Let Freedom Ring

               Today, we celebrate Independence Day, or as some I know have taken to calling it, “Brexit 1776”.  The United States declared our independence from a corrupt and oppressive government, and became a nation.  We celebrate this every July 4

th  by grilling out, going to the beach, and blowing things up.  It’s an awesome celebration of something that we should be mindful of each day, which is that we live in a nation with unprecedented and unparalleled freedom.

                But what do we do with this freedom?  Do we misuse it?  The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6:12 that not everything that we are free to do is beneficial.  In fact, many of the things which we are “free” to do really entrap us.  Jesus tells us in John 8:34 that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Many people will celebrate their freedom today by overindulging in alcohol.  This particular prison entraps 15.1 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Health, or 6.2 percent of the adult population of the U. S.  This is not just a health crisis, this is a spiritual crisis.

                The good news is that freedom, not only from addiction, but from sin and shame is possible.  It is not only possible, but it is available to all who believe (John 3:16).  Romans 8:1 tells us that if we are in Christ, we do not face condemnation, because we are set free from the law of sin and death.  Your freedom has already been purchased.  But you must accept it.

                Is today the day that you will accept the true freedom that has already been given?  Is today the day that you declare your independence from sin and shame and your dependence on Jesus Christ, who has the power to release you from your prison of guilt?  I pray that it is!



The Greatest Command

In Chapter 22, Matthew records one of many accounts of the Pharisees’ efforts to trap Jesus with His words.  They produced an expert in the Law, who asked the question, “What command in the law is the greatest? (Matt. 22:36, HCSB)” What they were hoping was that by giving priority to one aspect of the law, that they could prove that He ignored another important part of the law.  Instead, Jesus shut them down with these words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and most important command.  The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

                This is all the commands of scripture summed up neatly.  If you look at every command given in scripture, it either pertains to your relationship with God or to your relationship with other people.  So, by following these two important principles, our motives can be pleasing to our Lord.  There are a couple of ways that this can go wrong, however.  The first is if we have a faulty definition of “love”, and the second is if we reverse the order of the commands.  Either of these leads us down a path that is unpleasing to the Lord.

                The faulty understanding of “love”, I feel, comes in part from the English language which allows me to use the same word to describe my adoration for my Lord, my bond with my wife, and my affinity for Rocky Road ice cream.  Obviously, some of these are more important in my life than others.  The love described in the passage in Matthew is more completely described as having the affection of God.  He has great fatherly affection for us, as His created beings.  We are to love Him wholeheartedly as He loves us.  When we love Him that completely, we will serve Him tirelessly without ceasing.  This love is not based on our feelings, but upon the recognition of God’s essence, which is love (I John 4:8), and His rightful authority over us as our Creator.

                Aside from misunderstanding what “love” actually is, we can readily find ourselves placing our affection for people ahead of our affection for God.  This leads to us having a desire to please people rather than to please God.  The opinions of others become more important in our lives than the truth spoken into our lives by our Creator.  This is what leads many well-meaning believers to compromise Biblical truth in pursuit of relationship with others.  When we put our love for others ahead of our love for God, both relationships suffer harm.  Our relationship to our Lord suffers from neglect, and our human relationships suffer from a lack of spiritual depth. 

                So how do we love properly?  First, we must know Jesus!  Without Him, any love that we may have is a bad imitation.  True love can only come from the One whose essence is love.  Any other “love” is a counterfeit.  Only when we experience the true love of Christ can we love others in the manner that we are instructed.



Should We Call Down Fire?

               In our Wednesday night study of “Journey into Following Jesus”, by Tommy Higle, we have been learning about the twelve disciples as people, and how many of us are much like one of them in some way or another.  Last night, as we discussed John, we recognized that he and his brother James may have had an anger problem.  Luke 9:51-55 tells of Jesus, on His way to Jerusalem, sending men ahead of Him to make preparations in a Samaritan village.  But the village did not welcome Him.  To put it mildly, this displeased James and John, who asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  I will admit that I laughed way too hard at the suggestion, momentarily thinking, “I know people that I would like it to rain fire upon.” 

