Growing In Godliness Blog
A Lesson of Life
By Matt Hennecke
I used to think myself quite the ping-pong player. My skill level was sufficient to decimate most of my family members. My brother-in-law was my only real competition, and though he would deny it, I won many more of our battles than I lost.
My favorite opponent was my young nephew, Andy. He was always ready to play, and played with total, reckless abandon. His skills fell far short of my own. I was a “spin” master. I could put such “English” on the ball that when it landed on Andy’s side of the table it would bounce crazily in an unanticipated direction. I took great glee in running Andy into the half-filled, cardboard boxes lining the basement wall as he dove vainly to return one of my crazy, spinning shots. He’d collapse into the boxes but always came up wanting more. Time and again I laughed uproariously as his contorted body lay sprawled across the boxes after I’d hit one of my spectacular shots.
When I went off to college I enjoyed taking on new opponents and showing them my “stuff.” I honed my skills and relished taking on new opponents who’d never seen ping-pong balls bounce at such weird and awkward angles. I was good – no doubt about it. And I was full of myself.
When I was about twenty-years-old a couple joined the local congregation where I attended with my family when home from college. Jerry was about thirty and possessed many talents. He could play the piano beautifully. He was a great Bible teacher, and he could make friends easily because of his engaging social skills. As the summer progressed I came to know him better, and I also learned he thought himself a pretty good ping-pong player. I still remember, thinking, “Ah, fresh meat,” but I purposefully kept my interest in the game hidden, waiting for the perfect moment to “show” him what a real ping pong player could do.
Judgment day presented itself one day in early August when Jerry and I, and several other people from church, happened to be at a member’s home for a potluck. The homeowner had a ping-pong table in the basement. I remember thinking the time had come to reveal my skills and slay yet another victim. “Hey, want to play some ping-pong?” I not-so-innocently asked as Jerry and I found ourselves in the basement after eating. Those who knew me from church realized I was circling my prey and watched with amusement as Jerry took the bait. “Sure, let’s play,” he replied.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there was no joy for me that day – I ingloriously lost the bout.
- Adapted from “Casey At the Bat,” by Ernest Thayer
21 to 0.
Yes, zero. I never score a point. I never even came close to scoring a point.
A life lesson took root and bloomed that day: the lesson of humility. Of course I’d been humbled before, but never so profoundly and in the presence of so many witnesses. That day I realized I had been naively comparing my skills to others who were far less skilled than I. Clearly there were others who far exceeded me in ping-pong prowess. “Pride goeth before a fall,” echoed the words of the Proverb writer (Prov. 16:18). That day I fell hard. Jerry cleaned my clock and in doing so taught me about pride: Pride made me cocky. It made me feel invincible and self reliant. But the lesson of humility wasn’t yet over. Two weeks later, Jerry – who had so soundly thrashed me – entered a ping pong tournament in downtown Chicago and lost to a seven-year-old boy. And he lost badly. Imagine how I felt. Not only wasn’t I skilled, but I was lightyears behind some nameless seven-year-old.
Such are the lessons of life. They often come along and slap us upside the head, and if we let them, they shape us, mold us, and change us – for the better. So it is when it comes to spiritual matters. Perhaps because of that ping pong lesson I’m inclined to listen to Paul’s spiritual advice when he says we shouldn’t “dare to classify or compare ourselves with others,” and that when others “measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Cor. 10:12). He also tells us “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). The conclusion is pretty clear: I’m imperfect; I’m a sinner; and I’d be doomed except for Jesus Christ. I shouldn’t think myself better than anyone. Want a dose of humility? Compare yourself to Christ.
Over the years I’ve learned I’m not very good at ping pong, and sadly I’m not very good at righteousness. But He is: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Without Him I’m nothing. Only He is perfect. Only He can save.
The Fields are White
John 4:35 – Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.
Jesus’ statement in John 4:35 comes on the heels of his incredible interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. This interaction is astonishing not simply because Jesus interacted with a woman in a meaningful way, but also because she was a Samaritan. As far as the Jews were concerned, she and her kind were outcasts and repulsive because of their heritage, and immoral due to their insistence on worshiping on Mount Gerizim instead of Jerusalem. But Jesus shatters social norms and asks her for a drink of water. Not only that, but Jesus also offers her water in return, water that only he could offer to her. This interaction with Jesus had such a profound impact on this woman that she can’t help but run to the city and tell everyone about Jesus.
