Many of you would agree with the late comedian. You are the same ones who respond when I talk about going for a run: “Was someone chasing you?”
The truth is, yes. I am being chased by an old man, by my geriatric future self who can’t walk to the mailbox without oxygen. I am being chased by the image of me, ten years from now, tired and out of shape, unable to take a walk with my grandsons, much less go for a run with them. I am being chased by obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Edward Stanley said, “Those who think they don’t have time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Do I like to run? The answer to that question really doesn’t matter; the bottom line is that I need to run. I need to “discipline my body and bring it into subjection,” as Paul said. He also said, “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” There are three ways physical exercise profits. First, it helps me feel better and have more energy for the work God has called me to do for the days I have left. Second, it is one way I provide for my family. Think about it. If you die early because you were not a good steward of your physical health, are you being the best possible provider and protector for your family? Third, I run because discipline begets discipline. In other words, if I get self-indulgent with my physical appetites, I get lazy with my spiritual disciplines as well. Anybody who runs will understand this: the battle is not with your body but with your mind. Discipline your mind in physical exercise and you are strengthening your mind to follow the Lord and obey His commands as well.
And to answer the question, yes, I love to run. I didn’t at first, but the more you run, I promise, the more you will grow to love it.
General George S. Patton, U.S. Army General in World War II and Olympian (pentathlon) in 1912, said, “Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”
I run in town, and I run on the rural roads around my house. I always face the traffic, as runners should do. Here is what kills me, and thankfully, it hasn’t yet: drivers who seem to be playing chicken, seeing how close they can get without hitting me. Most of the time, there is no one coming in the other direction, so there is no reason why the driver barreling down on me could not move over into the other lane. I am hugging the white line, or moving onto the shoulder if there is one, but they pass by within a foot of me anyway. I always wonder why anyone would take such a risk: a sudden sneeze or a spasm or a bee in the car could mean death for one or both of us.
Go for a run or a walk this morning after you finish reading the paper. It will be good for you. And if you drive past me while I am running sometime, please wave as you motor by … in the other lane.
When Stakwell Yurenimo, a Samburu in northern Kenya, did well on his 8th grade exams, the Kenyan government informed him that he had qualified to go to a high school that they would choose. They also chose his roommate, a young man named Paul, who was a member of the enemy tribe, the Turkana. Stakwell determined in his mind that there was no way he would room with a Turkana. In fact, part of his culture demanded that in order to be respected as a man, he needed to kill a Turkana.
Stakwell poured water on Paul’s bed every night so that his roommate was forced to sleep somewhere else. Paul did not react in anger, but slept on the ground without complaint. This went on for several months. Meanwhile, there was friction on the soccer field as well. Stakwell was an excellent midfielder. Paul was the team’s star forward, a striker with considerable skill. But the team kept losing because Stakwell would not pass the ball to his roommate. The coach finally confronted Stakwell, who told the coach that there was nothing he could do. “You will just have to put one of us on another team,” he said.
That’s what the coach did, and the first time the two teams played each other, Stakwell threw himself into Paul, trying his best to kill him. He broke Paul’s leg and knocked out several teeth. Because it was an intentional penalty, Stakwell was expelled from school, and sent home a hero to his fellow Samburu tribesmen for injuring a hated Turkana. He did not care about being expelled, but then the school told Stakwell that he would have to repay Paul for all of his medical expenses. Stakwell, a Samburu shepherd, faced an insurmountable debt. That’s when his life changed.
Paul came to Stakwell offering forgiveness. He did not want to be paid back. Paul explained that he did not retaliate all the time his roommate was persecuting him, “not because I am weak, but because I am a Christian. When you were pouring water on my bed and forcing me to sleep on the ground, I was praying for you.” Stakwell’s heart was broken by this demonstration of the Gospel. He became a Christian, and after finishing high school and attending Bible School, he began working to bring reconciliation between the two warring tribes, the Samburu and the Turkana.
