Thursday, December 28, 2017

For What would One Die?

For what would you die? Perhaps for the protection of family and home. Perhaps for freedom and country. Would you die for your faith, for the honor of your Savior? These are all difficult questions. Let’s discover a truth that underlies the commitment of the Christian as we think about Abraham’s prayer/question.

Abraham says to God, “How can I know that I will possess the land You have promised?” As we have previously written, the path forward seemed sketchy at best. “Lord, how do I know I can count on you?”

God then gives some rather strange instructions. Slaughter some animals: a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. Cut them in half, and lay those halves parallel with a path in between. What is God doing? He is “cutting” a covenant. He is making a solemn promise in which He communicates to the beneficiary, Abraham, (and by the faith of Abraham, us) something like this: "May what has happened to these animals happen to me if I do not keep My promises to you.” God is saying, I stake my Life on it - the very existence of God. And it’s not mere words, because were God to violate His character - well - it’s impossible. If He did, then God would not be God. 

We can count on God, because God stakes His life on His promise. And we know that He would, because He did. In order to fulfill His promises Abraham and to us, He in fact sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us, bearing the curse of sin for us, that we might receive the righteousness of God. God was “cut in half” for us.

And so, the question in the title is a bit mis-leading. It is a bit of a trick, because we always read ourselves first into every question, into every situation. It’s ingrained in us. For what would I be willing to die? But the foundational truth is that we as Christians may be better prepared to sacrifice our lives because One has already given Himself for us. It’s not so much what we do, as what God has already done. Or, what we do is based on what God done. We love, because God first loved us. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We serve, because we have been served.

This passage, Genesis 15, includes this phrase quoted in three places in the New Testament: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Yes, God, having witnessed Your word and action, that “you would really rather die than live without us,” I believe, and I know I can count on You.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Lack of Vision

My wife looks at an old house and sees possibilities. I see lath and plaster and the prospects of lung cancer. She spots an old couch by the side of the road, and, along with Jackie, says, “it’s got good bones.” I say, “Who are we to question the good judgment of the people who ditched it?” She can see it. I can’t. A marriage made in .. heaven?

Abraham, following last post’s story, could not see a way forward. God is making plenty of grand promises about descendants and peoples - that all nations would actually be blessed through his. And yet there was no son, not a single one. A huge roadblock in the road forward. So Abraham now, and Sarah later, begin to rationalize and strategize, both from non-visionary points of view. Abraham thought that perhaps he could pretend that his servant was really his son. God said “no.” Sarah thought a substitute wife might solve the problem. It instead created many more. When there is no human way forward, our prayers should be humble, asking, “Lord, what do you have in mind? I’m willing to wait and see.”

Of course, for Abraham and Sarah, time was a problem. They were already past time for child-bearing, and more time wasn’t going to improve the odds, humanly speaking. They could not conceive of a path forward. They could not imagine a divinely-devised solution. They dared not envision a hopeful future. They failed to see beneath the surface, to the “good bones.”

Our prayers are not purposed to tell God what He can’t do. The impossibilities may flood our minds, but our task is not to inform God of His limitations. As we ponder, we must place God’s promise right before our eyes, so that what we see is colored by what we read and believe. As we pray, we must hold the promise firmly on our tongues, so that the words of our prayers must pass over them, flavoring the doubtings of our own words with heavenly hope.

Abraham prays a very small prayer to God when he says, “What can you possibly give me, since I have no son?” But when he finds himself properly married to the promise of God, he will find himself trusting and obeying, full of faith, and living in expectation rather than dread. He will soon have the experience of being surprised by the magnanimous wonder of a God “who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think,” (Ephesians 3:20 NAS95), something like a marriage made in heaven.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Prayer for Second-Best

If you follow these posts consecutively, you might be picking up that I have begun following Biblical accounts of man’s interactions with God. It might be good to make a couple points before we proceed.

We can only examine what the Bible records. Adam, Cain, and now Abram perhaps had many conversations with God. We must stick to the ones God chose to include in the written revelation. Also, Adam’s “really bad prayer” and Cain’s “really sad prayer” perhaps were not consciously prayers with God - perhaps more excuses, or arguments. But it seems to me, whenever we talk to God, whether reverent or not, we are in fact praying, though we may be doing it very badly. We also find that there are big gaps in recorded prayers. We have none from Enoch, though he walked with God. We have none from Noah, though a righteous man. I’m sure they prayed. But we can only go by the book. “Nothing more.” And we will be accountable unless we also adopt the route “nothing less."

So now we come to the Genesis giant, no, the Biblical giant, Abraham. God has already spoken to Abram on, by my count, four occasions, though we have no recorded replies. Here in Genesis 15, God says “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1 NAS95) Perhaps we could say that God is promising to be both Abram’a protection and his provision. The protection part has already been proven (Gen 14). But the provision part - and the part of that part that really matters - the provision of a son, Abram can’t see how that’s going to happen.

Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abraham is here praying according to the facts on the ground, the ones that he can see. He has looked in the mirror and seen the reflection of a very old man. He has looked across the dinner table at a wife of similar condition. The days of hope are over. So what is left? A second-best solution. Just Eliezer, whose name means “my God is a help.” Yet Abraham at this point seems to have embraced that old line, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Abraham is having a crisis of imagination - specifically, the ability to conceive and fathom possibilities that are only open to God. That is the very point here. Abraham cannot help himself. Only God can. And his prayer, and ours, begins to open our eyes to that truth, and to the experience of something that is better than second-best. 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Really Sad Prayer

We will follow Genesis 3’s “Really Bad Prayer” with Genesis 4’s “Really Sad Prayer.” Cain, fresh off the killing of Abel, is asked by God, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain answers, “I don’t know.” I suppose his answer is somewhat true. He’s dead. His blood has drained out. There is a little bit of him here, a little there. His body is somewhere on or under the ground. His spirit/soul is with the Lord. There’s really no easy answer to his whereabouts. Not so easy as if God had asked him, “Where are you?”

Cain’s next reply sounds insolent: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He assumes the answer is “no,” but we realize that it really is “yes.” God had put Adam in the middle of His creation in order to “cultivate and keep” it. We would assume that if you are to be a keeper of creation, then you would also, necessarily be your brother’s keeper, his guardian, his defender. Cain proved to be the opposite.

So we find that Cain, in his prayer/argument with God, actually uses God’s word, “keep,” in his attempt to relieve himself of responsibility. He has rejected his role in God’s creation, and he throws God’s word back in God’s face (and this is the 2nd recorded interaction between God and man!). So let’s have had enough of the notion that the Christian message is to affirm the innate goodness of man. These two prayers, Genesis 3 and 4, argue the opposite. And further, we ought to be somewhat fearful in our prayers, lest we sink to this level, in which we pray as though the only person on God’s green earth that matters is me, and I can make any vapid excuse I want and expect that God should honor it. God punishes Cain, taking away his ability to do that other thing that God had commended to mankind, not only to “keep,” but to “cultivate.” You violate the one; you lose the other.

