Monday, April 30, 2007

What do you say?

Christian, what do you say when events go your way unexpectedly? When bad news turns out good, when you suddenly get the break at work you've been praying for, when more money comes in this month than you expected, how do you respond? Do you say, "I got lucky this time!" or do you thank God that "All things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purposes"?

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Living with clarity

The Bible does contain a degree of ambiguity. At times the Scriptures convey the mystery of God and his Word, and human beings do well to practice humility in the face of that mystery.

But the truths that matter most are too clear for reasonable debate. For example: There is one true God. He is holy and just and merciful. He reaches out in love to mankind and calls us to obey him. Humanity, on the other hand, consistently and universally rejects that love and chooses instead to sin. But Jesus Christ is the hope for salvation. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He was crucified, died, and arose—literally and bodily—alive from the grave.

Yes, some truths in the Bible are open to interpretation and debate. But the Truth that matters most is firm enough to stake our lives on.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Friday, April 27, 2007

Living with ambiguity

Ambiguity in the Bible is tough for many of us to face. We go to the Bible for answers, and if we have ears we’ll certainly find them. But sometimes the Word leaves us with more questions than when we came. How should Christians deal with that ambiguity?

Not, I hope, by writing another permutation of 5280 Bible “Contradictions” Explained. The temptation is strong (especially for preachers) to file off the rough edges and shut down discussion on the Word. But doing so may cause us to forget that God’s Word is not so much something we handle as something that handles us.

Let’s take time to read the Bible. Let’s get to know its overall themes and patterns and sweep. We’ll see how God’s people mess up again and again, but the Lord has mercy. We’ll find how Jesus Christ makes new. We may even catch a glimpse of how God’s loving grace is bigger than our own little conceptions, or even our language, can express.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Being strong

Early in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul makes a point of telling Christians about his own weakness, fear, and foolishness. By not-so-subtle implication, he lets us know we ought to be that way, too. For Christians focused on the world’s wisdom, strength, and respectability, Paul turns our attention to the Savior. Jesus Christ chose the weakness and shame of the cross over the riches of the world, and so should we.

But later, near the end of the letter, Paul has more advice: “Be strong. Act like men.” What? After urging Christians to choose weakness over strength, why is he saying the opposite now?

Because of what he’s written in-between. Paul has shown Christians where our real strength comes from: Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. After telling Christians to be strong, Paul gives one more instruction: “Let all you do be done in love.” For Christians, strength and love go together. But love-strength doesn’t look like world-strength. Love doesn’t brag or demand its own way. It’s patient and kind. It endures. And it’s strong enough to vanquish death.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Coming to a knowledge of the truth

First Kings 3 is another one of those ambiguous Bible chapters. It begins by saying that Solomon sinned by making offerings at the high places (1 Ki. 3:3). And yet at one of these unauthorized high places God appears to Solomon in a dream and offers to give him whatever he asks for. Why doesn’t the Lord mention that Solomon is, technically, being disobedient simply by approaching him at that high place?

In any case, Solomon asks for wisdom and receives that and more from God. And after he wakes up, Solomon does something significant. He goes to Jerusalem and makes offerings where he’s supposed to.

It’s a good thing the Lord is patient and merciful. As we learn elsewhere, he desires for everyone “to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Good thing he wants us to come to that knowledge. Even Solomon would have been in trouble if God expected us to be there from the start.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Nadab and Abihu

If you’ve been around Churches of Christ long, you’ve heard the story from Leviticus 10 of Nadab and Abihu. They were two sons of Aaron killed by God for offering “strange fire” before the Lord. As the story is traditionally taught, Aaron’s sons fail to follow the pattern of worship given by the Lord, so Bam! God sends down his own fire and fries them in their place. And so it goes, we’re taught, for anyone who goes beyond what’s written.

Only problem is, we see in the very same chapter of Leviticus that God doesn’t always zap those who fail to follow the pattern. Aaron’s two remaining sons, along with their father, refuse to eat the offerings commanded by God. Aaron explains their reasons, and Moses, at least, is satisfied.

