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Archive for July, 2012

If you had been asked in the late 1960’s which nation would dominate the world in watchmaking for the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, what country would you have named? I suspect that you would have answered, “Switzerland,” for it would have been the most obvious answer. And why is this true? Because Switzerland had dominated the world of watch making for the previous sixty years. When the words “Swiss movement” appeared on a watch, the purchaser knew that it contained quality workmanship.

The Swiss made the best watches in the world and were committed to constant refinement of their expertise. It was the Swiss who first installed the minute hand and the second hand. They led the world in discovering better ways to manufacture the gears, bearings, and main springs of watches. They also led the way in making watches waterproof, and in designing self-winding models. In the late 1960’s the Swiss made sixty-five percent of all watches sold in the world. They also laid claim to as much as ninety percent of the profits resulting from the sale of watches.

By 1980, however, they had laid off thousands of watchmakers and controlled less than ten percent of the world market. Their profit domination from watchmaking dropped to less than twenty percent. Between 1979 and 1981, fifty thousand of the sixty-two thousand Swiss watchmakers lost their job.

Why this sudden turnaround? The Swiss refused to consider a new development in watchmaking – the quartz movement – ironically invented by a Swiss. Because the quartz movement had no mainspring or knob, it was rejected. It was too much of a paradigm shift for them to embrace. On the other hand, Seiko accepted the quartz movement, and along with a few other companies, became the leader in the watch industry.

The lesson we should learn from the Swiss watchmakers is profound. A past that was so secure, so profitable, so dominant, was destroyed by an unwillingness to consider new ways of doing business. Past successes blinded them to the importance of seeing the implications and challenges of a changing world. They had become so set in their ways that they believed past accomplishments would automatically be a guarantee of future success.

The Swiss watchmakers’ unwillingness to accept new ideas or try new methods is an easy mistake to make. It is made in almost every area of life – by individuals in the fields of business, education, and industry – and by organizations of various kinds. And, yes, this definitely includes churches. The status quo is generally a comfortable place to be and in which to operate because it requires only a moderate amount of expended energy. Just keep doing what you have been doing, because changes can present difficult challenges and create problems.

Churches perhaps make the mistake made by the Swiss watchmakers as often as any other organization. New ideas and methods, when proposed by those in leadership positions, are sometimes met with strong resistance. “We never did it that way before” (called “the seven last words of a dying church”) are words often spoken. Any church totally satisfied with and imprisoned by the status quo is likely to miss out on a meaningful future.

The message of the Bible does not change, and it should not be altered or watered down. Even so, each succeeding generation is faced with the challenge of finding new ways to make that message relevant. An old expression puts it this way: “Stay anchored to the Rock, but geared to the times.” Churches should not be afraid to find new paradigms – as long as God is glorified, Christ is preached, and both evangelism and ministry are given high priority.

Any church anchored to the Rock (God’s Word) but geared to the times will be a workshop, not a dormitory.

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During my sixty two years of service as a Baptist minister I have occasionally been asked by fellow pastors how many worship services we have on Sunday at our church, and I tell them two. They are both at eleven o’clock. One is too formal, includes too many ancient hymns, and lasts too long. The other is too informal, has too many modern praise songs, and lasts too long. There are also two sermons preached each Sunday: the one I preach, which is brilliant, well-researched, witty, and brief, and the one I hear people describe as dull, lifeless and lasts entirely too long.

We also have two congregations every Sunday. Both are present at eleven o’clock. There is the one the ushers count, and the one I estimate. My number is always bigger. This is because it is what laymen call a “ministerial estimate.”  You can always count on a preacher’s estimate being bigger than the actual count. A rule among ministers is known as the “fifteen-percent-add-or-subtract-rule.”  When you tell a minister friend how many there were in attendance at your church the previous Sunday you add fifteen percent, in case you made an error in your estimate. When he tells you how many people were present in his church, you subtract fifteen percent because he is likely bragging.

It is not just that one of our weekly congregations is bigger than the other; they are also different in nature. Some visitors have told me that we have a warm, friendly congregation, and that they were made to feel welcome. Others have said, “This is a cold church because I attended one Sunday and not one person spoke to me.” I tell them we have two congregations, and I invite them to come back some Sunday when the warm, friendly congregation is present.

Everything seems to go in pairs in our church. We also have two church bulletins each Sunday: one is printed in the church office on Thursday after the church staff has been very careful to include all the information church members need in order to know what their church is doing and how they might be involved. I know there must be another bulletin because some member will call later and ask, “Does the meeting take place at 7:30 or 8:00 on Monday night?” and I reply, “It was in the bulletin – it is 8:00 o’clock.”  “Oh,” they will say, “I didn’t see it there.” This kind of thing happens on a regular basis, so I realized this second bulletin must also be given out each Sunday by our ushers. Somehow we have to see that this second bulletin is not printed each week because it leaves things out that should be included.

We even have two sets of members. There are the members I know and have come to love and appreciate because they are always in their place on Sunday. It is because of their faithfulness that our church is able to be the witnessing and ministering church in our community that it is. Then there are the members whom I haven’t really come to know very well because they never attend church. They claim membership in our church. Occasionally a minister friend will tell me that he visited one of them and was told that they are members here. I think they were trying to say to him that in the event of a serious problem or emergency, and need what our church offers, they will consider attending again.

I have tried to regularly visit those who claim membership in our church, but who are never present when the church doors open. I have heard them use just about every excuse humans have invented. Years ago many of them called upon the church to provide their daughters a Christian wedding, and they will want the church to provide a Christian funeral in the event a member of their family comes to the end of his or her earthly journey. They are fully expecting to go to heaven when they die. It’s just that for the time being they have priorities other than worship on Sundays.

