Thursday’s Column: Captain’s Blog
My wife and I were watching an NCIS episode where terrorists attempt to use fake currency to carry out an attack on the U.S. power grid. Their trail was picked up when instead of “United States” on the bills, “Untied States,” was found.
With the pandemic we’re facing, we have briefly enjoyed some unity not seen in seven decades. A lot of the partisan stuff has slowed, a lot of the animosity between political parties has simmered down, and people are beginning to treat each other like neighbors again.
With the cautiously optimistic breakthroughs in our fight against this virus, we seem to be slipping back into the “Untied States.” I think our enjoyment of the peace accompanying this unity will stick around and we’ll be as neighborly as we have been, even after quarantines have been lifted. We’re witnessing the ugliness of a government not unified and perhaps we will have gained some perspective as a result of this global trial.
That feeling of relief, calm, peace, reset, unity, and love has to be what God feels when His church is unified. It is what we experience when we put others above ourselves and treat each other like family.
We have a super cool opportunity once quarantines are lifted! I miss my family at Hebron like crazy – I’m not alone in missing my church family. We have a chance to use that momentum to love more, be more selfless, argue less, and encourage more. If we take these qualities and run with them, the church will grow like wildfire. Beyond that, the world will see the love we have and will want to be a part of it.
Life has dramatically changed for us on a daily basis. Whether it be liberties that have been restricted or routines that have been disrupted, we have experienced significant upheaval. Some of it has been dramatically better, as for many we have been given a slower pace that has produced much more time with family and projects done together that we will always treasure. There is vast potential for much better marriage and family habits to come from this experience, as well as a reshuffling of priorities on the other side of this quarantine.
Of course, for many this will be remembered as a season of trial. We are hearing of members of the church who have contracted and even died with this deadly virus. Church families around the nation have members who are part of the at least ten percent of those who have lost their jobs or been laid off. How many parents, grandparents, and other loved ones are in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, and residences where we cannot have physical contact with them for their safety’s sake? As devastating as anything, though, is the dreadful disruption to “church life” because we cannot assemble together for church services, fellowship activities, devotionals, seminars and workshops, and the like. There will be permanent, far-reaching impacts physically, economically, and socially, but what about spiritually?
Guard Against Social Disconnection
For the time being, we are more or less forced into social distancing. Hopefully, this can be modified soon and ultimately return to pre-virus levels. It will be important to return to the physical dimension of contact with each other provided uniquely through our assemblies. My prayer is that we will treasure fellowship like never before. We will zealously obey the command to consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds through our assemblies (Heb. 10:24-25), being “devoted to one another in brotherly love” and to “give preference to one another in honor” (Rom. 12:10) between our scheduled services (Acts 2:46). Don’t let the devil use this to form a permanent social wedge between you and the church.
Guard Against Stress And Anxiety
There are no psychological studies to measure the effects of mass isolation and sheltering in place on a scale like this has caused. No doubt, the more functional and stable the home environment and the more emotional support available to a person, the better he or she will fare. How many cut off from their normal routines are also constantly feeding themselves a steady diet of the news, which none can rightly classify as edifying? Conspiracy theories aside, there are the stressors like the ones mentioned above. Fears can eclipse faith and worry can lead to weakness. This trial is an excellent opportunity to build trust (Psa. 37:3-6), endurance (Jas. 1:3), righteousness (Heb. 12:11), hope (Job 13:15), and more.
Guard Against Spiritual Doldrums And Self-Absorption
This has tested our time management skills. Having more time on our hands does not automatically translate into “making the most of the opportunity” (Col. 4:5). Will we have done more binge-watching or Bible reading through this? Will we have tended more to self-care or finding ways to serve (phone calls, texts, emails, cards, etc., to spiritual family and others we might influence and encourage)? Will we have focused more on how this has impacted us or how we can impact others?
The good news is that, for all of us, this is a story whose last chapters have not been written. Each day is an opportunity for spiritual growth and improvement. None of us would have wished something like this to happen, but each of us chooses what we will make of it. Let’s remain vigilant. Certainly, Satan would like to take advantage of us (2 Cor. 2:11), and he could use our current circumstances to dislodge us from faithfulness. Yet, Scripture promises something that we can count on: “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:7-8a). May that be the end result for us all!
