Friday, December 22, 2023

Another Big Fish Story

Can you believe it? Another year is in the books. I don’t know about you, but as magical and wonderful this time of year is, it is exhausting. I’m tired!

And the fact is that it’s not just this time of year. I find myself getting weary and tired often. Life is like that. It can wear you down. Life is hard work and hard work makes you tired.  And what’s strange is that you would think faith would exempt us from tiredness. Shouldn’t Christians be something like the energizer bunny always buzzing around doing good deeds with perpetual smiles on our faces? Sometimes I may feel that special energy but for the most part I find myself grinding through life.

Add to the daily struggles of life, the Bible talks about an evil force that is working against us making life even more wearisome. The devil seems to delight in our exhaustion and leverages that tiredness against us tempting us just to give up. “Stop resisting the temptation and just give in,” he whispers to us. “You’ve done enough good. Let someone else step up this time,” he seductively says. “You’re tired. Take a break,” says the tempter.

Being tired is hard, but is giving up the answer?

Recently I went fishing with my son. It was at one of those stocked ponds where you are guaranteed to catch fish. And catch fish we did. Big fish. Heavy fish.

After just a short wait I hooked one and got all excited. I began reeling and reeling and reeling. This was taking me way more time and energy than I expected. This fish was not giving up easily. After a while I called out to my younger, stronger, and more experienced son and asked him to take over. I was tired. Expecting him to come to my rescue, he refused! He said, “Dad, I know you’re tired but the fish is getting tired too. Don’t give up before he does."

You may be getting tired fighting that temptation. You may be weary doing good. But that evil force working in your life - wearing you out urging you to give up - is getting tired too.

Jesus got tired of fighting him, but he didn’t give up and after a while Satan wore out. One of the most beautiful and reassuring scriptures that helps me in my battle is after Jesus withstood those temptations of the evil one and the Bible records, “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”  (Matthew 4:11) The devil got tired and relief came in the form of divinely sent angels.

In the letter of James, we are reminded of same truth: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  (James 4:7) The devil is persistent but he is not tireless. Don’t give up before he does.

Heeding my son’s advice, I kept after that fish, and sure enough he wore out. We netted him and pulled him out of the water. I had won the battle.

This year may have been more than you bargained for. You may be tired. You may be thinking of giving up the faith and giving in to evil. You may be thinking of just giving up. But don’t. Don’t give up before he does and someday, hopefully soon, the devil will wear out and those refreshing angels will arrive.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

A Beginners Guide to Giving Thanks

You would think giving thanks would come easily and naturally but, for me and I suppose others, it often times doesn’t. So, with the season of Thanksgiving upon us I thought I’d write this little guide for my benefit and hopefully for yours.

Give thanks for the good things

This is the easy one. Even the most callous person feels at least a twinge of gratitude when something good happens. Nevertheless, let this be a reminder that we need to pause and give thanks for the good things in life like the new job, the financial windfall, the new baby, the fabulous vacation, the mended relationship, the restored health, and all the special joys and victories that give life that extra sense of joy and happiness.

Give thanks for the ordinary things

This is a little more difficult, but it would be a shame not to recognize all the simple beauties of life. Give thanks for those things that we often take for granted. Those small gifts that sometimes get overlooked. Things like a beautiful fall day, a sunrise or sunset, good meals, steady friendships, warm houses, good health, reliable jobs, and all the common and familiar joys that show up day after day.

Give thanks for the hard times

This is certainly difficult, but not impossible. We often dismiss hard times as simply curses and misfortunes. Not to minimize the hurt and pain caused by these hard times, but it is in troubling circumstances that we sometimes experience growth and maturity that would elude us if not for them. Wisdom, endurance, and strength are often the byproducts of tragedy but only if we seek them. Giving thanks for the hard times may take time and should not be forced upon those in the throes of grief, but with the passing of time perhaps we can see how the hard times in life have actually formed us and shaped us into better human beings.

Give thanks for the past

Whether the present is good or bad we can always reach back into our memories and be thankful for the times that were. Memory is such a wonderful capacity we have to relive the good times of years gone by. Sometimes good memories can be even better than the actual event. It’s like a good stew which is good on the first day but seems to be even more delicious the day after. I find that memories can bring both laughter and tears, but somehow those tears bring a sense of gratitude of what was and gives me hope of what can be.

