Today marks the 26th anniversary of the largest railway disaster in Soviet history, a tragedy that came just a couple of years before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union. As two passenger trains from the Trans-Siberian Railroad met in the Ural Mountains, a leaking gas pipeline exploded and killed 650 people. Many who survived suffered burns over much of their bodies while others suffered from lung and respiratory damage due to toxic fumes given off by the fire. Then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev denounced the accident as “negligence or improper work practices…Many of them [disasters in various branches of industry] are caused by mismanagement, irresponsibility, disorganization. I cannot say for sure right now, but experts are saying that once again we have negligence and violations in the operation of complex equipment” (“Soviet Rail Fire Kills 650: 2 Trains Caught in Gas Explosion,” Steve Goldstein, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/5/89). The final death toll was lowered to 500, but Gorbachev’s suspicion was confirmed:
The LPG pipeline, carrying gas along some of the same route as the rail lines, was loaded with a mixture of propane, butane and other hydrocarbons, pressurized to keep it liquefied. Pipeline engineers noticed a drop in pressure in the pipe on the morning of June 4. Instead of searching for a leak they increased pressure in the line to maintain production. This resulted in two huge clouds of heavier-than-air propane gas leaving the pipe. The gas traveled a half-mile to the rail line and settled in a gully between the towns of Ufa and Asha (http://en.atropedia.net/article:384fd5).
Those two ill-fated trains, filled with children, passed right over that gully and stirred the gas with their motion. A spark from the track ignited the gas, causing a fireball a mile wide and flattening trees for two miles while the explosion, visible for 95 miles, broke windows in Asha (ibid.). This catastrophe was imminently avoidable, making it far more heartbreaking and devastating to survivors and victims’ families.
Sometimes, we preach and teach about the harm of destructive teaching by wolves in sheep’s clothing (cf. Mat. 7:15). Some creep in unnoticed, apparently with a deliberate agenda to do harm to the precious bride of Christ (cf. Jude 4ff). Paul wrote of some who upset the faith of others through false teaching (2 Tim. 2:18). All of these and similar warnings deserve our vigilant concern.
However, do we often fail to see the untold damage done by simple, stunning neglect? Carelessness in our example and our speech can wreck havoc on impressionable people swayed by our powerful influence (cf. Luke 17:1ff). Failure to monitor our attitude can be tantamount to a volatile explosion for the faith of someone (Phil. 2:14-16). Ignoring the needs and pleas of help by brethren in our midst can be devastating for them and us (Mat. 25:41ff). James deals with harmful attitudes within self and toward others, issuing this caution, that “to the one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (4:17).
As I consider the stewardship of my life, with my opportunities, influence, and resources, I must not ignore my duty and responsibility to be a magnet for the Messiah, not a saboteur of the Savior.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly all the top 1o most common U.S. occupations are in the service industry—retail salespersons, cashiers, fast food workers, office clerks, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives, just to name a few (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ocwage.pdf). But one of the most common complaints you hear is about poor customer service, rude or unhelpful customer service staff, being overcharged or neglected, or a bad attitude. There may be a great many reasons behind this, but one may well be that our culture is not conditioned to serve, but to be served. Those in positions of service may just be reflecting the culture.
This is not a new problem. Jesus addressed that mentality with His followers in Matthew 20:25-28. In a world insistent upon being the chief and asserting their own rights, Jesus’ message does not play well today. Yet, it did not play well even when He taught it on earth. Jesus was very clearly the suffering servant (Isa. 53:11), and how did the masses ultimately react to Him? They shouted, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:13-14).
The concept of serving others turned out to be a struggle for the church at Philippi. To that end, Paul urged them to adopt a better mindset, a proper attitude (Phil. 2:1-4). Paul reminded these Christians that they were in the spiritual service industry. It was their job to serve one another. We can understand why this teaching is a bitter pill to swallow. We all know those members of the spiritual family who are difficult to deal with, the ones who can be like fingernails on the chalkboard to us or who set our teeth on edge. We might enjoy doing for the benign brother, the sweet sister, or the friendly family. The real test comes in serving someone who does not make serving a pleasant, happy task. A servant heart was lacking among some at Philippi (cf. 4:2), and an unwillingness to put others first will have a dangerous, negative impact on a church if such a spirit is allowed to grow unchecked.
