Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Purity



“The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure” (James 3:17).

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” –Jesus (Matthew 5:8)

            All of the New Testament epistles are letters written by Apostles to particular problems and situations within certain churches.  When the Apostle James sat down to pen a letter to the Jewish Christian churches in Gentile dominated countries, it was to address the state of their fellowship, their Christian lives, and the unhealthy church dynamic that was taking place.  The believers faced a great deal of adverse circumstances as Christians.  Sometimes they responded well, and sometimes they did not.  The problem was that they wavered between having faith in Jesus and relying on other things besides God to deal with their problems.  James labeled this kind of thinking that worked itself out in not-so-good behavior as “double-minded” (James 1:8).  The term I would use that reflects what James was getting at is “fence-sitter” or “fence-rider.”

            The church was vacillating back and forth between knowing that God loves them and wondering where he was in all their trouble.  They would look into God’s Word, but then would walk away and not do what it says.  They would claim faith in Jesus Christ, and then turn around and scheme about ways to cozy-up to the wealthy so that they could have a healthy church budget.  They would claim to have faith, but then sit on the fence and do nothing.  The church was straddling between the two worlds of God and Satan, the church and the world, heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom.



            James sought to knock them off the fence, to cause them to quit being in two worlds at the same time with one foot in each.  He wanted to set them on a path of real faith and true wisdom to live their Christian lives in a difficult world.  Whenever a church or body of believers settles for fence-riding or fence-sitting, they are in need of attaining some solid wisdom for living.  Perhaps you are not a fence-rider, but we all deal with them – people whom claim faith in Jesus, but it is only marginal to their lives.  How do we navigate this world and exhibit real faith in all circumstances, whether good or bad?  James tells us that the foundation to living a wise and godly life in purity.

Godly wisdom is first of all pure.

            James was making reference to moral and ethical purity.  The pure person is one who has a singular devotion to Jesus Christ – he/she pursues God’s will and seeks to do it in God’s way in everything without exception.  Purity means there are no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, no secret desires that are self-serving. 

            Those who are pure have received and experienced the cleansing of Christ’s blood.  The pure have come to the point in their lives of seeing that they have one foot in the world, or their entire self is immersed in the world.  They come to understand that this is a foolish world to live in and that it will only result in relational problems expressed in the false wisdom of envy and selfish ambition.  Only chaos and evil exist in this world.  By contrast, the pure have become so through receiving Holy Spirit power to jump the fence into God’s big world of grace, love, and compassion.  They joyously roll in the green grass of forgiveness.  Without this purification that comes through repentance of the old world and embrace of the new pasture through the cross of Jesus, no wisdom could be possible.  Only through being graced with turning away from the world and its unrighteous ways, and committing oneself to redemption through Jesus can true wisdom become possible both individually and as a church.




            “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10) is to be the cry of every person.  As we draw ever nearer to the season of Lent, such a prayer can prepare and shape us for receiving God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Oh, that the church might embrace this work of the Spirit!  Amen.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Who Ought to Change?



            Murray Bowen was one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century.  His family systems theory, also known as Bowen theory, has largely replaced a great deal of Freudian psychology in the West.  The basic concept of Bowen’s therapeutic approach is that the family (as well as any group of persons) is an emotional unit.  As a unit, a change in any one of the members results in the others members compensating for the emotional functioning that has been altered.  Like touching one part of the spider web, the entire thing shakes.  The contribution, importance, and focus of Bowen’s theory was that rather than trying to change the other person, one can change him/herself without becoming part of the problem.  The theory states that if any family member can change his or her emotional functioning within the system, the whole family will improve its corporate functioning in response to that change.  In other words, we must learn to function in a healthy way within the family system.  Personal transformation becomes the best approach to handling family crises and problems.

            Bowen was not thinking of churches when working with his clients, but applying family systems theory to the church is not a stretch.  It almost sounds like Dr. Bowen was fresh off a congregational meeting when he said:  “The human is a narcissistic creature who lives in the present and who is more interested in his own square inch of real estate, and more devoted to fighting for his rights than in the multigenerational meaning of life itself.  As the human throng becomes more violent and unruly, there will be those who survive it all….  I think the differentiation of self (remaining connected to others, yet separate from their problems) may well be one concept that lives into the future.”

