Knock Offs

To say I was unpopular as a boy would be an understatement.   I wanted to fit in and find acceptance, but there were three significant strikes against me – I struggled with my weight, I loved to read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun, and I wore Trax shoes.   For those unfamiliar with vintage 80’s knock-off footwear, Trax were the K-mart Adidas want-to-bes.   But no one was fooled.   In a time when being a part of the “in-crowd” at school demanded the full complement of status symbols – Jordache, Izod and Adidas – wearing a K-Mart knock off was the worst of all possible worlds.

Discount stores finally figured this out and started producing their own distinctive, no-name brands.  At least a no-name brand says, “I don’t really care what you think; I’m more practical and not pandering to your good opinion.”  But the knock-off attracted all the wrong kinds of attention.   My father was trying to help, but as a child of the depression, he was oblivious to the narcissism of the age and the power of the status symbol.  He was far too practical (and wise) to spend beyond our means to purchase a logo.  But, alas, there was no anonymity for the wearer of Trax shoes.   Everyone knew you were trying to fit in but came up short.   No one was fooled by the knock-off.  It was important to be the real deal.

Authenticity is important.  We want this in our food, we this in our relationships, but what about our faith?  No outcry is more universally raised in reaction to Christians than the cry of “hypocrite.”   Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”   No one is fooled by a knock-off.

The Apostle Paul in writing to Timothy pointed out the importance of authenticity for pastoral ministry.  He instructed him to preach the word, in season and out of season, but he also stressed the importance of living authentically as a follower of Christ before the believers in Ephesus.

… set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity… Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:12, 15-16

Walking the walk, makes our talk talk.   Just like Timothy, we are called to live authentically — our lives and doctrine corroborating one another.  Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously wrote.

“A minister’s life is the life of his ministry….  In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument will be the success. It is not great talents that God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus.  A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 17, as we examine 1 Timothy 4:11-16 and consider the call to live authentically as Christians.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Eating Well

My mother was the consummate Southern cook.  And my father was not an adventurous eater.  We had fried chicken twice every week, roast beef once, and never anything that might remotely be construed as ethnic food.   Every meal had white bread and some variety of gravy.  The metric of culinary success in our home was how well the meal satisfied the tastes of my father, not whether it was a significant source of nutrition.   As a consequence, I was a portly boy and my father labored to find husky, tough-skin jeans.

Americans spend considerable time and effort crafting food to please the palate, but little energy training the palate for food that will nourish.   We are familiar with the Hippocratic Oath which begins “first, do no harm.”  But Hippocrates is also reputed to have said, “let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”

God has given us food ideally suited to nourish our bodies, protect us from sickness and promote healing.  He put our first parents in a garden with only one dietary restriction.  Adam and Eve were encouraged to eat everything except the one fruit which appealed to their sensual desire, but had no power to nourish.    Listening to flattering words and eating only to satisfy sensual desire brought unparalleled grief to our first parents – as it does to us.

Like food, the words we consume should nourish us.   Truth matters.   We were created to be nourished on a diet of God’s truth.  Only this brings spiritual health.  If we only consume spiritual junk food, then our souls are malnourished, and the diseases of unbelief and fear ravage our lives.   The Apostle Paul instructs his young friend, Timothy, that a good minister is not one who crafts palate-pleasing platitudes, but one who nourishes his people with biblical truth and warns them earnestly about the addictive allure myth, masquerading as spirituality.

Feeding and being fed on a diet of truth requires intentionality and discipline.     Paul wrote “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 10, as we examine 1 Timothy 4:6-10 and consider how best to feed our faith.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Muddy Waters

I never liked to swim where I could not see the bottom.  Growing up in Georgia, our lakes and streams were usually murky.   Like the water used to rinse children’s paint brushes, our natural swimming areas always sported a milky, muddiness that left me fearing what might be lurking in the darkness, ready to nibble my toes or wrap itself around my legs.   We had special “old clothes” we would wear to such places, because once dipped in, they were beyond all hope of cleansing from the effects of a red clay baptism.    My own children do not have these concerns.  Our Arkansas swimming holes are quite different.  Infused with generous amounts of limestone worn away by the rushing streams, our natural pools sparkle with an electric blue clarity that invites and assures.  The clarity of the water gives hesitant children a clarity of perspective that nothing sinister waits beneath their feet.   When it comes down to it, none of us want to swim in muddy waters.

What is true of our swimming holes is also true of the ideas and experiences that shape who and what we are.  We all want clarity of perspective, but often we latch on to ideas or experience things that muddy the waters.  When we were children, everything was black and white.  Some cowboys were good and some were not.  It was simple to distinguish them because some wore white hats, while others donned black ones.   But then we realized that men in white hats sometimes committed black deeds and the waters got muddied.  Skepticism crept in regarding the people and the truths we thought were so clear.   As we sought clarity, we found murkiness.  Where would we look for truth?  Who can we trust?  As one ancient preacher mused, “the devil fishes in muddy waters.”

