Tongue-in-Check

August 31, 2011

Let me share a story about an old mountain minister and a young boy in the congregation.

During the children’s message this old pastor was trying to convey the sovereignty of God to his young parishioners – and to the listening ears of the rest of the congregation.  As he began his summation one precocious lad tried to chime in: “Preacher…”  The sage old minister looked at the boy, but continued with his conclusion.

Again the boy, begging for acknowledgement, said: “Preacher…”

After a third interruption the preacher finally responded: “Yes, Lad?”

The boy offered: “Preacher, I know one thang God cain’t do.”

The minister gently corrected: “No. There is nothing God cannot do.”  But the boy insisted: “But, Preacher, I know one thang God cain’t do.”

Finally relenting, the preacher inquired: “OK. Why don’t you tell us what you think God can’t do.”  The boy confidently expressed his observation: “God cain’t make your mouth no bigger without moving your ears back!”

Ah! A big mouth – the bane of many a preacher. But my ministerial colleagues and I are not the sole sufferers of this malady.  Many who sit in the pews each week also exhibit a tendency to run at the mouth. And so do many who never darken a church doorway.  It is a common affliction.

The great 14th Century theologian-Reformer, John Wycliffe – most renowned for being the first to translate the Bible into English – recognized the power of the tongue:

“The tongue breaks bone, although the tongue itself has none.”

Similarly, James, the brother of the Lord Jesus wrote:

“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3.5-8)

I suspect more carnage has been caused by the destructive power of loose and lying tongues than by any war.  The spark of a little gossip fans into flame, the fire spreads, resulting in inestimable damage.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Proverbs 12.8 tells us:

“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Do you see that?  With a simple conscious adjustment of the employment of our tongues we can be transformed from destroyers to restorers.

What great news! At least it would be, except, according to James, “no man can tame the tongue”.  What could he possibly mean?

James is revealing that mere will-power cannot lead to the radical change we need. No doubt a conscious effort will generate some behavioral improvement. But our condition is more chronic than most imagine. Jesus tells us the root of our problem is spiritual not muscular. (Mark 7.21-23)  It’s like trying to domesticate a wolf – eventually the true nature will re-emerge.  In fact, James says though man may tame wild animals, the tongue will still not be tamed. Not by our own effort, anyway.  The true nature eventually resurfaces.

No need to despair.  The power for transformation is found in Jesus.  When we embrace Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel, everything changes.  Our minds and hearts are renewed, so we begin to think and desire differently.  And out of renewed hearts come redeeming words.  As the psalmist discovered:

“The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just.” (Psalm 37.30)

***

NOTE: This post first appeared as an article for a column in the Bristol Herald Courier.

Who Does What?

August 31, 2011

Reading Jerry Bridges’ book Discipline of Grace, especially chapter 6, prompted me to think about the importance of understanding “Who does What?” in our salvation.

Here are a few observations that I hope will provide some clarification:

  • Many are frustrated to unfortunate degree because they do not understand that sanctification is a process.
  • Many are spiritually stunted because they do not realize spiritual growth and maturity is a process in which we must actively and intentionally participate.
  • Many people just assume that, now that they are “New Creations”, Christ-likeness will inevitably emerge from within them whether they do anything or not.
  • But spiritual growthis not automatic.  God calls us to cooperate with his grace, by actively engaging in the Means of Grace (Word, Sacraments, Prayer), responding to the Spirit by his grace.
  • The confusion seems to be rooted in misunderstanding the differences and the relationship between justification (conversion) and sanctification (growth). 
  • While it is true that we can do nothing to bring about our justification, our new birth, any more than we can do anything to bring about our physical birth; it is not true that we can do nothing, or should do nothing to cultivate healthy spiritual growth.  Just as in our physical growth, where we develop in accord with our God-given DNA in no small part through healthy eating and activity, we grow spiritually by God-given grace AND healthy activity (i.e. Means of Grace, Obedience, Active Mission and Spiritual Disciplines).

