You’ve got (real) mail….

When was the last time that you looked forward to checking your mail? Not your email, but the kind of mail that arrives with a stamp. This week has been the first time in a long time that I have been eager to open the mail box. Why, you ask? Two of my three daughters went away to a girls’ camp this week. It was their first stint away from parents, home, and grandparents that exceeded a couple of nights. Did I mention they are not allowed to make or receive phone calls, unless it’s an emergency? Several moms just shivered.

The bright side is that we were allowed to send them letters. Rather than trusting the USPS to deliver my letters, I wrote them beforehand, and gave them to the girls just before we left the camp. Each daughter has her own “dad” letter to read each day as well as a card for them to enjoy together each night. The nighttime cards are loaded with some of our silly sayings and inside jokes with the hope that they will smile and giggle together, and feel as if they are close to home at bedtime.

The writing of letters — and the hope of receiving some — has shown me some things. Actually, it has rekindled something that has been smothered by e-mail, blog posts, text messages and tweets. We live in the age of instant, limitless communication, and it has robbed us of some habits and virtues.

Not so many years ago our interpersonal communication was either face-to-face, via an odd-colored, rotary dial telephone, or by mail. Until a century ago only two of these existed. I suspect that communication was more meaningful then, and also carried out with a more robust vocabulary and better grammar.

In pondering these things a Bible verse trickled through my mind:

“…I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God…” 1 Peter 5:12

This passage shows us that letters are personal. They are written to someone, by someone.  Peter’s words were “I have written to you…” The relationship is understood, and being nurtured. The words, thoughts, and familiar penmanship all meant something, something personal, just like FaceBook. Just kidding, Heh-Heh. Sadly, communication that carries a personal touch approaches extinction nowadays.

Let’s place these thoughts alongside the days when folks in our society commonly sent and received letters. In doing so we will learn a few bits about ourselves that will aid us in communicating with meaning, and also reveal what we have lost over the past three decades of e-talk — the personal touch.

There are invisible, internal benefits received from writing and receiving letters. In the days of communication through handwritten and hand-delivered mail there was anticipation by both parties. The anticipation caused both to think of, and perhaps long for the other. As the recipient sorted the mail, anticipation would build: What would be said? How would it be said? As the letter was read, emotions were engaged and the mind skated about freely. Throughout the reading, and even more so afterward, the words were pondered, thoughts distilled, meaning was extracted, a response simmered, and a reply was composed. As the reply was sealed, stamped, and sent away something of meaning had happened. Two people had related in a way that strengthened their bond. Instant communication assassinates this process.

It sounds delightful; it was, and it still can be. Give it a try. A priceless benefit of writing to someone is that handwritten notes can be kept. Kept, and read again, savored over and over. Countless letters and cards have been treasured long after the sender has gone or passed away.

Now apply this to the letters in the New Testament. A whole “other” meaning is added. The letters are from God. As such they carry his eternal truth, and presence. It would be remarkable to have observed the early believers as they held their breath, huddled, and soaked in the words penned by the beloved apostles.  I must admit that it sounds fantastical. It was. It still can be. You have the letters of God, read them, bathe in them, reflect on them. Recover the wonder of His written Word that is both eternal and personal. Then, do something with it — take a moment, pray for someone dear to you, and write a letter to him or her. Tell them about what you read in God’s Word, how they came to mind, and that you prayed for them. It will be good for you and the recipient. Letters work like that. By design, God’s design…

Oops, it’s time to go check the mail, again.

Engaging, in an engaging way…

A cultural storm has been brewing in America for decades. Certainly, the clouds have darkened over the past few years. What we have seen over the past few months — Bruce Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, the Supreme Court ruling on you-know-what — is the first round of lightning, thunder, and hail (or brimstone). A long, hard rain is coming.

So, we can sit back and gripe until our tonsils ache, or figure out how to be obedient, effective Christ-followers in this downpour. The wise approach is to head straight to the Gospels and read with a keen eye toward the methods that Jesus employed in teaching the truth to folks who opposed it. Jesus was the master teacher, he talked to and engaged people among all classes of his society from religious leaders and rulers to tramps and tax collectors. He did it perfectly. He did it with remarkable deliberation, as stated in John 12:49:

“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment- what to say and what to speak.” (ESV)

Let’s crack this verse open and discover things that are urgent for us to understand today:

  • The message came from above. God the Father had given Jesus the message, and it was not man-centered or earth-based.
  • The message had specific content that was unchanging.
  • The methods of sharing the message would vary. I don’t want to get too technical, but, “what to say and what to speak,” has the hint of “what to say and how to say it.” This provides insight into how Jesus interacted with people as he taught them. And, it will help us too.