The enemy of our soul likes to muddy our waters.  His goal is to make us suspicious of truth, of one another and of God.  You don’t have to look very far in our world today and see that he seems to have had some success.  His favorite muddy fishing hole is false teaching and false teachers in the church.  Nowhere is doubt and suspicion more easily sown than in the very place which professes to be the pillar and buttress of the truth.  Yet Satan’s, strategies, though subtle are never surprising.  He always works in the same way.   He is never a bald-faced liar.  Jesus called Satan the father of lies and a liar from the beginning, but his lying is filtered through subtlety.  Like an evil chemist, he mixes healthful truth and poisonous deception.  He loves muddy waters.  God warns us of this time and time again, reminding us that His Word and Spirit bring clarity – that He is the Living Water.

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 3, as we examine 1 Timothy 4:1-5 to unmask Satan’s nefarious strategy by considering the sources, the content and the consequences of false teaching.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Staying Focused

As a boy, when I arrived home from school each day, two priorities dominated my agenda.  The first was to secure a snack — often something, not so healthy — and the second was to spend an hour watching television before diving into my homework – also not very healthy.   Ted Turner’s fledgling super-station curiously juxtaposed two cartoons starting at 3:35 – “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.”  One superimposed modern concerns, attitudes and lifestyles upon stone-aged men and women while the other superimposed futuristic technology and innovation upon contemporary concerns, attitudes and lifestyles.  The curious message of both cartoons was the same.  While the context of life changes radically, people are the same in every age.   The hopes, their problems, their needs are the same whether they are riding dinosaurs in the rock quarry or zipping around in spaceships.

Certainly, those of us who have lived very long have seen this.  People are people, even though the world today is radically different from the one in which we grew up.  We did not have computers, cell phones, video players of any type, remote controls, or even color television.  I was almost grown before I leaned that Gilligan’s shirt was not light grey.   The pace of technological change is staggering, as amazing discoveries are being made every day which fundamentally change our lives.   Scientific discovery is accelerating exponentially.   But the most important discovery sits outside the realm of science.

Curiously, every great discovery has been there all along, hiding in the cosmos and waiting to be uncovered through some unfolding chain of inquiry.  But the greatest truth, the one which affects the hearts and souls of men and women, is not discoverable.   It must be revealed.   This truth alone, expressed in the Christian gospel, has the power to change people from the inside out.  This truth has been entrusted to the Church, whose mission is to proclaim it.  While many great discoveries have improved the quality and quantity of human life, none of these have eternal impact.

But often the Church gets distracted and fails to keep the main thing the main thing.  Programs must be staffed and funded, buildings must be maintained, schedules must be managed, traditions must be observed, controversies must be addressed.  The church may pursue many good secondary things, but if not careful, it may lose sight of the first thing, the gospel.  No doubt Paul recognized this danger as he instructs Timothy how the church is to be organized, who is to do what, how worship is to be conducted, and how the needs of the congregation are to be met.   For this reason, he constantly reasserts the big picture in every discussion of details.   The structure of worship, the establishment of leadership and its qualifications, the concern to contend for truth, and to care for the marginalized all serve the same end – to declare the great mystery of godliness, revealed in the gospel.

Join us this Lord’s Day, January 27, as we examine 1 Timothy 3:14-16 to consider the importance of focusing our ministry as the Church through the lens of the gospel. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Waiting Tables

One of the common denominators of greatness in our modern world is a stint waiting tables.  Famous and prominent people from all walks of life, from CEOs to Hollywood celebs, learned and honed many of the skills needed to achieve success in their fields while working as waiters.  Actor Jon Hamm commented about lessons learned from waiting tables in a recent interview.

 “It’s important to know how to treat people, and to learn how to respond when someone you’re working with is having a bad day … Understanding other people’s problems is the cornerstone of the service industry, and it’s essential as an actor. Or whatever field you’re in.”

And startup CEO, Jason Wesbecher, writing in Entrepreneur, noted.

“Being a CEO is … about embracing the unpredictable each day and soldiering through the chaos. Which, upon reflection, reminded me precisely of my days waiting tables. As it turns out, there are a number of similarities between the two jobs….  Being a start-up CEO is first and foremost about people. Evaluating them, motivating them, reading them. The four major constituencies that you must serve to be successful in this role are your employees, your customers, your investors and your family. If you can’t engender trust and excitement across each one of these groups, it’s only a matter of time before you are an ex-CEO. Waiting tables isn’t any different.  Waiters aren’t in the food business; they’re in the people business. They have to read the body language of each table to figure out who wants to engage in a dialogue and who wants to be left to their conversation. They have to be prepared to instantly reinvent themselves every few feet as they move to the next table.”

But long before these modern-day success stories, the greatest authority on leadership the world has ever known, Jesus Christ, expressed this same truth pointedly with his followers when they were arguing about greatness.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28

The word Jesus used to describe those who serve was later used to describe men appointed in the church to serve the physical needs of those inside and outside the church membership.  These men were called deacons.  When they were first appointed in the early church in Acts 6, the apostles noted that they were men “of good repute and full of the Holy Spirit,” but they were chosen to “wait on tables” by distributing food to the poor in Jerusalem.  They were “waiters’ who were not in the “food business, but in the people business,” meeting the physical needs of people in a spiritual way.

