I Double Dog Dare Ya’!

Screenshot 2018-03-20 22.44.56.pngFlick and Ralphie

He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land.  And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching,  “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up.  Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil.  And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.  Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” 

And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables.  And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven (Mark 4:1-12).

 

If I told you that 90% of American homes have indoor plumbing, but only 11% use it, would you think that odd?

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The Good Ol’ Days

According to LifeWay Research, 90% of Americans own a Bible, but only 11% have read the entire book. When I’ve asked people how much of it they’ve seriously read (and I’ve asked thousands) most admit less than 10%. Why is that?

Consider Jesus’ explanation, The sower sows the word. These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them.” According to Jesus, Satan is real and actively prevents you from hearing and understanding the Bible because he doesn’t want you to know God’s big mystery.

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Old Scratch (never closes his eyes)

Rather than give away Jesus’ big secret, let’s test His spiritual battle claim with a dare (Ephesians 6:12). Try to read the Gospel of John straight through (it’ll take two hours). No matter how hard you try, it will be nearly impossible. Give it a shot and wait to see the excuses and obstacles that just pop up. That’s Satan doing his job.

Here’s an easy link if you’re one of the 10% who don’t own a Bible in America:

The Gospel of John

Or maybe try reading just two small chapters with similar parables (Matthew 13, Luke 8), but I bet he’ll prevent you from reading these too. Hopefully I’m wrong and you finish John’s Gospel because then you’ll know Jesus’ big secret…if you have ears to hear.

A nice overview of John’s Gospel

Too busy?  Don’t care?  Afraid you won’t like His secret?  Then…I TRIPLE DOG DARE YA’!

 

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His Business is Picking Up

 

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 “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).”

 

Riddle me this: “Every Wednesday morning I appear, make it all disappear, including myself. What am I?” Another riddle, one every kid knows, may help you solve the first one. “What has six wheels and flies?”

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Frank, the best Riddler of all time

Once a week we put out the trash, all the ugly and disgusting things we create in a week that no longer have any value. Then this stranger rolls up in a massive truck and makes it all go away. Presto-chango, we’re clean again.

Spiritually, Jesus is the Garbage-Man. If we let Him, He rolls up and takes away our ugly, smelly trash, our “certificate of debt.” If He doesn’t pick it up, then we have to deal with it ourselves. With no waste agreement our trash remains. Some think it’s not a big pile; their trash isn’t that smelly; never raped or killed; they’re basically good.

But if you sin just once a day, after 70 years, your trashcan has 25,550 sins! Even a corrupt judge cannot ignore that record, but it’s not the degree of the sin, or the volume, it’s the fact that God is holy and His righteous character demands absolute perfection––holiness (Matthew 5:48, Habukkuk 1:13, James 2:10, Isaiah 59:2). God doesn’t grade on a curve.

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The face of Justice

Our overflowing trashcan proves nobody’s perfect, so holiness seems a cruel standard, but it is just to punish a lawbreaker. Sin must be punished, especially over 25,000 of them; otherwise God is a crooked judge (imagine if the MSU trial judge let Nassar go free).

Complicating this required justice and His standard of holiness is the fact that the Judge loves you, but He can’t just wince at your trash if He’s a good judge. Unless a full payment is made, He’s stuck…loving a lawbreaker that He must condemn. And we’re stuck too…how can anyone unholy pay the penalty for their own sin (Isaiah 64:6)?

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Fred, Fred old Cabbage-head

Enter the Garbage-Man. Jesus lived a sinless life to prove He was the perfect God-Man, and therefore qualified to pay our debt. An empty grave confirmed His death “cancelled out the certificate of debt. God’s love and righteous judgment merged in Jesus, our substitute. His last words on the cross were “It is finished, which also translates in Greek as “paid in full.”

Ignoring His payment offer is like telling your garbage-man not to come back. Don’t fool yourself that you’re clean enough to face a holy God without your trash picked up. Your best effort still doesn’t remove it. It’s piling up at the bottom of your driveway now. Only the God-Man can “take it out of the way,” but His waste agreement is total surrender (Isaiah 1:18, Luke 6:46). Remember, God does not grade on a curve…He grades on a curb.

 

 

 

 

 

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My Blind Mom, Plus Nothing

img_1422-copyA thankful Thanksgiving in our Detroit home (1966)

 

And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind (John 9:39).”

 

My mom was legally blind. When she was 18, while sitting in church, her left eye went black, like a dark curtain descended. Can you imagine the terror?

The doctor said it was from a recent bout with Scarlet Fever. After several painful and unsuccessful operations, and a very long stay at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, she decided to just live with a detached retina. Over the years, her right eye became strained and badly weakened.

Breveport Lake 1979After graduation with a fine catch (1979)

I grew up helping her to see price tags, clothing sizes, bus stops, addresses, ingredients, and even people. It was normal for me to be her eyes and when I turned 16 she was my excuse to get to drive our family car as her chauffeur. Being blind was our normal.