                Of course, Jesus rebuked them.  And thank God, because most of us at some point in our lives have rejected Christ.  I’m glad that the Lord did not rain fire upon me when I was rebellious!  Maybe these Samaritans would accept Him later.  Maybe they wouldn’t, and will have to answer in person at the judgment.  Either way, the Lord does not ask us to destroy those who reject Him.  The New Testament records only two destructive miracles of Jesus.  In one, He allowed demons to go into a herd of pigs that subsequently ran off a cliff.  In the other, He cursed an unfruitful fig tree.  He did not destroy people.  Note that in neither of these did He bring harm to people.  So why would we think that it is okay to harm people with our words?

                In Chapter 3, James writes, “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (NIV)” If he were writing this today, I dare think that he would also mention the keyboard.  So many today are quick to type responses that they would never say to a person face to face.  At times, I have been guilty of this.  As a recent college graduate, I can type fast, often faster than my brain will engage.

                We, as Christians, must be careful to watch our words.  That which is said cannot be unsaid.  Colossians 3:8 reminds us that as believers, we must, “put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”  Matthew 12:36 points out that, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.”  Rest assured that we will all answer for what we have spoken in anger, whether with our mouth or with our keyboard.  Words have the power to destroy, and must be careful not to destroy people. 

                This DOES NOT mean that we are not to speak the truth to people.  Ephesians 4:15 commands us to speak the truth in love.  Withholding the eternal truth of salvation from people is not loving, it is cruel, and we will answer for that.  It’s the attitude that matters.  When we love someone enough to tell them the truth, we can do so in a loving and kind manner.  Jesus loved the woman at the well (John 4) enough to tell her the truth, but He did not berate her.  He simply invited her to trust in Him.  Which is what we must do to those around us!



Ninja-weight

                Last Thursday, I attended a “National Day of Prayer” service at a larger church.  The pastor and his staff had put a lot of time and energy into preparation for the service.  They arranged special music, a service where several of the deacons spoke and prayed, and a guest speaker with a wonderful testimony.  There was even a dessert social afterward, with lots of tasty treats.  They prepared.  They decorated.  They dressed up.  They showed up.  And I watched sadly as thirty people jammed into a sanctuary built for 400.

                I have observed many such situations over the last several years.  I coordinate a monthly Ministers’ Conference for the 46 churches of our local association, and see an average attendance of less than 10.  An associational meeting that should have 92 people attending will see attendance of about 30.  Sunday morning worship services that used to be filled are now glaringly light in attendance.  This is a problem in many churches, and can be disheartening, if we let it.

                Many have endeavored to come up with a reason for the falling attendance at church and worship events.  Some will blame the fact that the stores are open on Sunday, or the ball game, or the race.  Some will note that all the young people “grew up and left”.  Some note that “people are just so much more sinful”, and “the world has gone crazy”.  While these things may APPEAR to be true, though our limited perspective, I think that there is some encouragement to be had.

                BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER.  One of my favorite TV shows is American Ninja Warrior.  It is a fantastic obstacle course competition.  One of the things that I have noticed in watching it is that smaller, more agile people have an advantage over larger ones.  The same can be said for churches.  Often smaller, more agile churches are healthier spiritually.  Jesus reminds us in John 15:1-2 that, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vineyard keeper.  Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes, and He prunes every branch that produces fruit so that It will produce more fruit. (HCSB)”.

                 Many of those who have disappeared from our pews were not the true followers of Christ, but were only showing up because they were expected to.  Society no longer places that expectation on people, therefore, the ones who show up tend to be true believers.  Those who were taking up the time, energy, and resources of the church without serving have largely left many of our smaller congregations.  Those good branches which produce fruit have been pruned in order that they may produce more.  Often, churches appeared full and healthy, but were severely anemic.  Many have lost excess weight, and are now small enough to be nimble and responsive.  Jesus also reminds us in verse 5 of the same passage that “The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me (HCSB).”  Our strength as a church comes from our Lord, not from our numbers, our facilities, or our political influence. 

