I Am With You Always

 

In 1972 a Motown group known as The Temptations released a song entitled, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, that went to number one on the U.S. charts.  The song is a mournful conversation between a young man and his mother as the young man sought to learn more about his father, who had gone to an early grave.  The refrain after each series of questions from the young man was the mother’s reply, “Papa was a rollin’ stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home.  And when he died, all he left us was alone.”

The last words of this refrain capture what is perhaps the most awful circumstance of human life.  Most of us are social creatures.  That is, we need the companionship of others in various forms.  While all of us enjoy periods of solitude and quietness, very few of us are emotionally equipped to stand isolation.  We desire and need interaction with other people.  This is why God created Eve for Adam, because it was not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18).

Our human companionships, from friends and family members, to our spouses, are an essential part of our existence.  These relationships provide the means by which we are able to cope with the many ups and downs of life.  They make our lives more enjoyable and full, and they enhance our ability to be productive members of society.  Conversely, it is well-accepted by most that the absence of such relationships is often a contributor to disturbed and sometimes criminal behavior.

As important as these human relationships are, there is another relationship that is even more important.  It is our relationship with our Father in heaven.  Someone once said that we are all made with a God-shaped void in our hearts.  If that void is left unfilled, or is filled with something other than God, the results are predictably bad.  We see this played out before us daily in the lives of those who ignore the overtures of God’s word.

Sometimes, though, even Christians may feel that they are all alone in the world.  The great prophet Elijah experienced this in the aftermath of his victory over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kgs. 18.  When Jezebel threatened him, Elijah fled to Horeb, the mountain of God.  When God spoke to him there, Elijah expressed his feeling of isolation (1 Kgs. 19:9-10).  Elijah felt that he was the only faithful man in Israel, but God assured him that this was not the case.  He thought he was all alone, but in addition to God being with him, there were still 7,000 in Israel who had not yet bowed to Baal (1 Kgs. 19:18).

Before our Lord left the earth, He made a significant promise to His disciples.  In Mt. 28:18-20 He said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

When we become Christians by obedience to the gospel, we are added to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13-14).  We are thus added to the body of Christ, and as long as we are faithful to Him, we are never again truly alone.  This is because our Lord abides in us and we in Him.  Paul understood this when he stood before evil kings and all his friends deserted him (2 Tim. 4:16-17).  Even there, the Lord was with him and sustained him.  The Lord promised to be with us always, until He takes us home to heaven.  Therefore, we can take courage and not fear the uncertainties of life.  We take courage because our Lord will never leave us alone.

In God We Trust

 

Every current U.S. coin and every denomination of paper currency bears the inscription “In God We Trust”.  Anyone born after the mid-20th century is likely unaware that this was not always the case.  The first coin to bear this inscription was the 2-cent piece minted in 1864.  However, it was not until 1956 that Congress passed a bill requiring this phrase to be inscribed on all forms of U.S. currency.  The intent of the phrase is to affirm our nation’s dependence upon Almighty God.  Some may find it ironic that this declaration appears on our money.  This irony stems from the fact that many in our country place more trust in the “almighty dollar” than they do in the Almighty God.

The concept of expressing one’s trust in God may have come late to American society, but it has a long and rich history.  It is, in fact, the foundation of God’s relationship with His creation.  From the beginning of time God has urged mankind to trust in Him, rather than trusting in themselves or in any man-made deity.  When His people have truly trusted in Him, they have been blessed.  When they have placed their trust elsewhere, they have suffered for it.

The Old Testament abounds with exhortations to trust in God.  The psalms, in particular, pay tribute to the benefits of trusting in God.  One of the most powerful of these is Psa. 56:4.  In this psalm David said, “In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid.  What can mere man do to me?”  In v. 11 he added, “In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid.  What can man do to me?”  David’s confidence is underscored by the writer of Hebrews, who quoted this statement in Heb. 13:6 as one of his final exhortations to faithful service.

Saying that one trusts in God is easy.  Living up to that profession is more challenging.  Every day Americans exchange currency that declares their trust in God.  They do so for goods and services of all sorts, many of which belie the words emblazoned upon that currency.  They do so without giving thought to the true meaning of this inscription.  We don’t expect unbelievers to think about this irony, but even Christians can be guilty of it.

