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Passing for Normal

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

ALS has brought many changes to my life, some anticipated, some not.  Though I have not welcomed my physical deterioration, it has proceeded in the ways I expected.  I did not expect, however, the ways that it has affected others’ perception of me.

Before my diagnosis, I looked like, and indeed was, a fit, healthy man in early middle age.  People look at you differently when they can tell you keep in shape.  I liked that.  In the earliest stages of my disease, my condition still was not obvious.  I could still bike, kickbox, and do pilates, and it showed.

Those days are gone.  These days, my capacity for exercise tops out at stretching and taking walks.  There’s nothing obviously wrong with me when I’m sitting in a chair, but when I try to do anything, the illusion vanishes.

Yesterday, I got my hair cut.  When my name came up, the stylist invited me to her chair.  A few seconds later, she repeated the invitation in case I was delaying because I didn’t know what to do.  She quickly realized that wasn’t my problem.  She watched me as I levered myself up from my seat, shuffled stiffly over to her chair, maneuvered around the footrest, and collapsed into place.

She treated me with great kindness, but as I bantered with her, there was an uneasy edge to her laughter.  She probably thought it was pretty weird that this messed-up dude was cracking jokes.  When I started to get up, she said, “Watch that footrest, hon,” as though I were not already painfully aware of it.

This bothers me, even though I think it’s a dumb thing to be bothered about.  I want to pass for normal, and when I can’t, I don’t enjoy the distance it creates between others and me.

One of the great puzzles of the modern church is the lack of evangelism by its members.  We talk about evangelism all the time, we pray about it constantly, we hold training sessions, but few indeed are the congregations of the Lord’s people that are evangelistically dynamic.

Explanations abound, everything from lack of devotion to fear.  I don’t think any of those are true.  I think Christians want to pass for normal, and they know that if they are vocal about their faith, they won’t be able to pass anymore.

The most successful personal worker I’ve ever known is Westley Pollard, elder of the Dowlen Rd. church in Beaumont.  When Lauren and I still lived there, she once ran into him at Walmart.  He was going up and down the lines at the registers, inviting people to church.  Normal behavior that is not, but in his time, Westley has baptized hundreds if not thousands of people.

I know this is a painful thing to say, but the question before each of us is whether we love God and our neighbor enough to not be normal.  Are we willing to act out, do the socially awkward thing, and have people look at us funny to possibly save a soul?  That sounds like a small price to pay, but I’m here to tell you that it isn’t.  It’s hard!  However, only if we are willing to pay it will we let our light so shine before men.

Learning from the Church in Sardis

Monday, April 04, 2022

Of the letters to the seven churches in the early part of Revelation, by far the most negative is the missive to Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6.  Thankfully, the Jackson Heights church as a whole is not like the church in Sardis, but in any larger congregation of the Lord’s people, it’s likely that the lives of some individual Christians match the description.  Though it’s unpleasant, each of us ought to soberly consider whether these words apply to us.

They had the name of being alive.  The Christians in Sardis continued to meet.  Others regarded them as faithful, but the reality was tragically different.  Sadly, our reputation among brethren may not reflect our true spiritual state either.

They were doing some things right.  Even though Jesus’ tone is harshly condemnatory, some parts of their former spiritual health remained.  They still were doing a few good works that could be strengthened and completed.  However, such remnants of righteousness can foster a dangerous attitude of complacency.  When others question our spiritual health, it’s easy to defensively point to the things we’re still doing rather than being honest about the decline in our discipleship.

They were dead.  It is possible to have the name and some of the works of being a Christian yet be headed for spiritual disaster.  One of the characteristics of a living organism is its ability to grow and change, and the same is true of a living, healthy disciple.  We must learn to assess the way we have changed spiritually over time so we can know whether we are growing or dying.

The beginning of COVID in March 2020 makes a handy benchmark.  Since that time, a living disciple will have grown.  They will have learned to bear more fruit for the Master.  They will have won victories in the war against sin.  They will have become more committed to assembling, Bible study, and prayer.  By contrast, the dead disciple will have become stagnant or lost ground in these areas.

