected him. Does everyone in your life respect you? How many damaged relationships are in your life? I am not just talking about your siblings. I am talking about everyone, your parents, children, neighbors, and co-workers. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships. Do you have any relationships that need repair? Don’t wait! This is question number one. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? This is question number two.

Are you prepared to die personally? Next month, my wife, Kathryn and I are traveling to western Turkey and Greece. We are traveling alone. We are traveling with a group led by East Ohio Annual Conference Resident Bishop Tracy Malone. In all there are thirty-seven of us. The trip was promoted as The Journeys of Paul. I am so excited. I love to travel, and I need an adventure in my life occasionally. It is a big world and I want to see as much of it as possible. I was sharing my excitement with a friend, and he simply asked, “Why?” He spent the next few minutes telling me in a nice way that I was a fool. He tried to discourage me from going. He ended by saying, “I hope you are happy living in a Turkish prison.” I ended our discussion quickly and walked away frustrated. I have never understood why people do that? Why do so many people discourage others from doing something? I was not inviting him to come. I was telling him I was going. I enjoy traveling and I want to learn more about the Apostle Paul. Have you ever discouraged someone from doing something they wanted to do? Let me ask you this question:

What do you still want to do with your life? I am not just talking about traveling to odd places. I am talking about your passion. Stephen was passionate about Jesus! What are you passionate about? Is there some place in this world you still want to go? Is there some book you would still like to read? Is there some language you would still like to study? When Thomas Jefferson died, he was studying German. Is there someone you would still like to meet? Is there something you still want to build or own? Don’t wait! If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared personally? This is question number three.

Are you prepared to die spiritually? As I write this blog, one of my family members is in the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in the suburbs of Cleveland. His medical situation is complex, so the family as asked many questions. The more questions we asked, the more confused we have become. The more confused we have become, the less hope we have. At one point, the kind of questions changed. They went from medical questions to spiritual questions. People started questioning his salvation. Those are the hardest questions to answer because we are not the judge. We pray that somewhere along the way our family member accepted Jesus, because Jesus is our hope of salvation. Heaven would not be the same without him. The one thing no one can question is Stephen’s salvation. He has a vision of heaven. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared to die personally? Would you be prepared to die spiritually? Let me end with this story.

You do not have to be a Civil War expert to know the name Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-1863). The one-time instructor at the Virginia Military Institute was respected by both friend and foe for his courage during battle. He was once asked about the source of that courage. This was his response:

My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God (knows the) time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter where it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.

It is interesting to note that Jackson died eight days after that quote. He was accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers. That shot caused him to lose his arm, which led to pneumonia. I must ask you:

Are you prepared to die? Stephen woke up that morning and didn’t have a clue he would be gone that night. Maybe that will be our story? Only God knows. That is why you must always be prepared. Are you prepared to die socially? Are all the relationships in your life perfect? Are you ready to die personally? What do you still want to do? Are you ready to die spiritually? Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I hope so. Heaven wouldn’t be the same without you!

False Testimony

We find ourselves today in the sixth chapter of Acts, verses eight through fifteen. The spotlight is shining squarely on the rising star of the early church, Stephen. He is respected by everyone. Prior to our reading, we were told, he was so respected he got to serve on the first committee in the history of the church. (Lucky him!) In our reading for today, his legend continues to grow. He was performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people. That line is significant because he was the first one to perform a miracle besides the apostles. The news of Stephen’s miraculous power spread throughout the land. Everyone must have been excited, except one group, the Sanhedrin. To them, the news of his miraculous power was not welcomed. To them, it meant their Jesus problem continued. They responded to Stephen as they had responded to Jesus and Peter in the past. They had him arrested. Like Jesus and Peter, Stephen did nothing wrong. The Sanhedrin was desperate, so they break the law. Verse 13 says, they found people to offer false testimonies against Stephen. In other words, they found people to lie about Stephen. This is not an isolated case. It is still happening in our time. This is the sad truth.

