To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Old Spiders and Old Paths

Thus says the LORD: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls . . .” – Jeremiah 6:16a

These past few weeks have been spider time in East Tennessee. There seem to be more webs than usual this fall, particularly those large, beautiful ones woven by garden spiders.

Walking the other day down New York Avenue, I saw a web that really caught my attention. It was big, filling most of the space between two bushes. This one was a little unusual, though, in that it clearly had been there a long time. The web had begun to look ragged in places—a thread broken here, a bit of leaf sticking there. But perched in the middle was the spider, ready for whatever fell into its once-beautiful net. Somehow this scene of a determined spider on a well-worn web filled me with a momentary bubble of joy.

In a culture obsessed with getting and having every newest thing—shoes, clothes, entertainment, cars, houses, you name it—it’s encouraging to remember that sometimes the old things do just fine. As old and worn as that spider’s web had become, it obviously did what it was there for—keeping the spider alive!

Our best things are old, too. The Gospel has been around a long time; the love of God even longer. As much as human beings misuse and ignore the Word of God, the Father still calls us back to life in him through the grace of Jesus Christ. For nearly two thousand years saints have walked the path of discipleship in the joy of salvation and the peace that passes all understanding.

I realize it’s risky comparing the love of God to an old spider’s web. The parallels only go so far, after all. But, in a world that tries to tell us old is bad, it’s good to remember that God’s loving grace is the oldest and best gift we can ever have.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, September 27, 2004

Coming ‘Round Again

Ever since Camille rained out my family’s vacation in 1969, I’ve had an interest in hurricanes. And never in thirty-five years have I heard of anything like what’s happened this month with Hurricane Ivan. Ten days ago Ivan slammed into the Alabama coast as a dangerous hurricane and proceeded to drench much of the Southeast as it lumbered up into our area and then back out into the Atlantic. Then, after ol’ Ivan had disappeared from most of our radar screens, he circled back and appeared again in the Gulf of Mexico. This time he wasn’t as fearsome, but then again he wasn’t gone, either.

Sudden, unexpected reappearances aren’t limited to the weather. Looking back over church history, for example, we can see how the same sins and false doctrines keep popping up again and again to batter the church, even after they seem to have been defeated. In the same way, we may struggle with sins in our personal lives that appear out of nowhere, even after we think we’ve put them away. None of this should surprise us, of course. The Apostle Peter warned Christians to “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pe. 5:8).

The good news is that God works in sudden, unexpected reapperances, too. Our faith is built on the sudden reappearance of Jesus, alive from the grave. He died to take our punishment for sin, and he rose to give us new life with him. God’s Holy Spirit still moves in unexpected ways, too (Jn 3:8), bringing new life and renewal to those who turn to God in faith.

Christians also have one more unexpected reappearance to look forward to. When Jesus returns to claim his own, to form a new heaven and a new earth, that day will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Many of us don’t like surprises. But the return of our Lord, however surprising it will be, is one Christians should eagerly await with the hopeful call, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Copyright 2004, A. Milton Stanley

The Wrath of God on Unrighteousness

Romans 1:18-25
Preached Sunday morning, September 26, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

This week we’ll begin a series of Sunday morning lessons from Romans. Of all Paul’s letters, Romans is the most oriented toward doctrine. In it, Paul clearly states the gospel and its relationship to righteousness, both for Jews and Gentiles. The letter begins with prayers for blessings to the Roman Christians (Rm 1:8-12). Soon, though, Paul turns to doctrine, and when he does he turns first of all to the sin and wrath of God. Paul says that “God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of those who in their wickedness suppress the truth” (1:18).

We learn something here about the righteous God, the God who has prepared wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. We learn something about unrighteousness, too—that unrighteousness is against truth. Sin is not just action, it’s lies, too. At one time or another that describes every one of us—wanting our own ways of unrighteousness more than God’s righteousness and truth. So Paul is talking here about all of us, and it’s not a pretty picture. This talk about unrighteousness is a picture of willful disobedience, of darkness, of lies, and of God’s wrath against such wickedness.

Paul goes on to tell us something else of great importance: “what can be known about God is plain” (1:19). God created the world, and his hand has made its mark on all creation. At the most basic level, all of creation points to a creator. The mere existence of the world is evidence for the existence of God. But creation reveals more than that. Looking at the world around us, with its goodness and beauty and order and workings—of the sun and moon, the seasons, the tides, the stages of our lives—we see evidence of a God of goodness, of order, of beauty, of power and might. As Paul told the Romans, “since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made” (1:20). God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in his creation, just as the Psalmist had said: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

Paul makes an important distinction in his words here. Notice that in Rom. 1:19 he writes, “what can be known about God is plain.” Of course there are deep mysteries about God’s nature that we will never understand on this earth. He is God and we are not, so we cannot possibly understand all the depths of his mind and actions. Part of the arrogance of our age is to think we can figure out, scientifically, everything we need to know about all we need to know. Science is good as far as it goes, of course. There is nothing wrong with using the minds God gave us to figure out all we can about his creation. We just have to remember that there are depths of God’s love, wisdom, and power beyond our understanding. God himself reminded Job of this fact when he asked him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4).

The fact that our own knowledge has limits, by the way, is why we need the Word of God. Truth that we ourselves can figure out, also known as empirical truth, will only take us so far. Some things we can know only because God reveals them to us. As we read in Ps. 19:7, “The law of the Lord is prefect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” So between those two, God’s creation and God’s revelation, we have been given all we need to know about God and life and salvation.

Why, then, is there any argument? Isn’t it obvious who God is and what we need to do as human beings? Why do so many people refuse to even recognize the truth of the gospel? Why does the world around us consider the truth of Jesus Christ to be simply a matter of religious opinion, with no more basis in fact than, say, my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla?

Paul gives us the answer in Rm. 1:18 & 21. First of all, one result of wickedness, the sinfulness in which we all share, is that it suppresses the truth. Those who have given themselves over to wickedness “became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). So even though the truth is out there, plain to see, all of us to one degree or another have allowed our minds to be darkened by the wickedness within ourselves and all around us in the world. Before we became Christians our minds were darkened indeed. After we come to repentance, we still must struggle to overcome the darkness that presses all around us. We choose that darkness whenever we fall back into sin.

The world, as a whole, has always chosen darkness, ever since Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the garden. Paul is talking about the whole world here—the overwhelming majority of human beings in all places, at all times. Elsewhere Paul calls the world “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). It’s the world into which we are born, a world whose members make the choice of unrighteousness and lies over the truth and righteousness of God. But although human beings choose not to see, God has still made himself plain to the world.

Thus, as Paul says, they are without excuse (Rm. 1:20). Remember who he’s talking to here. He’s talking to us. We are the ones without excuse, all of us. God has revealed his truth in creation and revelation, and we have all to one degree or another chosen darkness over light. It’s not that we couldn’t understand the truth, but that we wouldn’t understand the truth.

So we’ve all messed up. And what is the most natural thing for human beings to do when we’ve messed up? Deny it, of course. That’s the most natural, automatic response to our own failures—to deny it, especially when our character is threatened. Did you ever hear the story Bill Cosby used to tell about the so-called “honesty” of children? He told about walking into the kitchen one day and catching his two-year-old daughter with her hand in the cookie jar.

“What are you doing?” Cosby demanded.

“Nothing,” the two-year-old said, poker-faced.

“Nothing?” he exclaimed, “Then what were you doing climbing up on the counter with your hand in the cookie jar?”

“I’m getting a cookie for you,” the girl said sweetly.

If you’ve had a two-year-old you know this story rings true. As soon as little boys and girls can say the word “no” they learn how to use it to deny things that might get them in trouble. As we grow older we become more sophisticated in our denials. Such behavior may be cute in toddlers. But when we are mature, it’s sin, pure and simple, the fruit of darkened hearts.

That’s why it’s so critical for us to recognize our sin, to acknowledge our guilt. Later in his letter to the Romans Paul will address this issue head-on and point out that we are each personally responsible before God for our behavior. If we don’t recognize our own responsibility in sin, we can’t possibly repent. And repentance is essentially to new life, to salvation.

To a great extent, repentance is unnatural. It’s a result of God’s grace in our lives, of his truth breaking through. Denial is much more natural. It’s what our hearts naturally fall back into—like our backsides onto a comfortable recliner. That, by the way, is why the world hates Jesus, because he is the truth, the light, and in him is no darkness at all (Jn 14:6, 1 Jn 1:5). The light of Jesus Christ exposes unrighteousness for what it is, and sinners cannot bear to see that. The world will accept Jesus if we tone him down—put him under a bushel basket, so to speak, so that he doesn’t show the world its own wickedness. But if Christians proclaim Jesus as he revealed himself, the world will hate him—and hate us for showing them the truth.

