Thursday, August 9, 2018

It Is Appointed Unto Man Once To Die . . . Then What?

I have chosen not to include any photos with this edition of my blog. I hope you will consider it anyway

Today I have been thinking of the passing of my cousin. Amy is the oldest child of my first cousin James & Marilyn Appleby.  As she grew, thank the Lord, she became the physical image of her mother.  .

As I shared her passing with a friend they remarked, “No one wants to outlive their children . . . . it just isn’t right.” I paused for a moment before answering them as my natural inclination was to agree. From the perspective of this life in this world it seems upside down. None of us really want to outlive our children . . . .  We want them to have a long, fulfilling and meaningful life. Somehow when they die young we think they were cheated of something. 

As I thought about Amy and this idea of dying too young I remembered a preacher talking about a man and he said “He lived to be 70 but he died at 35. The point being that longevity does not equal a well lived life. Longevity only means you got old. In Amy’s case her 50 years were packed with meaningful living.

Our families were close in those days. From early childhood right on through seminary James and I shared life. The first 26 years of our lives were like the strands of a rope woven together. We attended the same schools, felt the call of God to the preaching ministry, and in general shared life.  It was in the midst of these years that Amy was born.  Indeed, I recall the night Amy was born . . . . I remember the telephone call from James announcing her arrival . . . . I still treasure how Susan and I caught his excitement and it became ours.  It was not something we would feel until the next year our first child was born.

I’ll be honest I never expected to out live any of my children or those of my cousins. I suspect none of us do. Such is not the natural order of things. We expect to watch our children grow, marry, give us grandchildren and then repeat the process themselves. We wanted our children to grow up healthy, marry well, become the best they can be, honor God with their lives and live to watch their own families do the same.  There is something wrong with folks who don’t want that. After all, it is the natural order of things. And because it is the natural order of things we feel something is wrong when it doesn’t happen that way. It is just not right we say.

But our God is not bound by the natural order of things. Sometimes He chooses to shake up the natural order and do things differently. But He never does so without reason. That reason may be beyond our understanding but like the other side of the horizon it is there. I don’t know why Amy had to be taken from us so soon. And to be perfectly honest I am not even sure I like it. Was it the Lord releasing her from the agony of her disease (cancer); was it because she had finished the course He had given her to run; was it to teach us something about facing our own impending death with faith in God’s provision . . . . I don’t know.  But as my Indian friend, Sam Matthews, used to remind me frequently as he put his hands together palms up and looking skyward, “Brother David” he would say, “Our times are in His hands.”

I heard someone once say about death and our view of it that “Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight."  I have been blessed of God to travel much of the world and in every departure there was the sadness of a goodbye but no sooner had the doors to aircraft closed that we began to be excited about the people waiting on the other end of our flight to greet us.

Over the years I have learned from my family (The Appleby Clan) that death is not a time of sorrow.  For our family it has always been a time of celebration. General George S. Patton in speaking of the men in his 3rd Army who had died fighting the evils of Naziism expressed the same idea when he said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should  thank God that such men lived.”  That is what we do. 

We rejoice and celebrate that God put them in our life; that he blessed them as they lived; that they trusted and served their Lord; and that they have now gone to heaven where they shall enjoy he Lord forever. We mourn our loss but we celebrate the gift of life He gave them. We rejoiced, as I mentioned earlier, when we learned that God had breathed life into Amy and she became a living soul and again when through faith in Jesus she received eternal life.  Hence our sadness is turned into joy . . . . . the joy of the Lord and that is our strength.

The horizon my be the limit of our physical sight but because of our faith in Jesus it is not the limit of our view.  Through His word God has given us both the assurance that the horizon (death) is not the end of our life.  Further more, it has given us a peek beyond the horizon. That peek gives us an assurance that the horizon is not the limit to our lives. 

I remember when I was flying a vintage aircraft (a T-6 Texan) and coming out of a barrel roll my back seat driver reminded me that as we came out of the roll to not let up on the turn until the nose of the aircraft was above the horizon. Until the nose of the plane was above the horizon we were losing altitude. We must look above the horizon so we can see beyond the horizon.

What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – these are the things God has prepared for those who love him – and these things lie just beyond the horizon. We see them in part but once we get beyond the horizon we behold them as they are. “We are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  In the opening paragraph I mentioned that my cousin grew to be the physical image of her mom. Now I am pleased to announce she has taken on the spiritual image of her Lord . . . our Lord.

Bev Shea used to sing a wonderful Christian Song entitled If We Could See Beyond Today that speaks of the difference between our perspective on life.

If we could see beyond today
As God can see,
If all the clouds should roll away,
The shadows flee;
O'er present griefs we would not fret
Each sorrow we would soon forget,
For many joys are waiting yet,
For you and me.

If we could know beyond today
As God doth know,
Why dearest treasures pass away,
And tears must flow;
And why the darkness leads to light
Why dreary days will soon grow bright,
Some day life's wrong will be made right,
Faith tells us so.

If we could see, if we could know,
We often say.
But God in love a veil doth throw
Across our way.
We cannot see what lies before,
And so we cling to Him the more
He leads us till this life is o'er,
Trust and obey.

In a temporal sense we cannot see beyond today. We anticipate what God has prepared for us but we cannot know the fulness of what He has prepared. By faith we see the unseen and we know the unknown.  What’s more we know that those of us who have owned Jesus Christ as our Lord will be reunited with our loved ones who have already journeyed beyond the horizon.

We are firmly committed to the promise of Jesus who said of those who placed their faith in Him as their Lord and Savior, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one.”

Folks we are not going to have eternal life after we die . . . . we have it right now. Death is not the end of life. Death is merely the door through which we will pass from the temporal realm to the heavenly realm. It is that moment of transition where we shed our mortal body and take on our spiritual body. Until then we will work and we will rejoice not knowing when the hour of our own departure shall be but confident of this one thing that the same Jesus in whom we have believed will in that day receive us unto himself.