Which one describes us?

They needed to wake up.  The devil rejoices in every Christian who needs to change but doesn’t see the need.  He loves to lull us into a false sense of security so that we don’t confront our spiritual problems until it’s too late.

It’s pleasant to hear the soothing lies of the devil, but it’s very unpleasant to hear warnings from the word and our brethren.  Nobody loves the sound of an alarm clock!  However, if we reject those warnings, if we roll over and continue to sleep on our dangerous condition, eternal disaster is the certain result.  The obnoxious Christians who keep harping on our shortcomings really are the best friends we have.

They needed to repent.  The hard part of discipleship isn’t the knowing.  It’s the doing.  It’s the determining to change and then changing.  Satan is amazing at providing us with excuses not to change.  If we are in decline, we will have no trouble coming up with reasons why our decline is inconsequential or even necessary:  “I just can’t make Sunday evening services anymore because. . .”

That voice is not the voice of our Master.  Instead, He summons us to repent, to make the hard choices, to pluck out the offending eye, to sacrifice earthly comfort for the sake of an eternal reward.  If we find discipleship comfortable, we aren’t doing it right.  Repentance is never enjoyable, but it’s the only path that leads to life.

The Lunch Lady

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

One of the best-attended funerals I’ve ever preached was for a school lunch lady.  Her name was Marlene Norris.  She was a faithful member of the church in Joliet, with which I was working at the time, along with her husband and three of her children.  As is the custom in those parts, they asked me to offer the eulogy.

I arrived at the funeral home early and noticed when I went into the parlor that half the chairs had been removed.  Only 40 or 50 remained.  Nobody was expecting a big turnout.

This didn’t surprise me.  I’d known and been friendly with Marlene ever since my arrival in the area, but she wasn’t a standout in the congregation.  She attended regularly, but she didn’t speak up in Bible class, teach children’s classes, or sing so that I could hear her voice.  If I remembered her for anything, it was for faithfully updating me on her various ailments every time I greeted her.  To the extent that there is such a thing as an ordinary saint, she was it.

The family was already there, both those who were members in good standing and those who weren’t.  I knew them all.  I also knew the funeral-attenders from the congregation who were beginning to arrive.  You know the type:  those staunch older Christians who can be relied upon to show up for absolutely everything, including the funerals of members of the congregation, their relatives, and even notable brethren from surrounding congregations.  They offer one of the little-recognized fringe benefits of being a child of God—the knowledge that no matter who dies, you won’t have to grieve alone.

However, a third group also began to trickle in, a group of people I did not know.  They weren’t family.  Frequently, they had the wrong skin color to be family.  They weren’t funeral-attenders either.  They weren’t nicely dressed, utterly respectable, utterly at ease.  They didn’t look like they belonged.  They sure thought they belonged, though.

There were a lot of them, too.  They filled the available seating, so the funeral-home staff brought back a row of chairs.  Soon it was filled with people, then another row, then another row.

The process continued even after the funeral service began.  These weren’t people who had ever known the stern duty of appearing punctually at The Next Appointed Time.  Being 10 or 15 minutes late was nothing to them, but Marlene Norris was something.

By the time the last amen was said, the room was full of chairs, and the chairs were full of people.  If I remember rightly, there were even folks standing because there were no more seats to be found.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

The only explanation I can offer is the one in Marlene’s obituary.  It reads, “No one could ever walk in her home and not eat.  She will be remembered for her giving and caring spirit, always putting everyone else’s needs before her own.”  That sounds like an obituary commonplace, right up there with “She loved her family,” and “She loved to travel.”  All the dead are generous and compassionate in their obituaries. 

In Marlene’s case, though, I think the obituary spoke truth.  I think there were students at Gompers Junior High School for whom Marlene the lunch lady was the only kind voice in their lives.  I think there were people who came to her kitchen at home because it was the only place on the planet where they could find warmth and food and love. 

I’m guessing about all this because Marlene never mentioned any of it to me, even while she was giving me every detail about her ingrown eyelashes.  I don’t think she thought about it much.  Compassion was simply the water in which she swam.  However, at the end of her days, the recipients of her kindness rose up and bore witness.

