Dancing With the Porcupine

James 4:1-2

Vance Havner once remarked, “There are a lot of Christians like porcupines-they have a lot of good points, but you can’t get near them.”  How is it that God’s beloved children can become such a bristly bunch?  Is there a way we can get past our sharp edges? 

John Ortberg in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them writes:  “As a general rule, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships:  withdrawl and attack.  They head for a tree or stick out their quills.  … Porcupines don’t want to be alone.  In the late autumn, a young porcupine’s thoughts turn to love.  But love turns out to be a risky business when you’re a porcupine.  Females are open to dinner and a movie only once a year; the window of opportunity closes quickly.  And a girl porcupine’s “No” is the most widely respected turndown in all the animal kingdom.  This is the porcupine’s dilemma:  How do you get close without getting hurt?”    That’s the question we ask ourselves sometimes when we attend church or when we date or try to strengthen our marriages or settle in to a new work place.  Dare I risk the quills of another’s self protection?  What we tend to forget is that we are always someone else’s porcupine.

James tackles relationships in today’s passage.  He seeks to get at the root of much of our relationship problems.  “What causes fights and quarrels among you?”  James says that the battles begin we we don’t feel we are getting our needs met.  We aren’t getting the necessary praise, admiration, attention or sympathy we feel we should… so we quarrel and fight to get it.  James feels there is a better way to get ones needs met:  Ask the Almighty!  Ask Him to supply your needs… your desire to be loved… your quest for significance.  Unplug yourself from getting your needs met solely through others.  Humans do not have the capacity to keep you charged up for very long… for they are plugged into you attempting to do the same thing!  I will share more about asking God for what you need later on in the week.

But for now, let’s get back to our poor porcupine.  Ortberg shares:  “Miracle of miracles: relationship does happen-even for porcupines.  On rare occasions, one porcupine will share space with another, and they become friends.  … Porcupines learn to keep their barbs to themselves.  Not only that, they figure out how to get together at least long enought to make sure that another generation will come along.  In an image too wonderful to be made up, naturalist David Costello writes, “Males and females may remain together for some days before mating.  They may touch paws and even walk on their hind feet in the so-called ‘dance of the porcupines.'”

Great picture!  Sometimes church is like that… pulling in our quills long enough to find a way to waltz.  When we each learn get our needs met in God – nobody gets hurt… and the dance goes on.

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Facing Down “The Donald”

James 3:13-18

Last night I watched the latest installment of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.  In this show two teams work hard to win at a task assigned to them by Trump.  After the winning team is announced, the losing team’s manager has to pick two of the weakest players (in his estimation) to join him in “the board room” to face Mr. Trump.  One of them is then fired and leaves the show.  The person “let go” is usually the team manager in that it was his or her management skills that help land them there.  Last night, however, the boom was lowered on a young man because he “lacked passion” and had “puppy dog syndrome.”  The other men indeed had fire, but it seemed to be the destructive type.  Why is it that ambition… of the ruthless kind… seems to be highly praised in today’s society?  Is this cut- throat mentality a requirement for us to acheive success?

Is ambition a good thing or a bad thing?  Zig Ziglar quotes an anonymous writer who said that ambition, fueled by compassion, wisdom and integrity, is a powerful force for good. … Fueled by greed and the lust for power, ambition is a destructive force that ultimately does irreparable damage to the individual in its grasp and to the people within its reach. (www.ziglartraining.org)

James would agree that the answer lies in what we are ambitious about.  Are we filled with envy and selfish ambition?  Then we are filled with disorder and we practice evil.  Are will filled with ambition for peace, mercy and to produce good fruit? (v. 17)  Then we are peacemakers who sow in peace and will one day harvest a bumper crop of righteousness.