That hatred of the truth is the result of sin. Humanity traded the glory of God for shoddy counterfeits, cheap imitations our own hands had made—idols and images of men and animals. Paul tells us that because humanity made these bad choices, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rm. 1:24, 25).

Why would a loving God do such a thing? Why would he allow humanity to go further and further down a road that leads to wrath and destruction? If he loves human beings, how could he “give them up” to such an awful path?

The answer lies way back at the beginning of the human race. God made human beings out of two ingredients: dirt and his own breath (Gen. 2:7). God created us “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). An image is a representation of something: a statue is an image of a person or animal, a portrait is an image of a face, a photograph is an image of whatever is in the picture. Therefore God created us an am image of him, to represent him on earth. In a sense God created us to be co-creators with him, to share in some mysterious way his nature. Throughout history God has allowed human beings to come to him with requests, and he has shown a tendency to let us have what we ask for. As a result, as the old saying goes, we’d better be careful what we ask for, because we just might get it. Sad to say, what mankind has asked for, has chased after, for most of our time on earth, has been unrighteousness. And as Paul points out here, if people have their minds made up to chase after sin, God won’t stop us.

There are, of course, consequences from that choice, as Paul goes on to explain: impurity and dishonor, homosexuality, degraded minds and bodies. “They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rm 1:29-31). In short, they allowed themselves to be filled with he Spirit of darkness rather than the Spirit of God. Or should I say, we allowed all ourselves to be filled.

Some folks in the church will protest: “I read over that list, and I don’t do any of those bad things.” Some outside the church may go farther: “I don’t do any of those things, and I’m not even a Christian. But I’m a good person. I vote. I recycle. I exercise and eat right. I volunteer at the hospital, I give to the United Way, I love my family. I help my neighbors. I smile. I’m nice to waitresses at restaurants..” Some folks really do seem to have it all together, and it’s hard to argue when they say they’re nice people, even if they don’t acknowledge God. Of course, that’s a lie. As Paul tells us later in this letter, all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we try to get by as good folks without God, we fall for a form of the sin Paul describes in verse 25: worshiping the creature rather than the creator. In this case, it’s not idols, but themselves that people are worshiping. So no one is innocent.

For all who choose unrighteousness over truth—and that’s all of us to one degree or another—God’s wrath is reserved, for “those who do such things deserve to die” (Rm. 1:32).

Well, that’s where we stand before God—all of us, even nice folks—unrighteous, untruthful, worthy of death. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that even though we’ve made a mess of things ourselves, God has given us a way out. After laying down the bad news, with force, Paul goes on in the rest of the letter to the Romans to explain the good news, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rm. 1:16).

The good news is that even though we reject God with our sin, God does not reject us. He loves us so much that he sent his own son, Jesus, to live and work among us. Because Jesus was the truth, the world rejected him and killed him. And because Jesus died without any sin of his own, he was able to pay the price of sin (death) for all who receive him, who believe his name. For those who believe and obey, we are given the privilege of becoming children of God. And if we join ourselves to Christ, we share not only in his death to unrighteousness, but his resurrection to new life.

That new life is something we don’t deserve. We deserve death. But God’s son, who is the source of all life, took death upon himself to give us eternal life. And eternal life is not something that comes only after we die. It’s something we can enjoy now—new life with the righteousness of God. As Paul told the Ephesians, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.” (Eph. 5:8). That’s grace. That’s good news.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Quiet Spaces

In the Gospel of John it's striking how little those around Jesus understood, even with their minds, and how much deeper than head knowledge Jesus wants us to know him. As the author of John's Gospel noted, words can be multiplied forever. But sometimes we need to sit back and let what we've already come across soak in. I think I've written enough for a while.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Biblical Stewardship of the Earth

Pollution, global warming, destruction of habitats, massive extinctions, desertification--God's creation is being degraded and destroyed at an alarming rate, threatening not only the environment itself, but the future of humanity as well. Americans, most of whom claim to be Christians, are some of the greatest offenders in environmental selfishness as the desire for comfort strains and damages the planet.

Evangelical Christians have so far done very little to speak out for protecting God's creation, leaving environmentalism in the hands of our more liberal brethren, or those actively antagonistic to the Christian faith. On the one hand, Christians have a much higher calling than protecting the planet. Our primary purpose is a heavenly one--preparing ourselves and others for a right relationship with God here and through eternity. The Bible tells us that "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).

On the other hand, we do have obligations to be good stewards of the earth. God created the world and takes pleasure in it (Psalm 104). He has left it up to humanity to rule over it and take care of all creation (Gen. 1:28). The Psalms tell us that creation is not only given for our use, but that all creation--animals, plants, hills and sky--is intended to praise and glorify the Lord (Psalm 148). When humanity, through greed and short-sightedness, weakens and damages the earth, we are guilty of wasting not only a precious resource, but of defacing a beautiful work that God has made.

Almost all environmental insult can be traced back to greed--greed of people like us who want our luxuries and comforts and don't care (or don't want to know) what damage we do to the earth in the process. What's more, too much desire for comfort and things not only hurts the environment, it takes our mind off God and leads us into sin.

The devil likes to get us hung up with our selfish desires, making us think that what we want is really what we need. Our worldly appetites threaten not only the physical environment, but, more importantly, the spiritual environment of our souls. As Americans, most of us are guilty of confusing wants for needs, whether it's our favorite food, fashionable clothes, or a music CD that we just "have to have."

If we can learn to avoid the temptation to satisfy our every desire, we not only preserve God's creation, we heed the words of Jesus when he said, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"

Copyright 2002, Milton Stanley

Friday, September 17, 2004

On Putting Our Trust in God Alone

In my spare time I've been developing a course in church history for Nation's University. One lesson in that course is no the history of the Bible—how the books were brought together, copied, and translated. Studying those processes can be a little troubling, because we see how human beings confuse just about everything we put our hands on, including the sacred Scriptures.

For example, we no longer have the original manuscripts of the Bible, but only copies. Before printing presses, scribes sometimes made mistakes in copying books of the Bible. Now it takes lifetimes of scholarship simply to decide which of the many hundreds of ancient Bible manuscripts are the most accurate. Once scholars do find the best copies, we still have to depend on other scholars to translate the Bible into a language we can understand. Even then, translators have to find the balance between literal and readable translations.

Yet despite all the minefields the Bible has had to navigate for the past three thousand years, we can be assured it represents the Word of God for us. We have more reliable information on the Bible than on any other ancient document—more copies, older copies, and copies closer in time to the originals than any other book of antiquity. We also have the testimony of the saints in every age who have struggled and sometimes died to bring the power of the Word of God to us. Whatever version we read—KJV, NIV, NRSV—we do well to immerse ourselves in the Word which leads us into all truth.

Most importantly, we have a risen Savior. The Bible clearly proclaims the story of Jesus–the Word who was in the beginning with God and was God. No matter how many times the Bible is copied or translated, it still bears the Good News of hope and salvation. Jesus is ultimately the reason why we can depend on the Bible’s testimony: not because Christians have copied or translated the Bible perfectly, but because God loves us perfectly and provides everything we need for salvation—even his own son, our Savior Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Observations on Marriage

Throughout thousands of years, human cultures have interpreted marriage in a diversity of ways. In some places and times, a man has been allowed to marry more than one woman; in very rare cases, one woman has been allowed to marry more than one man. Only in the last few years, however, has any culture allowed a man to “marry” a man or a woman a woman.

These same-sex partnerships are something, but they are not marriage. We can insist, for the sake of fairness, that tin be called gold. We can shout it loud enough that some people begin to believe, perhaps passionately, that all metals deserve the right to be called gold. But it won't make it so.

Also, is anyone else tired of hearing proponents of homosexual marriage insist that those who do not approve of homosexual practices are driven either by hatred or fear? I for one neither hate nor fear homosexuals. Nor am I afraid to state that homosexual practice is wrong.

As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I try to bring the love of Christ to every person, however right or wrong their actions may be. I routinely minister to fellow human beings who abuse drugs, drink too much, sleep around, practice homosexuality, view pornography, or compulsively overeat (this last one being my own sin). We are all infinitely precious because we are made in the image of the creator of heaven and earth. At the same time, none of us should pretend that sin is not sin, for sin is a rejection of the unique gift human beings have been given by God.

“Aha!” you may say, “Another fundamentalist Christian trying to impose his values on the rest of us! You're free to believe whatever you want, but keep the church out of politics.”

Let's be clear about something. All civil and criminal law is about imposing values. The state imposes values about life (don't murder), property (don't steal), and marriage (a man can't marry another man). The question isn't whether or not values will be imposed, but whose values will be imposed. That's why it's important we not remain silent as the battle heats up on what is and is not marriage.