Gordon MacDonald said, “You can tell whether you are becoming a servant by how you act when people treat you like one.” Paul is urging a united, humble, and serving attitude on Philippi and on us. Our task is not to gauge how others are growing in service, but to examine self. May we live what we sometimes sing to God, “Make me a servant, Lord, make me like You, for you are a servant, make me one, too!”
I had an interesting seat mate on my flight from Dallas to Denver yesterday. Sue grew up the daughter of a TWA executive whose job was to ensure customer service around the world was up to par. This meant she grew up in places like India, Egypt, and France. Her dad helped make Saudi Arabian Airlines an international carrier in the 1960s. What was more interesting was what she told me about her husband, who she described as a longtime atheist. His father was a “pastor” for a denomination which forbad watching TV, listening to the radio, and even considered playing marbles a form of gambling. The children, including Sue’s husband, were raised in such a strict atmosphere. One day, however, the boy found a room normally locked. His father had always explained that this was the place where he studied for his sermons and did church work, but what the boy saw inside was a TV, radio, and so many of the things he had been told were sinful. The man would eventually leave the boy’s mother for another woman.
When I heard that, I immediately thought about the powerful impact we have as parents but also as Christians. There are those, especially those who know us best, who realize we claim to live by a higher, spiritual standard. We make that claim when we attend church services, but we also do through the rules and convictions we hand down to our children. We say certain things are important while other things are to be avoided. This is essential, though it should be guided by a proper, thorough investigation of Scripture. Yet, far more valuable than our explanations is our example. Those we influence most profoundly should see a consistent pattern of righteousness in our attitude, speech, behavior, and apparent motivation. We should be frightened at the thought of creating a “hidden room” which denies the very standards we set up for others in our lives to follow. The discovery of such a place can devastate their faith.
In Romans 2, Paul is rebuking the Jews who condemned the Gentiles for their sins while committing the same things. “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?” (21-23). Paul’s point there is that Jews, like Gentiles, are sinners in need of God’s favor. However, the net effect of such hypocrisy is that it caused “the name of God” to be “blasphemed among the Gentiles” (24).
May we ever be in truth what we claim to be and tell others they should be. Do you have a hidden room of spiritual horrors? Dismantle it!
Good deeds don’t make the nightly news. When a person serves or is nice to others, it rarely goes beyond the circle of occurrence. That’s OK, because Jesus urges us, “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before me, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mat. 6:1).
That probably wasn’t a problem for Titus, since the Cretans weren’t renowned for doing good deeds. In fact, a Cretan prophet said of his fellow-citizens, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Ti. 1:12). How would you like to live in a neighborhood or work on your job with such charming people as that? Paul calls them lying, wild, evil animals and slaves to their stomachs.
So, Paul spends some significant time in his letter talking about good deeds. There were some on Crete, particularly Jews, who by their deeds denied God and were “worthless for any good deed” (1:16). Thus, he urges Titus to show himself a pattern of good deeds (2:7). These deeds were not to earn salvation (3:5), but instead to please God. Notice how Paul emphasizes deeds in this letter.
- Good Deeds Show The Right Example (2:7). I heard about a pair of identical twins. One was a preacher and the other was a doctor. It was impossible to tell the two apart. A woman approached one of them and asked, “Are you the one that preaches?” He said, “No, ma’am. I’m the one who practices.” Paul tells Titus to show himself a pattern of good deeds in three areas: (1) Through sound teaching, (2) Through a serious life, and (3) Through his speech.
- Good Deeds Show Where Our Passions Lie (2:14). Christ wants us zealous for good deeds. Wrongly directed zeal is destructive. The Jewish zealots of the first-century helped bring about the demise of Jerusalem. But, a zealot with the right cause and conduct is powerful! If we appreciate that we’ve been redeemed from every lawless deed (13), we’ll be zealous for good deeds. It should be natural for us, when saved from our sins, to be passionate about it to the point that our lives boil over with gratitude! That shows up in good deeds.
