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Archive for August, 2012

There is an ancient folk-tale about a tiger that was brought up with a herd of goats. From the day his eyes opened all he saw was a goat’s life, so it became his lifestyle also. The tiger munched grass with the rest, butted heads with the younger goats for recreation, and learned to bleat in an odd sort of way a sound that resembled, or so he thought, a goat’s voice. But occasionally there was a nagging voice deep down inside that said, “You don’t belong to this life!” But he always put it aside as fantasy, as a disturbing intrusion from the world of dreams. If this didn’t satisfy him, he just marked it off as the kind of discontent that always hovers around the edges of any lifestyle. So he, a tiger, continued to live in the goat herd because he believed that was the way life had to be.

Then one day a real tiger came to the edge of the forest. He was all tiger, having grown up knowing who he was. He looked out into the clearing and spotted the goats. He roared the earth-shaking roar of his species, bounded out into the opening and made his kill. The other goats all fled in terror. But the tiger that had grown up with them stopped. Something on the inside of him wanted to stay. The roar from the edge of the forest had stirred a memory that had somehow been long lost. In that moment was born the possibility of becoming a real tiger. He wanted to become a real tiger, to grasp the new and greater life challenging him. But he realized he didn’t know how.

The tiger at the edge of the forest of our existence is Jesus Christ. He is all we should be, all we were destined to be, and all that God wants us to be. We cannot avoid Him. Something deep within us has stirred. The tiger calls to the tiger in us. But . . . we may not know how to respond to Jesus. Many today would honestly like to live the Christian life, but they may not know how. It was the same on the day of Pentecost, for those who heard Peter’s powerful sermon cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do” (Acts 2:37)?  Peter might have said, “Have faith.”  But verbalized faith that contains no accompanying action would, at best, only make them into being stuffed tigers. Peter, according to Acts 2, was very clear about what it takes for any person to become a Christian. He mentions three things:

First, “Repent!”  “Repent” originally meant “a second thought.” Often a second thought shows that the first thought was wrong. So the word came to mean “a change of mind.” But a change of mind is not enough. True repentance is a true turning – a change of mind and a change of behavior.  Repentance isn’t just feeling sorry; remorse isn’t repentance. Judas was remorseful for what he had done, but he “went out and hanged himself.” Repentance is turning from the goat mentality in us and opening our lives up to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

Second, “Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Baptism is an outward symbol to the world of the surrender, renewal, and transformation that has taken place in our hearts. John Calvin’s very clear definition of baptism was simply “putting on Christ.” Putting on Christ begins when you acknowledge that you are a Christian, that you belong to Christ, that He is truly both your Savior and your Lord.

Third, “You shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the initial experience of transformation continues as a process of spiritual growth throughout life.  Our bodies become the temple of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul said, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:9). You may be a good person. You may be interested in religion. You may be a church member and attend worship regularly. You may even assume responsibilities within the church organization.  But unless you have the Holy Spirit living within you, you are not yet one of Christ’s. Believe it or not, that is true!

You may tell people you are a tiger. You may look like a tiger – even be a very life-like stuffed tiger – but unless the goat mentality, the goat spirit that controls your thoughts and actions, is replaced with a tiger’s spirit and a tiger’s heart, there is only appearance and not reality. There must come into your life a power that is not your own, and in that power you can change, you can overcome, you can be all that God intends for you to be.

Why live with the goat herd when you can be a real tiger?

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Jesus once said to a group of Pharisees, “You hypocrites are very scrupulous. If a gnat gets into what you are drinking, you strain it out with the utmost care. But if a camel gets in what you are drinking, you gulp it down, hide, hair, humps, hooves, and all” (Matthew 23:24). What is wrong with this conduct? Jesus was certainly not encouraging the Pharisees to drink gnats — nobody likes gnat cola!

Jesus was rebuking these self-conscious and self-righteous religious leaders for scrupulously straining out gnats while swallowing something a million times bigger. In other words, He is accusing them of majoring on minors, of giving major stress to something that is of minor significance. This, of course, is not something on which the Pharisees had a copyright. Majoring on matters of minor significance is still a very widespread practice in our world today.

