Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Problem with Me, Continued

As I said earlier, swear words aren’t the only words that should make us wince.

We all have had hurtful words spoken to us that we can still remember years later…words no one should ever hear. Yet in anger or spite someone said them to us. What words come to your mind? They may be words that changed how you felt about yourself, about God, about trusting others.

Passages like James 3:5-12 couldn’t be more clear-cut. Such words should never come out of our mouths. But put me in a car and I can say them to an inanimate object like my new GPS unit…or to my wife…or to my children. There’s no way I can justify such outbursts or snide remarks. They’re never from God. They’re always from the Devil.

When I flew home last Friday, Feb. 13, I already had made plans to take my wife, Renée, out for lunch for Valentine’s Day. Toward the end of a wonderful brunch at a nice restaurant on the Columbia River, I made three promises to Renée. The third promise was to show how much I cherish her by changing the way I speak to her when I’m frustrated, no matter what’s frustrating me. I promised to own the problem 100 percent.

There’s no way I want to transfer my frustration onto her by my words, tone of voice, attitudes, or actions. Better to be silent than to say anything that could hurt her.

After all: “The tongue is a fire and also a world of injustice. It is a part of the body, but it defiles the whole body, sets the entire created world ablaze, and is itself set ablaze by hell” (African Bible Commentary, page 1513).

The word “hell” in James 3:5b isn’t just a swear word. It’s a translation of the Greek word Gehenna. It’s the only use of the word outside the words of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The word Gehenna speaks not only of hell, but of the Devil, whom Jesus said is a liar, a thief, a murderer, and a destroyer.

Unlike other writers, James says that the tongue is a fire. Is he right? Doesn’t he mean the tongue is like a fire? No, the second part of verse 5 is clear. The tongue is a fire. It’s either lit by the Holy Spirit filling us to overflowing with words of grace and mercy and love, or it’s lit by the Devil and sparks a forest fire.

On the news we’ve seen the devastating effects of carelessness in California, arson in Australia, and a terrible plane crash in New York that took 50 lives. But have you ever seen the devastating effects of careless, angry, critical, or slanderous words you have said?

Then again, has anyone else ever said words that deeply hurt you? Has anyone ever said words that inflicted serious damage to your soul? As quickly as possible, put out the fire. Don’t let it burn within you any longer. And certainly don’t spread it further by anything you might say.

Instead, what should we do? James doesn’t tell us in this passage, but the rest of the Scriptures do.

First, we need to understand that our words—whether flippant or angry—all come from the same place. So we need to guard our heart and watch for any signs of fire.

Second, we need to understand that it’s not enough to bite our tongue until it bleeds. Instead, we need to confess our sins to God — and, as He prompts us — we need to confess them to the people we have hurt. I certainly have had to do that with Renée and my children and a number of friends.

Third, beyond confession, we need to ask God’s Holy Spirit to flood us with living water. Such living water will heal our hearts and tongues. Such water also will make our tongue fireproof.

Fourth, we need to understand it’s not enough to be filled with the Holy Spirit for an hour or two, or a day or two. We desperately need to ask for God’s washing, cleansing, and flooding with living water every day of our lives.

Has the Lord spoken to your heart this week? I hope so. Now, with His help, let’s take care of some unfinished business. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Problem with “Bonnie” and Me

Since New Year’s I’ve learned how to use my new GPS unit. But as I said yesterday, it will never make me a saint.

When I started working with my GPS unit, I tried all of the computerized voices and arbitrarily selected “Bonnie.” I checked off several other preferences, keyed in our home address, and loaded several addresses I knew I’d need in coming days. But using a GPS is a little trickier than that.

Almost predictably I ran into a number of problems. I had driven across two state lines before I discovered that I didn’t want to follow the yellow line “Bonnie” was showing me. Instead, I needed to follow the dark red line. No wonder I was getting frustrated whenever the two lines split apart with the yellow line heading west while “Bonnie” was telling me to head east.

An even worse problem was translating what I heard “Bonnie” telling me. She likes to say things like “keep left and then keep left” only to repeat herself five seconds later. To say the least, how she phrases things is quite different from what I would say in the same situation. And her constant repetition unnerves me. Of course, heading from Atlanta to Birmingham, “Bonnie” sat there not saying a word for a couple of hours, only to fall asleep with a worn out battery right when I needed her the most.