Such is greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

God's Great Love

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Sometimes, I run into people online who want to separate the grace of God from the good works that we are called to do.  We are saved by grace, they say, so the things we do don’t matter much either way.  We don’t get to judge anybody as being outside of grace.

These convictions simply don’t square with the both-and nature of the gospel.  Yes, we are saved by God’s love and grace.  No, we can’t save ourselves. 

However, our encounter with God is supposed to transform us.  We aren’t supposed to love wickedness anymore.  We are supposed to love righteousness and spend the rest of our lives showing gratitude for our salvation.  If, on the other hand, we are more drawn to the pleasures of sin than to our Savior, something has gone terribly wrong.

This is the distinction that John draws in 1 John 2:28-3:10.  We’re children of God, but if we don’t make our parentage evident in several different ways, we prove that our true father is somebody else.  Let’s see how this works out as we consider the implications of God’s great love.

First, John discusses ABIDING IN HIM.  Let’s read from John 2:28-29.  The idea here is simple.  As God is supposed to dwell in us, we are supposed to abide in Him.  If we do, we can confidently welcome Him at His return.  If we don’t, we will have to cringe back in shame.  In other words, the way we live has eternal consequences.

Abiding in God is vital, and we can know what we need to do by considering His nature.  God is righteous.  He loves even those who hate Him.  He sends His mercy on the just and the unjust.  However, He Himself never does evil.  He is perfectly holy.

If we abide in God, or, to use John’s alternate formulation, we have been born of God, that same behavior ought to show up in us.  The people who knew me when I was 10 would have no trouble recognizing Marky as my son.  He looks like I did, and he has the same smart mouth that I had!  Likewise, people can tell that we are God’s children when we look and act like Him.  They see the resemblance when we practice righteousness.

This doesn’t mean that we live perfectly and never sin.  Instead, it means that we habitually do good instead of evil.  Sin is the exception in our lives, not the rule.  If sin is the rule rather than the exception, we need to mend our ways before we become ashamed on the day of judgment.

From here, John explores the meaning of being CHILDREN OF GOD.  Look at 1 John 3:1-3.  Notice that we don’t become children of God by working really hard or being really good.  Instead, we are His children because His love has made us His children.  We had no part in His family, but He adopted us into it. 

Now, we are children of God, but when He appears, we will become something else.  When we see Him, we will be made like Him.  To use Paul’s language in Philippians 3, He will bring our bodies into conformity with the body of His glory. 

This is deeply meaningful to me.  Every day, I encounter the limitations of my body and feel the ways that it is failing.  Many of you are in the same position.  However, in the resurrection, we will have a body that is literally like Christ’s:  perfect, indestructible, and magnificent.  Oh, what a hope we have!

As John observes, this hope should lead us now to imitate His purity.  Wanting to be like God means wanting to be like God in everything.  We can’t seek conformity with His eternal, glorious body while rejecting conformity with His holy spirit.  It’s an all-or-nothing deal.

This means, then, that the resurrection should shape every spiritual decision we make.  Do we want to become like God, or are we catering to the desires of our flesh, which is frail, corruptible, and doomed?  In either case, whatever we are seeking is what we will end up with.

Next, John exposes the ugliness of PRACTICING SIN.  This appears in 1 John 3:4-6.  Notice the ways that he describes people like this.  They practice lawlessness.  They defeat the purpose of Him who came to take away sin.  They do not abide in Him.  They have not seen Him.  They do not know Him.

These are horrible things to say about anyone who claims to be a Christian, but we must soberly ask ourselves if they apply to us.  Most people who assemble on Sundays aren’t openly practicing sin, but the secret practice of sin is another matter altogether.  I’ve known Christians who showed up for services three times a week while they were cheating on their spouses.  I hope that nobody here this morning is doing that, but I also know that appearances can be deceiving and somebody here might be. 

Of course, adultery is not the only possible sin to practice, and in the Bible, there’s no such thing as a venial sin.  Even the sins that seem smallest and least to us will cost us our souls if we make a habit of them.  They will show that we don’t belong to God.