One of the responsibilities I have had as a Christian minister is to provide marriage counseling for husbands and wives whose homes have become major battlegrounds. As a general rule, the problems producing tensions in marriages are not some colossal evil that makes it impossible for couples to live together happily. Generally speaking, big things tend to bring couples closer together. Millions of couples have weathered major storms on the high seas, only to have a shipwreck on a sheltered pond, or even in a bathtub.

Often the troubles that make the home a living hell rather than a colony of heaven on earth, that lead to separation and divorce, start over something petty and insignificant. “Dinner’s frosting, mother’s not; Today’s her birthday, dad forgot!” Do you see what I mean? A wise husband is one who does not forget his wife’s birthday – but does forget how many! A boy said to his father, “Dad, before you and mom got married, who told you how to drive?”  Uh-oh!

Another area where we major on minors is in the area of our vocational lives. A businessman says, “I’m not in business for my health; I’m in it to see how much money I can make.” He is making primary that which should be secondary. It is perfectly legitimate to make a profit in business; it is the only way you can stay in business and provide for your family. But whoever makes profit the sole motive for doing business is majoring on minors.

Churches can also be guilty of majoring on minors, and often are. The Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke were very religious people. They really worked at their job. They were not lazy or inefficient in the performance of their religious duties. They were highly respected. They did many very fine things. Their sin? Winning the applause of men became their primary motive. They did what they did for the sake of appearance.

We North Carolina Baptists had a huge argument fifty years ago over whether students at Wake Forest University could be involved in dancing, but social injustice, economic dishonesty, political chicanery, racial prejudice, and moral depravity in our state and nation received almost no attention. We were guilty of majoring on minors. And Baptists are not the only Christian denomination in North Carolina guilty of doing this. When Christian churches become so preoccupied with checking the orthodoxy of their brothers and sisters that they become unplugged from the task Jesus Christ assigned to His followers, they are guilty of majoring on minors, of straining out gnats while swallowing camels.

Why are we often guilty of giving major emphasis to things of minor significance? First of all, taking the small view of things is easy. Thinking small, and doing small things, requires little effort; whereas, thinking big and doing big things requires a lot of effort and time. Second, we often have a wrong sense of values. We do not take the time to determine what is real from that which is counterfeit.  We settle for paste rather than pearls, for glass rather than diamonds. When we do this, we sell our birthright for a mess of pottage. Whether or not our values are twisted out of shape can be determined by examining our check stubs. Our check stubs show where our priorities are.

There are ways to overcome the habit of straining out gnats while swallowing camels. First of all, we must learn how to judge values properly, so we can distinguish between that which is valuable and that which has no value. God’s Word gives excellent instruction in this regard. Finally, we must put God at the center of our lives.

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One morning in 1888, Alfred B. Nobel, inventor of dynamite, awoke to read his own obituary in the newspaper. It seems that his brother had died, and a French reporter carelessly reported the death of the wrong brother. Nobel was shocked and overwhelmed by what he read. His obituary described him as “the dynamite king, the industrialist who became rich from explosives.” To the world he was nothing more than “a merchant of death!”

Horrified by what he read in his obituary, Nobel resolved to change the course of his life, and to do something positive for society. He left his entire fortune to be awarded to individuals who have done the most for the benefit of humanity. The result was the Nobel Prize – five prizes awarded each year, the most notable of which is the Peace Prize.

A man well above eighty years of age said to me some years ago, “I get up each morning, go get my newspaper, check the obituary page, and if my name is not on it, I get on with what I had planned for the day.” Though you probably do not like to think about it, your obituary will one day appear in the newspaper. It will definitely happen! Of course you won’t be able to read it, but what if you could? What would it say? To know, ask yourself the following four questions:

What would it say about your priorities? Would it indicate that you thought your world revolved around yourself? British actor Michael Wilding was once asked if actors had any traits which set them apart from other human beings. “Without a doubt,” he replied, “You can pick out actors by the glazed look that comes into their eyes when the conversation wanders away from themselves.” Oscar Wilde, in a similar vein, said on one occasion to a friend, “Come over here and sit next to me; I’m dying to tell you all about myself.”