There are many in our time who hate the church. There are several reasons why. Some have problems with authority figures. Some are spiritually immature. Some are trying to deny the truth, Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Some are mad at the church because of all the scandals. The church is not a perfect institution. We are famous for our self-inflected wounds. Some are mad at God because of the ugliest that exists in our world. There are several reasons why people hate the church, but they all have a single goal. They simply want the church to go away, so they offer false testimony against the church. Today, we will look at two great lies that exist within American society about the church.

This is lie number one: God does not exist. According to the Pew Research group, 7% of the world’s population has accepted this lie. According to Vox, 3% of Americans are atheists. Some high-profile celebrities are in this group. Consider these names with me:

Kevin Bacon

John Depp

Jodie Foster

Ricky Gervais

Stephen Hawking

Angelina Jolie

Bill Maher

Helen Mirren

Brad Pitt

Daniel Radcliffe

Emma Thompson

Ted Turner

Bruce Willis

Have you ever known an atheist? Have you ever known someone who embraced the lie, God does not exist. It is a sociological way of looking at life. Every society needs a god, who regulates behavior of his citizens. He is the ultimate judge. In the end, he punishes the bad and rewards the good. Heaven is nothing more than a carrot to lead the people. It is a cold way of looking at life. That is why atheists do not believe in the existence of God.

This is my rebuttal: Christianity is more than a series of laws. It is more than a moral code. Christianity is about relationships. Christianity fills a void in your soul. Consider these three quotes with me:

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once said, “My heart was restless until I found my rest in God”         

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) once said, “There is within each person a God-shaped vacuum.”

Rudolf Bultman (1884-1976) once said, “Within each one of us is a faint recollection of Eden calling us home.”

Each one of these quotes from various times in history are telling us the same thing. Our lives are incomplete without God. That is what I have experienced in my life.

For thirty years, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That is why the world was shocked when his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), defected in 1967. In 1978, she became a naturalized citizen. The world wanted to know why she left his Russia, hence her family.

She explained why with these words:

“I found it impossible to exist without God in one’s heart. I came to that conclusion myself, without anybody’s help or preaching. That was a great change because since that moment the main dogmas of Communism lost their significance for me. I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia.”

You can ask Svetlana and she will tell you. God not only exists, but God is also one of the major factors in our lives.

This is lie number two: Life is better without religion. Years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. I am still processing that trip because it is a humbling place. I was unprepared for the spiritual tension. There is no other way to say it. God is doing something special in that land. After all, three major world religions have their origin there, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No place illustrates that spiritual tension more than the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a sacred spot to the Jews because the was where the old Hebrew Temple sat. That is where the Holy of Holies sat, where the Jews believed God resided. It is a sacred spot to Christians because Jesus visited that ancient temple. It is a sacred spot to Muslims because the Dome of the Rock now sits on that spot. It is where Muslims say the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Temple Mount is an incredible place. Side by side by side are the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. The spiritual tension is thick.

Within our world today there are many examples of spiritual tension. The lie, life is better without religion, is built on that tension. Our world is getting smaller. Like it or not, improved transportation and communication is bringing us together! If you just look at the news, then you can see their point. How many religious wars can you name? How many religious wars have there been in world history? Religion is a wonderful flag to wave during military conflict, because it unites the people against a common enemy. No wonder some believe life is better without religion.

This is my rebuttal: Real Christianity has nothing to do with politics. Real Christianity has nothing to do with a rules or beliefs. Real Christianity has nothing to do with being right or wrong. However, real Christianity has everything to do with living your life with God. Jesus is the great bridge between mankind and God. Real Christianity is about building a relationship with God. The people embraced Stephen’s miraculous signs and miracles because they wanted a reminder that God was with them. We love to hear about miracles in our time for the same reason. They remind us God has not forgotten us. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not rules. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not politics. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not customs or traditions. I can not imagine living without God.

