Monday, February 18, 2013

And the Angels Danced

We’d been praying for this for a while.  The answer came on Saturday night.  I was already in bed, in that never-land place just between being awake and falling asleep.  Dayna came into the room with a phone in her hand.  Our 8-year-old granddaughter Reese had called with news.  “Okay, Reese,” Dayna said, “Papa is listening.  Tell us your news.” 

“I asked Jesus into my heart tonight,” she said.  Talk about news worth waking up to!  “That’s great, Reese.  Praise the Lord!  He loves you so very much.”  She told us a little more, said she wanted me to baptize her.  If I hadn’t been in bed half-asleep, I suspect I’d have got up and danced.

And why not?  Angels in heaven were kicking up their heels.  One of the most remarkable things Jesus tells us is “that there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  Jesus says that in Luke 15.  In fact, He says it a couple of times.  First, after He tells the story of the shepherd with 100 sheep who left the 99 to go find the one that was lost.  And then He says it again after telling the story of the woman who lost one of her ten coins, turned the house upside down looking for it, and finally found it in the seat cushion.  In both of those stories, the shepherd and the woman, quickly invited their friends and neighbors to an impromptu party they threw to celebrate finding what they lost.  And Jesus says, “You think their parties were something?  You should see the angels dance in heaven when even one lost sinner gets found by God!”

And just to put the exclamation point on the matter, Jesus then tells the story of the man whose son took his inheritance early, ran off to Vegas, squandered it all on gambling, women and booze, ended up slopping hogs and starving to death.  Sufficiently humbled, he decided to take his chance on going home, hoping good old dad would let him live in the bunkhouse and work as a hired hand on the farm.  But dad would have none of that.  Dad saw him coming, ran to greet him, embraced him, forgave him, and threw the biggest party they’d ever seen in those parts.  The kid even got his old room back.

In case you miss the point, God is like that shepherd and that woman and that father.  He looks for the lost and when He finds them, well, it’s party time in heaven: angels dance, bands play happy tunes, choirs sing hallelujah, and somebody dumps a cooler of Gatorade on Jesus’ back.  Okay, so I made some of that up.  But it’s party time in heaven all right.  God just loves finding sinners, angels do the jitterbug, and all heaven shares His joy.

That’s what happened on Saturday night when Reese repented of her sins and decided to follow Jesus.  Angels did a jig of joy over her.  That just blows me away.  All that’s going on in the world, and heaven takes notice over the little prayer of an 8-year-old girl!  Remarkable.  And even more remarkable is that there was a day when the angels danced for me … for me.  I can kind of understand angels dancing over my granddaughter.  After all, she is … my granddaughter.  But me?  I don’t get it.  I’m thankful for it, but it’s hard to get my mind around it.

And maybe that’s the problem.  Such things are perhaps more a matter of the heart than of the mind, and heaven’s heart rejoices when even one sinner is found.  Lost people matter to God.  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and when it happens—anywhere in the world—heaven explodes with joy.  Another lost soul is found.  Another person dead in their trespasses and sins is made alive.  Another stray has found her way home.  Mission accomplished once again.

How about you?  Have you been found by God?  Have you trusted Christ for your salvation?  If so, take joy that one day angels danced over you.  And if not, why not trust Christ today?  Christ is seeking you today.  And in heaven: the streamers are hung; the cake is on the table; the band is tuning up; the Gatorade cooler is ready; and the angels are loosening up so they’ll be ready to dance over you.  Come on … let ‘em dance!  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pride Goeth Before the Flu

Sick as a dog!  That was my story last week—chills and sweats, pounding headache, sore throat, a relentless cough that started from my toes and was tighter in my chest than Scrooge was with a nickel.  Awful!  That’s how I felt—awful!

I don’t know when I got it.  Maybe I caught it in India.  I more likely caught it on the airplane coming home.  There was some guy on the row behind me who spent the seven hours between Delhi and Amsterdam not just hacking up one lung—the dude hacked up both lungs and a spleen.  I don’t think there was ever a full minute between his coughing jags.  I don’t know how many times I was tempted to stand up and shout (in pastoral compassion and Christian love, of course), “Would you put a cork in it, Mack, you’re gonna infect every one of us!”  Yeah, right.  There wasn’t an ounce of compassion or love in my attitude toward that biological terrorist, that weapon of mass health destruction.