The primary goal in life for many people is to make lots of money. Jesus mentions just such a man in His teaching. A beggar named Lazarus, who lay on the street outside a rich man’s gate, would have loved to have the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man never even saw him. It is a mistake often made today: businessmen, for example, who spend so much time working that their family seldom sees them. There is nothing wrong with being very successful or with owning lots of wealth – as long as what you own doesn’t own you.

What would it say about your relationships? Who would it say are the important people in your life? How special to you are the members of your family?  How faithful are you to your mate? How much time do you make in your schedule for your children? What kind of example do you set for them to follow? What is your attitude toward others?  Is there any prejudice in your heart against any other person or group of persons? Is there any anger or ill will in your heart against anyone? There is an old proverb that says, “He who has a thousand friends has not a one to spare, but he who has one enemy will find him everywhere.”

What would it say you had invested in the lives of others?  When your life on earth is over, the important question will not be, “How much wealth did you leave?” It will be, “What did you leave in the way of service or through giving that blessed others?” David Livingstone gave up a brilliant career in more than one field to spend his life in the depths of Africa as a missionary, and his legacy will live throughout eternity. The same is true of the great Roman Catholic saint, Mother Teresa, who spent her life serving the poor in India. This brings us to one more question.

Where would it say you will spend eternity?  “Blessed (happy) are the dead who die in the Lord. Yes, says the Spirit, for their deeds will follow them” (Revelation 14:13). A businessman, while away on vacation, was reading his hometown newspaper. He was stunned to come across his own obituary, so he immediately called the editor on the phone.  “I’m calling about the report of my death in today’s newspaper,” he exclaimed. “Yes sir!” the editor replied, “And from where are you calling?” It is a good question: “Where will you spend eternity?”

Are there things in your life that need changing? If so, you need to start changing them today. When your obituary does appear one day in the newspaper, no changes in your life will be possible.

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How easy it is to blame others!

Husbands and wives blame each other for their infidelity – “She doesn’t love me” – “All he ever does is work!”  Young people who are rebellious blame their parents – “The times are different now.”  Alcoholics blame their troubles on the effects of alcohol – “I’m not at fault.  I shouldn’t have to go to jail for the wreck that killed two people because I was drunk.”  Persons in jail or in prison, and also liars and the thieves, blame their actions on societal conditions – “Life is full of problems.”  The violent person points his finger at someone else – “He started it!”  The poor student blames his bad grades on others – “The teacher was unfair.”  Presidents blame their problems and failures on the previous administration.

It is true that hereditary factors, social background, financial status, and numerous other environmental conditions can have an adverse impact on everything we think, say, and do. The Bible never said that life in this world is fair. What it does say is that no matter how unfair it is, we can by conscious choice, and by joining hands with God, assume full responsibility for our lives and move forward and upward.

We have multitudes of ways to cop out, to pass the buck – and every one of them involves blame shifting! People have done this since the dawn of creation when Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. Perhaps all of us have been guilty of passing the buck occasionally (or as politicians say, “kicking the can down the road”). It is simply a way of refusing to take personal responsibility for our actions and failures. Here are four ways people frequently pass the buck:

SUBSTANCE ABUSE:  Alcohol is our nation’s most abused drug. The key that unlocks the front door to our nation’s ABC stores is one of the keys that unlock the gates to our nation’s cemeteries.  In 2011 alcohol dependence and abuse cost the U.S. well over $220 billion, when the amount spent to combat cancer was $196 billion. More than 14 million U.S. adults have serious issues with alcohol, and 8.1 million of them officially suffer from alcoholism. Nearly seven million minors live with an alcoholic mother or father. And the alcohol statistic that should shock Americans most is the fact that 500,000 children between the ages of nine and twelve are addicted to alcohol.

Some recent posters that were used to combat drunk driving:  (1) “Think of your best friend.  Now think of your best friend dead.”  (2) “If you’re going to drink and drive tonight, don’t forget to kiss your mother goodbye.” Americans need to recognize that alcoholism is a social issue, an economic issue, and a moral issue.

SELF-PITY AND SUICIDE:  We lump these two together because they are both destructive ways of handling rejection and failure. Self-pity leads to isolation because its victims refuse to believe that anyone really cares – “No one understands me” – “My problems are too complex and insurmountable” – “The situation is hopeless.”  Actually, where there is a will, there is a way; and where there is no will, there can still be a way – but it usually involves getting help from outside sources. That is why it is so important to encourage people by letting them know you care.