C. S. Lewis wrote:  “Ambition!  We must be careful what we mean by it.  If it means the desire to get ahead of other people – which is what I think it does mean – then it is bad.  If it means simply wanting to do a thing well, then it is good.  It isn’t wrong for an actor to want to act his part as well as it can be possibly be acted, but the wish to have his name in bigger type than the other actors is a bad one.” (God in the Dock)

By the way, that “unambitious” man that Trump fired last night had this to say at the end of the broadcast:  “”I left The Apprentice fired and then walked right into my dream job in construction management.  Going from fired to hired is an awesome feeling.  My wife is now sleeping at night and I can enjoy myself in life and enjoy my family.”   Not bad for a puppy dog!

The Right to Remain Silent

James 3:1-8

“Pianist Arthur Rubenstein once told this story on himself.  Some years ago he came down with a stubborn case of hoarseness.  The newspapers were full of reports about smoking and cancer; so he decided to consult a throat specialist.  “I searched his face for a clue during the 30 minute examination,” Rubenstein said, “but it  was expressionless.  He told me to come back the next day.  I went home full of fears, and I didn’t sleep that night.”  The next day there was another long examination and again an ominous silence.  “Tell me,” the pianist exclaimed.  “I can stand the truth.  I’ve lived a full rich life.  What’s wrong with me?”  The physician said, “You talk too much.” (Bits and Pieces, January 1990, p. 15.)

James’ message today is about as blunt as that throat specialist.  Pastor Tommy Nelson says, “This passage does liposuction on your sin nature, it doesn’t try to warm you to repentance it just flat nails you.”  This issue is of high importance to James.  He includes controlling your tongue in his list of what constitutes “pure” religion. (1:27)  In chapter two James considers the relationship of faith and works and uses the term “says” 5 times… contrasting it with true faith that works (mentioned 10 times). 

We all make mistakes, James says, but if we could master this one thing- holding our tongues- we can control the rest of ourselves in every way. (3:2)   Wise women and men of God:  Reserve the right to remain silent.

Ain’t Nobody Help Nobody in This City

James 2:14-18

Stuart Brisco tells the story of the extraordinary kindness of a stranger toward him and his wife when he first      moved to America from Great Britain:  “I was speaking in Chicago at one of the big hotels in the Loop. Jill and I had never driven to Chicago before. It was pouring rain. I knew my gas was getting a little low, but I knew there would be lots of filling stations in Chicago. I was wrong. I ran out of gas in a thunderstorm—in the fast lane—in rush hour.

We were totally new to this country, and I had no idea what to do. I got out, and immediately my suit was drenched. To their credit, the people of Chicago did not ignore me. Everyone wound down their window and told me exactly what they thought about me, even though they didn’t know who I was. A beat-up old car came along, and the window went down. I didn’t bother listening anymore, so I had no idea what the man said. I stood there quite a long time hoping something would happen. Nothing happened except for the verbal abuse. Then, to my amazement, I saw this same beat-up old car coming around again. Without a word the driver pulled in behind me, jumped out, lifted the trunk, and got out a gallon can of gas. He went to my gas tank, poured it in, and still didn’t say a word. He put the cap back on, and turned to walk away. I said, “Hold it! What’s going on?”

“No speak English! No speak English,” was his answer.

I found he did speak a little English, and I discovered what had happened. He had seen my plight and gone off the freeway to a filling station, where he bought a gallon of gas. He got back on the freeway going the other way, got off, got on again, and worked his way around to us. He didn’t even want me to pay for the gas. I discovered he had just arrived from Puerto Rico. He had been in Chicago a week, and this is what he said: “Ain’t nobody helps nobody in this city.” (Stuart Briscoe from His Sermon “What about Shaky Marriages?”)

As Christians we would never shower a person in need with expletives!  James says we are more likely to shower them in “Christian Speak.”   We say to someone without clothes and daily food:  “Go, I wish you well: keep warm and well fed.”   Our words might be more pleasant on the ear, but the net result of both approaches is nothing.   James says faith without works is nothing.  “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”

Want to demonstrate your faith to an unbelieving world?   Then be prepared to help a few stranded motorists on the highway of life.   As Matthew Henry once said:  “Wherever the Providence of God casts us, we should desire and endeavor to be useful; and, when we cannot do the good we would, we must be ready to do the good we can.”

