Sunday, July 30, 2017

Encouragement

Encouragement
1 Thessalonians 5:11
            There’s a great ad on TV.  If you don’t watch sports channels you’ve probably missed it.  An adult is coaching a kids’ soccer game—and I mean young kids.  The players are probably in 4th or 5th grade.  He’s constantly berating them, telling them what they’re doing wrong and yelling at them to do better, with comments like, “Get your head in the game.”
            Cut to a board room.  Now the coach is on the hot seat.  He’s making a presentation—and the board?  It’s made up of his players.  They’re making the same comments to him that he made to them.  He’s humiliated—as he should be.  The ad ends with a former soccer star telling the audience what they should already know:  Encouragement works better as a motivator than demeaning statements.
            One person who understood this principle was Jackie Robinson.  During his first few years in the major leagues the man who broke the color barrier in baseball suffered abuse in every city where the Brooklyn Dodgers played.  I believe what helped sustain him was the encouragement he received during the early part of his life, as well as the unquestioned support of Branch Rickey, the man who decided it was time for African-Americans to play baseball in the major leagues.  Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
            It is easy for us to get caught in the web of negative statements—to become judgmental of those around us.  As a teacher, I have had to spend my life finding mistakes, pointing them out, and (I hope) helping my students correct them.  Since my subject was music, I was constantly looking for things going wrong in my performing groups.  How could I not find those errors and seek to correct them?  There are, however, two ways of accomplishing this. 
            I have observed school conductors who, like the coach in the ad, are constantly pointing out faults in the most negative way possible.  I remember one band director who told me, “My band knows I’m really angry when I break my baton.”  Perhaps he got good results, but what a horrible way to live for both the students and the instructor!  On the other hand, I have seen and worked with conductors who are so positive that even when pointing out mistakes they encourage their musicians to greater heights of performance. 
            Both kinds of conductors met Robinson’s standard.  Each one had an impact on the lives of others, but what a difference in impact!  Perhaps another quote would be pertinent here.  Someone once said, “A good person increases the value of every other person whom he influences.”
            Paul understood this principle.  His own value had been increased by his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  In turn, most of what he writes to the early churches is encouraging.  Yes, he occasionally comes down hard on individuals or congregations he feels are missing the point of Christianity.  A good example is his first letter to the church at Corinth.  He takes them to task for their infighting and their egos.  It’s clear he’s not afraid to point out errors when he sees them.  Still, even when he is being his most negative, he encourages the churches to do better.

            Steve Gilliard says, “Surround yourself with people who are most like you want to be.”  As Christians, we should first of all surround ourselves with other Christians—not to the exclusion of non-Chriostians, but so we can learn from the examples of those who are more experienced, and thereby grow in our walk with God.  I believe we should also surround ourselves with good people of any religion who can uplift us, as Paul urged the Thessalonians to do: “Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

God's Want Ads

God’s Want Ads
Isaiah 6:1-8
            Every Sunday there are three or four pages of want ads in the newspaper.  Some are for things (“Wanted:  king-size bed”); some are for pets (“Wanted:  cobra”); Some offer items (“For sale—cheap:  one untamed tiger”).  By far the most ads are from people or companies looking to hire workers.  Those are the ones I want to focus on today.
            I’m reading a book in which one of the main characters reads the want ads from beginning to end every day.  She never does anything about the ads; she just reads them, and thinks about what she might do.  All thought, no action.  Nothing ever changes in her life.
            The Bible is full of want ads.  From the very beginning God calls people to fill specific positions:  Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Saul, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the other prophets—all receive want ads from God.  In the New Testament, Jesus sends a want ad to his inner circle of twelve disciples.  Later God calls Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, and many more.
            In each case the job description is written so specifically that only one person can fill the position.  Abraham is a wandering shepherd, frequently on the move, and with enough wealth on the hoof to be able to sustain himself and his family.  Joseph is a young man with all the self-confidence in the world.  His specific talent is interpreting dreams—his and other peoples’.  Moses, slow of speech as he may be, was raised in Pharaoh’s court, so he understands the language of the Egyptian aristocracy. 
The disciples—at least the inner circle—are working men.  They know what it’s like to put their back into a task.  This background helps them when they become apostles; they understand the hard work the job calls for.  Paul has been given a thorough Jewish education, and probably training in Greek philosophy.  In addition, he is a passionate man, who gives everything he has to whatever cause he believes in.
God knows the work, and God knows the person who can do the work.  God doesn’t have to put want ads in the papers, or contact an online placement site.  God places the want ad directly with the person who will be best for the job. 
We see this clearly in Isaiah’s call.  He is in the temple—alone, when he is surrounded by angels, and becomes aware that he is in God’s holy presence.  He believes himself unfit to answer God’s call—God’s want ad—and says so.  God will have none of it.  As with so many others, God sweeps away Isaiah’s objections.  All Isaiah needs to get started is a little preparation.  The rest is on-the-job training—something God is good at.  Once Isaiah has been touched by God, the call is issued: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  We can sense—feel!—Isaiah’s eagerness as he responds: “Here am I!  Send me
God has prepared a want ad for each of us.  Some have already heard their call and have answered it.  Others have heard their call, but still have doubts, concerns, reservations.  Some may just want to think about God’s want ad.  Like the woman in my book, all thought, no action.  Still others have not yet heard their call.  Rest assured, it will come—and when it does, it will be overwhelming.  We may fight it.  We may say, “There must be someone else who can do this job better.  There must be someone who has more time, better skills, fewer handicaps.  There must be someone else!”

But there isn’t.  God knows the work and the person.  God has already matched each of us with the work that must be done.  All we can do is say, “Here am I!  Send me.”