With the help of New Directions International (now, Feed the Hunger), Stakwell opened a Sports Camp in the Kurungu, Kenya region. He brings hundreds of young people together three times a year for friendly competition. More than a dozen tribes are represented at the camps, and the ministry is changing the climate of the region. Stakwell told the team from Antioch Church that visited several years ago, “There has not been one killing in the past two years between the Samburu and the Turkana.” There is even a Turkana village now in the Samburu region, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
Being at the camp with Stakwell and his family (including seven children they rescued from abandonment) gave our mission team a picture in living color of what is only possible through the power of the Gospel. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Stakwell Yurenimo, the Samburu warrior once committed to destroy the Turkana, was broken by the forgiveness shown to him by a Turkana follower of Jesus Christ. Now he lives to help others find that forgiveness as well.
I got some good advice from a spiritual mentor years ago, right after I became a pastor. JL Williams told me that he knew of several men who started the same way I did. These men believed the Gospel, and were determined to faithfully preach it. “But,” JL said, “now, ten years later, or 20 years later, they are presiding over a congregation that is not a church, and making converts who aren’t Christians. They have given up preaching the Word and replaced it with preaching what people want to hear. Don’t do that, Mark. Don’t ever do that.”
The man who told me that was faithful to preach the truth until the day he was called home, and by God’s grace, I will do the same. The question is, why do so many drift? Why would anyone replace the Gospel message, which the Bible tells us is “the power of God for salvation,” with a message that cannot save? Why would someone choose to tell people what they want to hear, instead of what they need to hear?
Part of the answer is clearly explained in the Bible. Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” Christ crucified. That is the message of the Gospel.
Alistair Begg says the drift happens because the preacher himself begins to doubt the message of the cross. Think of it. A Galilean carpenter, claiming to be the incarnate Son of God, nailed to a Roman cross, who died to take away your sins and mine? “That’s just too much,” some preachers say. “I can’t believe it.” Begg says the preacher wants to have intelligent people in his church, and he believes that no intelligent person would believe that stuff. “So in order to keep the intelligent, he lets go of the apparently foolish, and fills his church with a bunch of foolish people who are apparently intelligent.”
The message of salvation reveals the upside-down power of weakness. The Savior did not ride into Jerusalem on a horse, followed by an army, to overtake the Romans and bring political freedom to the Jews. He was beaten with a cat-o-nine tails, forced to wear a crown of thorns, stripped of his clothing and nailed to a tree outside of town, in order to bring forgiveness and eternal life and spiritual freedom now to all who will believe in Him. Stephen Um writes that at the cross, “The ultimately powerful one becomes the ultimately weak one. The ultimately wise one condescended to our level. By this great wisdom and power he has rewritten the storyline.”
The message of the cross, when believed, should produce great boasting in the believer. That’s what the Bible says. Christians should boast more than anybody else. In fact, I challenged the congregation last Sunday to try and become the biggest boasters in the tri-county area. Or, hey, if you aim at the stars, you might hit the moon, right? So, make it your goal, I told them, to become the biggest boasters in the whole state. Oh, one more thing I told them that is important. When we come to the cross, we can no longer boast about ourselves. But as Paul said, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” And as God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
Let the boasting begin. At the cross.
Charlie was walking through the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya when his worst nightmare happened. He lost his footing and fell into the side ditch, which was filled with raw sewage. Charlie managed to spare the Bible he was carrying by holding it over his head, but the rest of him was covered. When he got back to the room where we were staying, I smelled him before I saw him. The pit he had been in, even for an instant, messed him up.
Prisons of old were sometimes just pits filled with muck and mud. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into one, and would have died there had men not come and rescued him.
We have all been in a pit, and will most likely be in one again. Maybe our pit is not filled with mud or muck or raw sewage, but pits come in all sizes and shapes and substances. Fear or anxiety can become a pit. So can greed. Gluttony. Even self-righteousness, with proud hearts praying, “Thank God that I am not like other men.”