This is because trusting in God is more than a motto.  It is a way of life that is characterized by humble obedience to His word, and complete dependence upon Him for everything one needs.  This truth is demonstrated in the history of God’s people during the Old Testament era.  When the kings and people of Israel obeyed God, their trust in Him was rewarded with His blessings and deliverance from their enemies.  When they disobeyed God, their lack of trust resulted in calamity.  In Isa. 31:1 the prophet chastised Israel saying, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong; but they do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the Lord!”

Our Savior put trust in a context that is particularly apropos to our time.  In the Sermon on the Mount He urged his audience not to worry about their daily sustenance, but to instead rely on God.  In Mt. 6:33 He said, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  This is the key to trusting in God.  If we put Him first, which means to obey Him in everything we do, then our trust will be rewarded.  If we trust in God, we will be faithful to Him and we need not worry, because He is our helper.  If we live a life of trust in God, our life will be better here on earth, and we will have a place in God’s house forever.

Dry Bones

 

The quintessential imagery of arid conditions is dry bones.  The skeleton of a long-dead animal lying in the desert speaks of the harshness of the climate and of the lack of life-giving water.  The contrast is the imagery of a tree surrounded by lush grass.  This picture declares an abundance of water, either from rain, or from a river or stream.  Both images are found in the scriptures and they teach a valuable and timeless lesson.

In Ezk. 37:1-14 God brought the prophet to a valley that was full of bones.  In v. 3 the scripture says that the bones were very dry.  These bones were from a great army that had long ago perished on the field of battle.  The bodies of the dead had been left exposed and over time had become nothing but bones.  They had been there so long that it was not possible for them to live again.  God, however, demonstrated His power to the prophet by bringing them back to life to symbolize that He would one day restore Israel to the promised land.

The contrasting imagery is in Psa. 1:1-4.  Here the unknown author said, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!  But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.  He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.”

Both of these images are timeless in their application.  Our sins separate us from God (Isa. 59:2), and, being dead in sin, we are like the valley of dry bones.  We have no hope of life by our own power.  We are dead and will remain so until God brings us back to life by our obedience to the gospel.  When we are baptized into Christ we become alive again by the power of God to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

At the moment of our obedience we become like a tree firmly planted by streams of water (Psa. 1:3).  So long as we delight in the law of the Lord and meditate upon it day and night, we will be alive and fruitful in the Lord’s service.  So long as we give first place to God and to His word, God will provide all we need (Mt. 6:33).  So long as we continue in the word of the Lord, we will never be in spiritual want (cf. Jn. 8:31-32).  This is the promise of Psa. 1.

The common factor in both of these examples is the power of God.  The dry bones that Ezekiel saw had no life within themselves.  Until God acted upon them, they would remain dead, dry, and lifeless.  Only when God commanded them did they return to life.  In a similar way, the tree firmly planted by streams of water is only there because of the power of God’s word.  The psalmist correctly declared that dependence on God’s law is what turns one into such a tree.

This is the timeless lesson from these two images.  If we seek to go it alone, devoid of God’s word, or in contradiction to it, we will be like the dry bones Ezekiel saw.  We will lie, parched and dry, and lifeless, with no hope in this life or in eternity.  If, on the other hand, we take delight in God’s word, and avail ourselves of it day and night, we will indeed be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water.  We will be spiritually nourished and need not fear anything life may cast in our path.  When we acknowledge the futility of our striving, and turn in humble submission to God, then we truly begin to live.  Our life on earth will be blessed in ways the lost cannot imagine, and our hope for eternity will be secure.

A Big Picture Perspective

 

 

An essential element in leadership, whatever the context of that leadership may be, is the ability to see “the big picture”.  An individual soldier sees little more than the battlefield immediately before him.  He knows little, and perhaps cares less, about the strategic importance of the action in which he is engaged.  The generals, however, must not only be aware of that specific action, but also consider how it affects the overall plan for winning the war.  Good generals take the big picture into account as they make decisions about the many smaller aspects of the conflict.

