Sunday, September 30, 2012


And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

-- Matthew 16:18

Early followers of Jesus were called "Little Christs" because their new-found faith had changed their lives for all to see. This odd group of people from all walks of life--rich and poor, male and female and slave and free--were utterly different from the rest of society. They had somehow grown more caring and generous to both neighbors and strangers alike. And they willingly sacrificed their time and resources to ease sorrow and correct injustice.

In a word, they were transformed.

And that says a lot for the effectiveness of their leader, an obscure rabbi from a distant corner of the Roman Empire who just happened to be God's own Son. Few recognized it at the time. But because some did and followed Jesus, millions in future generations would help to change the world for the better.

Modern-day Christ-followers--known collectively as The Church--must too be leaders by imitating Jesus' actions and principles. It's this very strategy that His first disciples used to guide their own lives. They recognized that Jesus the Leader was also Jesus the Follower. Christ spoke constantly with His Father (God) in prayer and always sought His guidance. "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing," explained Jesus, "because whatever the Father does the Son also does."

What were some of the other attributes that made Jesus back then (and can make the Church today) an effective leader? In addition to inspiring His followers to leave their old ways behind for a higher calling, Jesus challenged the status quo. For instance, he defied the day's spiritual leaders by exposing their religious hypocrisy and revealing God's true intent behind the Scriptures. Jesus also encouraged His followers and empowered them to succeed in their objectives.

Let's not forget that He also acted with a sense of urgency. From the foundation of the world, Jesus knew that He had only about three years to save the world. It was in this brief period that He preached God's Word, healed the sick, raised the dead and forgave all those who asked Him. He even asked God to forgive His own executioners because they didn't realize what they were doing.

Jesus may have changed the world 2,000 years ago. But can His Church still make a difference in the 21st Century? It can if the past is any indication. For instance, it's because of the Church that the world has benefited from modern science, hospitals, universities, agriculture and law. The Church also led the call to abolish slavery. Today, Christ-followers are still to follow His admonition to be salt and light to a dying world in need of guidance, truth and character.

A skeptical world is watching. So let the Church show it a transforming love in action.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Penny Saved

Dishonest money dwindles away,  
but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.

-- Proverbs 13:11

"Money in the bank is like toothpaste in the tube," writer Earl Wilson once observed. "Easy to take out, hard to put back."

Can you relate to that? After all, ours is a buy-now-pay-later culture. Millions of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck and spend their money as soon as they get it. And if an unexpected expense (or the latest electronic gadget) comes along, it's second nature to put it on the trusty MasterCard or American Express and worry about the bill later. So with such an unrealistic approach to money and finances, is it any wonder that foreclosures and bankruptcies have reached unprecedented levels?

Deep down, we know the importance of saving for the future. Just as we need to set aside the first portion of our income for God's purposes, we also need to follow that by paying ourselves. This involves regularly depositing predetermined amounts into a bank account, rainy day fund or perhaps toward investments like stocks, bonds and annuities. If that sounds boring and too much like work, maybe it is. But think of common sense money management as being like regular workouts at the gym. There's always some pain starting out. But practice it long enough and you'll likely see the gain.

During His brief world-changing ministry, Jesus taught His first followers about the proper relationship with God, family, neighbors and even enemies. But Christ also spoke extensively about money-related issues. In fact, the Bible is full of financial wisdom that's as applicable today as it was centuries ago.

And what do the Scriptures tell us about savings and fiscal discipline? 

One biblical principle is to give the first 10 percent or more of our income to the church. This honors God by actively promoting His purposes on earth and demonstrating our faith in Him for always meeting our needs. What's more, our Creator can do more with the remaining 90 percent of our income than we can do with all of it.

Another precept is to appreciate all that God has already given us. If we foster an attitude of gratitude, we're unlikely to spend what we don't have on unaffordable material possessions that we don't really need in the first place. And next, we need to attack debt and anticipate tough times. This means developing a budget, spending less than we earn, paying off those credit cards (particularly the ones with sky-high interest rates) and setting money aside to cover unexpected expenses. Following these steps can help your savings accumulate little by little over time--especially when it earns compound interest.

Above all, let's be rich toward God and invest in the eternal. Saving for the future is obviously important. But also look for ways to put your money to work promoting God's interests. This might involve giving toward a special church initiative, supporting overseas missionaries or maybe even starting your own community ministry. Whatever it is, ask God in prayer to show you what to do...and clear a path to let you do it. He knows our motivations and rewards those who honor Him.

"'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,'" says the LORD Almighty, "'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.'" 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Freed and Forgiven

But with you there is forgiveness, 
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

-- Psalm 130:4 

"I never thought I'd be wearing this striped suit," admitted the young man as he addressed the crowded Naples, Fla. high school gymnasium. "I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof."

The speaker was Eric Smallridge. But for the last 10 years, he's been known as Inmate P22679.

In May 2002, Eric drove drunk, lost control of his vehicle and collided with another vehicle driven by 20-year-old Meagan Napier. Meagan and her passenger, Lisa Dickson, were killed instantly. And Eric was convicted of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Renee Napier--Meagan's mother--was devastated by the tragedy that had instantly changed her entire existence and outlook on life. She described her tortured emotional state as "the wailing and crying that comes from the depths of your soul." To render some good from such a seemingly senseless incident, Renee founded The Meagan Napier Foundation, where she has so far educated more than 100,000 people about the dangers of drunk driving. Her audiences include high-schoolers, church groups, college students, military personnel...and DUI offenders.

Her presentations were riveting. But Renee still felt that something--or perhaps someone--was missing. And that someone was Inmate Eric Smallridge.

