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Archive for December, 2020

God’s Amazing Grace

Several decades ago a group of theologians gathered in England for a conference on comparative religions. As they were debating the question, “Is there one belief completely unique to Christianity?” world famous theologian Edwin Lewis walked in the door. When they told him the question they were debating Lewis replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The unique thing about Christianity is grace.”

God’s unconditional grace, offered to human beings with no strings attached, is indeed unique in the world’s religions. Buddhists follow an eightfold path to righteousness. Hindus believe in the doctrine of karma. Jews, in order to receive God’s blessings, must obey God’s covenant. Islam has a strict code of law that all Muslims must follow. In one way or another, every religion in the world, with the exception of Christianity, requires people to earn God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

One of my favorite stories about God’s grace comes from Tony Campolo, a well-known author and speaker. Years ago he traveled to Honolulu to speak at a conference. Upon arriving he went to his hotel and checked in. He woke up the following morning at 3 a.m., went to a diner near his hotel and ordered coffee and a doughnut. At 3:30 a.m. a group of provocatively dressed prostitutes walked in the door. Their loud and crude talk made Tony uncomfortable, so he prepared to leave.

But then he heard one of the women say, “Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.” One of her friends responded, “Agnes, what do you want from me, a birthday party? Do you want me to get you a birthday cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday?’” “Come on,” Agnes said. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you it was my birthday, that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. So, why should I have one now?”

When Tony heard those words, he made a decision, and he remained in the diner until they left. He learned from the owner of the diner that this group of prostitutes came in every day like clockwork at 3:00 a.m. Tony said to the diner’s owner, “What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for Agnes – right here – tomorrow morning? The owner smiled and said, “I like the idea! I’ll even bake the birthday cake.”

Tony went back to the diner the following morning at 2 a.m. He put up crepe-paper decorations and a big sign that said: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AGNES!” At 3 o’clock sharp the door swung open, and in came Agnes and her friends. Tony had the entire group sing, “Happy Birthday to You.” When they brought the cake with thirty-nine candles, Agnes began to cry. Tony then said, “What do you say that we pray?”

It probably seemed strange for a roomful of prostitutes to bow their heads in prayer, but that is what happened. Tony prayed for Agnes and for the other prostitutes, affirming that they were beloved daughters of God, with great value, worth, and promise. When Tony finished his prayer, the owner of the diner said, “You never told me that you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

I love this story because it reminds me of the time Jesus met a woman caught in the act of adultery. Religious authorities had brought her to Jesus, demanding that she be stoned to death as the law required. Jesus asked them, “Who among you has not sinned?” Their conscience caused them one by one to slip away, leaving her there alone with Jesus. Jesus asked, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She replied, “No one, sir.” Jesus then said to her, “Neither do I condemn you.” The Bible contains numerous stories about Jesus spending time with and offering grace to flawed people, including adulterers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners – in other words, people like you and me!

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

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Victor Borge, the renowned pianist, once told a friend that he could tell time by his piano. The friend wasn’t convinced, so Borge proceeded to prove his point. He immediately began playing a resounding march. In only moments there was a noisy banging on the wall, and a loud voice in the next apartment screamed, “Stop that noise! Don’t you know it is 1:30 in the morning?”

Borge had his way of telling time by playing his piano, but he can’t stop time. Only God can do that. Time is like a rapidly flowing river in that once your craft is launched there is no turning back and no stopping it. The craft of life in which we are riding is carried faster and faster through the turbulence of white water rapids. We would like to slow things down for a little while. But we can’t.

The entity called time is in some ways a strange thing. We do not realize how important it is until we have so little of it left. Scientists, philosophers, and theologians strive to understand it, yet even as they are pondering it, they are controlled by it. Like money, once time is spent, it is gone forever.

What would you do if you received a letter from your bank saying, “Every morning $1,440 will be deposited in your account, and that each evening whatever balance you have failed to use will be deleted?” You would, of course, spend it all – every penny of it, before the bank closed each day. Actually each of us has such a bank. It is called the bank of TIME.

God deposits each day 1,440 minutes into your account. When the day is over those minutes will be gone, never to return again. It would be great if they could, but that will not happen. Each day thereafter is opened with a fresh account of 1,440 possible minutes. At the end of the day they will have vanished into thin air. The minutes you have used wisely will continue to bless you and possibly others. The minutes you failed to use wisely will represent a needless loss. To use tomorrow’s minutes is impossible. Your clock is running.

