Saturday, June 25, 2016

First Things First

"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

-- Matthew 6:24

Bible studies can be rewarding. But who knew this much?

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail website reported that a San Antonio, TX, widow happened to mention her late husband's baseball card collection to another member of her group. She had no idea how much the cards were worth, but she wanted to clear them out of the house. 

The husband of one of the Bible study Baseball Cardparticipants just happened to be an avid baseball card collector, and he volunteered to take a look. What he found was a vast collection amassed between the 1940s and 2007--and all organized in 3-ring binders on bookshelves that lined an entire room. Amazed by the treasure trove, the collector alerted his friend Al Crisafulli, the owner of a New Jersey-based baseball memorabilia auction site. Crisafulli soon hopped a plane to Texas and was astounded by what he found.

"It's crazy--not anything I've seen before," he said, "It's easily the largest collection in terms of sheer volume. I've never seen anything like it before."

Crisafulli estimates that the widow's baseball bonanza will sell for at least $100,000. That's not bad for a bunch of old cards that were just taking up space!

The Bible tells us that there's nothing wrong with money, riches or even "stuff" in general. They're simply neutral instruments that can be used for good or for evil. In fact, God gives us various blessings to enjoy and share with others. The trouble comes when they take over our lives, such as with spending excessive time and money on eBay or Amazon. We may accumulate lots of costly possessions with such a hobby, but it can enslave us through the resulting credit card payments.

It's in Matthew's gospel that Jesus admonishes his followers about the dangers of trusting amassed wealth:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Few of us have a $100,000 baseball card collection. And even if we did, its value could disappear overnight because of market fluctuations, theft or other factors. So rather than our possessions, bank accounts or careers, let's instead place our faith in Jesus, who's the only trustworthy source of true lasting treasure.

"Seek first God's kingdom and what God wants," he assures us. "Then all your other needs will be met as well."

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Worth Our Salt

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

-- Zechariah 14:8-9

The Dead Sea certainly lives up to its name.

Super-high salinity levels--about four times higher than those found in most oceans--make it impossible for fish or aquatic plants and live in its balmy waters. In fact, the Dead Sea (actually a 34-mile-long lake) is so salty that you can float in it without trying. You can literally recline in its waters and read a book!

The reason for this anomaly is that Saltthe Dead Sea is one of the lowest points on earth. Situated about 1,300 feet below sea level between Israel and Jordan, the lake accepts fresh water from the Jordan River. But since there's no outlet for the flow to proceed, the Dead Sea's moisture evaporates quickly in the heat. This renders tons of salt and mineral deposits in the water and the shoreline, but certainly no life.

This is a fitting illustration of some people. Like the Dead Sea receiving the sweet waters of the Jordan River, these individuals gladly accept the flow of God's abundant blessings. However, nothing ever comes from this goodness. So rather than delivering life to their neighbors and communities, these fruitless followers retain their gifts and stagnate like the killing waters of the salty lake.

But that's not the way God wants it. He continues to bless us through our skills, incomes and life experiences. And he desires us to use them to benefit others. What's more, where we live, where we work and who we meet each day aren't wild coincidences. So it's no wonder that we're called to serve as Jesus' representatives by giving back, blessing others and showing love in action.

How can we demonstrate fruitfulness? One way is to support the church financially with the first part of our income. And it's by such giving that we reject materialism and acknowledge the true source of our blessings. Meanwhile, we should use our skills, talents (and sometimes sweat) to promote Jesus' message of salvation and advance his Kingdom. This also can come in many forms--from distributing food to the homeless to babysitting a neighbor's child to helping repair a shut-in's home. And of course, giving back isn't about promoting ourselves to the world and making a show of how supposedly good we are. It's instead about letting our neighbors taste the fresh waters of God's goodness.

There are lots of thirsty people out there with spirits parched by the heat of life's pitfalls and disappointments. As Christ-followers, it's up to us to offer them refreshment through living faith in Jesus. Let's therefore embrace this simple assurance from our Master found in John's Gospel:

"Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them."

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Words to Live By

"You have heard people say, 'Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.' But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you."

-- Matthew 5:43-44

The Bible is literally a Book of Life: a collection of God's words to live by. And it's through its pages that we're reminded that our Creator loves us and will do whatever it takes to have an everlasting relationship with his people. But another repeated lesson is that God's ways aren't our ways. And his thoughts aren't our own.

How true that is! Our society teaches us to Basinbeat the competition, climb the corporate ladder and keep up with our neighbors (and then pass them by). We need the biggest, the best and the shiniest. And most of all, it's not bragging if you can back it up.

There's also no place for humility. Since we have an image to keep and folks to impress, we need to dress the part and live in the right neighborhood. What's more, we must drive the right car and have the right job. It's all about us. And we deserve only the best.

God, however, has a much different message for Christ-followers: To be first, we must be last. But this uncomfortable viewpoint turns things inside out. And that's just the point.

How much better would life be if every Christ-follower were to adopt a servant's attitude and put the interests of others before their own? Jesus answered this question by example. First, he willingly surrendered the royal privileges of being God's only Son. He entered the world in the most humble of circumstances--a birth among farm animals in a less-than-tidy stable. And when he grew older, he made a blue-collar living as a carpenter. Jesus could have lived in splendor as the King of Kings. But instead, He chose a nomadic existence to teach his people about God's Good News of salvation. He put us before himself.

Jesus' ultimate act of humility was to suffer the death of a common criminal. Of course, this penalty was unwarranted. He broke no laws and lived a perfect, fault-free life. But it was for our sake that he was executed on a cross to pay for the shameful ways we've lived our lives and treated others.

How can we adopt this service-driven perspective? 

It starts by recognizing the wonderful things that God has done for us and continues to do every day. Without him, we are nothing. But through him, all things are possible. When we make God's ways and thoughts our own, we'll finally understand that it's through humility--not force--that our world will change for the better.