But we are not done with Cain (and, neither is God). Cain responds to God’s pronouncement: “The punishment is greater than I can bear.” This is the really sad aspect of this prayer, and it is the cry of humankind ever since, to the degree that we actually understand the predicament of our broken relationship with God. This word “punishment” is also translated “iniquity,” and may include both the offense and the punishment that the offense deserves. Both will crush us, drive us into the dirt, so that we will “surely die,” separated forever from God. But it is exactly this prayer, this bad news, that drives us to be ready for the arrival of promised good news. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Really Bad Prayer

The Garden of Eden, so beautiful in Genesis 2, looks like a crime scene in Genesis 3. There, over in the shadows are two victims, or are they in fact perpetrators. And while it looks like they may be huddling against each other in fear, it also appears that they may have their backs turned toward one another.

If prayer is man talking with God, then the second recorded interaction between God and Adam is really bad prayer. It is the case of dis-eased expression from a sin-sick soul. God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the forbidden tree?” Adam’s (prayer) answer reads like this: “The woman you gave me - she gave to me, and I ate."

In crossing the boundary of disobedience, Adam passed from innocence to enlightenment. But this enlightenment was not progress. It was rather “the knowledge of good and evil,” or, the experience of evil at a physical, sensual level. And having experienced it, he could not un-experience it. His perceptions were forever changed. His partner was now also his rival;  his Friend now invoked servile fear. He had lost something innocent in his humanity, and had sadly become a different kind of creature.
Far from confessing, Adam blames the woman - “she gave it to me.” And he blames God as well: “The woman you gave me,”. As if to say, “God, you are ultimately responsible for this mess. It’s on you.” And far from interceding for his wife, he accuses her (a most devilish activity). Admittedly, it is pretty tough to intercede for someone who has sinned when we have already followed their lead. True intercession requires a connection, but also a distance. Adam blew it on all counts.

When we find ourselves in our own crime scene, and find that we ourselves are the criminals, our prayers need to be clear and accountable. Answer God’s questions. If you honestly don’t know the answer, admit it. Don’t blame. Allow your soul to be dissected. Don’t evade. Be humble and accept responsibility. Don’t make excuses. Admit what you did, take responsibility, and ask for mercy. 

Prayer is a high privilege, and should not be made a mockery. It is an invitation to speak with the Almighty, and we might do well to speak the truth. It is an opportunity to give glory to God, which we steal when we seek to establish our own righteousness. It is a chance to display our intended humanity, as we think, and speak, and ask, and believe - something lesser creatures cannot do.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"Where Are You?"

I’m blind on the inside of my mouth. My tongue is clumsy and can’t see. So when I broke a tooth, and the phone-person was trying to have me do a little self-diagnosis, I wasn’t much help. I’ve heard the hygienist label and describe, but the correspondence is lost on me.

It occurred to me that if I am blind on the inside of my mouth, then I am much more so on the inside of my soul. I am aware of good things, like peace, joy and gratefulness; and also of bad things, like anger, discouragement and bitterness. How these things are related, and where they are rooted, is lost on me.

When the Lord God approached Adam and Eve in the garden, He called out the question, “Where are you?” I do not assume for an instant that God did not know where Adam was. He knew exactly. It was for Adam to figure out the answer. And from the answer he gave, it is clear that Adam was lost in his own mouth, and lost in his own soul. 

This might be regarded as the first prayer in the Bible. God calls. Man answers. And, if this is a prototypical prayer from the prototypical man, then our prayers, like Adam’s, are marked by stuttering and stumbling. “I…I…I…I.” On the outside, “I heard” and “I hid,” but on the inside, how do I describe it, “I was afraid,” because “I was naked.” I don’t know how all these things are related, or where they are rooted, but there’s my answer, such as it is.

It seems that a prayer exercise that seeks to answer the question, “Where are you?” would be good for all of us. Not geographically, though the story might start there. But where are you in relation to God? Where are you in relation to God’s words, God’s commands? This was key for Adam. I suspect that it is for us as well. Where are you in relation to God’s provision, as yet unrevealed to Adam, since God had not yet killed in order to provide adequate covering? Adam was afraid and ashamed partly because of the flimsy, foolish covering that he had made for his own condition.

Here are some soul-searching questions: What have I heard from God that I have ignored? How have I hidden myself from His direction and inspection? What am I really afraid of? Of what am I ashamed? In what ways am I involving myself in a man-made cover-up? These are soul issues. And when we try to self-diagnose, we find that we have to go by feel, because we are mostly blind. But thankfully, Jesus is the surgeon of the soul, and he loves, and he presses in on us to push through our silly reasonings and excuses, “that he might bring us to God,” back where we belong. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

View from the Bottom of the Boat

This past Sunday, we studied the first of four miracles in Luke 8 that help prepare the disciples for mission. Jesus’ stilling of the storm reinforces the truth that Jesus is more than “just another guy,” in that “even the wind and waves obey him.” Also, the experience teaches disciples-like-us that we most need to remember who Jesus is, and of what he is capable, when we are in situations wherein we have lost control and are confronted by chaos.

2 Corinthians 5:17 says that, “in Christ, we are new creatures. Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” That is, we begin now to see everything through Jesus’ eyes, even as God sees us through Jesus.

This change of perspective includes a great many things. We see ourselves as sinners differently. We now openly admit sin rather than deny and cover up, because only sinners can claim forgiveness of sins. If we deny our sin, we deny our need for Christ. We see Jesus as the eternal God who walked in human shoes. He is the center of all history, the only one through whom God can be known, and the only one who makes a right relationship with God possible. We see other people not so much as body-types or skin-colors, but we see that each one has an eternal soul - each one of great value; and each one at great risk. We see our temporal lives as but a vaporous moment in comparison to the glories of eternity, and we see the difficulties of this life as opportunities for the cultivation of spiritual virtue and strength. We are grateful and joyful; loving and forgiving. But not perfectly, because, as we said, we are indeed sinners.

One of our greatest sins is forgetting our faith, as did the disciples in this story. They cried out in panic to the sleeping Jesus, “Master, master, we are perishing.” Mark’s Gospel adds the rather impertinent, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Panic, or discouragement, or bitterness, or worldliness - yours and mine - these also cause us to forget our faith, and to live as those who have not come to know and value Christ.

So what should the disciples have done? I suggested last Sunday that they might merely have laid down in the bottom of the boat next to Jesus and watch the whole scenario play out - the wonders of a sometimes-fightening God, and the tenders of a protective Savior. And then, if I could see today’s trials from that same perspective, or that difficult person, or that perceived injustice. Because Jesus has already been there, in the bottom of the boat. And he is there for us. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Life Bound Up with His

We can agree that a baby’s life is bound up with that of one’s mother’s. Yes, there are other helpers or, at times, stand-in’s. But the baby is a largely dependent creature, and in most cases, that weight on mom. So much so, that if something threatens the life of the mother, then the life of the baby is also imperiled. And otherwise, good health for the mom should generally redound to good health for the baby.

For the follower of Jesus, we can also say that the life of the disciple is bound up with the life of Christ. What happens to him happens to his followers, in at least a couple of ways.

