How do you define greatness?

Some people think that becoming filthy rich makes us great. But Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

Other people feel greatness belongs to the mature, the educated, and the brilliant. But Jesus said that “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 28:3)

Maybe you think attaining a position of significance by climbing the career ladder will make you great. But Jesus said, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

A lot of men think that strength gives greatness. But the Bible says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-11)

The philosophers would have said that wisdom makes a person great. But the Bible says, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19)

Having a long resume with a list of great accomplishments and great abilities makes a lot of people feel great. But Jesus said that the widow who only had a penny to give was the greater giver. (Luke 21:1-4)

Perhaps ambition will get us where we want to go. If we fight hard, work hard, and study hard, maybe we can reach the top. But Jesus said that “the last will be first.” (Matthew 20:16)

How do you define greatness? No one has ever lived a greater life than Jesus of Nazareth, and his definition of greatness is unlike the one we hear every day. He said that greatness came through humble service, faithful obedience, childlike trust, sacrificial generosity, and simple faith. May we aspire to his definition of greatness!

Just the Facts

In 1997, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner polled his classmates to see if they would support a ban on dihydrogen monoxide. Before they answered, he warned them of the dangers of DHMO.

Here are the facts: the chemical can be incredibly dangerous. Accidental inhalation, even in small quantities can be fatal. Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO can result in amputation. It is found in tumors, pesticides, and the cooling systems of nuclear power plants. It has been used by governments to torture suspects and disperse rioters. Many cults even have rituals that require this substance.

Despite these risks, DHMO is common even in food that has been labeled “organic,” household cleaners, and even swimming pools. After presenting his classmates with these facts, 43 of his 50 9th-grade peers voted to ban DHMO. How would you have voted?

If you voted to ban it, congratulations!

You voted to ban water.

Yes, dihydrogen monoxide is just plain ol’ high quality H2O.

Everything Zohner said was true, but misleading. Inhaling water is called drowning. Ice does cause frostbite. Water is in all of our food and most of our industrial systems, but you and I know that doesn’t mean it is terrifying.

Zohner’s little experiment has plenty of applications. We can be misled with true statements. Did you know that the devil quoted scripture to Jesus in Matthew 4? He used truth to lie. Peter warned that some people would do the same thing to scripture—twisting for destruction (2 Peter 3:14-18). Perhaps that’s why Paul told Timothy to “rightly handle” the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

So remember – when someone gives you “just the facts” (or the scriptures!), don’t forget to make sure those facts are telling the truth.

What’s better?

Many of the routine decisions we make every day aren’t choices between evil and good. Sometimes we just must decide which path is better. Several times in Proverbs, God describes a “better” way. Take a look:

“Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread.” (Proverbs 12:9)

“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.” (Proverbs 15:16)

“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” (Proverbs 15:17)

“Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.” (Proverbs 16:8)

“How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.” (Proverbs 16:16)

“Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” (Proverbs 17:1)

“Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.” (Proverbs 19:1)

“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” (Proverbs 21:9)

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (Proverbs 27:5)

Are you choosing what’s better?

God Doesn’t Hate You

File this under “theology that should be obvious, but isn’t.” God does not hate you.

Some people are convinced that God is in heaven, looking down with a magnifying glass, searching our lives for every failure, no matter how miniscule or well-intended, to find a reason to damn our souls. Too many people live in fear because they never feel good enough or righteous enough. They fear some unknown technicality—an uncrossed “t” or undotted “i” that stands between them and life.

This view of God is heresy. It is false doctrine. It is unholy. It is bad.

If God was looking forward to your destruction, why would he send his son to suffer and die?

If God wanted you to fail, why would he give a book that points the way to life?

If God didn’t want you to endure to the end, why would he assemble a family to help you keep going when the going gets tough?

God really, really, really wants every person to be saved. Don’t believe me? Read 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, and Matthew 23:37. Remember that he didn’t come for the righteous, but sinners (Luke 5:32), and that he and the angels rejoice when one repents (Luke 15:10).

You can have confidence before God. Jesus makes that possible. Read 1 John 3:21-24 and Hebrews 4:14-5:3. Read Romans – the whole book. And then read it again!