People who know me know that I am a major proponent of hymns and I have a lot of reasons for that. One is how they express the truths of God’s promises to us. My favorite hymn reminds me of the assurance I have in Jesus The first verse says,

Blessed assurance Jesus is mine,
Oh what a foretaste of glory Divine,
Heir of salvation, purchase of God
born of his Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story this is my song,
praising my savior all the day long.

So that, Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I'm Proud to be a Sharecropper's Son!

I recently watched a documentary from a friend that described  "Sharecropping" as the "not so distant cousin of slavery." Truth be told in a way it was. The documentary was focused on the post Civil War era and its impact on the freed slaves. However, it did not present itself as that. Instead, it had an underlying theme that Sharecropping was limited to the decedents of slaves in the South. I suspect that was intentional and inadequate and not true

Sharecropping was not exclusively an African American experience. Sharecropping and its first cousin "Tenant Farming" were not exclusively a racial institution. More accurately it was a poor man's means of farming and a hard way to survive. Tenant farmers were usually a little better off than the sharecropper. They actually owned their mules and tools whereas the Sharecropper did not so they had an opportunity to advance. 

It is true that many "blacks" were sharecroppers but it is also true that many "whites" were too. It is also true that this system of farming petty much perpetuated the cycle of poverty for both groups.  For whites it began pretty much during the antebellum period in the South and became a way of life for former slaves after the Civil War. In each case, Sharecropper or Tenant farmer, the land holder usually provided the land and capital for the crop planting, tools and stock needed to put in a crop. The "Sharecropper" and his family provided the labor and they shared the profit based on a very one-sided agreement. 

When the crop came in the land owner paid to have the cotton ginned (usually on the half for the seed that went into the next year's crop), any advances made to the sharecropper and sent to market. What was left was then divided between the land owner and the sharecropper based on an agreed upon formula. In Mississippi this was typically 5/6 of the cotton crop to the land owner and 1/6 the sharecropper and if he grew corn he kept 5/6 and the land owner got 1/6. It also meant that come "settle-up day" the Sharecropper hand little if any cash. On average probably something like $100 to $200 for the year. 

How do I know this you might ask. Well, I know this because my family was all three at one time or another. In fact this cycle was not broken until WWII. I have a lot of good evidence to say that my family came to the North American Continent prior to 1749. I mention that to note that we have been a part of, as President Trump might say, "making America Great since before there was a United States of America. 

The first Appleby farm was purchased in 1749 in Orange County, Virginia and was
expanded to include land in Cumberland County. From Virginia. as our family grew, it became a part of the westward migration receiving land grants in Kentucky (in that day it was a part of Virginia) and later Missouri. It was there that my fourth great grandfather in 1815 married Polly Flowers in Creelsboro, Kentucky and shortly thereafter they made their way to Missouri. My fourth great grandfather, Robert Appleby arrived in what would later become the Poplar Bluff Missouri area prior to 1819. He and his wife Polly settled along Cane Creek and several other families (Kittrell, Eudaley, Scott and the Epps). Over time Robert and his son Charles (born abt. 1819-20) managed to gain title to a large section of land between Cane and Black Creeks. 

Charles, who became a land surveyor added a great deal of acreage by surveying on the halves. Charles became a prominent figure in what became Butler County serving in a number of public roles. In short, he was a land owner of considerable means. Note: He was a slave holder but seeing the handwriting on the wall he sold all his slaves 1n the 1850's and instead of slaves he hired Indians to work his fields. The local Indians worked hard and provided their own housing and food. It was in 1852 that my Great Grandfather Robert was born. Unfortunately, Charles' wife, Rebecca, died giving birth to Robert. Charles blamed Robert for Rebecca's death. So as a lad he left home with an uncles to settle in Texas. 

Though his father was a wealthy land owner in Missouri when Robert left home he did so with only the clothes on his back. In Texas Robert became a poor sharecrop cotton farmer. He was so poor that when he and Martha McGehee married in 1877 they lived in a one room cabin with a dirt flower and had a quilt over hay as a bed. They were what you would call "dirt poor." 

The land they worked ranged from hard-scrabble ground to rich North East Texas soil. The work was hard, the days were long and the rewards were few. But it generally served to bind families together

I am not trying to give a detailed summary of my family history. That will come in a book I am writing for my children. Here I just wanted to take issue with the perception that only African Americans were sharecroppers. An awful lot of non-blacks were share cropping prior to the Civil war and my family was one of them.

Sharecrop Farmers have my respect because they were generally hard working people who had a deep and abiding faith in God and were honest in their dealings with other. These same qualities earned them the respect of their neighbors. I am proud to be a Sharecrop farmer's son, grandson, great-grandson and I proudly stand on their shoulder. 

I give this summary to say that I am proud of my heritage. My immediate forefathers were poor by any standard used to measure poverty. But they worked hard, were committed Christians, known for their integrity, were fiercely loyal and generous in every place where they lived. More importantly they passed it down to their children. I am proud that I stand on the shoulders of these people who laid it all on the line for their families and though I haven't mentioned it for their country as well. (Our family has fought in every major war beginning with service in the Continental Army in Virginia. This is followed by service in the French and Indian War, the Civil War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Our Churches Must Become Christocentric

I remember the day I knelt in the altar of the Highland Park Baptist Church of Kilgore, Texas and a group of ordained men, both preachers and deacons (see photo at left), ordained my by the laying on of hands to the Gospel Ministry.  Prior to that moment which was the climax of the experience, I sat through a friendly but serious and rigorous questioning period by these same men. I was asked about my salvation and my call to preach. I was asked about my view of the church and other doctrines.

