Pastor’s Pen

Friday, February 2nd, 2019

The Pursuit of Happiness

John, the apostle, opens the curtain on a scene of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples in John 13.  The Master, who humbled Himself to this menial task that night, taught His disciples and us two important truths.  First, daily cleansing from daily defilement of sin.  Although we are completely cleansed in relationship at salvation, the need for unbroken fellowship hinges on confession and the forsaking of daily sin (I John 1:9).  Secondly, He taught that when we humbly care for the needs of others, we are most like our Savior.  He declared that He had given the disciples an example.  He closed the lesson with these words, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17).

The Bible has much to say about the route to happiness.  Job declared, “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth:  therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17).  The Psalmist wrote, “Happy is the people that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people whose God is the LORD” (Psalm 144:15).  Solomon, the wise man, wrote in Proverbs 16:20, “He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good:  and whoso trusteth in the LORD, happy is he.”  Simon Peter, in speaking to the persecute saints, encouraged them in I Peter 3:14a, “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye.”

Today many seek happiness from a bottle, amusements, relationships, or some experience or circumstance.  I can remember a catchy tune that had everyone humming and in a happy mood.  Bobby McFerrin wrote it in 1988 with the simple thought, “Don’t worry.  Be happy.”  Although there were half dozen stanzas, the repetitive chorus was what stuck in everyone’s minds, including mine:

Here’s a little song I wrote

You might want to sing it note for note

Don’t worry.  Be happy.

In every life we have some trouble

When you worry you make it double

Don’t worry.  Be happy.

I ran across a quote by Lev Grossman that sums up the contradiction to this happy little song.  Grossman stated, “If there is a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.  Words and thoughts don’t change anything.  Language and reality are kept strictly apart.”  I learned years ago that life is not made up of dreams.  It is made up of decisions.

A gallop poll revealed that although sixty percent of Americans have some feelings of happiness only four out of ten say they have a satisfying purpose for life.  The single-minded pursuit of happiness appears to ironically leave people less happy.

Who wouldn’t wish to have a life of happiness?  No problems, no disappointments, no struggles of any kind, just daily peace, and tranquility with physical and emotional enjoyment.  My personal experience and understanding from scripture is that in this life it is impossible.  In this world we have tribulation.  Man is born to adversity.  Job said it best in Job 5:7, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”  Yet, we press on seeking happiness in unreasonable and unscriptural ways.

Some have the misguided thought that happiness is in the possession of wealth.  The ancient king, Midas, wished all he touched would be turned to gold.  The legend is that his wish was granted but he nearly starved to death coming to realize what the Scriptures profess.  “For a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (Luke 12:15).  Alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, started in ancient Egypt and climaxed in western Europe in the 13th through the 15th centuries as a belief that a substance could be found that would turn base metals into gold and silver not realizing that the process would make gold cheap as the rocks of the field.  I read where a jungle tribe would catch monkeys by placing shiny trinkets in a clay jar whose mouth was so small that the little monkeys would be unable to remove their hands once he had clutched the trinket.  Rather than give up the prize, they would submit to capture.  So many are entrapped into believing true happiness comes from possessions.

Others have chosen the possession of health to always make them happy.  The fact remains that disease, sickness, and death invade these physical bodies in spite of all we or medical science in general can do.  We certainly should care for our bodies as the temple of God but God never intended for us to take these bodies that are acclimated to this earth into Heaven.  The Greeks held their Olympiads.  The Irish held their Tailteann games of Lughnasa 2,500 years ago.  Ancient Rome had its Actian games established by Emperor Augustus.  In England, during the reign of Henry VIII, the sons of noblemen were advised to give themselves to sports and leave study and learning to the sons of the lower class.  Still we press on with our miracle drugs, health supplements, gyms and workout stations, only to prolong the inevitable.

The culture of the 1960’s and 70’s introduced freedom as the answer to happiness with unbridled expression through rebellion, drugs, immorality, and the rock culture of today.  People who declared their rights and their disgust against being told what to do ultimately discovered, as the prodigal’s son, the far country is not a happy place.

The conclusion of the matter in discovering happiness is the difficulty in defining it.  To me the solution is the one word, “obedience.”  The cloud over mankind’s long history from Adam in the Garden to today is disobedience.  Obedience to God’s precepts and principles and their application to life’s issues produce happiness.  

Ann Sullivan wrote to a friend a detailed account of the struggle with Helen Keller that occurred one day.  She closed by saying; “I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me.  I have thought about it a great deal and the more I think, I am certain that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge and love enters the mind.”

God has a perfect plan for individuals, families, churches, governments, and all other entities.  One would assume His plan would provide the best avenue for happiness since He is all-wise.  Given time and space, there is ample proof that deviation from scriptural principles always ends in heartache, disappointment, and unhappiness.  Still we press on with the outcome-based reasoning assuming what has historically proven unsuccessful will somehow be different for us and will bring happiness.  Name any topic.  Breech any subject.  Raise any question and you can find God’s answer within God’s Word.  Follow it and expect to be on the road to happiness.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Adversity – a Divine Appointment

What do you say when no words suffice?  What do you do when the worst day, your worst nightmare, becomes a reality?  When what you pray never happens, happens?