Plugging in the power cord fixed everything, I thought, until “Bonnie” started getting too chatty when I came to some road construction, discovered the exit was closed, and realized I needed to take a different route. “Bonnie” kept protesting non-stop so I finally turned her off to get her to shut up.

The fact is when “Bonnie” is chatting away I can get pretty sharp with her, especially when she pulls stunts like telling me to take an exit in ½ mile and the Atlanta freeway system has two such exits side by side at that spot. There I am yelling, “Which one do I take, Bonnie?” and then smarting off by saying, “Don’t tell me I just took the wrong exit, Bonnie. You’re the one who didn’t tell me whether to take I-65 North instead of I-65 South. Thanks a lot for nothing!”

One evening last week I spent 3½ hours on the road at night driving through a huge storm that sparked more than 19,800 lightning strikes and was spinning off deadly tornadoes, including one that killed 8 people. There I was driving in driving rain hour after hour, only to have “Bonnie” take me to the wrong hotel. I had a few choice snide remarks for her, to say the least.

I never got into the habit of swearing. But swear words, of course, aren’t the only words that should make us wince.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why I’ll Never Be Called St. David

Lest there’s any misunderstanding, just because I don’t use profanity or swear words doesn’t mean I’m a saint. The fact is I can use “polite” language in very ungodly ways through my tone of voice, my angry attitudes, and worse. Not surprisingly, that happens most where I spend the greatest amounts of time alone or with my family: at home and in the car.

I can get so miserable in the car three or four times a year that my family finally bought me a GPS unit for Christmas. As anyone in Portland may recall, we had a bit of snow and ice around that time. Before heading to our church’s elders and wives New Year’s Eve party, my wife, Renée, and I went on a couple of errands. I hadn’t learned how to use the GPS unit yet, however, so I got turned around. Thankfully, Renée has a great sense of direction.

Unfortunately, my frustration at getting turned around while driving on icy roads added a bit too much undercurrent when I asked Renée which way to head back toward Sunnyside Road. I honestly wasn’t frustrated at Renée. The opposite. I love the fact she knows her way around so well. But what Renée heard was frustration, not thankfulness. So she froze up.

I looked over at Renee, knowing she knew exactly which way to go. Still nothing. “Well?” I snapped. Now Renée knew I was dumping my frustration on her. Of course, at first that was the farthest thing from my mind. But frustration at this is clearly a loss of self-control that can swing quickly to frustration with a loved one. Renée knew that. And sure enough, that’s what I did.

Thankfully, since New Year’s I’ve learned how to use my new GPS unit. But believe me, it will never make me a saint.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being Gracious and Evangelistic

I remember when one of my older kids hit 18 and went off to university. Their vocabulary stretched by a word or two. I winced, but I didn’t offer a rebuke. Instead, I cheated and simply prayed. The Holy Spirit convicted them a while later, and even later during a visit they told me about it. My decision not to say such words had become their own personal conviction—literally without me having to say a word.

In essence, they realized they had never once heard Mom or Dad say such words, and they felt convicted by God to not use such words either. Now, clearly, those terms were “off limits” before they were 18 in our home, but even then not because we had such rules in our family.

Instead, we had simply talked with our older children about how to handle it when others use such terms or make harsh remarks. In our family, we explained, we have made the choice not to be offended. Instead, we always want to be gracious and evangelistic.

When I arrived at my hotel in Nashville this past Tuesday night, the hotel manager was training a brand-new employee. The woman in line ahead of me was nearly finished checking in. The brand-new employee was very polite, but made the mistake of saying the woman’s room number out loud, a huge taboo in the hotel industry for security reasons. Immediately, the manager rebuked the rookie as the woman walked away.

The tone in the hotel lobby was tense. I saw my opportunity, stepped up to the front desk, and cracked a joke. Humor is one of the best ways I’ve found to earn the right to witness to others. I used it with Nick, as I said yesterday. And I used it last Tuesday night with the hotel manager and trainee. I followed up with some more joking around, got them laughing, and then threw out a hook.

I started using a story to present the basic Gospel message, then paused. They asked what happened, so I finished the story and started a second one. They asked what happened, so I told the rest of that story. They agreed that they needed God in their lives, so I explained how later that evening they could pray to the Lord and place their trust in Him.