As she runs off to the city, the disciples come back carrying food for themselves and for Jesus. As they offer food to him, Jesus tells them in 4:32 “I have food that you do not know about.” Per usual the disciples are slow to understand and begin questioning each other about the source of Jesus’ food, but Jesus immediately provides his source of sustenance in 4:33 “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.” It is at this point that Jesus says that the fields are white for harvest, and not only that but the one who reaps is already collecting wages and gathering fruit. Jesus is actively working in the fields because that is the will of the father.
Jesus’ words are meant to provide his disciples with an understanding, not only of his mission, but their mission as well. They are meant to reach all people, regardless of nationality or gender. It is no surprise, then, that the very next section in John 4, recounts for us that many of the Samaritans in that city, where the Samaritan woman lived, believed in Jesus. Jesus came not only to break down the laws on where God’s people could worship, but also to break down the laws separating Jew from Samaritan from Gentile. God’s message is for all people! Therefore, Jesus says, “…look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.” In other words, the time is here, all people need to hear the saving message of the gospel, so go to work.
This account, I think, needs to prick our minds, and push us to deeper action in the Kingdom of God. The fields are white, and yet too often we remain planted in our pews, and we make no effort out in the fields. All people need the words of life, how can we keep it from them. Let us take the words and the actions of Jesus to heart, and begin working in the fields, for they are, “white for harvest.”
Beatitudes: The Character of Kingdom Citizens
by Paul Earnhart
Jesus opens his momentous sermon with a series of eight pungent and largely paradoxical statements known traditionally as the “beatitudes” (Matthew 5:2-12). They must have fallen like thunderbolts upon those first century Jewish ears. A more likely formula for success could hardly have been imagined. They assaulted every maxim of conventional wisdom and left the hearer startled and perplexed. In this way Jesus gains the attention of his audience and drives home the essential character of the kingdom of God and its citizens, The whole world, then as now, was in earnest pursuit of happiness and had just as little conception as men today of how to obtain it. There was no surprise in the announcement that there was true blessedness in the kingdom. The shock came in the kind of people who were destined to obtain it. The beatitudes speak exclusively of spiritual qualities. The historic concerns of men—material wealth, social status and worldly wisdom—do not simply receive little attention, they receive none at all. Jesus is clearly out-lining a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), a kingdom whose borders pass not through lands and cities but through human hearts (Luke 17:20-24). This altogether unlikely kingdom arrived as announced in the first century (Mark 9:1; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:9) but most were unprepared to recognize and receive it~even as they are now. It must be further noted that not only were the qualities of the kingdom citizen spiritual but they are qualities which would not come to men naturally. They are not the product of heredity or environment but of choice. No one will ever “fall into” these categories. They not only do not occur in men naturally, but are in fact distinctly contrary to the “second nature” which pride and lust have caused to prevail in the hearts of all humanity. Perhaps there is no more important truth to be recognized about the beatitudes than the fact that they are not independent proverbs which apply to eight different groups of men, but are a composite description of every citizen in the kingdom of God. These qualities are so interwoven in one spiritual fabric that they are inseparable. To possess one is to possess them all, and to lack one is to lack them all. And as all Christians must possess all these qualities of kingdom life, they are also destined to receive all its blessings — blessings which, like its qualities, are but components of one reward- one body called to one hope (Ephesians 4:4). In sum, then, the beatitudes do not contain a promise of blessing upon men in their natural state (all men mourn but all will certainly not be comforted, 5:4) nor do they offer hope to those who seem to fall into one category or another. They are a composite picture of what every kingdom citizen, not just a few super disciples, must be. They mark off the radical difference between the kingdom of heaven and the world of other men. The son of the kingdom is different in what he admires and values, different in what he thinks and feels different in what he seeks and does. Clearly, there has never been a kingdom like this before. A Kingdom for the Sinful and Lowly There have been many approaches to the specific content of the beatitudes. Many feel that there is a progression of thought moving through them which begins with a new attitude toward self and God, leads to a new attitude toward others, and culminates with the world”s reaction to this radical change. There is some merit to this analysis, and whether or not such a neat format always coincides with the actual order of the beatitudes, the ideas are certainly there. To a society governed by some serious misconceptions of the kingdom of God, the beatitudes make two basic statements. First, that the kingdom is not open to the the self righteous and self·assured, but to the supplicant sinner who comes seeking out of his emptiness. And, secondly, that the kingdom is not to be had by the “mighty” who obtain their desires by wealth or violence, but by a company of patient men who yield not only their wants but even their “rights” to the needs of others. Though not explicitly stated (Jesus was not to speak clearly of His death until a year later, Matthew 16:21) there is nothing quite so obvious in this sermon as the central gospel truth that salvation is by the grace of God. Here the dispensational premillennialist is palpably wrong. How could men and women so hungry for righteousness (5:6) and so much in need of mercy (5:7) find a place in a kingdom governed by a system of law alone? And who could imagine that citizens in the earthly kingdom envisioned by the dispensationalists would ever suffer persecution (5:10- 12)? The righteousness of the kingdom does not rest on a system of law but upon a system of grace. Its holy standards are attainable by sinful men (5:48). Otherwise, the Sermon on the Mount would be the source of greater despair than the law of Moses (Romans 7:25).