God must want us to consider, meditate on, and even speculate on the Scriptures. Otherwise he wouldn’t give us the kind of ambiguity we find in Leviticus 10. But problems appear when we go beyond what’s written and teach our speculations as facts.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, April 23, 2007

Growing to maturity

One of the most challenging tasks in ministry is helping disciples grow to Christian maturity. Why do some Christians move from a getting to a giving faith while others never show signs of maturing? If we see our brothers and sisters stagnating in the faith, how can we help them grow?

The easy answer, of course, is giving them a job in the church. If we ask Pat to teach the preschool class, maybe Pat will grow up a little bit, too. That answer is good to a point, because at least Pat is now attending regularly and being exposed to fellowship and the Word. Still, if attendance is all we have, then our preschool teacher may not be much more spiritually mature than his or her pupils.

The real answer comes from inside. Maturity problems are faith problems. If we want mature actions and attitudes, we have to have a mature faith. And how do we develop that faith? I know of only one way: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.”

(c) Copyright 2007. A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Let everything praise the Lord

Psalm 148 calls on everything to praise the Lord. And it’s not just calling human beings to sing praise, but also angels, wild animals and cattle, birds and reptiles, sea monsters and trees. Even what people nowadays don’t consider alive—the psalmist calls them to sing hallelujah, too: sun, moon and stars; lightning, clouds, wind, and hail; mountains and hills. God created all of it, and it’s right that everything in heaven and earth praise him.

Of course, modern thinking explains why all these things aren’t really praising God: the psalmist was merely imitating songs of pagan nations; the hymn simply reminded ancient Israel to worship the creator rather than his creation; the psalm uses personification for poetic effect.

I’m not buying it. We may not understand the language of deer and hawk and carp, of the dirt and the wind and the stars. But that doesn’t matter. When we lift up our voices to praise Jehovah, we’re never singing solo.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sabbath

Saturday is a day off for my other blogs. I think I'll start taking it off on this one, too. Hope you come back soon.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Knowing the will of God

Romans 12:2 shows us how to make another choice: whether or not to know God’s will. We can read the Bible all we want. We may even memorize big chunks of it. Still, if we let our hearts and minds be shaped by the values of the world, we shouldn’t expect to understand what God wants for us or anyone else.

But if we have ears and allow the Word of God to reshape us, then we can figure out what God wants. That may not seem like a big deal when things are running well. But once we get in a pinch, there may not be a lot of time for reshaping.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Shaped or reshaped?

In Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul writes, “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you all may discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The choice is clear enough. The church has only two options: be shaped by the world or reshaped into what God wants us to be. Which direction are our actions taking us today?

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Knowledge and love

These messages are daily doses of truth. No doubt we could all use a little more of it. But let’s remember that this kind of thing is dangerous, to both you and me. The truth dispensed here is aimed at building knowledge—good, helpful knowledge, I’d like to think—but knowledge, all the same. As the Word of God tells us, knowledge puffs us up. We can know everything about discipleship, service, and the Word of God and still be useless to the Lord.

If you’ve been to the source, you know what else we need: love. Smashing idols and looking hard into the face of truth helps clear our minds of misconceptions that keep us separated from God. But without love, all the knowledge in the universe won’t do anyone any good.

Here’s the point. Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6), and God is love (1 John 4:8). Somehow, it seems, love brings us closer to the truth than knowledge does. My prayer for you and for me is that we know enough to pray to love.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Joy and sadness

In the heart of every Christian is a gift from the Holy Spirit: joy. Joy is to happiness as gold is to brass. Even in an atmosphere that tarnishes and corrodes, a Christian’s joy keeps shining. That means we can rejoice when we’re sad. Losing someone we love, suffering with sickness, or staring into the face of outrageous wrong will make us grieve—sometimes deeply. But sadness doesn’t steal our joy. Our souls are at peace with God and the new, flawless creation he’s bringing about. As the Psalmist said, “Weeping may last for the night—but in the morning, joy.”