This has application for our present lives. Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is ascended to heaven and is at the right hand of the Father, with all enemies placed under his feet. Now not all his (our) enemies have met their final defeat, but the resurrection and ascension show how this is going to go. Therefore, since my life is bound up with his, I need not fear evil. Enemies may not be currently completely vanquished, but they have no enduring power. And even if they are able to bring physical harm or death, my future is secured by the One who lives forevermore. 
But spiritually, our lives are bound up with Jesus’ life in another way. Romans 6 in particular shows that we are bound to Jesus in his death, so that our relationship with servitude to sin and evil is broken. And if we are bound to Jesus in his death, then we are also bound to him in his resurrection, so much so that we now live new kinds of lives, fueled by faith, lived out in love, helped along by hope, all energized by the Holy Spirit given from heaven.

If archeologists were able to find and conclusively prove that they had uncovered the body of the 1st century Jesus - if they were able to disprove the resurrection which is so clearly attested and substantiated in Scripture, then real Christianity would die. Sinners would have lost their Savior. There would be no deliverance, and no hope. Since archeologists and historians can prove little conclusively, my statement is not so helpful, other than to illustrate how literally this maxim is intended: my life is bound up with his. 

Or is it? If we can go from Sunday to Sunday with no thoughts of Jesus in between, is my life really bound up with his? If I face a trial or disappointment, and do not turn to Jesus for direction or help, is my life really bound up with his? Once again, what we say we believe needs to be put into practice.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Cover-Ups and Cover-Alls

Human history is full of cover-ups. Your personal history probably has a few as well. Cover-ups are those hiding tactics that we use to conceal the things of which we are ashamed. We do not want our failings to be made public. So we cover up.

We can conceal with bravado. We suppose that if we look good, people will think that everything is good. We can be experts at the fake smile, as if everything is ok, or with that little lie “fine” in response to “how are things?” They aren’t always “fine,” by the way, but you don’t want to say so, and you are dead sure you don’t want the other person to hear the whole story. We come across people concealing a cancer diagnosis who say, “fine,” or who are about to be foreclosed, and they say “fine.” It’s the human practice of cover-up.

1 John 1 confronts us with the contrast between the truth and cover-ups. In verses 6,8 and 10, John says, “if you say …” something that is not true, then you are a liar, and the truth is not in you, and you are actually making God a liar. But in 1 John 1:9, John offers us another word, But “if we confess …” To “confess” means to agree with God. It means to agree with God about what is right - like God’s perfections, including His righteousness and purity and goodness; and it also means to agree with God about what is wrong - those things that we have been lying about - the things you have been covering up. The verse goes on to say that “if we will confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That brings us to cover-alls.

Cover-alls are used by painters and mechanics to keep the worker clean from paint and grease. Theoretically, you can work all day in all kinds of slop, and then peel off those coveralls at the end of the day, and you’re clean as a whistle. Yes, the illustration suffers from frequent failures.

But the cover-all that God provides in Christ is not a protection from the outside in, but rather a cleansing from the inside out. “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Completely covered.

In the Old Testament, God would look down on us His people through the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the kphr, or covering. In the New Testament, God looks upon His people through the righteousness of Christ, as we place faith in Him. And according to His promise, we are completely “cover-all-ed” by Him, left with no need to cover-up.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Outward vs. Inner

“Then the commander of the officials assigned new names to them; and to Daniel he assigned the name Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.” (Daniel 1:7 NAS95) 

These four young men from Judah had been taken as prisoners of war away from their homes and families in order to enrich the court of the Babylonian king. Nebuchadnezzar believed in the value of disparate cultures, and wanted to gain the best from them, even as he trained them in his own ways. One step in the process was to change their names. 

This is more significant than first appears. Each of these names communicates something about the faith of their people and of their parents. The Hebrew word for “God” is “El.” And so you can see that the name of God is part of both Daniel’s name (full meaning: God is my judge), and Mishael. God had revealed Himself to Moses and the nation of Israel by His personal name, Yahweh. In Hebrew names, this is often shortened to “Yah,” and so we can see that Hananiah includes this name (perhaps the full meaning is “Yahweh is kind”), and in the name of Azariah (perhaps the full meaning is “Yahweh is my help”). 

Once kidnapped, these young men could not control by what names they would be called. But outside authorities, no matter how prestigious and powerful, could change the commitment of their hearts. And that is the larger story of Daniel 1 - not that non- believing men could affect the outer elements of our persons (that goes without saying); but that they could not man-handle the internal souls of these committed believers. 

I would think that it would have been a distressing thing for these men to have their names changed in attempts to disassociate them with their godly past and to marry them to their pagan future. What we should notice in the text is that they did not whine and complain about this heavy-handed treatment. Rather, they chose to chart a course of faithfulness to their convictions from that internal center of their devotion: what they believed in their hearts and souls. 

I’m not sure we keep that distinction clear. We in America howl at any perceived affront to our Christian rights, even as our souls follow the ways of the world in the pursuit of prosperity, devotion to pleasure, and the care of our own over others. Daniel and his pals, or whatever their names, honored the distinction more clearly. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dear ... ,

Letter-writing has been a large window into which we have come to understand a rather personal side of human history. There was, of course, a time when letters were not circulated. Engravings in stone tablets were slow and difficult. But with pen and paper, time and candlelight, men and women could pour out their heartfelt thoughts in compelling ways.

If there was a time before letters were widely written, I fear there will also be a time (perhaps soon) when they are written no more. Facebook posts do not count as letters and can hardly be regarded as the outpouring of hearts. Tweets and Snapchats are worse. The medium definitely affects the message.

There are things that we learn about a person through their letters that we do not grasp through their other communications. Former president Obama has just released letters written during his presidency. It is much more difficult to vilify a person when seen through such a personal lens. Martin Luther is known through his books, in which he is formidable, and through his essays, which contain verbal daggers. But when you read his letters, it is a man burdened to communicate with another, and the heart is revealed.

We are glad, then, to find so many letters in the Bible. Especially revealing are Paul’s letters written to individuals, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. He writes about himself, and he writes about the recipient. He works to integrate faith with the challenges of life, and he puts his finger on the sore spots, the dangers and deficiencies, as though it is his heart wrestling with theirs. In Scripture, then, we find that we not only come close to the heart of Paul, but also to the heart of God, as God Himself strives to warm and woo our hearts.

And then Paul (and God) helps us take one more step. Paul tells us, in a letter, that we ourselves, whether individually or communally, are a letter of Christ himself, addressed, as it were, to the community around us, that they might know something of the heart of Christ through us. And I wonder, how are we doing at this? Can the heart of Christ, like tear drops on a page, be discerned in our lives? Is his grace and love made clear? Or are we more like a tweet, a post, or a bite. May those rightly related to God through Christ be so moved and motivated by His Spirit that we are actually able to communicate something of His heart and purpose, so that others are drawn, not to the letter, but to the Author.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Burden of Debt

At the time of this writing, the U.S. national debt is over 2 trillion dollars. If that were spread out to each citizen, we would each owe over $62,000 dollars, or, if spread out to each taxpayer, over $168,000. While the budget deficit may grow or shrink, the government is continually spending more than it receives, and thus the debt is growing.

I’m not sure how you and I experience the burden of that debt. Mostly, we do not think about it. Ignorance does not erase the debt. It just erases it from our consciousness. Likewise, if there is such a thing as a spiritual debt, ignorance does not erase it. It merely allows us not to think about it, so as not to feel the burden of debt.