“How to Avoid a Spiritual Failure
by Paul Earnhart”
In his final hours in Rome, awaiting an inevitable execution, a very lonely apostle Paul suffered some additional heartbreak. "Demas," he wrote, "hath forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Timothy 4:10). We are left to speculate as to the particulars — what dread fears or powerful allurements led this faithful friend and co-worker to abandon the kingdom of God and to forsake his burdened brother. It was not as though he had fled the field at the first approach of trouble. During Paul's first imprisonment in Rome Demas had evidently been a steadfast companion (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:14). Now, unexpectedly, this heart-mauling betrayal and desertion.
Paul said that Demas "loved this present world." The "world" is many things. John describes it as a way of thinking where lust, materialism and pride abound (1 John 2:15-16). What was it that got to the faithful Demas? Was it fear of death or imprisonment? Or was it something more subtle like a nostalgic longing for the old easy ways free of constant warfare? We are not told which one of these undid Demas but one of them found its mark.
Breaking points can come to us too if we are not very careful. A deep hurt we cannot find it in ourselves to forgive. A disappointing marriage. Failures with our children. Lost health or prosperity. Anything we had never imagined happening to us. And often it's just plain prideful stubbornness. At any rate, don't ever say you'd never do what others have done. You've never been all the places you could be. Peter learned a valuable lesson about that (Matthew 26:31-35). It is far better that we know our own weaknesses and watch and pray that we enter not into temptation (Matthew 26:41). Satan loves an arrogant and self-confident man.
Another lesson to be learned from the failure of others is that those who at last go back, at first look back. Departures of apparent suddenness are really the end of a process. Our Lord warned that those who put their hand to the kingdom plow and look back longingly at the world are not fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). The disciples who go back are those who first begin to cultivate again the values of the world and like the Israelites in the wilderness grow nostalgic amidst their trials for the fleshpots of Egypt. They forget, of course, the galling bondage that accompanies the life of sin. These are the ones who gradually cease to meditate upon God's word (Psalm 1:1-2), then become prayerless (James 4:1-2) as God and Christ seem far away. First men cease to study, then to pray, and, finally, to care.
Sometimes this all begins as a casual flirtation, a few little compromises dismissed as harmless. Too much time with worldly companions (1 Corinthians 15:33), too much interest in a job (1 Timothy 6:9-10), too much concern with being accepted and making our mark in the world (1 Peter 5:5). Finally, it becomes a passionate love affair that makes us heedless of the injury we do to our Savior, ourselves and others.
Satan is the master of the "short step" method. Slow change is more effective in producing spiritual collapse than sudden departure. The danger of alerting the victim to what is happening is eliminated. We can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12-13). Warning flags need to start flying the moment we feel the slightest ebb in commitment. Beware the spiritual slow leak.
The unfailing answer to this kind of spiritual failure is the daily discipline of an uncompromising dedication which admits of no exceptions and makes quick and humble redress for every transgression. Burn all your bridges and press on to the heavenly mark (Philippians 3:7-14). And if, in spite of everything, you happen to stumble badly, don't let despair destroy you. Remember that everyone who has faltered has not ultimately fallen. We can all thank God for that. John Mark's disgraceful desertion in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) was not the end of him because he didn't allow it to be. Paul sent for him during his last hours (2 Timothy 4:11) and the Holy Spirit chose him to record the gospel story. We don't have to be like Demas. In the mercy of God we have the privilege of being like John Mark or Peter, and, yes, even Paul.
A Season of Healing
By Wyatt Taylor
This Sunday, as the elders have announced, we will end most pandemic protocols and assemble for worship as a full congregation for the first time in 15 months.
I'm grateful that the elders took the precautions they did and that the congregation has weathered this time as well as it has. I very much appreciate the elders' judgment and the good work done by so many to facilitate our church life in a time of pandemic.