                  So, believers, we can do one of two things.  We can be upset about the loss of the “glory days” of full sanctuaries, and a world that seemed to fit our values.  Or, we can recognize that the world always has been—and until the return will be—a place of lost people needing saved.  We can embrace our smaller, lighter, and nimbler churches, and the mission that we have been given in this day and time.  The choice is up to you.



Celebrating Baptism

This week at Sappony, we will be having a baptism service.  Since we think of each baptism as a reason for celebration, we will also have special music and a covered dish luncheon.  We’re going to have a good time of fellowship in the Lord.

                Each baptism is important, because it means that one more person has accepted Christ, and is willing to publicly identify with Him.  Baptism is not the thing that saves a person, but it is the person demonstrating to the world that he is saved.  We baptize by immersion for a couple of reasons.  One, the word translated baptize in the English language versions of Scripture implies immersion.  We believe that this is the way John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and see no need to depart from it.  This, however, is not the only reason.

                Baptism is one of two ordinances mentioned in the New Testament (the other is the Lord’s Supper, or communion).  It is given to us as a symbol.  Being immersed in the water symbolizes our Lord’s death, which paid the price for our sins, and His burial, where His body spent three days in the tomb.  As it is important that we don’t stay immersed in the water too long, it is important that Christ did not stay in the grave.  Coming out of the water symbolizes His resurrection, the proof that He was who He claimed to be, and that His payment of our penalty was enough.  For us, coming out of the water symbolizes the new life that we are raised into.  The person that we WERE (lost) is buried, and the person that we ARE (saved) is raised to start the new journey with Christ.

                We baptize publicly, in front of the assembly of believers as a testimony of the redeeming power of Jesus in our lives.  We are publicly demonstrating that we have put the old life to death, and are now living a new life, one which glorifies God.  After all, we were created in the image of God in order to glorify Him.  And when someone make the decision to do so, this gives us much reason to celebrate.



New Life

It appears that Spring has sprung.  I can tell because my allergies are in full effect.  But also, I can notice that there are plenty of signs of new life outside.  My grass is growing tall (just ask my neighbor who has been mowing since New Year’s), the azaleas are blooming, and there are birds chirping everywhere, to the chagrin of my daughter’s cat who is not allowed outside.  Life appears fresh and new, and full of possibility.

                One of the things that is often associated with Spring is Easter, which falls on April 16th this year.  For far too many, it is simply about new clothes, colored eggs, baskets, and chocolate bunnies.  While these things can be fun, they have absolutely nothing to do with the occasion that we celebrate.  Easter is a very holy day, in which we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

                Easter is about new life, but not in the manner that we think of Spring.  When we were dead in our sins, Jesus, who had never sinned, took all of our sins upon Himself, carrying them to the cross, where He willingly gave up His life to pay the price that we could not pay.  When we accept His payment, we no longer need to live as though we were dead.  He has made a brand-new life available to us, that can never be taken away. 

                Anyone who has live more than a couple of years can attest that Spring is temporary.  In a few months, we will have the hot days of Summer, followed by the Autumn leaves falling, then a cold and dreary winter again.  But the new life that we have through Christ, while it may take us through seasons, is eternal.  Those of us who have accepted this new life have a promise that is certain.  You can have this new life as well. 

                Easter Sunday at 7AM, we will host a community Sunrise Service with Concord United Methodist Church.  Come join us to learn more about this new life that is made available for you!

 



Love is…

It is a good thing that I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution to keep the blog updated better, because I would have failed big time!  If you’ve been to any store in the last couple of weeks, you may be aware that Tuesday is Valentine’s Day, the day that we celebrate love.  For Tammy and me, this Valentine’s Day marks 25 years of marriage.  I still think that she could have done better, but she chose to take me as her “awful wedded husband”.  I’m so thankful that YouTube wasn’t around back then, because we would have gone viral.  Looking back, I should have cut my hair before the wedding.  There was so much of it!  But I didn’t consider what the pictures would look like 25 years later.  Our wedding was a comedy of errors, but at the end, it didn’t matter.  We were just as married.

