Monday, January 30, 2017

When Baptists are Atheists

I've always struggled to comprehend the sheer audacity of philosophical atheism. The confident assertion that no God exists is, in itself, a logical absurdity. To assert that anything definitely does not exist requires exhaustive knowledge of the universe, which only a God could have. How can a mere human say that he knows all about the universe beyond his own observation, or has plumbed the depths of all dimensions or scanned every moment of history into prehistory and before? It is a position that requires some knowledge of the object (God) in order to reject Him.

Yet there is another kind of atheism that is much more powerful. I was reminded of it in my devotions today, from Psalm 14:1--
"The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile, there is no one who does good."
This is the atheism of foolishness, that weighs actions without consideration of God's existence and God's will. When people eliminate God from their judgments and considerations, their choices and actions quickly descend into self-interest and, inevitably, sin.

Of course we can see this in the lives of non-believers around us. We note and mourn their words, choices, and actions. We look at the carnage of our world and can only explain it as the result of people refusing to acknowledge and honor God. And such evils are often done by those who claim religion or God, but demonstrate by their corruption that they do not truly know or follow Him.

But there is something more disconcerting about this idea. It would seem that any time we who know and love Jesus still choose sin, we have made a decision, however temporary, to look away from Him and to pretend He just is not there. How else could those of us who have understood that our sins are the cause of Jesus' suffering and the source of His pain, nevertheless choose once again to indulge ourselves as if it doesn't matter? Every time a believer embraces sin without thought of offense to God or consequence, he is living as what many have called a "practical atheist." And the more often this takes place, the more "atheistic" our lives will look.

Believers can live as though God isn't there to see, to warn, or to judge. And a person whose life gives evidence of such practical atheism has landed himself in the company of fools, biblically. How do we avoid such a state?

I would suggest that the issue is not intellectual. After all, we know and believe the Scriptures, and we confess Jesus as Lord. The issue is primarily one of vision or focus. What do we fix our minds upon--or more precisely, who?

If our eyes are on others and their thoughts of us, they become our gods and we are not just atheists when it comes to the true God, but idolators as well. If our gaze is turned inward on our own desires and wants, we become our own gods, choosing our own passions and desires and refusing to consider the authority of the very Savior we have embraced.

Practical atheism results when we take our eyes off Jesus, and fail to cultivate our love for Him and His promises of superior joys to those our hearts might choose. Turning away from Him is an attempt, however momentary, to pretend that all He is doesn't need to be "in the picture" right now. And any picture from which we exclude Him becomes the scene of disaster and ruin.

Before we go down another sinful path or another selfish excursion into evil thoughts, we must ask ourselves, "Am I seeing Jesus in this? Is He, who has promised to be my good shepherd, leading me this way? Can I discern His encouragement to pursue this? Or am I listening to His voice of warning, urging us to:
"Say 'no' to ungodliness and worldly lusts!"
"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you!"
"Watch and pray, that you do not enter into temptation!"
"Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life!"

Speaking to you all, and to myself, I encourage us all to be careful of the dangers of not taking Jesus into account always; let's not be Baptist atheists!

Friday, January 27, 2017

One Week; Two Marches; One Cause--Life on the Line

Today is the March For Life, and depending on whether or not the pressure from the President has prevailed, it will either get a lot of coverage or nothing in comparison to the “Women’s March” that took place last weekend. To be sure, the latter had star power, which an occasional event can create. It morphed from just a "pro-woman" march to a specifically anti-Trump event, generating even more interest. The March For Life, by contrast, has been an annual event, often the largest to take place in our nation’s capital year after year, but with little press coverage. This year, the sitting Vice President will become the highest-ranking official to attend.

Obviously, I’m not there. But today's occasion reminds me of a stark truth. Since anti-abortion laws were struck down in the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions in 1973, 60,000,000 Americans have been killed in the womb. The oldest of them would just be 43 this year. They would have increased the population of our nation by about 20%. Put another way, one fifth of us are missing.