When we are born again into the family of God, we are not orphans. We are adopted into God’s family, where God and his people nurture us and give us what we need to finish the race. Read Philippians 1:6, 2:12-13, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Hebrews 13:20-21, and 1 Corinthians 1:8.

God’s grace is marvelous and deep and life-transforming. Your salvation does not depend on your perfection, but Christ’s. If you are in Christ, enjoy the confidence of your standing. Refuse to live in fear anymore!

The Story of Pontius Pilate

When Pontius Pilate was new on the scene as Jerusalem’s governor, he began his service by hanging “Hail Caesar” banners all around town. If you know anything about Jewish history, you can imagine how well this went over.

The crowds grew larger and larger, and Pilate had a decision to make. What to do about these people? He could send in his military to quash the protestors or he could give in. Everyone expected him to meet force with force, and so he did. But something happened that he didn’t expect. Rather than fleeing or fighting, the Jewish protesters simply dropped to their knees. Josephus said, “they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed.” Pilate relented. The banners came down. The mob won.

Some say that the Jews learned something important about Pilate that day. They learned that Pilate was not the sort of man who stood by his convictions. They learned that, given the right pressure, he wouldn’t do what he had planned to do. He preferred the easy way out.

It was that lesson they exploited when they brought Jesus to him. Remember that Pilate was not convinced of Jesus’ guilt—he believed Jesus to be a guiltless man. He was warned by his wife’s dream to have nothing to do with this innocent man. Why did he order the death of an innocent man? He feared the mob.

Most of us don’t make decisions surrounded by throngs of protestors, but we do face the subtle pressures of a world that doesn’t always see things the way we do. We, too, face a choice. Will we stand by our convictions or will we take the easy way out

Fact-checking 101

In a world of “fake news” and “alternate facts,” how can we tell which voices to listen to?

There are many tests we can apply to sort out the messages we hear. We should look at evidence and corroborating material to see if we can discern what is true. We should consider the motivations and known biases of the speaker to figure out why the person is speaking. We should evaluate logic and look to see if what we are being told is consistent and reasonable. I suspect that if these principles were applied fairly and frequently, our society would be virtually unrecognizable!

There’s one more test that that the Bible offers us in Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

We should look to see if the words that are spoken bring healing or needless hurt and violence. There’s another version of this test in Proverbs 10:14: “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.” Does this person’s word make the world a better place – or worse?

We must not make the fool’s mistake: “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives though to his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15) Be sure to evaluate what you hear. It isn’t necessarily true just because it’s on the television, or the newspaper, or the internet, or the pulpit, or…

Don’t abandon the ship!

A trend that deeply saddens me is the increase in the numbers of those who abandon the church because of the hypocrites, sinners, and creeps they’ve encountered there. To be clear, most church-going people aren’t hypocritical jerks, but as the old saying goes, a bad apple spoils the bunch. Many have a bad taste in their mouth because of the wickedness of a very few.

There are two things that I wish those who have left our number because of the bad apples could hear.

First, I wish they could hear me apologize.

I am sorry that they have been hurt or disillusioned. It isn’t right. The church, though never perfect, is called to be a light in a dark world and a refuge from evil, not a home to it. We simply must do better.

Secondly, I wish they could hear this question: what happens to the church when you leave it because of the sinfulness of a few?

I doubt that many have considered this consequence of their choice. When a good person leaves the church because of a bad person’s behavior, what have they done?

They have actually handed more power and more influence to the bad person.

Their departure means that the ratio of good to bad just tilted a little more towards the bad. There is one less good person whose voice can counteract the bad. There is one less person who can stand up against the wickedness. The chances that someone stops the hypocrite just decreased by one.

If you’ve experienced bad in church, instead of giving up on her, channel your frustration and pain into being the best you can be—and solving the problem, rather than making it worse.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was only fourteen years old, he told his family of his plans to enter ministry. Everyone expected him to follow his father’s footsteps into academia. His older brother was particularly appalled and told him that he should not “waste his life” on such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the church.” Young Bonhoeffer showed greater maturity than many who were much older in his reply. “If what you say [about the church] is true, I shall reform it!”