An engine needs three things to run: fuel, spark, and air (compression). Engines have come a very long way since their initial designs and unless you’re driving an e-car, these items still have to be in place and tuned properly. I’m partial to older engines simply because they’re easy to understand and work on.
When diagnosing a problem, you can often tell if you’re getting fuel by looking at the in-line filter or simply smelling for it. You can tell if you’re getting spark by disconnecting a plug, grounding it to the body, and looking for a spark. You can tell if you have compression by sticking your finger over a plug-hole and turning the engine over. The older engines were simple.
Newer engines are far more difficult. They operate under the same basic rules, but computers and fuel injection systems and tight spaces make it much harder to work on them. However, they are generally more reliable, fuel efficient, and powerful. Carl’s 1986 F-150 with a 351 Windsor (5.9L V8) has about half the power (and a third of the fuel economy) of his 2017 F-150 with a 2.7L Ecoboost, for example.
The church is made up of more than just one generation. There are both old people and young people. Both are prone to emphasizing the strengths or weaknesses of their generation when it comes to the health of the church. Young people might complain that old people move too slowly (getting things done), are too traditional, and have no place in the future of the church. Old people might complain that young people are too quick to change things, don’t take church seriously, and are self-centered.
Both generations are vital to the health of the church. The elderly bring experience, toughness, and proven life experience to the table. They’ve been through it, they’ve seen it, and they got through it. Younger Christians must learn from this experience and show older Christians the love and respect they deserve. Younger Christians bring energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to execute vision to the table. As stated before, modern engines still have the critical components of older engines at the heart of their function. They may be more efficient, but would not be operational without those functions.
When the church works together, older and younger alike, to promote growth, unity, and faithfulness, the result is awesome. No other group can enjoy that kind of peace! A church that works together will influence the world in ways that terrify satan. Not only is this something we should want, it’s also commanded (I Timothy 5.1; Romans 12.10; See also Leviticus 19.32; Proverbs 16.31).
In a polarized world, we can really make a difference when we’re loving and respectful to everyone in our spiritual family. It is a breath of fresh air to anyone who experiences it, it proves the church is from God, and it will save lost souls.
Human connections are necessary. Though stated in the context of needing a mate comparable unto himself, God nevertheless said of man it wasn’t good for him to be alone (Genesis 2.18). Thus, God provided Adam with Eve. Elsewhere, the wise man of God reminds us of the advantages of having companions:
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4.9-12 NASB)
Hence, even if being around many people wearies our soul, we admit it’s a blessing to have those precious few upon whom we can depend to be there for us when we emerge from our solitude.
Jesus had His close companions. We don’t doubt He loved all those men He chose to be His apostles, but He singled out Peter, James, and John to be His “inner circle.” They were His confidants. It was to these three alone He shared His true glory (Matthew 17.1ff). Peter, James, and John also went further into the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus as He prayed (Mark 14.32-35). In addition, John refers to himself throughout the Gospel he was inspired to pen as “the disciple whom the Lord loved” (John 21.20). This same passage also shows us that John leaned against the Lord during the last Passover (Can you imagine?).
God never intended us to face life alone. As mentioned previously, God provided the foundation for the family in the very beginning. The family has often been called the “bedrock of society.” Aristotle wrote in Politics that humans organized themselves first in families that birthed villages which, in turn, gave rise to the polis (i.e. city-state). As we live in a world into which sin was welcomed, we understand people bound to us, even by ties of blood, may betray or abandon us. We see, then, the wisdom of God in giving to us the church.
It’s a sad paradox in a world of virtual, perpetual interconnectedness people feel lonelier than ever. The HRSA reveals that loneliness and social isolation is as bad for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! 1 Just type in the words “loneliness epidemic” in a search engine and see what pops up. This isn’t a problem just for our seasoned citizens either. 2 There’s no excuse for the child of God to be lonely, however. Christ instituted the church to be God’s Household on earth (Ephesians 2.19). If we assemble as we ought, we will be stirred to love and the performance of good works (Hebrews 10.24-25). Furthermore, we encourage and build up one another in the church (1 Thessalonians 5.11; Ephesians 4.15-16).
Yes, we’re currently facing a global epidemic not physical in nature. It’s a disease of the heart perpetuated by loneliness, which focuses one’s attention inward on troubles and wants. God didn’t create you to be alone. Dismiss the foolish notion that the church is for the weak and embrace the strength it supplies the lonely heart. You’ll never find an app that can do for you what the church can.