I wonder how our nation might have been different if those millions had lived. Here are some of the realities that we know to be true.
  • Our nation would have many more African Americans than it does. Abortion has been disproportionately practiced as a primary means of birth control within poor communities, and the highest single demographic is the African American community. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, would rejoice in this outcome, since she saw “races” other than white as being a threat to society. 
  • It should be assumed that at least a portion of these people would have been highly productive, intelligent people whose contributions to society would have been significant. Perhaps the discoverer of a cure for HIV/AIDS, or forms of cancer was among them. 
  • There would be a higher percentage of women alive today. Sex selection abortion exists, and wherever it is practiced—with or without government sanction, more parents choose to have boys than girls. Yes, it is not supposed to be practiced in our enlightened culture, but there is no practical way of stopping it if someone chooses to pursue it.
  • It is more likely you would know more people with Down’s Syndrome. Studies indicate that the population of people with Down’s Syndrome in the U.S. has dropped 30% in the last decade, and that the majority of women who receive a DS prenatal diagnosis abort that child. 
I also wonder what it says about a society that doesn’t seem to miss 60,000,000 of its own, and can allow them to be killed without concern. Diseases that kill a fraction of that number have telethons, rallies, ribbons, and awareness campaigns. A casualty figure of 60,000,000 in war would make pacifists of us all.

One final thought was prompted by a number of statements made by people I know to be believers after the Women’s March, talking about their participation in the march out of “solidarity” with those the march was said to represent—women whose rights were being taken away and freedoms curtailed. Allusions were made to doing this as Christ-followers, suggesting He would be marching, too. The very public removal of pro-life groups, along with the pronounced support for all things LGBTQ from the national march were not cited as problematic by any of these people whose comments I read.

Jesus encourages compassion for all people in whatever state we find them, but His compassion would never be at the exclusion of the truth that sets free or of righteousness that saves. And the Bible pronounces specific woes on those who call evil “good,” and good “evil.”  Christians participating in the national march had to check any “pro-life” credentials, beliefs, or advocacy at the door, and would have been excluded had they dared to say that marriage was superior to living together, same sex relationships were not God’s will for people, and the Bible was God’s authoritative truth. Solidarity, in this case, meant silence when it came to matters of eternal significance. And that silence could not be broken even to acknowledge the continuing murder of a million unborn girls and boys every year.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Burying Sinners and Saints

There's an old joke about a young pastor called to a small town church many years ago. In the town were two notoriously evil brothers, who were also rich and powerful. They used their money and power to great advantage, until one day one of those brothers died. 

The surviving brother came to the new young pastor and said, "I want you to preach my brother's funeral. And if you will do it, I will give your church one million dollars." 

Stunned, the preacher was about to say yes, when the man added, "But I have one condition. You have to say that my brother was a saint."


"Say, 'he was a saint'--the very words! Do that, and I guarantee your church will receive one million dollars."

The preacher, though new in town, knew the brothers' reputations, and was hesitant. He also knew how little the church had in its accounts, and what that money would do for repairs and the work. He asked if he could think about it for an hour or two. The surviving brother agreed.

One hour later, the preacher said "I'll do it."

On the day of the funeral the preacher took his place in the pulpit. He began, "We are here to remember and bury a man you all know. He was a scoundrel in every conceivable way. He was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. If there was a way to do wrong, he would find it. And if you ever thought he was doing something good, it was only a ruse to trick you. Yes, he was a very bad man. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!"

In my calling, I've buried a few sinners along with quite a few saints.

I did more than my share of funerals last year, and have already done a memorial service in the first week of 2017. Thinking back over these services in the past year, they were all for professing believers, most of whom were well known to me and gave clear testimony of their faith in Jesus. 

I don't get very many calls like I used to when I was in California from funeral homes looking for a minister to do a funeral or memorial service. Those were very interesting events. The reason I'd get the call was that the family wanted a "minister" to perform the service, but they were not "church people" in any meaningful way. This meant that I would meet a family for the first time during a very difficult moment, and they would have as little idea of what to expect from me as I did from them.