Give thanks for the future

For this one to work we need two other ingredients – faith and hope. I suppose these can be found for even the atheist and agnostic, but the real power is for those who believe in a loving God who has a good plan and powerful God who can make it happen. I believe that someday people of hope and faith will one day experience a joy that far surpasses any we have experienced in this life. We call it heaven and, even though the specifics of its wonder and glory are beyond human language, one thing we know for sure. It will be a place of endless and uninterrupted thanksgiving!

Father, we give you thanks for the special blessings of this life. We thank you also for the simple joys we experience all around us every day. Father, we thank you for preserving us through the hard times and may we in time be even thankful for how you used those to bring unexpected blessing to our lives. Father, we thank you for all the days gone by and memories of family, friends, and joys. And we give you thanks for the great hope we have of one day thanking you face to face as for eternity we shall bask in your goodness and love.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Black Eye Theology

With football season in full swing, I often think of my high school football days. I wasn’t very good at all but, as the saying goes, the older I get the better I was. One of my few highlights from those days was a kickoff return. You may be thinking that my story is about a game winning return but it isn’t. Actually, the return was nothing to speak of. It was how I was tackled that I remember.

As I was being brought down the defender reached into my face mask and poked me in the eye. There was no serious damage but I figured this was going to give me a black eye and, sure enough, after the game when I checked it out I had the worst shiner I had ever had. And boy, was I proud!

We played our games on Saturday mornings and I couldn’t wait to go to church the next day and then to school the next Monday to show off my injury. I was anxious to let everyone know that I risked my life for our high school football team (I may have been a little overdramatic). I was privileged to wear this “badge of courage” as it identified me with this sport that I so much loved. I considered it an honor to suffer for such a worthy cause.

In some ways Christianity has been given a black eye. It seems from the very beginning believers were subject to ridicule and persecution. In the early days of the church Luke in the book of Acts paints a picture of Christians being threatened to stop talking their nonsense or there will be harsh repercussions. And there were. And we’re talking way more than a black eye. Some were imprisoned. Others were even killed.

Yet, amid all the threats and intimidations, those first believers had the same response as high school me. They were proud! This is how Luke describes it:

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41, NIV)

Years later the apostle Peter, who is thought to have been crucified upside down because of his faith, wrote these words to Christians who were being poked in the eye:

If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:16, NIV)

Football can be a dangerous game. When you put on the pads and the helmet you expect to be hit. It comes as no surprise when your rival throws you to the ground and the opposing crowd taunts you. But when you’re proud of your team and focused on victory you take those hits and nurse those injuries with joy knowing you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

Faith can be a dangerous proposition. When you take on the name of Christ you should expect to be hit. It should come as no surprise when the enemy mocks you. Insults and injuries are part of the game. But we bear those with joy knowing that even our Captain was insulted and mocked. We proudly bear the marks of faith knowing those black eyes mean that we are in a battle worth fighting. We are part of a team destined for victory!

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Bible Study Bible: Review

The Bible Study Bible is exactly what its name suggests – this is a Bible designed for small group or personal Bible study. You might ask, “Don’t we already have plenty of those?” We do, but what sets this Bible apart is that it provides a series of questions for EVERY CHAPTER OF THE BIBLE! I’ve used similar Bibles, but none that provides study resources for every chapter. This Bible is ideal for a small group of people reading through the Bible or reading through a book of the Bible. All you need to lead a small group is right there. It even includes in the introduction some helpful tips on how to lead groups. I will keep this volume handy for personal reflection and, as a church leader, I will certainly use this as a resource for small group leaders in my church. If you are a small group leader, this Bible certainly needs to be considered for your group.

As always, you need to know what this Bible is not. Although it provides introductions to each book of the Bible, a concordance and set of maps there are no study notes, textual notes, or cross references in the text. This is not a Study Bible in the sense of digging deep into the text, but there are (as noted above) plenty of good Study Bibles. 

This Bible is the New King James Version which is not my first choice for a translation. That is not a distraction for me, but a detail you should know. I’m hoping that it will be adapted to other English translations.

This Bible is worthy of being included in your library for your personal reading and especially if you are or hope to be a small group leader. Get a few friends together and start reading and discussing. This is the vision behind this volume as stated by the study resource compiler Sam O’Neal in the introduction.

This Bible can be purchased at FaithGateway Store or on Amazon. More details on this Bible is available on the Thomas Nelson webpage.

I received this Bible for free as a member of the Bible Gateway Blogger Grid (#Bible GatewayPartner) in agreement to writing this review.  

