There are two constants in life. Contrary to popular belief, they are not death and taxes. In case you haven’t noticed, taxes change. Mostly they get bigger. Death, while certainly a present possibility in every life, when Jesus returns, those who are alive and belong to Him and are raptured, will not experience it. “But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed.” 1 Cor. 15:51 (NLT). The first constant is change. Everything is in a constant state of change. That can be very frustrating and can be the source of much angst. We know what we like, and we like what we know. Words like, familiar, steady, secure, comfortable and stable are the descriptors of our happy times. And yet, even during the long stretches of our greatest eras, changes were taking place. Our physical condition through growth and age is not a flat line, but a jagged arc. Even those who are generally healthy do not escape the throws of the occasional head cold or the debilitation of injury. Relationships change. Think of your children, Your spouse, your parents, your siblings, Your friends from school, your co-workers. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that at least one of those relationships is different than it was five years ago. I have a recliner in my living room. It has been my day-ending location for about twelve years. It has been a faithful companion that has supported me well through thick and thin. (Mostly thick. I have never been thin.) But I have put a great deal of pressure on it over the years, and it is showing the unmistakable signs of wear. I know that one day it will no longer be up to the task for which it was intended and will need to be replaced. I have lived in four different states. (Five, if you count the state of confusion. I am a frequent resident.) Think of the changes involved with meeting new people, learning new towns, starting new jobs! Even now, I am writing this in the waiting room of a tire shop in West Virginia. My most recent change was the change of a tire on the side of RT. 19. This not only changed my wallet, (making it considerably lighter) but also changed my plans for the day. Because of the many drastic changes I have experienced in my life, I have grown used to the inevitability of change. Make no mistake, I don’t like every change that takes place. I do not receive all changes as Improvements, and even fight against change. Sometimes, however, I am pleasantly surprised when changes I fight against produce positive results. That is one of the benefits of being led by and associating with really wise people. We don’t individually perceive the best for us all the time. That is why the presence of the Holy Spirit in our brothers and sisters in Christ is so important. Just because I am not familiar with something, doesn’t mean it is not better for me. Which brings me to the second and by far most dependable constant. That constant is God. The One Who is all knowing, all powerful and always good. “I Am the Lord, and I do not change…” Malachi 3:6a (NLT). Because He does not change. I can rest in the assurance that no matter what changes around me, whatever plan He has for me will be accomplished. God uses the small changes in our lives to prepare us for the bigger changes that are coming. In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Dr. Rick Warren states, “God never wastes a hurt.” All along the way, the changes, good and bad, have all been used by God to shape your life and equip you for His service. That is why Paul could write with such confidence to the church in Rome, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28 (ESV). (See how I changed translations there?). Embrace the changes that God brings your way. He is using them to change you. Keep the change that He made in your heart the day you called on Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. One day, we who belong to Him will be changed forever, never to change again. That’s a change I look for…constantly.
Did you watch the State of the Union address? Not just listen, but watch. I am always astounded by the strength and commitment of whoever serves as the President of the United States. Standing before the joint session of Congress to deliver a message of unity when half the people in the room are actively opposing every word you speak must be a daunting task! Why is that? In theory, we all want the same basic things: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, right? It is not our goal that separates us from one another, rather, our divergent paths to that goal. The range of body language, facial expressions and verbal outbursts in the halls of Congress runs the full gamut of human emotion. In response to the same statement we can observe joyful agreement, stoic thoughtfulness and adolescent eye rolls. As I watched the most recent edition of this event an old song came to mind. Paul Anka wrote a song that Frank Sinatra made famous. “My Way”. Just a small change in the lyric renders the dramatic conclusion to the song, “I want it my way!” The song is at once a tribute to the indominable human spirit and the narcissist national anthem. It really speaks to the human condition. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;…” Isaiah 53:6a (KJV). Unity is a wonderful aspiration. But unity has enemies. Self-centeredness and pride, both of which are found in our own fleshly nature, are the roadblocks to unity. Unity accomplishes great things, while disunity accomplishes gridlock. (I guess that’s why our lawmakers call their assembly “con”gress and not “pro”gress.) Now, before we start getting all finger pointy and judgmental with our elected officials, let’s take a breath and remember that we suffer from the same affliction. “All we like sheep…” means all! Unity is essential to the success of every group. A marriage, a family, a church all move forward through the bond of unity, and it ain’t easy. In fact, it is contrary to our nature. It takes hard work. That’s why Paul (the apostle, not Anka) told the church at Ephesus, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Eph. 4:3 (NIV). As believers our unity is grounded in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who has sealed us for salvation through the blood of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who has given us direction and a variety of gifts to accomplish the singular purpose of God, our Father. It is the Holy Spirit who has empowered us to overcome the tendencies of our fleshly nature. Unity requires “every effort”. To be united you have to listen to others. “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” James 1:19 (NIV). To be united, you have to be considerate of others. “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Rom. 12:3 (NIV). “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Rom. 12:10 (NIV). To be united you have to be patient with others. “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Philippians 3:15 (NIV). Real unity is not found compromise between opposing opinions. Real unity in found when all involved are surrendered to the purpose and plan of God. If we focus on the state of our unity, the state of our union will be strong. Let’s change those lyrics one more time and sing, “I DID IT GOD’S WAY!”