I would be thanked for coming, and then be assured that, while the deceased hadn't been to church in years, he (or she) was a "fine Christian" who followed the golden rule, was a good family member, and was kind to pets and strangers. I would often try to move the conversation toward the gospel. At first it was to see if the deceased might have, at some time in life, heard and acknowledged it. But it was also to see if anyone in the family had any knowledge of it. Occasionally I would see a knowing look or glance, often followed up with a whispered conversation that told me I had a gospel ally in the family. More often, there were just blank stares or polite nods, and then we would move on to the service planning.

Why would I do these services? Honestly, it wasn't for the dead. They were gone and I had nothing to offer them. It was for the opportunity to preach the gospel in the service to the living. Strangely, even though the "guest of honor" may have had nothing to do with God, mourners have an openness to consider eternal things that seldom is seen outside of funerals. I found that I could divide a service into two parts: the first was a remembrance of the deceased, and then I would say something like, "as a Christian minister I've been asked to lead this service for you, and I wouldn't be doing what I should if I didn't offer some words of comfort and hope to you who are here, even as we all realize that someday we will be facing our own end." I'd go to the scriptures and speak of God's love, man's sin and alienation from God, God's holiness and justice and what that means for sinners, and how God's mercy and grace have opened the way of forgiveness and life: not through performance but through a person--Jesus Christ. I would pray for those grieving, and ask that God would not only ease their sorrow, but draw them to His offer of life.

What was amazing to me was that in those settings I never was criticized for "preaching"--in fact, families uniformly were grateful. I don't know why, and I can't say that I know of anyone who was converted then. But it was an open door I was glad to take.

Harder were those few services where relatives expected me to tell them that their rebellious, hard-hearted, recently deceased relative was running around heaven having a grand time. I still remember one service where a rather well-known rebel-hearted youth died in an accident of his own making while intoxicated. He had made no secret of his rejection and mockery of faith. I followed the format that I outlined above, never speaking ill of him, but not pretending he was something he was not either, and was thanked by many--but not by the family. In fact, I received an incensed call from a fire-breathing grandma who could not believe that I hadn't told everybody what a saint her grandson was. The burial, which was scheduled for the day after the funeral, would proceed with a different minister! 

This all came to mind recently as I was preparing for the memorial for a real "saint"—a lady who had lived over 90 years and manifested her faith through her life. I use the term "saint" in its biblical meaning--a believer, yes, but an obvious believer. No need to wonder if she understood truth, or believed it, or lived it. Having met her almost 40 years ago, and having been her pastor for over a decade, I know her faith, and so I could speak with confidence about her continuing future life and joy.

I've had a string of these kinds of funerals of late, including this dear woman’s husband, and just a few weeks before, a member who was a retired missionary and continuing friend. I am blessed to do them. For in such cases, I can recount their lives--not perfect by any stretch, but faithful. I can not only speak of their profession of faith, but their examples of faith. I can tell or hear stories that remind me of how God used them, when they were willing to be His instruments. And I can once again remind those in attendance that God's promise to saints is that absence from this body means being present with the Lord. When I leave these services I am prodded to consider my own path of faithfulness, even as these brothers and sisters take their place in Heaven's great cloud of witnesses to the faithfulness of God.

What kind of encouragement will your funeral be? What kind of words will be said? How will those who know you remember you? What mark that will count for eternity will you leave? Will your preacher have to work hard to come up with good things to say, or even worse, will he have to simply offer remembrances of a life past and then preach the gospel, without ever drawing the connection between the two?

In one of those services for an unbeliever, I used a little liberty I drew from the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31--you can take time to read it right now if you don't know it). I said to the audience, "If _______ were able, I think he would speak to you right now in the strongest terms to turn to Christ and believe!" I'm not positive that's true, but if Jesus says in a story that someone in Hades had that impulse, I think it might be a fair supposition in other cases, too.