Western civilization is in the shape it's in because we can no longer agree on the basis for morality and law. For a definitive explanation of why we're in this mess, read Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. In the mean time, consider this: whose values do you want to see become the law of the land?

Copyright 2003, Milton Stanley

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A Biblical Foundation for Setting Limits

As Christians, we are called to bear one another's burdens (Gal 6.2) and to share our worldly goods with the saints (Acts 2:44, 4:32). Most of us would do well to strive to live these examples more fully. Still, it is good to remember that limits are an important part of Christian relationships.

By setting limits in a relationship, a person is basically saying, “I will help you in certain ways, but I will not take on the responsibility of living your life for you.” Setting limits is simply a way of acknowledging that each human being is responsible for living his or her own life. At the same time, limits allow us to help others while showing proper respect for both others and ourselves. Limits in interpersonal relationships help both the helper and the one needing help
  • Limits keep the helper from becoming too wrapped up in the problems of the one needing help to the point that the helper’s life suffers.
  • By refusing to take responsibility for another person’s life, limits encourage the person needing help to take responsibility for his or her own life.
You won’t find the term “setting limits” in the Bible. The idea, however, is consistent with a biblical view of helping one another. The New Testament is full of instructions for Christians to love and serve one another. We are called to instruct one another (Rom. 15:14), encourage one another (1 Th. 4:18), and serve one another (Gal. 5:13). In his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future, Carl F. George identifies at least 59 of these “one-another” passages in the New Testament.

In Galatians 6:2, for example, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Galatian Christians to "Practice carrying one another's burdens. In this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." Yet three verses later, Paul tells them that "everyone must carry his own load." In this short passage, Paul is showing us both sides of the coin of helping one another. On the one hand, the church is not supposed to be a collection of independent individuals, each going about his own business. No, we are to help one another grow in the faith. That is why we must help each other with our burdens. At the same time, there are some burdens we must carry ourselves, which is what Paul reminds the Galatians in verse 5. He made this point even more clear to the Thessalonians when he told them, "If anyone doesn't want to work, he shouldn't eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). In other words, there are limits to what we should do for others and what we need to do for ourselves.

For the most part, God leaves it up to Christians to decide where those limits are in each particular life and each particular situation. Jesus was, in a way, talking about limits when he urged each person to take the beam out of his own eye before trying to take the splinter out of his brother's (Lk. 6:41). Helping our brother doesn't mean being a busybody. Ultimately, each one of us is responsible to God for living our lives in godly discipleship. Still, God has sent us here to, within limits, help one another in that life of discipleship.

Some Christians have a heart for helping others, but they help to the point of neglecting their own needs, especially their emotional needs. They seem to have forgotten the words of Jesus, who told us to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:37). You notice Jesus didn't say, "Love your neighbor better than yourself." Jesus assumed that we would love ourselves and take care of ourselves. Jesus set the example by taking time himself to rest and refresh his soul (Mk. 4:38; Jn 4:6). Jesus also promised rest to those who are heavy laden (Mt. 11:28). In Mark 6 Jesus had compassion on both his disciples (whom he urged to rest) and the multitude (whom he fed).

At the same time, Jesus showed us that there are no limits in serving God. He told us that if we want to keep our lives, we must lose them in serving God (Mt. 10:39, 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24, 17:33; Jn 12:25). Jesus set the example by giving his own life in obedience to God to be our salvation.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, September 13, 2004

To the Whole Creation

Preached Sunday morning, September 12, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believe and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned -- Mark 16:15-16

These words that Jesus spoke after his resurrection are words of hope and warning--but in such an unpleasant way! Jesus makes a stark, uncompromising contrast between the saved and condemned. Does Jesus really mean that eternal salvation depends on things as simple as believing and being baptized? What serious results for such simple acts!

Elsewhere in the New Testament the contrast is just as sharp. In Mt. 25:32-33 & 46, for example, Jesus said that on the day of the Lord, "All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will put the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. . . . And [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

As we prepare to look more closely at this text from Mark's Gospel, I've got to warn you---these kinds of words that Jesus spoke are not very popular.

Tolerance is a demi-god of our age, and tolerance says that reality is not made up of clear distinctions in black and white. Education, from the earliest grades of public school all the way through the most advanced higher education, teaches that nearly every moral and religious issue is really gray, however black or white they may seem. The sophisticated elite prefer ambiguity to choices of absolute black and white. Many of us go along with this ambiguity because we like to be let off the hook for being no more evil than the next guy---both of us different shades of gray.

Jesus, however, had the troubling habit of framing religious issues in black or white---between sheep and goats, lost and saved. We'd better listen to him, because if Jesus is correct, then either the greatest gift or saddest loss awaits each one of us on the day of judgement.

The gospel is the good news in this scene. In fact, the gospel is the greatest news in any scene. And the good news is this: even though, because we've sinned (Rm 3:23) and disqualified ourselves from earning a spot in heaven (Rm 6:23), God still loves us enough to give us a way back to him (Jn 3:16). That way back, to put it simply, is Jesus Christ. Because Jesus lived a life without sin (Heb 4:15), he died on the cross to become the perfect offering to pay the price for the whole world's sin (1 Jn 2:2). If we join him by faith, his resurrection separates us from our sin (1 Cor 15:17) and we look forward to the hope of joining him in resurrection (Rom 6:5). On that day when Jesus returns to earth, he'll bring salvation to his people (Heb. 9:28).

The salvation he brings is more full than we can understand or even imagine. We are being saved from so much: from death, of course, from destruction in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). We're also saved from suffering right here on earth---from despair and meaninglessness, from confusion and conflict, from loneliness. At the rummage sale yesterday I saw a young man in Goth attire---black, torn jeans stuck through with safety pins, black suspenders hanging down below his waist with hundreds of pins piercing the straps, black Spandex shirt, spike-studded leather belt and wristbands, black death-shade makeup below his eyes, long stringy hair nearly obscuring his face. I wish I had had the courage to talk with him more than I did. I don't know why this particular young man chose the Goth style, but in general the Goth style is a cry of rebellion and a cry for help---young people who know that the world they live in simply doesn't have the appeal, the meaning they want to find. Although most of the people around us don't paint their faces and cover themselves with pin-studded black, I think the Goths are simply displaying a frustration that lies deep within millions of people. Without Christ life is really a walking death, however bright and happy a person may seem on the outside.

Salvation in Jesus Christ is more than being saved from something. It also means being saved for something, to something. Those who are in Christ are being saved to peace---not just in the sense of the absence of conflict, but in the sense of fullness, completeness, fulfillment. And we're saved to the best kind of peace of all. As Paul told the Romans, "Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rm 5:1). When that peace with God begins to take hold in our hearts, it flows over into every other kind of peace--with our families, our neighbors, ourselves. Those who believe and are baptized are raised to walk in newness of life (Rm 6:4). New life in service to Christ is a life of freedom---free from the slavery of sin (Rm 6:6). And God has given us the power to resist sin, to walk in the light as heirs of the kingdom of God (Rm 8:15-17).

So we are to proclaim the Gospel. And notice what our passage says about that proclamation? We are to "go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation." That's really a tall order for the church, even if we had the cooperation of the world---which we won't. The world denounces Christian missions as intolerance, as cultural imperialism. When foreign missionaries try to convert new peoples, Christians are criticized for disrupting their culture (As Jesus and the apostles showed us, if people really live the gospel, it will disrupt any culture). At home, we hear those around us saying that "every religion is good---it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you do good to your neighbor." Such statements, of course, don't jibe with Jesus' bold proclamation that "I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:16). With few exceptions, the world doesn't want to hear the gospel. But whether they want it or not, they need the gospel.

So Christians are called to go. Here at New York Avenue we've been praying for years for God to send us people. And, praise him, he has answered our prayers. We have been blessed with Christians who are joining us in our journey of faith and holiness. God has honored our requests, but if we go no further we haven't done enough to honor God. Sitting back and asking for people to come to us is not enough. We have to go and proclaim---all of us, to the whole world. Not all of us are foreign missionaries. Not all of us are preachers or evangelists. But all of us are called to tell the good news---to everyone who will listen.

We're blessed at this congregation with growth---so much that we're having to find seats for everyone. We've begun asking questions: how big do we want to be? How much more should we grow? Are we getting too big? The answer is simple. As long as there is one lost soul in Oak Ridge, we are too small. To put it bluntly, the church is not in the business of being nice, of being friendly, of having comfortable seating, of being one big happy family. We're in the business of saving the lost and of building disciples to be more like Christ (Mt 28:19). And we are to proclaim the gospel to the whole world. Missionaries go out into the world. Most of us in this area don't have to go that far, because in Oak Ridge the whole world has come to us: Mexico, Germany, Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, even Massachusetts and California. Our mission is to call out to them to join us in the wonderful work of redemption that God is doing in his people.