Now, if I were here in the crowd today, and I were practicing sin, all this would leave me feeling pretty low!  If that’s you, though, I’m not here to shame you.  I’m here to plead with you. 

Don’t be the person we finished reading about.  Nobody wants that for you, least of all God.  Recognize where you are, recognize how much is at stake, and make the change you need to make.

Finally, John calls us to ask, “WHOSE CHILDREN ARE WE?”  Let’s conclude our reading with 1 John 3:7-10.  Our analysis of this must begin with John’s first words.  He is warning us not to be deceived in these matters because it is so easy to be deceived.

Indeed, this is Satan’s goal for all of us.  He wants us to believe we’re good enough to inherit eternal life when really we’ve been serving ourselves for years.  To this end, he loves to get us focused on the things we’re doing right.  He wants us to say, “Yeah, I know this thing I keep doing is wrong, but look at all that I do for God!  Surely my good works will outweigh my sin in His eyes!” 

This argument is powerfully deceptive.  Two of those adulterers I mentioned above were deacons of the church, and I’m sure they minimized their sin to themselves in light of all they did for the kingdom.  The problem is, though, that when we think like this, we are treating our good works like something extra we’re doing for God when He already is entitled to our perfect obedience.

John’s words are unambiguous.  If we practice righteousness, we are righteous and children of God.  If we practice sin, we are wicked and the children of the devil.  The lives we live determine whether our initial salvation is of any account at all.

It's Not a Wonderful World

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Recently, I ran across an NBC News story about a woman in the Lviv train station who played “What a Wonderful World” on a piano as refugees from the fighting in Ukraine streamed past.  Of course, NBC painted her as a Symbol Of Hope amid devastation and despair, a promise of Better Days Ahead.  The secular must seize on such symbols because if they can’t hope in this life, no hope remains.

I wondered, though, what the refugees thought of the message of the song, if they thought about it at all.  When you’ve been driven from your home with nothing but the clothes on your back, does the world seem wonderful?  How about when you know that people just like you are being callously slaughtered, and you’re fleeing for your life?  How about when you look into your future and see a refugee camp or worse?

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think wonderful worlds have refugee camps in them.

The delusion of a perfectible world has been hard to sustain, these past few years.  COVID has carried off millions.  In the worldwide wave of government mandates that has accompanied it, we saw a determination to master the disease from those who must believe that disease can be mastered. 

The recent retraction of those mandates isn’t a declaration of victory, whatever the spinmeisters may say.  It’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that we are at the mercy of a malevolent force that is too powerful for us.  COVID might stop on its own, but we can’t stop it.

We cannot restrain brutal dictators, we cannot limit the ravages of disease, and we cannot keep disaster from overtaking our own lives.  I have spent my life diligently pursuing wisdom and living according to it, only to find out that I was doomed to die young from the moment I was conceived.  I’m certain that wonderful worlds don’t have ALS in them.

Of course, it’s not all bad.  I have savored tremendous beauty, joy, and love in my life.  Even after sin and death have done their work, we still can glimpse the original glory of God’s creation.  Likewise, making a better world for our brother and our neighbor is a noble goal for any disciple of Jesus.

However, the world remains stubbornly irreparable, and the earthly good that we can do is limited by its setting.  The fatal flaw of life under the sun is that it’s fatal, and people who hope in it will be disappointed.

This is not the hope of the Christian.  We know we can’t defeat our earthly enemies, and the Bible warns us that life here is vain.  Even as we drink of earthly delight, we must not hold the cup too tightly.  Even as we work, we must remember that the good we do is temporary, but tragedy is here to stay.

Instead, our hope is in Jesus.  Rather than trying to fix this broken world, He will consume its ruins with fire.  Our eternal home will much better, new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  By His power, the dust of the slaughtered refugee, the COVID victim, and the ALS sufferer will be raised up to new life.  The resurrected faithful will enjoy eternity with Him by His grace.

This world isn’t wonderful, and it never will be.  Our Savior is wonderful, and He never will be anything else.

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