REBELLION:  While some people react to stress by venting their anger inward, others direct it outward. Young people are especially prone to lash out at those in authority when they feel their freedoms are threatened. Most of the time rebellious behavior is rooted in a distorted understanding of what freedom is, and how we should exercise it. We overcome the destructive spirit of rebellion by learning how to do two things: (1) Forgive others, (2) Accept responsibility.

APATHY:  The most effective tool in Satan’s arsenal is the careless attitude called apathy. If he can infect our lives with apathy, all other good and noble intentions will fall by the wayside.  People who are apathetic fail to seize the opportunities for growth and service which come from God. Once an opportunity has passed us by, it may never come again. Most successful people will tell you that they simply took advantage of the opportunities that were offered them.

Before you succumb to any of these cop-outs, please remember: IT IS YOUR LIFE; DON’T BLOW IT!

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God’s Little Devotional Book for Graduates contains the story of a strange memorial located in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Hiawatha, Kansas. John M. Davis, an orphan, developed a strong dislike for his wife’s family and insisted that none of his fortune go to them following his death. He also refused requests from the town’s leaders that he eventually bequeath his estate for the building of a hospital desperately needed in the area.

After his wife died in 1930, Mr. Davis chose to invest in an elaborate tomb for himself and his wife. The tomb includes a number of statues depicting the couple at various states of their lives. One statue is of Mr. Davis as a lonely man seated beside an empty chair. It is titled “the vacant chair.” Another shows him placing a wreath in front of his wife’s tombstone. Many of the statues are made of Kansas granite. No money was left following his death for its upkeep. Today this very unusual John Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas can be viewed by anyone who has a computer.

Today, largely because of its weight, this costly memorial is slowly sinking into the ground. In the last eighty years it has become weathered and worn from the strong winds that frequently blow in the plains states. The townspeople in Hiawatha rightly regard the Davis tomb as an “old man’s folly,” and many predict that within the next fifty years it will have become obliterated beyond recognition. What could have become a living legacy of service to others will forever remain nothing more than a testimony of what might have been.

The Bible in many places encourages us not to hoard up money to be used for meeting our own selfish desires, but to use what we have to meet the needs of the others, especially the poor. When we do this, God blesses us with more. The more we give, the more we receive, and our legacy lives on to bless others after we are gone. Because the world in which John M. Davis lived revolved around meeting his own needs and fulfilling his own desires, he died a very lonely man. The real tragedy of his life is that he might have given some thought to serving others.

The happiness that always comes from serving others is beautifully demonstrated in a fable I recently read of another orphan boy who had no family and no one to love him. Feeling sad and lonely, he was walking through a meadow one day when he saw a small butterfly caught in a thorn bush. The more the butterfly struggled to free itself, the deeper the thorns cut into its fragile body. The boy carefully released the butterfly, but instead of flying away, the butterfly was transformed into an angel right before his eyes.

The boy rubbed his eyes in disbelief as the angel said, “For your wonderful kindness, I will do whatever you would like.” The little boy thought of the sadness and loneliness he had known, and then said, “I want to be happy!”  The angel replied, “Very well,” and leaned toward him, whispered in his ear, and immediately vanished. As the little boy grew up, there was no one in the land as happy as he. When people asked for the secret of his happiness, he would only smile and say, “I listened to an angel when I was a little boy.”

When he became very old and was on his deathbed, his neighbors rallied around him and asked him to divulge the key to his happiness. He finally shared with them his secret: “The angel told me that everyone, no matter how secure they seemed, no matter how old or young, no matter how rich or poor, needed me.”  He realized the wisdom in this. And, throughout his life he looked for ways to meet the needs of others.

These two stories, one actually happened and one is just a fable, contrast two very different attitudes – loneliness and happiness. The memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas is a constant advertisement of the kind of loneliness that comes from living a life of selfishness, while never giving a thought to the needs of others. Selfishness ultimately leads to loneliness because it builds walls rather than bridges. The loneliest place in the world is a human heart that contains no love or concern for others. But happiness adds and multiplies as it is divided with others.

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