To realize the value of ONE YEAR, ask a student who failed a grade in school.

To realize the value of ONE MONTH, ask a mother whose baby died four weeks after being born.

To realize the value of ONE HOUR, ask the wife who is waiting for her soldier husband to arrive from overseas after a long deployment when she has just learned his plane is running an hour late.

To realize the value of ONE MINUTE, ask the person who just missed his flight.

To realize the value of ONE SECOND ask the basketball player whose team lost the championship because the shot he made came one second late.

To realize the value of ONE MILLISECOND, ask the person who won the silver medal in the Olympics.

There is no better time to focus on the value of time and the most productive way to use it than at the beginning of each New Year. Let us all treasure every minute of every hour that we are given, for it is a precious gift from God. It is the surest way that you and I will be able to both glorify God and bless others.

Why is this true? Hours and flowers soon fade away. 

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God’s Perfect Timing

Those who play the game of baseball know how important timing is. No player can ever make it all the way to the major leagues unless he has become at least fairly proficient at hitting a curveball with a wooden bat that has been pitched in the vicinity of 90 miles per hour. Timing is important not just in the game of baseball. It is important to almost everything we do in life.

Have you ever noticed that God has perfect timing? Sometimes we have to look backward over the years in order to discover how His hand used perfect timing in order to bless us or to prepare us for a difficult experience or challenge. We can always find His hand moving at just the right time.

There is no better example of God’s perfect timing than in the way He arranged the birth of His Son over 2,000 years ago in the small Judean village of Bethlehem. This is what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote to the Galatian Christians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). Before the birth of Jesus, the entire history of humankind had been in preparation for His advent. We see God’s perfect timing in the following ways:

First, the civilized world by the time Christ was born spoke one language. How did this happen? When Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC conquered the world, he did it linguistically as well as militarily. The entire Mediterranean world was unified by the Greek language. Can you imagine how important this was to the writing and understanding of the books found in the New Testament?

Second, the entire world by the time Christ was born had come under the one government of Rome – a single citizenship. Paul was a Roman citizen. He and other early Christians could travel the length and breadth of the Roman Empire, from North Africa all the way to Spain, to share the gospel. This would never have become physically possible if the Romans had not constructed their roads, an incredible accomplishment for that day. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century did modern civilization equal that achievement.

So, with a single language, a single citizenship, and roads connecting every part of the Roman Empire, the physical world was prepared for the coming of Christ. These first two very important ingredients toward demonstrating God’s perfect timing were in place. But one more very important thing had to happen before the prophecies of the coming Messiah had to become a reality.

Third, these words of the prophet Micah 5:2-3a had to be fulfilled: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.” The Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem. How would God make that happen?

This is when God arranged for a pagan, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, to order that a census be taken over the entire Roman Empire to register male citizens for the purpose of taxation. This required that Joseph, a descendent of King David, and Mary, his wife, had to go to Bethlehem where, as prophesied, Mary gave birth to the Messiah. God’s perfect timing for the birth of His Son was now fully complete.

As you look forward to Christmas day, and as you wait for God to work in your life, remember God’s perfect timing in sending His Son. Thank Him for His wisdom and for His ability to perfectly order the events of your life, including the most important event yet to take place: Christ’s second coming to earth.

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Ministerial Burnout

A log in a fireplace either burns up or it burns out. If it burns out it becomes a black charred piece of wood. If it burns up, it produces heat, light and beauty. This is also the way it is with life. An essay in Time magazine several years ago was entitled, “The Burnout of Almost Everyone.” According to the article, air traffic controllers, teachers, social workers, nurses, policemen, professional athletes, students, executives, housewives, and parents often have the burnout syndrome.

Christian ministers were not listed as a part of this group, but they very well could have been. Any minister who is genuinely dedicated to his calling has a 24/7 job that can produce burnout – and sometimes does. A fellow pastor in Wilmington came to my office in Temple Baptist Church in the 1970’s who was dealing with as many pressures and problems in his church as Carter has liver pills. I gave him what council I could offer and prayed with and for him.

What does it mean for a minister to be burned out? First of all, as in any other vocation, physical and emotional burnout leads to personal bankruptcy and the making of an excuse for finding a way out of a bad situation. A Christian minister who is burned out suffers nervous exhaustion that is accompanied by fatigue. There is often a feeling that he/she has failed in the ministry. A burned out preacher is characterized by apathy, and is no longer happy. This leads to a lack of creativity and fulfillment. The ultimate step is to throw up his/her hands and leave the ministry. Every preacher is a potential burnout.

