Saturday, October 5, 2019

Two stories give different but not contradictory evidence

Reasons to Believe

This morning I did what I do after breakfast (hopefully not before). I looked at my Facebook feed, and quickly discovered two stories, both of which I had seen before (one numerous times). The more familiar one was the story of a hole in the ground, and what was found there. The newer one was the story of a hug.

The hole in the ground is in northern Israel, where archeologists found a church dating from the 5th century A.D. that had been burned and later buried over the centuries. As they excavated, they found that the floor of the church was covered with beautiful mosaics, including one of the the feeding of the 5,000 by Jesus. This is yet another evidence from the first centuries of gospel proclamation that the stories of Jesus were well known and understood by his followers. Similar murals and mosaics are found in various places attesting to the use of the New Testament to inform faith. Of course, this is only the latest in a massive number of recent discoveries that offer convincing evidence that David ruled in Jerusalem, that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city if 586 B.C., and that Semites (Israelites) lived in Egypt and left suddenly around the time of the Exodus. Archeology gives us much to rejoice in as verification of scriptural records. We don't need "proof" that God's Word is true since we accept it by faith, but outside verification is a wonderful, faith-encouraging way to let others know about our glorious God and his revelation's reliability.

The hug was just two days ago. It took place in a courtroom, as Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the shooting death of Botham Jean in his apartment. Ms. Guyger, a Dallas police officer at the time, had entered his apartment by mistake--hers was one floor away, thought he was an intruder on her couch, and shot him fatally. The facts were never in doubt, but in the trial certain details of her past were brought out that made her look worse as prosecutors sought to assert more motive to the shooting than just fear. The jury sentenced her to 10 years, although the prosecutor asked for 28 and she could have received life in prison. As Mr. Jean's family were allowed to give victim impact statements, his brother, Brandt, stunned the courtroom (and the nation) by saying that he forgave her, wanted the best for her just as his brother would, and said that she would find it by turning to Christ and seeking God's forgiveness. The judge, wiping tears from her eyes, then allowed him his request to give Ms. Guyger a hug. Later, the judge gave Ms. Guyger her personal Bible and urged her to live in light of John 3:16. (Here is a link to the video of his remarks and the hug.)

This story has swept throughout news and social media, with many praising Mr. Jean (rightly so) and marveling at the grace and forgiveness he has shown.

What I find amazing is that both of these stories are powerful testimonies to the saving, life changing power of Jesus and his message. But only one grabs the heart--it is the one that doesn't look for factual corroboration of biblical claims. Instead, it clearly reminds us of just what Jesus did for each one of us, and what he calls us to do, as hard as that may be, and however much it may cost. And it reminds us that the mercy and forgiveness of Christ can flow through us to those who don't deserve it, just as it did to us in the first place.

Thank you, Brandt Jean, for not just honoring your brother's memory, but for walking in the footsteps of Jesus. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

In the World of St. Kanye

Wondering about faith, creativity, and celebrity

 We have been introduced to a new moment in our culture as Kanye West has been very publicly invoking faith in Jesus--not in the clearest terms, but still...

Recent news is that his long promised album, "Jesus is King," did not release as originally promised. That may or may not be a big disappointment to you, and knowing most of my subscribers, you probably weren't even aware that the album was coming. And some of you aren't sure who Kanye West is. Suffice it to say that he has been a one man celebrity and music dynamo, along with his wife, Kim Kardashian West. His music is hugely popular, and his antics are legend. But if you don't know about either of them, that's O.K.--this is Cedarville. I've included a picture for reference.

Anyway, he has been throwing a lot of religious language into his lyrics and posts of late. For all of his career, along with all of his other themes he has had occasional references to Jesus and faith. But recently he has been much more intentional, doing weekly "Sunday Service" musical settings, and openly calling himself a Christian. The most recent one was a remarkable gospel experience with a solid Bible message from a godly pastor (from my old hometown).

Reactions to all of this are pretty predictable. Some are ready to embrace him as the next Christian spokesman to the world, as various other musicians and celebrities have been. Anybody remember that young Christian sensation, Miley Cyrus? Or Katy Perry? Or Bob Dylan's Christian period? Or Jane Fonda's conversion (younger people won't recognize that last name)?

Others, because of the list above, simply dismiss it and assume it can't be real. My natural bent might be in that direction, too.