So, what has happened in twenty-five years?  Life.  Lots of life.  Raise two beautiful daughters into productive young adults?  Check.  Try four different careers and fail in each of them?  Check (me, not her).  Move 10 times?  Check.  Go through 15 automobiles?  Check.  Suffer the loss of a parent?  One each.  Spend countless hours in the ER for asthma attacks (her), and migraines (me)?  Check.  Care for a husband who breaks a femur and sleeps through the entire month after the surgery?  Yeah, she did that.  Finally buy a house and settle down?  Check.  Spend countless hours navigating the aisles of Wal-Mart?  Check.  Take 15 teenagers on a mission trip to Joplin?  Check.  Survive three combat deployments?  Check.  So.  Much.  Life.

So why have we stayed together when so many others who got married at the same time, had more elaborate weddings, better champagne, and bigger hair fell apart?  By the way, our champagne was called Brut, probably because it sucker-punched you in the mouth.  We didn’t even feature the most popular wedding song of the year,

Everything I Do, I Do It for You

by Bryan Adams.  So why have we stayed together?  Only by the grace of God.  Certainly, there were times that it didn’t look like our marriage would last.  Marriage is so much more than the wedding ceremony.  It’s all the life that happens afterward, and some of it has been great, and some of it, not so much.

Paul, in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, reminds them of the qualities of love.  “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:4-8, ESV)” He is not speaking here of romantic love; the original language has a different word for that.  He is speaking of the love that is the very nature of our Creator.  The love that He has for us.  The love that He designed us to share together when He said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). 

This Valentine’s Day, let’s remember that we do not define love.  God already has, by His nature.  And it is very good!



New Year, Same Old You?

How many of us made New Year’s Resolutions?  Now, if we’re being honest on the fourth day of January, how many of us have already broken these resolutions?  People make resolutions to start the new year off correctly because they recognize something about themselves that is in need of change.  However, as we get back into our routines, we tend to fall back into our old bad habits.  We find it easier to live as we always have.  If you go into any gym in America on January 2, you will find the place packed with those intending to do better.  By February 2, there are fewer people.  By March 2, the only ones still there are the ones who went before January.  Desiring to make a change is easy.  Actually making a change is hard.

                Many people resolve to improve their Bible study habits or their prayer life.  Like physical fitness, spiritual fitness requires that we actually put in time and effort.  This is where most of us again fall short once we are back into our normal routine.  We find that we “do not have the time”, or the devotional we picked wasn’t that interesting, or we REALLY don’t like getting up any earlier to study.  But let’s be honest.  There is always time for the things that are genuinely important to us.  It’s a matter of priorities.  If you say that you do not have time to study the Bible, but yet you have time to watch “The Real Housewives of Tupelo”, this is an indication of skewed priorities.  If the only time that you pray is immediately before “pass the potatoes”, yet you know everything that Cousin Rae-Linda posts on Instagram, or you have time to read every political post that your high school friend shares as if it’s the truth, this is also an indication of skewed priorities.

                The hard truth is that we will not be magically transformed into Bible-quoting, devil-stomping prayer warriors because we spent the first three days of January reading the first three chapters of Genesis and recited the Lord’s Prayer.  This is like trying to win the Boston Marathon when you’ve only trained to run around the buffet at Golden Chowhall.  There is going to be work involved.  Sure, we must rely on the Holy Spirit working in us, but we cannot assume that He is going to do all the work with no effort on our part.

                Those who follow Christ were known as, and still are known as disciples.  Note how much that word looks like “discipline”.  If we are to be true followers of Christ, this is going to require DISCIPLINE on our parts.  We must study the Word.  “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11, NIV).”  You cannot claim to be a legitimate follow of Christ if you do not study His word.  We must also pray.  1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands (not suggests) that we “pray without ceasing.”  How can you claim to allegiance to someone that you never talk to?  We MUST make the spiritual disciplines a priority in our lives!

                The good news:  If you have already failed in your New Year’s Resolution to study the Word more, you do not have to wait.  You can start today.  Make a plan.  Stick with that plan, even when you are tired, or would rather do something else.  Not only will you reap the spiritual benefits, but you will benefit the Kingdom by being a knowledgeable disciple.  If being a disciple were easy, everyone would be one.  It is not easy, but do it anyway.