We traded contact information, they asked me to send them a book that explained the Gospel further, and walked away thanking God. I thanked God for having a great sense of humor and for giving the gift of humor to humanity, and for making humor, storytelling, and other wonderful, fun ways to share the Gospel with others.

After all, in their heart, almost everyone wants God, even if they have no idea that God is who they’re looking for.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not Easily Offended

Yesterday I remarked that God doesn’t want any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), no matter how colorful or limited someone’s vocabulary is.

I saw this again on my way to Chicago recently. I talked for a couple of hours with a young man named Nick. He’s 22 years old, graduating later this spring from one of the top universities in Massachusetts. During the course of our conversation, Nick dropped several "bombs" while telling me about his New York family’s decades’ long commitment to a Hindu guru who moved to Oregon many years ago. It was both humorous and intriguing as Nick tried to convert me to this guru’s main tenets of faith. Then again, humor is a great segue into talking about our deepest religious beliefs and convictions.

After a while, Nick started railing against evangelicals. Without tipping my hand, I countered some of Nick’s misperceptions of evangelicals by saying I’ve read a lot of evangelical writings and never heard anyone espouse the things he was saying they believe and teach.

When Nick asked what I did, I briefly told him about my new book, If God Disappears, which he said sounded interesting. In fact, he seemed quite interested. So I told him about my blog where I said he could find a link to read the first chapter of my book. I then gave him my e-mail address and asked him to let me know what he thought after reading what I had to say.

Later that evening in Boston Nick went online, read some of my blog postings, and then read the opening chapter of my book. Nick then turned around and wrote a lengthy, profusely apologetic letter to me via e-mail. He was seriously worried that he had offended me. No, he hadn’t, I assured him. Why? I consciously made a decision long ago not to be offended by someone’s vocabulary or remarks. It’s a decision we all have to make. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But just because I’ll never use such words in anger doesn’t mean I have to judge others who use such terms, especially if they use them flippantly.

Yes, I realize some can use such words to denigrate others, which I do find deeply offensive. But Nick wasn’t trying to denigrate me. So there was no reason for me to feel offended or ask him to clean up his vocabulary. Any such remarks easily could have been more offensive than anything Nick was saying.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Rolls Off Our Tongues

Perhaps there’s no other area in life where it’s harder to keep the faith than controlling what comes out of our mouths.

Why? In part, because we’re prone to speak, then think. In part, because what we say so quickly reveals the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. In part, because words can have such devastating, damaging, long-lasting effects on others.

True, some of us talk more than others, but all of us—all of us—say things we shouldn’t.

Interestingly, Scripture isn’t focused on not saying curse words. In high school and college I never got into the habit of using profanity. But swear words aren’t the only words that should make us wince.

In fact, as Jars of Clay reminds us, some so-called profanity can be genuine, heartfelt prayers like the phrase “Oh, my God!” in a sudden emergency.

Furthermore, some curse words like “hell” or “damned” can be sober facts we say with tears in our eyes and the love of Jesus Christ in our hearts.

Then again, some swear words are simple facts of life. I was reminded of this while watching a PBS documentary with my son Benjamin. I used it as an opportunity to teach him that one offensive swear word is used by non-Christians when they realize they need God, remember they turned their backs on him in their youth, and now are facing certain death.

The PBS documentary was a made-for-TV movie called Touching the Void, which tells the true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two British mountaineers who embarked on a daring and reckless attempt to climb the previously unconquered western face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes mountains. After successfully reaching the 20,800-foot summit, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates felt like they were on top of the world. But shortly after starting their descent, Joe broke his leg. Rescue was absolutely impossible. Despite Simon’s best efforts, risking his own life, Joe falls hundreds of feet to his demise.

Somehow, however, Joe later wakes up alive inside the belly of a massive glacial crevasse. He’s barely alive, freezing cold, dangling on the edge of another deep crevasse, his leg now severely mangled. He’s without food or water, utterly trapped, looking up 75 feet at the ice roof he broke through during his fall, realizing Simon thinks he’s dead. In other words, in two or three days Joe will be dead. No question.

In that context, Joe yells a particular swear word at the top of his lungs over and over as he beat his hands against the crevasse wall that’s entombed him. Of course, I told Benjamin ahead of time what our family’s standards are about never saying that word. We wince at such language, but I believe God heard Joe admit the bankruptcy of his atheistic worldview. God not only heard it, but miraculously saved him.