Jesus makes clear how we join him in that work. In this passage from Mark's Gospel Jesus gives very clear instructions---perhaps his clearest---on being saved. See verse 16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Some people have trouble with the idea that we're told to be baptized to be saved. The importance of baptism for salvation is explained elsewhere, too. Peter, for example, said, "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pe 3:21). At Pentecost, Peter had already called the Jews to "repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Some will argue that insisting on baptism is mere legalism. In fairness, certain verses do seem to say that belief is what saves us. In Rm 10:9, for example, Paul makes no mention of baptism for salvation. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus has a lot more to say about belief than baptism. There are important reasons for this emphasis on faith, but they don't erase the need for baptism. We can look at the New Testament and argue all we want about whether or not we can be saved without being baptized. But three things are clear: Christ died to save the church (Eph 5:23), he expects us to be baptized (Acts 2:38, 1 Pe 3:21), and the church has always treated baptism as the entry point into the church.

Some preachers, I think, have taken this teaching to an extreme. Some of you have heard sermons about the man who made his confession of Christ, died on the way to the river, and now he's eternally lost. I don't think that kind of talk is helpful, especially when we presume to know how God will deal with another soul. God is sovereign, and if can save a thief on the cross, I suppose he could save a man on the way to his baptism. Still, I wouldn't stake my eternal salvation on the hope that God would make an exception in my case.

Jesus tells us another reason not to give all our attention to baptism. It's in the second half of verse 16: "but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Of these two points, belief and baptism, which is easier to come by? Baptism, of course. We can just go and do that, whether we mean it or not, but belief is a deep-down matter. Belief is a precious gift from the moment it begins growing in our heart. From belief grows all obedience and righteousness. Baptism without belief, however, is worthless. I don't know how many people I've seen be baptized just to score points with a boyfriend or girlfriend (I don't know because I can't know--we don't see into other people's hearts; but I've seen too many people quit practicing their faith when they broke up with the other person). Belief, faith, is not only in the brain, but in the bones.

The best story I ever heard about real belief involves a tightrope walker with a wheelbarrow on a rope far, far above the ground. The tightrope walker shouts down to the crowd far below, "Do you believe I can push this wheelbarrow across this rope?" The crowd shouts up, "Yes!" And the tightrope walker replies, "OK, then who will come up here and ride in the wheelbarrow?" That's the kind of belief that God wants from us---not belief that something is true, but a willingness to stake our whole lives on it. It's the kind of belief that gives fruit to confession, repentance, baptism, discipleship. The importance of belief is why Bible writers like John focus so much on it. The importance of baptism is why we preach it.

And of course, baptism is not the final step. It's one of the first steps in a wonderful journey, an adventure of faith. It's a journey we share with millions of other companions who encourage and support us. Salvation, you see, is not an individual activity. Yes, we each individually must come before God for salvation, but God's work of salvation is worldwide, for the whole creation. Each one of us has a part to play in the grand symphony of God's redeemed people. We play those parts together, as part of the community of the redeemed.

Like it or not, the most important things in life really are black and white. Will we be slaves to sin or have freedom as adopted members of the royal family in Christ? Will we be lost or found? Redeemed or condemned? That's the question, and that's why we take a few minutes at the end of every worship service for you to give your answer, to make a commitment. And let's not be confused. Everyone gives an answer, either by standing still or by coming forward.

Let's be clear about one more thing: We don't offer an invitation for the personal gain of the people at New York Avenue. We aren't in it for more offering money or to fill more pews. We proclaim the gospel from love---the love that God first had for us and shares with us. If you're outside Christ, don't let this moment pass.


McGarvey, J.W. and Phillip Y. Pendleton. The Fourfold Gospel. On-line version at .

Rodgers-Melnick, Ann. "Goths: Morose Outcasts in Dire Need of Acceptance." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27, 1999. On-line copy at .

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Friday, September 10, 2004

No More Shame

Guilt is a good thing. It’s a feeling God put inside each of us to let us know when we’ve done wrong. When we experience guilt we are encouraged to repent of our wrong thoughts, attitudes, or actions and to do better in the future. But when guilt becomes a way of life that hovers over us all the time, regardless of what we have done, that is shame. Guilt says, “I have done wrong;” shame says, “I am wrong.”

While shame may be helpful in convicting the sinner of his need for Christ, there really is no place for shame in the life of a Christian. Jesus Christ took our shame upon himself on the cross (Heb 12:2). As Christians, we no longer have to live in shame, for “he that believeth on Him shall not be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11; 1 Pet. 2:6).

Many Christians find it hard to get rid of shame, especially if we grew up with shame as a constant companion. Perhaps we learned early in life to feel ugly, stupid, poor, or bad. Those old habits of the heart are hard to break, even if we know in our minds that we are free in Christ.

The antidote to shame is the Word of God. As Christians, we have been adopted as children of God (Eph. 1:5) and have been seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father (Eph. 2:6). “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. . . . In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Eph. 2:10; 3:12).

Christians through the centuries have found comfort and healing in the words of the New Testament. May they be a blessing to you, too.

Copyright 2002, Milton Stanley

Thursday, September 09, 2004

A Powerful Tool Under the Sun

That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. – Eccl. 1:9

We may wonder if the Preacher would have written these words from Ecclesiastes if he had known how drastically the world would change in most of our lifetimes. Today the Internet is at the center of dramatic changes in the ways human beings work, communicate, entertain ourselves, and process information. Hyperlinks, high-speed connections, and an explosion in the number of Web pages is changing even the way we think, especially in young people.

The Web is full of the greatest and the worst mankind has to offer. More free Bible study tools are available today at the click of a mouse than most Bible scholars had available in hardcopy libraries only a few years ago. More than thirty Bible translations are available on-line (including the passage above from the NASV), along with outstanding commentaries, dictionaries, encyclopedias, articles, and books. For Christians wanting to go deeper into the Word, the Internet offers more resources for study than any one person could read in an entire lifetime. What’s more, with Web directories and search engines, we can locate and communicate with Christians around the world.

At the same time, the Internet has become a dumping ground for every kind of perversity and ungodliness. Those wanting to run from God can find the depths of depravity in words, pictures, music, and movies, along with a massive herd of others to join and affirm them in their sin.

Which brings us back to the Preacher. There is nothing new under the sun. The choice before humanity has always been life or death, sin or obedience, heaven or hell, God or the devil. The Internet is a powerful tool for amplifying opportunities to pursue whatever we choose, for good or evil. Yet the choice before us today is the same one Moses held out to the Israelites more than 3000 years ago as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live” (Dt. 30:19).

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Mail Room of the Heart

If the wishes and desires of our hearts were all letters to God, how would our “mail room” of spoken and unspoken requests look? Mine, I must admit, would be filled with three big sacks of outgoing mail. The first, a bag labeled COMFORT, is loaded with all my prayers to have enough money, be healthy, and not worry too much. Another huge sack, PRESTIGE, contains thoughts of being important, respected, and liked. Crammed into most of the remaining space is a heavy sack labeled PLEASURE. It’s stuffed with desires to have all my physical and emotional needs met and to be entertained. Somewhere underneath all those heavy sacks of mail is a single manilla envelope labeled GODLINESS.

I know that wanting pleasure, prestige and comfort is, in itself, no more selfish or sinful than wanting food or sleep. The desires God put in our hearts are good, as long as we keep them in the right proportions. I also know that one little prayer for godliness is worth more than tons of selfish requests. In truly seeking godliness through the blood of Jesus, we have the comfort of the Father’s love, the pleasure of God’s grace, and the prestige of being adopted into God’s own family. We may not fully receive all God’s blessings in this life, but what awaits us in eternity is far greater than anything we could ask or imagine. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Copyright 2002, Milton Stanley

Monday, September 06, 2004

Salt and Light Anyway

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-16
New York Avenue Church of Christ, Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Sunday, September 5, 2004

Geoff McKee, principle of Boca Raton High School in Florida, doesn't mind letting people know he's a man of faith. But Mr. McKee is attracting criticism for talking about God on the job. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, McKee "has spoken of God at staff meetings at least three times since he became Boca Raton High School's principal a year ago."

"Earlier this month," according to the Sun-Sentinel, "McKee told teachers he asked God to help him find a foreign-language instructor and, sure enough, she appeared. He knew the story might offend some on the staff. But he said he feels compelled to present himself honestly."

"'I don't think there's anything wrong or unconstitutional with acknowledging God in public,' he said. 'The President talks about God frequently. I believe it is appropriate for public officials to make reference to God as long as a particular church is not being promoted or put down.'"

That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Yet some teachers and parents are complaining because McKee called public teaching "God's work" and referred to the Bible as "the greatest book ever written." An art teacher at the high school complained, "There should be freedom from religion in the workplace."