“Liberalism says that the gospel won’t work unless the message is changed. Some evangelicals say that the gospel won’t work unless the method is changed. But biblical Christianity believes that the gospel will work, and that God has given us both the message and the method.”

~ Ligon Duncan

It has been said:

When people visit a church they are not so much looking for friendly people as they are looking for new friends. If all they wanted was friendliness they could go to almost any store in the mall and find it.

I have always sensed that there is much truth in this statement.  But understanding this is one thing, knowing how to practically flesh it out is quite another.  It is a question of assimilation: How do we connect new folks with others in our church, and to the church itself, to a degree that these newcomers feel they can make it their home?

There are at least four ingredients that should be integrated and implemented:

1. Awareness of the Stranger in our midst

Sometimes churches are so in-grown that the people do not even seem to be aware of newcomers. They warmly greet one another, and chat with long-time friends to catch up on the week and to get the follow-up details from previous conversations. And this may be a genuine expression of caring people.  But when the focus is so zeroed-in on the old friends, the antenna sometimes fails to pick up the presence of the newcomer.

How should we resolve this? It’s simple.  Mike it a priority to look for unfamiliar faces first.

2. Greeting Strangers

It should go without having to be said, but it does little to no good to be aware of newcomers if we do not act on that awareness.  But it is something that does have to be said.  As I have seen, many times church members may scan the room for “outsiders” yet make no effort to greet them – much less welcome and befriend them.  So ingredient two is simple: Greet the Stranger.  Make the effort. Go talk to them.  In fact, it might be a good idea to implement the 2-Minute rule in many of our congregations.

What is the 2-Minute Rule?  The 2-Minute Rule is simply this:  after the service, or during a greeting time if one is offered during the service, church members are not to talk to their friends for the first two minutes, unless no guests are present.  Find the visitors. And if they are in a crowd talking to other church members, find someone you do not ordinarily talk to and talk to them.  Some may need to extend this to a 5-Minute Rule, especially in larger, newer, or growing churches.

3. Ask Questions to Connect

Simply saying “Hello” and/or “Welcome” is certainly better than ignoring the stranger, but it does not lead to developing relationships. It is not an adequate expression of the hospitality we, as Christians, are expected to practice.  We need to go further. We need to begin to connect.  It is only through personal connection that newcomers will begin to feel at home.

One question to avoid would be: “What are you doing here?” (Though, I suspect this probably is the question most frequently conveyed, whether spoken or not, in most in-grown churches.)

But what questions should we ask?  Well, there are many that could be appropriate.  Perhaps some suggested questions can be the topic of another post.  In the mean time, just ask any of the women who were in a college sorority.

4. Connect People to Other People

There is a general rule of assimilation that people need to make a minimum of five personal connections in a church to feel at home. (This is especially true for women.  And 80% of the time it is the wife who will make the final determination about what church a family will ultimately attend.)  So while it is great to connect through questions, it is equally important to introduce newcomers to other people.

Introduce people to those you know best. Introduce them to people you know who have similar interests, or are in a similar life stage, or live in the same neighborhood as the the strangers.  Introduce them to other newcomers.  Just realize that the more introductions the more opportunities to make those connections necessary to make one feel at home.

These ingredients in no way exhaust the components of an assimilation plan, but they are a simple and significant starting point.

A key principle in gospel centrality is a growing and deepening understanding of the gospel, and that the gospel is not just for unbelievers in need of conversion, but equally for the Believer in need of growth, strength, transformation, boldness, and humility.

The first thing to remember is that we must never separate the benefits (regeneration, justification, sanctification) from the Benefactor (Jesus Christ). The Christians who are most focused on their own spirituality may give the impression of being the most spiritual but from the New Testament’s point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality, that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about us and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety be nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.

~ Sinclair Ferguson

The Gentle Healer

August 28, 2011