Our problem of sin before a holy God is often pictured as a stain from which only the blood of Christ can cleanse. Also, we find the picture of debt. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus says of the master to the parabolic debtor, “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” In this Sunday’s text, Jesus illustrates his forgiveness of the sinful woman by saying in parable, “When (the two debtors) were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both.”

For well over a hundred years (1865) we have been singing “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.” More recently (1989), we have sung the chorus “He came from heaven to earth to show the way; from the cross to the grave, my debt to pay.”

The burden of debt is more keenly felt when it is personal - when it affects my home and my children and my reputation. That is why we can seem to distance ourselves from a national debt or divine debt. But the accountants are counting, and the Judge is judging. We don’t like that idea.

Yes, accountants count. But why should God judge? We frame the question in order to excuse ourselves. We actually put the onus on God when we consider (judge) that God owes us - it is His job to serve us and make us happy, as though He were in our debt. But if we are His creatures, as Scripture clearly teaches, and if we were created for His glory, then every time we live for our own glory, we are guilty to stealing His. That results in debt. Moreover, when we violate His moral will expressed in His laws, we offend His holiness, which is a moral debt that must be repaid. The debt is so great, we cannot, so the burden is crushing. Until we hear the Savior say, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

How Did It Come to This?

A fitting question upon hearing of the Las Vegas massacre might be, “How did it come to this?” I’ve been thinking about a phrase that might provide an answer: “inevitable, predictable, but strangely unexpected.”

This actually started with a Bible study in Lamentations, not one of the sunnier books for the Bible. 1:1 begins with “How lonely sits the city ..”, paralleled in Isaiah 1 :21 with “How the faithful city has become a harlot.” How did it come to this? Well, God had made promises - threatening promises - that if Israel did not faithfully follow Him, He would bring punishment. Since God does not lie, that result was to be regarded as inevitable. Then, examining Israel’s studious inattention to God’s Word and ways, and their stubborn habit of wandering off after every other false god, the result was also predictable. What is strange is that, when God does what he says, they acted as though it were totally unexpected.

Let’s apply this to an ethical subject: spending and debt. If we spend more money than we take in, then we will inevitably go broke. But our spending patterns persist, so the end is predictable. Strangely, when we unexpectedly hit rock-bottom, we say something like, “How did it come to this?” It seems we are idiots. Inevitable, predictable, but strangely unexpected.

Now let’s go out on the limb. It seems to me that the number of unbalanced people in our society is increasing. I don’t know how to verify this, or even how to clarify the category so as not to be offensive. We are all bent by sin, some more than others. Some have lost touch with reality and are living in an alternate world of illegitimate values and bankrupt standards of decency. They cannot be trusted to live safely and responsibly among us.

Is it inevitable that such an unbalanced person will lose sense of the value of human life, and will act to destroy as many as possible? And if you place in his hands an army’s worth of weapons, is it inevitable that he will use them in ways similar to what we saw in Las Vegas a few days ago? I’m not sure. But we’ve seen this happen enough times now that it is certainly predictable.

And so, when it happens again, let’s not pretend that it is unexpected. Not unless something changes. I sincerely wish Mr. Las Vegas did not have the access to the cache of weapons that he assembled. But that is not the root of the problem. I also sincerely wish that there were not so many others like him, who are so .. (what’s the word?) .. so desperately lost.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Not Using, but Living

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, 
but living as servants of God.”(1 Peter 2:16 ESV)

From last week, we find that we often get that feeling of “being used.” Others are choosing to make use of us for their own ends. That may be acceptable if we agree, but many times, we don’t.

But now we go on and think about what the verse above is advocating. It says, “not using, .. but living.” It implies that we also are not to be “user’s,” taking advantage of others for our own purposes, but we ourselves are to be those who live in the service of God for the sake of others.
Think of the creation mandate. Adam and Eve, and their children, were to subdue creation and to rule over it. They were not to just “use” it in the sense of ransacking it and leaving behind desolation. Rather, they were to organize and creatively develop the good gifts of God’s creation so that it would reflect God’s glory more and more. Even as they “used” creation as their home and recreative space, they were to live as servants of God.

The author Wendell Berry has written about the stewardship of land, which also results in the respect of community. He decries those who sweep in to an area (in his case, Kentucky) to blast the tops off mountains, truck off the resources and leave behind piles of waste and polluted waterways. Both ecology and economy have been ruined. These intruders have not “live(d) as servants of God.
The New Testament, then, also talks about our role in the world, not as “user’s,” but “liver’s.” We can desecrate our homes and communities and the lives of those around us with greed, or we can serve as God’s stewards for the good of others, which often turns out for the good of ourselves. 

But the thrust of this activity in the New Testament is not so much creation care as it is a gospel ethic. This is not to say that creation care has expired, or that it is not a worthy endeavor. But for a Christian to pursue only creation care is to have missed the focus of the Gospel, that we are to do good to others (one of the key themes of the little letter of Paul’s to Titus. Read it and see.) Our “not using,.. but living” now has a redemptive focus - a kind of living that shows that we have ourselves been redeemed from selfishness and grabbing for ourselves, and that we are sincerely grateful for this life-changing redemption found in Christ and His sacrifice for us, that we are eager to take back our lives from those who would use us for their own purposes, give ourselves as servants of God, and pray that people around us would see Christ in us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Using, and Being Used

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
(1 Peter 2:16 ESV)

This verse, about the freedom of the Christian, gives important advice on living as free people in an enslaving world. “Not using, but living.”
All of us have had the experience of that feeling of being “used.” Someone has chosen to co-opt my time, my ability, my connections, for their own purposes. They may have been up-front about their intentions, or more secretive or manipulative. But it is, after all, most often, a permitted relationship. That is, I let it happen. It’s what I chose, whether or not I knew the implications at the time. 

“Using” is a term found in connection to drugs and alcohol. I’m interested in thinking about the connection between the terms “using” and “being used.” The person with a substance abuse problem says the word “using” as though they are in control, when we also know that they may be addicted, and so they have switched from an active role to a passive, and they are “being used.” They used their own will to engage with this substance, but that substance has now enslaved them. And we can be enslaved by any number of things. 

God has created us with a large number of traits and gifts. Each of these are for our “use,” but we can also come under their control. So if we have been favored with prosperity, we can use that favor with enjoyment and generosity, or we can be mastered by our money so that it runs us, or ruins us. We can be blessed with children, and commit ourselves to the challenge of raising them to be mature and responsible. During that time, the burden of that commitment is huge. It’s what we agree to when we have kids. But they become enslaving when we do not let go at the proper time. And if we continue to hold on, we are being used, voluntarily submitting ourselves to a kind of slavery. 

This is only half the story, because our verse says, “not using, but living.” How do we give ourselves without being used? That’s for next week. Here, it’s time to examine how we have tacitly agreed to enslavements, and how are we guilty of taking good gifts and using them contrary to their intended purposes. 