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Vacation

Ken will be on vacation for the next two weeks.  Expect the next post on or about July 23.

Worship--a Healthy Way to Live

Worshiping—a Healthy Way to Live
Psalm 122:1
            Church signs are wonderful sources of humor—but humor with a message.  I’m surprised there aren’t more automobile accidents in front of churches, as people slow down or even stop to see what’s written on the signs.
            One church sign I read of recently said, “I don’t know why some people change churches—what difference does it make which one you stay home from?”  Funny, yes, but straight to the point.
            It’s interesting how many excuses people can come up with for not attending church.  I used to live next door to a man whose reason for staying home on Sunday mornings was that (according to him) the assistant pastor of his church had a high, squeaky voice that he didn’t like to listen to.
            Years ago, there was a radio ad aimed at getting people to attend church.  One man asked another if he was going to church next Sunday.  The second man made an excuse—something he had to do.  The first man asked, “What about the next Sunday?”  Again, the second man gave an excuse.  The first man kept asking about the next Sunday, and the next, and the next, with the second man always coming up with something that was (to him) more important.  Finally, the first man said, “Well, what about three months from now?”  The second man replied, “I could be dead by then!”  The first man answered, “That’s right.”  End of ad.
            We know we should attend church faithfully.  We know this is what God wants us to do.  We know we should be glad to get up on Sunday morning, put everything else aside, leave our house and end up in God’s house.  We know we should—but too often we don’t.
            Over and over again in Psalms we find the words, “Praise the Lord!”  Our worship of God should be joyful.  David says, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go in to the house of the Lord.”  He didn’t say, “I’ll go to the Temple if I have nothing better to do.”
            Perhaps that’s why we stay home.  Perhaps we can’t worship gladly.  Perhaps we have too much on our mind, or we find the worship service boring, or the people aren’t very welcoming, or…but what if it’s us?  Perhaps we’re the boring ones, or the unfriendly ones.  What if the church is OK, but we’re not?  Any time we’re unhappy with the attitude of the situation we’re in, the first person we ought to check should be us.  Amazing how the people around us change when we make changes in ourselves.
            Recently, a study conducted at Vanderbilt University came up with some interesting conclusions.  For people between the ages of 40 and 65, church attendance can prolong life.  Specifically, those who attend some house of worship (the attendance matters more than the religion) reduce their mortality rate by 55 per cent.  Conversely, those who do not attend worship are twice as likely to die prematurely.  The lead researcher was Vanderbilt Professor (and Baptist minister) Marino Bruce.
            Admittedly, the possibility of a longer life is not the best reason for attending worship.  David’s reason—the pure joy of being in God’s house—is far better.  Still, it says something about being with other people who share our religious outlook.  Whether it’s because we’re members of a close social group (one very good possibility), or the uplift we receive from acknowledging and serving a power greater than ourselves, or some other reason, there is much to be said for making our way to the house of the Lord.  And now we know:  it not only helps make this life longer, but might also do us good in the life to come.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Making the World a Better Place--Revisited

Making the World a Better Place—Revisited
Micah 6:6-8
In what can only be called a serendipitous moment, a quote came across my desk this week that raised again the issue of making the world a better place.  It’s from the 20th century writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who said, “Life has no meaning a priori.   It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning you choose.”
For those of you not familiar with philosophic jargon, a priori means something that can be deduced rather than that which can be observed.  In other words, we can’t understand the meaning of life by trying to reason it out.  We can only understand what life is all about by living it ourselves and observing others as they live their lives.
Fair enough.  Sitting in a chair somewhere, off by oneself, trying to figure out the meaning of life doesn’t sound like much fun anyway.  Much better to be living life and seeking to understand it as we experience it.
Sartre says it is up to each of us to give life meaning.  That makes sense, since, as we look at the people around us, we can see that different lives have different meanings.  Each person gives value to life (again, Sartre) by what he/she chooses for that life’s meaning.  This would explain why some lives seem to have more value than others, at least from our point of view.
Last week we examined Paul’s list of fruits of the Spirit in the letter he wrote to the church at Galatia.  Remember?  Paul mentioned love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It seems to me that putting this list into practice gives our life meaning by making the world better for others.  Our lives improve as we extend ourselves in Christ’s service.  I know there are many self-centered people who would consider that approach nonsense.  For them life is all about taking what they can, being as comfortable as possible, and enjoying life to the fullest by placing themselves at the center of their own universe.  That is not what God would have us do.
Let’s look at the words of another great philosopher, the singer/songwriter Dolly Parton.
Think of your fellow man, lend him a helping hand
Put a little love in your heart
You see, it’s getting late, oh, please don’t hesitate
Put a little love in your heart
And the world will be a better place
And the world will be a better place for you and me
You just wait and see
Put a little love in your heart.

            If some people ridicule us for our na├»ve attitude, we can say, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”  Those who have given their lives in service to others are invariably more fulfilled and joy-filled than those who haven’t.  If you haven’t tried it, not only don’t knock it, but give it a try.  You’ll be amazed at the difference it will make in you, in your attitude, and the way others relate and react to you.
            The prophet Micah had the same idea in mind as he neared the end of his sacred writing.  He let the people know that God was not happy with those who lived lives of selfish pleasure, then tried to make it up to God through meaningless religious practices.  Micah knew that God would have none of that.  He made it very clear what God expected—no, required
            “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

Justice.  Kindness.  Humility.  Sounds like a summary of Paul’s list.  If we listen to Paul and Micah—and Dolly Parton—we will not only please God, and demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is working in us, but we’ll make the world a better place for everyone—just wait and see.