Dr. Edwin Mays, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Kilgore, served as the chairman of the ordination council that did this candidate evaluation. I got a lot of tough questions and a few softballs as well. Advice and admonitions were freely and lovingly given. It was an exhilarating time.

As Ed brought the council’s examination to a close having given each man opportunity to speak and ask whatever questions they desired he closed out by saying to me that I should adopt the Apostle Paul’s attitude toward sharing the Gospel and then quoted First Corinthians 2:1-5: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

That was probably the most important piece of advice ever given to me by another preacher. My job as God’s preacher is not to be the congregations therapist, economic advisor, political activist. My job is to make Jesus known to all people through the proclamation of the Gospel.  In short he was telling me to make all my preaching Christocentric. I have endeavored to do just that. Now that was not the first time I had heard this advice.  My home church pastor told me the same thing when I “surrenderd” to preach. More importantly may pastors over the years practiced Christocentric preaching and as a result I witnessed the power of such preaching to meet the spiritual needs in people’s lives.  In fact, to this day there are others who would attest to these life changing experiences of which I speak.

Unfortunately we live in a day when this kind of focused preaching is an anomaly.  Now as I travel about and visit churches or listen to services broadcast on television I have to search hard to find the Christ anywhere in the message of the day. I usually learn a lot of psych-theology about raising my children; having a good relationship with my wife; about how to build a relationship with my neighbors and get along with society in general. If I do all that I can do that is what I get but if I let the Holy Spirit do all He can do I get what God can do. I think I prefer God's working rather than mine. Before we started stumbling all over ourselves to demonstrate to a secular world that we were legitimate and had a message that addressed their perceived needs we relied on the Holy Spirit to change lives.

Changed lives bring changed communities and changed communities produce a changed society and a changed society brings a changed world. But here is the catch only the life that is changed by the Holy Spirit of God can set in motion such a series of changes. I believe the church needs a  fresh touch by the Lord. We must never forget as we endeavor to reach the world for Christ that it is never about our effort but buy how God uses our witness.

We need to abandon this fruitless and powerless psycho-theology that is nothing but a pseudo
Christian 12 step plan. These may very well explain the process of change but they do not have the power to change. I watch a lot of “Christian” people jumping up and down singing and shouting but I see no miraculous changes. Those who witnessed the miraculous changes in peoples lives know of what I speak. Alcoholics (we called them drunkards) were saved and sobered in an instant; Abusive men were turned to kindness in a momentary experience during some service; . . . .  We saw lives changed as people in repentance and by faith were confronted with Jesus Christ and said in some fashion “Jesus is Lord.”  By the way, in nearly every instance the first thing the wanted to do was go to their family and/or friends at tell them what they had experienced.

Most “Christians” are not telling the Gospel story because they have not actually experienced the Gospel. I believe that if preachers were to return to Christocentric preaching they’d see half of their members come to true faith. The kind of faith that can stand when the praise band is entertaining them; the kind of faith that can look Isis in the eye and say, “Jesus is Lord.”

The truth is that this testimony is linchpin on which true faith and feigned faith hang. In the first century not one single “Christian” would have died if they had been willing to reject Christ by simply declaring “Ο Καίσαρας είναι Κύριος” (Caesar is Lord). Instead they said, “ο Ιησούς είναι Κύριος” (Jesus is Lord) and went to their death.  They were willing to give up what they could not keep to gain that which they could not loose . . . . eternal life. If one really want to feel the impact of Christocentric preaching one merely needs to view the motion picture Paul: Apostle of Christ.

We are living in a day like no other and yet is increasingly beginning to reflect the first century. Preachers should preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We should spend more time preaching against Sin and less time pointing out people’s sins. We need be declaring the universal truth that all of us are sinners and that all of us are repeatedly coming short of God’s expectations and what is more there I nothing that we can do other than to acknowledge our sin and receive God’s forgiveness by receiving Jesus Christ as Lord. We need to get back to basics . . . our world needs us to get back to basics so that those who do come to faith will be able to say “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have complete boldness, so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

My concern is that we are so busy building religious kingdoms that we have forgotten the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.”  History tells us one thing for certain and that is everything done by man will return to the earth from which it came only that which is done for Christ will last. And just what do we do for Christ. Well, as one who has done so, I can tell you it is not beautiful houses of worship. It is living and telling what the Lord has done for you.

That’s why I stress the importance of Christocentric preaching. People need to know the Lord in a life changing way. If the core and focus of your life has not been changed then you need Jesus. Everyone who trust Jesus Christ as Lord is changed fundamentally. They become a new creature. Paul is so right when he says in Ephesians that he takes both the pagan and the Jew and makes of both of them a new kind of man (ἵνα τοὺς δύο κτίσῃ ἐν αὑτ  εἰς ἕνα καινὸν ἄνθρωπον ποιων εἰρήνην,). The kind of man who will knowingly stand and facing certain death declare “Jesus is Lord.” 

Another aspect of this is that he will not deny Jesus by his manner of living. You see, as much faith as it takes to not deny Jesus in the face of physical death it requires and equal faith to not deny him in our daily living. Our prayer should be “Lord help me to live in such a self forgetful way that others they face may see.”

As a Christian you have two ways of sharing the gospel. First, by telling what the Lord has done for you. Share your experience with the Lord.  Like the blind man you simply tell what you do know. “ I can’t answer all my own questions let alone yours but this one thing I do know, once I was blind but now I can see.”  Remember, your story is authentic. It is what you experienced.  As you make your way through life the Holy Spirit will open ways for you to share His story by sharing your story. Jesus told the healed demoniac to "’Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” 

I can guarantee you that when you become a Christian and your life starts reflecting that fact people will take notice and you will have ample opportunity to tell them what the Lord has done for you and share the truth that He can do it for them as well.