Like any parent, however, God is concerned about the integrity and reliability of those who care for his children.  God’s word sets standards for the character and faithfulness of men who are to wait on the tables of His children.  Join us this Lord’s Day, January 20, as we examine 1 Timothy 3:8-13 and consider what type of men God calls to wait tables among people inside and outside the church.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Dirty Jobs

For our children, a stay in a hotel has many charms.  The pool, of course, is at the top of the list.  Hotels without pools fall into the “emergency only” category.  Booking a room at such a venue is seen as a breach of paternal trust.  But our children also enjoy the freedom to jump from one bed to another (before 9:00 pm) as well as the carb-overloaded cereal bins in the breakfast area.  And then there is television.

We have a television at home and recently got basic cable, but we rarely watch anything that does not stream from Roku or spring from a DVD.   Unless we have a hankering for big-pharma or big-auto commercials, we never venture past the evening news into TV land – except when the Olympics are on.  But when we are at a hotel, we enjoy a small dose of cablevision, especially “Dirty Jobs.”  While the show’s host, Mike Rowe glories a bit in the “muck and mire” aspect of each episode, I appreciate the heroic light he shines on those who work these jobs, day in and day out.  But “dirty jobs” are not for everyone.  It demands special people to work these special jobs.  Despite the natural revulsions these jobs may inspire, each one is of value and produces something that makes our lives better.

As far as I know, “Dirty Jobs” has never done an expose on the work of elders in the church, though it certainly might qualify.  A mentor of mine once declared, “working with sheep is a dirty business.”  And, so it is with any helping and caring profession from the work of an elder, to a nurse or caregiver.   But the value of this work extends far beyond the here and now, into eternity.   For this reason, the Apostle Paul writing to his apprentice, Timothy, instructs him to instruct the church in regards to what type of men God calls into the work of elder and deacon.

Paul declares that anyone who sets his mind on this work desires a “noble task,” then sketches the qualities of elders as men who have been tested in life and leadership.  They have a proven track record of living and leading consistent with their creed.  But Paul’s instructions are not just for Timothy and an elite group of executive recruiters in Ephesus.  They are for the whole church, so they may know what type of leaders to desire and how to pray for the leaders they have.

Join us this Lord’s Day, January, as we examine 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and consider what type of men are to be desired and selected to do the dirty job of shepherding the flock of God.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worshipGet directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

The Last Word

The Last Word

As a pastor, few things are harder than preparing for a funeral. Not only are you sharing personally in the grief of beloved friends, but you are bearing the grief of precious sheep. The gravity of speaking the “last words” of a person’s life and the urgency the house of mourning presses upon us to declare the gospel — these are heavy weights upon the mind and heart of a pastor. Last words must declare the faithfulness and goodness of God and prepare those left behind to embark upon the voyage of grief. What we say at the funeral frames life and loss in the context of God’s promises, which are all “yes and amen, in Christ Jesus.”

Especially poignant is time at the graveside. In the quiet intimacy of the grave, we feel the tension between a palpable sense of finality and a nagging certainty that there is more. Andrew Peterson says it well.

This is not the end here at this grave
This is just a hole that someone made
Every hole was made to fill
And every heart can feel it still–
Our nature hates a vacuum

This is not the hardest part of all
This is just the seed that has to fall
All our lives we till the ground
Until we lay our sorrows down
And watch the sky for rain

There is more
More than all this pain
More than all the falling down
And the getting up again
There is more
More than we can see
From our tiny vantage point
In this vast eternity
There is more.
Andrew Peterson, “More”

For the believer, death is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. There is more. The last episode of the first book of the Bible recounts two funerals. Genesis begins with “in the beginning” and ends with “in a coffin in Egypt.” God began by speaking life and beauty into the world, but man’s sinful rebellion has brought death and decay. We see the great distance man has fallen and the fruition of the curse, ‘in the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of [moral autonomy] you will surely die.” We might be tempted to find discouragement in these last words, but nothing should be further from the truth.

The famous statement of God’s sovereignty in Gen 50:20, “what you intended for evil, God meant for good” is one of grace and promise. Sin is not the last word. Grace is the last word. What man has experienced and intended for evil in his fallen, sinful rebellion, God has worked for good by sending a redeemer in the person of His Son, Jesus.

We see this explicitly in Acts 2 as Peter declares,

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

This is the great exchange in the gospel; Jesus who bore our sins, Jesus who through our evil intentions and actions, brings us good and salvation. This is the last word. Don’t let sin and death be the last word in your life, for Jesus came to give life and life to the full.

Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, October 7, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we conclude our conversations from the Book of Beginnings and consider how the God always speaks the last word, and it is a word of redeeming grace to ruined sinners. For directions click here. We look forward to seeing you there.