Every time Paul prayed for the church in Philippi, he prayed with joy. Here’s a distinguishing characteristic of a Christian: We are the joyful ones. And gratitude plays a huge part in that. I am most joyful when I am most thankful. And I am most thankful and joyful when I live in the right relationship with Jesus and others. You have heard the acronym, kind of cheesy, but true: Joy is Jesus, Others, Yourself. We Christians have a counter-cultural view of joy, not because we are against pleasure and fulfillment. We simply have a different source. Tom Brady said after his third Super Bowl victory, “Is this all there is?” I don’t know what he said after his fifth. Our joy as Christians is in relationships: Jesus first, others second. But everybody has relationships, right? Is there another component to this that makes for the greatest joy? Glad you asked.
In Paul’s writing to the Philippian church about joy, he connected it to partnership in the Gospel. The greatest joy doesn’t come from just friends we have fun with and hang out with. Paul wasn’t filled with joy because of the cookouts he had enjoyed with the church at Philippi, though that was perhaps part of it. He was filled with joy because of the partnership in the Gospel he had with the church there. If you have no relationships with partners in the Gospel, then you don’t have the joy that Paul is talking about here. The greatest joy is found in walking together, side by side, in the fellowship of the Gospel, living and telling the good news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, knowing Him and making Him known to others. Why are so many not finding that joy? Tony Merida writes about four obstacles that can keep people from enjoying deep and enjoyable relationships as followers of Christ:
“Sensationalists don’t find Christian community scintillating enough to participate in it. However the Christian life isn’t about shock and awe, but acts of service and love (because of Christ). Mystics make the Christian life into a series of quiet times. They desire to live the ‘me and Jesus’ kind of Christianity without the church. But Christianity is ‘we and Jesus,’ not ‘me and Jesus.’ Idealists struggle in Christian community because they have, in the words of Bonhoeffer, a ‘wish dream’ of what the church ought to be, and it never lives up to their expectations. Individualists fall prey to culture that only enjoys community online. We have a culture of ‘busy loneliness’: people do a lot of stuff, but they remain extremely lonesome.”
I was thinking about the way I feel when I am on a mission trip. When I am with a team in Colombia or Kenya or South Africa, or anywhere else I have gone with people for the sake of the Gospel, there’s a camaraderie and joyfulness that we sometimes don’t feel in the normal day-to-day here. But maybe it’s simply because we don’t look around at the ways we can serve with one another for the sake of the Gospel here. I realized that I have that same feeling of purpose and joy when I go with one or two brothers to the Piedmont Rescue Mission. Or with a group to serve at Operation Christmas Child. Or when we men get together to study the Bible at a men’s breakfast. And every Sunday when we gather as a church family to worship the Lord who redeemed us.Looking for joy? Start with gratitude. Follow that up by looking for ways to partner with other believers in the fellowship of the Gospel.
Many of my readers will remember the tragic story of the death of Steven Curtis Chapman’s adopted daughter, Maria. She was killed in the driveway of their home in 2008 when she ran into the path of a car driven by her brother, Will Franklin. The final third of the book takes the reader through that gut-wrenching event, the grief that followed and continues to this day, and the story of how God brought Steven and his music of hope back to the stage. You will fall in love with this little girl adopted from China, and you will be in wonder over how it seems God prepared her for what was to come.
After a flash forward to Steven’s debut at Carnegie Hall, the story begins in the tiny town of Paducah, Kentucky, in the early 1960’s. Steven’s brother, Herbie, was born in 1960, and Steven Curtis came along two years later. The two boys were raised by a father who was as gifted in music as he was possessed by an uncontrollable temper. Both boys lived in fear of upsetting their father, and Steven recalls the time he was trying to help his dad restore an old Army jeep. His dad asked for a nine-sixteenth wrench, and Steven ran to the toolshed and searched for it until he had just the right part. But when he got back his dad said, “Just lay it down, I don’t need it anymore.” Steven’s face fell, and then his dad asked for a Phillips screwdriver. Again he raced to the toolshed to find one, only to be told when he returned that it wasn’t needed. Several years ago, Steven saw the Bruce Willis movie, “The Kid” (incidentally, my wife’s favorite movie), and there’s a scene where the young boy in the movie finds the missing screw his dad had been looking for in his pocket, and his dad got angry at him. Steven said he cried so uncontrollably during that scene that his oldest son, Caleb, reached over to pat him on the back and console him.