In the course of a lifetime as a pastor, I have had my share of personal adversity and shared in countless encounters with others who were going through the fires.  Is God blinded to our plight?  I have listened to some say, “How could God allow this to happen?” as though somehow God is to blame when times are difficult.  The truth is that our sovereign God not only allows adversity to enter our lives, but often appoints it as part of His perfect plan.  (I Thessalonians 13:3)  This is contrary to the prosperity proclaimers who teach constant wellness and problem-free living as a sign of faith and God’s approval.  It would be hard to explain that hollow philosophy to the Apostle Paul, blind Fanny Crosby, William Borden or the untold millions representing the best of the best that daily deal with adversity.

My Father’s way may twist and turn

My heart may throb and ache,

But in my soul I’m glad to know,

He maketh no mistake.

My cherished plans may go astray,

My hopes may fade away,

But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead,

For He doth know the way.

Tho’ night be dark and it may seem

That day will never break,

I’ll pin my faith, my all, in Him,

He maketh no mistake.

There’s so much now I cannot see,

My eyesight’s far too dim,

But come what may,

I’ll simply trust and leave it all to Him.

For by and by the mist will lift,

And plain it all He’ll make,

Through all the way, tho’ dark to me,

He made not one mistake.

-A.M. Overton, 1932

I marvel that we, like Job, would question God’s right to do what He chooses.  After all these years, I have come to the understanding by experience and by scriptural promise that I can trust Him to always allow what is best for me and glory for Himself.  Am I saying that some things, this side of heaven, are not difficult?  Absolutely not!  I am saying I serve a God who loves me, cares for me, and in whom I can fully trust.

A number of years ago, in the hours just past midnight, a man and his wife, who called me pastor, called me to a modest little mobile home.  When I stepped from my automobile, both fell into my arms and wept as though their bodies would burst asunder.  Their daughter had brought their grandson to their home earlier in the evening then returned to this little mobile home, and in a final act of desperation and depression had taken her own life.  As my tears mingled with theirs, I remember feeling completely and totally incapable of doing anything except trust the One Who makes no mistakes.

No one is excluded from adversity.  There is no medication to prevent it.  There are no classes to keep people from it.  Adversity invades our lives for numerous reasons.  First and foremost, we are human beings born into an imperfect world, fragile and temporal, surrounded by varied circumstances that are part of the natural course of life.  Secondly, the adversity others are experiencing often spill over into our lives.  Not to bear one another’s burdens is only possible when living an isolated, selfish existence.  Last of all, God’s children need adversity.  It is in those times when we see ourselves in reality and see God in His power.

John Piper, on the eve of his own cancer surgery, wrote about cancer as an opportunity to glorify God.  His words were, “Don’t waste the cancer.”  By faith each believer, like Piper, should be confident that God’s will for his or her lives is infinitely better than theirs.  Disability brings vulnerability, but also availability for God to use us.  Jacob, who was the deceiver, did not become a prince with God until he was broken at Penial.  If there had been no Bedford Jail, there would not have been Pilgrim’s Progress that John Bunyan wrote during his adversity.  The abandoned broken heart of Charles Weigle was driven to write, “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus.”  When Dr. Lee Roberson’s baby girl, Joy, died he purchased acreage in Harrison Bay and started Camp Joy.  Children by the thousands attended that Bible camp at no cost for decades.  Bill and Cathy Rice of Murfreesboro, Tennessee started the Bill Rice Ranch after learning their daughter was deaf.

For many years, Psalm 84 has been my favorite Psalm.  Verse number six pictures a dry valley on the route to Jerusalem that was marvelously converted into a place of springs.  “Who passing thru the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools.”  The word, Baca, is our word for tears.  God took the bitter waters of Mara and made them sweet.  God brought pleasantness instead of bitterness to Naomi even though she was an exiled widow from Moab.  Paul concluded that he would take pleasure “in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”  This grizzled old warrior had been thru the valley of tears and made it a well.

Paul and Silas sang praises at midnight with bleeding backs from a Philippian jail.  It is said that Charles Wesley was driven from village to village pelted with stones for preaching the Gospel, yet wrote, “Jesus lover of my soul let me to Thy bosom fly.”  Catherine Booth, when dying with cancer of the throat and unable to speak, called for a piece of paper and wrote, “My Jesus I love Thee, I know Thou art mine.”  John Nelson, a convert of Wesley, once imprisoned in Bradford wrote, “My jail cell stunk worse than a hog sty, yet my soul was so filled with the love of God that it was a paradise to me.”  In the midst of his adversity, Job wrote, “Where is God my Maker who giveth songs in the night” (Job 35:10).  God sent Ananias on an errand to inform the blinded Apostle Paul “how great things he must suffer for my name sake” (Acts 9:16).  Paul referred to adversities as light afflictions. (II Corinthians 4:17)

When trials invade our lives, we should keep doing right.  Rely on God’s Word.  Never should we doubt in the dark what God has shown us in the light.  Remember, you are passing thru the valley of tears, not staying in it.  Coming out on the other side, we can be a comfort to others with the same comfort wherewith we have been comforted. (II Cor. 1:4).  God uses adversities to wean us from this earth, prove His promises and His sufficiency, while making us partakers of His holiness. (Hebrews 12:10)

My cage confines around;

 Abroad I cannot fly;

But though my wing is closely bound, 

My heart’s at liberty;

For prison walls cannot control

The flight, the freedom of the soul.

  Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Are You Prepared?

     In the early morning hours of December 22, 2018, my heart suddenly decided it didn’t wish to continue its normal routine of the past 76 years.  A dear friend broke most of the speeding laws getting me to the Athens hospital. A group of caring professionals (some who call me pastor) did their thing then sent me by ambulance to Park West Hospital in Knoxville.  I was told later that the accompanying paramedics had to convince my heart the second time that its work wasn’t complete.  I spent five days in Park West constantly surrounded by individuals who were focused on my recovery.  How do you say thank you to so many nameless, faceless people who interrupted their lives to care for an old pastor most had never met?  How do you say thank you to the Christian community from coast to coast that interceded before the throne on my behalf?  
     After two weeks plus have passed, I have determined two responses from the happenings of the morning of December 22.  First, I have determined not to make this the topic of every conversation and second, I want to drink in the eternal and temporal lessons rarely given to a mortal man this side of eternity. What was it that brought such a calmness of soul and peace of heart while this old body was being treated in a fashion certainly not calmly or peacefully.
     The word that keeps coming back to my mind over and over again is “preparation.”  For you see, my entire life has been a preparation for those moments of the morning of December 22, 2018.  Hundreds of thousands of hours of trusting and serving my Savior resulted in just such an opportunity to be still and know that He was God.
     All of life is preparatory.  It is a stark truth that each person has before him a journey of eternal duration. No one has the option to excuse oneself or choose the day of departure.  We do have this brief and fleeting segment of our eternity called “life” and within this brief time we can prepare for the inevitable.  Do we use this time wisely or ignore its purpose or even spend it wastefully on things that in the grand scheme of things really don’t matter?
     Some years ago a grand trunk line railroad offered a prize of $2,500.00 to the person who would suggest the three best words to be used on the warning signs at their railroad crossings.  The person fortunate enough to win the $2,500.00 offered these three words which we see almost daily as we are brought to the intersections of public roads and the iron rails of the train tracks:  Stop, Look, Listen.  But these words avail nothing for the safety of anyone unless they are heeded.  What avail the word “stop” if people will not stop?  What protection does the word “look” afford if people will not look?  What warning does the word “listen” give if people will not listen?
     My intention is not to sermonize, although tempted, but to be reminded and remind others to be prepared.  All the pharmacies of Athens do not contain enough medicine to kill a simple germ or ease a single pain unless the medicine is taken.  A man can die of thirst in the middle of crystal clear fountains unless he drinks.  No lifeboat will be the avenue to prevent a drowning if one refuses to get into the lifeboat.
     The word prepare is soaked in simplicity.  It is the lack of it that creates anxiety.  There is great wisdom in the word.  The lowly ant is elevated to the wise quartet of Proverbs 30 because it engaged in preparation for its pending survival.
     Abraham Lincoln said of preparation,  “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend eight six hours sharpening my axe.  Mark Twain expressed its importance when he humorously stated, “It takes me two or three days to prepare an impromptu speech.”  The student unprepared for the test will fail.  The team unprepared for the game will lose.  The army unprepared for the war will be defeated.
     Scriptures are replete with admonition to be prepared.  Amos the prophet was God’s thunder over Israel.  In the midst of a nation that had turned its attention from God to embark on idolatry and riotous living, Amos’ message was simple, “Prepare to meet thy God” (Amos 4:12).
The clarion call reverberates through man’s history.  The power show of nature, the fury of a storm, the belching’s of the volcano, the gale force winds, the unbearable cold, and the baking desert cry out to feeble man, “get ready” for you will meet the One Who holds your soul in His hand.  You must meet God.  All must; rich, poor, wise, illiterate.  All.  You can avoid worship services. You can ignore the preacher.  You can deceive men and yourself.  You can laugh at the Bible and deny there is eternity and judgment, but God will have the last word. You will meet God.  Man cannot escape this meeting by pleading ignorance.  The heavens declare it.  The truth is so plain and seen so clearly as a path of tar across a field of snow.
     People prepare for everything and are ready for everything except death and to meet God.  The world of people strives daily to amass their fortunes.  The Hollywood establishment parades in its finest.  The world of academia works to make profundity from simplicity, and religion with all its trappings applauds its own self-righteousness.  What a terrible solemn thing for the unsaved to meet God unprepared.  To stand on nothing before the One Who created everything.  To have no refuge when judgment thunders and judgment verdicts are rendered.
     The fact that God asks us to prepare shows that preparation is possible.  Over five decades ago on January 2, 1966, I received God’s payment for my sin debt in the vicarious substitutionary death of Christ.  That night on my knees I prepared for eternity and secured my soul in Christ.  Every moment of every day since then including the early morning hours of December 22, I have been ready to meet the God Who created me, loved me, and redeemed me, and Who I continue to serve today.  Are you prepared?