In the verse above, the object is freedom. As Christians, we are free from a performance-based morality and from the judgment of mere men. But that precious freedom is not to be used by you and me for selfish purposes. Because if you don’t like that feeling of being used, we should assume that God doesn’t like it either. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

When God Pays a Visit

Just about every time a natural disaster happens, someone will attribute it to being a judgment of God. That “someone” will probably seem to know exactly who God is seeking to punish, and exactly what they ought to be punished for. I’m not so sure.

Visits can be good, or bad, depending on the state of our preparation for the visitor, and the disposition of the visitor. If the visitor is angry because he has to come and clean up our mess, then we may dread the visit. But if we have been earnestly preparing for the visitor, and have lived and prepared with his interests in mind  rather than living purely for our own interests - then we greet that visitation with joyous expectation.

So I believe that God “visits” His people and this world in various ways. Scripture speaks poetically of God being in the storm or in the whirlwind. Scripture also speaks of illnesses being allowed by God, or being from God, in order to get one’s attention. These “visitations” should also include, then, the surprising blessings that occur - periods of prosperity; instances of beauty; gracious providences that, too many times, we attribute to good luck, or good living, or human ingenuity. 

In our study of Luke’s Gospel, we read of the key visitation of God, Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. In this week’s miracle account - the raising of the widow’s son - people conclude that “God has visited His people.” And He has, and He did, when Jesus, God’s Son, came to do what no one else could do, whether it be to still the storm, or to heal diseases, cast out demons, to firmly and finally forgive sin, - or even to raise the dead.

In the lengthy introduction to Luke’s Gospel, there are two references to this visitation. Zecharias, at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, says “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant —” (Luke 1:68–69 NAS95), referring not to John, but to Jesus. This visit means that we can be, not a rejected people, but a redeemed people. And later in that same speech, he says “To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,” (Luke 1:77–78 NAS95). Here we find that, when God visits, by faith in Him and in His Son, we can experience His visit not as the heat of judgment but as the warmth of Fatherly mercy.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Faith and Faithfulness

Everybody believes in something. Actually, in a lot of things. We may not know what those things are, but it shows. Your beliefs leak out in behavior. In religion, we would say that your faith is shown by the shape of your faithfulness.

We can’t see faith. While faith is confidence is something that cannot be seen, faith also is invisible to others. You can tell me about your faith, but I can’t tell if it is really your life doctrine, or merely a pretended dream. But what I can see is your faithfulness. And often, our faithfulnesses come across as faith(less)nesses, denying what we say we believe.

For instance, when I say that I believe in God who is Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and that He is intimately involved in the affairs of my life, even to the point of allowing/designing trials that are intended to strengthen my faith - and then, I’m hit with something unpleasant, and I moan and complain and get mad - well, my faith(less)ness has denied whatever I might have professed about my faith. I really believe something else, such as, if there is a god at all, he certainly owes me a pleasant and easy life; that he exists to serve me. 

So faithfulness, properly expressed, can be a beautiful thing. But think also about this: faithfulness is not static. Think of a young child, learning to form words and explore. Yes, she wears a diaper which needs to be changed often, but she is being faithful to her nature, given her age and gifts. And we are delighted. But if that child reaches the age of 10 and still wears a diaper, we are dismayed. She no longer is faithful to what should be. So it is with Christians. We come to faith, and there is an infant-faithfulness that arises, including things like worship and fellowship. But along with the expectation of spiritual maturity comes the need for a more mature faithfulness, including the practices of service and sacrifice. Your faithfulness must grow.

Your faithfulness and mine will look different, even given similar beliefs. Your life situation, ordered by God, is different from mine; also your gifts and responsibilities. For some, it is gaining victory over public sins and picking up the fight against those not so obvious. It may be new service that pushes you to love deeply and give freely. It may be a trial that stretches the limits of endurance. But in all these situations, and more, your faith, if it is real, will show itself in faithfulness. And a lack of faithfulness is a denial of faith. Because, “faith without works is dead.”

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Grace and Graciousness

God in His grace has reached out and blessed us in ordinary and extraordinary ways. He did so, not because we deserved such grace, because He desired and chose to do so. This grace is more variegated than the flowers that the ladies will see this coming week on their outing to the dahlia farm. It is a prism of goodness that fills our lives. Every sweet experience, whether pleasing any of our senses or activating our minds our affecting our emotions - all these things are only possible because of the many-colored grace of God.

Of course, God’s grace as applied in redemption is even greater. God blesses His children with a changed past, forgiving their sin. He gives them a new identity, breaking their bondage to Satan and binding them in covenant relationship with Himself. He seals our future with promises and with the heavenly Spirit who now dwells in our hearts, leading and provoking and protecting. We are never alone; we always have Someone who prays for us; and we are invited to call the Ruler of the universe “our Father.”

Such grace is, as John Newton wrote, amazing. It is also infecting. With the gracious Spirit’s help, this grace penetrates deep down into our psyche, so that what rises up and out of us is - gracious. Grace-filled Christians (and there are no other kinds) are gracious. And yet, the world’s experience of professing Christians is often much different. What has gone wrong?

Well, for one, we have. As Martin Luther said, we are at the same time saints, and sinners. I have a t-shirt with that quote on the front. One of our ladies saw me wearing it, and said that the “sinner” was more obvious than the “saint.” I think she was talking about the font and the color. But then, I’m not so sure. Maybe she, or God, was telling me that His infecting grace has not yet penetrated near so deep as it needs, so that my most unguarded responses when stressed or frustrated are not the same as those responses when worshipping alone with Bible open or together with others in song - gracious. Because grace and graciousness must go together.

If you have indeed tasted that the Lord is good, how is the flow of graciousness? Where are the inconsistencies? Are there certain people or places in which the graciousness disappears, and the old man comes out. We know, don’t we, that God’s grace never disappears. Nor should our graciousness. We can be truthful, but gracious. We can disagree, but with grace. The gladness of God’s grace must never give way to the madness of our own malice.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Watch Your Mouth

Throughout the summer months, we have been reading and reflecting on Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about how they should live as his followers (Luke 6) - quite different from those who do not follow Jesus. This past week, Jesus taught us that out of our mouths, our hearts reveal themselves. And therefore, we should watch our mouths, and pray for help for our hearts.

Let me acquaint you with three passages that help us evaluate our words, and thus red-flag our hearts. The first is 1 Peter 2:1: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” The last term, slander, is the practice of tearing people down - of tearing down the reputations of people. As we see in the final paragraph of Luke 6, Jesus is much more concerned that we be building up than tearing down. So if you are good at cataloguing and rehearsing the failings and foolishnesses of other people - you’ve been red-flagged. Watch your mouth, and pray for help with your heart.

Another verse is Colossians 3:9 “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” The verse above mentioned “deceit,” but let’s think about the widespread practice of lying - of hiding our faults and offenses behind untruths, and the practice of trumpeting and exaggerating our virtues and good deeds. Now notice, few of us are wholesale liars. We only slip in a “little” lie here and there. But as your good mother taught you, “a half-truth is a whole-lie.” Watch your mouth, and pray for help for your heart.

Now this next verse isn’t so specific about talk, but about our attitudes, which also flow from the heart. 1 Timothy 2:8 says: Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” Paul, the writer, assumes the practice of prayer and a pious lifestyle. But he also sees a problem. There were evidently a lot of angry and argumentative men. And, as Paul knew, it is really difficult to pray mad. Oh, you can go through the motions of prayer. It might even sound like passionate prayer. But when your words flow from and angry and argumentative heart, there is something wrong. Watch your mouth, and pray for help for your heart.

We live in an angry society. Basic life skills now seem to include roasting others; shading the truth; and, being perpetually upset. But, as I hope to explore next post, grace expresses itself in graciousness. And slander, lying, and angry diatribes do not fit well with grace. Nor do they fit well in a disciple’s heart.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Information/Action Ratio

We live in the information age. We are bombarded with news from all angles. Now, what are we supposed to do with it?

We hear about the president’s tweets. What are we supposed to do. Well, nothing. We hear about North Korea and Russia. What are we supposed to do? It’s not that it doesn’t concern us. There is just nothing for us to do. The stock market goes up, or down. Someone tells us why, though I doubt they really know. And we do what? Nothing. We watch the weather, and there, we may alter our plans. Though the forecast is pretty sketchy, so we don’t always pay too much attention.

We are being trained in our culture to receive information and to then take no action. Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” makes the case, strongly, that it is all entertainment. The videos of people doing dumb things, or stupendous things, is entertainment. The harping and carping about politics is entertainment. The horror of nuclear war is, perversely, more entertainment. The media offers it, and we demand it. And then we do .. nothing.

So then, perhaps, on a Sunday (or whenever), we go to a church worship gathering and, on a good day, Scripture is read and applied. Here we go. More information. And what do we do with it. Well, we often do what we have been trained to do with it, all through the week, and for our whole lives. We hope that it makes a brief impression, and then we move on to .. lunch.

A common theme in Scripture, as with parents, is to remind readers and children to “pay attention.” Jeremiah’s words are only one example out of a thousand: Listen and give heed, do not be haughty,  For the LORD has spoken.” If I could paraphrase, God is saying, “Pay attention to what I have to say. Don’t think I’m saying this merely so that you can be entertained. I will hold you accountable for your response.” God is concerned with my information/action ratio. What I actually do in response to God’s Word matters to Him, and it makes a difference for me.

I’m not going to change the world. I will not slow the flow of information, or cause it to be more deliberative rather than eye-catching. But I will do this. I will implore you to regard God’s news as a message that is qualitatively different than all the rest of the news which is merely noise. Take some time. Turn off the TV or put away the phone. Open God’s Word, and enter a completely different world in which the information/action ratio matters.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Author Wendell Berry uses this phrase, “eyes to acres,” borrowed from the Land Institute’s Wes Jackson, to decry industrial farming -  an approach that measures productivity and dollars above all else, and in the process of amassing thousands of acres and gigantic equipment, fails to value the care of the land, the preserving of its varieties, the health and life of surrounding communities, and the ongoing prosperity that cannot be measured in terms of mere profit.

Industrial approaches have been applied to a great many things, like mining, and forestry. It brings in the machine, replacing the husbandman, the steward, etc., and applies techniques of the factory to a broader environment. Industrial approaches have also been applied to churches, replacing pastor-shepherds with CEO’s and boards of directors, using the machinery of the front office to direct marketing campaigns in order to gin up church growth.

When it so happens that the industrial phase passes - when the mountain has been mined, the soil depleted, the forest left in a tangle - what is left behind will begin to regenerate, but will forever bear the scars of man’s hubris and greed. We got what we wanted, and then we left. What is left has been burned over.

The farming phrase, “eyes to acres,” says that in order to run a farm well, someone who has a personal stake in the enterprise needs to be so familiar with the environment, so in touch with little changes - that he only “pastor” so much. Bigger is not necessarily better. And I think the phrase works well in churches as well. How many people can we know and love? How many  before we can no longer feel their spiritual temperature and discern the distempers robbing their souls of joy and tempting them to hit the road for a life of wandering? 

Now this is not just the job of pastors and elders and deacons, though Scripture clearly gives responsibilities to these. It involves the one-anothering of the whole congregation as well. But it must never be industrial. We will never be successful in a local church environment in manufacturing a productive result measured in attendance or reputation. It will always be that tedious task of making disciples whose weakness is more apparent than their strengths, their humility more notable than their personalities, and their sacrifices more valuable than their salaries. They will be deeply loved, because they are carefully known.

Friday, August 04, 2017

"The Mud will Stick to the Wheel"

This quote comes from Martin Luther, pioneer of the Protestant Reformation - a firebrand whose passion and wit and clarity still speaks today, 500 years later. At this point in time, Martin was holed up in Wartburg Castle, translating the Old Testament Scriptures into the German language. Here is what he says: “I figured from the very beginning that I would find ten thousand to criticize my work before I found one who would accomplish one-twentieth of what I have done.” He knew, and said, that when you are trying to move forward, “the mud will stick to the wheel.”

It reminds me of criticisms that D.L. Moody received regarding his efforts in evangelism and soul-winning. Evidently, many thought that he was doing it wrong. He replied, “I much prefer the way that I do evangelism to the way that you don’t do it.” And I’ve heard criticisms of (usually) older Christians, who when they pray aloud, pray in King James English, as though that is the proper dialect for God’s understanding. But couldn’t the same thing be said? I much prefer the way he prays to the way that you don’t? 

So with that leadership principle firmly in mind - “the mud will stick to the wheel” - let’s turn to the Leader of all leaders, and recognize that Jesus Himself is the wheel that churns forward, and all the rest of us are either the mud who sticks to (him), or else we remain unattached, still lying along the edge of the road, mud none the less.

The metaphor is not difficult. In Genesis, the text tells us that “the Lord God formed Adam from the dust of the ground.” A departed business man from Milford who grew up as a farm boy used to, on occasion, refer to a person as “a piece of dirt.” Whether he intended it or not, it’s Biblical. Further, Scripture is fond of the metaphor of the Potter and the clay. Yes, just common clay, carefully and skillfully applied by the Potter to serve His sovereign purpose. And what a privilege, to find oneself of use in the Potter’s hand, not because of some inherent quality inside of us that makes us more useful than some other “piece of dirt,” but because of a usefulness gifted to us from the One who made us and chooses to use us.

So yes, the mud will stick to the wheel. But not all of it, and not automatically. And so, if you are a follower of Christ (to use words of a song with which we often conclude our corporate worship), cling to Christ. Be the mud on that wheel. No, not to criticize and judge. Just to be close, in gratefulness, in hope that he might choose a usefulness for us for His glory. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Everyone needs some R&R every once in a while. We all know what that stands for. Rest and Relaxation. We need to fit it in between all the harry and hassle of life. But that’s not the R&R I’m thinking about.

I read a post from a young man not too far back. He was approaching a birthday in his 20’s, moving from one year to the next, and was intending to “reinvent” life with the turn of the calendar. Silly boy. We’ve all tried this before. But we have found that the one side of the leaf looks an awful lot like the other. The same character that plagued us last year will still pursue us in the new year. We can’t change the past, nor can we erase it, and we have little hope in the future of being something radically different that we already are. 

Except for the truth of R&R - two words that Peter uses in the first chapter of his first letter, appropriately called, 1 Peter 1. He talks about Jesus and his Resurrection (see note 1 below), and he talks about Jesus and his Revelation (see note 2 below). In his resurrection, Jesus emerged from the tomb, having died on the cross, but now entering into new, unending life. In his revelation, Jesus will return from heaven as crowned king and righteous judge. We live in between those two events. And for believers and followers of Jesus, those two events - R&R - Resurrection and Revelation - are decisive points in history that can separate us from the disappointment of our pasts and disillusionment about our future.

What this means is life-changing. Our sins can be forgiven. And while a change of character often comes with time and difficulty, our changed identity works on us and in us, even as we anticipate a future that is not conditioned by the past or present, but rather guaranteed by the living and victorious Christ.

The answer is not inside my brain or will. The answer is found in another Person, in Jesus, already raised, and one day to be revealed.

(1)1 Peter 1:3 - born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; 1:11 He predicted the sufferings of Christ; 1:21 God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory
(2)1 Peter 1:7 may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 1:13 fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Comfort Connection

We were built for human connection - person to person and face to face. But living in a bent and twisted world, those connections don’t always work well. It is not surprising, then, that many people run from true connectedness with others, and hide, whether in isolation, or alternate realities, often provided by screen technologies.

But we were not built for screens. It is not a meeting of souls. Oh, it can tickle the fancy or distract from the pain of loneliness or the frustration of people. But screens don’t heal or foster growth.

The apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth seeks to mend his connection with these people. The relationship has been bruised, and Paul is seeking to re-establish a connection that is distinctively Christian. This connection will not happen because they belong to the same political party or share the same hobbies. It will occur because they share the same view of the world that centers in One Key Person - in Jesus, God’s Son and man’s Savior.

The connection that we find in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 is a comfort connection. The word “comfort” shows up 10 times in vv. 3-7. It is a passage that admits that life is often hard, for you, and for me. And it is a word that assures that we each care for the other in the midst of life’s difficulties. Paul’s use of the word “comfort” assumes that it is something that we all need when experiencing affliction, and it further assumes that we are all better off for offering it to others. It is just a first step in engaging in face to face, “soul” encounters.

Again, many people avoid either receiving comfort and/or offering it. The reasons may be complex. But people, let’s be honest. We live in a broken world, and no one is a comfort expert, offering it perfectly. Only God has the resource to comfort from a bottomless heart and an endless love. And we only comfort well when we draw on this resource. And even then, I find that the self likes to get in the way. To coin a proverb: Don’t reject a kind word just because of bad grammar.

Comfort allows our relationships to be “buffered” rather than “brittle.” A “brittle” relationship is easily fractured. The slightest disappointment results in an unforgivable offense that ends the relationship, pushing the damaged psyche off into exile. On the other hand, a “buffered” relationship trusts in the good and godly intentions of the other person, however imperfect he/she may be, and accepts their care as a gift, knowing that the gift of comfort ministered from human hearts issues first of all from “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).

Thursday, July 13, 2017


I was driving up north to Lake Ann for one of the quarterly board meetings at camp on which I’m privileged to serve. I listened to a podcast about artificial intelligence on the way up, and something he said caught my attention. The expert said that there are now boards of directors on which they are placing a robot as a voting member. One of the seats is actually filled by an algorithm. He (it) gets a vote - just one - but it is a real, participating member of the leadership.

The speaker said that certain algorithms are actually more skilled than people, especially in functions where non-emotional analysis is required. An algorithm can actually read an x-ray searching for signs of lung cancer more skillfully than a human technician. It is able to rapidly analyze each of the pixels of the photograph, looking at the picture differently than we humans tend to do.

Clearly this doesn’t apply to all roles that humans fill. Humans are better at considering situations from different points of view, and integrating ideas from a variety of disciplines. But, humans also tend to over-estimate their objectivity, and that’s where the algorithm shines. It doesn’t get bogged down in the emotions or subjectivity of a case.

A couple more things: Many such algorithms (robots) are now self-learning. That is, they analyze their own performance and the performance of others, and improve over time, rapidly, so that they write new algorithms that are better than before. They are self-improving, and don’t spend too much time denying that they have previously made a poor judgment, unlike you and me.

And then this: scientists are now designing “master algorithms” that are able to take the work and results of many algorithms with a range of responsibilities, and to unite them into a cooperative force that will address more problems. The scientists know that they will soon not be able to even understand all the conclusions that the algorithms will write. I guess we will then just have to trust them.

Other than looking around the room tomorrow wondering which one of us is really more algorithm than human - I had to wonder if God is not a little like the master algorithm - the one who is able to direct all that goes on from a superior position. But no, God is not a piece of code. For one, He is never-learning, in that He already knows all, and holds all knowledge at once. He does not figure things out, because He already knows. He holds secrets, but He also graciously reveals. And we know we can trust Him.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Fake Everything

We have heard a lot about fake news lately, and I am sure that some of it is true, on every side. Especially the weather. They seem not to have a clue. But that doesn’t stop the forecasting. But “fake” doesn’t stop at the news.

We live in a society that eats fake food. Do you disagree? Then tell me, what exactly is a gummy bear? Where does it grow? or, Where is it raised? Neither. It is manufactured. You may as well eat ball bearings. The manufacturers must say in their meetings, “Put enough sugar in it, and they’ll eat anything.” If it’s not real food, then it’s fake.

Or we try and supplement the fake food with nutritional pills - vitamin whatever. But studies show (if they are not fake) that what the supplements promise, they are not able to deliver. The nutrient might be there, but it doesn’t process properly; it doesn’t take. And so, it’s fake nutrition.

We send our kids to school to get a fake education. The ability to use and manipulate numbers and letters, let alone history, is down. The spending on sports is up. There is lots of sex education (fake-ly so-called), and seminars on bullying and self-control. But what exactly are the kids equipped to do, or more importantly, to think, by the time they graduate? They have a real diploma certifying an ephemeral education.

And then we see signs of fake faith. That is, faith espoused that is not lived; preaching that is not practiced. Religious practices that are done merely for show are evidences of a fake faith. Religious rites that are performed merely to make me feel better about myself are signs of a faith fake. Real faith believes in absolute truths, resulting in concrete behaviors that guide believers away from what God hates, and into what God loves. And God loves sacrificial service.

And fake faith is fed by fake preaching. It includes those messages that merely “tickle the ears;” that are in fashion and relevant. It is the preaching that elevates individuals rather than God, drawing a response of humility from individuals. It is the pitch that is designed to assemble the most people and collect the most dollars.

We are real people living in a real world with real souls. But with all the fakery that we produce, we find that, in the end, we have nothing that we can trust; no one upon whom we can lean. Jesus invited by saying, in contrast, “I am (that which is) true.”

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Tribute to Jason, and Jesus

Jason Nightingale visited our church about 2 1/2 years ago for one of our Thanksgiving celebrations. On that Saturday evening, he took about an hour to “tell” to us the Book of Revelation from Scripture. The next morning he “told” us more of Scripture, from 1 John, and spent some time applying it to our lives.

As a young man, Jason served in Viet Nam as a medic. He came home at the age of 24, and joined a traveling drama team called Covenant Players. He was not a believer at this point, but he started reading the Bible in order to better understand some of the plays that the troupe was performing. It was through his immersion in the Scriptures that he came to faith in Christ.

Jason believed that God was calling him to a ministry of Scripture-telling - of presenting Scripture to crowds of people in dramatic fashion, from memory. He thought it would take place on a stage, but, as it turned out, it was most often in local churches, like ours. His first project was to memorize the Book of Revelation. He completed that memory project in one month. He went on to memorize First Peter, and then sixteen other books of the Bible.

This immersion in Scripture - studying, memorizing, reviewing, and telling - produced many effects in his life. One of these was to feed a dynamic faith. One feature of this faith was that he expected results to issue forth from God and from His Word, not from the clever wielding of techniques with which the modern church seems to taken. Another feature of his faith was that the Bible was not just to be talked about, but to be obeyed. And so, later in his ministry, 27 years after first beginning Wordsower Ministries, Wordsower International came into being.

Wordsower International is a faith-based ministry seeking to help national pastors and churches minister to the overwhelming need of widows and orphans in Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and India. More recently, Wordsower has also gotten involved in Nepal, with a targeted goal to hinder the heinous practice of child-trafficking.

This winter, Jason was ordered by doctors to curtail his extensive traveling/telling ministry due to a severe heart condition. He died on April 19, at 68 years old. But he had one of the strongest hearts that I’ve seen in my Christian experience - a heart for God’s Word - a heart for Jesus - a heart for ministry - a heart of compassion. I pray that his influence will continue to be felt, and that the ministry will continue.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Campaign of Whisperers

I do not tend to wax political in these articles, and it is not my intent here, though “a campaign of whisperers” may best be illustrated by a rather grand parade of leaks and anonymous sources which serve as the basis for so many ‘news’ stories of late. Every reporter seems to have some inside lackey in the halls of power - someone perhaps not-so-important but who can still give his/her impression of the current state of things. I wonder what their real job is. What are they paid to do? Is their reason for existence merely to give flimsy opinions to mediums of wide circulation? Is this really how government, and journalism works?

I talk too much. There are times that I have sinned by not speaking up or speaking out. But more often, I’ve blurted out something beyond what should have been said. Those are the kinds of whisperings to which I’m referring - needless words that are based more on impression than on fact - and who cares about mere opinion anyway, whether mine, or yours?

Whispering campaigns have destroyed many churches. And whispering campaigns have afflicted many Christians. People who do not know will criticize your beliefs and your motives. One Old Testament lament says, “The lips of my assailants and their whispering are against me all day long.” And as our secular society turns more and more against traditional morality, and Christianity in particular, expect that the whispering campaigns will be reinforced to accuse of narrowness and hatefulness and bigotry and racism and cruelty, etc. David said, “All who hate me whisper together against me; Against me they devise my hurt.” It doesn’t have to be true. It merely has to be whispered. Others will gladly do the transmitting.

We can do little to protect ourselves from the whisperings of others, other than to be bold ourselves, and clear about who we are, what we stand for, and why we believe. It is interesting that, while Luke 12:3 says that their secret whisperings will one day be proclaimed on the housetops, Matthew 10:27 tells us to boldly proclaim what we have come to know and love. Our boldness can forestall their whispering.

But let’s also be warned ourselves about being involved in whispering against others. That’s not why we are here. It’s not our calling, nor our mission. If we can’t say it out loud, then let us not say it at all. And if it is going to be unhelpful or untrue, then let’s close our mouths until God gives us something important to say. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Complacency of Fools

A fearful incident will focus one’s attention and prompt decisive action. It could be your child falling down the stairs; a notice of foreclosure due to unpaid bills; an unwelcome report from a doctor due to long-ignored health conditions. Those kinds of things, and many more, will get your attention. Wise and reasonable people will respond.

This, of course, rarely applies to parental instruction. We all have received warnings and directives that we have long ignored. It seems the more often we hear them, the more we tend to not even hear, like the drip from a faucet. Of course, moving up and out helps too.

Not all parental instruction is gospel truth. Nor is every word preached from the pulpit. But there, too, heedings and pleadings are too often regarded as Sunday, rhetorical flourishes. The preacher wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t say those things. Hey, we even know what he’s going to say even before he says it. And, if you don’t like hearing it week after week, you can go somewhere else, or nowhere at all. But the tough considerations needed to put things into practice and effect change are most often long lost by Monday morning.

Proverbs 1 is an introduction to the task of parents and preachers. It is also an appeal for those who would truly listen in order that they might actually heed - please, heed - the message and take appropriate measures. And it is in this Bible chapter, - wisdom calling out, finding distressingly few hearers/reponders, - that we find the phrase that heads this article: the complacency of fools. 

Urgency is stolen away by complacency. Sharp focus is dissolved by distraction. Preachers preach, but delay and comfortable patterns of life rule the day, and the next, and the next. And then, what will happen indeed happens. The consequences of foolishness, born out of the complacency of fools, will one day fasten themselves upon you, no matter how wise and reasonable you fancy yourself to be. There will be an accident, perhaps more serious than before. Debt will devour your future, and you will be left grasping for a bailout. Your health will fail you, perhaps because you failed your health. Or, ultimately, you will stand before God, with precious little to say. And you will have earned the title that the Bible gives to those who will not listen to good parents and preachers: fool. And then it will all be crystal-clear, on that day when “they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors!” (Psalms 73:19)

Friday, June 09, 2017

Child of Woe

The Old Testament saint Job says, “man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward.” And he should know. Once his life was the picture of remarkable blessedness. Then trouble hit. He became a “child of woe.” 

We, by-and-large, live lives that are extremely blessed, interrupted by trouble. There are others who live lives of endless woe, rarely interrupted by blessing. For many of us, our woes are self-inflicted. We have at least contributed to the cause of our trouble, whether in the area of finances, or health, or relationships. We spent the money we did not have. We failed to follow general rules of health. We keep damaging relationships, thinking that the other person should change, not us.

Other woes seem to come naturally. Aging, whether it happen to your body, or to the septic system, happens. Nothing in this world lasts forever. And when it wears out, we have to go through the pain and expense of fixing or replacing it, if it is fixable at all.

And then there are woes that are unpredictable. Perhaps some would call them accidental. Believers, if consistent, would call them providential. You get blind-sided by another driver - his fault, not yours. A tornado takes out the house, or cancer, like lightning,  strikes close to home. And once again you fit the description: child of woe.

This is the case for everyone: religious/non-religious. No one escapes. But some interpret it differently than others.

Those who hold to orthodox Christianity understand that God, far and away bigger and wiser than mere man, sees the big picture, and allows woes for a variety of reasons, many of which do not have to do exclusively with me or how I feel about it. We are but bit players in a larger drama, and we seldom truly know “why?”. But we also understand and experience that we as ‘bit players’ are at the same time ‘blessed players.’ We are on personal terms with the central, heroic figure in the whole drama that spans not only continents, but the far reaches of both heaven and earth, as well as eternity past and future. We know him, and trust him, even when it hurts, and even when we are scared to death.

We used to sing this old song, “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe. It will joy and comfort give you. Take it everywhere you go.” And then a line from the chorus: “Precious name, … hope of earth and joy of heaven.”