The Main Event: Justice vs. Mercy

James 2:12-13

Quick!  What fictional character said:  We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition: A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.”?

Those were the words of John Keese, the head instructor of the Cobra Kai karate school in the original The Karate Kid movie.  (1984)  So different are the words of James:  “… judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

In no place is mercy’s triumph over justice more visible than on Calvary’s cross.  It was there that justice was served… but mercy won the day.

Eugene Peterson writes:  “…forgiveness is the last word.  I take no interest in eliminating the tension between justice and forgiveness by taking justice off the table.  …  But I am interested in reintroducing the priority of this Jesus-prayed forgiveness into our lives.  In matters of sin and injustice and evil, the last prayer of Jesus  (“forgive them, they know not what they do”)  is not for justice but for forgiveness. …  Assuming that the criminal crucified next to Jesus was receiving a just death sentence (he said as much himself), the sentence was not revoked in Jesus’ prayer.  The criminal died for his crime.  But forgiveness trumped justice.  It always does.  (Tell it Slant, pp. 247, 248.)

Having received such mercy, we need to be extending this mercy generously to those around us…   to the co-worker who has done us wrong… to the friend that has assasinated our character… to the family members that took advantage of us.  Find mercy to give them, by reflecting on the mercy YOU have been given.  It is time to enroll in the Jesus academy of mercy and to drop out of Cobra Kai.

Unlock the Pews!

James 2:1-7

James has some harsh words for those that show favoritism in church.  The church has not always been quick to pick up on his ideas.  Historians Will and Ariel Durrant made these remarks about 18th Century worship in England:

Class distinctions prevailed in the churches; the rich had special pews near the pulpit, the tradesman sat behind them, the common people sat or stood in the rear; and when the service was over, the commoners remained in their places while their superiors filed out in slow dignity.  In some London churches, when too many of the poor came to worship, the periwigged members fled, locking their pews behind them, and seeking fresher air.  (The Age of Voltaire, p. 117.)

Locked pews, ranked seating, a parade of wealth to end a service… not what we are used to in this day and age.  But are we imune to favoritism?   Do we have friends among the poor?  Do we hang out with the less fortunate?  Do we just have a check book relationship with them or an investment of their lives?   James says to show favoritism for any reason is to “slander the noble name of Him to whom you belong.”  The consequences for favorism might cost us more than we can imagine.

The devotional Our Daily Bread tells this story:  “In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India.

So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” That usher’s prejudice not only betrayed Jesus but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior.  (Our Daily Bread, March 6, 1994.)

Time to unlock the pews!

Radical Religion

James 1:27

The word “religion” has always had a negative connotation in my growth as a believer.  “It is not about being religious, it is about having a relationship,'” I was always taught.  A popular song when I was a young Christian declared: “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.”  The word has fallen on hard times.  That is why I am surprised and delighted to see James pick it up, dust it off and reclaim it.  He writes:  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Like it or not the world sees us as a religion.  The question James poses is:  What kind of religion do they see?  Is it a religion brimming with life, eager to help those in need?  Or is it a dead religion that is pretty much like the rest of the world… having been polluted by it?

Best selling Christian author David Platt is pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama.  In his new book, Radical, He writes about how he challenged his church to live out James 1:27.  He writes:  “…we decided to contact the Department of Human Resources and take responsibility for making sure they had enough families to care for the needy children in our county.  They needed 150 families, and within two weeks 160 families from our church signed up for foster care and adoption.  Today, all across our faith family, men and women  are freeing up space in their homes for foster children, while others are spending their savings and investment accounts on adopting children from Birmingham and around the world.”

This “radical” religion is pleasing in the sight of God.   As a dad that took in a foster child for a brief period a few years ago, it brings tears to my eyes to see this church’s courageous attempt to please the heart of the Father.