- Good Deeds Show Our Faith In God (3:8). Paul urges Titus to share with all believers the need to be ready for every good deed (3:1). What will motivate us to do these good deeds? God’s mercy (3:5)! What will this motivate us to do? Share the good news (3:7-8). The world walks by sight and not by faith. Our challenge is to rise above that disbelief and show by our deeds our faith in the God who saved us from our sins! Our challenge is also to rise above the strife and division of those who profess to believe but whose lives yield evil deeds (3:9-11). Doing good is broad and takes in the whole will of God for us, being all He wants us to be in marriage, parenting, the church, our neighborhood, the workplace, the nation, and in our relationships (cf. Titus 2). What will our good behavior in all these relationships tell others? Simply, that God is the guide of our lives and we put our trust in Him.
- Good Deeds Meet Pressing Needs (3:14). Paul ends the letter by mentioning four Christians by name. The last two, Zenas and Apollos, would need financial help. Paul’s encouragement in Titus 3:14 seems directly related to this need. Whether it’s supporting missionaries or weekly giving, we are God’s hands on earth to help the needy when we give.
The old adage is true. “Actions speak louder than words.” Paul writes of some who profess to know God, but in works deny Him. What a reminder that the Lord will not say, “Well said,” but “well done!” Dorcas was a woman “full of good works and charitable deeds” (Acts 9:36). The woman with the Alabaster box did what she could (Mark 14:8). What about us? What will be said about our deeds?
Oh the stories that song leaders and preachers could tell! Often, when we sing such standbys as “I Love To Tell The Story,” “Rejoice In The Lord,” or “When We All Get To Heaven,” we do so with little visible enthusiasm or apparent joy. If we sing devotional songs like “Thank You, Lord,” “Shout To The Lord,” or “I’m Happy Today,” are we conveying what we are saying? Occasionally, in our humanity, we come into the assemblies burdened down with cares and problems. There may be a powerful distraction nearby that makes concentrating on what we’re doing in worship more difficult. No one knows more than me how misleading facial expressions can be as a reflection of what is in the heart. Yet, I’ve seen some serial sourpusses and perpetual pouters who claim to be Christians. As James was known to say, “My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”
It’s certainly not confined to when we’re engaged in worshipping in song or listening to the sermon. It’s discovered in conversation. Too many times, I’ve encountered Christians who are always disclosing the latest downer in their lives, the problems that pervade them, and the sadness surely saturates them!
Some of the most joyous Christians I’ve known have been more besieged by difficulties than anyone else. They are even graceful enough to be able to talk about them—and, thus, not concealing their troubles—but with a perspective and positivity that reflects their abiding trust in the Great I Am. Three times, Peter speaks to Christians who are distressed by various trials, enduring by faith, and sharing the sufferings of Christ and remarks on their remarkable rejoicing (1 Pet. 1:6,8; 4:13). Perhaps it was their “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3).
Maybe our long faces are not due to any particular problems, and of all people on earth we, especially in America, are spared many of the trials and difficulties of those in poorer countries. It could be that we have disconnected ourselves from the source of joy. Or, it could be that we have forgotten to practice gratitude and count our blessings. Perhaps, we’ve gotten spoiled or concluded that being happy is the goal of life, and when this occurs we live with an expectation that others and circumstances should be oriented to make us feel good, content, or satisfied.
Let’s challenge each other to wear a smile, to work more at expressing our joy, and to win the battles in the heart that keep us from being characterized by winsomeness and positivity. By this, we’ll be a billboard for Christ and a blessing to everyone else.
In Psalm 15, David shows us who is fit to be pleasing to God. I had a general physical and check up on my 30th and 40th birthdays. I’ll have to say I was more pleased w/the results of the first one. Surprisingly, I found out that I should exercise more, eat less and weigh less. While I didn’t like what I heard, I heard what I needed to hear. Though I’ve taken the exercise advise more seriously than the eating advice, I know that my physical health depends on my compliance.
Psalm 15 is a fitness test regarding our spiritual health. What does it take to please God in my morality and ethics?I find it interesting that what the Lord puts in His battery of tests is surprisingly difficult, and many good people, even basically good Christians, fail miserably at some of them. But if I don’t want to be shaken (5), I need to submit to this check up.