Jesus never changed the message, but he would share the unchanging Gospel in different ways with different people. He would not speak the same way to a Pharisee and a leper, and shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t either. Jesus, being fully God, was the master of knowing the condition of his hearers. We should follow his example by discerning the mindset and attitudes of those that we speak to as well.

The pinnacle of Jesus’ means of teaching and reaching others was his use of parables. Given what we have just seen, you can appreciate why parables were used so frequently in Jesus teaching — they applied to all walks, stages, and positions in life. They were almost universal in scope. Brilliant!

Here are some examples:

“And he was teaching them many things in parables…” Mark 4:2 

“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Mark 4:33-34 (Notice that he taught two different groups in two different ways — one with parables, and one by instruction.)

So, what are we to do with this?

From this we learn that we cannot use formulaic methods, cookie-cutter presentations, or tired, wheezy methods from the days of sideburns and leisure suits. We have to take up the example of Jesus and prayerfully and studiously get our message from above (the Gospels and entirety of Scripture), learn the message inside and out, and engage others relationally by using varied ways with different people. Like Jesus did. Sounds like a lot of spiritual and mental homework, right? It is. And, if we had done this all along we might not be sitting in this societal slop.

Here are some practical first steps:

  1. Do not assume that others want to hear God’s Word. Most don’t. They want things their way. Take heart, this is the same response that Jesus received many times over. Pray for God to open the hearts and minds of those around you.
  2. Do not rely on recipe-style methods. The “Roman Road” or “ABCs of the Gospel” may work with our children in Bible school, but it won’t work with that angry, worldly, Bible-hater that sits two cubicles down from you at work (Drat, he just hung up his rainbow American flag).  Outlined presentations can be a starting point, but discussion and interaction have to follow.

Here’s a verse that punches cookie-cutter methods right in the snout:

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:63  

This verse shows why methods will fall short; methods cannot convey spirit and life, only God’s Word can.

3. In following number two, learn your Bible inside and out, particularly the Gospel message from the four Gospels. Ponder how Jesus spoke to and engaged people.

4. Read some solid books on basic doctrine and apologetics (the study of how to explain and defend the Christian faith), and read them slowly. I recall hearing a conference speaker back in 1997 suggest that the days of simple evangelism were ending, and that the days of apologetics as a means of evangelism were beginning. Yep.

Here are few good books to get you started: Concise Theology by J.I. Packer (a must read, it’s short and stout), Everyone’s a Theologican by R.C. Sproul, Fool’s Talk by Os Guiness, and Christian Apologetics by Douglas Groothuis (longer, read the others first).

Here’s a summary of our four points: understand your hearer, do not lean on a spiritual cane from the past, learn God’s Word, and study and think. The good news is that God will honor all of this. He is the one who puts people directly into our lives. He is the one who gives us wisdom and leadership by his Holy Spirit. He is the one who brings people from darkness into the Light. We are to be faithful farmers sewing the right seed, runners training for our race, witnesses sharing the evidence, soldiers practicing the art of engagement, and disciples learning from and imitating Jesus.

It’s work, but it’s worth it. What could honor Christ more than us learning from and imitating him as we share God’s Truth with a broken, lost world?

“Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question.” Luke 20:39-40

See, told ya!

A view from Arvil’s chair…

First, let me say Happy Fourth of July. Regardless of all that has happened in and to our country over the past months, it is still a fine country. Like you, our family will assemble and carry out some Independence Day traditions. We will eat, go to the Dairy Queen for ice cream (a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard for me), and watch the city’s firework display. Afterward, on the way home, we will decide whether the firework display was better than the one from the year before.

While on our mini-vacation this week I told my daughters about a funny event that took place on the 4th of July at my grandfather Arvil’s house almost 35 years ago. Telling that story took me back to the many 4th of July family gatherings at his house. Then, I wondered what he would think of life today. I couldn’t help but jot down a few observations, and pass them along to you. In order to provide some context for the thoughts that follow you will need to know a little about my grandfather Arvil.

“Papa Arvil” was born in the Ozark mountains of North Arkansas, lived through the Great Depression, farmed for a living, worked hard, spoke few words, and until his death, raised the vast majority of his own food through an extensive garden and by raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. He was my hero.