Friday, June 23, 2023

An Epiphany on Generosity

I recently drove my adult son to the airport for a trip he was taking with some friends. He lives in Arkansas but was flying out of DFW, so he drove to our home in Denison to spend a little time with us. While he was gone I drove his car a few times just to make sure it was running well. I guess that’s what a dad does even with grown sons.

His car had actually been given to him by my wife and me when he was in college and, as I was driving his car, the thought occurred to me how generous I was to have given him this car that is still running so well. I was thinking pretty highly of myself and figuratively patting myself on the back for being such a benevolent father.  

Then I remembered.

Several years back my wife’s uncle called me. Age had crept up on him and his health was failing and he and his wife, our aunt, had gotten to the point where they had no need for a car. I suppose they could have sold it and pocketed the cash, but they had talked it over and decided to offer the car to me and my wife. That’s right, they were giving the car to us. In time, we gave that very car to our son. The very car I was now driving praising myself for my generosity.

Shortly after I went through the “how generous am I” self-speech I remembered where that car came from. I had simply given away something that had been given to me. I was struck with a sense of guilt and then a sense of clarity. What I had learned is true with every act of generosity.

Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that everything we have we have earned. Somehow, we have come to believe that any ability we have to make money is of our own devices. And somehow, we pridefully congratulate ourselves when we give even a little of it away. And many times, we fail to be generous as we selfishly clutch onto everything we have earned never realizing that “every good and perfect gift comes from God.” That’s right, everything we give has been given to us by the benevolent Father.

That epiphany driving my son’s car was a stark reminder that I am not an owner, I am just a steward. I’m not as generous as I should be, but that divine insight has dared me to be better.  And the journey to being more generous perhaps begins with the realization that everything I give away was really never mine in the first place.

“God loves a cheerful giver.” - 2 Corinthians 9:7

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Glory of Springtime

Don’t you just love spring? It’s simply glorious. Trees blooming. Plants blossoming. It’s all so beautiful. Unless of course you were looking at my front yard earlier this year.

Last summer we bought three bushes that looked so promising. The leaves were supposed to turn all kinds of spectacular colors as the seasons progressed. We were so hopeful. But this spring all we had left were barren sticks.

Two of the plants seemed utterly hopeless, but one had a few vestiges of leaves.  I uprooted all three plants and tossed aside two of them but decided to give the barely alive plant a second chance.

So, I took the lone survivor and replanted it in my back yard. Maybe a new location where it could get more sun would make a difference. With little hope for a recovery, I dug the hole, placed the plant in it, watered it, and waited to see what would happen.

The first week there was little improvement. The next week a little more. And the jury is still out on whether it will live into its potential, but, as of today, many of the once barren branches have given life to green leaves that show a hint of those spectacular colors we once hoped for.

I’ve felt like that struggling bush at times in my life. And maybe you have too. There have been times when much of what I once hoped for never seemed to blossom. Dreams were just dreams. Hopes were never realized. Life seemed to be waning. I think it happens to most everyone. We experience hard seasons in our life where we don’t get enough sun or water. Or maybe we get too much sun and too much water. Life can be harsh and we sometimes find ourselves looking and feeling like barren sticks.

But like that little bush that is now blooming, I’ve seen the same thing in my life and the lives of so many others. Sometimes a second chance is all it takes.

Today, if you are feeling like that little bush, I want you to know that God has not given up on you. He has an amazing ability to see even the smallest signs of life in people and he sees that in you. He gives second and third and fourth chances to those who refuse to give up.

Today, if you are feeling like that little bush, maybe what you need is a new location.  Maybe you’ve been deprived of the light of God’s love. Maybe you’ve been deprived of the water of supportive relationships. Maybe you’re planted in foul dirt of this world rather than the rich soil of God’s Word.

Today, if you are feeling like that little bush don’t give up the hope that there are spectacular colors in you. The transformation may be slow and challenging, but one day, by God’s grace, you will exhibit all the glory of springtime.

Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

Isaiah 35:6–7 (NIV)

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Hearing your name called

This week is the National Football League Draft, a day that thousands of young men have been anticipating for years. I love to watch as the player hears his name called. The smiles. The hugs. Going to the platform and being congratulated by the commissioner. And then donning the jersey and cap of his new NFL team.

The incomparable joy of hearing your name called.