Perhaps we can follow in his footsteps and make the church a better place today than it was yesterday. There’s only one hypocrite at church that I can do anything about—and he sits in my spot. Perhaps it’s time I get to work on him.

The Gift of New Beginnings

When you hear certain names, the first thing that you think of isn’t good. What comes to your mind when you hear these names? O.J. Simpson. Casey Anthony. Immediately you think of the word murder. We barely remember O.J.’s football career, and we literally don’t know anything else about Casey’s life.

What they did was terrible—I’m not denying that—but I have always felt a little bit sorry for those whose people whose entire life has been reduced to the worst thing they ever did.

Dive into your memory for a moment. What is the worst thing that you’ve ever thought or done? What would your life be like if, when people heard your name, they only mentioned the worst thing you ever did?

I know that some acts of evil are so heinous that it is hard to see anything besides that wickedness, but I believe very few people (if any) are pure evil in the flesh. There is some sliver of good in all of us.

One of the things I love about the new year is the new start it gives us. Teachers like to remind students on the first day of the semester that everybody still has an A. It’s nice to get to start over in a new classroom with a new teacher and a clean slate.

There are people in our lives who could really use a restart.  When we think of their names, we think of how they treated us years ago. Sometimes we’re holding decades-old mistakes over their heads or nursing unending grudges. This new year, would you consider giving someone else a fresh start? Take a step towards reconciliation and forgiveness. See if it isn’t possible to give to others what God has given you. His mercies are new every morning!

The Gift of Joy

The world is filled with joy-stealers. If you gave them a $100 bill, they’d be disappointed that it wasn’t five twenties instead and tell you how much more the dollar was worth when they were kids.

They criticize, complain, and find the fault in anything. The Bible says that we should “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep,” but they get it backwards. If you’re sorrowful, they’re lecturing you on why you should have a better outlook. If you’re celebrating, they’ll rain on your parade. They don’t empathize; they condescend.

These Grinches often hide behind masks of piety or religion, but their actions don’t reflect any biblical definition of Christianity.

True religion certainly has somber times of reflection on weighty matters, but don’t let the joy stealers neglect the myriad celebrations of scripture. When you read the book of Leviticus, you’ll encounter feast day after feast day celebrating what God has done and is going to do. The Holy Spirit produces joy in his hosts, and Paul commanded a fighting church to knock it off and rejoice—more than once.

Isn’t it interesting that false teachers in scripture are not chastised for celebrating too much, but rather as “grumblers” and “malcontents” in Jude 1:16?

Some churches act like joy is a vice. I wonder if the water in their baptisteries was replaced with lemon juice? Maybe that would explain the sour expressions. If you blindfolded a person and dropped them in a room, they might have trouble distinguishing between some funeral home and some worship assemblies. Isn’t that tragic?

People who are in Jesus have been rescued from disaster and given new life—abundant life! “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). If you’re happy and you know it, then your face should surely show it. Don’t rob your family and your church of the gift of joy.

The Gift of Peacemakers

Some of us really dreaded Thanksgiving Dinner because we knew what would happen once the conversation turned to politics. Your uncle is on the other side of the aisle, and he just can’t keep his mouth shut. Your sister takes the bait and jumps on hi m, and before you’ve even finished the stuffing, World War III has erupted.

As you survey the damage to the turkey and the family, there’s no doubt that Jesus’ words are true: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9)

Too many in our society are so focused on winning the argument that they can’t see the collateral damage of the war. They have won the battle but lost the war. Their desire to be right has caused them to be wrong. Civil discourse devolves into civil war.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

If we remember those words of Jesus, we can be agents of peace in the world. We don’t have to attend every fight we’re invited to. We understand that yes, we are entitled to our opinions, but no, we are not obligated to share them.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone.” Yes, even him.

Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Yes, there are some people who are impossible to get along with, make sure that you aren’t that person. Here’s a sign: if everyone in your life likes drama, it’s probably not them, but you!

Peacemakers reduce anxiety and increase comfort. Very little productive happens when we yell, but amazing things happen when we talk—and listen. It might be too late to rescue this year’s thanksgiving dinner, but it’s not too late for Christmas. You can be the one who diffuses the bomb and makes a better day for everyone.