Monday, April 25, 2011

THE CAT AND THE RAT

“I have not been alone in hearing… that God is moving His people …from a focus on self, personal healing and individual blessing to a focus on demonstrating the power of the kingdom of God beyond the walls of the church for the sake of all those Jesus came to save.” -a quote from Sanford article in Charisma Magazine.


The Cat at the Door
When I was just a kid we had a yard cat that should have been out hunting mice, but instead, was always sitting at the screen door meowing and whining plaintively, “begging” for someone to let him in the house. “Meow, meow, meow!” he cried. Translated into English this means, “Let me in. Feed me, pet me, help me, comfort me, make me happy. I want to go inside where it is comfortable and safe. I don’t want to face the world outside.”
My Dad hated for a cat to sit at the door begging like that. So he pushed the door open, and shoved the startled cat out onto the carport. As he walked past he said, “When I get back, I am going to haul you off to the shopping center.” He fully intended to get rid of the cat.

The Fight
About an hour later, I heard a commotion beside the corn barn at the edge of our back yard. I turned my head in time to see about 15 or 20 squawking chickens flapping their wings, jumping in the air, and scurrying in every direction to flee the water hole that had formerly been a mud-wallow for a few hogs. And among those chickens I saw that cat in the middle of a back-flip somersault a couple feet in the air. I ran over to see what was happening and found the cat locked in mortal combat with a large wharf-rat that was as big as the cat. Most of us have seen how a cat will often toy with a mouse, playfully tossing it into the air until he is ready to eat it. In this case, however, the rat had tossed the cat into the air.

I watched this battle until the cat finally killed the rat. He crouched over his prey and maintained a firm grip on the dead rat as he looked up at me with blood flowing from a big cut running across his entire face. His expression almost seemed to say, “I did it! Thank God I’m still alive!” He then proceeded to eat as much of the rat as he could. A couple other cats wandered over and joined the feast. There was rat to go around, and rat left over.

When my dad learned of this event he decided to keep the cat. There was no trip to the shopping center, and the cat’s lifestyle changed dramatically after that. It was as if he had understood my dad’s threat to “haul him off.” He never again sat whining at the door, and every few days he would drag up a dead rabbit, or rat, or bird and lay it on the carport, as if to say, “I’m still on the job.” The cat, with that ugly trophy scar across his face, stayed with the family a few more years until it died of old age.

The "Door" of the Church
As Christians we tend to be like that cat. In our focus on self it is easier for us to “sit at the door” of the church seeking our own comfort and self-fulfillment, rather than facing the tasks and challenges associated with reaching out to people in the real world. We often fear getting involved in the spiritual battle that is involved in the advancement of God’s kingdom.

Contemporary culture surrounds us with things that look good, sound good, taste good, and feel good, things that are fun. We want to do what pleases us--- DVDs, movies, TV, Music, video games, sports, and various amusements. We don't want to face what is difficult, demanding, and tedious. We often expect rewards and fruit when there has been no effort or labor. And then we carry this over into our walk with God, expecting Him to bless us, help us, comfort us, etc, without our enlisting to serve Him and His purpose. We want the blessings of the kingdom without the travail and labor involved in the spiritual walk. We avoid anything that causes discontentment, inconvenience, adversity, or pain. We subconsciously think everything in our spiritual walk should be fun, convenient, and focused on “me.”

We expect our meetings to entertain us and not be unpleasant. We want positive messages that do not challenge us. This tends to produce a large crowd of superficial and shallow Christians sitting as spectators enjoying the performance up front. It seems that the multitudes are not attracted to depth and substance but to glitter, show, and celebrity. They run to the latest thing, the newest thing, and to what gets the most PR. They go after the latest trends and those things that feed their fancy. Church becomes either a buffet or fast food which makes us “fat,” rather than the family meal which provides real nourishment, strength, growth, and spiritual substance.

A crowd is a good thing when it is made up of real disciples who want to know and follow Jesus, but a crowd is not necessarily a good thing, when the self-centeredness of the people is indulged, and when they are not confronted with truth nor helped to see themselves or the purpose of God. I believe that the Lord does want to bring us in and set us on His lap and embrace us with His love and kindness, but I also think He wants us to quit sitting at the “screen door” and to boldly face the challenges and “giants” that await us as we conquer the land with the message of the kingdom of God. Otherwise, as one friend of mine said, "I'll see ya'll at the shopping center next week."