The second is the manner of life you live.  Our lives are to reflect the life of Jesus. We used to sing, “Things are different now something happened to me when I gave my life to Jesus.”  Trust me, when Jesus saves you you’ll know it. The external signs may be minimal or they may be dramatic but the internal changes are always dramatic. “I once was lost but now I’m found was blind but now I see.” When we receive Christ as Lord He becomes our Savior by not just forgiving our sin but creating of us a καινὸν ἄνθρωπον (new kind of man) called Christian.

This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit and it enables the Christian to life on a higher plane morally and ethically. We express this theologically as “Christ in us the hope of glory.”  This also explains the miraculous stories in the Bible and in my home church. I want us to once again experience in our churches the powerful life changing work of the Holy Spirit.

There is a little chorus called “Let Others See Jesus In You” that sums this up pretty well . . . . . “While passing thro' this world of sin, and others your life shall view, Be clean and pure without, within; Let others see Jesus in you. Your life's a book before their eyes, They're reading it thro' and thro' Say, does it point them to the skis, Do others see Jesus in you? Then live for Christ both day and night, Be faithful, be brave and true, and lead the lost to life and Christ. Let others see Jesus in you.”

Paul’s name is one that is remembered from those early days of the Faith but there were hundreds of thousands of others whose names are lost to history who faithfully lived their lives day by day expressing the gifts of the Spirit to their community. It was this that drew their neighbors to faith. They may have seen and heard Paul preach once or twice but their neighbors they saw each day. The love and compassion they shared and the strength of their faith in the face of ridicule, persecution and death cause people to stand up and take notice and they soon discovered for themselves that what He did for other He also will do for them.

Hebrews 12 introduces us to what I call God’s Hall of Fame by pointing out that all the believers before us are as it were a great cloud of witnesses encouraging us to complete our race. In light of what many of those between the day that these words were penned and our day many have actually died for the faith and have been added to this collection of faithful saints whose names have been entered into God’s Hall of Fame.  “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.  Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.

I learned the following poem from my Grandmother and it has been important to my Christian life since then. It helps me keep things in perspective. Maybe, it will speak to your heart as well.

Your name may not appear down here
In this world’s Hall of Fame.
In fact, you may be so unknown
That no one knows your name;
The headlines here may pass you by,
The neon lights of blue,
But if you love and serve the Lord,
Then I have news for you.

This Hall of Fame is only good
As long as time shall be;
But keep in mind, God’s Hall of Fame
Is for eternity.
This crowd on earth they soon forget
The heroes of the past.
They cheer like mad until you fail
and that’s how long you last.
But in God’s Hall of Fame
By just believing on His Son
Inscribed you’ll find your name.

I tell you, friend, I wouldn’t trade
My name, however small,
That’s written there beyond the stars
In that Celestial Hall,
For any famous name on earth,
Or glory that it shares;
I’d rather be an unknown here
And have my name up there.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Church: We Need To Go Back To Where We Started!

I begin with the prayer of Habakkuk the prophet.  "Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy." (Habakkuk 3:1-2) and a challenge:  "Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; (Isaiah 51:1).

Most of us recognize that Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, is losing ground in our culture. Christian’s seem to want to hide the fact that they are Christians from their non-Christian friends; Our institutions no longer even pay “lip-service” to our world view and ethical standards; we are certainly not being public with our faith. When we are public about our faith it is usually in a negative way; and it seems that we are prouder of what we stand against than what we stand for. We also find with each passing day a new attack on some aspect of the public expressions of our faith in our businesses and government. The Gospel seems to be an "inconvenient Truth" to our evolving culture that must be marginalized, dismissed or just plain done away with..

I heard today that while 80% of the people in America claim to Christian’s only about 20% actually attend worship services. I also learned that of that 20% who do attend worship services regularly only 65% will have actually opened and read their Bibles over a one year period of time.  I suspect that many of those who do read the Bible do not accept it as God's word. We have the largest churches in the world just down the road from where we live. These churches broadcast their services on television and through live streaming on the Internet. Their pastors and musicians have national followings and have written books on virtually every subject imaginable and still despite all this the influence of Christianity is declining with each passing day.

One writer recently said that Christianity is going to loose the “battle” with Islam because most
people who claim to be Christians do not have real life changing and courage generating faith in Jesus Christ. He went on to say, “They will capitulate and convert to save their lives. There are none in America, he said, who will stand in the face of having their heads removed from their bodies that will declare “Jesus is Lord.”’

I recall my wife’s uncle, then pastor of a large Mississippi church during what I call the pre-mega church era saying essentially the same thing. He said, “I have a church full of people who as Christians are a 100 miles wide and only a few inches deep. The slightest trouble or trial that comes into their life destroys them.”  They are desperately in need of a closer walk with the Lord.

As I listened to this I thought to myself, “These things ought not to be.” If they are true and I suspect they are, what is the reason and what is the answer.” I also thought, “If I am to find an explanation and an answer where do I turn?”

My first thought was that I need to go back in time to a time and place when Christianity was turning the world upside down. The persistent witness of the church was penetrating the Roman world and its myriad of cultures and changing them. If we are going to recapture the ability to impact the world in which we live with the Gospel we are going to have to discover what it was about those early believers that shook the world.

The first thing I think of when I think of those early believers is the testimony of the man who was born blind and Jesus healed his blindness. He couldn’t answer all the questions that the religious leaders plied him with. Instead, all he would says was, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

All he could do was tell what he had experienced. But then that is the secret, he had experienced something and was willing to talk about what he knew. So, in my mind we must make sure that we have actually had a genuine life changing experience with Jesus Christ. That’s the beginning. Until one has had a life changing experience with Jesus Christ you cannot go another step.