The family dynamic changed completely when Steven’s father, Herb Chapman, became a Christian. Instead of sending the boys off to church with their mother every week, now Herb was leading his family. The family started singing together at church, Herb was eventually asked to be the music minister, and the seed of a songwriter was beginning to develop in Steven’s heart. He is today the singer-songwriter who has won more awards in contemporary Christian music than anyone in the industry, including 5 Grammys and 58 Dove Awards. You will read about how God opened the door for Steven in a music career, and how this man of faith has used his enormous talent to promote the good news about Jesus. Since a mutual friend, Larry Warren, first introduced me to his music in the early 90’s, I have been a fan.
I had a hard time getting through the chapter about Maria’s death. The pain is as raw as it gets, and I felt the full gamut of emotions Steven and his family went through in their loss. It is hard. But it is also a story that, I believe, can bring help and healing to any of you who have lost a child. I have never walked that road, but I know many of you have. You will be able to identify with Steven and Mary Beth Chapman, and I trust, you will be helped by their story.
Read this book. You will be glad you did.
A cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post years ago showed a young boy of 5 or 6 years old talking on the phone, saying, “Mom is in the hospital, the twins and Rozie and Billie and Sally and the dog and me and Dad are all home alone.”
That was a time when Moms were still held in high esteem by most in our nation. Mom was the heart of the home, Dad was the head. Moms were the tender-hearted nurturers, Dads the fearless warriors. They made quite a team, Mom and Dad. They were incomplete without each other; his strengths were her weaknesses, her strengths were his weaknesses. Dad was too harsh sometimes, Mom was too soft. Together they raised children in a safe place. Not a perfect place, mind you. But one that was secure.
There are millions of children in the country today who would give anything to be in a home like that. In his book, Love Must Be Tough, James Dobson tells the story of a sixth grade teacher in California who taught in an affluent area. She gave her students a writing assignment. They were to complete the sentence that began, “I wish…” She expected the boys and girls to wish for bicycles, dogs, laptops and trips to Hawaii. Instead, 20 of the 30 children made reference in their responses to their own disintegrating families. Here’s what some of them wrote:
“I wish my parents wouldn’t fight and my father would come back.”
“I wish my mother didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“I wish I could get straight A’s so my father would love me.”
“I wish I had one mom and dad so the kids wouldn’t make fun of me.”
I am so thankful for the Mom who lives in my house. I couldn’t imagine life without her. She truly is the heart of her household, and as the Proverb says, “The heart of her husband safely trusts her.” That’s why she deserves anything I and the kids give her tomorrow. No gift is too good for the Mom who lives and loves at our house.
I heard a story about a boy talking to a girl who lived next door. “I wonder what my Mother would like for mother’s day,” he said. The girl answered, “Well, you could decide to keep your room clean and orderly. You could go to bed as soon as she calls you. You could brush your teeth without having to be told. You could quit fighting with your brothers and sisters, especially at the dinner table.” The boy looked at her and said, “Naah, I mean something practical.”
Are Moms important? You can change the textbooks and expunge the records and re-write history. But you will never, ever, take Mom out of the hearts of her children. Or out of the very center of the home. Moms, what you are doing matters. Don’t give in or give up. I look at my seven grown children and now our five grandchildren who are all beneficiaries of loving moms, and I thank God for the fruit I see in their hearts and lives. Much of who they are as people is attributed to the love and attention they received from their moms.
Billy Graham wrote, “Only God Himself fully appreciates the influence of a Christian mother in the molding of character in her children.”
Amen, and Happy Mother’s Day!
Have you ever known someone who used to follow Jesus, but has wandered away? We all do. James finishes his letter with a strong plea for us to bring back the wanderer. Let’s be clear: the wanderer is not gone because the church has a cross or a steeple, or sings hymns, or doesn’t sing hymns. He wandered from the truth, not a particular set of doctrines or beliefs or practices, but as Douglas Moo says, from “all that is involved in the Gospel.” What’s the big deal? If he has wandered off, chances are he will wander back at some point, right? Not necessarily. This is so serious that James says to bring him back saves his soul from death. How does one wander from the truth?
Wandering from the truth is intentional. Often the one who wanders from convictions has already wandered from moral constraints. He wants to be free, he thinks, to live any way he feels is best for him.