            In a crisis or presenting problem in society or the church, just as in a family, mounting anxiety moves intensely around unhealthy ways of relating.  Polarized factions take the spotlight and think only of their emotionally based interpretations of the facts.  They fail to see the big picture or look at the welfare of the common good.  All they can see is their angle on the unpleasant situation or person.  Thinking becomes reductionist, and hearts harden.  Everyone ends up looking like a stooge.



            Whatever you think of Bowen’s theory, it is not hard to discern that anxiety plays a major role in many individuals, families, and even churches.  When worry and anxiety take over a person or group of people, things become emotionally charged.  Hence, the church is an emotional unit.  Typically, the response to anything we don’t like is to try and change the other person who is rocking the boat or upsetting the status quo web of relationships.  But maybe the Apostle Paul was onto all this emotional stuff well before the 20th century:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer an petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

            Learning to manage our own anxiety and deal with the incessant worry within ourselves is imperative to coping with relational problems in the church.  It is the peace of God, and not the peace of others that makes the difference.  We are people that are all for change – that is, we want others to change so that we do not have to.  But the Christian is to conform to Jesus, and not the other way around.  Because the Lord is near to us, we have a consistent and continual presence to anchor ourselves, no matter whether the circumstances are to my liking, or not.  So, prayer becomes the means of casting anxiety away so that peace can take its place.  Sounds easy – it is anything but.

            It is human to want everything and everyone to change when there are problems, adversity, or challenge.  But the change most needed is quite personal, and it is only ourselves that we can change.  Therefore, our focus must be on finding ways to remain connected to God and others without resorting to passive-aggressive tactics, cutting-off relationships altogether, or bullying others into changing with our violent or manipulative words.

            When faced with unwanted change and/or difficult circumstances, rather than looking for an alteration from others, try asking yourself one of these questions: 

·         What is a small step that I can take to improve my situation?
·         If I were guaranteed not to make the situation worse, what would I be doing differently?
·         Is there a person in my life whose voice and input I haven’t heard in a long time?  What small question could I ask them to help me in my situation?
·         What is one good thing about this situation I find myself in?
·         What is one positive trait I possess that can serve me well in this situation?


Are there other questions you could ask that would be helpful?  A journey that seems like a thousand miles must begin with one step.  What will that step be?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Power of the Tongue



In 1899 four newspaper reporters in Denver, Colorado almost succeeded in tearing down the Great Wall of China with their words.  The reporters from four different newspapers were having drinks together at a local bar.  The men had been sent out to dig up any kind of story for the Sunday editions, since there was not much happening in the news cycle.  After bantering around some ideas for going after stories, one of them proposed that he was going to make up a story.  With more beer drinking, they began hatching a story together that would be a big whopper.  They would write about China.  It was on the other side of the world.  No one would know the story was a phony.  Nobody would verify the source.

            This is the story they came up with, in order to sell newspapers:  “Group of American engineers are bidding on a job to demolish the Great Wall.  Chinese are opening their borders to international trade and goodwill.”  The Denver newspapers carried the fake story.  But it did not end there.  Eastern newspapers like the New York Times picked up the story that China was opening up to the West by tearing down the Great Wall.  People took the story seriously to the point that the Chinese found out about it.  There were extreme patriotic groups within China that were suspicious of Western influence to begin with, and they ended up slaughtering hundreds of foreign missionaries.  Within two months of the story, 12,000 troops from six Western nations joined forces, invaded China with the purpose of protecting their own countrymen.  All the bloodshed that followed was originally sparked by a journalistic hoax invented in a bar in Denver by four men, and became the international crisis known as the Boxer Rebellion.

The tongue is so powerful that it determines the direction of a person’s life (James 3:3-5a).

            The horse is a strong animal; yet, even an eleven year old girl who knows what she is doing with a bridle and a bit can make the horse do whatever she wants him to do.  The power of the tongue is also like a large ship that is completely controlled in its direction by a very small piece of the ship, the rudder.

            Our words might seem small and insignificant, but they have incredible power to determine the course and destiny of human lives.  A rider who does not know how to handle a horse is in trouble.  An undisciplined pilot of a ship who is not careful puts the passengers at risk of a shipwreck.  Likewise, the loose undisciplined tongue is on a one way course of destruction.