That life changing experience comes when we by faith accept Jesus Christ as our Lord. Paul said it so simply when he stated, “Whosoever declares that Jesus is Lord shall be saved.” Charles Austin Miles penned it so well in his song But This I Know . . . .

I do not know the depths of Jesus' love,
That brought Him down to earth from heaven above,
Nor why He bore the cross up Calvary
And shed His precious blood so willingly.

I do not know what pain He suffered there,
The burden of my sin and shame to bear.
It may be well to hide it all from me,
Lest my own heart should break in sympathy.

I do not know what I can do, or say,
My debt of gratitude to Him to pay;
But I at least may cry,"O Christ divine!
Had I a thousand lives they should be Thine."

But this one thing I know: That when the crimson flow
Dropped to the earth below,  It fell on me.
My eyes were opened wide, I saw Him crucified,
And knew for me he died.

This is the foundation of the Christian faith.  People do not become Christians through teaching about better homes, marriages, finances etc. They will not become Christians by works of righteousness or giving of alms. People become a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ as their living Lord.  This is the kind of faith that transforms a life. In point of fact you become a new creation in Christ Jesus.  There are not many ways to be righteous before God. There is but one way and Jesus himself stated it plainly when he said, I am the truth, the way and the life and no one comes to the Father but by me.”  Christianity is inclusive in that salvation is offered to all and it is exclusive in that it only given to those who put the whole weight of their faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

I am here to tell you the power of the early church and the power of the church in which I was raised were one and the same thing. The power of God to change lives was witnessed on a regular basis. We have turned everything in that incipient church’s experience into metaphors when they were is that day actual historical events. Lives were really being changed. A thief is saved and he steals no more; a murderous man is saved and he kills no more; an overbearing husband and father is saved and he ceases to be overbearing. Real lives were really changed and that impacted the community.

They community saw these changes that could not be attributed to anything but the working of the Holy Spirit and because they lived in the community and knew the former way of life of their neighbors and understood the magnitude of the changes the Gospel made in their lives. If the world is going to be impacted by the gospel as it was in the days of Peter, James and John then lives are going to need to be changed the same way of Paul, the blind man and the jailer of Philippi.

When I was a young preacher our community had an abundance of people like myself who felt the call of God on our lives to preach the Gospel. Our churches had pastors who understood that calling because they themselves had the self-same call. Consequently they opened their pulpits to us as you preachers and we began at an early age. I think I was 17 when I preached my first sermon before a Sunday night packed house. I mention this to give context to what I want to say about our merry band of young preachers.

First, we had little education in theology. The depth of your theological thinking was what we got in having grown up in Sunday School. That meant we weren't doing any "in-depth" preaching. It was short and to the point and always included the fact that people are sinners, Jesus died for their sin, by faith Jesus would come into their life, forgive their sin and give them eternal life. We then offered an invitation (altar call) to receive Christ and more often than not people were saved. Before these meetings where we preached we spent hours during the preceding week praying that God would honor His word and lives would be changed. You see we knew our inadequacy and so we heavily depended upon the Holy Spirit to use what we offered. We always saw the lives changed not as a result of our ability to preach but as the product of the Holy Spirit's power to convict and convert. "To God be the Glory great things He has done." I am saying we need to see God do these kinds of great things in our presence so we have a real reason to sing "Great is the Lord."

It was on the power of these personal stories of faith stories and hundreds more like them that got the cultures attention. So much so that one city official declared that “These people who are literally turning our world on its head have come here also.”  The first church which had nothing but their faith and the Holy Spirit were penetrating their world by nothing more complex than the stories of their own transformed lives. It was simple: They said “He lives.” The world says, “How do you know?” They replied, “Because He lives within my heart and you can see the evidence of that in what I say and do.”  They would then add, “And what He has done for me He has done for you and will effect in your life if you have faith in Him.”  In many ways it was the observation of a changed life that gave opportunity for the believer to say, "Well, let me tell you about the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life" and then followed that by telling what the Lord had done for them. Nothing has changed in this regard.

Now keep in mind, and I know this will be hard to do, that these people did not have the Internet, cell phones, or any of the other electronic devices. They did not have marketing gurus to promote their branding and the did not have sales specialists to teach them how to convince people how to accept their message. They did it through the belief that the Spirit of God through the power of the redemptive story of Jesus Christ and its impact on their individual lives. They simply believed there was power in His story and all they had to do was tell His story and live like him.

They did not target sins but they did target Sin. The modern church does one of two things. We either focuses on individual sins and therefore we join marches, protest, boycotts and engage in shouting matches and condemnation of whole groups of people. We find ourselves in the condemnation business instead of the business of delivering the good news of God’s loved and grace.

Other Christians opt to just ignore sinful behavior in favor of the universal love of God for people. They focus on the nature of God. After all does the Bible not say that “God is love?” Indeed it does but it nowhere elevates love to God. The result of this is that people enter the church bringing all their , shall I use the word, “pagan” ways with them. Neither of these occurred to the early church.

The church, if it is to impact the culture in which we live is going to have to get back to basics. The pulpit needs to consistently and continually proclaim the kerygma (the essentials of the Apostles doctrine) and Christians in general need to live consistent lives that demonstrate to an unbelieving world the power of the Gospel to change lives. To emulate Peter and John who said, Silver and Gold we have none but what we do have give we unto you.”   To copy the example of Jesus who said, “The son of man came not to be ministered to but to minister.”

I am not saying this cannot happen with the mega churches but I am not hopeful. I feel strongly that we need to abandon the corporate model for doing church and revive the family model. We were more influential in our communities when our churches were smaller. More lives were powerfully changed than we see today. We developed a Christian culture that while scattered among a dozen church groups infected the whole community. Personally I am not even sure that God ever intended for the church to become institutionalized. There are even companies that specialize in Church Branding, Church Marketing plans and programs, Fund raising companies specializing in churches, architects and builders who do nothing but churches. In short, there are whole industries dependent upon the growth of the mega-church movement.

