Archive for January, 2013

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was riding along a road one day when it dawned on him that three whole days had passed in which he had suffered no persecution. Not a single rock or egg had been thrown at him for three days. He thought to himself, “Can it be that I have sinned, and am backslidden?”

Slipping from his horse, Wesley got down on his knees and asked God to show him where, if any, there had been a fault. A rough fellow, on the other side of a hedge, heard his prayer, looked beyond the hedge, and recognized Wesley.

Picking up a rock, he thought to himself, “I’ll fix that Methodist preacher.” The rock missed its mark, and fell harmlessly beside Wesley. Whereupon, he leaped to his feet, joyfully exclaiming, “Thank God, it’s all right. I still have His presence.”

The only way for anyone to avoid being criticized is to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. Criticism is one of God’s finest shaping tools. It has the power to transform us from self-centered individuals into people who live and act like Jesus.

How do you respond to criticism? Do you let it ruin your day? Or do you try to learn and profit from it as John Wesley did?

I will admit that criticism from a friend is much more difficult to receive than criticism from enemies. If your enemy criticizes you, you can shrug it off. But if your friend criticizes you, you will need to hear it and try to profit from it. Never ignore criticism when you are wrong; never fear criticism when you are right.

As a Christian minister I have certainly received my share of criticism – some of it justified and given to be helpful, and some of it unjustified and given to inflict pain. I have tried to practice the advice given in an old Arab proverb, “If one person calls you a donkey, forget it. If five people call you a donkey, buy a saddle.”

Unjustified criticism has plagued human beings since the dawn of creation. Anyone who tries to do anything constructive in life will hear lots of it.

Henry Ward Beecher, one of the greatest preachers in early American history, went to the pulpit one Sunday morning to preach. The church was packed. As the highly acclaimed orator placed his Bible on the pulpit, he found a blank sheet of paper with one word written on it: “Fool!” It had been placed on the pulpit by a member of his congregation, a member who obviously didn’t have the courage to tell his pastor in person what he thought of him. Cowards prefer to remain anonymous if at all possible.

Beecher’s keen sense of humor seized the moment. He lifted the paper for all to see, and read the one word that was on it. Then his booming voice filled the church as he thundered, “Sometimes I receive letters from people who write the letter and forget to sign their name. This letter is uniquely different. This person has signed his name and forgotten to write the letter.”

We have all known people who have developed the habit of criticizing others. Often the criticism comes from those who are simply envious of you. Prior to finally retiring, I served as a Baptist minister for sixty-two years. It didn’t take me many years to learn that those who can, do – and those who can’t, criticize. Another thing I learned very early in life is that you can always recognize a failure by the way he or she criticizes those who are successful.


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“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . .” So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all time, a staple in the hymnals of many Christian denominations. The author of this hymn was John Newton, who was born in London on July 24, 1725. As an adult he became the captain of a slave ship, but on May 10, 1748 he was converted and became a Christian. In the hymn that has been loved by millions for more than two centuries, Newton is describing himself when he speaks of the “wretch who once was lost but now is found” – saved by amazing grace.

Grace is often described as “unmerited favor” – forgiveness not deserved. The Bible describes grace with meaningful phrases like “the riches of grace,” “the glory of grace,” “the abundance of grace,” and “the manifold riches of grace.” As in the life of John Newton, every person who is the recipient of God’s grace receives forgiveness for their sins and is transformed. The tragedy is that many Christians who accept God’s forgiveness are unwilling to forgive others.

Philip Yancey in his book, Rumors of another World, shares the powerful story of Nelson Mandela, who taught the world a lesson concerning the impact of God’s grace when it is both accepted and shared with others. Emerging from prison after twenty-seven years, he was elected president of South Africa. In an unusual action, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform. He then appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe is controlled by another.

For the next two-and-a-half years, South Africans listened to reports of atrocities coming out of the TRC hearings. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.

At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned his body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.