Now let's stop and think for a minute what's happening here. Mr. McKee has not used his position as a public-school principal to pressure staff members or children to agree with him. He has not made any effort to convert them or even invite them to church. All he has done is mentioned the God who sustains him without insisting or even urging that anyone else agree with him. But he's being accused of infringing on someone's freedom from religion.

It really shouldn't be surprising that something as harmless as the mere mention of God should bring a public outcry. Our culture, after all, tells us that religion is strictly a "personal matter." In one sense, that's true. Each of us alone is answerable to God for our life and our obedience (or disobedience). But increasingly, that's not what people mean when they call religion a private matter. To many Americans, it means "Don't mention God in public at all." Although we are used to being bombarded by hundreds of advertisements each day urging us to buy things, many Americans get upset at the mere mention of God.

We can see fear of mentioning religion in public life even from those who claim a faith in God. For example, we have candidates for public office who take the puzzling position that they believe in God yet don't think their faith should affect any of their political views. This kind of attitude is not limited to public officials. Several years ago I discussed having a lunchtime Bible study with several Christian co-workers. The plan fell through because the only one of us with a private office didn't feel it was "appropriate" to have a Bible study as a private gathering, on our own time, behind closed doors because we would be meeting on government property.

In reality, our faith is not a private thing just between us and God. It is a public, world-wide movement in which each Christian is blessed to be a part. Christ Jesus is the head of the church and savior of the body (Eph. 5:23). We are saved not as disjointed Christians but as living members of that body. The Apostle Paul told the Colossians, "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:19, 20). In fact, our faith is supposed to be so public that we shine like a beacon on a hill (Isaiah 30:17).

In our passage for today Jesus tells Christians that we are to preserve and enlighten the world. Jesus certainly did this. And if you know the rest of the story of Jesus, you know that the world didn't appreciate the favor.

In fact, the world will oppose us hate us, even precisely because we belong to Jesus Christ. We're not talking here about being hated because we spout poison or nag at the world over petty things. We all know Christians (preachers can be some of the worst) who major in the minors. They tell the world, "Don't go to movies. Don't wear bathing suits. Don't smoke. Don't drink one sip of champagne at a wedding reception. Don't buy this or that. Don't shop here or there." Some Christians, even though their doctrine is good, are arrogant and pushy. Of course people in the world don't want to see those kinds of people coming.

But we're not talking about the world hating Christians who get it wrong. We're talking about the world hating Christians who get it right. God doesn't call us to go down the Righteous Living Checklist and make sure every box is checked. God calls us to be changed by the blood of Christ from the inside out. He calls us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through repentance and baptism. He calls us to proclaim Christ to the world in word, deed, and lifestyle. Of course, if we're living that way, we should be changing in all those little, outward ways, too.

And if we're living right, abiding in Christ, we should expect something else as well. We should expect to be hated. Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18). In short, the world hates Christians who live like Christians because we are like Jesus and not like everyone else. The world hates Christians because "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them" (2 Cor 4:4).

The world will hate us in proportion to how much we bear and proclaim the Word of God. The writer of Hebrews tells us that "the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). I've always read that passage and thought that the Word, the Bible, helps me to know the difference between truth and error. I still think that's true. But even more than that inward work, the Word has an outward work of dividing the faithful from the unbelieving, the sheep from the goats. Whenever the Word of God goes out into the world in preaching, teaching, good works, or worship it divides God's obedient children from those in rebellion. We've seen that very thing happen during the life of Jesus as we've been studying John's Gospel on Wednesday evenings.

The world is just waiting for Christians to mess up. You may have heard the story about the preacher who was building a trellis on the back of his house. As the preacher worked, a neighborhood boy came over and watched him for a long time. The preacher thought for sure the boy must be admiring his work. Finally, the preacher, proud of his craftsmanship, asked the boy, "Well, son, are you trying to pick up some pointers on carpentry?"

"No," the boy said, "I just want to find out what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer" (Hoke).

That story may be a preacher's tale, but the main idea is true. A few months ago I slipped on the hill in my front yard while mowing the lawn and cut off three and a half toes. Can you guess the most popular questions people outside the church ask me about the accident? I'll tell you: "What were the first words out of your mouth when you did it?"

Preachers aren't the only Christians who find themselves being scrutinized. This past week a friend asked me to help him understand a couple of his bluegrass buddies. Both of his buddies are members of churches of Christ. They don't believe in playing guitar along with gospel songs, not only during worship, but even during lunch and on the front porch. "How can these guys refuse to play 'Amazing Grace,'" my friend asked me, "when they don't mind playing 'Whisky Before Breakfast.'" My friend's not the only one who wonders.

The world is watching us! What do they see? People living like everyone around them, or someone taking on the shape of Jesus Christ more and more every day? If we're abiding in Christ, we'll become more and more like him. And the world will hate us more and more, too.

Still, we're called to be salt and light to the very world that hates us. To be salt that means to preserve the world. Today salt is mostly a seasoning. But to people in Jesus' day, before there were refrigerators or freezers, salt kept meat and other foods from spoiling. Some of you may remember doing this yourself preserving ham and other meat with salt. In many ways, some of which we don't even comprehend, Christians are called to keep the world from spoiling worse than it already has.

One example of Christians being salt is the Predisan work in Honduras. Predisan provides free and low-cost medical care in the name of Christ to those who can't afford treatment otherwise. When I was down in Honduras last year for the new clinic dedication in Catacamas, I climbed to the top of a mountain north of town. From there I could look down and see all of Catacamas a town with about the same number of people as Oak Ridge. Do you know what the most prominent building in town was? The Predisan clinic, right in the center of downtown Catacamas. The building was large, and clean, and its roof literally shone in the Central American sunlight. The workers at Predisan, and the Christians who support the work with their money and time, are a powerful force at preserving and healing the people of Catacamas and surrounding villages. And all their work is done in the name of Jesus Christ.

Not all of us will be involved in foreign or medical missions. But every one of us can be salt in any of a thousand ways baby sitting for our neighbors, inviting friends to church, volunteering in the community, doing chores for the elderly and shut-in, joining in the many works of God's people and in all things telling the wonderful good news of our redemption in Jesus Christ.

If we are living by faith in Christ we are also light that illuminates the world. Through faith in Jesus Christ we have the Word of truth that enlightens the mind. We shine the light of Jesus to show the lost the way out of death and confusion. We shine light on how to rear healthy children, build healthy families, and find meaning in our lives. We shine the light on how to prosper and bear fruit in our lives. And that light shines forth from God's people in proportion to our willingness to submit to God and do his will. Isaiah talked about how brightly God's people shine when we live the way God creates us to live:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to give your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? when you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you don't hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of Jehovah shall by your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8).

When we live lives of mercy and compassion, our light will shine like the morning sun, and the Lord will take care of us.

But the catch is that to serve the world as God expects of us, we have to live differently from the world. It's impossible to preserve or shine if we're as rotten and dark as the world around us. As Paul told the Philippians, Christians are to be "children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation; among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life."

The preacher Campbell Morgan once heard a man in his congregation tell him that he and a co-worker had worked side-by-side for five years before they each found out that the other was a Christian. "Isn't that funny," the man said to Morgan.

"Funny? No, it's not funny at all," Morgan said. "You both need to be born again" (Hoke). These men knew each other well, but nothing in either of their lives showed they were any different from the unbelievers around them.

In this passage in Matthew 5 Jesus tells us what happens when Christians don't live any differently from unbelievers. It's like putting a lamp under a basket you might as well not have the light (or the basket, for that matter). Taking the name of Christ and not reaching out to a lost world is like salt that becomes so polluted and dirty it's no good anymore for salt only for being thrown on the ground and trampled. Remember that these words are addressed to God's people at that time, the Jews. After the Jews refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah they were indeed trampled by God in the form of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and Judea in A. D. 70.

One more thing. God's people aren't salt and light in order to make the world happier or more comfortable. God is merciful, but the world is still lost, and doomed to destruction because of sin. We are to be salt and light so that the world may see our good works and glorify the Father in heaven (Mt. 5:16). It's important to understand why we are salt and light not to please the world but to glorify God. That's because it's not our power that does the preserving it's God's. We may be the salt, but God gives the saltiness. It's also not our light it's Jesus, and he makes our light shine. We have the light not because our own best efforts are bright and shining, but because we have the grace of God. If we try to rely on our own saltiness and light we're in bad shape. But when we rely on God's power, we will prosper and the world will be blessed through us.

Years ago the German professor Joachim Jeremias said, "The law leaves man to rely upon his own strength and challenges him to do his utmost. The gospel, on the other hand, brings man before the gift of God and challenges him really to make the inexpressible gift of God the basis for his life."