As you go about this day, don't assume you are guaranteed any more of them. And realize that when you leave this life for the next, your story will be told. I hope it will be a story of faith realized.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Praying and Seeing Answers

For a while now I have been using prayer cards in a system I borrowed from Paul Miller's book, A Praying Life. That is a book I'd recommend to anyone by the way. I have a card for every member of my family, a number of cards for missionaries, cards for friends, cards for extended family, a card for the elders, and so on. I don't pray for every card every day, but some I do, and all the others are in a short rotation. On each card, I usually have a scripture or two that I pray for that person or persons, and any time there is a special need, I write it down with the date. And when the prayer is answered, I write that down, and how, and the date.

This may seem small, but the more I keep track of how God is answering prayer, the more I want to pray, and the more I want to be specific. My cards record specific answers that give me hope and courage to pray. They also record times when God's answer came but it wasn't what I wanted. Even so, I don't feel as if my prayers were not heard--they were, but God gave a better answer according to his perfect understanding.

I think that many of us may have a pretty weak prayer life because we cannot point to specific ways that God has answered prayers, even if the answer is "No," or "not now." And I think many of us expect that God ought to give us an answer (preferably the one we want) rather quickly, after all, we feel as if we would be wasting our time if we keep asking.

Recently I was looking at my "Special Needs" card, which is full to overflowing and needs replacing (I save the old ones so that I'll remember what I prayed about). I saw the place where I wrote down Mike Kane's name, as he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. And then I have the date he came to the elders for healing prayer. Then I have the date when he was getting his transplant (the answer we thought was going to extend his life). And finally, I have the date he left this life and was "fully healed" in God's presence. Some might look at that and say, "but God didn't answer our prayers." Oh, but he did. I will never forget Mike's response after we had prayed over him and he talked about the Lord's presence in that moment, and the strong encouragement he received from the Lord. I want to always remember those months of waiting and seeing Mike's confidence in God and his comfort that God was working. I'm so grateful to remember that he had no real pain in the illness, and even when the transplant went badly and he was taken home to be with Christ, we could know that this was God's answer and was great for Mike, even though Alisa, the family, and the rest of us had lost him here. We learned so much.

And that same night we prayed for Brian Nester, and God has seen fit to keep him with us. And then there's the name of the wonderful young bride who weathered a year of treatment for leukemia--I have dates written down for her, too. 

The elders have joined together to pray for all our members (yet another reason to join the church), and we've divided the congregation into a list where one third of you are prayed for by one third of us each month, and then we shift. We've had reports of how God has used that prayer time, and I can tell you that as I have prayed for some of you, God has either given me a chance to talk to you and hear how God is working, or I've prayed and then found out God has done something in your life--and it's not that he needs my prayers, but he chooses to work in and through them, and I get to hear about it and see it! 

The elders also have been meeting on Monday mornings for special prayer for wisdom to lead this church, and I cannot tell you what a blessing it has been to do so, even though it's at 5 am! God continues to guide us, and to protect us from our own foolishness! I try to bring my notebook to keep track of how we pray, and how God may answer. 

Could I encourage you to consider doing more to keep track of your prayers, and their answers? As you do, and you review them, you will be reminded that God is still hearing and answering prayer, and that may be just the nudge you need to pray even more. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

How to Vote!