The real danger in being in a pit is that you can become numb to it and get to where you don’t care anymore that you are there. The people living in Jerusalem after the Babylonians had leveled the city were living in that condition. It took someone from the outside, Nehemiah, coming in and seeing the rubble, the walls broken down and the gates burned with fire to say, “Hey, you cannot live like this!” The people had grown numb to the pit.
Cold can become a pit that demoralizes men. It happened in Germany in the winter of 1944, as some of our soldiers lost heart and gave up hope in the bitter and brutal cold.
There are all kinds of pits. Tony Evans, a pastor in Dallas, said once that a few folks came to him and said, “You got some people we don’t care for coming to the church right now and we want you to know that if things don’t change, we’re out of here.” Tony said, “Bye!” Then he added, “If you stay around, I can help you deal with your heart problem, but to do that, we have to fix your feet right now.” They were convinced the pit of prejudice was a good place to stay.
Sometimes solving the pit problem starts with correcting where we allow our feet to go. The young man in Proverbs 7 fell into a pit of lust because he followed the adulterous woman to her house, “as an ox goes to the slaughter…he did not know that it would cost him his life.” Fix the feet.
Here’s the bad news. Sin always leads us into a pit, and sin is always going to be part of the story. Here’s the good news. Sin is not the end of the story. God is. He can rescue you and me out of the deepest pit. Corrie ten Boom said, “There is no pit that is so deep that God is not deeper still.”
Warning: You may well be in a pit and not realize it because your heart is dull of feeling and hearing. If Charlie had not thrown his clothes away and showered “Kibera” off of him, he would have eventually gotten used to the smell. Maybe you have gotten used to the stench of the sin-filled pit you are living in. I guarantee you that those around you have not. Ask them.
Mostly, cry out to God. He alone can pull you out of the pit and set your feet upon the solid rock. That’s the only safe place for your feet to be.
I had the privilege to speak twice at a conference last weekend in Winston-Salem. After one of my talks, which was on “Time Management,” a family came up and introduced themselves to me. They live in Thomasville, and though they appreciated what I shared about managing ourselves and stewarding our time wisely, what they really wanted to talk about was the church. Specifically, their desire to be involved in a church that puts the Gospel first, and doesn’t separate the family at the front door. As I thought about that later, I was reminded of another conference I attended several years ago. There, I heard Al Mohler speak about eight trajectories that have led the church away from the Gospel. Here are four of his eight warnings, and then I would like to add one of my own.
The Therapeutic Trajectory: This rests on the belief that we really need a therapist, not a Savior. Most people would rather claim they have a sickness than admit their problem is sin. Recovery and rehab can “cover” a problem, but sin can only be removed by faith in Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection.
The Pragmatic Trajectory: This is based on the idea that we should do what works in the church, whether it has biblical support or not. Mohler said, “A pragmatic approach can produce crowds that are not churches, and ‘converts’ who are not Christians.”
The Emotional Trajectory: This tendency puts a premium on what makes a person feel better based on personal preferences and experiences instead of on the Scripture and the way God reveals Himself. This leads to much felt-need, topical preaching, trying to scratch where people itch, or where they think they itch, instead of expository preaching that takes us back to the cross, where our real need can be exposed and taken care of.
The Materialist Trajectory: This trajectory is based on the belief that what we can touch and feel is more important than what is immaterial. This is the prosperity “gospel” that preaches that you can and should live your “best life” now.
Those are four of the eight trajectories Al Mohler presented. I would like to add one of my own that I call the Trained Professional Trajectory. This is based on the belief that programs and church staff are best equipped to disciple families. Timothy Paul Jones writes in his book, Perspectives on Family Ministry: “Suppose I called my wife this afternoon and announced, ‘Honey, guess what? Remember how you asked about a date tonight? Well, I hired a professional dater to take you to dinner and a movie. He’s much better at dating than me — plus, since I’ll be home, we won’t need a babysitter. Have a great time!’” How many nights would you be sleeping on the couch if you pulled that stunt?