To dwell on the Lord’s holy hill, I need…
- Properly working arms and legs (2-3). The Lord sets forth an agility test for us.
- We must walk with integrity (this refers to our character, a matter the entire book of Psalms begins with (1:1). We live so that the person we see in the mirror is one we can legitimately admire as wholesome, honest, and honorable).
- We must work righteousness (this refers to our conduct, how we treat others and deal with them. Are we one people love or dread to see, and are we seen as a cutthroat, back-stabber, and ankle biter or as one who portrays the godly life of Matthew 5:16?).
- A strong heart (2). No conditioning test is any good that doesn’t check the heart. God requires truth in our innermost part (Ps. 51:6). A strong heart is a sincere one, one that makes us genuine and transparent. You won’t hear one thing in public but something contradictory in private, but you’ll get consistent truthfulness. One who tells you one thing but lacks sincerity and truth is not one who is going to pass the heart test.
- A healthy mouth (3-4). Isn’t it amazing how much time God spends examining our mouths. Even the heart test is connected to the mouth (2). An untamed tongue is an audacious, destructive, reckless, condemned thing (just read James 3:5-10). Every one of us, to one degree or another, would be mortified if we could hear a recording of the things we’ve said—in anger, gossip, malice, slander, and dishonesty. Particularly, the Psalmist says “slander” will keep one from the temple. This is an epidemic problem, made worse by the presumption we have that our speech is covered somehow by an exemption. Slander is sinful—it discourages good works because people get gun-shy of criticism, it kills morale as a backbiting atmosphere is unpleasant, and it hinders relationships because it destroys trust. A tongue can lead a beautiful prayer, teach an amazing Bible class, preach a beautiful sermon and sing like the angels—only to be heard whispering backbiting words, running someone down, or criticizing someone.
- Excellent eyesight (4). No routine exam is complete without looking at the eyes. The righteous sees the wayward as God sees them. He doesn’t excuse or defend them as they willfully engage in sin. He sees the evil as God sees them. That doesn’t mean the righteous won’t try to spiritually win them, but he doesn’t condone them as they live without contrition.
The Psalmist calls for an overall clean bill of health. The spiritually healthy keeps his word, doesn’t take advantage of the needy, and doesn’t betray the innocent. This is an exam we must pass. How is your spiritual health in light of this heavenly health check?
(Imagine The Following 1st-Century Social Media Thread)
“Apostles And Disciples On Facebook”
James of Jerusalem: I believe the gospel should only go to the Jews. Or at least we should circumcise Gentiles who want to become Christians.
Simon Peter: Poor James. I used to think that way, too. But I know better. You should check with Cornelius and his people.
James of Jerusalem: Where did you get your education? The Samaritans?! LOL
Paul, the Tarsus Teacher: James, James, James. I used to be right where you were. I even had to set ole Petey straight because of you troublemakers. You just keep turning up like a bad denarii.
Apollos: Apparently, the pedagogical philosophy of the Jerusalem saints is as circumscribed as the Strait of Sicily. My buddy Paul always cuts straight to the point. What do you have to say for yourself, J.J.?
Barnabas: Guys, let’s not make this personal. Let’s deal with the issue. OK?
Simon Peter: Barnabas, did somebody steal your man card? Ha ha! Jimmy, are you going to answer Paul’s powerful point? Or will you crawl back into your cave?
Apollos: Well… James?
Simon Peter: Apollos and Paul, that’s just the way “brother” James is. Hit and run. SMH!
OK. So, the apostles and disciples did not have social media in the first-century. But if they did, is the sample above how we would imagine them discussing the issues between them? Church leaders did meet to discuss a matter similar to the imaginary scenario just depicted. It is recorded in Acts 15. There was sharp dispute and debate with them (3). There was much discussion (7). Imagine what you’d like about what was said and how it was said, but look at what the Holy Spirit preserved. There was lots of Scripture quoted. Love and civility carried the day. Even in Galatians two, when there were issues of actual prejudice, they handled the matter head on. But there was no vilifying, name-calling, or slanderous libeling of brethren.