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, April 16, 2007

Faith and fear

There’s good fear and bad fear, and both are closely connected with faith. The good kind is fear of the Lord. Fearing God simply means respecting him for who he is: holy and merciful, maker of heaven and earth. If we fear the Lord we have faith that he knows what he’s talking about, and we follow his instructions. Good fear leads to all kinds of blessings, like knowing God and having his approval.

The bad kind is pretty much everything else. But here’s where the blessings begin to pile up: if we fear the Lord, we have fellowship with Love himself. We walk with Love, and he lives inside our hearts. And as much as we’re in fellowship with Perfect Love, the less we’re afraid of anything else: shame, assault, suffering, even death. The Love of God makes every other kind of fear go away.

(c) Copyright 2007. A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Contextualizing the gospel

Jumping into a pond to bring the Good News to frogs and scaling a cliff to reach eagles—that’s what it means to contextualize the gospel. Contextualizing means we learn as best we can to tell the Good News in Frogish or Eaglish. It doesn’t mean we eat flies or rip small animals apart with our toes.

The church should always look for new ways to present the gospel so that everyone can understand it clearly. But understanding doesn’t mean liking. Tenderizing and dressing the gospel to make it easy to swallow isn’t contextualizing; it’s sin. From any worldly context the gospel will always be foolishness and hard to swallow. But the church still proclaims the words of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

See what I mean?

(c) Copyright 2007. A. Milton Stanley

Saturday, April 14, 2007

War and peace

Why does some evangelism insist on presenting Christian discipleship as something that will make our lives run smoothly? As Jesus and the apostles told us, the ruling powers of the world are at war with the church, and Christians had better expect to be hated and attacked if we really live our faith (Jn. 15:20; Eph. 6:10-20; 2 Tim. 3:12). A spiritual war is raging more powerful than any bombs-and-bullets conflict the earth has ever seen. That’s what we sign up for when we become Christians—and our new enemy is furious that we’ve switched sides.

But at the same time discipleship is about peace, and Christians have the only kind that really matters: peace with God. The more our faith takes root, the less we’re afraid of failure, suffering, and death. Jesus has already been through all that. The next time he comes down to the earthly battlefield, he’ll wipe out the enemy. And when that day comes, the ones who’ve died with him will reign with him.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Friday, April 13, 2007

Both wings of the Great Commission

Jesus instructed his followers in the Great Commission not only to baptize disciples, but to teach them everything he’s commanded (Mt. 28:19-20). Every congregation, it seems, is tempted to honor one part of the Commission at the expense of the rest. Some churches turn their attention inward and build comfortable nests for themselves while multitudes outside pour into hell. Others make evangelism their main focus while ignoring their own lack of spiritual maturity; new converts seldom see Jesus in that setting and usually fall away.

So how can a congregation fulfill the whole Commission? The Apostle John tells us that keeping Jesus’ commandments is evidence of knowing him (1 Jn. 2:3). The answer, then, lies in the second wing of the Great Commission: Jesus is with his disciples even now, and will be forever. Once that reality begins to sink in, we’re on the way.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Putting off sin

Faith may be a gift, but putting off sin is a choice. We can argue all day about how much faith is our doing and how much it’s God’s. Yes, God sometimes hardens a person’s heart to disobedience (Ex. 11:10; Dt. 2:30, Josh. 11:20, Jn. 12:40; etc.). But the whole scope of the Bible shows that each of us chooses whether or not to hold on to sin. So what will it be? Holding on to sin may give us pleasure right here, right now. But putting it away opens up a whole new reality.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Having ears

“He who has ears, let him hear.” Jesus said it over and over. Why do some people accept the good news while others don’t? According to Jesus, it’s whether or not we have ears. He wasn’t talking about the flaps on the sides of our heads, but about ears of faith. But why do some people have faith ears while others don’t?

Having ears for the Word is like having an ear for music. To an extent, it’s something we develop through practice. If we put off sinful habits and submit ourselves to the Word of God, we’ll develop better spiritual hearing (Rom. 12:1-2).

