When I was a teenager, I painted a picture of a snowy scene with trees in the foreground and a farmhouse in the background. It was not a masterpiece, but even today when I look at it, I'm surprised at how good it was for a teenaged dabbler!
It was painted on canvas board, and on the back of it I wrote my name. I gave it to my grandparents as a Christmas gift one year. Fast forward about 20 years to when my grandfather had passed away, and my grandmother needed to downsize - that painting came back to me.
Around that time, I had some students who were trying to raise money for a missions trip. They were doing a yard sale, and were looking for donations of items to sell. I had just received this painting back, and thought, "Well, they might be able to get some money for it." So I gave them the painting. They sold it, and that was the end of the story...or so I thought.
A few years later I got a phone call from an elderly lady, and the call went something like this:
Her: "Is this Douglas?"
Her: "Are you an artist?"
Me: "Well, I wouldn't call myself an artist, but I do dabble in drawing and painting. Why?"
Her: "I think I have a painting of yours here." (She then went on to describe the painting, which I recognized as the winter scene)
Me: "Yes, that sounds like one of mine."
The conversation got a little odd at that point; the woman suggested that I might like to buy the painting from her. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but eventually she admitted that she goes around to yard sales looking for local artwork, figuring that the artist might be interested in buying their artwork back from her. Apparently she made some decent money doing this. I assured her that I had already given the painting away twice, so I wasn't exactly attached to it, and I was perfectly happy to have her keep it.
At that point, she decided that since she wasn't going to make any money off the painting, and she hadn't purchased it to display in her home, she might as well just give it back to me. So we arranged for me to pick it up the next day when I was passing by her home.
So now that picture, like a boomerang, has returned to me twice. It is now displayed in my office where I see it on a regular basis. Not because it's a masterpiece, but because it serves me as an object lesson of a verse in Ecclesiastes 11:
This is generally regarded as a symbolic picture of sowing seed; the word "bread" used here is a word which is also used for seed, and seed was often broadcast into the soil during the flooding season in low-lying areas. Thus, the meaning becomes, "Liberally toss seed, and you will be rewarded with a harvest."
I wonder if Jesus was thinking of this verse in Ecclesiastes when he said:
I'm not going to pretend that it always works like I described above; we can't expect that if we give object X away, we will get that exact thing returned to us, but it serves as a reminder to me that God treasures our generosity, and rewards it.
A couple verses later in Ecclesiastes 11, Solomon writes:
Understanding this to be a follow-up to verse one, we recognize that, if we watch too closely our own life circumstances, those circumstances may prevent us from the kind of generosity God desires. The picture is of generosity that is reckless and confident. Reckless because it takes no thought of our own circumstances, and confident because of our faith that God our provider is taking thought for our circumstances.
My life is controlled by a clock. School begins at 8:00 a.m., and I am there at 7:30 to work with students. First period ends at 9:30, and new students arrive. And so on, through the day. Then, when school is over, I have my first music student at 3:00. My first math tutoring session is at 3:30. And on it goes.
On Sundays, I preach at 8:00 a.m. at a nearby church that is pastorless, and I'm expected to be there on time, ready to go. Some Sundays I preach at two churches, and then I have to leave the first church at 9:00 a.m. in order to get to the next church by 10:00 a.m.
Day after day, week after week.
The strange thing is, I never realized just how regimented my schedule is. I never gave it a thought. It was simply part of how life works.
Then I went to Argentina. And I discovered that not everyone operates the way we do here in the United States. When does church start? When everyone gets there, and has had a chance to greet everyone. When is supper? Sometime in the evening when it's ready.
We're doing an after-school program? Great! What time is that? 3:00. Or maybe 3:20? Or 4:00? Well, no, not everyone is here yet, so we'll get started around 4:15.
And all of a sudden, for the first time, I realized just how much my life centered around the ticking of a clock.