Some things are just too important, too significant, to surrender to so-called professionals. So, why have we let that happen in our churches, where fathers have in large part been replaced by programs and staff? Church leaders can equip fathers to disciple their families, but leaders should not do it for them or hire a professional to do it for them. That is what has happened at an alarming rate in this country since World War II. Now, Jones writes, you will be hard pressed to find a church’s youth group that has a mission statement that says anything about the fathers of the youth. Jones read more than 100 mission statements on youth ministry websites before he found one that even mentioned the parents’ role, and that was in a sentence fragment.
The Bible has a correction for this trajectory: “And you fathers…bring (your children) up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” If you don’t know how to do that, you are a wise man if you ask for help. Abdication, letting the “professionals” do it, carries a price tag that is much too high for the families of this generation and the ones to come.
I remember when my second son was little, probably around 5 months old, and I laid him down on a kitchen countertop, just for a second, while I turned and opened the refrigerator door to get something. Hey, don’t look at me like that. I was training my son to obey. I laid him down and said, “Caleb, stay there.” As I reached into the fridge, just for a second, I heard a sickening thud behind me. I turned around in horror to find my son lying on the kitchen floor, startled for a moment, before he burst into a scream. At that precise moment, I heard another sound, a voice coming from the bedroom, saying, “What happened?” What happened was I took my eye off of my responsibilities, just for a second, and it could have been disastrous.
Then there was the time I was 17 years old, driving my father’s Oldsmobile (and it really was my father’s Oldsmobile) in Charlotte. I had gone there with two high school friends to check out the university. I remember it like it was yesterday, driving down Independence Blvd., feeling like I might as well be in New York City, because I had never driven in traffic like that before. It was rush hour, I was nervous, driving with two friends, and not really respecting the seriousness of the moment, when it happened. I turned left at a stoplight, right into oncoming traffic. A city of Charlotte truck hit us broadside and smashed up the Olds, but thankfully we were not hurt.
That wasn’t the worst of it. I ran over to the truck to see if he was OK and the man waved it off. He said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” got out of his truck, assessed the damage to the front end, and got back in. I went back to my car and waited for the police to arrive. As soon as the policeman arrived, the truck driver got out of his car and was limping like he had a compound fracture in his right femur. I told the officer that the man had gotten out of his truck two minutes earlier and walked, not limped, around it, but the officer told me not to worry about it. So, I didn’t.
That wasn’t the worst of it. I had to call my father and tell him that I had a mental lapse while driving, just for a second, and wrecked his car. That wasn’t the worst of it. Six weeks later there was a knock at the door and my father was served with a lawsuit, because of the wreck. I thought I was going to pass out. Again, the whole thing happened because I had taken my eye off of my responsibilities, just for a second.
I can’t tell you how many times in nearly 36 years of marriage I have found my wife crying because I have taken my eye off of my responsibilities, and she has ended up having to carry something or take care of something that I was supposed to do. There is a saying that a woman notices when there is a leak in the roof, but the man doesn’t notice until the roof caves in. That can apply to actual leaks, or it can apply to problems with the finances, child discipline issues, problems with the marriage, and problems with the spiritual environment in the home. That’s why Paul wrote this: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
This is not a passive word that would describe something like watching television. If that is all that God is requiring of men, then the country is ablaze with his glory. Men everywhere are watching, but not in a biblical sense. In fact, watching television is probably the exact opposite of what this word means. The word is a command to wake up, to refrain from sleep, to engage in what is going on around you. You cannot be on autopilot in your spiritual life and be fulfilling this requirement of the Lord.
Be watchful, men. Engage with your family. Stand firm in a growing faith in God.
And don’t lay your 5-month-old on the kitchen counter. Not even for a second.