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Our church, St Martha’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan

Late in life, after going to church every Sunday, she finally realized religion wasn’t the answer. After teaching Sunday school, serving in the Altar Guild, and regular attendance, she still had no assurance of going to Heaven when she died. Then one day she heard Dr. J. Vernon McGee’s “Thru the Bible” radio program, and after he explained the gospel, she became a genuine believer! Although still physically blind, the eyes of her heart were opened and her life changed (Ephesians 1:18).

In John’s ninth chapter, Jesus heals a blind man who later believes in Him, but the religious experts did not believe He was God-in-the-flesh. They could physically see Him, but they were blind spiritually to His true identity. These Pharisees, who had memorized major portions of the Old Testament in order to obey over 600 written laws, and oral traditions that they made up, thought they were righteous because of what they did.

8-6-88 8My folks at our wedding (1988)

But Jesus told them they were blind. They had missed the point, which was Jesus Himself (Deuteronomy 18:15, Isaiah 53, John 5:39-47). They scoffed at His claim to be God, the Son of Man, because He healed on the Sabbath and violated one of their most holy rules not to work on the Sabbath. So what’s the point?

If you’re reading this then you’re not blind, but are you blind spiritually? If you think doing things (like the Pharisees) or church activities (like my mom) makes you right with God, you’ve missed the point of Jesus too. Consider “doing” versus “dying,” and Galatians 2:21 that says, “If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

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My mom (1924)

Thanks to McGee, my blind mom “saw” the truth of the gospel, plus nothing. If you’re not seeing Jesus, not 100% certain of Heaven, then maybe you need some J. Vernon too. Luckily, his “Thru the Bible” chats are still available online, but he no longer has any faith. He stopped using it on December 1, 1988 when he saw Jesus face to face, just like my mom who now sees Him perfectly too.

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Sick of Christmas

sam_1082Christmas card outtakes

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”

Charles Wesley wrote those words in 1739 for a Christmas day hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The astonishing truth of what he wrote is sung every December with gusto around the world. It even made it into the best Christmas film ever, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Specifically, that God miraculously took on human form, which makes complete sense if God (a spirit) wants to relate to us (flesh). If God wanted to communicate with ants, he’d become an ant, right?

Charles-Wesley_2546624bCharles Wesley (1707-1788)

But many people are sick of Christmas. Consider this actual Scrooge-like take on Christmas: “How long do we have to put up with this? I used to like Christmas when I was a kid, but now it just gets to be a drag. It’s just commercialism and nonsense now. What’s the point?”

Can you relate to that Charlie Brown-like query too? If it’s true for you, then you missed the point, and you’d do well to listen to Linus’ famous answer from the Bible again (Luke 2:8-14). His answer is Jesus’ birth, “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,” and it’s an epiphany! If you don’t see God-in-the flesh in Christmas, “our Emmanuel,” then Christmas is a drag.

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The Gospel according to Schulz

But if Jesus is Who He said He was, as the Old Testament prophecies foretold (almost 400 of them!), and proved it by rising from the dead, then Christmas is the most historic event ever (before the resurrection)! It’s impossible some say, but they probably have not investigated from the Bible what Wesley’s Carol proclaims. The mystery of Christmas, and in it not being a drag, is in discovering who this baby was in Bethlehem.

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Basil Rathbone & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle’s master of solving a mystery, Sherlock Holmes, said “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There’s not room here to make a complete proof for his Deity, but consider chapter 5 in Micah and John. No one has any control over where they will be born, unless they are God. The prophet Micah wrote this over 700 years before Jesus was born, referring to the birth of an eternal ruler in a tiny town in Israel:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”

Jesus said as much to the Jews in John 5:39, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me.” And again in verse 46, “For if you believed in Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote of Me.”

The Lamb of God .jpgThe Cure

Jesus either lied, was crazy, or He was God. “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come let us adore Him.” That’ll cure your Christmas sickness.

 

 

 

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The Nudge

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The last eclipse

 

“Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).”

 

“You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

Frederick Buechner wrote that in “Beyond Words.” It’s a warning to the foolishness of being too busy and missing God’s quiet nudge. Busyness drowns out the nudge.

Screenshot 2017-11-20 11.32.47.pngPerhaps his best quote

The supreme time that is jam-packed with busyness is right now, a dangerous stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is a shame because we miss the point of both holidays in our attempt to celebrate them. And the sad thing about that hamster wheel is that Jesus is the point of these holidays, and like Martha we miss Him altogether in our busyness (Luke 10:38-42). Why are they so significant?

Thanksgiving is a reflection on our past year. It’s meant to contract our busy and divided heart into the united position of thankfulness for His kindnesses. Like the Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s observation, despite all of our past difficulties, “By the goodness of God, we are far from want.” Thankfulness gets you through the messes because you’re acknowledging His sovereignty.

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Giving thanks at their arrival

Christmas is different. It’s a reminder that life is not about death, but about being rescued from it. God Himself became flesh to die for our sins and restore us to Himself. The Incarnation; God with us. Like the carol says, “To save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” One holiday looks back and the other looks forward.

Or as Beuchner wrote about looking forward, “Where…you should go next.” An interesting phrase that is as innocent as a blossom, but as profound as the rings of Saturn. “Where you should go next,” means after you die and your “next” is a titanic choice.