Wandering from the truth is also gradual. You don’t go to Easter service and raise your voice with the saints to proclaim the risen Savior and then wake up the next morning and decide that the whole thing is a hoax. No, it is a gradual decline. That’s why it is vital for us to express our doubts and our questions to those in our circle of influence that are grounded and settled and mature in the faith. Don’t share your questions with skeptics or scoffers, for they will surely encourage you in your wandering, and take you one step further away from the truth. The godly friend, however, will welcome your questions and help you through your doubts.
James writes, “and someone brings him back.” Someone. The work of reclamation is not relegated to spiritual authorities. In fact, it is usually not the pastor or the elders who hear about someone going off the rails first. It is a close friend, a family member, a co-worker. And in fact, by the time the elders hear about it, sometimes the wanderer is so far down the road that apart from a miraculous intervention by God, he will not be brought back. So, if bringing back the wanderer is left to someone, and that’s you, what should you do?
I heard on the radio this week that the Department of Transportation in NC is reminding young people who are going to the prom this year not to take a selfie on railroad tracks. Seriously? Has it really come to this, that teens need to be told not to stand on railroad tracks in sight of an oncoming train and take pictures? But here’s the point. If you saw a young person standing on the tracks, and a train was coming, should you run to your house and call the church leaders? No! You yell at the teen, run towards him, flail your arms and act like a crazy person until he sees you and gets off the tracks. It’s not hard. If your friend has wandered away from the truth, do whatever it takes, as much as you are able, to bring him back. Because you love him.
The plain sense of this text tells me that if someone you love has wandered off, you first have to find him, and understand why he is there. What has he believed that has brought him to this place? Then, you have to risk rejection, or ridicule, or even attack if you are going to bring him back.
It will be worth it.
I remember hearing this phrase from the book of James a lot as a kid: “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I never really knew what that meant, especially effectual and availeth, but I know now that I witnessed it every week. My 80-year-old great-grandmother would go into her bedroom every morning, pull the door to, kneel beside her bed, and pray out loud to the Lord. I sometimes stood at the door and watched her with wonder. I knew it was fervent prayer, and that she was talking to someone she loved dearly. And I came to know that it availed much, and that God heard her prayers, because she was praying for sinners like me to come to know Jesus. What James means in a nutshell is that prayer is a powerful weapon in the hands of the most humble, simple servant of Christ.
Then James goes off the rails when he says that Elijah was just like us, and he prayed great prayers that God heard. What? James, have you forgotten who Elijah was? He was the premier prophet in the Old Testament! When Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration, who appeared with Him to represent the prophets? Elijah. When John the Baptist showed up on the scene to announce the coming of the Savior, he came in the spirit of Elijah, just as Malachi prophesied. Even when Jesus cried out to God on the cross, the crowd thought he was calling for Elijah. How could Elijah have been a man just like us? Well, read his story and you will see he had great triumphs and great failures. He really was an ordinary man whom God chose to use in extraordinary ways to accomplish His purposes.
Warren Wiersbe points out that when James says of Elijah, “he prayed fervently,” that could be translated as, “he prayed in his prayers.” Prayer wasn’t an exercise for Elijah; he really prayed. When we are just exercising prayer, we say all kinds of things. We make announcements in prayer. We correct other people’s theology in prayer. We say “just” a lot. I heard a story about a church member who was “praying around the world” in a meeting. One of the men there got tired of it and finally he said, “Ask Him something! That’s what prayer is. Ask Him something!” I know too well all of these “prayer exercises,” and it is far too easy to fall into that myself, instead of praying in my prayers.
Let’s learn to talk to God like He is really with us, because He is. There was a man in the last stages of cancer, and a good praying friend visited him often and prayed with him. The man with cancer finally asked him, “How did you learn to pray like that?” His friend said, “I know God is with me, and He loves me and hears my prayers. So, I often pull up a chair, right beside me. I pull it up close and just imagine Him sitting there, and I talk to my Father that way. Like a child who is lying in his father’s lap.” The friend heard a few days later that the man he had prayed for had died. And the nurse said, “Yeah, and one thing was kind of strange. Apparently, just before he died, he pulled the chair beside the bed up close, and we found him lying with his head on that chair.”
I want to learn to pray like that.