Well, That Escalated Quickly!

Sometimes life is funny.  And sometimes, life sucker-punches you when you’re not looking.  As one of the youngest small-town pastors that I know, I find myself working to bring my more-experienced counterparts into the twenty-first century.  No, I’m not talking about moral or social issues.  I’m talking about getting them to have an online presence.  A voice outside the church.  You know, a church website, Facebook page, a blog.  A way to reach people who may never walk into your church.  The internet can be a wonderful thing.  This is, of course, dependent on how one uses it.

                I look at Facebook a lot.  I don’t necessarily post a great deal, but I like to look at what my friends are talking about.  I have a variety of friends:  black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, African (like Ghana), Hispanic, Republican, Democrat, straight, gay, lesbian, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, etc.  You get the idea.  I decided a long time ago that I will not “unfriend” someone just because they are not like me or believe differently than I do.  People need Christians who will invest time into their lives if they are to ever learn about the gospel.  If we “unfriend” people, we will not see what’s going on in their lives, and we potentially lose the opportunity to share the gospel with them.  If we berate non-Christians for acting unsaved, we are being counterproductive.  The Holy Spirit will work in them to change their behavior once they’re saved, not before.  So, unless someone is engaged in cyber-bullying, I stay “friends” with them.  I have compassion on them.  I pray for them.  And I love them.

                So, sometimes I forget who is on my friends list.  Teenager to octogenarian, military, civilian, rough character or very proper.  I have them all.  So when a pastor friend of mine shared a post that amused me, one which asked people to insert a photo from their phone, I thought, “Gee, this could be fun.”  This picture I shared was of the slip of paper we found inside a fortune cookie, written in Spanish, because we had laughed at it at dinner, because it was totally unexpected.  And, since I thought, “yeah, this is fun”, I shared the post to my own Facebook page.  Did I mention my friends list?  When my daughter pointed out to me that people were sharing inappropriate pictures in response to my post, I was shocked.  Because I don’t think to do this, it didn’t necessarily occur to me that others might do this.

                Then came the comments.  Someone pointed out that my friends need prayer.  Someone else thought that it was time to clean up my friends list.  Someone else couldn’t believe that someone would share those pictures in response to a pastor.  I have discovered that many people forget that they are friends with a pastor, especially one that they knew “back when”.  I deleted the post and apologized to those offended.  I will not go as far as unfriending people, because of the reasons that I mentioned above.  I will not throw stones at them, because I am not without sin.  I will get past the embarrassment, look beyond myself, and continue to love them because of the example that Jesus set.  And of course, I will be more careful what I share in the future!



The Raging Fire

Fire can be a good thing, or it can be a very dangerous and scary thing.  It is useful for cooking and keeping us warm.  But when uncontrolled, it can destroy property and take lives.  We have been watching this week as the popular Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge tourist areas have been hit hard by fire.  It is a sad thing to see the charred remains of businesses and homes and to hear of those who cannot reach their loved ones in the area.  We should commit to pray for those who affected by these fires.  Seeing the images of fires raging out of control reminds me of the Biblical imagery of fire.

In Exodus Chapter 3, God appears to Moses in a burning bush to command him to lead His people from Egypt.  Exodus 13:21 shows the Lord appearing as a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night.  Doing this was not only a demonstration of His presence, but also of His power.  In Malachi 3:2-3 we read, “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye.  He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.”  Fire is used to remove all the impurities from precious metals like gold and silver, thus making them usable and valuable.

We are told in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 that our works will be tested by fire.  What endures will be rewarded, and what is useless will be burnt up.  It is important to keep this in mind when investing our time, talent, and treasure during this life.  What will be the end result?  What will happen to our works when we see Jesus face to face?  Of course, if we are not saved, the prospect is even worse.  We are told that a literal, never-ending Hell which burns for eternity waits for those who have rejected Christ.  Sadly, most people will reject Christ, and face an eternity in a fire that far surpasses anything that we’ve seen on the news.  The question is, what will you choose?




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