But, then I remember the story of Chuck Colson, the noted aide to President Nixon who pled guilty and served time in prison after the Watergate scandal. He, too made a public confession of faith before he was sentenced to prison, and many thought it was to get a lighter sentence. But when he came out of prison, he slowly built a ministry to former prisoners, reaching out to old friends who saw the change in him and helped him along in creating Prison Fellowship. By the time of his death, many never knew (other than by his own testimony) about the before picture of his life.

So, with Kanye, I am agnostic but hopeful, and even encouraged by early evidence. Agnostic means "I don't know," and that's really true. Lots of people use Jesus as a marketing tool, and he may be doing so. At the same time, I'm aware that there have been truly Christian influences in his life in the past and even more in the present, and that the music industry has insiders who are solidly committed believers seeking to win people to Christ. I also know that people who have had their share of problems and crises (as Kanye certainly has) are exactly the kind of person that the Lord has chosen in the past to redeem (can I get an Amen on that?). So I can hope--not just for him, but his wife, and those he loves.

And for all of us, we need to realize that our temptation to grab onto a celebrity testimony and say--"there, see, Christianity is great, because my celebrity says so." That is similar to hoping the cool kid in school will like us and that will make us cool, too. It doesn't usually work that way at school, and the credibility of Christianity will never be established by the latest celebrity who embraces it. Let's be careful to only let there be One that we choose as the best example of our faith, and that is the One for whom it is labeled in the first place--our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Worship is Heart Work

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13

Jesus quotes himself (as God’s revealer) from Isaiah’s prophecy, indicating that both the people of his own time, and the Israelites of 700 years prior had a shared condition. They each knew how to say the right things about and to God, but they were words devoid of conviction. While speaking of God in ways that sounded like praise and obedience, they actually were not occupied with thoughts of him at all. The next verse in both contexts says that they replaced God’s instruction with the “precepts of men”—rules that were made up for them (and often by them).

It is easy to find illustrations of this in our contemporary setting. I see this every time I watch mainline “Christian” services for special events that take place in the media. The recent funeral for the late former President George H.W. Bush would be one example. Readers of scripture and of some of the historic and orthodox parts of the Episcopal liturgy were done by people who, in some cases, deny the core truths of the Scriptures they are reading or summarizing. The words were great, but neither the speakers nor most of their hearers believed them. 

I cringe when liberal (and sometimes conservative) Christian clergy are being interviewed about major social issues of the day, and try to use Scripture as their proof that Jesus was a social justice warrior/feminist/political revolutionary/traditional values advocate/free market supporter, etc. The fact is, Jesus was all of those things and more, but in ways far different than the speakers I hear quoted understand. But the real travesty is that they trot out their image of Jesus when it suits them but ignore the New Testament witness to all he is and all he says and have no sense of submission to him or his gospel whatsoever. They do the same with the rest of Holy Scripture; use a dollop of the Bible when it fits but ignore its context and other content. This hard-heartedness toward a loving, holy, and speaking God manifests no true worship of him.

But then, I must stop and ask myself, “is my heart focused on God in my worship?” Now, sometimes it clearly is—in fact I think this is the norm. But there are still too many times when I’m singing to or about God and I’m thinking about something else. At other times I’m supposedly listening to what God is saying as I read or hear a sermon, but my mind is wandering to other interests. When I give my offering, do I think about this as truly given to show my love and honor for God, or am I just doing it as duty, or to be seen by others, or to get a greater tax break (which many of us will discover is less than we think due to new tax laws—so our faulty worship in this may even be flawed economic strategy, too)? 

It’s easy to see the flawed worship that comes from those we know are not serious about it, or those we know are devoted to false gods or false understandings of the true one. But we must also be honest about our own struggles to worship. Our hearts may be far from God in outright rebellion, but it may also be distraction, or self-concern, or the pursuit of lesser pleasures (which can be our own personal idols). We wouldn’t want others (or even God!) to think we weren’t interested in worship, but sometimes, we just aren’t. That’s when we need him even more.

Worship springs from the heart, and while we can “fake it” in the sight of others, we know that God sees and searches the heart. This is not a cause for fear, but honesty, sometimes repentance, and always hope. He will strengthen our hearts as we yield them to his Spirit’s work. He seeks worshipers, but he knows that for us to be one, he must also save worshipers and shape worshipers and sanctify worshipers. He’s ready to help and awaits your coming to him with your need of a strengthened heart.