Which God did that? The cosmic killjoy God? The angry, judgmental God? No. Instead, it was the God who doesn’t want any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), no matter how colorful or limited someone’s vocabulary is.

Still, the fact is 99.9% of all swearing is unnecessary. But if someone happens to swear in my presence, I’m not easily offended.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Another Unlikely Hero of the Faith

It’s shocking enough that God could take a crusty old pagan like Abraham and make him a hero of the faith.

By the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 and James 2:20-26 lists another unlikely hero, a woman named “sister” Rahab.

For the first few decades of her life Rahab was an idolater, just like Abraham. In fact, her city, ancient Jericho, like Ur, was particular famous for its worship of the moon god. If you had be invited to Rahab’s 25th birthday party, held in Jericho’s coziest little inn, I’m sure you would have liked her. She was a neo pagan. An idol worshipper. A very friendly innkeeper. A little extra business on the side. Again, what’s there not to like?

We’re not talking Mother Teresa, all old and wrinkled and saintly. We’re talking street-wise, sexy, and just a little too friendly Rahab the innkeeper. Honestly, if she walked into the average church and sat on the front row, would that be a good thing? What would you say or think?

Yet what does God see when he looks at Rahab? The Lord looks beyond her past and gives her an opportunity to make her small seed of faith real. And that opportunity came with a knock on her door.

Two strangers ask if they may come in. Rahab correctly guesses who they are and why they’ve come. The moment of decision has come. Rahab motions for them to follow her onto the roof of her home between Jericho’s inner and outer walls. There she hides them, promising to return.

What is Rahab doing? She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s willingly, knowingly risking her very life. As predicted, the king hears word about the two spies and sends soldiers to arrest them. Rahab feigns innocence and then sends the soldiers on a wild goose chase. What in the world is she doing? She’s willing to trade her life for theirs. Why? It doesn’t make sense. Unless God has been at work in her heart. Has He? Listen to Rahab’s profound professions of faith.

First she tells the two spies: “I know that the LORD has given this land to you” (Joshua 2:9).

Then Rahab goes on to profess her belief that “the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (2:11).

In other words, Rahab was saying, “I’ve rejected my people, my old way of life, my worthless idolatry. Your people are my people. Your God is my God.”

Exactly a century ago, archaeologists working at the site of ancient Jericho confirmed that the walls around the city collapsed with one fell swoop. All the walls, that is, except one small section. Between the two walls in that one section was a house where, well over 1,000 before Christ, Rahab and her family waited to be rescued by the two spies and led to safety.

What’s remarkable is that toward the end of Joshua chapter 6, Joshua affirms: “And Rahab lives among our people to this day.” In other words, she was accepted as a member of God’s chosen people. No longer was it “Rahab of Jericho.” No longer was it “Rahab the prostitute.” The prophet Joshua considered her “Rahab the woman of faith in the one true God.”

Even more amazing, we learn at the end of the book of Ruth and later at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew that Rahab was the great great great great grandmother of Jesus.

In other words, two former pagans, both moon worshippers, were deliberately chosen by God to be part of Jesus’ lineage.

God gave them the gift of faith. And then God uses risky, difficult, and sometimes even life-threatening circumstances to test and stretch and grow their faith. They didn’t barely have faith. Instead, their faith became vibrant, robust, and strong.

Even more remarkable, God can give the gift of faith to anyone.

If He gives someone that wonderful gift, God wants to see it grow and mature and bear fruit — fruit by what we say — and fruit by what we do. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

An Unlikely Hero of the Faith

It’s bad enough that I’m likely the great great great grandson of slave owners.

But 4,000 years ago “father” Abraham was a slave owner. Just as bad, for the first 75 years of his life Abram was an idolater. He openly and publicly worshipped various false gods in the Mesopotamian city of Ur. This ancient city was particularly famous for its worship of the moon god. If you had attended Abram’s 75th birthday party, I’m sure you would have liked the guy. He was a crusty old pagan. An idol worshipper. A slave owner. What was there not to like?

Sometime after Abraham’s 75th birthday, God reveals Himself to Abraham and gives him the gift of faith in the one true God. The Lord then calls Abraham to leave Ur and “go where I will show you.”