I recently drove to West Virginia to visit with my family and bring my Mom back to stay with us for a few weeks. Driving to West Virginia in the middle of winter has the potential to be a challenging experience. On I-77, as soon as you cross the North Carolina line into Virginia, the road begins a long and steep ascent. When you reach the top of the ridge there is almost always a dense fog that envelopes the road for about thirty miles. The topography includes tall peaks and deep valleys and the roads have many curves, which by inter-state standards are considered sharp and hazardous. Just a little water, or ice and snow, can make the drive really exciting. I was rolling along the highway when I found myself surrounded by a cluster of 18 wheelers. We crested a mountain and began (according to the yellow information sign) a 5 mile descent on a 9% grade. As we started our descent I noticed that the big trucks were having some difficulty staying under the posted speed limit. As often happens, a song popped into my head. “It was just after dark when the truck started down the hill that leads into Scranton, Pennsylvania, carrying thirty-thousand pounds of bananas.” This is a 1970’s song by the late Harry Chapin. He tells the story of a wreck involving a young driver whose brakes failed while coming down a mountain into a city. As the song progresses the tempo picks up speed with each verse until it reaches a frantic pace and an abrupt stop. In the live version of the song Harry concludes with the 1930’s tune, “Yes! We have no bananas. We have no bananas today. Yes! We have no bananas. Bananas in Scranton, PA.” (It’s a neat song. If you are interested in hearing it, it is probably on YouTube.) As I cautiously maneuvered like a mouse in a herd of elephants, positioning myself is the safest possible spaces, I did so with confidence and calm. You see, I’ve been on this stretch of highway before. I know that the builders of this highway have placed truck escape ramps at strategic locations on the inter-state. If a vehicle loses the ability to brake itself, the driver needs only to merge into the right lane and steer to the escape ramp. The steep incline of the ramp and the soft, sandy base will then bring the truck to a quick and hopefully safe stop. As I passed the second truck escape ramp, another thought popped into my head. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, so that you are able to bear it.” 1Cor. 10:13 (HCSB). That does not mean, like some will tell you, that “God never puts more on you than you can stand.” It means that in every circumstance when we are tempted to disobey God’s direction for our life, we can choose to stay on our own path and face destruction, or we can return to God in repentance and obedience, and find forgiveness and peace. Sometimes our roads are steep and slick. Sometimes our equipment doesn’t work the way it should. Sometimes we make poor decisions based on our own selfish desires and limited understanding. When we find ourselves in a dangerous position, isn’t it good to know that God has provided an escape ramp along the highway of our lives. Just remember, the escape ramp is a choice. A limited choice for the truck driver, but a constantly available choice for the believer in Jesus Christ.
How much time do you spend in a day looking for your stuff? The older I get the more of my day is consumed with trying to remember where I put things. I am a creature of habit and patterns. It’s how I manage my life. The evenings before I leave the house for anything, I lay out clothes, put my glasses and phone on the bedside table and put my wallet and keys on the counter. If I am going to swim the next day I pack my gym bag and put it in the car. If I have my computer with me I put it in the car, too. I then place my spill-proof coffee mug beside the coffee pot. After all this, I can go to bed and rest securely. Now, some of you may be thinking, “OCD much?” To you I say, “Well, yeah… a little.” But I know me. I am not a morning person. If I spend a lot of time hunting for things in the morning one of two things will happen. First, I will not leave the house on time as I root around in drawers and comb the various shelves and tables where I am prone to leave things. Second, I will forget something that I will need later in the day. Either of these occurrences will produce in me a grouchy attitude which, “…can come out only by prayer.” Mark 9:29 (NIV). The more I am able to avoid the frustration of looking for stuff, the better I can respond to the inevitable surprises and side tracks (or, as I like to think of them, “divine appointments”) that naturally occur in the typical day. In other words, If I don’t have to spend a lot of time seeking my keys, I have more time to “…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…” Matt. 6:33a (NIV). Seeking the things that belong to us is a common activity. Unfortunately for us, our seeking doesn’t always include finding. It is important for you to understand that we were created by an omniscient God. There is nothing He doesn’t know, including where His stuff is. He knows the path we walk (Job 23:10), He knows our thoughts (Psalm 94:11), He knows our hearts (1Chron. 28:9), and He knows our weakness (Heb. 4:15). God is not looking for us, but He is seeking for some things in us. First, He is seeking for us to turn away from sin and turn to Him. Jesus, God in flesh, made a “purpose statement”. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Luke 19:10 (NIV). His offer of salvation is available to all who will trust His substitutionary death for the forgiveness of sin. Second, for those who have trusted Him, He seeks a deeper relationship with them. “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” John 4:23 (NIV). Notice the small “s” referring to our human spirit. Real worship flows from the inner person, grounded in the truth of God’s word. It is not simply an activity. It is a full-hearted, love response to the God Who created us, saved us, and sustains us. Finally, He seeks those who are “sold out” for Him to bless with strength for greater works of love and service. “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” 2Chron. 16:9a (NIV). God knows where you are. His eyes are on you even now. Is He finding what He is seeking in you?