Two actions steps you can take:
1.    Right now, go to God in prayer and ask him to help you worship him better today. Ask for eyes to see his working, a mind to recall his truth and his promises, and a will that is shaped toward his desires for you.
2.    On the next Lord's day, if you can, join others of us here or wherever you are in a time of corporate worship, letting the presence and voices of others be a prod to join in, a reminder that you are not alone, and an encouragement that, all together, you are acknowledging the worthiness of God to be our single greatest focus.

Let’s do the heart work of worship together.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

9/11 Memories--Eighteen Years Later

Eighteen years.
Incoming freshmen at the university up the street from my office have no memory of a pre-9/11 world, of a time when our nation was not at war. That day (and those that followed) are etched in my memory, disbelief turning to horror in a few hours after waking up (we lived on the west coast then). Watching and rewatching the footage of planes used as missiles and towers dropping to the ground. Watching the Pentagon in flames. Hearing of the passengers on a doomed plane thwarting their hijackers' plans at the cost of their lives ending in a field in Pennsylvania. Images of people jumping out windows to escape flames.
In the days ahead mourning proceeded next to the barricading of public buildings and airports. Everyone was stunned, no one could fly anywhere and many discovered they knew people who knew people who were either lost or spared by circumstance (a pilot friend was supposed to be on board one of the doomed flights the next day). It was days before some aspects of life began to return to a new "normal."
For a few days, people prayed and asked for prayers, and some thought revival would follow. A national prayer service had good words from many, including Billy Graham. But soon the prayers diminished, with most coming from military families for loved ones who would soon be going into harms' way. Some expressed anger that God would let this happen, others said it was God's judgment on America for whatever sin the speaker especially hated. There was no mass repentance.
The name "Osama bin Laden" became known and hated very quickly. It was just a month later I was boarding a flight (slowly) when the announcement came that we were sending troops to Afghanistan, ostensibly to root out the terrorists in this safe haven provided by the Taliban government. Most of us knew little of the Taliban or al Queda back then--we didn't even know how to spell or pronounce them. We know that now.
Soon our politics took over. The war in Afghanistan became the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with massive support quickly deteriorating into accusations and argument. Victory has yet to come--we don't seem to be sure what that would even be at this point. We are so ready to be done that we almost were treated to the presence of Taliban leaders at Camp David last week--even as they continue a war against the government we put in place.
9/11 was a day that changed everything, much of the change being in the way Americans conducted their lives and viewed the world. But the day itself needs to be remembered in honor of those who were its victims and as a lesson to us all. Evil threatens us. Danger surrounds us. But God is with us and for us. Surprise attacks don't surprise him. "Senseless" violence and suffering is not outside his control or plan, even when it makes no sense to us. And people used to not acknowledging God are not moved even by great tragedy to change their ways on their own.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Strong, Crushed, Renewed?

What is the condition of your spirit?

Proverbs 18:14 says "A man's spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit, who can bear?" This offering from the wisest of teachers lets us know a few things about that part of us that we can't see but governs the whole of our life--our spirit.

First, it tells us that our spirit can "endure sickness." Infirmities, diseases, and illnesses are hard for us to take, especially when they linger and when their symptoms are severe. Even so, we know that people find ways to endure such hardships. We tell stories of people who dealt with such things in ways that inspire in their perseverance. Some of you have gone through such hardships and been an example to me and to others.

But second, this proverb tells us that while the spirit is resilient in the face of this and other adversities, it can still be "crushed." The word here comes from a root that speaks of being broken, stricken (by a blow), or wounded. It is the condition of something that, when whole, is powerful enough to endure hard things like cancer or physical injuries. But it can be wounded, and such wounds can be debilitating.

That's the third truth--the crushed, broken spirit is something we cannot live with. As the writer says, "who can bear it?" The answer is, no one can. In fact, Proverbs 17:22 says "a crushed spirit dries up the bones"-- a metaphor for the loss of vitality, hope, and ultimately, life.

What kinds of wounds crush the spirit? This book gives us some clues. Though not an exhaustive list, I think we can see how these things can or have wounded spirits, including ours.

