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Archive for August, 2013

I believe the ability to laugh is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. Our five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feeling – would be incomplete without a sixth sense, a sense of humor. Anything we can laugh at we can live with. We don’t stop laughing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop laughing. If you are too busy to laugh, you are busier than you need to be.

Humor is the oil that God squirts on our troubles to lubricate the friction. It is how He tickles the world that takes itself too seriously. The reason a sense of humor is so important is that it can help you overlook the unattractive, tolerate the unpleasant, cope with the unexpected, and smile through the unbearable. The best sense of humor belongs to the person who can laugh at himself.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in Discerning the Signs of the Times, said: “Humor is the prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” What Niebuhr is saying is that humor and laughter can not only make a tremendous difference in our relationships with others, but can also be the front door through which we enter into a healthy relationship with God.

Humor can build a bridge, or tear down a wall. It can bring down the proud, or lift up the discouraged and downtrodden. It can be, and often is, an escape route from awkward situations. And it is in one way like a needle and thread – deftly used it can patch up just about anything.

Humans have an almost infinite variety of ways of expressing humor. When we use irony, we essentially say one thing while meaning another. Sarcasm is irony with more bite to it, and is often meant to wound (For example: “That’s a beautiful suit; too bad they didn’t have your size!”). Satire exposes or pokes fun at human weaknesses. But laughter costs too much when it is purchased at the expense of others.  That at which you laugh tells more about you than you may realize.

Because it is a gift from God, humor should be kept wholesome and helpful. It should provide joy, not inflict injury. It can be distorted, and often is. When it causes someone to blush in embarrassment, or when it causes someone to suffer inner pain, it should not be used.

This does not mean that God wants us to be overly somber. In fact, He creates times for us to laugh: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). When it is time to laugh, let yourself go and give it your best shot. You will be surprised how much better your day will go.

In his earthly ministry Jesus made frequent use of humor to make a point and drive it home. He particularly used the technique called hyperbole, or extravagant exaggeration. He talked about moving mountains into the sea (Matthew 17:20) and camels (hide, hair, hump, hooves and all the rest) going through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). He also said the Pharisees strained out gnats while they swallowed camels. Getting the hump to go down had to be the hardest part.

What will heaven be like? In its simplest, and perhaps its most profound, terms, heaven will be a place of perpetual joy. The Bible tells us that in heaven there will be no more mourning or crying (Revelation 21:4). Why is this true? The former things will have passed away.

Martin Luther, in one of his lighter moments, said that if people did not laugh in heaven, he did not want to go there. I think he nailed it, because I believe heaven will contain a surplus of laughter.

Jesus came to give joy to those who follow Him. God is not only our Creator and Redeemer, but He is also our Sustainer. Humor is just one of the many means He uses to sustain us over the course of our lives here on earth. Humor, then, is a foretaste of heaven — a snack to tide us over until we get there, an appetizer in anticipation of the main course to be shared later in the New Jerusalem.

Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” You don’t want your bones to dry up, do you? Smile! The world looks brighter from behind a smile.

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Dr. M. Ray McKay, homiletics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1950’s, gave this advice to his class of aspiring young preachers: “Don’t preach because it is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning; preach because you have something worthwhile to say.” Dr. McKay believed that we should have this as our goal every time we stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. It was good advice.

To preach two sermons every Sunday week after week and year after year is not the easiest thing a person can do. Choosing the Bible passage God would have you use as a foundation for your proclamation, organizing your material in an interesting way, and presenting it in an effective way is a challenge.

A few years ago I saw a list of eight types of sermons. The comments about them are mine:

The “Cotton Candy” Sermon: Very sweet and full of air, but when bitten into, nothing is there. By the time parishioners reach the parking lot, the sermon’s content has evaporated into thin air. Christians grow spiritually when they are fed by sermons that are scriptural and candid, but not when they are candied.

The “Stuffed Olive” Sermon: Pleasantly fashioned, pleasingly tart, stuffed with intellect and seasoned with a little humor, but very low in spiritual calories. It is often colorful, but has no heart.

The “Jello” Sermon: Features shaking, prancing, quivering preaching, and lots of action. It is colorful, but cannot provide the kind of balanced diet that Christians need in order to grow spiritually.

The “Leftover Turkey” Sermon: Meat you suspect you have been served before, but disguised enough that it is good for one more Sunday. The second time around it is sometimes served in hash form. The church sign outside a church in Shreveport, Louisiana proclaimed: “All new sermons – no reruns.”

The “Hot Tamale” Sermon: Usually preached when the preacher is in a bad mood and takes it out on the congregation. It usually doesn’t have as much to say about heaven as it does about the other place.

The “Buttered Toast” Sermon: Designed for special groups – such as pulpit committees or a pastor’s conference where a minister wants to impress his fellow pastors.

