April 2011

3 bits of political and religious advice

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 NIV)

Are you looking for some very practical advice on how to keep from getting embroiled in political and religious controversy? Perhaps you just want to keep a level head and control your blood pressure. Look no further than the book of Ecclesiastes.

Both the political and religious news have an uncanny way of hooking a person’s interest and heating up debate. Depending on the topic, the talk shows hosts, late night comedians, pundits and bloggers know how to stoke those fires and raise their ratings. This week’s firestorm has been about Donald Trump and the “birthers” pressuring for the release of President Obama’s birth certificate.

In recent weeks it was about excerpts from Rob Bell’s controversial book questioning the purpose and reality of hell. The week of May 21st it will be the countdown to Jesus’ Return predicted by Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping. In the weeks that follow it will be something else. Thankfully the royal wedding is giving us some reprieve from all this today.

Ecclesiastes tells us “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) And so what better source of political and religious advice from a man who has done it all, had it all, seen it all and consequently knows it all? It is a retrospective written by an old man who could have been a high governmental leader, if not King Solomon himself, and at the same time may have also been an influential religious leader and teacher.

Here are Ecclesiastes prescriptions for avoiding controversy and lowering blood pressure when it comes to politics and religion.

1. Do not say “why were the old days better than these?” for it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

Discovering a sense of Divine Purpose

“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16 NIV)

It is my belief that God has a unique purpose and calling for everyone whom He creates. Both the Old and New Testament repeatedly refer to the fact that God in a very real sense calls us to be His from our mother’s womb. Psalm 139 written by King David and quoted above is one of the most poignant portions of scripture in describing God’s hand upon our lives even before our birth. It is to this truth that Apostle Paul is referring when he pens a thousand years later “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

Discovering this sense of divine purpose can have a dramatic and motivating effect upon a person’s life. Jeremiah’s entire life was shaped by the realization that God’s plan for him was set in motion while he was yet in his mother’s womb. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5 NIV) Isaiah had a similar experience being called by God even before his birth to an amazing prophetic ministry. (Isaiah 49:1) And even Paul discloses in one of his epistles that “God set me apart from birth and called me by his grace.” (Galatians 1:15 NIV) That understanding gives us a sense of what propelled him in his life of unceasing travel and writing for the cause of the furtherance of the Gospel.

Have you come to recognize God’s purposeful involvement in your life? Have you begun to realize His unique calling upon you? Do not be too quick to dismiss the likes of Jeremiah and Paul as people with whom you cannot identify. Albeit, few callings are as lofty as theirs, but nonetheless each of us is similar to them in that we are meant to know God’s purpose for our lives.

The power of being with Jesus

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13 NIV)

I’ve been giving thought to the results of the poll I took last Sunday as part of my sermon on “Convincing the Unconvinced.” The heart of my message was that faith sharing should be easy because the responsibility for persuading others of the truth of the gospel belongs to God. (John 16:8)

One of the questions I asked using our audience response system was “What keeps you from sharing your faith?” In the list of ten choices the top answers were “not sure what to say” and “don’t know my Bible well enough.” Statistically we were not any different as a congregation than other Christians across the country. Not surprisingly feeling ill equipped is the major reason even mature believers usually give for not sharing their faith. Why is that?

For one reason, there is a tendency to believe that education and training are prerequisites for effectiveness and success in doing anything including faith sharing. But that can end up being an excuse when it comes to personal evangelism. Most classes offered on that topic are usually very poorly attended. That in turn might indicate another underlying reason why more people hesitate to share their faith – apathy.

The account in Acts 3 & 4 of the apostles Peter and John boldly preaching the gospel reveals the secret to evangelism effectiveness.

How we have Americanized the Gospel

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1 NIV)

Recently God has again been challenging my thinking regarding the dangers in the Americanization of the gospel. In particular I have become increasingly aware of how a Christianized version of the human potential movement has subtly crept into pulpits of America. There is a tendency to take the teachings of Jesus and apply them in a way that justifies, and even furthers, the individualistic and self-actualizing lifestyle of the West.

Several weeks ago I listened to a sermon preached by a well-known pastor of a leading evangelical church in our country. It was a message challenging the listener to step out in faith, face his or her fears and do something they have never done before. It was a very motivating message, punctuated by numerous inspirational stories and some verses from the book of Joshua. At first blush it was the kind of message I wish I had preached.

But it didn’t take long before I realized that the message also irritated me. Why? Well for one thing I had done the things he talked about in the message but the results weren’t all they were cracked up to be. In fact, on a couple of occasions when I “stepped out in faith,” paid the price and reached my goal, I realized it wasn’t God’s goal for me. I was miserable and felt deceived. It was like working hard to climb a ladder that in the end was leaning on the wrong tree.

Thinking back on the message, the other thing that got to me was that I could not recall hearing anything about Jesus. Now maybe His name was mentioned, but more importantly there was not an emphasis on seeking Him and determining His will regarding the goals being set. I guess that is what really saddened me. Stepping out in faith is to be encouraged and so is facing ones fears, but if it is not done at Christ’s bidding with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is at best self satisfying and worse it is devoid of eternal glory and satisfaction.

Now I want to be quick to acknowledge, that to my chagrin, I have preached sermons just like that one. There is a strong temptation for preachers to deliver feel-good, self-help type messages because they characterize the cravings of the culture in which we live. But over the years God has dramatically opened my eyes and brought me to repentance in this regard. Years ago he spoke very clearly to me out of Psalm 138:2 that preaching must “exalt above all things His name and His word.”

Another way in which I have become aware of this incongruity between Jesus’ teachings and the unique way we apply them in the West is by meeting Christians from other cultures. In many ways, the lifestyles in other countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, stand in stark contrast to our own. They operate much more like the Biblical culture than we do with a concern for the corporate well-being versus the well-being of the individual. Our high value placed on freedom, prosperity and the accomplishment of the individual has a gravitational pull to preach messages focused on self-development.

The secret to a happy life

My wife has a poster framed and hanging in our dining room. It is a watercolor by artist Mary Engelbreit of two little girls gazing out a window on a beautiful summer day. Just outside that window we see flowers in bloom, the branch of a fruit laden tree and several bees and butterflies flitting about.
The girls are a study in contrast. On girl is very happy as she sports a big smile and her arms enfold two pots of flowers. The other girl is decidedly unhappy as she rests both elbows on the window sill with one hand to her face. She has a frown and her eyes are darting away from the little girl next too her. Underneath their picture is this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Like so many things we carefully frame and position throughout our homes, it isn’t long before we fail to notice them. To be honest, if I were pressed, I doubt if I could recall half of what hangs on our walls. But recently I have found the poster of the two little girls staring out at me, repeatedly drawing my attention. And here is the reason. The message is a joyful reminder for me of what God has done in my life.
In years past, all too often I was more prone to frown than smile. Even on sunny summer days I had my share of bouts with depressive views of life. Those like me, who have battled that dark cloud of the soul, know that beautiful surroundings alone do not alleviate unhappiness with its accompanying heaviness and hopelessness. At best, a person copes like the little girl in the poster, by diverting ones focus to other things.

Scroll to Top