Now, my point in sharing this is not that one way of approaching life is better or worse than the other (there are positives and negatives to both approaches). My point is: centering my life's activities around the movement of gears and clock hands is something I was virtually unaware of, to the point that it never occurred to me that there was another way to approach life.
The same was true of how I greet people. I grew up in a culture where a greeting goes (almost without fail) like this:
Me: Hi, how ya doing?
Them: Fine, you?
And that's it. Fast forward to the time I spent in northern Africa, and discovered that every greeting involves a plethora of questions like "How is your wife?" "Is business going well?" "Are you parents well?" and you are actually expected to answer these questions, instead of just saying, "Oh, fine."
I was never aware of how shallow our greetings are until I went somewhere that they did something very different, and suddenly I became very conscious of the manner in which I greet people!
So what does this have to do with the Christian life? Believers in Christ have (or should have) a culture all our own. We speak the truth without fail (Matthew 5:37). We speak with grace no matter the circumstances (Colossians 4:6). We are gentle with those who are weak and failing (Galatians 6:1). We give generously to those who are in need (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). We treat others as more important than our own selves (Philippians 2:3). These, and so many other things, define a culture that is extraordinarily beautiful and winsome.
This is the hope, the goal, and the ideal. But we live in a culture where these things are not the norm. All you have to do is visit social media to discover that people speak with neither truth nor grace. All you have to do is consider the corporate world to realize that generosity is not a standard feature of our culture. So here's the problem. If the culture I'm steeped in day after day is a culture of dishonesty, graceless communication, selfishness and pride, these things become part of who we are, without us even realizing it. (Again, all you have to do is visit social media, and you will easily see that many many Christians have chosen the way of false, proud, and graceless communication).
Romans 12:2 is all about a culture, or a way of life. Paul is telling us that the culture around us will influence us and control us without our even realizing it, unless we proactively take measures to renew our minds -- to refresh the ways of our own Christian culture. There are many ways that we do that -- the reading of scripture, and listening to the teaching of the Word are two ways. But in addition to these, we must remember that the only way to become acclimated to a culture is to immerse yourself in it. We must deliberately spend time in the company of our fellow culture-members, so that the Christian culture will permeate not just our actions, but our thought process.
Years ago, when I was in college, I participated in a Bible study group for college students. The object lesson I'm sharing here is not mine; I first heard it from Lenny, the leader of that Bible study group. I found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it here.
Imagine that you get a phone call from a friend who says he has a gift to give you. Curious, you ask him what it is. He tells you that he has received a van Gogh painting, and he would like to pass it on to you. You are stunned, knowing that any van Gogh painting is worth millions of dollars.
Your friend tells you that you need to make arrangements to come pick up the painting and bring it home. Imagine how you feel at this moment. How are you going to collect the painting? Will you drive your car there and pick it up yourself? Will you hire a moving van? Or maybe even an armored truck? And what about once you've received the painting? What will you do with it? What kinds of security systems will you have to install in your house? What about UV protection for the artwork?
As you pick up the painting, and as you install it in your home, you approach the entire process with "fear and trembling." Not because you are afraid that your friend will take back his gift, but because you understand how precious and valuable it is, and how easily damaged it is. It is a treasured possession, and you want to guard it and protect it.
In Philippians 2, Paul writes:
Paul is not telling us that our salvation is ours to earn. No, like that van Gogh painting, it is a gift beyond value or belief. But now that it is ours, we treat it with all the care and regard that a priceless gift deserves. We understand that the gift of God's grace is fully ours, but with that gift comes a grave responsibility.
And in the midst of this, Paul offers this reassurance -- you're not on your own. As he had already promised in Philippians 1:6, God is, and will be at work in you.