“I have fought the good fight.”  2 Timothy 3: 7

BUT THE ROOSTER WAS FIERCE

“…I have fought with wild beasts at Ephesus.” -1 Corinthians 15: 32

Paul Law’s Message at the African Pastors’ Conference
The Kenyan pastors sat enthralled as Paul Law told them of the time he was surprised by the fierce growl of a lion crouching in the bushes in front of him near his missions ranch in the Congo.
He had been told that the creature had left the area, and so he considered it safe to look for the remains of a cow the lion had previously killed and dragged into the bushes. But now the threatening roar announced the presence of the beast.
Paul stopped in his tracks, and without turning his head was about to quietly give instructions to the three companions following behind him. They, however, were not there. They had already fled to the truck leaving him alone with the lion. He carefully and slowly walked backwards keeping his eyes in the direction of a possible attack. He made it safely back to the vehicle to find that the two men who reached the truck first, had jumped in, shut the doors, and locked out the third fellow who was now lying in the back of the truck in the fetal position.

The conference pastors sat on the edge of their seat as Paul proceeded to tell how he and his brother David returned later and killed the lion that had become a threat to their children and livestock. Contrasting his faithful brother with the men who had fled in fear, Paul spoke of the strength drawn from friends who stand with us in the battle and in our times of trial. It was a moving and powerful message.

When Paul finished his message, after a short break it was my turn to speak.
I looked at the group of pastors and said, “Paul Law has told you of the time he was face to face with the lion. I am going to tell you about the time I was attacked…” At this point they leaned forward to hear what harrowing tale I was about to tell. I proceeded, “I am going to tell you about the time I was attacked… by a rooster!” The audience began to mumble asking each other, “Did he say ‘rooster'?” And then the whole place “cracked up” as these African pastors all began to laugh. To them a rooster is nothing to fear. A rooster is food, not a predator. It was only a rooster, but it was fierce to me.

I was an eight or nine year old boy at the time, and to me the event was very traumatic. My Aunt Maggie’s old “flogging” rooster came charging at me jumping up trying to claw me with those sharp talons. He was not one of those little bantam roosters, but a full-grown, combative, big barnyard boss, almost as big as me. I picked up my cousin’s old rusty B B gun and used it as a bat. Every time that rooster jumped up I would swing that rifle down on his back and knock him back to the ground. I should have swung sideways and hit him up side the head, but I was too afraid to think of that. I struggled for a few minutes until Mrs Grace Gore, an elderly lady passing by, saw my plight and saved me. It was not much to brag about. I was attacked by a chicken, and rescued by an old lady, but the battle was real to me, and she was a beautiful woman on that day.

"...For if they fall, one will lift up his companion."   Ecclesiastes 4: 10
Both of the above stories illustrate our need to have brothers and sisters to stand with us as we face the issues and trials of life. But even more importantly they remind us that we should be vigilant in our walk with the Lord so that we are “there” spiritually for those who depend on us and who may need us in their hour of need. Often I have prayed, “Lord, I want to stay in that place where the heavens are open to me, and I can call upon you in faith as I pray for my wife, my children, my friends and all those for whom I am to stand in the gap. I want to be among those who pray 'Thy kingdom come,' and it represent a real force in bringing your kingdom, rather than just the prayer of rote that so many simply recite." I want to cry out to God in faith for those who are searching, serving, or suffering, and to actually encourage and strengthen them rather than locking myself in the safety of the vehicle while others are left outside to fight or die alone. We need to stand with those who face the “lion,” but we should not despise the struggle of those who face the “rooster.”

“But we don’t want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, you also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf…”  2 Corinthians 1: 8-11

Suggested reading: Ecclesiates 4: 8-12; Luke 22: 28; Ezekiel 22:30; 2 Timothy 4: 9-18; 4: 16-18

Friday, April 22, 2011

If There Are Snakes In There, There are Fish In There!

The Surprise Attack
My son Reuben and I were working in the yard one summer’s day a few years ago and stumbled upon a nest of bumble bees hidden in the ground beside a storage shed out back. Bumble bees are normally non-aggressive and mind their own business, but they will attack with a vengeance if anything disturbs their nest. Reuben and I backed away, but our dog saw an adventure and fearlessly began to bite and snap at the buzzing creatures as they flew out of the hole to defend their nest. This was the dog’s first experience with bumble bees, and she was enjoying it immensely --- until she received a couple well-placed stings. She was not expecting this. The startled dog cried out with a loud yelp and took off running as fast as she could around to the front yard and out of sight. She had learned her lesson. She found a quiet place, lay on the ground, and began licking her wounds assuming the worst was over.