More than one person has asked me how I think we ought to vote in tomorrow’s presidential election. I am not answering that question publicly for a number of reasons, one being that I can make a good case for more than one answer. Another is that I have people I love and respect on every side of the issue, and while I may not agree with their thinking and would engage them privately, I don’t want to create any unnecessary open division among us as Christians. And finally, while I have serious concerns as to whether our tax exempt status in our nation will continue, I don't want to jeopardize it in a church-related blog by making a political endorsement!
However, I do think that there are some things that I can say that might be of help to those still trying to figure out what to do. Actually, I have a lot of things I could say, but let me offer these five.
1. Vote Prayerfully—if you have not made your own need for wisdom (as well as everyone else’s need for the same) a matter of prayer, you have already failed in a basic call—to ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). Failure to pray for wisdom says to God, “I don’t trust you to give what you promise, so I’ll figure this out on my own.” You can be sure God won’t give you what you won’t ask for. If you are voting based solely on your gut, your political preferences, or your feelings, and not based upon prayerful dependence on God for wisdom, and reasoned consideration of biblical priorities and principles, then you are not voting as a Christian, but as an independent actor/reactor, and that does not help a nation full of people who think they are all personally the arbiters of what is right and good.
2. Vote Consistently—if a candidate and/or their party is defined by positions you believe to be opposed to God, the Bible, and the freedom for Christians (and others) to live and act in their public as well as private lives in accord with their conscience, then wisdom would instruct you not to vote for such a person. Christians may well face persecution, but we are not called upon to seek it. Rather, we are to pray for our leadership, and by extension seek to select those who would enable us to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim 2:2). The four "Christian" issues I prioritize for our society are life (including the pro-life cause), marriage and family, religious liberty, and justice (not "fairness") under law.
3. Vote Realistically—we are under no illusions about the candidates running for President this year for the major parties, the minor parties, or as write ins. We are also aware that an election is held with the stated purpose of yielding a winner who becomes our leader. Your vote is a piece of that process, and so you should vote in whatever way you believe and are convinced will yield the best possible winner out of the options before us. Voting, as Ohio’s governor did, by writing in a name that would not even count as a write in vote in our state, was a symbolic act, but it was not truly a vote. He could have voted for any candidate on the ballot or on the write in list, but he chose to throw away his part of the decision to be made and have no part in the outcome of the election.
4. Vote Humbly—you may choose your preferred candidate because you believe it will provide the best option, or in many cases you may do so because you do not want the other candidate to win. That is a valid way to think, but you need to realize you cannot predict accurately what will happen if any candidate wins. I thought Ronald Reagan would transform our nation and Bill Clinton would destroy it. I was wrong on both counts. You can guess, but you cannot know what will happen. So don’t tell someone else who may have reached a different conclusion that that are sinning by not doing what you think should be done, or that by voting as they did, they guaranteed some awful consequence. There are no such guarantees, and often things happen that only God could bring about. One staunchly conservative person I know is voting for a write in candidate, knowing that it may help a candidate he abhors win. “Then,” he says, “ we can fight against them using all the political means at our disposal—because we didn’t help put them there.” I’m not agreeing, but I see the principle involved, and perhaps that is putting more faith in God than those who are planning to vote for a “lesser evil.” In any case, I will not tell him he is wrong to do so. 
5. Vote Confidently—not in your candidate, but in God. As one of my favorite new sayings goes, “God is in control of who is in control.” Whatever the outcome, God still rules, still judges, and still saves. His kingdom will not be defeated, and His purposes for His people will not be thwarted.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Into the Wilderness

When you and I think of a wilderness, we usually have in mind a place of rugged mountains, trees, terrain with few if any paths, let alone roads, wild and possibly dangerous animals, and someplace we wouldn’t normally choose to spend the night alone.

When we hear the term “desert,” we probably think of sand dunes for miles, sand flies, mirages, maybe camels, with only an occasional oasis.

In the Bible these terms are often interchangeable, and the land that is spoken of as either desert or wilderness is chiefly known by its lack of people, not just its untamed condition or missing vegetation. It is a place where life, especially the easy life of settled towns and villages, cannot be maintained. Often in biblical lands, it was due to scarcity of water.

In Christian circles, we apply these terms to hard times when things seem desolate and we feel “lost.” When we speak of being in a “wilderness experience,” it usually carries with it the idea of aimless wandering, uncertainty, and usually a level of oppression like that of the children of Israel—a time when we feel God is not near.

But I was challenged recently to consider a study on how the Scripture references the wilderness, or the desert, when it comes to the experiences of God’s people. The Bible presents us with a very different picture. The qualities we assume may be there, but so are many others. Consider the following.

Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, takes the deliverance of his people into his own hands, fails, and has to flee to the desert. Was he not supposed to deliver Israel? Well, we know that he was, but at this point, he had decided to on his own, having never yet been called by God for the purpose. Although he was used to power and luxury in the palace of Egypt, he found himself fleeing Egypt and heading to the anonymity of the wilderness. We find him residing with a shepherd’s family, marrying a shepherdess, and having a son in the wilderness of Midian (see Exodus 2). But, think about it. The prince, by age 40, was powerful but self-willed. He had a sense of justice, but an uncontrolled temper (he did murder someone, after all). And while important, he was alone. In God’s providence, it was in the wilderness where he found a wife and had a family. He spent 40 years learning “desert living” (which would, providentially be quite important as Israel's leader). And most important, he met God and heard His call (Exodus 3).

Israel, delivered from slavery, crossed through the Red Sea on dry land, and went into the wilderness where they also met God and heard his voice. They received their “constitution.” Because they failed to believe God when told to conquer the land of promise, they wandered for a generation in the wilderness. Was that wasted time? I would argue that, in addition to the removal of an unbelieving generation, the wilderness experience made these former slaves a nation who saw God provide miraculously for 40 years—manna, quail, clothes that didn’t wear out, pillar of fire and cloud, miracles, deliverances, and more. He led them out of slavery, and prepared them to come into the land of promise in the wilderness.

Where did David flee when Saul was after him and found God close at hand—even guiding his almost daily escapes? The wilderness of Judah.

Where did Elijah go and hear God’s “still, small voice?” The wilderness/desert of Sinai.

Where did John the Baptist go to preach (strange choice!) and find people coming to hear the message of repentance? The Judean wilderness.

Where did Saul go after his conversion to be instructed by the Lord  in preparation for his apostolic ministry—Arabia, which is as “desert” as it gets.

And where was Jesus when he passed the test that Adam and Eve failed when he successfully resisted Satan’s temptation? He was on a 40 day wilderness excursion, led there by the Spirit--see Mark 1.

One more thing: Moses, Israel, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Saul/Paul, all were led by God to the wilderness and met God there.

Perhaps rather than shun our “wilderness” moments or “desert” experiences, we should instead ask ourselves if, since God has brought us to this place, are we ready to meet God there? And in each of these cases, meeting God in the wilderness led to empowerment and effectiveness, and was the path to receiving God’s promises. Isn't that what we all want?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The One Time I Get Jealous of the Freshmen

"Oh to be 18 again."
Someone recently referenced a song with that line in it, and when I heard it, my first thought was "not me!" As a 6'2", 135 pounder, I finished high school knowing I'd miss my friends terribly since we were not only graduating but my family was moving. I was going to school in far away Ohio, and a host of unknowns were in front of me. I spent that summer as a camp counselor at the most conservative Christian camp in Michigan, which was both fun and a little weird as I look back on it, and made $30 a week--I think that's what lots of camps still pay, by the way. Being smart was not considered an asset by my peers, and my lack of any notable (or even noticeable) athletic skills was definitely a deficit. Until I got contact lenses, my rather thick glasses were the perfect finishing touch! I look back now and see what amazing things were ahead, but I'm happy not to relive it.

The notion of going back in time does not appeal to me at all, even though I loved (and own) the "Back to the Future" movies. I can occasionally get nostalgic for aspects of the past that I'd consider superior to today, but we didn't have those good things in a vacuum--there were plenty of limitations and problems in those "good old days." Advances in medicines and treatments have improved the lives of many, and as the beneficiary of such advances in eye care (good glasses, then contact lenses, and then Lasik eye surgery), I am grateful to God for such advances.
Neither do I long for "do overs" in my life--although I have certainly got quite a list of mistakes under my belt that would be worth doing differently. Like most of you, I don't like thinking about my mistakes and past sins, and a few of them have had the kinds of negative consequences that linger or meant lost opportunities. But, I can appreciate the lessons I have learned through my failures, as God graciously forgives and brings beauty out of ashes, and I know that I wouldn't be the person I am now without those lessons under my belt. By the way, that doesn't mean those lessons could not have been learned in ways that were not mistakes or sins--I never want to say (or hear anyone say) that I had to sin to receive any lesson or benefit, since that is perilously close to what Paul forbids when he rebukes saying "let us sin so that grace may abound!" What I mean is that God, in his grace, does not leave us in sin and failure, but brings us out of them by his grace and can even redeem the results in our lives.