The tongue is so powerful that it can destroy a person and those around him/her (James 3:5b-6).

            Just like fire, our words have an awesome potential for harm.  The Chicago fire of 1871 killed 250 people and destroyed 17,000 buildings.  It was all started by a cow kicking over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.  The Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 torched 783,000 acres and took 13,000 firefighters at a cost of $120 million to contain.  It was all started by flash of lightning.

            The tongue has the same capacity for destruction.  Those who misuse it are guilty of negligent spiritual arson.  We take our God-given power of speech for granted when we allow stray words to fly off the tongue.  The power of the tongue destroys when it resorts to gossip (saying something behind somebody’s back that you would not dare say to their face); flattery (saying something to someone’s face that you would never say behind their back); negative criticism; sarcastic humor; boasting; and, a whole host of other sins of the tongue that all have as their end game the destruction of people’s lives.

We are never to take our words for granted in the church.  They have the power of speaking life and adding immense value to others’ lives.  Conversely, words have the ability to destroy both the speaker and the hearers.  The answer is not to keep our mouths shut, but to use the tongue as it is intended by God to be used: 

·         “The tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). 
·         “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4).
·         “My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long” (Psalm 71:24).
·         “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15).
·         “Do not repay evil for evil… every tongue will confess to God” (Romans 12:17, 14:11).


May the love and grace of Jesus direct your every word and guide your tongue so that the church is edified, the world blessed, and the lost are found.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Teaching and the Tongue



            The most important tool any teacher, preacher, or church member has in their box is the tongue.  It is the chief implement for speaking encouragement, catechizing students, preaching the Word, as well as in informal conversations when giving advice or counsel.  The tongue is powerful.  Since it carries so much might, the tongue is a tool which is to be holy and set apart for God’s use. 

            Untruthful, unproductive, negative, and sinful words are not meant for the Christian’s tongue any more than an electric razor is meant to shave one’s tongue.  Our words and our speech are meant to be used in such a way as to build up the Body of Christ and bless the world.  Therefore we need to be quite careful about what and why words come out of our mouths.

            In the Greek and Roman society of which the church was founded within, philosophers and persons adept at rhetoric and speech were the celebrities and mega-stars of the ancient world.  People didn’t watch TV, listen to talk radio, or go to movies.  For entertainment as well as education they went to the town square and listened to those trained to speak talk about the latest ideas and often debate with one another. 

            What is more, the early church grew out of a synagogue tradition in which rabbis (the Hebrew word for “teacher”) were highly respected figures.  In addition, the way early believers did church gatherings was an open discussion forum where people gave a word of encouragement, exposition, or exhortation.

            In our world, ambitious young people move to LA or New York and wait tables in order to work on getting their dream job in the theater or in the move business.  In the ancient world, young people dreamed of moving to cities like Athens or Rome in order to try and become a student of a great teacher and be a famous philosopher and rhetorician.  This is why the Apostle James gave a warning about not rushing into the role of becoming a teacher (James 3:1-2).  Teachers were highly respected individuals, wielding much power, and made the most money in the ancient world.

            The role of teacher tended to attract people with the desire to become wealthy and influential.  Pride and ambition were the twin sins always crouching at the door of the church teacher.  The danger with talking, no matter if it is in a formal setting or informal gathering, as fallen people we have a tendency to be slow to listen, and quick to give advice and counsel.  In other words, we too often run into a teaching role without considering what we are really doing.  A fool in the role of teacher is both dangerous and damaging because they delight in airing their own opinions and disdain listening to others.  The more that we listen to ourselves talk, the less we are able to be taught from someone else.

            A teacher who does not have a teachable-spirit has no business being a teacher and they must keep their mouths shut (at least for a while) and take a humble position of listening and learning.  Teachers need to teach for the right reasons – to provide sound instruction, offer wise counsel, and build up others.

Your tongue is a precious gift from God to be used with a great amount of discretion.  You have in your mouth the power of life and death – the power to promote life and influence others in a godly direction; to build up others according to their needs; and, to nurture others with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.  No one ought ever to walk away from our fellowships discouraged and beat down from rancorous tongues that lacked mercy.


“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17).  Amen, and amen.