The Bumblebee did not play fair.
When things calmed down I returned to investigate the nest. Suddenly, one lone bumble bee came flying out of the hole and right towards me. I took off running as fast as I could toward the front yard hoping he would give up if I ran far enough away from the nest. Nevertheless, when I looked back, I saw this bumble bee at eye level about 3 feet behind me, closing in, and only a couple seconds away from stinging me. Then all of a sudden he inexplicably turned away from me, made a sharp right turn, and went straight for the poor dog lying quietly in the front yard minding her own business. Instantly I heard the dog give another loud yelp as the bumble bee stung her again. The dog then jumped up and ran off into the trees to hide in the bushes. This second attack was an even greater shock than the first one.

Snakes are fun?
This same dog used to catch snakes. She would come running up into the yard with the snake’s body hanging out both sides of her mouth and flapping around as she jumped about playing with it. Her prey had been limited to harmless garden snakes, green snakes, and rat snakes. She had never met a bad snake and so her education was not yet complete. I knew she would one day run up on a copperhead which would disillusion her and drastically change her approach to snakes.

I came home one day to find the dog listless and moping about with her snout swollen up as big as the rest of her head. She had finally met up with a Copperhead thinking she could play with it, and kill and eat it as easily as she had done with so many with other snakes. Again she had learned a hard lesson. Henceforth, whenever she found a snake she would bark and growl, but keep her distance. She would not avoid them, it was her nature to be aggressive and to fight, but now she did so with a little more knowledge and wisdom. She was never bitten again.

Religion versus harsh realities
The dog was caught completely by surprise in both instances, not expecting any real pain or problems other than the fun of the game. Are we like that? What about you? Were you expecting a toaster oven for joining? Were you expecting a tour of duty in Hawaii rather than warfare in the spiritual battlefields of the world? Did you expect the enemy to be fair and play by the rules? Did you expect your Christian friends to be perfect and never disappoint you? Did you expect no surprises, no enigmas, no anomalies? Did you not realize that you might “wake up” one day to say “Oh God, what happened to me?”

John the Baptist may have felt this way as he sat in a cold, dark prison awaiting his death and questioning his whole life and ministry. He sent word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one or do we look for another?” Jesus sent encouraging words letting him know that things were progressing according to God’s plan. The snake may have bitten your foot, but we are crushing his head. John had done a great work, he had prepared the way, and now Jesus was demonstrating the kingdom of God through miraculous signs and wonders. Jesus at that time also reminded the multitudes that the kingdom is not about men in soft garments, nor religious people acting like children sitting in the marketplace playing religious games and pretending while the real world and reality passes all around them. “The kingdom,” He said, “suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” We get real bruises and real hurts, but we stay in the battle.

Because we have confined our spiritual realities to the inside of the four walls of a church building, and placed God behind our religious traditions, choir robes, and candles, it is hard for many to see Him in the harsh realities of everyday life. This is one of the reasons why it is so easy for people to ignore God in real life while checking-in with Him on Sunday morning and then inviting Him to the funeral so they can get into heaven if it should happen to exist. Maybe that is one of the reasons the Old Testament had so much blood and sacrifice. People were reminded constantly of life and death and the fact that their spiritual life was intimately tied to the harsh realities of the every day real world.

"If there's snakes in there, there's fish in there."
When I was a teenager my friend Mr. Arthur Harrelson and I went fishing in the black waters of Woods Lake just off the Wacamaw River. We paddled with one hand and fished with the other as we slowly maneuvered our small, two-man boats through the moss-covered cypress trees and river oaks in the water along the edge of the lake. A tree had fallen over into the water and was lying on its side with half its branches under water and half above water. We slowly guided our boats toward the tree and aimed our hook and line to catch fish that were surely lurking in its branches underwater. The branches and limbs above the water were loaded with snakes, and I kept hearing “Ker-Plop” and “ker Plop” as I watched many of them drop into the water as our boats approached. Suddenly, I heard splashing and looked around to see that Mr. Harrelson had gotten out of his boat and was wadding waist deep in the black water. He was moving toward the tree and leaning forward with his hook and line dropped into the midst of those limbs.
“Mr. Harrelson!” I said, “What are you doing? There are a lot of snakes in there!”
Never taking his eyes off his cork, he replied, “If there’s snakes in there, there’s fish in there.”