As an added note to Lenny's object lesson, it's interesting to note that the phrase "work out" in this verse comes from a compound Greek word: katergazomai. Kata has a variety of meanings, so any compound word built from it also may have many possible meanings. Kata has these likely meanings in this verse: "toward the completion of," "in the direction of," or "according to." Gazomai simply means "work." Thus, we could alternately translate that phrase as "work according to your salvation," "work toward the completion of your salvation," or "work in the direction of your salvation." That fits nicely with the next verse which assures us that God is working in the same direction!
Not work for it, but work according to it, and toward its fulfillment at the day of the Lord. My life now, in this world, should be aimed toward that future day of glory.
In Matthew 18:3, Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Saturday night is bath time for our little son. It's a big production, in which both of his parents are involved. Laura draws the bath water and makes sure it's the right temperature, and then I bring the little guy in and set him down into his tub.
Then, while Laura scrubs him, I hold him to make sure he doesn't flop over (a job which is getting easier and easier by the week!).
And how much of the work does our boy do? None. His primary concern in all of this is to kick his little legs as much as possible to see how big a splash he can make, and how wet he can get his mommy.
But he doesn't do any of the cleaning. It occurred to me that we as adults ought to take this to heart when we think of Jesus's words in Matthew 18. Those who enter the kingdom of heaven are not the ones who -- like a grown-up -- got themselves all cleaned up. It is those who -- with no ability of their own to do anything -- relied on the work of God to do the cleaning.
In the Old Testament, after his sin with Bathsheba, David didn't say, "Let me get myself cleaned up, God." Instead, acknowledging his own inability to cleanse his own sin, he said, "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Psalms 51:7.
"Do for me what I cannot do for myself."
It's part of the great beauty of the Christian faith, that we are not a fellowship of people who made ourselves clean enough for God; we are helpless children who relied on God to do the cleaning.
Don't ever fool yourself into thinking, "I can do it myself," or "I did it myself!" Always remember the humility with which you came to God, helpless, and unable to clean yourself. The moment we forget about the cross, and the cleansing power of the blood of Christ, the moment we stop coming back to that cross with gratitude and humility, that is the moment we cease to be "like little children," and let pride take over. And when pride takes over, judgment of others is quick to follow.
A Song to Sing:
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus; What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
A Verse to Remember:
Whenever I hear the word "regeneration," I always think of starfish. After all, a starfish has the ability to regenerate a limb. If a starfish loses a limb, it will begin growing a new one, and sometimes in as little as a few months, it will have a brand new leg, and you might not know it had ever been injured.
But I learned something recently that I never knew about starfish: some species of starfish have the ability to regrow an entire starfish from the limb that is broken off!.
Sound crazy? It sure sounded crazy to me. Since the limb doesn't have a mouth, it lives off stored nutrients within itself, and uses that energy to begin growing a new disk. And eventually, if it survives long enough, it'll grow a whole new mouth, and then it can start eating again, while it continues regrowing the rest of its limbs.
Suddenly, I had a whole new perpsective on Titus 3:5:
What is regeneration? Perhaps my original picture of regeneration is no longer sufficient. Regeneration is not me growing new spiritual limbs; regeneration is God taking something as dead and useless as a lump of starfish leg, and -- impossible as it might seem -- making it into something alive and useful -- a brand new spiritually living person.
And if that's regeneration, then perhaps renewing is what I always pictured as regeneration: God taking something that he has already made alive, and repairing the damage that it receives throughout the day-to-day living in this world.
I'm so glad that my God is powerful enough to make me alive when I was dead, and I'm so grateful that he's willing to repair and renew me day by day!
In 2 Corinthians 5:20 Paul writes, "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us."
An ambassador is a representative of their homeland, king, or president. Christ was an ambassador of the Father, and he represented His Father both by speaking the words of the Father ("...the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me." John 14:24) and doing the works of the Father ("...the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me." John 5:36).
In the same way we are ambassadors of Christ, and we must represent Him both in word and deed.