Only when we give God the glory do we share in his glory, in his light. Only when we fall at the feet of Jesus to acknowledge our sin and weakness, his righteousness, salvation through his blood, the wonderful salvation in his church only then are we lifted up to preserve the world, and to shine.


Hoke, J. David. "Salt and Light: Matthew 5:13-16." On-line sermon text at

Jeremias, Joachim. "Chapter 5: Not Law, but Gospel." From The Sermon on the Mount. On-line copy at

Solomon, Lois K. "Boca principal under fire for making references to God," Sun-Sentinel, August 25, 2004. On-line copy at,0,3216178.story?coll=sfla-news-palm

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Friday, September 03, 2004

The New Mind Kind

I’m reminded of a lesson I learned some years ago from John Payne, former minister at Highland View Church of Christ in Oak Ridge.

As a boy I grew up believing that, for the Christian, repentance and forgiveness were tied together in a dangerous, never-ending cycle of back-and-forth. The dividing line between the lost and the saved was, I believed, one that a Christian crossed many times in a single day. According to this idea, every time a Christian sinned, he crossed over to the “lost” side of the page. As soon as he repented and asked for forgiveness, he crossed back over to the “saved” column. Thus, when I stubbed my toe and blurted out a word I won’t write here, I crossed over to the “lost” column—until I asked God to forgive me for my potty mouth and crossed back to the “saved” side. Under the burden of that kind of thinking, life becomes a dangerous game of “last ball” where the Christian is always terrified of dying without a cry of forgiveness to move him back to the safe side.

There’s one big problem with that kind of thinking, as Bro. Payne pointed out. In keeping track of all that crossing back and forth between columns, we lose track of the Cross. We are saved not by the ritual of asking for forgiveness from God, but through the sacrifice of God’s son on the cross. As Paul told the Romans, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:6-8). We aren’t called to repent of each individual sin—we’re called to repent of a sinful life. And for those who bring that sinful self to be crucified with Christ, God exalts us with Christ to new life.

Training our focus on the cross keeps our mind where it belongs—on Jesus rather than ourselves. When we Christians fall, we still must acknowledge our sin and lay it aside. But praise God that our salvation doesn’t depend on our getting it right. Jesus has already gotten it right, and offers us the wonderful gift of eternal life through his blood. What joy.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Growth and Transitions Again

There's nothing like having a grown child to remind you of the need to grow up yourself.

That may be a bit of an overstatement for rhetorical effect, but not much. Ever since Milton Jr. was a toddler I've felt the need to refine my own character, both in order to "stay ahead," so to speak, of my offspring, and to be the man whom I want to be the nuturer, protector, and role model for my sons.

This past weekend Carolyn and I dropped Milton Jr. off at college. When he was a small child, I worked hard---successfully, I think---at curbing my explosive and destructive anger. Today, I'm striving to let go my desire to control so that I will allow Milton Jr. be the man God created him to be.

It's daunting to think that my son is going out into the world without me, even as I remember how much I wanted to be on my own at age 18. But he's so much more ready than I was. And God is so much more ready than either of us to prosper him. I pray that he will, and that my son will lean upon the unfathomable love of the Lord--our Rock and our Redeemer.

Copyright 2004, Milton Stanley

The Startling Power of the Word

Lately I’ve been reading some of the writings of Karl Barth. Barth was a Swiss minister and university professor during the early and middle twentieth century. I’m sure you would no more agree with everything the man had to say than I do. His writings on the Word of God, however, are an idol-shattering response to the kind of liberalism that was threatening the church in his day (and still threatens today). Churches in Barth’s day had tried to tame the Word, to use it to justify the status quo of the world. In every age, it seems, human beings use the Bible to find the evidence for what they want to believe and practice anyway.

Barth understood that in the Bible is the very Word of God, yet human sin may keep that truth from penetrating into our hearts. In his essay, “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” Barth wrote:

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek—nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek.

If we dare, however, to seek the Word of God, we shall find that the answer is far higher and bigger than we imagined—bigger and more powerful than we know how to deal with on our own. The Word, in short, is Christ, with his call to die to self and live a new life in Him.

The job of the Christian is not to make the Bible “relevant” to the world in which we live. The Christian, rather, is called to make his or her own heart open to the “strange new world” which the Bible presents. In other words, we do not use the Word as much as we allow the Word to use us, to reshape us. To do that, we have to approach the Bible with faith. The Holy Scriptures, Barth writes, will interpret themselves in spite of all our human limitations. We need only dare to follow this drive, this spirit, this river, to grow out beyond ourselves toward the highest answer. This daring is faith; and we read the Bible rightly, not when we do so with false modesty, restraint, and attempted sobriety, for these are passive qualities, but when we read it in faith. And the invitation to dare and to reach toward the highest, even though we do not deserve it, is the expression of grace in the Bible: the Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God. Amen.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Growth and Transition

This evening Carolyn and I dropped Milton Jr., our oldest son, off at college. In both our hearts and minds, we know he is ready to be on his own. He is a faithful, intelligent man with the maturity to make his way without his mother and me constantly around.

Yet somewhere in between our hearts and minds, Carolyn and I still struggle with letting go. How we respond--either allowing him to be his own man or desperately clinging to an over-ripe dependency--will determine how much our own characters mature and grow.

Maturity, especially of the Christian kind, is more than a place where we arrive. It is a depth we explore in search of the One whose fullness allows us, at our most fully grown, to relax our grip on our own maturity, and enter into blissful communion as a little child.

Originally posted August 27, 2004
Copyright 2004, Milton Stanley

On Beasts and Beauties

Thursday afternoon my wife, Carolyn, and I watched the play Beauty and the Beast as part of our twentieth anniversary celebration. The story of Belle and the Beast is an enduring one, I think, for a couple of reasons.

At one level, every man who has found his life's companion knows that his own beast has been somehow tamed by the blessed relationship with his wife. Looking back over the past twenty years with Carolyn, I see how God has transformed me from the beastly man I was at age twenty-one.

For Christians, the story of Beauty and the Beast resonates on an even deeper level. The Beast, you know, is us before the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ breaks through into our lives. Without God's Holy Spirit, we are no more than beasts---worse than beasts, actually. Worse because God created us to be lords over the beasts, yet by sinning we reduce ourselves to equal or less than those creatures over which we are meant to have dominion. "Lilies that fester," Shakespeare wrote, "smell far worse than weeds."

I praise God that through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ, and the transforming power of God's Holy Spirit, we can be beautiful in the eyes of the Father. And I praise him, too, that he has blessed me these past twenty years to walk the pilgrim's path with a beauty who, by the grace of God, brings me comfort and shows me love. Amen.

Copyright 2004, Milton Stanley

The What-is-he?

Since shortly after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, human beings have struggled with the question, Why does a good, loving God allow evil in the world? Philosophy has a name for this issue: theodicy. Theodicy is the effort to explain the goodness of God in the face of all the evil we see around us.

The Bible addresses this question from start to finish. The opening chapters of Genesis describe how evil came into the world, and the final verses of Revelation deal with the ultimate triumph of good. Job and his friends wrestled with this question around the time of Abraham, and Jesus himself faced the issue in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross.

Human reason can give us a simple answer to the question. In a nutshell, we have evil in the world because God loved us enough to give us the power to choose. If some persons choose evil, then other persons will suffer unjustly. The only way to do away with evil in the world would be to do away with free will for human beings.

As simple as that answer is for our minds, however, it does little to comfort our hearts when we’re face-to-face with the pain of a fallen world: sickness, death, abuse, addiction, injustice, broken relationships. Worse yet, it does nothing to answer the question of why God sometimes intervenes to help people while for others our prayers go unanswered.

If we look at these difficult facts strictly with our human eyes, we may fall into despair. We may even begin to look at answered prayer as a heavenly equivalent to the lottery: just enough winners to get our hopes up, but too few for us ever having much chance of winning. If we ever reach that point, we need not only a change of mind, but of heart as well.

The real answer is found not in reason but in relation. We can try and try, think and think, reason and reason, but no one in this life will fully understand why God does everything he does. We simply don’t know why God brings amazing healing to one Christian while allowing another to suffer or die, despite the fervent prayers of the saints. We cannot fully explain why one child is born healthy and strong into a loving, Christian family while another is born into a shattered household teeming with abuse, neglect, and sin.

But those who put their trust in the God revealed in the Bible still have hope despite all the evil in the world. The Bible tells us of a holy God who created us and longs for us to be in a loving relationship with him. The answer to evil is found not in focusing on the evil we’ve done (although we should never ignore it) but in pursuing a relationship with the God who made us in his image. The question is ultimately not “What do we see” or even “What do we think,” but “Who do we trust?” When our hearts fully trust in the goodness and wisdom of God, we can stand against the world’s evil with obedience and hope. Having that kind of hope is not easy—especially when the weight of a fallen world is bearing down on us—but it’s worth all we have and all we are to be in a relationship where we trust God no matter what happens around us.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

On Preachers, Houses, and White Gloves

In my new role among the New York Avenue Christians I've begun visiting members in their homes, particularly those whom I've not visited before. My goal is to visit everyone by the end of 2004 and to become better acquainted with every member of the congregation.