However, I am pretty sure the modern mega-church is not what He had in mind for His people. The New Testament seems to suggest that the church should meet in small groups (“from house to house” is the phrase) where relationships could be established with depth and where the “least of these my brethren” will not be overlooked.

This return to the family model will be hard because it will have an impact of the religious business industry that has risen around the mega-church. Sermons and books by prominent pastors are copyrighted though produced during their pastoral tenure. Christian musicians now police their music so that small church have to purchase a use license from copyright companies to even sing the songs and God forbid you record one during your service and put it on Youtube. It is a whole new approach to “My house is a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.” The spiritual gifting of God is for the edification of the church not the financial enrichment of the believer.

Unfortunately, the corporate model all but eliminated our being the arms and feet of Jesus to “our” world. We want grand concerts with superstar musicians powerfully singing wonderful “new” songs. We have worship teams that are little more than our own full time gospel singers who entertain us with their abilities. There is no place for the weaker brothers and sisters, or the less talented. Many wonder how can they compete with the virtuosos on the platform? Truth be told, I would never heard my mother sing "Face to Face" in church on a Sunday morning in today's worship services.

We are to be a family of believers who come to the same table to dine and go into the same community to live out our faith. What would happen if our communities started seeing people once again dramatically saved. I know I can recite from my own youth many cases where it was clear to all present that what was happening was the Lord’s doing and not anything we had done. Were we surprised? No, we expected God to work. The surprise came when it didn’t happen.

What I am getting at is that the church is the Lord’s body. It is His hands, feet, ears, mouth etc. in the world today. Our churches, though small by today’s standards, would have large groups meeting to pray that they become as the disciples at Pentecost . . . in one place and one accord; To confess sin and receive forgiveness; To experience encouragement and share burdens; And, to acknowledge that it was not by might nor by power but by the Spirit of God that people came to faith and were healed.

In short tell His story by telling your story and validate your changed life through the actions you take and the attitudes you express.

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

In Christ there is no East or West,
No North or South;
Only one great love
Inside and out.

True hearts everywhere
Some deaf and some blind
Singin' one melody
Lost souls cannot find.

Join hands and have faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
There is no black or white
Only one great love
Hatred cannot divide

Join hands and have faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

Join hands and have faith,
Forgive your enemy
Surely we're all a part
Of one big family.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Bible: God's Message to Humanity

There has been a lot of talk about Billy Graham in the wake of his home going. There is much talk about the simplicity of his preaching, the focus of his message the integrity of his living, and the humility of his character. News media has spoken of his being “Pastor to the nation” and confidant of Presidents and other world leaders. We have revisited his roll in the civil rights movement and the tearing down of the Iron Curtain. Make no mistake about it . . . .this humble man from North Carolina was a mighty man of God during our day.  Millions can testify to hearing him preach, multitudes will tell you were saved because he came to their town. A handful of people can claim to have walked close by his side and a few of us brushed the hem of his garment.

He was a gift of God to a lost and dying world reminding us that God still loves us and though we have sinned and come short of God’s expectations He sent his own Son to give His life for our sin so that whosever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  But by his own testimony he said he could not go one step further in ministry until he settled the matter of whether or not he could trust the Bible. After much trivial and searching of soul he finally came to say that he didn’t understand it all but that by faith he believed it all and the rest is history.

Folks the Bible, the Word of God and I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ it declares: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”

When I was a young preacher having only preached in my home church I had a chance meeting with Dr. Billy Graham at the Houston Baptist College. If was brief as he was leaving the property but for reasons I shall never know this side of heaven as he left shaking hands with those lined along his path he took my hand, looked directly into my eyes as though he were looking at my soul and ask what my plans were for my life. I replied, that God had only recently called me to preach. He then said, "That's good . . . .preach the Bible." With that he moved on but I have never forgotten that handshake, those focused eyes and that advice to "preach the Bible."

He may have said that a thousand times before to other but that day it was to me and it stuck. In turn over my 50 plus years of preaching I have given that same advice to a lot of preachers. It is something that I have endeavored to do myself and it is my advice to all who would seek to be a preacher.  Billy Graham has been, and rightly so, lauded for staying on message. He literally purposed in his heart an d through his preaching to know nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified. His message could be summed up in a few basic Scriptural truths.

 1 .God loves us.
 2. All have sinned
 3. Sin separates us from God.
 4. We cannot overcome the consequences of our sin.
 5. God knowing this sent Jesus, His Son, to die on the cross to pay the price of our sin.
 6. God raised Jesus from the dead
 7. Those who by faith accept Jesus as Savior and Lord have their sin forgiven.

To me these seven ideas formed the core of the Gospel and the summation of everything that Scripture declared. If you do not believe these I do not see how you can call yourself a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the Gospel and there is no other. Jesus said emphatically that he “is the way the truth and the life and that no one, absolutely no one comes to the Father but through Him.

“Preach the Bible” . . . . . . . those words ring in my are to this day. Through four years at what I believe to be one of the nations preeminent conservative Christian Colleges and three years at the world’s largest theological seminary I would be exposed to a wide range of theological theories and positions. But when I walked of off the campus of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for the last time as a student I did so with the same rock solid faith in the Bible as God’s word.  To this day I cannot understand how anyone can reject the Bible as God’s Word and call themselves a Minister of the Gospel.