A few weeks ago I was driving down Route 3 from Augusta to Belfast, and I noticed the car in front of me -- a bright, shiny-red Mustang with two signs printed on the back. The first sign was the name of a driving academy and a telephone number. The second sign had three simple words: "DRIVE THIS MUSTANG!"
It was quite a contrast to the driving academy in my hometown; their cars are nondescript, uninteresting vehicles, and if the academy put a sign on their cars that said, "DRIVE THIS CAR," everyone would laugh.
And I thought, "The car represents the academy in two ways: The sign represents the academy in words, but also, the car itself is a representative of the academy. People who see the Mustang will know all the information they need to contact the academy, but it is the Mustang itself that is the real advertisement. People who see this car will say, "That is the academy I want to go to!"
In the same way, we must be the "advertisement" for Christianity both in our words, and in our lives. Our words tell others about salvation which is to be found only in Christ. But our lives must be an advertisement for Christianity as well; when people look at our lives, they ought to say, "That's a life that's a cut above the rest, and if that's what Christianity is, I want that!"
The words and the deeds must go hand in hand. One without the other is pointless.
If you've ever played chess, you know it's a very complicated game. If you want to be good at the game, you have to be able to look at the entire board, recognize a variety of possibilities, and see several moves ahead. An excellent chess player has to see all sixty-four squares and all the pieces on the board.
An excellent chess player won't move their bishop and think: "I moved my bishop there because it puts his king in check." Instead, an excellent chess player will be thinking: "I moved my bishop there because it puts his king in check, blocks him from moving his knight where he wants to, protects my queen, opens up space to move my rook, and sets me up to take his bishop two moves down the road."
When I'm watching an excellent chess player in a game, I can't possibly even guess their reasons for making the moves they make. But I know they've got plans that are wise and sensible.
In some ways God is like an excellent chess player -- except He's dealing not with sixty-four squares, but an entire universe. Instead of thirty-two pieces, He's dealing with billions of people. And instead of looking a few moves ahead, God is seeing the entirety of human history.
Sometimes we want to understand why God does the things He does, but as little as I understand why a chess player does what they do, I have even less chance of understanding why God does what He does. The Bible says that God's ways are not our ways, but it also says in Deuteronomy 32:4 that His works are perfect, and His ways are just.
It is fun sometimes to try to guess God's reasons for what He does, but ultimately we must learn to trust in Him even when we have no idea what He is doing.
Today I did something I'd never done before in my life. I ran out of gas. I was on my way to teach a Vacation Bible School at a church about 35 minutes away. I'd been going every morning this week. On Monday I glanced at the gas gauge and said: "Oh, plenty of gas." On Tuesday I looked at it again and said: "Still plenty of gas."
And then I never even thought about it for the rest of the week.
Pretty embarrassing to have to call someone to come with five gallons of gas to get me going again! :-/
But as I was sitting there by the side of the road, with the hazard lights blinking, waiting to be rescued, something occurred to me.
Despite the fact that I'd never done it before in my life, the fact is that running out of gas is one of the easiest things in the world to do. You know why? Because all you have to do is stop thinking about it. That's it. Just stop thinking about it.
If you stop thinking about it, the only way you can not run out of gas is to never go anywhere! But if you want to go places, and you never think about your gas, sooner or later, you run out.
That made me think of the verse in Romans 12 that says:
Spiritually, it is very easy for us to run out of gas also. All it requires is that we stop thinking about it! Paul says that we should be "renewing our minds." That's the same idea as keeping your gas tank full of gas. How do we renew our minds? Our minds are renewed as we spend time in the company of other believers, who prod us on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). Our minds are renewed as we spend time reading and meditating on God's word, which can keep us going, just like milk keeps a baby going (1 Peter 2:2). Our minds are renewed as we think on our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who should be at the center of our attention (Hebrews 12:2).
If we want to go anywhere spiritually, we must keep our gas tank full. And the moment we stop thinking about it, the moment we stop renewing, we begin an emptying process, and we're headed for trouble.