But just as an ear for music is also a gift, so are ears of faith. Jesus said some folks couldn’t hear his words because they didn’t belong to God (John 8:43-47). Faith itself is a gift (1 Cor. 12:9; Eph. 2:8). Without it no one can expect to hear God. But why would God give some better ears than others? That’s one of the truths God has not revealed to us. But let’s remember this: if God has given us ears, we ought to stand in awe of the One who has, in the mystery of his grace, given us the gift of hearing.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Believing the Word

Why should anyone believe the Word—in the sense either of the Bible or of Jesus Christ himself? How can Christians, in a world of competing religions, convince unbelievers that Christ is the one true way to the Father? How can we prove to doubters that the Word of God is true, dependable, and worth staking life and eternity on?

We can’t. No matter how well we present the evidence for the Word’s truth, it’s not our evidence or persuasion that changes hearts. So what does? How does anyone ever come to saving faith?

Only one way: through the Word itself. When Christians proclaim the Good News, the transforming power of the Word goes forth into the world. The Word is its own evidence and proof. Opening ourselves to that Word allows faith to be born and grow in our hearts. “Belief comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of Christ”—but only if we have ears to hear. And how do we have ears? That’s tomorrow’s dose.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Word

Old Testament writers called God’s prophesies, commandments, instructions, writings, promises and interactions with human beings by a simple term: the Word of the Lord. As the Word came more and more to be contained in written form, the Israelites became a people of the book. Whatever challenges confronted Israel, they had the Word to guide them. Christians have inherited that Word, along with the inspired writings of the New Testament. And so we refer to the whole Bible as the Word.

But not the whole Word. The same writer who said the world probably isn’t big enough for all the books that could be written about God’s actions also wrote some earth-shaking truths about the Word. First, John said, the Word was God—of the same nature as the Father. Even more earth-shaking was this: “the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” in the form of Jesus Christ.

Christians do well to depend on the written Word of God. It will never guide us wrong. But even more than the written Word, we have the embodied Word of Jesus Christ. Through his life, death, and resurrection, he has taken us, transformed, into the very presence of God.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Shame

As someone has said, in Jesus’ day being crucified was as shameful as seeing your name on the sexual predator’s list today. You wouldn’t find any gold crosses on chains around the necks of the first disciples. Jesus died shamefully, and anyone who dared claim allegiance to him joined in that shame. In a culture where honor got you further than money, shame was no small problem.

But on the third day, something changed. The empty tomb swallowed all shame—not in the eyes of the world, who heap shame on Christians to this day. But in the eyes of God, the shame of the world’s sin stayed behind in the tomb. On Resurrection morning Jesus rose alive, free of the shame and death he bore on the cross. And here’s the wonderful truth for those who believe: We’re free now, too.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Friday, April 6, 2007

Hope

“Hope” has got to be one of the limpest words in the English language. People slip it out to describe the weakest possibilities: “Think VISA will just forget about this $25,000 credit card bill? Well, I hope so.” In everyday talk, hope is about as weak as a pot of one-cube bouillon soup.

But in biblical terms, hope has power. It’s country ham with red-eye gravy and biscuits. It’s an anchor to the soul. Hope is affirming that the lies and injustice of this world are not all that’ll ever be. Christians hope in a Savior who died and rose again to bring us into the very presence of God. Hope is knowing that however bad things may look to our eyes, God sees what’s really going on. He has things under control, and us in his arms.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Baggage

All of us have baggage. The trick is knowing when to lay it aside and get to work—and where the strength to do that comes from. Consider Israel. Their first king, Saul, was tall and handsome with great personal strength and charisma. But when the time came to put on the crown, where was Saul? Hiding in the baggage (1 Sam. 10:22). Saul, it seems, knew his own strength wasn’t enough for the job, but he never could quite trust the Lord enough to do it with God’s power.