Philosophy is an important subject. The word itself is a compound of two Greek words; “philia” which translates to the English word “love” (the brotherly kind), and “sophia” which translates to the English word “wisdom”. Therefore, philosophy can be understood as “the love of wisdom”. In the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms it is defined as “The study of ultimate reality by the use of human reason, logic, ethics, etc., to answer such questions as: What is real? How do we know? What are we to do?”. Everyone has a philosophical perspective. It is the lens through which we view the circumstances and events of our lives. It profoundly effects the way you receive and react to the world and the people around you. Before you doze off from boredom with tedious academia, allow me to simplify. Your thoughts matter. And almost as important, the way you think matters. Translated into Jim Carey terms, “If you think of yourself as a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Key to our definition of philosophy is the word “human”. Just in case you don’t know, we humans, while the apex of God’s creation, are limited in our ability. Our reasoning, our logic, our ethics, and our etc., are all damaged by sin. As sharp as we are, all our efforts to explain the world are flawed. I had a philosophy professor who, after a lengthy and brilliant discussion of a variety of philosophical perspectives, told the class with a great deal of humility, “No matter how carefully and convincingly we explain, every analogy fails at some point.” Fortunately, God knows this about us. That is why He gave us His Word. His Word gives clarity to every circumstance. He knows our limits. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV). He knows our internal struggle. “We demolish arguments and every pretention that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2Cor. 10:5 (NIV). He has a plan for us. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Rom. 12:2 (NIV). If we know our limits, take our thoughts captive, and allow God to renew our minds our perspective changes and the world becomes a little clearer. Are we ever going to know everything? Not in this broken and sinful world. But for those of us who have placed our trust in Jesus, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1Cor. 13:12b (NIV). In our quest for meaning and answers, looking forward is more helpful than looking around. “So we fix our not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen it temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2Cor. 4:18 (NIV). Perhaps a more fruitful pursuit than philosophy (the love of wisdom) would be “sophiagape” (the wisdom of unselfish love). OK! It’s not A REAL WORD! But it ain’t a bad idea.
So, today is Game Day! Tonight, the football teams of the University of Alabama and Clemson University will play for the National Championship for the third time in the past four years. It is a day that places me in a difficult social position. You see, I live and serve in the upstate of South Carolina, less than fifty miles from Clemson. I am estimating about 70% of the congregation I serve are either Clemson graduates or fans. This would not be an issue if not for the fact that my family and I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (the home of the Crimson Tide) for 32 years. My children and grandchildren still live there. The personal nature of this connection is multiplied by my wife’s two degrees from UA, my oldest granddaughter’s recent acceptance to UA, and my own connection with the music department at UA. I would be dishonest if I said I don’t care who wins. I am an Alabama fan. I am also a former football player and the son of a football coach, so I appreciate and enjoy excellence in playing and coaching. I fully expect to see that from both teams tonight. But only one team will win. On paper, Bama has a slight edge. But, “Games are not played on paper,” as my dad was fond of saying, “they are played on the field. There are no erasers or white-out on the field. Mistakes don’t disappear, they must be overcome.” I have two very large groups of dear friends, one of which will be sad tomorrow. It helps to remember that in the grander purposes of the Kingdom, football, like most earthly pursuits, holds a relatively insignificant position. It does, like all earthly pursuits however, present us with an opportunity to practice our faith. In Romans 12, Paul focus on the practical application of our faith, especially in relation to one another. Beginning in verse 9 we are instructed to love with sincerity, devotion and preference. Then in verse 15, Paul instructs us to do something that is extremely difficult. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Rom. 12:15 NIV). I don’t know about you, but my flesh finds it much easier to mourn with those who mourn. I can always express sympathy for those who are in the throws of a struggle. Much more challenging is to celebrate the victories of others, especially if what they have is something I wanted, or even worse, something for which we were in competition. It is perhaps, a bit easier for me when I remember that both groups of my friends are primarily connected to me by our love for our Lord, Jesus Christ. We are not looking at each other like we are in battle with a bunch of uncircumcised Philistines. We are brothers and sisters from different tribes united under the blood of the One who has given us victory over our real enemy. Come to think of it, if you can rejoice with those who rejoice you can’t lose. To all my Clemson friends; Don’t think for one minute that I want your team to win tonight. Just know that I will be happy for you (in the midst of my sadness) if your team does win. Also remember, no matter who wins, between our two teams we will have 20 national championships.