Having a “big picture” perspective is especially important in spiritual matters.  In fact, it is commanded by the inspired apostle Paul.  In Phil. 2:5-8 he said, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

This command is intended for all Christians, of course, but it is even more important for those who are our spiritual leaders.  A good spiritual leader, like a good general, always keeps the overall good of the church in mind as he considers the decisions he is called on to make.  Sometimes, the best decision for the good of the whole will not be in his own best interest.  A humble and godly man will see this and put his own preferences aside, so he can contribute to the good of the body.

Having this kind of attitude requires a humility of heart that is not common in the world.  It requires one to think of others’ interests before his own, as Paul said.  It requires a magnanimity that allows a man to bow to the preferences of others rather than insisting on having his own way.  As long as those preferences do not violate God’s word, nothing is lost in doing so.

The perfect example of this attitude is our Lord.  Paul said that the Lord, “existed in the form of God”, but He set that aside to accomplish the overall purpose of God the Father.  The Lord’s impassioned prayer in the garden of Gethsemane suggests that He would have preferred not to go to the cross (Mt. 26:36-46).  Even so, He set aside His interests in favor of the interests of all the souls who might be saved by His sacrifice.  He put our interests above HIs own and we have hope because He did.  Surely, if the one and only Son of God could be so humble and gracious about dying on the cross, we can be humble and gracious with each other about the good of the church.

If spiritual leaders act selfishly or conceitedly, the church will suffer because of it.  If spiritual leaders insist on putting their own interests above the interests of the church, it will suffer because of it.  If spiritual leaders refuse to be humble, the church will be hobbled in accomplishing its purpose.  If spiritual leaders neglect the “big picture”, the church will struggle to fulfill its mission.  Therefore, let us each prayerfully consider Paul’s command.  Let us set aside selfishness, conceit, and pride, and “with humility of mind regard one another as more important than ourselves.”  Let’s see the “big picture” of God’s great plan and do our best to fulfill it.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

 

In 2000 a movie entitled, O Brother, Where Art Thou? hit theaters nationwide.  It was purportedly based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey, but it came off as nothing more than a farcical account of three lovable rogues who escaped from a chain gang in Depression-era Mississippi.  If there was some sort of message behind the movie, it was likely lost on most moviegoers.

The title, however, raises a significant spiritual issue that is worth considering.  In Eph. 4:11-16, Paul spoke to the church in Ephesus about how God had ordered His church.  He said that God had placed workers of various sorts within it to do the many things necessary to grow and sustain it.  The goal, Paul said, was for the body to be built up by the combined talents and efforts of every part of the body.  Christ is the source by which the body grows, but as Paul said in v. 16, “the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”  This exhortation to a first century church with whom Paul was intimately acquainted shows us the danger that can overcome even the best church.

The key to the tremendous growth of the first century church was not because there were apostles in it.  It was not because there were eloquent preachers in it, like Apollos.  It occurred because ordinary Christian men and women “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). The powerful miracles and preaching of the apostles were complemented by the daily testimony of the godly lives of Christians all over the Roman Empire.  Indeed, it is likely that many more disciples were made, and more congregations established, by ordinary Christians taking their faith with them as they moved about, than by the work of the apostles.

We may wonder why the church does not grow as it did in the first century, or why it does not grow as it did in the early 20th century.  The answer to these questions may itself be the question, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”  Somehow through the years many in the church have concluded that the work of the church is actually the work of the preacher, and perhaps the elders.  This very statement reveals the subtle change in attitude that has taken place.  The work of the church is “their” work, as though the individual members of the church are not in any way responsible for it.  The church is “them”, so individual members may or may not get involved.

Many years ago, when schools still taught typing classes, one of the exercises students practiced in order to learn touch typing (i.e., typing without looking at the keys) was to type this statement: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.”  This exercise helped students learn the positions of the key letters used in most words as it increased their typing speed and accuracy.

As we consider the needs of the church today, it is time to revive and revise this statement to: “Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their church.”  The church, after all, is not “them”, but “us”.  If the church is going to grow, it will do so only when each of us does what he or she is capable of doing in the Lord’s service.  Too many, it seems, are content to sit on the sidelines, either unwilling to change their lifestyle to be qualified to serve in an official capacity, or just unwilling to serve at all.  Then these spectators complain about the lack of growth in the church.  This is not what the Lord intended, and it simply will not do.  So then, the question remains, “O Brother, O Sister, Where Art Thou?”