The court room grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. With his head bowed, van de Broek nodded agreement.

Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” Simultaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way from the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, totally overwhelmed. Justice was not done in South Africa that day. Something even more important than justice took its place!

Remember this: God’s grace is not complete until it is shared with others. Forgiveness is the perfume that the trampled flower casts upon the heel that crushed it. The first stage of forgiveness is the decision not to try to inflict a reciprocal amount of pain on those who have hurt you. When you forgive others, you give up the right to hurt them back. You suspend the law of vengeance. Reconciliation is possible only when you have given up the quest to get even. To refuse to forgive is to allow the one who has hurt you to keep you chained in a prison of bitterness and resentment year after year. No one is more miserable than the person who has an unforgiving spirit. But when forgiveness is given and reconciliation takes place, a miracle happens – a miracle that God makes available in the lives of those who choose it.

Are there persons whom you need to forgive? If you expect God to forgive you, you must forgive others!

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The rock musical group Chicago made lots of records, albums, and cassettes that sold like proverbial hot cakes. One of their hit songs was entitled, “Loneliness is Just a Word.”  It would be wonderful if that were only true. “Loneliness” is not just a word found in the dictionary. In our mechanized and industrial and urbanized society people have been pushed closer and closer together, yet they have grown further and further apart. Millions literally rub elbows and bump into each other on our crowded sidewalks, but in their inmost selves they are alone . . . and lonely! Loneliness can be a devastating experience to those who experience it.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd went to Little America to make scientific observations of that polar region. For six months he lived absolutely alone. During that time he saw no other face, heard no other voice except over short-wave radio. Upon returning home he wrote an account of his isolated vigil at the South Pole under the simple title, “ALONE.”

A widely read book, “The Lonely Crowd,” by David Riesman and others, focuses attention on the terrible loneliness that exists in the heart of our great cities. But loneliness doesn’t just exist in large cities. No section or segment of our country is immune to the possibility of having persons who are alone . . . and lonely. Loneliness is like the common cold – scarcely anyone is immune to it. To push the analogy further, it is easy to catch, hard to cure, and rarely fatal – but always unpleasant and sometimes wretched almost beyond bearing.

Loneliness is a universal reality. No race, color, or creed has a monopoly on the problem. If you do not see loneliness all around you, your eyes have not been really open. There are those who, deprived of family life, live by themselves – and their name is legion. There are missionaries, far from home and familiar surroundings, whom you and I have sent out to share the good news of God’s love. There is the loneliness of young people far from home and family who are serving in the military. There are women living alone who hunger for companionship and love who sell their virtue for a song. They do not enjoy what they are doing, but they fear the necessity of functioning alone. There are wives whose husbands are married to their jobs. There are children and young people who live in families where they are neglected and not loved. There is the loneliness of the sickroom, the loneliness of having lost a loved one, and the loneliness of those who are in prison. These, and many more than these, are “alone . . . and lonely.”

Loneliness is not just a twenty-first phenomenon. In the Garden of Eden, God saw that “it was not good for man to be alone, so He gave him a helper” (Genesis 2:18). Moses, in trying to lead the Israelites toward the Promised Land cried out, “I am not able to bear this entire people alone, because it is too heavy for me” (Numbers 11:14). Following Elijah’s battle with 450 false prophets on Mt. Carmel, Jezebel sought to kill him, and he cried out to God, “I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (I Kings 19:10). Isaiah said, “I have trodden the winepress alone” (Isaiah 63:3). King Solomon said, “Woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to pick him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10).

Not even the Lord Jesus Christ escaped having to deal with the problem of loneliness. His own earthly family did not always understand Him or support Him. “He came into His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:1). Early in His ministry great multitudes followed Him, but they slowly began to drift away. He then said to His disciples, “Will you also go away?” And finally, while praying in Gethsemane, He was totally alone. During His trial and crucifixion the following day His disciples forsook Him and ran. Judas betrayed Him. Simon Peter denied even knowing Him – three times!  And from the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, why have You forsaken me?” During those moments when Jesus bore our sins in His own body, God, being a holy God, could not look upon His Son. This was the ultimate loneliness.