The “Cup of Coffee” Sermon: Usually preached during a stewardship campaign. It often includes an attempt to get those who listen to share the inner flavor of their lives with others. It attempts to “perk” people up by challenging them to give more, but leaves them feeling soaked and strongly bitter the next day because they have not been faithful stewards in the past year.

The “Manna from Heaven” Sermon: Easily recognizable because its primary feature is “Thus saith the Lord.” Of the eight sermon types only those that qualify as “Manna from Heaven” are packed with vitamins and iron. They alone have the power to nourish believers and equip them for ministry.

Hopefully, you hear more “Manna from Heaven” sermons in your church on Sunday morning than you do of the other seven types. They will always be based on the truth found in God’s Word, will seek to meet the spiritual needs of those who are listening, and will be delivered in a spirit of love.

A sermon doesn’t have to be everlasting to contain eternal truth. Every preacher should keep in mind the maxim: The mind cannot retain what the seat cannot endure. In other words, if a preacher hasn’t struck oil by twelve o’clock each Sunday, it is probably because he is using a dull auger or is boring in the wrong place.

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It was in the 1950’s that psychiatry and various forms of therapy began to achieve genuine credibility in the United States. Those who followed and employed the teachings of Sigmund Freud believed that when you did something wrong, you did not have to hold yourself responsible. You could blame somebody else.

Who was to blame? Your parents were! Thus, these excuses for wrong behavior were fabricated and often used: “I came from a dysfunctional family! My parents crippled me emotionally! They were too demanding! I am what I am because of them! Don’t hold me accountable!”

Next came the 1960’s – with our nation in turmoil from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, and with rioting in the streets of many of our cities – a new kind of thinking was born: “My problems are not my fault! They were caused by society! I am only a part of the culture in which I live.” Therefore, there was nothing wrong with rioting and looting and burning down cities. People burned their draft cards or our country’s flag and did other mischief. Individuals were not responsible; society’s ills caused it to happen.

Following the 1960’s came the 1970’s – sometimes called “the Me Decade.” This decade featured the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the traditional family. It was easy to say, “I’ve got my own life to live! I will do things my way, and you do them your way. Don’t try to lay a guilt trip on me!” In other words, “The ends justify the means. If it feels good, do it.”

In the years since the 1970’s a new concept with regard to personal accountability was invented: “victimhood.” If your house is robbed, you should have had a burglar alarm system. If you are raped, the rapist said it was your fault because you wore clothes that indicated you were asking for someone to walk through your front door. If your car was stolen, it was because you parked it in the wrong place, or you left the keys in the ignition. Criminals did not blame their parents, or society, and certainly not themselves. They had been victimized.

What is missing in each of these pictures? No one is willing to say, “I am wrong! I have sinned! It is my fault! I am responsible!” This has been happening since the beginning of time when Adam blamed Eve for disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit, and Eve blamed the serpent. They were not willing to repent. They disobeyed God. They wanted to do things their own way.

Repent is a very important word. Re means “to return.” The word re-pent means “to go back.” Pent is a word indicating “the highest position,” – for example, a penthouse is located on the top floor. Thus, to repent is “to go back to the place of highest position.”

The place of highest position for Adam and Eve was their status in the Garden of Eden when they walked together with God. That was before the sin of disobedience destroyed their relationship, and God and human beings were spiritually separated. God does not ask us to repent of our sins because He wants to make us feel bad about ourselves, or because He wants to shame or embarrass us. It is because He strongly desires to restore our lost relationship with Him.

Repentance is a word you will not hear used very often today in sermons that are preached by the pastors who stand in our nation’s pulpits. This is indeed a tragedy, for no one can have the benefits of God’s grace without yielding to what He requires of those who serve Him. Repentance is the first road that must be traveled in order to have a restored relationship with God (Luke 13:3).

True repentance has two sides to it. It looks upon things past with a weeping eye, and upon the future with a watchful eye. The first step anyone must take in order to know Jesus Christ as personal Savior is to repent of all sin and ask for His forgiveness.  If you don’t know Him, you can’t repent too soon, because you don’t know how soon it will be too late.

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H. Norman Wright, in With All My Strength, shares the interesting story of a man named Johnny Lingo who lived on an island in the South Pacific in the years following World War II. The islanders all spoke highly of him. He was strong, good-looking, very intelligent and highly respected by his peers. But when it came time for Johnny to find a wife, the people shook their heads in disbelief.

The woman Lingo chose was plain, skinny, and walked with her shoulders hunched and her head down. She was also very hesitant and shy. She happened also to be a bit older than the other unmarried women in Lingo’s village, which did nothing for her value as a prospective mate. But she had one thing that the other prospective brides didn’t have – Johnny Lingo loved her.