1 “The ‘Loneliness Epidemic.’” Health Resources & Services Administration, HRSA.gov, 10 Jan. 2019, www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic.
2 Howe, Neil. “Millennials And The Loneliness Epidemic.” Forbes, Forbes Media LLC, 3 May 2019, 13:21, www.forbes.com/sites/neilhowe/2019/05/03/millennials-and-the-loneliness-epidemic/#77096a8f7676.
When I study the phenomenal growth of the New Testament church, there is no doubt that they owed that growth to the divine source of the message they preached and the dedicated way in which the early Christians spread the good news. They also believed that message with all their heart, and that faith drove a sense of dedication and commitment no matter what obstacles they encountered. But, along with factors like those, they grew because they needed one another. They spent time together, not just in their assembly times, but at other times.
Luke highlights this fact. “They were continually devoting themselves to fellowship” (Acts 2:42). “They were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46). “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). They got together to pray (Acts 4:23ff; 12:5,12). They got together daily for preaching and teaching (Acts 5:42). Though the word is used in a wide variety of contexts, you’ll find the word “together” over 30 times in Acts.
Isolation is the word to best describe the trend in the current culture. Much of it is self-imposed, with so many withdrawing from social contact for such reasons as the ironically-named “social media” and technology. We have created a virtual world that, to some degree, has replaced authentic, face-to-face interaction.
“Community” is built upon commonality and likemindedness. Sports, politics, civic and social interests, and the like all draw people together into circles of sameness. Nothing should compel any of us more than our faith in Christ, the salvation He freely gave us, and the incredible, eternal future He has promised us. What an ironclad bond, this “like precious faith” (2 Pet. 1:1)! There is no greater bond of closeness I can imagine than spending time with people whose hearts are open and submissive to the commands of Scripture and whose lives are lived in faith and hope in the promises of Scripture. They can help me grow and build my desire. Or, as the Hebrews writer says regarding assembly times, we can “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (10:24).
When I was a teen, I remember a song that captured this sentiment perfectly, if simply: “Fellowshipping with one another as we’re walking in the light, when we give our hearts to each other you can feel the love inside. For there’s nothing as sweet as fellowship as we share each other’s lives” (Lancaster). Not bitterness, isolation, suspicion, grudge-bearing, apathy, or disinterest. Sweet fellowship! A church that grasps this will grow and thrive, strengthened and sustained through trials, problems, and opposition. May we be a church that’s remembered this way–“They were together!”
I’m not talking about the thing too many people do on social media, where they nitpick others and put in so much effort in the “yeah, but..” game. That is ill-mannered and usually unwelcome. It usually also concerns something amounting to far smaller than a hill of beans. Instead, I refer to something God-directed and involving sin.
A quick overview of Ephesians lays out a pretty straightforward outline. Chapters one through three lay out what a privilege it is to be a Christian. Chapters four through six speak of how privileged people behave, within the church, with the world, and their relationships, and even with the devil. The “proving wrong” section comes in the second half of the book, dealing with the world. If we isolate ourselves from the world, we cannot hope to be effective. If we allow ourselves to be influenced by the world rather than be an influence on it, we may find ourselves having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. In Ephesians 5:6-14, Paul issues a difficult challenge for us as we live before and within the world on a daily basis. How do we reprove the unfruitful works of darkness?
KNOW THE DIFFERENCE (6). Paul starts this paragraph, saying, “Let no one deceive you.” Context shows that the “these things” that drew God’s wrath involved three broad categories of behavior and three specific actions: fornication, impurity, greed, filthiness, silly talk, and coarse jesting. Paul says, in essence, “Don’t be deceived into thinking these things are OK. To promote ignorance in these areas, all we have to do is remain silent about them and never teach about them. Paul’s concern is about Christians being an influence on the culture, and that’s still the need today. There are still a great many people in the world who think of Christians as those who avoid filthy speech and who have objective moral standards about sexual matters. The world sees enough conformation; It needs to see transformation; That requires information!
BE THE DIFFERENCE (8-10, 13-14). Paul is concerned about people functioning in the spiritual dark. He wants them to take the information (knowledge) he’s given them and let it show in their lives. He illustrates this lifestyle with the metaphor of light. Paul uses the word “light” five times in this one paragraph. Light has characteristics (8-9)–goodness, righteousness, and truth. Light is corrective (11-14)–it remedies problems that occur in its absence (blindness, fear, ignorance, etc.). Light makes visible what was invisible before. We live in a world in serious need of correction. The majority, walking in darkness, are on a collision course with spiritual death. We’re in a position to shine light on their path. Our schools, workplaces, communities, ball fields, and national institutions cry out from the darkness for guidance. Some of the best “reproving” (exposing) occurs when we are the Lord’s lights.