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An actual NASA image of Saturn from Cassini

Accepting a Christmas gift is a choice too, but it’s not yours until you receive it. His Christmas gift is a new start, as John 1:12 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”

So maybe quiet your holiday busyness and just take a walk with Him. Perhaps a stroll in a snowy wood or some lonely path around a lake, and ponder this question about your next:

If I died tonight, am I one hundred percent certain I’d go to Heaven? If you’re not positive, why not receive His Christmas gift?

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The Nudge personified

 

 

 

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An Appreciation of Nosy Shepherds

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Cyrano de Bergerac

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows (Psalm 23:5).”

 

Funny how some things stick with you, isn’t it? They say a sermon is no good if you aren’t still thinking about it on Tuesday. I remember very few sermons as a kid, but I do recall one about sheep.

Our pastor had some experience with sheep. He said they were dumb, so dumb in fact that if the lead ram with the bell was on one side of a bush, the sheep on the opposite side didn’t know enough to go around it to follow him back to the safety of the pen!

Shepherds aren’t much in vogue these days, but they once were very much so as we see in the Bible, and how they are likened to leading the Church, God’s flock. A good shepherd, however, does much more than teach memorable sermons on Sunday.

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“All we like sheep have gone astray….”

To gain an appreciation of our Chief Shepherd, and also your local Shepherd, I’d encourage you to read “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” by W. Phillip Keller. Here’s a snippet from his chapter on Psalm 23:5 about how a shepherd’s oily care makes a difference with biting insects, flies that lay eggs in their nostrils, and other aggravating parasites:

“What an incredible transformation this would make among the sheep. Once the oil had been applied to the sheep’s head there was an immediate change in behavior. Gone was the aggravation, gone the frenzy, gone the irritability and the restlessness. Instead, the sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”

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“The Good Shepherd lays down His life….”

Did you know that October is set aside as Pastor Appreciation month by some churches? Most of them forget all about it. The Shepherd is foolishly taken for granted. Like the oil-anointed sheep in this passage, most Christians go on about their day without any consideration for their important pastoral care that leads to “peaceful contentment.”

I’d like to encourage you to not be that sheep, and show some appreciation for your pastor this month. As Hebrews 10:24 says, and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,” think about what would encourage him; perhaps a compliment, offering to serve his family, letting him know you’re praying for him every day this week, or a small gift that shows you care. Whatever it is, make it matter.

So please take some time to obey 1 Thessalonians 5:11 as it relates to the man who cares for your spiritual needs. Don’t be that dumb sheep. Step around the bush, and show some gratitude for a very hard and oily job…so you don’t have to endure wriggling larvae in your nose. And yeah, I hope that image sticks with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Bother…Him?

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Rocco Francis Marchegiano…still undefeated.

 

Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth (Luke 18:1-8)?”

I’ve learned three “very” things about prayer. Prayer can be very confusing, very difficult, and very humbling (after all, we’re admitting we need His help). Jesus cleared it up with a story about our corruption and God’s goodness.

Prayer can be confusing because we know the answer is not always yes, but we also know God loves us and wants to help. Wouldn’t a yes be helpful? No, just because we ask doesn’t make it the right thing or the right timing. Every parent knows this. “Wrong” or delayed answers require trust that Father knows best, which is very difficult.

As a teen, my buddies had mini-bikes, sturdy motorized scooters that went about 40 miles an hour, illegally zipping through our Detroit streets. I begged my folks for one, but like the Red Ryder BB Gun refrain from the movie A Christmas Story, “You’ll break your leg” is all they said (and my pal Jeff Bacynski did just that when a car hit him!).

ec644093ab1872d1c702a6183d6d6371The answer is “No!”

God is not a cosmic vending machine. He’s a loving, sovereign Father. Bugging Him shows our sincerity and genuine need (unlike that infatuated kid in the checkout line who wants candy, then gum, then some other shiny bauble). Wants come and go, but a need is different. Enter Jesus’ pugilistic parable on persistence.

In one corner is a crooked heavyweight judge, taking bribes, perhaps bribes against the widow’s case. The challenger is a grieving widow––maybe a fresh widow, homeless and needing “legal protection” with no husband on the deed with scared, crying children. She’s desperate with no choice but to fight. So she goes the distance, 15 brutal rounds until he tosses in the towel (in Greek “wear me out” means “to give a black eye”). Prayer sounds like painful, hard, Rocky work.

Why bother?

The answer is hidden in the context, the Second Coming. The Church is like this widow, without her Bridegroom, and seeking justice in a world that “does not fear God nor respect man.” Since Eden, our flesh doesn’t want to seek God, so we run. Like any loving Father, He wants us to come back, and your needs bring you home.

Look at another story Jesus told in Luke 15:11-32,

And He said, “A man had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them.  And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.   Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.  But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’  So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’  But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.  But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends;  but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

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Ralph with a “Yes!”

That’s A (real) Christmas Story. Coming home to a loving Father, and it all starts with a single prayer. So by all means, bother Him so He finds your “faith on the earth.”

 

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