Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Reality and Hope in 2020

Turning a calendar page hasn't changed much--and that's both a very bad and a very good thing.

As I write this, the U.S. is dealing with the fallout after our military carried out a strike that killed iran's leading general in Iraq, prompting promises of furious retaliation. This follows Iran's sending its Iraqi allies to storm the U.S. embassy the week before.

2020 is already a year of war and bloodshed amid intractable conflicts.

I also read of a Chinese pastor sentenced to nine years in prison on false charges, due to his public objections to government crackdowns on his congregation and on believers in China. His message to his people stirs my heart. Here is part of it:
“I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority," the church quoted Wang, "and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
“Jesus is the Christ, son of the eternal, living God. He died for sinners and rose to life for us. He is my king and the king of the whole earth yesterday, today, and forever," Wang said on Facebook. "I am his servant, and I am imprisoned because of this. I will resist in meekness those who resist God, and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws.”

2020 is already a year of persecution and the need to bear faithful witness to Jesus.

Our political leaders and processes have filled the media with charges and counter-charges, shrill statements, and hyperbolic attack or support of the president and his adversaries. This has poisoned public discourse, even among Bible-believing Christians, and causes many of us to despair at the lack of both discernment and charity expressed by believers. I can't even write about it without knowing that some in our congregation will be offended no matter what I say, beyond a call to pray for our nation and its leaders that gives no indication what I think.

2020 is already a year of political turmoil in need for biblical clarity.

I could go on. January 1 has come and gone, but aside from restarting a calendar and our attempts to link that with making personal changes, we continue to live in a world filled with the evidences of sin's dominion and the advance of evil, in fulfillment of every "last days" warning passage we find in Scripture.

But (and you knew there had to be a "but," right?) we woke up January 1st, and then the 2nd, and then today, in the Father's world. He made this universe, and is guiding it by his good providence to an incredible end.

We begin each day in the Father's care. As the psalmist celebrated, the God who keeps his people "will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4). God is up all night and awake all day taking care of us.

In the uncertainties of our world, its conflicts, and its politics, he still holds the hearts of kings in his hand and turns them as he will (Proverbs 21:1). He raises rulers (Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Augustus, and Herod for example) and nations (Egypt, Rome, the nations today) to accomplish his will, and then he takes them down, and their fates have no impact whatsoever on the continuing of his kingdom purposes, which will always stand firm.

And in those circumstances you are facing that didn't end with the coming of 2020, as God's child you have his promise of wisdom when you ask (James 1:5), strength when you are weak (Isaiah 40:29-31), and rest when you are overburdened (Matthew 11:28-29). He still wants you to give your anxieties to him (1 Peter 5:7), and promises his provisions as you seek his kingdom first (Matthew 6:33).

All of this is true today, just as it was in 2019, and as it will be tomorrow, and the next day, until he comes and makes things much, much better!

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Word Came... to the Sasak

This summer, Kathy and I visited the Museum of the Bible during our sabbatical stop in the Washington, D.C. area. It was well worth the day spent there. We saw all sorts of displays and records of the transmission of God's Word to people. But an unexpected joy was the discovery of a room filled with translations of the Bible. As impressive as it was, there was one translation that stood out for us. It was the Sasak New Testament, produced on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. And we felt incredible joy to see it there.


Because from 1990 to 2005, we were eyewitnesses to the process that led to this translation's completion and printing in 2007. The Sasak live on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, and number at 3.5 million people. They are, in the latest report only .001% Evangelical--99.99% are Muslim. That translates to less than 400 known believers, even though gospel outreach has gone on most recently since the late 20th century. But that is up from the less than 50 believers in 1991 when I first visited the island.

I was traveling with a missionary worker sent by our church who, along with his wife and two other couples were seeking to begin work there, in partnership with some Indonesian believers. Other than Indonesian literature (Indonesian is a trade language spoken throughout the country, but not the "heart language" of most people living away from the major population centers), there were only portions of scripture that had ever been translated into Sasak and they were not readily available.

Over the years I made five more trips to Lombok (three with Kathy) where we visited our workers and their teams. These teams continued to change as persecution and efforts that failed to take root kept removing some, even as others arrived. Workers would often arrive brimming with hope but leaving discouraged. Some would change fields. Others came home to do something else. Still others, through various attacks (some physical), found themselves having to leave due to government pressure. None of the workers in place when I started visiting were there when we last came to the island.

We remember the first major team working on the translation. They did so in secret and were very fearful of discovery by the Muslim authorities. But they were continuing and showed us their work. Their leader, Anna, was tenacious, but shortly after our visit, she perished when her gas stove exploded and her burns were beyond medical help. Losing Anna was devastating to our friends (it would not be the only death they experienced) and seemed to be something that might end this project.

At that time, persecution had broken out throughout the island. Christians' homes were targeted and were burned. As mobs arrived, they would drag all the family's possessions into the street and burn them, even as they ransacked the house. Sometimes they left the house standing because it was a rental owned by a Muslim. As we drove the streets, we would see places where the asphalt had buckled from the heat of a fire, and this was how we would know that a Christian had lived in a house on that street. The main victims were from other ethnic groups (including our team of workers) who live on the island and are identified as Christians since so few Sasak are believers. The persecution and then Anna's death seemed like it might shut the work down again.

But in 2004, our last visit to Lombok, we were welcomed by the translation team (they had a new leader and had been joined by others). Where a few years ago their demeanors had demonstrated their fear in their faces, now they were smiling, happy, and excited at what God had done in enabling them to complete their drafts.

Most startling of all, one of the U.S. workers there told an amazing story about the checking of the translation. It seems that they needed Sasak speakers to read the draft and then translate it back into Indonesian to see if they had gotten the translation right. But native speakers were Muslims, and there was no certainty how they would respond. This worker had befriended a Muslim Sasak man who was very interested in knowing more about Jesus. After much prayer, the worker approached the Sasak man and asked him if he would be willing to do this work. What happened next was miraculous.

The Sasak man told the worker, "I had a dream and in it, I was told that I would soon learn my life's purpose. And now you have asked this of me. This must be what I have been born to do." And he accepted.

Later, another Sasak man was asked to help in making Sasak corrections, and eventually, these men were able to talk together about the Scriptures.

Most amazing of all, the first man was so moved by what he read (he was reading Romans), that, without the worker's permission (this could be dangerous), he started having his neighbors over to read it to them and talk about it--a Muslim Sasak leading a Bible study in Romans! Through this a number of people became believers and a house church began.

In fact, a number of house churches began. Meanwhile, the translation of the New Testament went to the Indonesian Bible Society for further refinement and preparation for publication, which finally was completed in 2007 (there still is no complete Bible in the language).

Seeing this volume in the ranks of all these translations was such a joy and brought back so many memories of the faithful workers we knew who over those years sought to bring Sasak people the knowledge of the gospel. There are still workers (precious few) who are there continuing that work, but now they have the New Testament as their key tool!

Why tell this story now, in Advent? Well, the Sasak people have been waiting in spiritual darkness for even longer than the people waiting for Jesus' birth. Finally, the light is dawning and the Word made flesh has given them his written word. Let the story of the Sasak, and the reminder that there are still well over a billion people still waiting for that message in their language, give this season of "waiting" even greater significance.

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.