Loneliness need not be a permanent problem. Those who are “alone . . . and lonely” need to hear the marvelous promises made by our Savior. “Henceforth, I call you not servants; I call you friends.” The Creator who made all things, and who has all power, wants to be our friend. And He said, “I will go with you always . . . even to the end of the age.” However lonely you may be, Jesus Christ is as near as your next prayer. In His presence you can never be alone.

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God’s Little Devotional Book for Graduates (Honor Books) contains the story of identical twins: one is a hope-filled optimist who always looks on the bright side of life. He says things like, “Everything is coming up roses.” The other twin, however, is a sad and hopeless pessimist who continually expects the worst to happen. The concerned parents of the twins carried them to a psychologist in the hope that he might be able to help them balance the boys’ personalities.

The psychologist suggested that on the twins’ next birthday, the parents put them in separate rooms to open their gifts. “Give the pessimist the best toys you can afford,” the psychologist said, “and give the optimist a box of dried horse manure.” The parents were by this time willing to try anything, so they did as the psychologist suggested.

When they peeked in on the pessimistic twin, they heard him complaining, “I don’t like the color of this toy. Besides, I’ll bet it will break! I know I won’t like to play this game. All my friends are given bigger toys than this.”

Tiptoeing across the corridor, the parents peeked in and saw their optimistic son gleefully throwing manure up in the air. He was giggling gleefully as he said, “You can’t fool me! Where there is this much manure, there’s got to be a pony around here somewhere.”

Obviously this is just a story, but it accurately describes the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. The optimist says his glass is half full; the pessimist says his glass is half empty. The optimist looks at an oyster and expects to find a pearl; the pessimist looks at an oyster and expects ptomaine poison. To the optimist a fireplace is a center of warmth and beauty; to the pessimist a fireplace is the source of smoke and ashes. The optimist has no brakes; the pessimist has no motor. Both the optimist and the pessimist can be wrong, but the optimist has a lot more fun.

Two shoe salesmen, one an optimist and the other a pessimist, were sent to a country in Africa by a shoe company to see if a new market for their line of shoes might be opened on that continent. After they arrived in Africa the pessimist called the company’s main office back in the states and said, “I’m coming back home. Almost nobody wears shoes here.” The optimist called home and said, “Almost nobody wears shoes here; send me some help.” The pessimist saw absolutely no opportunity; the pessimist saw nothing but opportunity”

The optimists we have known in the past are likely the persons we remember best, and who made the biggest impression on our lives. Why is this true? They were not afraid to dream dreams and accept challenges. They valued others, and their world did not revolve around themselves. They saw the possibility for improvement and advancement. On the other hand, the pessimists who have crossed our paths were very likely persons who were opposed to and stood in the way of progress. Give a pessimist a choice between two evils and he will choose both of them. Both optimists and pessimists are found in every area of life – in the halls of government, in education, in business – and, yes, in the church.

As a pastor I have encountered lots of pessimists. They did not dare to dream. They were not always even satisfied with the status quo. Whenever anything new or challenging was proposed they said things like “We’ve never done it that way before!” (Often called “the seven last words of a dying church”) . . . . “It simply can’t be done!” . . . . “It will cost too much!” . . . . “I know a church that tried that, and it failed!”

If anybody ever had a legitimate reason to be a pessimist, it would have been the Apostle Paul. He was physically beaten on more than one occasion, involved in a shipwreck, bitten by a poisonous serpent, and opposed on every side by Judaizers when he tried to preach the good news of Christ. Finally, he was thrown into prison in Rome. Most people would have wanted to throw up their hands in desperation and quit. Not the Apostle Paul!  He faced obstacles constantly, but he was always an optimist. What was his secret? He could say, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content . . . I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).

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