I must admit that preacher visitation is a habit I've not cultivated in the past. Before I began preaching myself our family would from time to time receive "the preacher" in our home. For me it was very nearly an ordeal to be endured. I felt like my home and my life were on display, under inspection. I was usually relieved when the preacher left. Of course, my whole attitude on the subject was wrong.

Getting together in each other's homes is something all Christians would do well to cultivate. In the early church, for example, Christians gathered regularly in houses to share fellowship meals (Acts 2:46). In fact, the first-century church usually worshipped in homes. There's a benefit in that kind of fellowship that we never quite find in pews and aisles. At home we are most. . . well, at home, the most truly ourselves. Meeting together in homes to eat, talk, pray, and study God's Word together brings us closer both to God and each other. At each other's homes, in cozy settings, we have a special opportunity to build the warm, loving relationships that Christ has in mind for his people. If we cultivate these relationships in a spirit of true Christian fellowship, the whole congregation is strengthened and empowered with the love of Jesus.

I'm already privileged to have been welcomed into the homes of a number of saints at New York Avenue. In every case we've gotten to know and appreciate one another more than we did before the visit. When I give you a call I hope you won't feel like I used to feel when the preacher called my house. For the record: I won't quiz you on the names of the twelve prophets, I don't expect finger foods, and I won't be wearing white gloves to determine how well you've dusted the picture frames. And on the visits when Carolyn comes along, she won't be bringing Tupperware® samples to sell you (unless you ask). We just want to get to know one another better and to do our part, together, to build fellowship in Christ's church.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Popeye Arms and a Huge Red Hand

"Mama, Dennis starts it every time. He always starts it."

My mother pulled my lower lip outward and patted the bloody spot with a wad of pink toilet paper. "You ought to feel sorry for Dennis," she said. "His parents are divorced, and he never sees his father anymore."

My mother's words were no comfort to a six-year-old boy with a swelling lip and a mass of perfumed toilet paper dissolving in his mouth. Earlier in the year, Dennis and his mother had moved in with Dennis's grandparents, a couple of doors down from our house. The summer before first grade Dennis and I played outside together every day. And every day, it seemed, we fought. Dennis didn't always win, but he didn't lose, either. Dennis never cried, never admitted defeat. If I threw him down so hard that he rose up heaving, fighting back tears, he slapped the dirt and leaves off the side of his face and shouted, "That didn't hurt."

At the end of first grade, Dennis disappeared. One evening I heard my mother and father talking about what had happened: Dennis's mother had married an Army sergeant just back from Vietnam, and they were living now in another state.

A full year passed before I saw Dennis again, playing kickball in the street with the neighborhood kids. Dennis had grown and now stood menacingly taller than I remembered him. Still, it didn't take five minutes for us to begin arguing over whose turn it was to kick. We glared at each other, fists cocked at our sides. But this time Dennis did something different.

"I'll get my Dad," he shouted, and took off for his grandparents' house.

"Yea. Sure you will," I said to his back, quietly terrified that he might really do it.

A minute later Dennis appeared with his stepfather–a red-haired man with Popeye-size forearms, deep wrinkles in his forehead, and no visible lips. The Army sergeant. The children stopped talking. Dennis beamed. His stepfather said nothing–simply towered there on the sidewalk, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, watching us.

After a while we quit paying attention to Dennis's stepfather and gave ourselves over to play. A few minutes later Dennis and I were arguing again. This time, without thinking, I slugged Dennis, hard, on the shoulder. He clutched the hurt place, and I braced for the counterattack. But instead of hitting me, he stood there, looking over my shoulder, his eyes beginning to water. Dennis suddenly ran around me, toward the sidewalk.

Then I remembered, behind me, the Army sergeant. I forced myself to turn around. Thirty-five years later, the image I saw is still burned into my heart.

The man had stepped off the sidewalk and squatted down far enough for Dennis's head to rest on his shoulder. Dennis was sobbing, unencumbered and unashamed. His stepfather pressed his own cheek closer to Dennis’s and, with a huge, red hand, rubbed the boy’s back as he wept.

Although I had not yet learned the word, I knew even at the time that I was witnessing a transformation. Dennis was being blessed with something vital. He needed a father to love him, to hold him, to give him the freedom and security to cry. And in that display of raw tenderness and emotion, his was not the only heart being transformed.

Copyright 2004, Milton Stanley

If We Love Him . . .

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you" (John 14:15-17).

This passage is one of my favorites, because in these verses John brings together the two wings of faith, so to speak—love and works. Love is often perceived as the "soft" side of discipleship, as the "theory" side of being a Christian. Works, on the other hand, are the "hard" side of discipleship, the acts of putting faith into action. This passage shows how closely related the two are. Yet there is a deeper richness here. And at least one warning is in order to keep us from misinterpreting what Jesus is really saying.

You notice what Jesus did not say? He didn't say, "If you obey me, you love me." He almost said that in v. 24, but even there, we have a distinction. Jesus did not say, "If you obey me, you love me." In other words, simply because someone seems to be doing the things God wants us to do doesn't necessarily mean that person really loves God.

That's the easiest mistake in the world to fall into—thinking that if we do the right things, then we're OK. We may work and work to convince God, others, and ourselves that we love God. The trouble is, we can go through the motions all day long and not really love God in our hearts. That seems to have been a common mistake among the Jews in Jesus' time. In Mt. 23:23, for example, Jesus warned the Jewish leaders, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." Actions are important. But concentrating our energy on crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's and then declaring ourselves OK with God is the opposite of the right approach to serving God.

Here's an example. Suppose I decided I wanted to live the life of an Olympic gold medalist—say in archery. I could go onto E-Bay and get a pretty good replica of a gold medal. I could move to a small town where people are trusting, hang my medal on the wall, and advertise in the local paper for archery lessons. I could give motivational speeches about hard work and believing in yourself to churches and schools. After a while I might actually come to believe that I had really earned the medal hanging on my wall. The only problem is, I haven't. I would only be going through the motions.

The world is full of people trying to prove their love—that they love someone and are worthy of being loved in return. There's a song on the radio right now about this very thing, about a young man who's spent his whole life trying to prove to his earthly father that he's good enough. But no matter what he does, his father never is proud of him, never shows his love for his son. I went on the Internet to try to find that song, and I couldn't. And the reason I couldn't is that the Net is overflowing with hundreds of thousands of essays, poems, stories, and testimonials about exactly the same thing. Millions of pitiful overachievers are still trying to prove they love their parents, or spouses, and desperately trying to earn love in return. It's a losing game, because the whole focus is backwards.

Unfortunately, we see the same game being played in churches. It's the dirty little secret of many churches that Christians are spinning their wheels trying to prove they really love God. Some of the church's best workers, I'm afraid, do their work out of a perverted sense of love—this same kind of losing game of proving love. The rest of us, the lazy ones, don't say anything because if we did they might stop carrying such a load for the rest of us. But that kind of works-to-prove-love approach can easily bleed over into something that's positively sinful—doing good works to prove to others that we love God. Jesus addressed this effort when he warned, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 6:5). Jesus, as we see most clearly in John's Gospel, focuses more on the heart than on external obedience.

Well, if John 14:14-17 isn't about working harder, then what is it about?

When it came to how to love God, I used to preach, "Work harder, get our sin out of the way so we can love God better." Now this is a very appealing error because it looks so right. In fact, most of us do need to work harder and put away our sins. I need to eat less, read the Bible more, and learn how to wash feet. But those kinds of things won't produce love any more than motivational speaking will produce a gold medal. In fact, the work-harder idea is a grace-denying approach, because it puts the focus on ourselves rather than on God.

How, then, do we truly learn to love God?

Like so much of the Bible, we can find clues to the answer by looking at the context of the verses under study this morning. Notice that woven in among these passages about obeying God (vv. 15, 20, 23, 24) we find words dealing with the Holy Spirit (vv. 18-20, 23). More broadly, Jesus is talking here about relationships—between Jesus and the Father, and Jesus and us through the Holy Spirit. And what does that have to do with loving God?

Simply this. We don't create our love for God. We receive it by the grace of God. Paul told the Romans about this when, talking about justification by faith, he said, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5b). That love produces peace with God, joy, and the hope of glory. In a similar vein, John simply said, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19).