And that’s precisely the point.  I didn’t feel for his misery.  I wasn’t moved to offer him a lozenge for his throat; I wanted to shove a pillow in his face.  I closed my eyes to pray—not so much for him as for me: “Please, God, don’t let this germinator make me sick.” 

And that’s when I saw him, peering out from behind my heart, with a smirk on his face I’ve seen too many times before: my little demon Pride.  I hate that guy!  And try as I might, I just can’t seem to shake him.

Many who know me will be shocked by that admission.  If there’s one thing I hear a lot it’s this: “That Pastor John, he’s so humble.”  People often praise me for my humility.  And every time they do, I silently pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what say.”  I’ve never been shy to admit my struggle with pride, how I have to crucify it day by day, but people don’t believe me.  “Not you.  You’re so humble.  You’re so self-effacing.”  Yes, me.  I wish I was humble.  I want to be humble.

But that danged old demon Pride just won’t let me be.  The church fathers labeled pride as one of the seven deadly sins, in fact, the most serious of the seven deadly sins.  C. S. Lewis called pride “the chief sin” as its focus on self makes it a beachhead to all the rest.  It’s serious stuff.  And God won’t stand for it.  When you’ve got a few minutes, spend some time with a Bible concordance and see just how much God hates Pride and its kissing cousins with names like Arrogance, Narcissism, Boasting, Snobbery, Smugness, Elitism, and a few other names that smell as bad as the sewer out of which they rise.  Like I said about that old demon Pride: I hate that guy!  And God does too.  Essentially, God’s message to us about pride is this: “Humble yourself, or I’ll do it for you.” 

And that’s what God did for me last Wednesday.  I felt my sickness brewing on Monday and Tuesday—a growing cough, a kind of physical malaise setting in.  But did I listen to my body?  No, not me.  I don’t get sick, you see.  I’ve had kidney stones and a hernia surgery, but I didn’t consider that sick—yeah, brilliant logic, huh?  (That’s another thing about pride: the capacity to lie to oneself).  Anyway, I haven’t been in the bed sick since maybe 1987.  I’m a fitness guy.  I work out hard.  I’ve been known to say that when my body tells me to quit, I say to my body, “Shut up and do what I tell you.”  So I don’t get sick.  A cold now and then, sure.  But in the bed sick—not moi.  And when people around me call in sick, I try to appear sympathetic on the surface, but inside, there's a part of me that wants to say, “Would you man up?  Don’t let some stupid little virus dictate your life.”  And demon Pride smirks at me again.

But then came Wednesday.  I got up early as usual, felt worse than I did on Monday and Tuesday, but still did a tail-kicking workout, cleaned up and went to work.  I had a full day ahead of me.  It was more important for me, I guess, to prove how tough I was than to worry about whom I might infect with my sickness—what selfishness, what pride!  But darn those torpedoes; full speed ahead!  I’d just tell my body to do what I wanted it to do.  And that lasted till … about 10 in the morning.  After coughing my head off in my office, chilling with an obvious fever, and struggling with repeated rounds of annoying hiccups of all things, I swallowed my stupid pride, walked down the hall, asked Mike Pounders to please cover a pre-funeral appointment for me that afternoon and to lead Bible Study for me that evening.  I told him and the ladies in the front that I was finally waving the white flag of surrender.  But it wasn’t full surrender of my pride because I couldn’t help but mention that this was the first (non-surgery) sick day I had taken in my nearly 18 years at the church—that dang demon didn’t only smirk at me when I said that, he winked and gave me the thumbs up sign.  (I wanted to give him a sign.)  But Pride didn’t get his way completely.  I went home, went to bed, barely got out of the bed till Friday, and didn’t report back for duty till Sunday morning.  I even let a funeral go, which, because of my pride, is very hard for me to do.