Now, I pastor a church in a college town. We see hundreds of 18 year olds show up, and frankly most of them (or you if you are reading this) look 12 to me. Some carry all the bravado you can muster as you try to figure out life away from home for the first time. Others simply have a "deer in the headlights" expression and won't snap out of it for a month or two yet. And your life seems like such a mystery.
No, I don't want to go back to that. I look back with much gratitude, but I'll stay where I am happily. But there is one sense in which I am jealous of you young ones among us (OK, two if you count not being stiff when I stand after sitting a while, or  hurting myself and not knowing how).
I am jealous of you because you are getting ready to embark into life during this amazing day of opportunity to serve the Lord. Yes, I know that we've ruined the ozone layer and the earth is doomed to get warmer (actually that's biblical since Peter says all will be judged by fire and the elements will melt--see 2 Peter 3). America isn't what it was (even if it never was what some people think it was, and it has always been very different for those not in the majority). The world has lots of new dangers from strange new diseases (Zika today) to haters of Christians (ISIS and other extremists). By any measure, the last days are living up to their scriptural billing.

In short, it's never been a better time to live for Jesus and make a difference. Here are some reasons.

1. You don't have to deal with the cultural "of course I'm a Christian, I live in America" thinking that used to keep many away from the gospel. The rise of the "nones" in America (those who say they have no religion) means people are finally seeing that they aren't Christian, that the "civil religion" of the United States is no longer some shade of Christian heritage, and so the contrast is clear. No better place for even a small light to shine than in growing darkness.

2. You have churches (including ours) that are striving to build biblical community and engage with one another in spiritual growth. The "Lone Ranger" approach to growth where everybody worked on their devotions alone, their witnessing alone, and their repentance and spiritual disciplines alone is being replaced by thinking that says we need each other in order to grow.

3. You have tools at your disposal that make biblical knowledge more accessible and shareable than ever. And you have more platforms from which to gain and share such truth than my 18 year old self could have dreamed of. Podcasts, e-books, webinars, conferences, and other resources mean that you can have more quality biblical input than any generation in history.

4. There are more opportunities to get to places in the world that need the gospel with fewer barriers and lower cost than ever before. While a missionary can't go to a number of places as a missionary, tourism and jobs overseas provide easy access to people who have been far from the gospel.

5. We live in a time of unprecedented growth in the global church. God is on the move in much of the world, and through prayer, giving, and going, you can be a part of this work in more places (and know about them through available media) than ever before. Creative means of connection and access already have people here discipling new believers in Muslim countries online in chats and messages.

6. Training opportunities and resources are at record levels of availability. You can have the equivalent of my entire study library available to you on a tablet for a fraction of the cost I paid, and access courses on just about any subject related to scripture and faith. Ministries abound that want to give you resources. Online and in person seminars, education, and training tools are available.

7. It's going to get more challenging to be a Christian in the U.S., and after decades (centuries) of having preferential treatment, the true church of Jesus now finds itself facing into the wind rather than having it at our backs. Real faith will be strengthened, even as false believers will be exposed and weak faith forced to grow. But these are the moments when, as believers, we are able to see life more clearly, and Jesus becomes more precious.

Why am I jealous when I'm in the midst of all this, too? Because, unless I live to be 120, most of my time is past. and my ability to grasp so many of the new opportunities is more limited (though certainly not gone). I don't learn new things as quickly as you who are younger, and the energy and strength of youth isn't mine, it's yours.

So, what shall I do? I hope that these words will excite some of you who are younger to grab hold of the days of opportunity that are in front of you. Even recounting these things makes me recommitted to doing all I can for as long as I can with whatever resources I can. And I also want to do all I can to help all of us at any age to see the amazing days in which we live and how we might grab hold of opportunities God has put before us to really live with excitement, hope, and confidence in these great days.