January 1st! The old year Is over the new year starts. All the major TV networks had big New Year’s Eve shows on last night, just like last year, and the year before, and the year before. Prior to the TV era Guy Lombardo’s orchestra would play Auld Lang Sine over the radio. People love to celebrate the new year. There is a sense that the problems of the previous year somehow dissolve as the clock hands inch past midnight into not just a new day, but a whole new year. We enter the new year with new resolve. “This year I will lose that weight! … save more money! … kick that habit!” I swim at the YMCA for exercise. Over the years I have learned to stay away from the Y in the first week of the new year. The parking lot and locker rooms are filled to capacity with resolute athletes adorned in their new work-out clothes. It takes about two weeks for life to get in the way of our desire for progress and then the crowd begins to thin (if not the individuals beginning their exercise programs.). Every year is the same. Solomon, considered the wisest man ever, (although, some might question that rank given his history with wives), said in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (NIV). I don’t tell you this to discourage you. In fact, at the heart of that statement is great encouragement. The changes in circumstance which are common to all humans as we progress through the process of age and decay, are overshadowed by the unchanging God who is the source of our life. So, as we face the struggles that each new day brings to us, let me remind you of what someone who faced tremendous struggles once said. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23 NIV). Whereas our resolve may fail, God’s love and compassion never does. His mercy is, and always has been new every morning. The most successful list of resolutions always begins with, “This year I will love and obey God more.” All other resolutions take care of themselves as our obedience to God increases.
We are coming up on that “most wonderful time of the year!” Even though all the stores have had their Christmas decorations on display for several months, I’m sorry, but I cannot get jazzed for Christmas action until we pass through the most neglected time of the year. That is Thanksgiving. Oh, I know. Thanksgiving is a big deal for many. But unfortunately, in our modern culture it has been relegated to pre-game meal status for the Christmas season. The thing is, we have been blessed with sooooooo much for soooooo long that I think sometimes we lose our heart of thanksgiving. We take the good things for granted and start thinking of them as just normal things. Or worse yet, things that we have earned or deserve. Moses warned the people of Israel long ago, “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He would give to you – a land with large and beautiful cities that you did not build, houses full of every good thing that you did not fill them with, cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant – and when you eat and are satisfied, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12 CSB). A lack of thankfulness puts us on dangerous ground. Remember, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6 & 1Peter 5:5). Thankfulness is humility in action. I have heard it said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself, less.” But I think the Bible teaches that humility is thinking of yourself rightly in relation to God. Humility does not disregard what we are thankful FOR. It always remembers Who we are thankful TO. James reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17). Do not skim over Thanksgiving. Let it become a daily celebration for your life. Humble people are thankful people and by their thankfulness open their lives to the outpouring of God’s grace. It is, after all what God wants for us. “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1Thessalonians 5:18). HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!
We live in a society that demands microwave speed and slow cooked results. Our time and energy are of such value to us that we can’t bear the thought of investing either into activities that don’t produce an immediate desired result. We constantly search for short cuts and time saving devices. I had a professor in seminary who taught Hebrew. He made a statement in class one day in response to the complaints of some “overworked” students. “Everyone wants to pay for an education, but nobody wants to earn one.” The implication was clear. The old saying, “Pay your fees; Get your C’s” was not how real knowledge was gained. You may finish your time with a diploma but real knowledge takes more than just signing up for the class. Real knowledge is gained in the time and energy consuming study and practice of the subject. Real knowledge costs! Real worship costs, too! In fact, It costs everything. Paul instructed us in Romans 12:1-2 that real, transformational worship requires us to daily place ourselves on the altar of sacrifice. King David stated, “…I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24b). Just as there are no cheap and easy paths to the knowledge of God, there is no cheap and easy worship. They both cost time and energy, but since your time and energy are both gifts from the hand of God, is there really any better way to spend them?