MAKE THE DIFFERENCE (7,11-12). This is the most uncomfortable part of this text. Beyond building our knowledge and setting an example, we must do something. We make a difference through abstinence (7,10), not partaking and having no fellowship with evil. Saying no when invited to participate in sin turns an uncomfortable spotlight on us. Being a “new man” (4:22) means a new behavior, which Paul describes in 4:25-32. The world feels judged when we avoid something we know is wrong. We also make a difference through admonition. Reproving (exposing) means to shine the light on something (we’re shining the Light of Christ onto it, 8).
When doctrinal error is espoused, do we try to engage people (“in love,” 4:15) or do we just sit in silence? When moral filth is peddled and promoted, do we just go along to get along or do we stand up, stand up for Jesus? In chapter 6, Paul tells us that we’re Christian soldiers, which implies a militancy that must exist (11). Twice more, in 6:13-14, he repeats the charge to “stand firm.” Maybe we’ve witnessed people standing firm in a way that was unnecessarily offensive and unloving. That’s wrong! But that doesn’t give us an excuse to cowardly avoid saying what needs to be said, no matter what it costs us. Nobody likes to be the bad guy, but God commands that we expose sin.
Paul follows this instruction, saying “Therefore” (15). His words are written for a purpose. The reason for exposing darkness is that God has us here to make a difference. How we do it requires wisdom, but it is “what the will of the Lord is” (17). Let’s be effective representatives of Christ in this dark world. Let’s understand the urgency of our task and make the most of our time!
In James 5:7, James gives us some specific instructions concerning being patient. It is said as a response to those whose patience was being inflamed by the sinful actions of those in James 5:1-6. In just a few words, James has some pretty exhaustive instruction.
He addresses the who—“Be patient brethren.” There’s an ethic and morality expected of those in God’s family that is more than for everyone else. Almost every use of the word “brethren” in the New Testament is addressed to Christians. As light-shiners and salt-spreaders, we must exhibit patience with others and especially other Christians.
He addresses the when—This command has a duration (an expiration date)—“Until the coming of the Lord.” How long are we to remember Christ in the Lord’s Supper? 1 Corinthians 11:26 says, “Until He comes.” How long was Thyatira to hold onto what they had? Revelation 2:25 says, “Until Jesus would come.” How long was Corinth to refrain from unrighteously judging one another? 1 Corinthians 4:5 says, “Until the Lord comes.“ You don’t encounter this phrase very often, but every time it regards a matter of significance. There will not come a point in time when you can cease being patient—it’s as long as you live or until Christ comes again, whichever comes first.
He addresses the how—You’ve got to strengthen your heart (be inwardly committed, cause to be more firm in attitude or belief). James is saying, “Steel yourself because this is going to get hard sometimes.” When I think of people who have fallen away from the Lord, I think of conversations with people who say they gave up on the church or the elders or the preacher. They weren’t responsive enough, caring enough, or too nosy or not what they needed when they needed it. But ultimately this means these fallen ones weren’t firm and unchanging within.
He addresses the why—“The coming of the Lord is near.” Don’t focus on a time element here, but on the need to endure for as long as the time is. It’s constantly drawing nearer, not in a chronological sense, but an expectation and assurance that we expect it any time. I don’t want to be caught living in a state of impatience with my brethren. If I am, it means I’ve lost focus on Christ’s second coming!
I need to be convicted that impatience is not “no big deal.” James ties it to spiritual harmony, divine superintendence, and eternal safety. We can’t chalk up failure in this area as just our makeup, personality, and temperament. We must be obedient to the heavenly injunction and “be patient”!
1 Peter 5:8 calls the devil a roaring lion prowling around seeking someone to devour. It is obvious that Peter’s readers would have seen or at least heard about these kings of the jungle for the analogy to make sense and be practical. Lions lurk, longing for lunch.