Perverse, evil words are one such destructive tool. Proverbs 15:4 says, "...perverseness in [the tongue] breaks the spirit." We have all had people say things to us that were hurtful, and meant to be so. When such words come from those we have loved and trusted, they can be devastating. Believing them can forever shape a child's heart, and they can cause adults to shun situations and people under their influence. Of course, perverse words can also be lies, such as those Satan used at the beginning: "has God really said? You will not surely die!" These kinds of perverse words may not hurt immediately, but become deadly once accepted.

Later in the same chapter, the writer of Proverbs says, "A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed (15:13)." This is not just a disappointment, but an abiding sense of grief at a fundamental level. It comes when what we have built our life and sense of meaning and purpose on is taken from us. It can consume us when those idols we have trusted fail us. We experience it when the things we are counting on to make us happy fail to do so. It is the opposite of the joyful heart that is like good medicine (17:22)

In 16:18 we get another clue to a way to damage our spirit -- it is through "haughtiness" of spirit (an inflated view of ourselves). This, we are told, leads to a "fall"-- again, not just a simple stumble, but a crushing, fatal collapse. When we allow our spirits to be "puffed up" with pride and arrogance, we create the situations that will lead to our being not just humbled, but potentially crushed.

How is your spirit today? If it isn't enduring the hard things of life as well as it should, perhaps you should ask whether or not one of the following is true?

1. Are you allowing evil words and lies to shape your beliefs and attitudes about yourself?
2. Are you discovering that you have trusted in the wrong things to give your life meaning and purpose, and now finding that they are failing to deliver what you have relied on them to give?
3. Have you put all your confidence in your own ability to make it in life as the captain of your soul?

Brothers and sisters, take heart. There is a cure for the broken spirit and these three causes of it.

Rather than let the words and lies of others, including Satan, hold sway, run to the Word and hear the promises of Jesus, who speaks grace to you, his child, and tells you of his everlasting love. He speaks peace, and forgiveness, and whatever else  you need to hear. Listen!

Put away your idols, and seek Jesus and him alone. Let that pursuit lead you to experience how he will add all other things you need into your life (Matthew 6:33). Idols are deadly, tricky things. Often they are, as has been said, by others, "good things, turned into ultimate things" -- which then makes them a bad thing.

Humble yourself before the Lord. Confess your tendency toward self-sufficiency. You can't fix everything, nor should you try. You are not God and don't have access to his plans and ways. You cannot even cause your hair to grow faster (or at all) or even stay in place! God has them all numbered. Let God be God, and let him bring balm to heal your spirit.

Pray, with David, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." God will hear and answer that prayer -- every time.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Ascension Day: When Christians Should be Looking Up!

Today is Ascension Day, forty days after Resurrection Day (Easter). The Bible tells us that it was after forty days on earth, during which time Jesus appeared publicly twice in the upper room to his disciples (John 20:19-29), once in Galilee to a large crowd of followers (Matthew 28:16-20), picnicked with some of the eleven after a night of fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:4-14), and met with them again in Jerusalem (Acts 1:6). Luke makes it plain that during these days he offered "many proofs" that he was, in fact, the same Jesus who was alive again (Acts 1:3). He also told them that great power was coming for them from heaven, but that they must wait in Jerusalem now for it to come.

After all of this, according to the book of Acts (1:6-11), he led them for their final "study session" (where he laid out once again the plan for worldwide witness once their power had come to them), to the same hillside east of Jerusalem where he had, weeks before, told them about the end of the age--the Mount of Olives. He repeated the plan (you remember what it is, don't you?) and as he finished, with the eleven watching, he began to rise bodily into the sky, a glorious, shining cloud of glory enveloping him as he rose so that they could no longer see him. He (and the cloud) were gone! But in the meantime, two angels stood next to them, and gently told them that staring was not their occupation. But hope was theirs--this same Jesus, will return in just the same way.

In his glorified body.
Carried back on the cloud of God's glory.
To the Mount of Olives, where he will stand on earth.

We've been studying a little bit (OK, a lot) about what the Bible says will precede this return, but never let us lose sight of what the signs point to.

Our Jesus is alive, and he is coming back.

Can it happen? Just as surely as he went up, he will come back down. Until then, don't lose hope, even though you can't see him yet.

Happy Ascension Day!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Significance, Suffering, and Sovereignty

We want the first, avoid the second, and ignore the third

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Mark 10:35-40 (ESV)

This story always intrigues us, for many reasons. One is that in Matthew's gospel we discover that James and John used their mom as the one to make the request--how bold of them!