What surprised everyone in the village most was Johnny’s offer. It was the custom on the island that any man seeking a wife had to pay her father by giving him cows. Four to six cows was considered a high price. The other villagers thought that Johnny might, at the most, offer the father of the girl he loved two or three cows. But he gave him eight cows! Everyone chuckled about it, since they believed his future father-in-law had put one over on him. Some thought it was a huge mistake.

A year or so after the wedding, a visitor from the United States came to the Islands on business and heard the story of Johnny Lingo and his eight-cow wife. Upon meeting Johnny and his wife the American visitor was totally surprised. Johnny’s wife was not shy, plain, and hesitant. Rather, she was beautiful, poised, and confident. He wondered how she could possibly be the woman that had been described to him.

Lingo explained it this way: “I wanted an eight-cow woman, and when I paid that for her, and treated her in that fashion, she began to believe she was an eight-cow woman. She discovered that she was worth more to me than any other woman on the island would have been. What matters most is not what other people think of her, but what she thinks about herself.”

What a beautiful story! The lesson it teaches us is that when you value the people around you, something amazing happens. If you attach little or no value to them, if you constantly criticize them or lack faith in them, it is easy for them to devalue themselves. It is only when you value the persons around you highly that amazing things can happen. You increase their value and they value themselves more highly.

The lesson that Johnny Lingo and his eight-cow wife teaches us is especially needed in our homes. It is when a husband treats his wife as having high value that she will gain a heightened sense of selfhood and worth. The same is true in reverse. Husbands and wives both respond positively to love that is genuinely expressed. It is when husbands and wives ignore or criticize each other that problems develop that can destroy their marriage, lead to divorce, and adversely affect the lives of any children involved.

It has been said that love is the quest, marriage is the conquest, and divorce is the inquest. Divorces do not take place in homes where husbands and wives highly value each other the way Johnny Lingo valued his wife. Troubled marriages that don’t end in divorce often become a continuing civil war.  A woman in Ohio a few years ago obviously had that kind of marriage. She told a friend that she had a glow-worm marriage.  When asked to define a glow-worm marriage, she replied, “The glow has gone, but the worm remains.”

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Tony Campolo once asked a student in his class this question: “How long have you lived?”  Instinctively he answered, “Twenty-four years!”

“No! No” Campolo responded. “I didn’t ask you how long you have existed as a breathing, functioning member of the human race. I wanted you to tell me how long you have been really alive.” That is an entirely different question than the one the student thought he had been asked.

Occasionally something happens that shakes people out of their mundane existence and introduces them to the hidden potential that can be discovered in life. It is precisely the kind of experience that changed the life of the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He had never been an ordinary man, but it provided him with a powerful new insight that became a part of his genius.

As a young novelist, Dostoyevsky believed that political revolution was the essential route for the life God had willed for him. He joined one of the militant socialist movements that seemed to be omnipresent in nineteenth-century Russia. But his efforts to create the kingdom of God by overthrowing the czar came to naught.

His mini-revolution failed. He was immediately imprisoned by the czar and, so he thought, sentenced to death. But, to his surprise, he didn’t die!

Those who challenged the czar’s totalitarian power were sometimes subjected to a cruel psychological trick designed to break their spirits. They were blindfolded and marched out to stand in front of a firing squad. The commands, “Ready! Aim! Fire,” were given. The sound of shots would ring out. But then – nothing! The bullets were blanks.

The scary process was designed to destroy the emotional stability of the czar’s victims, but in the case of Dostoyevsky it ironically provided a whole new way of looking at life and living it. Facing death without dying gave him a new perception of reality and an ability to apprehend and appreciate life with a passion he had never known before.

As the moment approached which he was sure would be his last, he found himself living life with a hither-to unknown heightened awareness. Since he did not die, every event in his life, no matter how apparently ordinary or seemingly insignificant it had been, took on an extraordinary level of importance.

As he ate what he was told would be his last meal, he concentrated on the taste of every bite, savoring each morsel, because he believed this would the last food he would ever eat. As they marched him into the courtyard where he was to be executed, he took in the sun and breathed the air with an intensive appreciation he had never known before.

He studied the face of every soldier charged with the grisly task of shooting him, because these, he was convinced, were the last faces he would ever see. He was living in the face of what he was totally convinced would be his death. Because he was convinced he was about to die, he was making the most of every moment he had left.

A children’s prayer before going to bed at night includes the words, “If I should die before I wake . . .” You would consider that eventuality a tragedy, wouldn’t you? A more powerful way of expressing this children’s prayer would be, “If I should die before I wake up to live!” To live your entire life without having ever learned what it means to really live would be a much greater tragedy than merely going to sleep at night and not waking up the following morning!

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