But while tools like live-streaming were blessings, and separate services were necessary for a time, I don't believe anyone has dared claim these arrangements are superior to, or even on par with, the traditional gathering of the church in the same place at the same time.
After all, God does not call us to join a virtual church, but a local church.
The last 15 months have been a trying time for the church. The pandemic lockdowns and precautions forced upon us a separation and an isolation that disrupted the common rhythms of church life, and this took a heavy toll on our relationships and bonds. As a society, and as a church, we labored to overcome the separation. We had “drive-by” parties and “quaran-teams” and “bubbles” and countless Zoom gatherings. But it was not the same. To say that our congregation has endured the pandemic relatively well is not to say that there has been no negative impact. And though the physical distance that has separated us for these 15 months may be gone on Sunday, the emotional and spiritual distance will not automatically disappear along with it.
Our isolation has taken its toll on our bonds of fellowship. Amid the pandemic, we had to navigate a slate of cultural controversies using social media tools that drive our outrage and division. We've seen pitched debates over the pandemic and pandemic precautions, racism and policing, and a heated presidential campaign. In times past we may have had these debates in-person around a table, a setting that more readily lends itself to resolving conflict. But in this time of isolation, we too often relied on online interactions that fed misunderstanding, hasty judgments, suspicion, cynicism, and distrust. I know I did, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels some alienation has developed between myself and other brethren.
Now, I believe it is critical that Christians discuss these topics and that it will not do for us to throw up our hands at the first sign of disagreement, accepting an equivalence between both sides in the name of peace rather than doing the hard work of engaging, discerning, and making a judgment about truth. But I would suggest we ought to be doing this together, with our bond in Christ at the front of our minds.
In every relationship, people disagree and get frustrated with one another. Especially in marriages. My wife and I aren't the type to have vocal arguments. Instead, when we get angry with one another, we tend to do something maybe even worse - we withdraw. We say nothing and retreat into a kind of Cold War. In a marriage book we studied some years ago, this kind of phenomenon was likened to building a wall between the spouses. We build a wall between us, brick by brick, with every little disagreement or disappointment that goes unaddressed. Until, over time, we can no longer even see one another. Understanding this tendency has helped us to counteract it. And we do so by confronting our feelings and sharing them in a healthy way. We strive to keep the lines of communication open, to not let a single brick be laid between us.
Brethren, we don't have to look far among the brotherhood to see the walls that have been built in the last year. It is time to bring them down.
- Behind them we may just find folks suffering in isolation, in need of burden bearers and fellow soldiers to lift them up.
- We may find folks who have gotten a little too comfortable in isolation, in need of a reminder of the joys of brotherhood.
- We’ll surely find difficult conversations and the need for forgiveness.
We may feel safe behind the walls we've built, justified in having built them, not sure we're ready to re-engage and deal with the messiness of community. It won't be easy to bring the walls down, and we might be fooled by the lack of open conflict into thinking we have nothing to worry about. But we must not mistake the quiet for genuine peace.
We all long for peace, and God has called us to be at peace as a church. Yet this never happens by accident, peace is made by peacemakers who employ the meekness of wisdom.
- James 3:13-18: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."
We must carefully examine our attitudes toward one another, put away the bitterness that may have built up, and soften our hearts toward our brethren, esteeming them above ourselves.
- Ephesians 4:31-32: "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you."
- Philippians 2:1-4: "Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
- Colossians 3:12-14: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”
As I’ve reflected on the last 15 months and the meaning of our coming back together, I believe the lesson is simple: we need one another. As sojourners and exiles in a world that does not believe, God's people must walk together.
I want to spend these coming months re-building bonds that may have weakened through neglect and separation, breaking down walls and healing wounds I may have caused, practicing hospitality to get to know brethren at a deeper level, and taking opportunities to be of service and encouragement to my brethren. I want to widen my circle. I realized during the pandemic that there were far too many brethren whom I know of, but hardly know well. I want to correct this, and I ask everyone to take up this challenge.
May this be a time of breaking down walls. May these next months be a season of healing, of repairing the bonds of fellowship that have frayed, of drawing one another out of isolation and into a community of grace where we will "stir one another up to love and good works". May the spirit of grace and forgiveness be mighty among us and overcome the cynicism and anger that may have prevailed. May the disagreements of the last 15 months recede into the past and unity in our love for God and desire to serve Him be elevated.
As we once again assemble in full, let us not forget the loss we felt in separation. And let us celebrate the beauty and joy of our coming together, which is but a foretaste of the joy we will one day share when gathered in heaven around the throne of God.