How is it that some among us have lost the ability to discuss passionately without attacking personally? Especially if our intent is to be a part of restoring first-century Christianity, why would we think we could exempt ourselves from the spirit and attitude faithful brethren exhibited as they sought to work together for the cause of Christ? This is baffling!
Certainly, we live in tumultuous times. Truth has been redefined and the church is being pressed by some enormous, identity-changing issues (i.e., same-sex marriage, an expanded women’s role in teaching and church leadership, the contention that the idea of non-denominational Christianity or the singular nature of the church is arrogant and false, etc.). There are a great many other matters that merit discussion, but no matter what we are addressing we cannot—especially before the eyes of the world—fail to exhibit the love Jesus commanded His disciples show. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
(video by Wes Autrey)
I cannot imagine anyone present yesterday morning to witness Janice Lee baptized into Christ could have failed to be touched at a very deep level. J.J. and Lila Brennan had been studying the Bible with Janice, and she came to the conclusion that she needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of her sins. So, she came to the front after my sermon and made that desire known.
She was in a wheelchair because she suffers left side paralysis as the result of a stroke. She is also on oxygen. Several ladies and a few of us men took special measures to help her into the baptistery. She could walk, slowly, gingerly, and with much difficulty. The ladies helped her up the stairs, while we stood in the water to receive her and help her the rest of the way. Each step was tenuous and required the utmost effort on her part. Once she was finally in the baptistery, we carefully lowered her under the water and brought her back up. Very quickly, her deeply felt emotions gently bubbled to the surface. She softly cried, recalling difficult things from her past, and she said, “I forgive those who’ve sinned against me.” The joy and peace on her face is something impossible to adequately describe.
What did this new sister in Christ demonstrate yesterday? Resolve! Afterward, I found out not only that she had to deal with the consequences of the stroke, but she is afraid of water. Yet, she saw the need of her soul as preeminent over any obstacle she might have cited. The constant need of oxygen, the paralysis, and the phobia were outweighed by the Lord’s command. Her faith was so strong that they were not insurmountable barriers. She refused to let them be!
The difference at the Judgment, in part, will be that some will offer excuses for why they did not obey the Lord while others, through genuine, trusting faith, will not need to make excuse. They will stand before Christ, who will see His blood covering their transgressions. What does it take to go to heaven? A “no matter what” obedience!
The interesting visitor at our devotional last night, a chocolate lab named Bear that someone dropped off with Aaron and Kylee Melton as she dealt with a personal crisis, reminded me of another “dog at church” story from my youth. Back in the mid-’70s, when my dad was the preacher at the Rockmart, Georgia, church of Christ, there was a Collie dog that apparently knew our schedule of services. Faithfully, rain or shine, summer or winter, she would be out on the front steps greeting all the members and visitors. She wasn’t allowed inside the building, but she’d dutifully lay on those steps until we were finished with services. Then, she would cheerfully bid us all goodbye. When the building was locked up and everyone had left, this convicted canine would make her way back home. I don’t know how many years this went on for, but the notoriety of the “church of Christ” dog was seemingly known throughout the community.
One Sunday, my dad preached a sermon about this dog. His application was brilliant and uncanny. She was always “at church,” no matter what. Surely she was mistreated or had a cross word hurled at her at some point, since, incredibly, not everyone is a dog person. Her faithful presence was a great example to the community. She greeted everyone freely, not just a select few. She didn’t seem to distinguish by age, gender, race, or income status. If she was not there, as it apparently was on an occasion or two, everyone noticed and was concerned. He probably said more, but that I remember this much nearly 40 years later indicates how impressive the object lesson was.
Paul told the Colossian Christians that their faith and love was renowned and well-reported (Col. 1:4). The Jerusalem church very quickly had favor among all the people (Acts 2:47). The Thessalonians were a notable example throughout their region of the world (1 Th. 1:7). As we line up our goals and resolutions for this new year, why not determine, as the whole body and as individual members of it, to make that clear and deep an impression on the people in our lives and those who chance to encounter us. Dogs are renowned for their faithfulness. So should Christians be (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2).