You know there’s a verse in the Proverbs: “Pride goeth before a fall.”  Well, in my case it was: “Pride goeth before the flu.”  And as I climbed into my bed when I got home, fully dressed, covered with about five blankets, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, feeling like, well, you know, I couldn’t help but smile.  That smirking little demon was on the run at least for this day.  I gave God thanks for His loving and disciplining mercies that relentlessly whittle away at my pride.  I gave God thanks for the good health He has given me—a health I don’t deserve.  Far, far better Christians than I sometimes end up with cancers and debilitating diseases that don’t go away in a few days if they go away at all.  So I was moved to pray for these brave people who endure such things with grace and humility.  God reminded me how honored I should feel to get to stand in their presence and minister to their needs.  And God showed me an image of Jesus on the cross—humility on mega-steroids—the Son of God dying for my sins, dying for my pride, and by whose stripes we are healed.  That's where the remedy is for my pride: the more I rest in Jesus the less I wrestle with pride.  So as strange as it sounds, when I was feeling my worst, I was worshiping my best.  Though painful, it’s a wonderful thing to be humbled by the Lord.  It creates a joy that sickness can’t touch.   

So, the Lord used that flu to chase that demon for a while anyway.  I pray he keeps on running and leaves me alone.  And in the meantime, I’ll continue to give thanks that when I don't have the good sense to humble myself, God is more than up to the challenge.

Monday, February 4, 2013

To India with Love

I don’t know why God appointed Ken Wheatley and me to spend last week teaching pastors and church leaders in India.  It’s a humbling thing to try and teach the very people from whom we have so much to learn.  And that’s the way I felt all week—humble.

My assigned task was to teach Romans.  I was given a time frame of two days each with two different groups in two different places.  Though I have preached numerous sermons from Romans over the years, I hadn’t taught through the book since 1987.  That’s a long time ago—my notes from that study are handwritten on yellow sheets of lined paper—even before the days of personal computers.  How was I supposed to teach such a deep and wide book in such a short time, a time cut in half by virtue of the need for a translator?  And how was I to teach it in a way that actually involved the students in hands-on ways so they could have something they could reproduce in their own churches?  I’ve been on numerous mission trips doing numerous things, but I’ve never felt so stressed and uncertain about my task than I did for this trip.  I felt weak, inadequate, uncertain, humble about the whole process.  And in retrospect, I don’t think I did a very good job.  Humbling.

And as if this wasn’t humbling enough, my interaction with those who participated in the study humbled me even more.  In a country where most citizens barely make enough money to live, most of the church leaders (men and women) who attended the study had to take two days off without pay from their jobs.  Some had to travel some distance just to attend.  They had to make a sacrifice to be there.  They had to patiently listen to me say words incoherent to them and wait on the translation into words they could understand.  This is not an ideal learning environment.  But they hung in there, listening attentively, feverishly writing out notes of things they wanted to remember.  Like hungry folks sitting down to a banquet, they gobbled up every bite and morsel they could.  Humbling.

But the thing that really put me in my place came in answer to a question I asked one of the groups: “What’s it like to be Christian in India?  What are the challenges and opportunities for Christians here?”  Their answers put a lump in my throat.  One old man said that since He gave his life to Jesus, his family has essentially written him off.  He’s still allowed to live in his home, but his wife won’t cook for him.  Any time he brings home food for the family, they refuse to eat it.  After he sleeps on the bed, they wash the sheets as a sign of purging his faith from the linens.  This man lives a hard life every single day simply because he put his faith in Jesus.  So would it surprise you to note that no one in that group had a better sense of humor, no one laughed more or elicited more laughs from his comments than this man?  And when he was telling his story, heads nodded, and no one seemed surprised or shocked at what he had to say.  Many face a similar situation.  But they continue to move into their future, sharing Jesus with Hindus and Muslims, starting churches, training leaders, doing to the work of the kingdom in a place fundamentally hostile to Jesus.  And they do it with joy.  They do it with a smile on their face.  Humbling for an American Christian like me.

I grow increasingly cynical about American Christianity.  We tend to be so self-focused, so materialistic, so acculturated to worldly values, so half-hearted in our commitments to Christ and the church.  It makes me fear for the future of the faith in our own country and for the world.  But God used last week to remind me that fulfilling the Great Commission doesn’t depend solely upon American Christians.  God’s got plenty of people in other places of the world who are getting it done—even against great odds and at great personal cost.  I met some of those Christians, and India is one of those places.  It’s humbling, I tell you, humbling.

When you pray for the world, would you pray for these people?

For the most part, Indians are rather small of stature.  In fact, Ken and I (two people whom no one ever nicknamed “Stretch”) were usually pretty close to the tallest men in the room.  But for this one week of our lives, we stood among giants.