Love, then, is a gift from a loving God. We may want it to be something we create, but it is not. It is, however, something we can either hinder or nurture. God's love is accessed through humility. The apostle James said, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall exalt you" (Jas. 4:10). We aren't exalted by working harder but by falling on our faces in humility before a righteous and holy God. Perhaps the greatest benefit of working, working, for God's love is the realization that those efforts are futile. When we try to prove our love through trying to do enough, we may come to see how our so-called service to God is really self-serving. We may come to see how much of our actions are really meant to exalt ourselves, how we are filled with selfishness and pride. And then, by the grace of God, we may fall on our faces because of our own sinfulness and allow ourselves to be exalted in the right way—by God alone.

In humility before God, Christians may abide in Christ and share in God's love. See verses 14:20-21? This is an "abiding" love—not only in the sense of one that goes on forever, but also in the sense of a relationship—of going through each day, every day, with God. Look especially at 14:23. God will make his home with us. Wow. What a promise.

When we have that kind of relationship—where God gets up with us in the morning and we walk with him all through the day—when we abide in Christ, we have power for living. In our Wednesday Bible study we spent some time talking about prayer "in Jesus' name." Those words are not a formula to end a prayer. They are the promise that those who abide in Christ go through life with his power and his authority (see, for example, John 15:7). If we abide in Christ, our efforts will be successful and our lives will be fruitful.

That's why it's so critical that God's people, those who love him and abide with him, obey him. Imagine what would happen if we didn't. Trying to enjoy his love for us without showing our love for him in obedience—well, that's simply disobedience, grieving God's Holy Spirit. Once we have been blessed by the gift of God himself abiding with us, we simply must obey him. And when we obey in the abiding power of God, there is no spinning our wheels. Our efforts are blessed.

If we abide with him and love him, we will keep his word. And he will keep his word—to give us comfort, power, love, and joy.

God doesn't want his people to be weak and sin-plagued. He wants us powerful, fruitful, loving with his love in action. That begins by admitting we can't do it on our own. The first step is repentance and baptism—being washed clean from our sins by the sacrifice of Jesus in his blood. The step that every Christian must take every day is continuing to admit that without God we are nothing. But that through the abiding love of Jesus Christ, we have the power not only to obey, but to prosper, and be glad.

Preached August 22, 2004

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Finding Joy Amid Sorrow

I first learned the difference between happiness and joy while working as a technical writer at the Oak Ridge K-25 Site. My job at K-25 had been a pleasure in so many ways. Not only did I enjoy my work, but I loved spending time with my co-workers. Several of our group had great senses of humor, and the climate around the office was almost always one of good fun and fellowship.

Then came the layoffs. And not in one clean swoop. Every few months a new round would claim one or two more of our number. As the layoffs drug on, one guy commented that the process was like cutting off a dog’s tail one inch at a time so as not to make it suffer too much. After several months, most of our group had either been laid off or transferred to other departments.
Early one morning as I sat trying to work despite my own gathering gloom, it occurred to me that I was now the only member of my group left in one whole end of our office building. My closest work friends were all gone, and I would probably soon be forced to follow. I felt sad for them and sorry for myself. For days at a time I sat brooding at my desk, unwilling or unable to do much of anything worthwhile. One day I realized, "Aha! This is what it feels like to be depressed—sadness and gloom day in and day out."

Then something wonderful happened. As I sat tbere alone, I looked down into my heart and saw what real joy can be. Although my friends were gone and my own job in danger, I remembered something worth remembering. God loves me. Jesus died and rose for my salvation. He wants good things for me, and he sends his Holy Spirit to comfort and strengthen me. God had blessed me with a believing wife and child, and membership in the Kingdom of God. No matter how bad things may seem for me today, God has good things planned for me—wonderful things, more wonderful than we can imagine. I realized that right in the middle of sadness and depression, it is still possible to be filled with joy.

Our bodies are subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh—sadness, fatigue, exhaustion, depression. But as Christians our souls may be filled with the joy that comes from being known and loved by the creator of the universe. Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, lived and died for us. He gave us the truth so that his joy might be in us and our joy might be made full in him (John 15:11).

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Meditations on the "Minor" Prophets

Each Sunday evening this summer our congregation will be studying one of the twelve books of the "minor" prophets at the end of the Old Testament. I'll admit that coming into this series I knew less about these books than about any other section of the Bible. Yet like every other part of the Bible their pages are "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, ESV). Need I add that the woman, girl, and boy of God is equipped in the same way?

While attending Harding Graduate School I read many pages about the Bible and how to interpret it. Students there read books on preaching, evangelism, missions, church growth, counseling, church history, along with thousands of pages on the Bible. Right now my head is still spinning from all that reading. People have asked me if I plan to study for a doctorate, and I tell them I've promised Carolyn I'll take at least one year off to give her a rest and to begin putting what I've learned into practice. I've also committed to something else over the next year: I intend to read not so much about the Bible but more of the Bible.

I hope all of us will be committed to daily reading and studying of God's Word. May those of us who may have lapsed in our studies commit renewed attention to the Scriptures. And may those us who have been faithful for years in daily Bible study find new depths of riches that are always new to those approaching God's living Word with faithful hearts. That Word will change us if we allow God to use it for our transformation.

Ultimately, the strength of our congregation depends on our relationship to the God revealed in Scripture. Spiritual maturity, evangelism, church growth, and congregational unity depend less on technique than on an unflinching commitment to the Word of God. For as God has told us, "my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and will prosper in what I send it to do" (Isaiah 55:11, HCSB).

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

How Can a Mourner Give Thanks?

"Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever." -- Psalm 30:12,13 (ASV)

It's hard to live very long without finding our share of mourning. Death, cancer, sickness, injury, abuse--these are sewn into the fabric of life in a fallen world. Even as Christians our only response to some circumstances is simply sackcloth and ashes--deep, gloomy, soul-wrenching mourning.

One of the beauties of the Psalms is that they face life's agonies head-on. The Psalmists knew that even for God's own, life can sometimes be hard--nearly unbearable. And you won't find any superficial, feel-good advice in the Psalms either, no cheap look-on-the-bright-side optimism. Psalm 88, for example, shows a troubled soul crying out time and time again to God for help--and receiving no answer. Whether or not in this life we ever understand why, there are times when God, for reasons only he knows, allows his own people to go through darkness.

Yet underlying every Psalm, every page of the Bible, is God's steadfast love. Redemption does not come cheaply--God's son had to die for it, after all--but it does come at last for those who put their trust in the Lord. God does not want us to pretend everything is all right when it's not. And he certainly doesn't expect us to dance in our mourning or pretend our rough sackcloth is silky gladness. Only after we have acknowledged our sadness and turned it over in faith to God does he turn our mourning to dancing and our sackcloth to gladness.

And once God has done a work like that in our heart, how can we be silent? Like the Psalmist, God has then equipped us to sing praises to his name, and give thanks unto him forever.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Thoughts on Graduation

The idea of graduation has been a big part of my life these few months. For one thing, I’ve finished my graduate studies at Harding University Graduate School of Religion and moved full-time into the work for which I’ve been preparing---serving the people of God and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. As I look back over the past four years I am deeply grateful to God for allowing me to train for this work, and for the saints at New York Avenue Church of Christ for supporting me and my family financially. Now it’s time to put into practice what I’ve learned.

For another thing, watching my own first-born son finish high school has put graduation in an entirely different light. This past May Milton Jr. marched out onto on the same field, wearing the same-colored cap and gown, and received an almost identical diploma, right down to the name, as I had done twenty-four years earlier. An overwhelming range of emotions have filled me as I’ve watched my son turn eighteen and graduate into adulthood. I suppose for the graduates themselves, there is a feeling that the whole world is opening up to them, that possibilities for the future are vast, both in what they can do and how long they have to do it. And of course they are right. This Spring on Blankenship Field, new graduates celebrated their own successful journey through childhood and entry into the vast possibilities of adulthood. From the hill overlooking the field, I was overwhelmed with how quickly twenty-four years can pass, and how short our lives on earth really are.

And that brings to mind the final “graduation” each of us faces. For Christians, the briefness of life is bearable because we know that this life is not all there is. Those redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ have a glorious inheritance awaiting us in heaven (Eph 1). In a certain sense our lives here are a training ground for heaven. How we live, and whom we trust, determines whether or not our future will be inconceivably bleak or bright. As Paul told the Romans, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7). When Paul faced his own death, he had the assurance that no matter how short this life may be, the one awaiting God’s people is eternal and glorious: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:7,8).
In the brief time since my family came to New York Avenue, several of our number have finished the race. Many more have gone before. While we mourn their passing, we who are in Christ rejoice in the glorious inheritance laid up for them--and for us. We know that if we abide in God, when we stand before him “we may have confidence and not shrink in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28).

It seems that for those who are prepared, whether in high school, graduate school or life, graduation is less about endings than beginnings.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