While Abraham is slowly making his way toward the Promised Land, God gives Abraham a set of amazing promises that reverberate to our own day.

Some time later, after arriving in the Promised Land, two sets of kingdoms go to war and Abraham’s nephew is taken away as a prisoner. Abraham demonstrates amazing courage and defeats the opposing set of kingdoms. Then, while talking with one of the pagan kings, Abraham does something even more amazing. To the king of Sodom, of all places, Abraham publicly declares his faith in “the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.”

A short time later, the Lord reiterates his amazing promises to Abraham. In response, in Genesis chapter 15, verse 6, we read one of the Old Testament’s most famous verses: “Abrah believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

Did that make Abraham a saint overnight? No. For decades Abraham struggles between belief and unbelief, between faith and fear, between courage and cowardice behaviors.

Many years go by. Finally, at about age 115, Abraham is called by God to make the ultimate sacrifice and for the first time in recorded Scripture, Abraham instantly responds with obedience. Further, he responds with a depth of faith that hasn’t been seen since the days of Noah.

No wonder the apostle Paul later called Abraham “the father of all who believe” whether Jew or Gentile, whether before Christ or after Christ. It took many years, but Abraham truly became a hero of the faith.

Today Abraham still is revered by nearly half the world’s 6.75 billion residents.

More importantly in God’s plan, Abraham is the great great great great great grandfather of Jesus Christ.

If God can transform Abraham, imagine what he can do in the life of the person you consider the least likely to ever believe in God (or believe in him again).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Surprised by Faith

Yesterday I mentioned a core theme we see presented from start to finish in the New Testament, starting with what some scholars believe was the earliest book—the epistle of James.

That core theme?

True living faith planted by God in one’s heart is to be professed and ultimately put into practice by one’s actions, deeds, and good works.

Allow me to translate what I’ve just said in my own life and experience.

God didn’t save me because I was such an example of faith and godliness.

The David Sanford writing this blog post is descended from a long line of unbelievers stretching back at least a century.

Long before I was born, numerous Southern plantation owners named “Sanford laid claimed to 259 African slaves in the state of Georgia alone in the year 1850.

Long before that a fiery preacher hailing from Medway, Massachusetts, by the name of David Sanford served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary war against Great Britain

The David Sanford writing this blog post was at least four generations removed from any family claim to faith and godliness when God first spoke to my heart.

Believe me, I can’t tell you how thankful I am that God planted the seed of faith in my heart when I was a child, and how thankful I am that God caused that faith to take deep roots in my heart by the time I was 13 years old.

But whatever faith I claim to have had as a teenager or young man doesn’t matter to God.

Instead, God wants to know if His seed of faith has really taken root in my heart. He’s looking at the evidence. Skip what I write and say. Is there solid evidence that I’m bearing good fruit in my family, in my church family, in my neighborhood and community, and in my job?

After all, true faith always produces good works. The two go hand in hand.

What’s your story? I invite you to write to me today.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Faith Produces Results!

The past few days I’ve been meditating again on the principles of faith taught in what probably was the first of the New Testament’s 27 books—the book of James.

Among other things, we quickly see that James is much more interested in one’s practice of faith than in one’s mere profession of faith. James wants to see results!

So it’s clear, James wants his readers — and that includes every Christian or potential Christian down through the ages, around the globe, from every continent and nation and region and locale…including you and me — to publicly profess our faith.

Faith is a gift from God that is planted in the heart, takes root . . . and then is professed or confessed or expressed through our words. But that’s not all.

True living faith in one’s heart is ultimately put into practice by one’s actions, deeds, and good works.

All the apostles of Jesus Christ — and Jesus Himself — agree with what James says. In fact, these truths are woven into the fabric of the entire New Testament.

Among other places, we see these truths clearly laid out toward the end of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. We also see them preached by the apostle Peter after the Day of Pentecost in the early chapters of Acts.

Furthermore, we see them proclaimed by the apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 2 verses 8 to 10, in all three chapters of his letter to Titus, and many of his other New Testament writings.

Just don’t make my mistake of thinking that if I love God, believe in Jesus Christ with all my heart, and am doing plenty of good works, that God won’t “disappear” and test my faith to the limit.

You’ll find my story posted on the home page of my website.