There are many lessons to be gathered but there is one specific lesson that has been on my mind this week.

Note that James and John wanted special seats in the kingdom of Jesus--on his right and left hand. These would be prominent places indeed. If the rest of the disciples were on thrones as well, and in a line, they would be the ones seen most prominently, closer to Jesus than anyone. And these seats would identify these two disciples as especially significant--as if no one was closer to Jesus. It wasn't exactly what Peter would have thought.

We look at them and feel sorry for them--after all, the entire church for 2,000 years has heard of their prideful move and its failure. We know that the other disciples were angered, perhaps because they didn't ask first. Being important in the kingdom was a big deal to them. They wanted, they craved significance!

Interestingly, Jesus doesn't just put them in their place with a withering response. Instead, he points out two issues.

The first is whether they are able to drink the cup that he is about to drink. We have the advantage of history and the biblical record to know that this was the cup of his suffering and death. They brazenly answer, "we are able." They weren't at that point, although Jesus tells them they will, in fact drink from that same cup. James would be the first martyr and first of the disciples to die for Christ. John would be the last, after numerous attempts on his life, dying as an old man after living in exile because of his faithfulness.

Why does Jesus say this? Because the road toward significance in the service of Jesus is, invariably, the road of suffering. It is, after all, the way of the Cross. A path that emphasizes death to self, putting others first, sacrifice, loss, giving up familial relationships, and a cost to pay is not an easy, rosy one. It is good--incredibly good--and we know its ultimate joys. But it is still a road of suffering. Were they willing to embrace suffering? They said yes, but when Jesus prepared for his, they slept, and when he underwent his, they ran in the other direction.

How about us? Are we willing to run toward suffering, and chaos, and all the mess involved in invading strongholds of sin to, as the old song says, "rescue the perishing?" The followers of Jesus must embrace suffering on the path to significance.

Jesus doesn't dwell on their actual inability, but he moves to a second issue--sovereignty. He says that it is not his prerogative to award those seats, but that right belongs to the Father, who will give them to those for whom they are prepared. Not only will the Father give them out, but he has prepared the seats for particular people and people for those seats. Was it James and John? Jesus doesn't say--only that he won't do it.

Why does Jesus reveal this truth? I would suggest it is because we must remember that it is the Father's will that matters, and sometimes that will is not for us to be made prominent or significant in the eyes of others. You can indeed serve faithfully, and suffer bravely, and yet God's plan for you may not involve being seen as significant. Your role is perfect for you, and brings glory to God (as we are all made to do), but it may or may not be appreciated and valued by others. This creates another question: are we willing to be faithful in serving and even suffering, if God's plan for us does not involve being recognized as "a great servant" or "a noble sufferer for righteousness?"

By the same token, we have to decide if it is enough to be "significant" in the eyes of God alone? Will we walk the path of obedience, knowing it brings suffering, hoping only for the joys in Christ we are promised, and not worried about whether we will be recognized for doing so? True significance means trusting the sovereign determinations of God as to when or whether earthly eyes will know of us and our faithfulness.

I think James and John were a bit out of control in their request, but if we are honest, it can be easy to want to be significant--to be recognized, even if it is for our humility! May God help us serve, and live, and worship for the approval of the only One who matters. The path of true significance in God's sight is open to all his children--it will involve both suffering, and sovereign direction, but also divinely promised reward at the time we hear, "Well done!"

Who will get those two seats? I don't know. But the question reminds me of a story I read about the death of George Whitefield, the great evangelist. John Wesley had been an early friend and co-worker of Whitefield, but they differed sharply on doctrine--with Whitefield being a strong believer in the sovereignty of God in salvation and Wesley taking a strong view in favor of man's free will. Their letters back and forth on these issues were argued with passion and heat. When the news of Whitefield's death reached Wesley, a lady who was one of Wesley's followers asked, "Mr. Wesley, do you expect to see dear Mr. Whitefield in heaven?"

"No madam" replied Wesley after a lengthy pause.

"Ah, I was afraid you would say that," she answered.

To which Wesley added, "Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God's glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him."

I think that we may be surprised to find that God has a way of making significance in his eyes much more rewarding that significance in the eyes of others. And learning to rejoice in the recognition that others may receive (even if you don't for the very same service) is one of the greatest preparations of our hearts for a destination we rightly call "Glory."