I imagine that all the hard work that led to that day races through their minds. The path to the draft is filled with many joys, but also with many trials. And with those trials there must have been times when they wanted to quit. Times when the dream seemed out of reach. Times when discouragement nearly outweighed the will to go on. But hearing their name called makes everything worth it.

  • The first time they put on the helmet and shoulder pads and breathlessly ran sprints. Worth it!
  • The two-a-day practices in high school. Worth it!
  • The losing seasons and determining to stick with the game they love. Worth it!
  • The rehab from injuries. Worth it!

Hearing your name called makes everything worth it.

Christian, the path is filled with many joys but also with many trials. There will be times when you want to quit. There will be times when discouragement nearly outweighs the will to go on.  At times you will feel breathless, exhausted, defeated, and injured. You will wonder if it is all worth it.

It is!

Someday you will hear your name called. Someday the hugs will replace insults. Smiles will replace grimaces. Congratulations will replace condemnations.  Someday you will be called to the podium and someday you will be presented the crown of life. And on that someday you will be able to look back on the sometimes-difficult path and, without hesitation or doubt, joyfully cry out, “Worth it!”

You will experience the incomparable joy of hearing your name called.

The sufferings we have now are nothing compared to the great glory that will be shown to us.

Romans 8:18 (NCV)


Monday, March 27, 2023

Baptism for the Dead – 1 Corinthians 15:29

In my recent sermon on I Corinthians 15, (March 26, 2023) I glossed over a controversial verse in Paul’s teaching on the resurrection. It’s 15:29 that gets our attention:

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? (NIV)

What’s going on here?

Let’s review the context. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 Paul is arguing that the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely necessary for our faith. Without the resurrection our faith is worthless.  To bring this point home he assures the readers that those who have died are actually only asleep. Death is not the end. If Jesus is not raised those who have died are lost. Playing on this thought he then introduces a practice among the Corinthians – baptism for the dead. Such a practice is meaningless if there is no resurrection. The question is the purpose or intent of this practice.

Some suggest that Paul is being hypothetical here. It’s not that this practice is actually taking place, but if it was it would serve no purpose without a belief in the resurrection. This view eliminates the need to explain the function of the practice, but Paul doesn’t even hint that this is hypothetical. It seems like Paul is referencing an actual practice of the church there.

So, why are the Corinthians being baptized for the dead?

One possibility is that a believer can affect someone else’s salvation. You or I can express faith in Jesus and submit to baptism not only for ourselves but for others. In this case we can secure salvation for someone who has passed on or at the very least give them a posthumous opportunity to express faith in Christ. This is a practice of some religions (as I understand it). This interpretation, however, seems to contradict the New Testament’s clear teaching on the necessity of individual faith. Where else in the New Testament is this vicarious faith even hinted at? Where in the New Testament is someone baptized on behalf of anyone else, living or dead? Whenever we encounter confusing or obscure passages like we have here, a general rule of interpretation is to interpret the confusing passage in light of clearer passages. For that reason, I dismiss this view.

But what is the alternative?

1 Corinthians was written around AD 55. Paul first visited Corinth about 6 years previous to writing this letter. Perhaps others had come with the good news before Paul, but the fact remains that many God-fearing people had died between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the gospel which included baptism as the initiatory act of faith. The Corinthians may have been wondering about the fate of those people?

Imagine this scenario. Stephanus, a believer in Corinth, heard the gospel at the teaching of Paul and was baptized. He had very devout parents and grandparents who died before hearing the good news. They never had the chance to be baptized. Stephanus is confident that had they lived to hear the gospel they would have been baptized. So, to honor their faith, Stephanus is baptized for them. Not for their salvation but as a token of their faith and assurance that even though they have died they still benefit from the resurrection. In this case Stephanus is not being baptized to secure their salvation but to testify to their saving faith. Although this kind of practice is not taught in the New Testament, such an understanding does not violate any clear teaching in the New Testament.

It is important to note that Paul does not necessarily endorse this practice. He merely uses the practice as further evidence of the necessity of the resurrection to the Christian faith. This practice may fall into the category of personal preferences. But, since Paul nowhere else teaches or encourages this practice I tend to think that Paul considers the practice harmless or else he would have set them straight as he is often known to do!

In any case, the importance of this verse is to offer further evidence that Jesus is actually raised and his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all the faithful – past, present, and future.



Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Lessons from the Pothole

Driving to work the other day I hit a pothole and, like most people, I reacted angrily. “Why can’t they do something about this?” I mumbled under my breathe. But this time instead of complaining I thought maybe I could learn a lesson or two from the pothole.  Here’s what I learned:

Pothole Lesson #1 - There will always be potholes.

It seems like every city that I’ve lived in has had potholes. They’re everywhere. In fact, if you find a city without potholes move quickly because they soon will have some. Do you, like me, expect life to be all smooth sailing? That’s a nice thought but it’s just not going to happen. There will be potholes in life. Some of my own making. Some the making of others. And some just because we live in an imperfect world. Maybe I need to just make sure that I don’t overreact to these inevitable potholes in life. Sometimes I can let something annoying ruin my entire day and the day of everyone around me. It’s not that potholes are enjoyable, but I shouldn’t let them have the power over me that I allow them to have. Sometimes I just need to hit that pothole and move on.

Pothole Lesson #2 - Learn from your mistakes.

There is one route I take to work where I kept hitting the same pothole. Then one day I realized that if I just swerved a little to the left I could avoid it. Hitting potholes may be inevitable but hitting the same pothole day after day is not. I needed to learn from my mistakes. Have you ever heard this definition of insanity – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Instead of just complaining I need to learn how to avoid potholes in the future.  This is especially important when I am the cause of the pothole.  I need to ask myself how I contributed to the problem and what actions I need to take to avoid the same problem. Too often I’ll just blame others when what I really need to do is to take ownership of the foolish decisions I have made and make adjustments. Potholes can teach me better and wiser ways of doing things.

Pothole Lesson #3 - Talk to others who have traveled your path.

One way to avoid potholes is to talk to others who have taken the road I plan to take. I like it when I map out a route on my phone and it lets me know if there’s construction or other delays. Having that information helps determine what path to take and what to expect along the way. As I consider careers, major purchases, and other significant decisions it’s wise to ask someone who has already gone down that path. Mentors in life can help me avoid potholes. I can learn from their mistakes. I can read biographies of successful people and learn from them. I can read the wisdom literature of the Bible – books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James – and gain insight from them. Whenever I hit a pothole I’m probably not the first to hit it and perhaps I can avoid some from the experiences of others.

So, next time you hit a pothole don’t just complain. Remember the lessons from the pothole and let it make you a better person.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Idol of Eloquence

I’m a preacher. That’s my job. Most every Sunday I stand before the congregation and deliver a sermon. I love my job. I chose to do this. But, not to elicit your sympathy, it’s not easy. If you’re a church goer I would wager that on Sundays part of your worship experience is to listen to a preacher preach a sermon. Just typing that sentence makes me shudder. The words “preach” and “sermon” both can carry a negative connotation. Who really likes being “preached” at? Does anyone ever look forward to a “sermon”?  Admit it, the preacher has a difficult task.

I would like to think I deliver an interesting and applicable sermon, but I admit some Sundays are better than others.  Sometimes I fumble through the words. Other times an illustration or a joke doesn’t connect. Most of the time when I take my seat I remember something I left out or think of a better way to say what I tried to say. Some sermons are great (at least that’s what my mom always said). Some are good. Some are okay. And some are just plain bad. But however sermons are graded doesn’t just depend on the preacher. Some of it depends on you, the listener.

We admire eloquence and charisma in a public speaker and, speaking for all the preachers I know, we do try to be both. But what is more important, the message or the messenger? Perhaps a good or a bad sermon depends not so much on how it is presented as on how it is received.

Not too long ago I came across this statement: “A spiritually mature person is easily edified.” Could it be that even bad sermons can benefit a person who is more concerned with content than presentation? Could it be that every time a sermon is deemed bad it says more about the listener than it does the preacher? Have we made an idol of eloquence?

John Calvin wrote, “When a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing.” Calvin argues that we can show our love for God’s word by listening attentively to even the “puny” preachers amongst us. In fact, we all may have missed some really good sermons because we tend to grade more by style than substance.

This Sunday when you go to church I hope your preacher has a well prepared, scripture-filled sermon. I hope you’re moved to laughter and tears. But more than that I hope your heart is open to the life-giving word of God. I hope that you are easily edified.

Preaching is hard work and every preacher should be willing to put in that hard work.  But listening is hard work too, and whether a sermon is good or bad depends more on you than your preacher.

My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.

The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:4–5 (CSB)

I don't remember 99% of the meals I've eaten, but they've kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride. - Matt Smethurst