Sunday, October 28, 2012

Taking the First Step

Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent,
who devise ways to trip my feet.

-- Psalm 140:4

There's an old Chinese proverb that says a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step. And so it goes with the faith journey of every Christ-follower. Whether you became a believer at age 15 or 50, the Christian walk is more of a marathon than a sprint. And it starts by taking the first step.

How do we begin? At some point, we have to start moving. And our first step along the journey is to acknowledge that we're sinful and need help. This is often soon followed by our first fall, which serves to reinforce the fact that we can't walk on our own. Next, we have to brush ourselves off and get back on our feet. And we can do that through the knowledge that Jesus is willing and able to forgive our sins. When we admit our sins, it's a bit like a parent helping their toddler learn to walk. When the child stumbles, the parent is there with arms wide open.

Jesus will help us back on our feet. And it's our obedience that reveals if we're still learning to walk on our faith journey. If we're afraid to move forward because we might fall again, our spiritual life can become crippled. Jesus helps us up--not so we'll stand still--but so we'll make progress.

Of course, there's a big difference in this picture of the toddler and the parent. When we teach our children to walk, our goal is for their eventual independence. But when Jesus helps us stand up and move forward on our faith journey, he wants us to grow closer and more dependent on Him.

Throughout our faith journeys--and particularly during the crises we face in life--we'll ask Jesus to stand by us...and even hold our hand. And rest assured that He will take hold and lead us ahead. All the way to the Cross.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Making a Difference

But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you
my faith by what I do.

-- James 2:18

Have you ever wondered if The Church really makes a difference in the world? Would life be any different without it?

These are common questions raised these days by our ever-skeptical society. But they're hardly new questions. In fact, disbelievers and doubters have been around since Jesus' death and Resurrection. Nevertheless, they're questions that deserve honest answers.

And the answers are all around us. Several years ago, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcomb collaborated to write What If Jesus Had Never Been Born, a thought-provoking book that addresses the issue. The authors explain that if Jesus had never been born, there would be no Church. This is the same Church that helped stop slavery, cannibalism and the killing of children--all permissible practices at the time in their respective cultures. And if Jesus had never been born and there were no Church, the world would likely be less educated. Christian missionaries first set many of the world's languages in type to help the people read the Bible. And all but one of the first 123 colleges in Colonial America were Christian institutions. Harvard was even founded on this statement:

"Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3."

If Jesus had never been born, there would also be no Church to promote the biblical principles of free enterprise, private property rights and the worth ethic. It's because the United States government was founded largely by Christ-followers that The Declaration of Independence cites "self-evident truths" and "unalienable rights" from the "Creator." Our nation also recognizes the rule of law rather than the authority of man, a concept tracing back to the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments. Even the slogan embossed on the Liberty Bell comes from the Bible: "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof..."

The truth is that The Church HAS made a difference. And life would be very different without it. Today, Christ-followers continue to change the world in both small ways and large, such as by delivering meals to shut-ins or providing housing for the homeless. Samaritan's Purse--the Christian relief organization headed by Franklin Graham--also distributes Christmas packages each year as a direct expression of Christ's love for the world's children. And the organization also helps thousands of refugees cope with man-made and natural disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia and other nations, and the Sudanese refugee crisis.

Of course, there's something that we--The Church--must never forget: There's a Power behind this difference.

"I am the vine; you are the branches," declares Jesus. "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Real Thing

When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven.

-- 1 Kings 8:54


Whether it involves a product, a company or a person, the public tends to gravitate to what's believable, what's trustworthy and what satisfies. Fads come and go. But authenticity--The Real Thing--often leads to longevity.

Maybe that seems like a no-brainer. But it happens to be a principle that one Fortune 500 company ignored with disastrous results. In 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced New Coke with much hype and fanfare. Unfortunately, this product replaced the tried-and-true fizzy beverage that had quenched the world's thirst since the late 1800's. Consumers complained that the new drink tasted suspiciously like rival Pepsi. The black market began selling $30 cases of the old cola to those still thirsty for the beloved original recipe. And worse yet, sales of New Coke soon fell flat (pun intended). The result was a public relations fiasco for Coca-Cola. So within weeks, the company pulled New Coke from the market and returned to the The Real Thing.

Coca-Cola's folly is a textbook example of how companies can seriously damage themselves by replacing their reliable products with inferior, second-rate imitations. Consumers might be fooled for a while. But eventually, they see through the slick promotion and hype.

Of course, this truism extends beyond the realms of marketing and advertising. Authenticity also means a lot in our relationships...and in our worship. Whether you prefer Traditional worship (stained glass, steeples, choirs, etc.) or the more free-form Contemporary expression of faith, a critical common denominator is that every Christ-follower must avoid the trap of worshiping God with their lips rather than through their daily actions, attitudes and lifestyles. Yes, an awe-inspiring church sanctuary (or even a movie theater) can be a place of worship and prayer. But so are the workplace, gym and supermarket. Wherever we worship, we can't just phone it in.

Just as consumers can usually spot a fad product, God can also spot phony followers. Here's what He once told the people of Jerusalem through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

"When you extend your hands, I'll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won't listen," God declared. "Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good." 
That's a sobering message, to say the least! So what type of prayer and worship does God honor? The Sunday morning variety for most Christ-followers 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 in every way, the Church also must worship God authentically by being Jesus' hands, feet and eyes at home, in the workplace and in our community. 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."  

Our God seeks authenticity from His followers. It's up to the Church to respond with The Real Thing.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Where's the Beef?

But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." 
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

 -- James 2:18

"Where's the Beef?" was one of the most popular catchphrases of the 1980's. It originated from a Wendy's commercial depicting an outspoken grandma (played by 83-year-old Clara Peller) and her two elderly friends at a fast food restaurant. As the ladies inspect their meal, they observe, "The bun is very nice...a nice fluffy bun." It's then that feisty 4-feet 10-inch Clara asks the famous question about the tiny piece of meat that's nearly hidden by the bread:

"Where's the beef?...Where's the beef?!"

Nearly 30 years later, people are still asking "Where's the beef?" when they want to see evidence rather than empty words. And it's a question that's as valid for The Church as it is for a hamburger restaurant. As Christ-followers, we're able to make remarkable claims about how our Savior--Jesus--has transformed us. But if the public sees that our attitudes and lifestyles are really no different (or maybe even worse) than anyone else's, they have a right to be skeptical and point at our hypocrisy.

Centuries before Clara Peller asked her question, James--the half brother of Jesus--used a related illustration to help separate the steak from the sizzle:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

As the Body of Christ known as The Church, we can't claim to be better than anyone else because of any good deeds ("works") we might do. If that were the case, it would be possible to earn our way to God's acceptance. The fact is that our feeble efforts and good intentions are never enough. There's nothing we can do...except to follow His plan of salvation and accept His free gift of freedom through Jesus Christ.

Christ-followers aren't "better" than anyone else. But they are blessed to do amazing things in this world. Rather than being saved BY our own good works, our faith leads us to be being saved FOR doing good works. The Church is therefore to be Jesus' mouth, eyes, hands and feet in the community and around the world--all to demonstrate God's power to transform lives and put His love in action.