After all, was it not on accepting the authority of God’s word that I came to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If I could not trust the veracity of the Scripture how could I trust its promise that God loved me.  Early in my life I adopted the motto of the Apostle Paul, “Who be unto me if I preach not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

We are living in a society that has largely relegated the Bible to some dusty shelf or cabinet drawer. It is rarely taken out and read. When it is it is usually to debate some arcane doctrine or esoteric point of view.  Billy Graham tells of his having doubts about the Bible and having to have a dramatic confrontation with God in the woods to settle in his heart the roll of the Bible. I have no such story. In fact, it was not un til I crossed paths with people who rejected the Bible and the loving God it spoke about that I even knew not accepting the Bible as God’s word was an option.

So let me say clearly that today I cannot say with the late B.H. Carroll that “there are only a few things in the Bible I don’t understand but I reckon its because I have not studied it enough.”  Well, there are a lot of things I still don’t understand but there is not a single passage that I do not believe to be God’s word.  I must tell you that in all my years I have never seen or heard of a preacher who doubted the Bible . . . . . never in my life, never in my life, never ever.

I heard the following story from Dr. Criswell when he preached the dedication sermon for the First Baptist Church of Longview.  Here is a little description of it.  Seems “there were two mischievous boys who got a hold of the preacher’s Bible and glued some of the pages together.  And the preacher stood up to deliver his sermon, and he read his text, ‘And in those days, Noah took unto himself a wife.’  And he turned what he thought was one page and continued to read, ‘And she was . . . fifteen cubits broad, thirty-five cubits long, made out of gopher wood, and daubed on the inside with pitch.’ He held up the Book and said, ‘My brothers and sisters, that’s the first time I’ve ever read that in the Word of God, but if the Word of God says it, I believe it!’  Amen, amen, amen.  ‘Just goes to show,’ he said, ‘we am wonderfully and fearfully made.’" 

So I grew up believing every word of this Book is inspired, inerrant, and infallible and brings us the good news of God’s love.  I wish that could be said for all my colleagues in ministry. Some began questioning the Scripture as a result of theological studies, some because of harsh life experiences and others for reason only they know. When God called me He called me to preach. He did not call me to be a pastor but to be a preacher. Being a pastor was a means to a platform from which to preach. I used to tell Pastor Search Committees that they were not paying me to be a preacher. As a preacher I did not work for them. I was called of God and took my lead from  God in the matter of preaching. Preacher was what I was.  What they paid for was that other part, the platform, i.e., being their pastor. I was God’s preacher and their pastor.

I also felt that when it came to the worship service my job was to preach the Bible. I was not called to be their psychotherapist though I understand psychotherapy and I was not there to teach them how to become healthy, wealth, and wise although if they were to abide by the word of God these needs may very well be met. My job was to preach the Gospel and then step aside and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work.  Every wonder why Billy Graham was so successful with his services. Well, I’ll tell you anyway. Dr. Graham preached the Gospel, told them people what they needed to do and the stepped aside and let the Holy Spirit do what only He can do, i.e., quicken the spiritually dead.

I fear the is the element that is missing in today’s Mega-Church era. I suspect if Billy Graham were living today and were to preach in any of our Mega-churches you might find half the congregation come to salvation. What do suppose would happen if every pastor went to their pulpit this Sunday and preached a Billy Graham content sermon. Now I did not say style but content. Style of preaching changes from person to person and age to age but the content should not. I believe it is time that we as church leaders we must return to our core beliefs and move away from the psychologically inspired gospel because in truth it is not gospel at all.  God said in His word, “I change not” and we should give care that the changeless God’s eternal message is not changed through our modern psycho-religious preaching.

Let me give you some really good advice for regarding the Bible. First, by faith accept the Bible as God’s word and second as I have suggested to every congregation in churches I served as a pastor and to a multitude of individuals face-to-face, that you read one chapter of Proverbs a day and three chapters of Psalms each day in addition to any other Bible reading that you do.  Do this faithfully for one year and it will change your life.

I once announced from the pulpit that when I die and my mortal remains are laid to rest that I want them to take my Bible and put it on my chest so when people pass by to see where I used to live for the last time, I want them to see me with a Bible in my hand.  Now I am announcing to my children that same thing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham Touched My Life

I awoke this morning o the news that Dr. Billy Graham had died. It did not surprise me, after all he was 99 years of age.  My first thought was a giant of the faith has fallen and then I said to myself, “No, a giant has risen!.” The last of the most effective evangelistic team has now been reunited in the presence of the Lord that they proclaimed.

No doubt people who knew him better will eulogize him from a variety of platforms and venues. Dr. William “Billy” Graham was counselor to Presidents beginning with Harry Truman through Barak Obama. Not only to President and Prime Ministers but also to kings and paupers.

He was quietly working in the civil rights music here in America and around the world. He insisted that his meeting be open to people of all races. He and Dr. Martin Luther King quietly formed and alliance in which Dr. Graham would use his crusades to help bring black and white America together around the cross and Dr. King would lead the movement in the streets. His first integrated crusade was in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1953. After the ropes cordoning off the black section of the auditorium were removed, Graham told the ushers who threatened to put them back up, "Either these ropes stay down or you can go on and have the revival without me."  He did the same in South Africa.

But God called Dr. Graham to be a “Preacher of the Gospel” and he single-mindedness followed that calling. I hear people talking about him preaching with authority but he would say I have no authority other than the authority of God’s word. I doubt you can number the times he would say, “The Bible says.”  That phrase was his equivalent to the Old Testament prophet’s “Thus saith the Lord.” Today, no one has preached face-to-face with more people. It numbers in the hundreds of millions all around the globe.

I remember on of my Christian Ethics professor, Dr. Milton Ferguson,  and later President of Midwestern Seminary speak of his experience in Germany about riding with some other theological graduate student s to attend a crusade Dr. Graham was holding in Germany. They were skeptical of the longevity of the decisions made at the crusades. One of the men stated he had never known on that ever lasted, Dr. Melton, sitting in the back seat piped in with, Well, “I am one of those converts.” Millions of others could say the same thing.