This past Sunday we had a baptism after our morning service. During the sermon, I had asked for 4 volunteers from among those who would be baptized to come to the front to help me with something. “It’s not going to be painful or embarrassing,” I told them. Three young girls immediately jumped up and started toward the front, and then one boy joined them, after I laughed and said, “Where are the young men?”
I was prepared for this demonstration because I had a conversation the day before with my son-in-law, a captain with the Leavenworth, Kansas fire department. He told me there are four positions on their fire trucks. On each truck there is a driver. You can probably figure out what he does. In the seat next to the driver sits the captain. He is in charge of the scene, whenever the truck arrives at the place to which it has been sent. Then behind these two are the nozzle man and the hydrant man. The nozzle man is in charge of the hoses, getting the pipes unrolled and to the structure that is on fire. The hydrant man is in charge of locating the nearest hydrant, so the pipe can be connected to a water source.
I assigned each of the four children a job, and told them that they were firefighters, on their way to a fire. We all looked out over the congregation, as though we could see the fire in the distance. I asked them to remind me what their jobs were. “Driver! Captain! Nozzle man! Hydrant man!” they shouted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I asked them again, “What’s your job?” They answered again, looking intently down the road at the blazing inferno. Then I said, “But wait a minute. What is your job, really? I mean, what are we going down the road to do?” They looked at me with puzzled expressions, and then one of the youngest girls said with authority, “Put out the fire.” Ah, yes. Don’t forget the fire.
Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples right before he ascended into heaven? In simplest terms he said: Go. Make. Disciples. We live to follow Jesus, and to make disciples of others who will grow as followers of Jesus Christ, and make disciples themselves.
In the same way that God did not design just “certain humans” to be able to reproduce, God did not call only certain Christians to “go, make disciples.” He has given each one of us who belong to him everything we need to be able to do that. If you say, “I can’t do it,” let me remind you that you have the Spirit of the living God in you. If you say, “but evangelism is not my gift,” that is OK, too. It is not most people’s gift. But the gift of evangelism is just an extra empowerment to do what each of us is called to do: be a witness for Jesus Christ.
Some say, “Well, I witness with my life.” That’s great! But when Paul asked for the Ephesian church to pray for him, he didn’t say, “pray that my life might be more visible to the lost.” He asked them to “pray for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” Sometimes people misquote St. Francis of Assisi, who never said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” The closest he got to it was encouragement that we must make sure our lives match what we say. To say “preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words” is like saying, “Feed the hungry at all times, if necessary, use food.”
If we are to make disciples, we will need to use words. If you say you don’t have time, you misunderstand the command. Jesus was saying, “As you go,” make disciples. It doesn’t mean you have to stand on a street corner and preach, although you can. It means that your lifestyle intentionally becomes gospel-oriented.
Like the four firefighters, we each have different talents, ministries, and callings. But they all are given by God to serve the same purpose: to make disciples. Don’t forget the fire.
Jehoshaphat got word that three nations were joining forces to come against Jerusalem. So he gathered the people, proclaimed a fast, and prayed, “O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” May I interrupt the story to say, this is a great motto for graduates? “I have no power. I don’t know what to do.” That is true of you and me, whether we believe it or not. Here’s the truth about how God responds to such humility, to all who also say, “My eyes are on God.” He loves it. He gives grace. He runs to show himself strong on our behalf.
I imagine God hearing this prayer of Jehoshaphat and turning to his angels in heaven, saying, “Oh! Did you hear that? This is a man who runs to me for refuge. Stand back and watch this.” God then sent his prophet to Jehoshaphat and said, “Don’t be afraid. The battle is not yours, but the Lord’s.”
Lesson 1: When God is our refuge, our battles become his battles. Are you trying to keep a stiff upper lip and ‘go it alone?’ Why would you do that?
Then the prophet told the king what God had said, that the people were to go to a certain place the next morning. “You will not need to fight in this battle,” God said. “Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.”