He died when I was a senior in college. So, I have lived more of my life without him than with him alive. I think of him often, and wonder what he would think of things today. If, on this Independence Day, my granddad Arvil was sitting in his chair on his front porch — which is where he spent much of his time after he retired — watching the world and traffic ease by, here are some observations that he would likely make:

  • He would marvel that people pay “good money” for water in small bottles, rocks by the pound (for decoration no less), and gourmet coffee. I can hear him saying, “Don’t that beat anything that you have ever seen…”
  • He would likely cuss, under his breath, at the fact that people will not work hard, yet expect to have whatever they want.
  • He would smirk and make a smart remark about people that want their food grown organically and sourced locally. He would tell them to learn to “make a good garden” for themselves. Also, he would laugh at the fact that sane people actually desire to eat chicken wings. No matter what sort of sauce is put on them.
  • He would fuss that Daylight Savings Time is still allowed. He disliked it, and swore that “the sun was a working man’s watch.”
  • He would sit quietly, in shock, at the state of America. Then, most likely, he would get out of his chair, and go to his garden to be alone. As he walked off he would mutter, “that’s sorry, just sorry.”
  • He would grin at the sight of my daughters, and plot (with them) to buy each of them a BB gun. He would tell them that he would pay them five dollars to scrape and paint his front yard fence, and that he would inspect the work before he paid them. This money would be used in the purchase of the BB guns.

He would be himself, and remind me how fortunate I am to live in the place that I live in, have good people close by, and the opportunity to work and make a living. What he would say, or imply, would remind me that America is great — despite her current faults and flaws — and that I should be grateful for those who have lived and died to make it a grand nation.

Happy Fourth of July everyone. Let’s thank God for our country, our forefathers, our family and friends, and many, many blessings.

Welcome to …

It is the Eve of Independence Day, and one week after the Supreme Court ruling regarding you-know-what. I don’t want to give the decision the dignity of even being mentioned by topic or name. Like you, I have pondered this culture-changing event, and its dreadful implications. There are folks more qualified to speak about this than I am. Yet, I do want to sprinkle a spoonful of thoughts into the mixing bowl. They are submitted on principle, not for sport.

There are two thoughts that I will present to you: where we are and what we can do (really what we should have been doing all along).

First, welcome to Pseudo-America, your current locale. It is called Pseudo-America because it isn’t the USA that our forefathers intended, and it isn’t the country that stood for two centuries upon pillars that set it apart from other countries in its political, moral, and spiritual standards. As you know, “pseudo” refers to that which is false (untrue) or fake (not real). I have chosen that term carefully. Why? Because this new America craves an illusion over reality; it’s a contrived country.

Here is the creed of Pseudo-America:

  • Let us suffocate our past, along with it’s traditions and ideas of morality.  We will no longer be restricted by what was, rather we long for what will be … based upon our fickle desires.
  • Let us state that we are slaves of our own chromosomes, victims of our own biology who want no key to free us, or rules to inhibit us.
  • Let us declare that those who oppose these views are hate-filled, and hateful by opposing us, because Pseudo-America’s mission is done in love, and in the name of love.

This new creed must be recited in a loud and shrieky voice so that it will drown out the voices of reason, good sense, and decency.

I hope that you are sighing and rolling your eyes. I also hope that you are thinking. My bit o’ satire was intended to provoke thought, not for amusement. Looking back, the distance from America to Pseudo-America seems to have been a long one, but a quick trip. It was intended to feel that way by the Pseudo-American chauffeurs that hurried us here.

Now that we are here — and it looks like there is no going back — what do we do? Three passages of Scripture provide a summary of how we are to camp in this desert.

First, while this is our homeland, it is not our home. As Christ-followers we look to an eternal home, not an earthly one. 1 Peter 2:11 describes us as “pilgrims and sojourners,” some translations refer to us “sojourners and exiles.” A jarring reminder that we do not belong here for long, but we are here for good.

Second, even though we are to look forward to our home with Christ in heaven, we are also to be disciple-makers, truth-declarers, error-correctors, and faith-defenders while here. Paul told Timothy to declare God’s Word and to be ready in season and out of season. For the record, “out of season” refers to the time when people do not want to hear God’s Truth. We are definitely in the “out of season” era. “In season”  is a light year behind us. The point to ponder in this verse is Paul’s command to “be ready.” It has the idea of being prepared against sudden and forceful attack. (Wow, it’s as if the Bible knows what is coming and what to do about it.) So, get ready. Read your Bible, study it, study sound books on doctrine, brush up on apologetics (defending the faith and sharing the truth with non-believers), pray for opportunities, and then use all of this as you have opportunities to share or defend the Christian faith. Colossians 4:5-6 prescribes it thusly:

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (ESV)

You might be thinking that this sounds like a lot of spiritual and mental work; it is, and the lack of it in the past is what has gotten us into this mess. Apathetic Christians, party of millions, your table is now ready.

Third, live a life that honors Christ and demonstrates the Gospel. Paul describes this in Colossians 1:9-10

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (ESV)

It’s as if these principles have been in the Bible all along. Ahem, they have been. So, dust off your Bible, read it, soak it in, ask God to give you insight, and follow the Holy Spirit as he gives you encounters for sharing truth, correcting error, serving others, sharing true love, and living a life that imitates and honors Christ.

In closing, I would like to offer a sincere Happy Fourth of July to America (wherever she is)!