His name was Ariel Castro (1960-2013). You remember his story. He held three young women hostages in his Cleveland, Ohio home. On the day one of his victims escaped, he was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. In the end, he pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder as part of his plea bargain. For his crimes he was sentenced to life in prison and 1,000 years without the possibility of parole. One month into his imprisonment committed suicide by hanging himself with bedsheets in his prison cell. During his last court appearance, Castro stood before the judge with his eyes closed. It was like he was trying to escape his reality. The judge ordered him to open his eyes and look at victims. Reluctantly, he did, but he never said a word. He didn’t say a word because everyone knew the truth. Ariel Castro was guilty.

It is a challenging time to be a believer. It is like the whole church is on trial. The whole world seems to be against us. Just like in the days of Stephen, many are spreading false testimonies. In other words, they are lying. They are saying God does not exist and life is better without religion. They are lying to discredit us. We can no longer just stand there with our eyes and mouths closed. We must defend ourselves because we have done nothing wrong. We are innocent and we know the truth. It is all about Jesus. The Master said it himself, in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”

Adapt or Die

We find ourselves in the sixth chapter of Acts, the first seven verses. The great day of Pentecost had passed, and the church was established. The Good News is being spread and lives are being transformed. The church had grown beyond the Holy Land. Gentiles were joining the church. That is both good and bad. It is good because more are being saved, but it is bad because the growth caused conflict. The conflict was not contained. It is seen both outside of the church and inside the church. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:60) illustrates the conflict outside of the church. Our reading for today illustrates the conflict inside of the church. There is no other way to say it. The church was divided. It was the Hellenistic Jews verses the Hebraic Jews. In other words, it was Greek speaking Jews, born outside of the Holy Land, who saw little value in traditional Hebrew customs verses Palestinian Jews, who spoke Aramaic and/or Hebrew who longed to keep traditional Hebrew customs alive. It always happens when people take their eyes off Jesus, secondary issues take primary focus. It has always been true. It is still true in our time.

Our reading contains both the first recorded complaint in the history of the church and the first established committee. The Hellenistic Jews complained their widows were not getting their daily distribution of food. That means the early church cared about both the physical and spiritual needs of their people. To solve the problem, the Apostles formed a committee to handle the matter, freeing them to teach. However, the real issue is not the food. The real issue is change caused by church growth. The church was adapting to their newest members. It is important to note, they are not compromising the Gospel message. They are simply adapting to their changing church. I am comfortable saying, if the church had not adapted, then they would have lost their newest members. It is still true today. We cannot compromise the Gospel message, but we must adapt to our ever-changing world. How many examples do you need?

In March of 1994, I received a phone call from my District Superintendent, I was being moved to the Youngstown, Ohio area. I was pleased with that information because my parents were aging, and I wanted to get closer to them. A few hours later, I was told I was being appointed to the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield. Over the next few days, we set up an interview with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. United Methodist interviews are really an introduction. We are appointed, not hired. The committee got to know me, and I got to know a little more about the church. The committee longed for one thing, church growth! Like many other mainline Protestant churches, attendance was low, and the congregation was aging. One of the saints on that committee asked me after the meeting, “Is there anything you can do for us? Our church is dying!” I answered, “Yes!” I spent my last twenty-eight years in the ministry trying to keep my word.

For years, in the top left-hand drawer of my desk at Western Reserve was the 1994 East Ohio Annual Conference Journal. It contained all the facts and figures of all the congregations in the Annual Conference for that year. I saved that journal for one reason. It acted as a baseline. I wanted to know if we were making any progress. It also acted as a baseline for the other churches in our district and Annual Conference. Do you know what I have learned from studying those old figures? In nearly every case, the numbers were down. In other words, our churches are dying. It isn’t just true of the United Methodist Church. It is true of every mainline Protestant denomination in this section of the country.

That is why everyone says they want church growth. I have never met a pastor who didn’t want to experience it. I have never met a church that didn’t want to experience it. For decades, denominational bureaucrats promoted church growth and sponsored church growth worships. I will be honest, in my time in the ministry, nothing was more personally satisfying than watching my church grow. That is why everyone says they want church growth! We want church growth because we don’t want our church to die. We want our church to grow because new members bring more money. We want church growth because we need help with all that church work. Everyone says they want church growth because we want our local church to live beyond our generation. The first verse in our reading says, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing.” The church is growing and that is a good thing. Everyone should be happy. However, that is not the case. There are some in the story who are unhappy because the new members were forcing the church to change. They were being forced to adapt to their changing church and world.