"I tell that story because Dr. Graham never wavered from his message that “God loves you” and thatHe sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die for you.”  There is a lesson in that for those of us who God has “called to preach.”  If God has called you to preach then the most important thing you can do is preach. You may do many things effectively but if you have been called by God to preach the unsearchable riches in Christ Jesus then it is that preaching that God will anoint you to do. By all means be consistent, clear, and unwavering in that message.

All of this you can read in an of the many biographies that have been written but I want to tell you about my experience with Billy Graham. I heard Dr. Graham for the first time as a child at a crusade in Houston, Texas in the 1950's but I met him for the first time in 1963 as an 17 year old "preacher boy" looking for a College to attend. It was on the campus of what was then called Houston Baptist College (follow this link to here that message). It was a brief encounter as he was leaving the campus after have brought an inspiring and encouraging message to the fledgling school.  

As his entourage passed myself and a friend wished only to get an up close look at him. To our delight he stopped and spoke to both of us one at a time. I don’t know what prompted him to stop but I am grateful that he did. Perhaps he sensed we were both also, like he, “called to preach.” What I do recall is in those few moments I felt as though I was the center of his world as no doubt did my friend. He spoke to us individually and look straight down into our eyes as we looked up to his height. He asked about my plans and I told him God had called me to preach. He replied, "God bless you and remember . . . always preach the Bible."

I came away from that encounter with the feeling that is what being a preacher involved at its best. You always give your undivided attention to the person to whom you were speaking and you need to look directly at the people to whom you preach. They need to feel that you are speaking directly to them because God may very well be doing so. That’s what he did in his preaching and that was my experience that day.

The second time I met him was a couple of years later when he made an unofficial visit to the campus. This time I was a second year student and on campus. It was not a big public affair but like Bobby Jones, the great golfer, returning to the Old Course at St. Andrews the word quickly spread that he was on campus. I don’t know what the reason was for his being there but again as he walked from Sharp’s gym to the quadrangle where the stairs on the south side are located we came face to face.
As we met he paused for a moment as though he was searching his memory for something. I think because of time and place he had what I often refer to as a Deja vu all over again experiences. It's that feeling of, "I've lived this moment before." That's the only reason I can find that he then he looked right a me and said, “I believe we have met somewhere before.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I said, “Yes sir, briefly when you were here before you stopped and spoke with me and my friend.”  He said, “I thought so. . . , how are your studies going?” “Fine,” I replied. He then said a few encouraging words and went on his way. Again as before I was impressed that he once again give me his undivided attention and how focused he was on me as he spoke.

The last time our paths crossed were at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were he had been invited to speak. It was standing room only and I was standing along the “western” wall of Truitt Auditorium as the assembly began. I remember I was second in the line and when Dr, Graham got up to speak the guy ahead of me in the line just walked upon the stage and sat in Dr. Graham’s now empty chair. When Graham finished the guy got up and resumed his place next to me.

When the meeting ended naturally they asked that we all stay in place until the platform dignitaries left. That brought them right past where this guy and myself was standing. Dr. Graham stopped had a few words with the guy who shared his chair and said something to Dr. Robert Naylor about not saying anything more about it. He then reached our shook my hand and simple said as he left the building, “It is good to see you again.”  The key word here is "again."  Again, the personal trait that I found most impressive in Dr. Graham was the way he looked you in the eye and made you feel comfortable and this day he made me feel remembered.

As life went on I was privileged to attend a couple of his Schools of Evangelism (Lake Louis and Denver) and work in a couple of his crusades (Houston and Denver) where I met leaders of his team who demonstrated that Billy Graham was the real deal. As I worked with them and others I came away know that Billy Graham was the real deal.

The world has lost a giant with the loss of Dr. Graham. His example is a message to those of us who are called of God to preach the gospel.  We are not called to create a message but to deliver an ancient truth. If when we finished people do not see Jesus then we have failed.  Or niche in the  kingdom is to declare to people that God loves them, Jesus died for them,  and Jesus is coming again to receive his own.

Friends we do not need to spend too much time explaining the gospel but we are to clearly proclaim the Gospel.  His reputation was untouched by sex or financial scandals. He never built a mega church, launched a political lobby or ran for office. Instead, he consistently preached Christianity's core message — Christ died for your sins — downplaying denominational details and proclaiming the joys found in faith.

However, Billy Graham had a natural charisma the seemed to draw people to him.  He once said, "I despise all this attention on me . . . I'm not trying to bring people to myself, but I know that God has sent me out as a warrior." Is that not the desire of every preacher. There was a time in my own ministry when  I had a sign on the pulpit that stated simply, "Sir, We would see Jesus." It was there to remind me and everyone else who spoke from that pulpit that our job was to call attention to Jesus not ourselves. I got it from Spurgeon who had it carved into the wood just above the edge of his Bible.

So this week we bid farewell to the world’s greatest evangelist. He has entered into his reward and has no doubt heard the words he longed to hear . . . "Well done thou good and faithful servant."  Those are the exact same words this preacher of the Gospel wants to hear. Indeed, it is not the amount of work but the faithfulness to the calling that God rewards his children. With that truth in mind I encourage you to be faithful unto death.
I have an absolutely unshakable confidence that Billy Graham and I will cross paths one more time . . . .when I get there myself . . . . . as I meet the Lord I like to imagine catching a glimpse of Brother Billy off to the side and maybe just maybe hear him whisper, "Look Cliff, there is that guy again. He seems to be standing around everywhere I go.”

Lord I mourn the loss but I thank you that Billy Graham lived in my generation and I pray he sends us more men like Billy Graham. I look forward to a longer conversation . . . . . and with his passing I say, “Even so come Lord Jesus.”

 Share your own experience with or thoughts about Dr. Graham in the comments box below