In the savannas of East Africa, their meal of choice is usually either the wildebeest or zebra. Despite this, these two animals continue to graze and migrate together. In fact, because they are chief prey of the lion (and other big cats), they need to stick together. Various observers and experts give different explanations for why. Zebras have great farsightedness and the wildebeests have excellent peripheral vision, but each are poor at seeing what the other sees well. Others explain that wildebeests have mouths better suited for short grass while zebras’ are made for the long grass that grow intermittently together on the plains. Still others point to the zebras superior memories, recalling the safety routes of the previous year, and the wildebeests uncanny ability to find water even when such is scarce. Probably, it is the combination of these facts that cause the symbiotic relationship between these two large mammals. They do not all survive, but the vast majority do. The reason is because they utilize their own abilities but also because they rely on the abilities of others.
In a letter where Peter is addressing a people who were at times spiritual prey, he does more than use the simba simile. He urges Christians to stick together and look out for one another. He calls for sincere, fervent, from the heart love for one another (1:22; 4:8). He urges complaint-free hospitality toward one another (4:9). He commands serving one another (4:10). He teaches there to be mutual humility displayed toward one another (5:5). He ends the letter exhorting an affectionate, loving greeting of one another (5:14). As much as anything, this is a recognition of mutual dependence.
If we understand that we are not at home in this world (2:11) and are living and longing for the inheritance in heaven (1:4), we should come to understand our mutual need of each other. That does not just mean looking for others’ help, but also giving it. This is by God’s design. Notice, for example, the proactive protection we provide each other by being “harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead…” (3:8-9a). Right before the lion passage, Peter talks about different groups looking out for and helping each other (5:1-6).
Any of us, through suffering, temptation, doubt, or some other factor, could drift away from the safety and security of the fold. Let us be more than mindful of each other. Let us depend on each other to survive the hunt and make it to eternal safety. I will face the lion many times in this life, and I depend on you to help me survive.
A little over a week ago, my son Dale called me to tell me one of his elders gave him tickets for the Georgia-Missouri football game. He asked if I could swing coming. Thanks to a generous travel voucher from American Airlines, I was able to go on short notice on their nickel. The best part of this trip was getting to see one of my adult children for a couple of days. We made the most of those moments, and that game between the hedges was not a disappointment. Though Dale had watched games with me on TV, he was not the diehard fan I have been since 1979. We made the drive from Valdosta to Athens. Once on campus, he got his first glimpse into “Dawg Nation.” By the time we left the game, he was hooked. Georgia has another diehard fan. What did the trick? Perhaps the camaraderie between people who otherwise would not come into contact with each other. There was the shared lingo, shared knowledge, shared passion, and even shared clothing color schemes. There were traditions to partake in. People were excited for every play and intensely interested in the outcome. That was infectious! It was an unforgettable experience we plan to duplicate in the future.
As I look back on that great memory, I got to thinking about an infinitely stronger bond I have. Even regarding this game, I think about the part they played. I’m talking about the Lord’s church and the Christians who make it up. There was Doug Jones, the elder who gave us the tickets. There was Wes Hazel, who let Dale borrow his car so he didn’t have to pick me up from the airport or carry me around on the back of his motorcycle. There were Lance and Susan Leavens, who opened their home to allow Dale and me to take a nap before I caught a flight back to Denver yesterday morning and Dale drove back to Valdosta. While I was in Georgia, Kathy was in Texas doing a ladies day, and Carl was experiencing major trouble with his truck, an overwhelming, generous response from literally dozens of Christians helped make it possible for our youngest to resolve that heart-sinking trouble.
All too frequently, I see people who major in pointing out the perceived problems and seeming shortcomings of the saints. To listen to them, we do nothing right and even do those things from sinister motives. As a preacher’s kid who’s lived a life of a full-time preacher for more than a quarter century, I am far from naive. The church, without exception, is comprised of flawed, faulty, and finite folks. I have been extremely disappointed in the actions of church members, from the leadership to the membership. I have tearfully witnessed Christians abandon the church for the world, breaking many hearts in the process. But, the church is special. It is unique, from the doctrinal standpoint, dedicated to speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where it is silent and seeking to replicate New Testament Christianity.
In addition to that, there is the common bond we share. What a fellowship! What a family! What a fraternity! You read it when you open up the New Testament. As importantly, you experience it today when you open your heart and life to all the others who make up this special group. We’re incurably imperfect. We should strive to be more patient and gracious. But, God’s people are the greatest in the world! Thank God for that blessing today and every day.