Lesson 2: Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be still and trust God. It is much harder to stand and see, than it is to run away, or to run and fight. Sometimes we think that standing and trusting isn’t doing anything. We need to remember the words of Jesus in response to the question, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Believe God. Run to him for refuge.
Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah all got up early the next morning.
Lesson 3: When God is moving, much sleep is overrated at best, and a total waste of time at worst.
They went to the place God had told them, sending the praise singers out first.
Lesson 4: When our confidence is in God, we will sing praises to Him. We will not be able to help it.
When the praises started, God rose up and set ambushes against the enemies of Judah. Here’s where the story makes us do a double take. Two of the nations that had come together to attack Jerusalem suddenly attacked the third, utterly destroying it. If that is not strange enough, check this out: The two armies who had combined forces to kill the third army then glared at each other and started killing each other off, until there was no one left. How did that work? I imagine the last two people looked at each other, said, “Ready, set, go!” and each ran his sword into the other at the same time. When the people of Judah got there, they looked at the scene, and all they saw were dead bodies. “None had escaped.”
Lesson 5: We don’t have to pick up after God; he is thorough in everything he does.
There you have it: five lessons to live by, and not just for graduates. These truths apply to all who would humbly follow Jesus Christ, giving daily to him what has been given freely by him: our very lives.
A little boy said to the girl next door, “I wonder what my mother would like for Mother’s Day?” She said, “You could decide to keep your room clean and orderly, and go to bed as soon as she calls you. You could brush your teeth without having to be told, and quit fighting with your brothers and sisters, especially at the dinner table.” He replied, “No, I mean something practical.”
On the eve of Mother’s Day, I offer three practical gifts from Scripture. These are part of God’s refrigerator art if you will, pictures of faithful motherhood.
In Psalm 128, the mother is pictured as a fruitful vine in the very heart of the house. The godly mother has a central place of responsibility in the home that, though she may not see it through diaper pails and dishpan hands, will bear fruit for generations to come.
In 1 Samuel 1, the mother is pictured as the greatest intercessor her son would ever know. It was Hannah’s prayer that touched the hem of God’s garment, and it was Hannah’s spiritual influence on Samuel that shaped and prepared him to fulfill God’s calling on his life.
A London editor once submitted to Winston Churchill a list of all those who had been Churchill’s teachers. Churchill returned the list with this comment: “You have omitted to mention the greatest of my teachers — my mother.” And Charles Spurgeon said, “I cannot tell you how much I owe to the custom on Sunday evenings while we were yet children for Mother to stay home with us, and then we sat around the table and read verse after verse and she explained the Scriptures to us. Then came a mother’s prayer; and some of the words of our mother’s prayer we shall never forget even when our hair is gray.” I don’t know if there is a more powerful force on this earth than a mother’s prayers for her children.
In 2 Timothy 1, the mother is pictured as a woman of genuine faith. Apparently Timothy’s father was not a believer, but God worked through his mother and his grandmother to give him a sound foundation. Is there anything more precious in a mother than genuine faith? The man who would become the most beloved companion of the greatest missionary the world has ever known learned the Word of God as a young child on his mother’s knee. She had genuine faith, not the wishy-washy easy-believism that so many in the church subscribe to today. Genuine faith impacts every person it touches.
Consider Susanna Wesley, who was the youngest of twenty-five children and who gave birth to nineteen herself. Eleven of her children died in childhood. Her husband left her for a time, even serving extended sentences in debtor’s prison. O, how God used Susanna Wesley to give away her faith to her children. As each child turned five, she tutored them in the alphabet and then, beginning in Genesis, she taught them to read, word by word, from the Scriptures. “I wonder at your patience,” her husband Samuel once said. “You have told that child twenty times the same thing.” “If I had satisfied myself by mentioning it only nineteen times,” Susanna Wesley answered, “I should have lost all my labor. It was the twentieth time that crowned it!”
I am thankful for the mother who raised me and for the wife and mother I love and live with. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who serve so faithfully. You are a gift that could never be repaid in this lifetime.