An empty tomb proves Christianity; an empty church denies it. The consistent willful absence from worship on the part of a Christian is a vote to close its doors. Church members who expect to answer “when the roll is called up yonder” should consider being present in church on Sunday as often as possible when the roll is called down here.

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Several years ago archeologists found a small hollow silver amulet containing a rolled up scrap of parchment.  It took museum experts three years to extract the piece of parchment and carefully unroll it for translation.  By using the carbon dating process they dated it back to 650 B.C.  After months of painstaking work, they finally deciphered the ancient Hebrew script, and what they discovered is that it is the oldest Biblical text ever found.  It is Numbers 6:24-26.

The two verses that precede Numbers 6:24-26 reads: “The Lord said to Moses: Tell Aaron and his sons: You will bless the Israelites as follows: Say to them ….”   Then comes this benediction or blessing:

            The Lord bless you and keep you,

            The Lord make his face shine upon you,

            and be gracious to you.

            The Lord lift up His countenance upon you

            and give you peace.

How strange it would seem if there was no benediction at the end of a period of corporate worship!  This ancient blessing, which has been prayed again and again for more than twenty six centuries, is one of the most meaningful of all benedictions.  It is still used by worship leaders as a way of blessing the congregation at the end of corporate worship.  Each section begins with The Lord, and then divides into two parts, each of which emphasizes the word you.

The six references to you and the repeated emphasis on The Lord add up to seven, a sacred number to the Hebrew people.  It is not just possible, but highly likely, that this was a deliberate poetic arrangement.  The Lord bless you originally meant “bless you with material good things.”   But when given as a benediction or blessing at the end of worship in Christian churches, it is given a deeper spiritual meaning.  And keep you, not simply “from danger or from material misfortune,” but more especially “from evil and in close fellowship with God.”

The Lord make His face to shine upon you is a way of asking for God’s good pleasure and approval to be showered upon our lives, so that our faces will shine with the reflection of His.  And be gracious to you.   In other words, “May God be gracious to us in order that we will be able to show His grace to others.”  This is precisely what the apostle Paul would later call “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 4:23).

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you.  The word “countenance” here seems to be a stronger and more inclusive word than “face.”  What a unique joy it is to know that when we turn our face in God’s direction, we discover that His face is already turned in our direction.  And give you peace . . . not just an absence of conflict, but a positive and active peace, peace of heart and mind, the kind of peace that can only come from Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Meredith Wilson’s version of this benediction appears in one of his musicals: “May the good Lord bless and keep you, whether near or far away.  May the good Lord bless and keep you ‘till we meet again.  May you walk with sunlight shining, and a bluebird in every tree.  And may there be a silver lining back of every cloud you see.  Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows and never mind what might have been.  May the good Lord bless and keep you ‘till we meet again.”

The next time you hear a minister or some other worship leader use the benediction found in Numbers 6:24-26 at the end of a period of worship, remember its storied history.  It is not just a brief and convenient way to end a corporate worship service.  Its purpose is twofold: (1) It asks for God’s continued blessings to be poured out upon our lives, and (2) It challenges us to share with others the grace of God that we have received as a result of having worshiped Him.

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In late May, 1971, my wife, daughter and I were in Washington, D.C.  Like millions of others at the time who were visiting our nation’s capital, we wanted visit the grave site of former President John F. Kennedy.  As we entered Arlington National Cemetery we were inadvertently caught up into a huge funeral procession. It happened to be the procession for Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier during World War II.  He, at age 47, had been killed in an airplane crash.

Arlington Cemetery is a most impressive place. Some of our country’s greatest leaders and many of the heroes who have fought and died defending the liberties we enjoy are buried there.  My first impression upon entering this cemetery was to be amazed at the acres and acres of crosses.  Some might ask, “Why use crosses?”  he answer can be found in these words: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

The world has made the cross the highest symbol of sacrifice and proudly places it above all the graves of those who have died in the service of our country. One of the greatest social service agencies in the world is named The Red Cross. Why the cross?  The world has made the cross of Christ the symbol of humanitarian service.  The world believes in the cross!  The world will never forget the One who said of Himself, “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

From the day of the first Christian Pentecost until now the cross has been central in the preaching and program of Christian churches. It was the central point in the sermon preached by Simon Peter on that day. A major portion of the four gospels concerns the death of Christ: twenty percent of Matthew; forty percent of Mark; twenty-five percent of Luke; fifty percent of John.  Every letter written by Paul is rich with the message of the cross. Everywhere he went, Paul said, “I am determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).

The Roman emperor Constantine placed the cross on the Christian flag, and the early church placed it on every altar. Missionaries carried the cross across ancient Europe, painting it upon doors and walls, making it central to everything they did. The cross was also placed at the heart of the oldest Christian creed, “Was crucified, dead, and buried.”  For 2,000 years Christians have made the cross the major theme of prayer and song, sermon and service.

It is obvious to any Bible student that Jesus, from the very beginning of His public ministry, set His face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. It was at Jerusalem that He was destined to die for the sins of the world.  He did everything He could possibly do to prepare His disciples for His crucifixion and death, and stated that it was for the purpose of dying that He had come into the world.  We see it clearly in His words, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life his life for the sheep . . . And I lay down my life for the sheep . . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:11, 15, 18).

Put simply, the crucifixion means this: God loves us. He wants to meet our deepest need. He wants us to have life – life that is abundant and eternal.  He does not want us to die and never live.  He does not want us to die in sin and live forever beyond meaningful fellowship with Him. That is why He paid a tremendous price for our salvation.

Harry Webb Farrington, in his poem entitled, “Our Christ,” expresses it this way:

           “I know not how that Calvary’s cross

            A world from sin could free;

            I only know its matchless love

            Has brought God’s love to me.”

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