Having served for seventy years as a pastor I have faced and dealt with some of the problems in which people in churches become involved. I certainly do not know all the answers, but I have learned some things about how to deal with them. I suggest the following preventive measures to a minister dealing with burnout:

  1. Solitude. Begin each day with God in Bible reading, prayer and meditation. It is the most precious time of the day for a preacher to get ready to face the world, people, and church problems. It is like getting into the eye of a hurricane where there is peace while the storm rages on the periphery. If we do not forget that God is on our side we can ride out the storm – “though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (Psalm 46).
  2. Priorities. A pastor has more to do than one human can perform. He/she should not try to do more than is possible for one person to do. A list of priorities should be made – and the two most important are preaching and pastoral care. The greater the need the greater should be the priority.
  3. Pace. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither will the Kingdom of God be built on the earth in one day. No human can work 16 hours every day, month, and year after year without paying a severe price.
  4. Delegate. Some pastors may think they have to do everything that has to be done in their church. It can’t be done. They need to learn sooner or later how important it is to put lay people to work.
  5. Longrange planning. Don’t wait until Friday night or Saturday morning to start sermon preparation. God doesn’t have to wait until that late in the week to know what you need to preach. Preparing at least two sermons every week, added to all the other responsibilities, can lead to burnout. Don’t let dealing with your long list of duties cause you to wait until Saturday to prepare the next day’s sermons.
  6. The Word. Some pastors experience burnout because they take their labors too seriously. They find it easy to think that everything depends on them. When their ministrations do not succeed, it becomes easy to blame themselves. Martin Luther never experienced burnout. He even refused to take credit for the progress made in the Reformation. He said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.” He avoided burnout and became one of Christian history’s great leaders.

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Putting God in a Box

A three letter word often used in the Old Testament is not used very often in conversations today. The word is “ark.” From our earliest days in Sunday School we were made aware of the fact that a man named Noah built an ark. History’s biggest rainstorm was on the way. The baby Moses was placed in a tiny ark by his mother and set afloat in the Nile River where the princess of Egypt found him. However, the ark that played the most significant role in the history of Israel was “The Ark of the Covenant.” This ark was not a boat.

An ark can also be a strong box; a box built for safety and defense. It can be big or little. The Ark of the Covenant was a chest or box about 3 feet long and 2½ feet high. It was kept initially in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Its cover was designed in the form of a seat called “the mercy seat.” The mercy seat is also mentioned in the New Testament. It was the place where God met man.

This chest contained a sample of the manna that fell from heaven when the Israelites were wandering through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. It also contained Aaron’s rod that had budded as a sign of God’s approval, and the table on which God had written the Ten Commandments. It was, in essence, “Israel’s Museum of Supernatural History.” It was sacred to Israel for it represented God’s presence.

God was not limited to the Ark of the Covenant, but it was still His instrument. God is not limited to the church today, but He still works through it. We are not to put our faith in the church. Rather, we are to put it in God whose message the church was commissioned to proclaim. Church membership guarantees to no one citizenship in the kingdom of God here on the earth. Nor does it guarantee a one-way ticket to heaven.

The Ark of the Covenant was carried around the walls of Jericho – and, as the gospel song says, “the walls came tumbling down.” Sometime later Israel became corrupt, pushed God to the periphery, and the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. The Israelites thought they had God in a box, and that they could do as they pleased. As Jesus would later say, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

No, God cannot be locked in a box. He is not limited to a sacred chest or a temple – or to a certain race, or to a specific denomination, or to a particular philosophy. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, could not even be locked in a grave. When you try to put God in a box you don’t limit Him. You only limit yourself.

God has created another very special box called heaven. It is beautiful beyond human imagination, and He wants you to one day enter it. Did you know that the Bible, using picture language, describes Heaven as a box? John in the book of Revelation describes it as being 1500 miles long, 1500 miles wide, and 1500 miles high, with walls that are 200 feet thick. It is not a place to keep God in. Rather, it is designed to keep sin, pain, evil, tears, and death out. (See Revelation 21:1-7). You can find heaven’s front door key in Romans 6:23.

The poem entitled “If God,” by James Montgomery, describes heaven beautifully:

“If God has made this world so fair
Where sin and death abound,
How beautiful beyond compare
Will paradise be found!”

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