Then there was David: young, obscure, disrespected. But when the time came for action, David gave his baggage to the baggage keeper and ran to the battlefield (1 Sam. 17:22). David didn’t look like a king, but he had something Saul didn’t: an unshakable faith in the Lord. And that was enough to kill giants.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Grace

For Christians, grace has nothing to do with beauty, charm, or being a good dancer. Those are, quite literally, pagan ideas of grace. In the Bible, grace is a free gift from God. It’s not something God gives us for following his instructions or being his friend or taking an afternoon to go look at resort properties. It’s a gift we haven’t earned and don’t deserve.

It’s also how Christians are saved—as a gift, unearned. Christians sometimes argue about when we’re saved: when we believed, when we repented, or when we were baptized? Here’s the answer. We were saved, by grace, when Jesus died on the cross. We were saved, by grace, before the foundation of the world. By grace—I still don’t fully understand what that means. But I know beyond a doubt it’s true.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Welcoming the foreigner

Do I really need to give examples to show what most human beings think about foreigners? Consider the words we use to describe them: alien, stranger, gringo. In the Old Testament, foreigners were unclean as far as Israel was concerned. But the Lord told Israel, over and over, to treat the alien by the same laws and standards as the Israelite. Later, in the New Testament, Jewish Christians answered the call to welcome Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.

It’s a good thing God cares about strangers. There wouldn’t be a drop of hope for any of us otherwise.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Unclean and clean

In the Old Testament, being ceremonially clean was part of being holy. Being clean in the eyes of the law was a fragile thing, because touching anything unclean made the one who touched it unclean. That’s why a leper in Israel had to live away from everyone else--so nobody would touch him and become unclean. We’re not talking about actually catching leprosy. Touching a leper made you unclean, even if you didn’t catch the disease. In other words, uncleanliness itself was contagious.

And then Jesus came along and changed everything. When Jesus touched a man with leprosy, the leper was healed and Jesus didn’t become unclean. It seems that when Jesus is involved, it’s cleanliness that’s contagious.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, April 2, 2007

Holiness

The Bible is very clear: God is holy. What’s not so clear is what, exactly, holiness is. When the Scriptures show an image of God’s holiness, it’s usually fire or incredible brightness. Those images imply an aspect of God’s holiness we can understand: his righteousness. The impurities and darkness of sin can’t survive the fiery light of God’s holiness. In fact, as Moses and Isaiah learned, coming into contact with too much of God’s holiness would destroy human beings. And that leads us to another aspect of holiness: something separate, set apart. If we know anything about ourselves and our fellow humans, doesn’t it make sense that if God is completely righteous, he’s different and set apart from us?

So why does holiness matter if God is separate from us? Well, it matters because God said he expects his people to be holy, too. God gave the ancient Israelites a complex set of laws to show what holiness looks like. Today, he offers something even better: God shares his holiness directly with Christians through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. That’s right. God gives holiness to Christians, and we have it, already, right now. We have a hard time believing it because our lives don’t really look all that holy. But God’s promises are more real than our perceptions. Christians have been made holy in God’s sight. The challenge, of course, is learning to make our actions match.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, April 1, 2007

God's description of himself

When God describes himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:6-7), he mentions his role as judge. But the Lord spends more time telling about his mercy and compassion. Not only that, but he later revokes a major element of his judgment (Ezekiel 18). The Lord’s words to Moses are quoted over and over again by the prophets and writers of the Old Testament. But here’s the interesting part: whenever they remember God’s description of himself on Sinai, it’s typically the words of blessing, not judgment, that they proclaim: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faith.”

Are we listening? Yes, God is not mocked and will judge us if he has to. But his nature is mercy and grace, patience and steadfast love. The Lord is not the angry type. He's not testy or cranky. He’s not looking for an excuse to punish us. He wants to show us his mercy and love, and he’s far more faithful to us than we are to him.

Are we listening? Our ideas about God, right or wrong, affect everything we do. If we see him as an angry father, a distant dad, or a control freak, we’ll behave accordingly. But once we come to know him as he really is, everything—everything—changes.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley