Monday, July 9, 2018

Looking Beyond for Help

A Reminder of Where True Hope Lies

I continue to do my best to maintain more than an arm's length from the current political "dialog," but it gets hard for a recovering political junkie in times like the present. I used to devour political news and commentary, and often felt as if election results were the sure evidence that things were getting better or worse. I've seen more than my share of political moments, but the one we are in has become more polarized than ever in my lifetime. And in such a moment news of the kind we've had recently tends to set off all sorts of excitement for those who love politics. We have had a rash of Supreme Court decisions, primary election surprises, and the retirement of an unpredictable Supreme Court judge, all in a week. Will this be a "wave" election or not? What will the President say or do on Twitter?

At the moment speculation is rampant about what is coming next. And some who have, in the not too distant past, despaired over political developments as if things were all lost, are now talking as if we are just a moment away from total victory. The most recent election, or recent ruling, or recent law makes some seem giddy with excitement and others claiming the end is near.

I know the feeling, because for many years my political hopes rose or fell in the same way. I knew that their were ultimate realities, and their were present ones. But all too often I could lose sight of the former in the heat of political drama. Without meaning to, I could link the success of a political candidate or cause with the triumph or defeat of righteousness. As I came to learn, righteousness and candidates are not irrevocably linked, and God’s program is neither dependent upon or determined by political winds.

So, in another moment of heightened political excitement and speculation, I remind myself and us all that politics doesn't provide total, or lasting, victories or defeats. Judges change their minds. Laws are passed and laws are overturned. And our culture shows no signs of slowing its descent into folly.

We are believers in Jesus who are living at a time of both great persecution in some areas and great gospel advances--even in some of those same areas. If you stop by Connection Central, you will find some copies of a magazine entitled "Iran;" you really should read it and see just how amazing the growth of the church is in a place of great opposition. I can't think of a more exciting time to be a part of God's work in this world.

But we are also living at a time where political divides have seeped into churches, with one group telling another that they cannot be good Christians and not agree with a preferred political stance. When I was young, our Republican family worshiped in a church filled with Democrats, and no one cared. Now, too many Christians risk divisions among Bible believers over politics; busily re-posting political memes but not nearly busy enough praying, sharing the gospel, or living intentionally in ways to attract people to the message and power of Jesus.

When we mix politics with gospel, it isn't a pretty result. If we find our greatest interest focused on political developments, we have lost sight of what matters. And if we believe that laws, rulings, or politicians are the key to our future, then we have the wrong future in mind.

The people of Israel, on their way to Jerusalem for festivals, made their way along a number of roads from various plains to an imposing set of rugged hills where Jerusalem sat nestled. The hills provided a natural defense for the city, and they inspired many who lived in the valleys and plains by their appearance. As the pilgrims went up, they would see the hills--they called them mountains--as a symbol of God's protection--"as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people (Ps. 125:1)."

But the hills were not ultimate, and the Israelites knew it. "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come (Ps. 121:1)?" The hills pointed heavenward;  this was a clue, and the psalmist had the right answer: "My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth (121:2)." It was not the hills that saved Jerusalem, or gave the pilgrim strength in his journey. It was the LORD. The hills were impressive, and served as a natural protection, but not one that was perfect on its own.

History shows that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and then the Romans, and the hills didn't stop them. God had determined destruction, and it came.

Similarly, laws, courts, and politicians can be good and do good (but not always). But even the most powerful of these are not an ultimate hope, and they cannot give us what we need most--eternal life.

So, for those who are having a moment of political excitement, be cautious. For those in political despair, be sober. What matters most remains both unthreatening and available to all who will seek the right help for our deepest needs.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Paying Attention

Our ability to focus is probably less than we imagine.

"The most seductive modern-day myth
is that we have an
unlimited amount of attention."
Richard Clark.

You've probably heard plenty of calls in your childhood, adolescence, or last week to "Pay attention." We may be saying it to a child, or they may be saying it to you. It may be someone trying to instruct you, but you already know. Or it may be a matter of life and death that the speaker is wanting to make sure you are understanding.

We ought to pay attention. And many times we think we are. But are we really?

Many of us are convinced we can be listening to media, have a conversation, and watch an event unfold before us all at once and "get the gist" of it all. But what is more likely the case is that we get bits and pieces of one or two, and basically miss the third. We call it "multi-tasking," but the tasks really aren't being accomplished, only nodded to.

We also try to pay attention to more things than we probably should. In the internet age we can feed our insatiable curiosity, and when we run up against the limits of our own knowledge, we google ourselves to death. I've learned more about extraneous subjects that won't really matter to me in an hour than I could have ever guessed.

Attention is focus, and we deceive ourselves if we think we can focus on an unlimited number of subjects or pursuits. I've had lots of conversations with students who are paralyzed in moving forward toward a career or a relationship because they realize that the choice to focus on one pursuit carries with it the decision to shut the door on others. And we don't want to do that! We want options; we want it all.

But one lesson that history teaches is that we can't have it all. We can't even have most of it. We must make choices, And we must choose what will deserve our attention. Which relationships, what pursuits, which subjects--there are simply too many.

I guess the expression "pay attention" gives us a bit of a clue that might help. We pay for things with currency, and the currency has value because it is limited. We have only so many dollars to spend, so we must spend it wisely. You should think of your attention as a currency you have been given--24 hours of it comes to you every day, and it can't be saved for tomorrow.

Which of your relationships will you consider valuable enough to "pay" attention to? What tasks? What subject matter?

I'm the first to admit I need to do better at this. In the current season of our church life, I've got extra responsibilities and lots of regular commitments to keep track of, and I found myself missing some things I should have caught, while paying attention to some things that turned out not to be as important. Recently I made the decision to adopt a planner other than my phone. It's pretty demanding--requiring me to plan out my days, weeks, and year around priorities. That made me write out what really deserves my attention and energy. I'm being pretty good at sticking to my plans, and I'm also trying to be more intentional about not looking at my phone all the time or answering emails as soon as I get them--instead, paying attention to the things I've decided were important enough to have this hour of my time.

Obviously (and you knew this was coming), if deepening your faith and walk with God is worthy of attention, then it should claim some of it for reading the Word (the truest source of wisdom and instruction), and prayer. The same would be true of your spouse and family (if you have those), and your church family.

What are you paying attention to today?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!"

[Originally published on Easter, 2014]

I've actually been to this tomb in Israel many times--a rolling stone tomb along the road that is probably the closest we
will get to a good representation of what Jesus' empty tomb would have looked like.
A very well known "cutting edge" Christian famous for his iconoclastic life and writings wrote a book a number of years ago that was every "wanna be cutting edge" Christian's favorite book. In it, the writer echoed one of his mentors in saying that the beauty of the teachings of Jesus is so great, and the power of his instruction so overpowering, that even if the whole story of Jesus wasn't true, and there was no heaven ahead, he would still want to be a Christian because of these qualities.

At that point as I was reading the book, I threw it across the room.

Why? Because that is what Paul the apostle would have done.

Actually he says, in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ is not, really and truly, raised from the dead, we Christians are "most to be pitied." That is Bible talk for "losers," "idiots," or just about any term of derision and foolishness you would want to pin on us. Why, Paul says, would we go through all the self-denial, the enduring of wrongs in hopes that they will be made right some day, the offending of others, and who knows what else, if this whole matter of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus isn't real?  Good question! 

Christianity, thankfully, is not just a self improvement program because, let's face it, even if I improve myself to my highest potential, I am still falling short of God's glory, still selfish, still thinking more about myself than I should, only now I'd just have more about me to brag and think highly about. And I can't save myself from myself--from my sinfulness. 

Christianity is about resurrection, not just reformation. It is not just weak becoming strong, but dead coming to life. The resurrection of Jesus figured much more prominently in the apostles' preaching in Acts than it often does in our thinking. We focus on his death--a vital focus to be sure. But they loved to proclaim his resurrection--his power over death, and the guarantee of right standing before God forever in his presence. His death, without the resurrection, gave his followers only grief. They didn't think about how noble it was, or even of it as a possible appeasement of God's wrath. Only the resurrection made it real to them.

And it keeps making it real to us. He is risen. He's alive, now and forevermore. And as he ascended into heaven the message of the angels at that event was the same as he had been giving--he is coming back!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Saturday of Holy Week

[This is the seventh and final post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Theme: Waiting
Text: Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56; Matt. 27:62-65

The records of what happened on the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are brief.  Nothing is reported about the disciples--we can only gather from the lack of faith demonstrated later that they were not confidently expecting Jesus' words about rising again to come to pass.  

The women who wanted to care for Jesus' body ran out of time on Friday to complete their preparations: the tomb was closed while they went home and rested for the Sabbath as required by Jewish Law.  Saturday night was spent getting the final supplies and preparing to go to the tomb the next day--wondering how they would move that stone.

But the enemies of Jesus were disturbed.  They knew that Jesus had said He would rise.  So they went to Pilate to ask for guards to be sent to the tomb to keep his disciples from stealing the tomb.  Obviously these Jewish opponents of Jesus feared the power of Jesus to motivate his disciples, even if they didn't believe in resurrection.

Sometimes those who don't believe in Jesus have a clearer understanding of what Jesus words can mean than do His own disciples.  Maybe that's why so many efforts are made to keep people from hearing or reading God's Word.

Thank God that the despair and dejection of that Saturday never need be faced by any of Jesus' followers again, for less than 24 hours later, Jesus would emerge from the tomb and the question of whether or not He was Messiah and His sacrifice sufficient would have been forever settled.  

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Friday of Holy Week

[This is the sixth post in a series on Jesus' passion week, first posted in 2012.]


Text: John 18:28-38
Theme: Truth


There is so much more to be said about the day of Jesus' death than I can even mention in this format, but let me simply point out one moment.  It is Jesus, standing before Pilate, questioning him and having Jesus answer with questions and hard sayings.


"Are you king of the Jews?" asks Pilate.


"Do you say this on your own, or did others say it about me?"


"Am I a Jew? Your nation has delivered you over..." Pilate responds.  "What have you done?"


"My kingdom is not of this world..."


"So, you are a king!"


"For this purpose I was born," said Jesus, "to bear witness to the truth."


It is at this moment, as Ravi Zacharias first pointed out in a sermon I heard, that a huge opportunity is presented and missed.


Pilate responds to Jesus' statement by asking, "What is truth?"


But instead of waiting for Jesus to respond, he turns and goes outside.


Pilate was a skeptic, who didn't believe there was truth to guide you: there was only opportunities to be snatched or missed, and circumstances to be controlled or else have them control you.


Imagine if he had waited.  At every moment in this dialog, Jesus had responded.  But here, Pilate doesn't wait for a response.  If he had, what would Jesus have said?  Would it have mattered?  It would not have changed the outcome as Christ's sacrifice was not optional, but might have begun a change in Pilate.  We can never know.


On this Good Friday, many will not know what the day is about.  Many others will recognize an historical event, but not seek to know the truth of what happened and why.


May your Good Friday be one where you know what happened, and why it happened, and that it happened all for you.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Thursday of Holy Week

[This is the fifth post on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Text: John 13:1-17:26
Theme: New Commandment


Our text today is a long one, but that is because it was so important that John dedicates almost 20% of his gospel to the account of the last supper in the upper room.  Why so much time here?

There were, it is true, many poignant moments.  The passage begins by stressing Jesus' unfailing love for His disciples, right to the very end.  And it concludes with a prayer that reflects that love.  He taught them humility by washing their feet, and told them that those who know him are "clean."  He explained that He was the vine and we are the branches, taught on our future dwelling in His Father's house, and He instituted the Lord's Supper.  He revealed His betrayer, and He promised the Holy Spirit to us.  All of this took place in the course of a supper, which the other gospels identify as a Passover meal.

But something we sometimes miss is that Jesus, having earlier this week summarized the whole Law in two commandments, now offers a third to be kept by His disciples.  The two summary commandments we may remember:
  1. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37)
  2. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:39)
Now, Jesus offers #3, calling it "a new commandment," and requiring it as a proof that we are His followers:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have love you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35)
Who does the loving here?  His disciples.  And who are they to love?  One another--the rest of the disciples, or what we call Christ's Body, the Church.

If we read this passage from the standpoint of Jesus' love for us and His desire for us to love each other deeply, it takes on a powerful new meaning.  He washes disciples' feet because He loves us, and He wants us to wash each others' feet because we love each other.  We draw life from Christ the true vine, but we share in that life together.  The Spirit will come because Jesus loves us, but He comes to us, collectively, binding us together even as He binds us to Christ.

Further, if we take Jesus' three commands as the summary of what He wants us to become as His grace transforms us, it looks like this:

  1. We love God supremely, with everything we are and have.
  2. We love others humbly, putting their needs on equal footing with ours
  3. We love the Church sacrificially, putting our collective good ahead of individual desires
This is what Jesus modeled in the Upper Room, and even more powerfully in the Garden and on the Cross.
Pray today that we will fulfill this high and holy calling.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Wednesday of Holy Week

[This is the fourth post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]
Text: Matthew 26:14-16
Theme:  Betrayal and fake faith

Wednesday during the Passion Week has been difficult for commentators to deal with, because while other days are specifically noted through entering and leaving Jerusalem, or the relation of the day to Passover, or some other detail as to what Jesus did.  As Sherlock Holmes would say, "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (Doyle, 91).  Now if we can assign all of Jesus' other recorded activities to other days, then the conclusion is that Jesus spent Wednesday in private fellowship with the disciples and the family of Simon the Leper: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany.  The next day would be the second most painful of his life.

But that doesn't mean everyone was idle.  Only on a day when everyone was left to themselves would Judas have the freedom to make a quick trip (probably less than a 30 minute walk) to the Temple precincts where he could arrange to betray Jesus.

The actions of Judas are epic in scope, and have led to all sorts of speculation.  How could one who had seen all he had seen come to such a point?  There had been no mistreatment by Jesus or the disciples--he had even been made treasurer of the group (Jn. 12:6).  Some have thought he had tried to orchestrate a move that would force Jesus to act against Rome.  More liberal scholars have even suggested that he acted with Jesus' covert blessing to bring things to a head.  And others have suggested that after discovering that Jesus would not fight Rome for independence, he had become disenchanted and disgusted.

Ultimately, we don't know his lesser motivations.  But Jesus offers a number of clues.  Here is a list of what He, John, and Matthew have told us about Judas:

  • Judas was not "clean"--cleansed from his sin.  "You [the disciples] are clean, but not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." John 13:10-11
  • Judas was led by Satan--"...the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray [Jesus]" John 13:2
  • Judas was "the son of destruction" who is specifically said to be "lost" John 17:12
  • Judas was "a devil" John 6:70
  • Judas was a thief  John 12:6
  • Judas' sorrow over betraying innocent blood lacks any expression of repentance toward God or toward Jesus  Matt. 27:4-5
If we simply take what the Scripture says, we must conclude that Judas was, from the beginning, a fake.  He was known from the beginning by Jesus as the one who would betray Him.  His only comments recorded are lies--whether about Mary's expensive ointment for Jesus, or denying that he was the betrayer, or greeting the Lord with a kiss.

But he was a good faker.  None of the rest of the twelve knew he was the betrayer until he did the deed.  Even when he left the upper room, they thought he was on a mission for Jesus.

Such fakers are still among us.  God, by his grace, will open the eyes of some of them (or you, if you are a faker reading this--and this may be His warning to you to repent).  Others will continue to deceive everyone else until they do something to reveal their loyalty, or maybe they will go to the grave deceiving us, and be exposed only at the Judgment.  They may even join the chorus of those crying out, "Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name (Judas did), and cast out demons (Judas did), and do many might works in your name (Judas did)"(Matt 7:22).

And they will hear what Judas will hear, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness."

Faking faith is deadly, and it can't succeed before the one Judge who matters.  

Let's pray that God opens the eyes and hearts of fakers we may know (even if we don't know they are fakers).  And perhaps we might need to ask the Lord Jesus the question even his true followers asked that next night when he told them betrayal was coming, "Lord, it's not me, is it?  I'm not faking, am I?"