John Adams (1735-1826) became the second president of the United States on March 4, 1797. That transfer of power was one of the most pivotal moments in American history. Many wanted George Washington (1732-1799) to stay in office. He thrived at nearly everything he did during his sixty-seven years of life. Washington was extremely popular after the Revolutionary War. His popularity united the young country and propelled him to the office of president. He served two terms and walked away. Many desired Washington to stay in some form exposes the human condition. People do not like change. They didn’t want him to leave because they were afraid of the unknown. After all, the safest thing to do is nothing. Have you ever refused to change because of the fear of the unknown? We value stability. This is the problem. Our society is always changing. However, this is equally true.

We will tolerate change in certain areas. We will tolerate change when it comes to communication. Do you know anyone who does not own a cell phone? We tolerate change when it comes to transportation. No one travels by covered wagon anymore. We embrace change when it comes to medicine. Would you have heart surgery using 1920 methods? On the day George Washington died, his doctor tried to heal him by giving him a good bleeding. When was your last good bleeding? We will tolerate change in certain areas of our lives, but not every area of our life. The more personal the issue then less tolerant we are of change. Religion extremely personal. The problem is the church must adapt to our changing world or die.

My generation of clergy have been well schooled in church growth principles. Most of those principles talk about how to get people through the front door. You can promote the church in a different way. You can start a new worship service. You can get involved in the problems in our community. Those principles work. They get new members through the front door, but in those classes, we never talked about the back door. People come through the front door. People leave through the back door. Have you ever left a church through the backdoor? Why do most people leave a church? They don’t leave because the halls are dirty. They don’t leave because the sermon is boring. They don’t leave because the minister is too handsome. They don’t leave because of the number of mistakes in the bulletin. They don’t leave because of the quality of the music. They do not leave because of the style of worship. They leave because they don’t feel welcomed. If there are a million ways to say, “I love you,” then, there are a million ways to say, “I don’t want you. Get out!” Could it be, most established members do not mind seeing newcomers leave because they created unwanted change? That takes us back to our reading.

The early church was adapting to their changing world. They are not compromising the Gospel message; they are compromising secondary issues. Through the eyes of God, those things really do not matter. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. Examine the story through that filter. The church began in Jerusalem, so everyone related to the Golden City and Hebrew ways. The newest converts related to the Greek world. They are Hellenistic Jews. It doesn’t sound like a big deal to us, but it was a big deal to them. The growth of the church had changed the church, itself. The choice was simple. The early church could adapt to their changing world and grow, or they could refuse to change and die. In our time, everyone says they want church grow, but many resist change. If they do not change, then we will die.

Since I retired, I have been worshipping in small membership churches. The one I have been to the most sits on the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line. The old well-maintained building has beautiful stained-glass windows. The summer attendance is approximately thirteen. Each person is very nice and comfortable. Everyone knows everyone’s name and story. Before and after worship, they sit in a circle on comfortable chairs. It is there they get caught up on the local news and recall the past. Weekly, they bring up the condition of their church. Each one knows the truth. Their church has no future. It is only a matter of time before the building is closed. They believe, the problem is society. The world has changed, and they refuse to adapt to their changing world. They worship in a way that was popular seventy years ago. They sing hymns that were written hundreds of years ago. They are not interested in trying something new to reach out into their community. It is very sad, but it is their choice. They are looking for the miraculous to save their church. They say, they want church growth, but they are not interested in changing a thing. It is not just their story.

It is the story of many mainline Protestant congregations in our time. They are choosing to die. They simply refuse to adapt to our changing world. How many churches in your community will be closed in ten years? Research tells us about 3,700 churches close on an average year. Acts 6:1-7 teaches us secondary things in the life of the church do not matter. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. Russian author Leo Toystoy (1828-1910) once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.”