Mr Harrelson was willing to face the snakes to catch the fish, and he caught more than I did. The same is true in our walk with God. The battle is real and the enemy is real.Therefore, we should not play games and pretend, but neither should we be afraid and shrink back because of the realities. If the “snakes” are there, the “fish” are there. We should be of good courage and bravely go forward expecting to be more than conquorers through Christ Jesus. The spiritual battle is real, and often difficult and painful, but we will succeed as we continue in faith and patient endurance placing our trust and confidence in Jesus Christ our Lord.

“…I have fought with wild beasts at Ephesus…” 1 Corinthians 15:2

“..in all these things we are more than conquerors than through Him who loved us.” Romans 8:37

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Icy Hot

“The Lord has given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary.”     Isaiah 50: 4

Icy Hot or Preparation-H
Years ago a lady in my hometown was suffering from that “burning and itching sensation” that we hear about in TV commercials. She sent one of her children to the drugstore to purchase a tube of Preparation-H Ointment, which was placed in the tiny medicine cabinet above her bathroom sink along with other medicines which promise relief from various physical ailments.

Soon afterwards, her hemorrhoids began to “flare up,” and the pain drove her back to the medicine cabinet for the relief she so desperately needed. Reaching for the Prep-H Ointment she inadvertently took the Icy Hot instead. Icy Hot is a wonderful medication for muscular pain and various aches that need penetrating heat, but it was never intended for hemorrhoids. You can imagine what happened as she applied a very generous portion to the afflicted area.

Job’s Comforters
Truth, like medicine, is meant to be applied appropriately, especially when we are dealing with people’s lives. “Job’s Comforters” are people who are quick to give an opinion based on a superficial observation and without any revelation or true insight into the realities of the person to whom they speak. The first two chapters in the book of Job portray Job as a godly man bearing up under unbearably severe infirmities. Then his friends came and sat with him a few days. Job probably sensed what they were thinking and knew they were about to open a jar of “Icy Hot” to rub into his hurting wounds. As a result he cursed the day he was born. They had come to comfort him, but proceeded to add to his distress with their insensitivity, condemning words, and misapplication of truth. How often does this happen in our own lives!

Not in the Same Boat
It is not wise to make rash judgments against people based on outward circumstances. We need wisdom when we reach out to people in their moments of trial, so that our words are in season. We cannot tell what season a person is in just by looking at the “color of the leaves on his tree.” It is possible for two people to be in similar circumstances for opposite reasons, and it takes revelation to know why a person is where he is. Jonah was in his distress because of his disobedience. Job, in contrast, suffered because he was perfect, and God was pleased with him. Jesus was hanging on a cross among thieves and criminals, but he was there for a vastly different reason. “Job’s Comforters” cannot tell the difference; they swing the sword of truth without discerning the people to whom they speak.

What counsel would you give the two men I am about to describe? What would you say to the people who are with them? These two men are in two different boats. The boats are being tossed in a terrible storm at sea. Both men are asleep in his boat while everyone else on board in both situations are terrified that everyone is about to perish. What do you say to these men whose circumstances, in terms of outward description, are almost exactly the same? Well, one of these men is Jonah. He is there because of disobedience and must be thrown overboard. The other is Jesus. He is God and is about to teach His disciples a lesson in faith. A Job’s Comforter most likely would have taken his lesson from Jonah, looked at the outward similarities, and would have proceeded to throw Jesus overboard.

Truth and Love
Knowledge alone does not make a person spiritual, wise, or mature. Knowledge alone can produce arrogance and be used to inflict pain. With our knowledge we need wisdom and insight. And if you feel you are short on these, then just fall back on love. In many cases compassion, mercy, and love will prevent you from speaking foolishly and behaving unwisely when it comes to giving words and advice that might hurt people. Obviously there is a time for “open rebuke” and the “wounds of a faithful friend” (Prov.27:6). But too often people suffer from the insensitivity of a “Job’s Comforter” who brings in the Icy Hot for a pain it was not meant for.