"I knew from the beginning that if I could have Eric with me, that would be very powerful," she explained to ABC News. And in 2010, Eric was given permission to accompany Renee during her presentations. A stipulation was that he had to wear his prison shackles and jumpsuit.

Today, more than 10 years after the accident, Renee still can't forget when she heard the awful news about her child's death. But she has been able to forgive. In fact, she's grown to love Eric and his family. And she even lobbied to have Eric's sentence cut in half to help prevent him from leaving prison with a hardened soul and a criminal mind.
"I could be very angry, hateful and bitter," Renee said in a recent interview. "But I didn't want to live my life that way. There was no way I could move on and live a happy life without forgiving Eric."
Eric, however, says he's not sure he can ever forgive himself. In fact, the memory of his self-described selfishness may well keep him in emotional bondage long after his scheduled November 2012 release from incarceration.

Ironically, we're often the ones who can find ourselves in chains when we need to forgive those who've offended us. It's in Matthew's Gospel that we read Jesus' parable about a man who received forgiveness for his own large debt, but was still stuck in a prison of anger. His wounded soul could not heal...and he was unable to release another's relatively small debt to him. As Christ-followers, we've all been forgiven of a lifetime-worth of sin and shortcomings. So when we're hurt by others, let's seek Him for the Power to move us toward the freedom found only through a forgiven--and forgiving--heart.

"Make it a point not to be this guy," said Inmate P22679, referring to himself. "Don't reduce your life to shackles and chains."   

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Matter of Trust

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied
with his income. This too is meaningless.

-- Ecclesiastes 5:10 

OK... Here's one for all the history buffs and Trivial Pursuit champions out there:

What's the official motto of the United States?

Stumped? You probably can find the answer in your wallet, your car's ashtray or even between your sofa cushions. Starting more than 140 years ago, American coins--and later paper money--have featured the inscription "In God We Trust." The official website of the U.S. Treasury reveals that in 1861, a Pennsylvania minister recommended to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase that American coins should "recognize Almighty God in some form." Secretary Chase agreed and instructed the director of the Philadelphia Mint to prepare an appropriate motto.
"No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense," wrote Chase. "The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins."
In 1864, In God We Trust made its first appearance on the two-cent coin. How ironic that "Godless" money should cite such an important reminder about the real Source of our security. But if we're really honest with ourselves, shouldn't the motto read: In GOLD We Trust? After all--when things get tough in life--it's only natural to rely on our money, riches and possessions rather than the One who makes it possible to earn a living. But reliance on job security and the stock market is never wise...particularly these days. As the host of one popular television fashion show likes to remind her wide-eyed contestants: "One day you're in. And the next day, you're out!"

It's an unsettling fact: our bank accounts are no defense against life's hard realities. Illnesses strike, relationships fail and that once which seemed solid turns to dust in our hands. What we desperately need is something (actually Someone) Who's dependable. Who never changes. Who we can trust.

Jesus paints a vivid picture of this universal quest through His story about the foolish man who built a house on shifting sands. When the storm struck, the rains came and the winds blew with fury. It's no surprise that the flimsy structure collapsed with a crash. In comparison, the wise man in the story built his house on a Foundation of solid rock. So when the storm clouds of life boiled on the horizon, that house withstood even the heaviest gusts and downpours.

This leads us to the obvious question: Are you counting on your money to save you when, as the insurance commercial puts it, "life happens"? If so, why not trust in God: the One who knew everything about you before you were even born. You can take it to the bank!

"Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust," we read in Psalms, "who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sunday Best

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do,
do it all 
for the glory of God.

-- 1 Corinthians 10:31 

Maybe you grew up attending a traditional church. That might have meant getting up early on Sunday mornings, eating breakfast with the family and then rushing to put on your Sunday best--those clothes and shoes you wore only to church and on very special occasions. Then it was time to get in the car, ride to the service and listen to the preacher, choir and organist do their things.

Of course, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Millions of people feel closer to God in a traditional church setting--one often characterized by stained glass windows, choirs, sanctuaries and organ music. And wearing one's Sunday best is to them yet another way to set apart the day and glorify God.

Other Christ-followers have a different perspective. They observe that all the formalities of a traditional church service can actually hinder authentic worship. Rather than the traditionalists "being themselves" on Sunday mornings, critics suggest that some are really wearing a special suit of clothes on one particular day of the week while looking and living quite differently on the other six.

Regardless of your worship style preference, there's no doubt that every Christ-follower must avoid the trap of worshipping God with their lips rather than their lifestyle. Yes, an awe-inspiring church sanctuary can be a place of worship and prayer. But so are the workplace, gym and supermarket. What's more, the Bible tells us that worship is what God uses to rebuild and unite His scattered people. So wherever we go each day, our place of worship should follow.

The fact is that we're all hard-wired for worship. Even those who claim to be strict atheists are really active worshippers. True, they may not be regular churchgoers and proclaim Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But they--like everyone--worship something. For some, it's money, luxury and pleasure. For others, it's intellect and higher learning. And still others kneel at the altar of more negative gods such as alcohol, drugs and illicit relationships. It really boils down to the things we worry about or sacrifice our time and money for. What are the issues that make you angry? What brings you the most joy? And then there's this revealing question:

Whose attention and applause do you most crave?

Since we're all worshippers in one way or another, what type of worship does God honor? The Sunday morning variety for Christ-followers generally consists of singing praise songs, teaching God's lessons and sincerely thanking Him for how He blesses our lives through the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. But every day and everywhere, we also must worship God in unity by being Jesus' hands, feet and eyes in our community. We should do our 9:00-5:00 jobs as if God were our boss (and in fact, He is!) rather than a human supervisor. And overall, we must look for ways to ease suffering and make the world a better place. Perhaps the Apostle Paul best sums it up through his famous words from the twelfth chapter of Romans:
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship."