Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What Happened In Vegas

When Unexpected Evil Invaded Sin City

I got up for our elder prayer time early on a recent Monday morning, and as I picked up my phone to head out, saw the news of a shooting that had taken place just a few hours earlier with multiple victims in Las Vegas. As the deadly details came in, they brought that terrible feeling that is a combination of disbelief, anger, ache, grief, and bewilderment--probably more, too. I prayed right then for the situation and people, not knowing how much worse the news would get.

I've decided previously not to join in the frenzy of social media commenting right away after such events, even the hashtags urging prayers. Personally, I want to know what's happening and try to process that news before commenting. In the days following, some things became clearer, some became more confusing, and some became very personal.

The clearer details were shocking numbers and what was and was not knowable. One man who had no police record and was not known to be a threat smuggled massive amounts of weapons and ammunition into a 32nd-floor hotel room, where he managed to break the supposedly shatterproof glass and shoot victims who were below at a large country music festival. He apparently converted at least one weapon to fire automatically, leading to the eventual toll of 59 dead (so far) and over 500 injured. He had security cameras set up to monitor whether the police were closing in, and there is evidence he had scouted other locations before choosing this one. Within a day we knew it was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. While ISIS claimed him, there is no evidence yet that the shooter was one of them.

Many were wishing he were because what cannot be known is why he did this. His brother was dumbfounded. Details gathered could only reveal a high stakes poker player who lived in his retirement in the desert town of Mesquite, Nevada. He sent his girlfriend out of the country before he acted. He wasn't on anyone's radar as a threat. He didn't leave a manifesto. He wasn't under a doctor's care or diagnosed with a mental disorder. He was just another 64-year-old guy, until he wasn't. 

Confusion came as people, especially the media and politicians tried to discuss the shooter and the crime. It wasn't enough to say that what happened was "tragic," "horrific," and "unfathomable." None of these expressed what everyone felt. Our public figures and media representatives had to find a better word.It was amazing how they referred to the shooter's actions as "evil." That word is a moral judgment, and its use points to some standard of good and evil that is beyond any one of us--it is agreed by all rational people that this is morally wrong. 

Now I agree wholeheartedly, but I wonder if those who call it evil have ever thought about where right and wrong come from? Evolution certainly cannot account for such a way of thinking. If morality is external to us, its source must be none other than the transcendent law-giver--but this is not acceptable to most of the very people using the word. Contemporary society wants to be able to label evil even as it undermines the possibility of its existence. Confusing times indeed. As believers, I hope we, and other Christians, might not let the discussion move so quickly to debates about gun control and security without bringing people back to this foundational question of whether there is a solution for the problem of evil in our world.

The personal piece came home to me as one friend reported that his son was one of the thousands fleeing the bullets (safely, in his case), and another friend reported that his family had lost a loved one in the shooting. The stories of the dead and of the survivors who thought they would die should remind us that this isn't just about a number of victims. It is individuals whose lives were ended or altered in a moment. Each one is mourned by family and friends, who in turn affect their circle of relationships. Each loss is intensely personal to those who cared. And each one is a soul whose relationship to God is most paramount, and has now been forever settled.

The ad campaign says, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." That was always a lie trying to be cute about hiding ones "indiscretions" while visiting what was historically called "Sin City." This week, we've learned that sin can come and wreak havoc even where it is celebrated and winked at, and at least in this case, it definitely won't stay there.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Another Church Visitor Report

Vacation is a time for a pastor to do a good and hard thing...

I wrote this a few months as Kathy and I finished our summer vacation in Myrtle Beach. If you know us, this is our favorite annual get away ever since we moved east and lost "our" ocean. The one back here is nice, too. Events transpired that made me postpone sharing it then, so here it is now.

I'm a firm believer in vacations, and in making sure you really do get away. We've left our phones away from us, spent little time checking them or other technology, and much more time reading, walking, and talking together. It's the best kind of vacation--long enough to get away, but also to make you ready to return. We are ready to come home.

We've learned never to believe weather reports--had we done so we would have stayed home! Instead, we have had glorious days here with promised rain usually not appearing or coming at night. We've each read a number of books, played games, and are completing a 8-episode movie marathon (last of the 8 tonight--we did Lord of the Rings on our last trip). And the toughest decision has been whether to go to the beach in the morning and the pool in the afternoon, or vice versa.

The middle of our vacation was the Lord's Day, and we decided once again to go church visiting. Our last two church visits in Myrtle Beach have been interesting. We visited a church that had taken over an entertainment complex that didn't survive, and got to watch them honor their high school graduates and talk about a missions trip coming up. So while there was nothing at all negative about the experience, it didn't really draw us back.

You may remember my report our last church visit: where we were welcomed as we drove in, but from that moment to the end, no one spoke to us. We stood outside the venue for 10 minutes while they reduced the seating for the smaller, second service. This church's call to worship was having all of us stand, clap our hands and be encouraged to "Shake it Off!" Yes, the music team covered Taylor Swift's hit (and did a very credible job, too), which was a first for me in a worship service. The worship leader's v-neck t-shirt was appropriately tight to let us know that Cross Fit works, and he led us in other songs that were more familiar in a worship setting than the opener. The sermon was a video, but not just any video. In the summer they were doing a "Best of..." series--videos of congregational chosen favorite messages. This one was about vampires. "Bloodsuckers in the Church" actually. We left pretty sure we wouldn't be back on another trip.

This time, we passed on a multi-site ministry that covers most of the Carolinas with campuses, did enough digging on the web to find out what churches named Cornerstone, Journey, Discovery, Wellspring, Newspring, Arms Wide Open, and Crossroads believe. We found one that was covertly Baptist (not in the name) and a part of The Gospel Coalition, and we went.

Unlike our two previous visits, this was a smaller church of about 100 people, meeting in a shopping center. We were greeted at the door, but the only other person who spoke to us other than the greeting time was another first-time guest. During the greeting time, the couple behind us greeted us, but others around us never turned toward us. The service brought back many memories for us of early days in our previous church in both size and setting. The pastor was on vacation (no complaints because so was I) and their youth pastor spoke from Psalm 7 (can't escape Psalms in the summer!). Afterward, as we made our way out, the youth pastor greeted us at the door.

I enjoy visiting other churches. It is a good reminder of the diverse ways that local bodies of believers function and seek to serve and worship God. The commonalities that we share are encouraging, and the differences, whether size or style, are important to remember.

I also struggle visiting other churches. We are far from perfect, but I miss our fellowship when I'm away. And a common problem for pastors is that we are looking at everything through a "ministry professional" set of eyes. We rate (and often criticize) music, service elements, acoustics and sound, environment, and preaching. I have to prepare myself every time to NOT do these things, and rather to seek to join these brothers and sisters in worshiping the risen Lord. Thankfully, both Kathy and I remarked on the positive opportunity we had to worship with this fellowship.

There was one point, however (and you may have already guessed it), where I was both disappointed and warned. It was in the way that we were welcomed--it was pretty weak. Now, it's not that I am important, or deserving of attention, but corporate worship is meant to be a gathering of souls for the purpose of unified worship to God. It is especially hard for a guest or first-time visitor to enter into a "corporate" experience if those who make up the congregation do not make an effort to include them in the corporate expression. We went in and sat down in an empty row, surrounded by lots of empty rows (we were earlier than many). No one came to sit next to us, and only another first-time guest spoke with us (it turns out he is a church planting missionary who just relocated to a small town 50 miles away). In corporate worship, we follow the lead of those in charge of the service so that we can do things together, but there was no other sense of being together created by the congregation.

The warning to me was clear. We are in a season of LOTS of visitors, especially students (along with families). Will you do this pastor a great favor? Welcome them into corporate worship. Don't just nod or offer a quick hello. Speak with them. Get their names and find out more about them. It doesn't matter if they will be back next week or not--you are meeting someone you may spend eternity with. Volunteer a little information about yourself and our church. I would have loved to learn what this church's "story" was--what is their aim, are they a new church, what do they love about being a part of this fellowship. Don't just go walking by new people sitting by themselves. Stop, introduce yourselves, and maybe even sit with them if they aren't waiting for someone. If there are confusing instructions from the platform (sometimes we use words and abbreviations only long timers would know), lean over and let them know what is being talked about. Speak with them again after the service. Let them know they would be welcomed any time they can be with us. I can tell you from personal experience, there have been three churches I have visited in the last five years (and that includes our 2012 sabbatical) where I felt welcomed like that--and I still remember them. Let's make sure we are in that "memorable" camp--so that people will see the love of Christ extended to them as fellow believers or as those who may need to know that love.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Keeping Worship "Corporate"

Each Lord's Day, as we come together to worship the Lord, we are seeking to do something that is unnatural to us. But if we don't do it, we will miss the purpose and the joy that the Lord has for this kind of gathering.

We want to come with our hands and hearts held out to be filled...and they can be.

We want to learn from God's Word...and we should.

We want to hear music that turns our thoughts heavenward...and it can.

We want to praise and thank the Lord for his goodness...and we do.

But beyond all of this, we are coming to be a part of something more--specifically something more than any one of us represents. We are coming to be a part of the Body of Christ seeking all of these things together. We are not to be the collection of hundreds of individual worshipers, but rather the people of God in worship. 

You may wonder what the difference is. Let me see if I can help.

Everything that I listed above that we want to do, we could do on our own, or perhaps on our own with Spotify or Pandora readily available for the music part. But something changes when we all come together to do the same thing as one people. Actually a number of things change.

When we seek to be filled, it is not just my needs but the needs of the Body--individually and as a group--that should fill our thoughts and petitions. We need power corporately to love each other well, to meet each others' needs, to serve together well, and to seek God's direction for us as we serve our community and our world in his name.

When we sing, it isn't just to enjoy a song, or even to sing these praises to God, but to sing them to God together, and in so doing often to remind each other that we are not alone in the endeavor of praise. Sometimes when we sing, especially if you may not favor a particular song, you might want to realize that your singing is an example and an encouragement to those around you and even to the musicians leading us from the front. It says, "yes, we are with you in this praise and testimony." 

When someone leads us in prayer, it is meant to be the prayer of all of us, for all of us. We aren't supposed to be silently waiting for a finish so we can sit down or move on. We are to be affirming from our own hearts the petitions being asked, the praised being offered, the thanks being given, and the confessions being made. 

When we read God's Word out loud, we are saying it for ourselves, but also for those around us--we need to be saying it and we need to be hearing it--interestingly, the public reading of the Scriptures is one of the few elements we are commanded to have in corporate worship. God already knows what the passage says--he had it written for us, after all. But we need to be reminded of it.

And when the preaching is going on, we are to hear it as God's instruction (however imperfectly given by the messenger) to us, together. We shouldn't listen and say, "I'm already doing that" or "my neighbor really needs that." Instead, we should all be saying, "this is important for us; teach us how to do this better, or avoid this more fully, Lord," (depending on whether it's an instruction or warning). 

Something you might not expect takes place when we worship this way. Our hearts are not only drawn toward God, but toward each other. The Spirit uses such worship to remind us of our belonging to one another, and our need for each other. It keeps us from becoming music critics and sermon analyzers--instead, it helps us focus on what the Body is, hopefully, gaining through our time together before the Lord. 

As we worship, we are often told there is an Audience of One. That is true in one sense, because our focus is the triune God. However, our worship is a testimony to angels and demons. To angels there is the amazing truth that these fallen humans, redeemed by grace, have come to know the God they serve night and day because of his mercy, and they marvel. Demons likewise must marvel, and shudder, as they see all of their schemes coming apart and coming to nothing. A watching world also learns about us--not just those who might come as guests, but even the testimony that we gather before our Lord together every week. One of the best parts of that is when we, who are different in many ways, demonstrate a unity that is only explainable by the gospel.

Personal worship is a privilege, and we should engage whenever we can. But we need corporate worship to fulfill our true calling as God's people. And according to Hebrews 10:24-25, the closer the end of this age gets, the more we will need such times together. Let's not miss a moment of shared glory in his presence that we don't have to!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What Are You Listening To?

For a long time now, I have found great benefit in good listening when I am able to do so while also doing something else--driving, exercising, walking, or mowing the lawn. That last one has taken a bit of a hit because I recently got a faster mower and the one downside is I've lost time to listen! Every once in a while, some of you run into me while I have my earphones on, and ask me what I am listening to (yes, I know that this is not grammatically correct, but you don't say, "to what are you listening," and neither do I). So let me tell you some of the ways I try to redeem my listening time and make it worthwhile.

Of course, there is listening that I do for pleasure. In fact, Kathy and I always have a line-up of audiobooks that we find to listen to on car trips. We download them to our phones, but you can also get them on discs from bookstores and online sources. Some audiobooks have been purchased through sites like audible.com, which has a free book offer with membership (we take advantage of their daily email offering a low-cost book--the email is free, the book may or may not be one we like, but occasionally we buy one).
Another great source is christianaudio.com, and a bonus there is that they offer a free audiobook every month, in addition to many titles on sale. There are also audiobooks available at our local public library to check out or using online services that they provide. Two we use are Overdrive and Hoopla. You must have a library card for these, but they allow you to borrow all sorts of audiobooks, as well as e-books, and Hoopla has movies as well. All of the above have apps for your phone, and so it becomes a rather easy process to download and listen. In addition to novels, histories, and biographies, we have listened to some very good Christian non-fiction. I have Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and listen to it every year. I just finished listening to Paul Little's Know Why You Believe, as well as Matt Chandler's The Mingling of Souls and Taking God at His Word, by Kevin De Young. I'd actually read all of these in print--some a long time back, but listening was an enriching experience.

Of course, shorter listening times can be very well used, too, through podcasts. Don't tell me you don't like podcasts--there are so many different kinds, this would be like saying I don't like words. I listen to lots of different kinds of podcasts. Let me suggest some, all of which I have found and subscribed to on iTunes.

News and current events
 I have two "must listen" items that I don't want to miss. I cannot enjoy watching broadcast or cable news and want clear summaries, preferably from the worldview I share. The first is "The World and Everything in It" by World Magazine. This thirty-minute summary feels a bit like NPR but from a Christian worldview. You start with a summary of the day's news, then a more in-depth analysis of a story or two, then a feature story of various kinds, and a commentary. This fills me in on what's happening without shrill tones or reporting that doesn't tell a story from both sides. They also have a daily e-mail news summary. Sign up for any of their resources at the link above.

The second is "The Briefing" with Dr. Al Mohler (president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville). This is analysis of major news stories from a Christian perspective, and I don't know of any better analyst of events today. This is a great resource, and when he takes a month off in July I miss it!

Culture and cultural issues
"Signposts" is a weekly podcast by Russell Moore, from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and he talks about a wide range of issues--often answering questions he receives from listeners.

"The Breakpoint Podcast" continues the ministry of Charles Colson. The Colson Center provides an every weekday commentary of about 4 minutes, a more in depth 30-minute program on Fridays, and on Mondays and Wednesdays longer interviews or addresses by important Christian voices on various issues. Listen to the short commentaries, or the longer offerings, or both.

"Cultivated" is a new podcast my son told me about, where Mike Cosper interviews people who are making significant contributions to Christian life and thought, including some people you may not have heard of but who are seeking to make a difference.

"Levar Burton Reads" is a podcast Kathy learned about and we've listened to together. It is short stories from various sources, and we've enjoyed most of the ones we've listened to. 

"The Classic Tales Podcast" some great works (and some not so great) read in one-hour portions and downloadable in weekly episodes. 

Sermons
There is no shortage of sermon podcasts (including ours here at Grace!). But here are some I regularly go to.

"Truth for Life"--Alistair Begg. Sermons from Parkside Church. Bible exposition with a Scottish accent, which makes it even more true (OK, it makes us think so).

"Let My People Think" on OnePlace.com--Ravi Zacharias. These are often focused on apologetics, with lots of good stories and illustrations.

"The Village Church"--Matt Chandler (they also download sermons from other campuses, which I sometimes listen to--you have to start the podcast to know who is speaking. Solid preaching in a unique style that resonates.
 
"Grace to You"--John MacArthur. For decades, his sermons have taken thousands through books of the Bible, and they continue to do so.

The Bible
I put this last, but it really is the one I won't miss. As a part of my own time in the Word I choose a listening plan on The Bible App from YouVersion. Right now, it's 40 days through the New Testament. Before that is was the Ten Lists by Dr. Grant Horner. Listening to the Scriptures as I exercise builds up my spirit even as I'm also trying to build up (or at least slow the break down of) my body. You can choose the version you want to hear as well as the program.

Sometimes I may not be able to focus totally on what I'm hearing when I listen to things. Yet even then what you hear gets into your head, and it helps to shape my mental environment. I encourage you to consider doing some profitable listening.

Oh, and yes, I listen to music, too, but that's for another time!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Hurricane Theology"

What storms can teach us

One hurricane worse than ever, one that was less than expected, and two more out at sea: the Atlantic hurricane season of 2017 is monumental in its devastating potential. Those who preach global warming climate change say, “Aha! We told you so” and insist that such record-breaking storms are proof that humanity has destroyed the planet’s ecosystem. Others cite all sorts of data to “prove” that nothing has changed. I haven’t heard too much chatter from those who would identify God’s judgments unfolding in the storms, although there may be some out there (I did, however, receive an email about the potential prophetic significance of the recent solar eclipse, and the message was, “the end is coming.” I think I already knew that).
 
Why do seasons and storms like this come along and disrupt life so dramatically? After Hurricane Harvey’s “once in a thousand years” rainfall in Houston, and Irma’s 180+ m.p.h. winds in the Caribbean and Florida Kesy leave one in awe of such storms. Those with an axe to grind will point to these kinds of occurrences and challenge us, “How can you believe in a god who would do this?”
 
Should we read specific divine retribution into this? You might think that God is mad at the USA, except that the Caribbean got pounded harder by Irma. God’s specific judgments on nations, if this was one, can be pinpointed better than that. In fact, the storm has caused the postponement of Awana Lifeline’s sponsored event with leaders of law enforcement and prisons from various Caribbean nations. The path of Hurricane Irma impacted lots of believers in God, and the headquarters of Wycliffe Bible Translators, Pioneers, Ethnos 360 (the former New Tribes Mission), and CRU (the former Campus Crusade)—all in Orlando. Various believers, churches, and ministries suffered damage and will be inundated with needs to be met. Certainly God could spare those doing such good work from such potential danger!
 
We who sat in relative safety struggled to deal with watching thousands of families trying to recover from the deluge in Texas, and the tens of thousands fleeing from south Florida. I watched with both dread and fascination as pictures from NASA show this new, massive storm on its way to bring destruction to so many. And I wonder, “who deserves this?”
 
The answer to such a question is multi-faceted, but can be found where God speaks about all things we need for life—the Bible. Here are a few threads we can pull together.
 
As part of the human race that lives in daily rebellion toward the holy and just Creator of all things, we must affirm that we all deserve this and much worse for our rebellion. God is under no obligation to keep his creation tame enough for us to enjoy—his only limitation being his own word not to flood the entire earth again (the rainbow tells us that). Given the history of God’s people’s suffering right along with the rest of humanity in a kind of reversal of common grace (God causes his hurricanes to sweep away the just and the unjust), we know that such tribulations are to be expected—it is our ability to look beyond them that must be different. We see the chaos of today, but we know that this is not how it was created to be (Genesis 1-2), nor is it the way it will be when Christ comes to rule the earth, and it is certainly not the way it will be in the time of new heavens and earth (Revelation 21-22).
 
The storms and terrors of this world are real, powerful reminders of the consequences of Adam’s traitorous surrender of his righteous authority in this world to Satan, and in his role as prince of this world, destruction is the devil’s business—even when done under God’s ultimate sovereignty (see God’s control of calamity in Isaiah 45:7). We should see this as a sobering warning of what’s worse and is coming to those who do not repent. That is what Jesus said about some people who suffered the disaster of having a tower collapse on them—no one should assume that such things make anyone a “worse” sinner than anyone else. The warning is much more specific—worse things await those who do not repent of their sin (Luke 13:3-5). A storm may rise that sweeps away everything you own, and may drown your neighbors, but as frightening as that is, hell will be much, much worse. We should look at the terrors of the storm and thank God that such events can preach repentance, if we will hear.
 
But cataclysmic storms can also reveal the power of our God. It was from the whirlwind that God spoke to Job—as if his words were not already powerful enough! And it was his power over the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee that caused Jesus’ disciples to redirect their fear from the storm to their Savior—“who then is this, that he commands the winds and the water and they obey him? (Luke 8:24-25)” The creator of the storm has made them yet another revelation of his power and thus a source of praise and awe.
 
Finally, these storms should (and did) ignite our compassion toward all those in danger. I think about God’s rebuke of Jonah when the prophet was mourning over a dead plant, but upset with God’s heart of concern for the population of Nineveh, a city in danger of judgment. On a more positive note, the arrival of a famine that Agabus had prophesied led the church in Antioch to sacrificial compassion toward the affected church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:28-30). There will be many continuing needs to be met in Texas and now the Caribbean, Florida, and perhaps other places. Such moments provide an opportunity for the grace of God to shine through his people.
 
Let’s be praying for those facing very difficult days ahead, and let’s pray that God gives all of us—his people—the hearts and opportunities to help. And let’s be sure to be thankful that the God who created this storm showed mercy on many and caused it to turn westward into the Gulf of Mexico and thus spared many who were in its original path.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Original Gospel "Quartet"

"Why did the Bible include four gospels?"

"Why do the gospels disagree?"

"Why didn't God just give us one gospel, like He gave us one account on creation?"

These related questions come to me from Bible students of all ages and maturity, in varying forms of course. The "lack of agreement" question is sometimes couched in language that lets me know the person doesn't want to say that there must be a mistake in there, but they wonder if there is. 

The uniquenesses, as well as the similarities of the four gospels is one of the ways that we see how a book written by inspired men is clearly human as well as divine. In fact, each book advances our understanding. Let me seek to show you how (briefly) and then recommend a tool that I greatly enjoy for your own use.

First, the four books give us four perspectives on one story. Matthew, likely the tax collector also called Levi, writes with a clear understanding of the Hebrew Bible and how Jesus fulfilled prophecy--the book brims with quotations cited as being fulfilled. That is fascinating when you think that Matthew would have been considered a traitor to the Jewish people as a Roman tax collector. I can't wait to get to Heaven and hear how this man knew so much Scripture, but also whether he had been wrestling with the truth while outwardly having cut himself off from it! He writes with Jewish audiences in mind. Mark is a man of action, and his gospel could leave you out of breath with its quick pace--much like that of his mentor, Peter. Luke is a doctor writing to help convince/educate someone of significance about the truths about Jesus in a factually precise way (he even uses medical terms). His book has a sequel--Acts. And John, writing much later decides to pick up on much material that the earlier three gospels did not cover to give us a very personal glimpse of Jesus. Each writer even orders their material a bit differently to bring out a different aspect or emphasis in the story.

Second, they provide four complementary, not contradictory witnesses to truth. Now, some argue that they contradict each other, but it is more like witnesses to a car crash standing on different corners--each tells what he sees or knows, without contradicting the other. For example when blind Bartimaeus is healed, Matthew tells us there were actually two blind men together (Matthew 20:29-34), while Mark and Luke only mention Mr. B (Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). But that isn't a contradiction, just an added detail. That story has another problem detail--Matthew and Mark say Jesus was going out of Jericho when it happened, while Luke says he was going in. Which is it? The answer is, "both." Jericho had been burned down, rebuilt a short ways away, and then the original site was rebuilt as well--both were called "Jericho." So, Jesus was probably between the old and the new site when the miracle takes place. Thanks to history and archeology, we can answer that fairly easily. Comparing the gospels gives us a rich story--or as one writer calls them, "The Life of Christ in Stereo!"

Third, each gospel has some material that we would lack if that gospel wasn't written and preserved. Even with three gospels paralleling each other (Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels--a term that means from the same "eye" or perspective), there are precious stories and important accounts we would be missing without each one. Matthew is our only source about the wise men. Luke gives us the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, the story of Bethlehem and the shepherds, and the prodigal son. Mark has four miracles not recorded elsewhere, and of course the story of a young man fleeing without his robe when caught in the Garden with Jesus--probably an autobiographical note giving us Mark's closeness with the Lord and the disciples. What would we do without John 3:16, or the Good Shepherd, the "I am" sayings, and so much more that only comes from John? 

Yes, think of them as a Gospel Quartet--Mark sings tenor--that part with all the high notes. Luke sings lead--the thread that holds it all together. Matthew is the baritone, covering some of the same ground as the lead but then moving into parallel paths. And anchoring it all with that solid line on the bottom, John sings bass--hitting those resonating notes of God's love that seem to hold it all together and in tune. 

Now, let me finish by telling you about I tool I use regularly when studying the Gospels. It is a book called a harmony of the Gospels (there's another musical idea!). It takes all four gospels and puts them in columns next to each other in chronological order--meaning some passages aren't in the order we find them in their gospel, but in the order in which they most likely occurred. You can read them side by side and see how each tells the story--sometimes word for word, and sometimes differently. Mine is Harmony of the Gospels, by Robert Thomas and Stan Gundry. There is a version in the New International Version and one in the New American Standard Bible (which is the one I have), and you can see it.

I hope that this brief encouragement might cause you to appreciate the gospels more, and perhaps investigate a very helpful tool!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Tapestry of Connections

Every once in a while I am amazed at how God weaves seemingly unconnected threads of life together, much like a tapestry. I often heard that when you view a tapestry from behind, you cannot always discern what is going on. It is only from the top view that you really see the design of the artist. This week I feel like I've gotten a glimpse at the top of a tapestry over a decade in the making. And it's exciting.

When I left California in 2005, I left behind a longstanding friendship with Mike Broyles, a pastor on the staff of another church in my city. Mike had been a constant encourager and partner in ministry in our community. After my departure, Mike's role at his church ended and he transitioned into serving in the jail ministry he had been a large part of while on the church staff. This involvement led to his becoming director of Awana Lifeline, a ministry to prisoners that uses two Bible study curricula to lead prisoners to Christ--Malachi Dads for men, and Hannah's Gift for women. Mike stayed in touch and would let us know what God was doing as these ministries expanded. 

A few years after I came here, Kevin and Tia Reilly returned from Costa Rica because Kevin's leg injury from years ago had created such pain that the solution had to be amputation. Kevin and Tia settled here in Cedarville, took on lots of ministry, helped our church's missions program, and wondered if God had another chapter in missions for them. Kevin got his M.Div., Tia got a Master's and went back to teaching as they served on our Global Outreach Team.

Meanwhile, LuAnn Ragle had heard about a nurse she knew who had wound up in prison in Dayton. She sensed God calling her to reach out to this woman, named Leah. It was out of her comfort zone, but she continued to meet with her weekly to share Scripture and teach her the truth about God through Scripture memory, Leah's faith came alive, and she became a strong testimony to her fellow prisoners as she waited to be released. Once she was released, Leah began to use her testimony to speak to women about how God's grace came to her and redeemed a horrible circumstance. My wife, Kathy met Leah and became a friend, and had her speak to her ABF class here, at "Beat the Blahs," and at Safe Harbor, where she was eventually hired.

A few years ago, Mike asked if Grace might want to help Lifeline take its prison ministry to the Dominican Republic in 2016. We decided to fund their "Returning Hearts" event (reuniting prisoners with their children) through the Harvest Offering and to send two couples to help: the Reillys and Chris and Pam Miller. Kevin and Tia decided to go because it was a Spanish-speaking opportunity. 

Mike came to Grace last July to say "thanks" for our help and our decision to support this ministry to the DR. While here, he mentioned the need to find a woman who could help lead Hannah's Gift and his desire to see Lifeline programs come to Ohio. Kathy thought of her friend Leah. She called LuAnn who called Leah, who came to Grace the next day to meet Mike. He encouraged her to start teaching a Bible study, so she began to do Hannah's Gift at Safe Harbor. 

So, guess what's happened?

Leah's ministry continued to grow, and she received permission to lead Hannah's Gift in the facility where she had been a prisoner--an unheard of development. Mike facilitated training at her church for volunteers. And as July began, Leah led a team of 16 into the prison to begin Hannah's Gift. with 30 women prisoners.

Kevin and Tia Reilly found the Malachi Dads experience in the DR to be a confirmation that they could return to overseas work. We prayed and sought God's will for them, and we determined to send them back to Costa Rica, where one of their ministries will be to begin Malachi Dads for Lifeline there--a new country for this ministry. They arrived back in that country the same week as Leah's ministry in the prison here to take up their work. 

And this fall, a second "Returning Hearts," funded by Grace, will serve Malachi Dads graduates in the Dominican Republic, but also will model the effectiveness of the program to chief law enforcement and prison officials from all over the Caribbean and Latin America. 

A friend far away stayed in touch.

A friend sensed God's call to reach out to a prisoner.

A couple sought to find ways they could serve God again in Central America.

And in God's amazing plan, these three threads were woven together in our midst, and now we celebrate the beginning of a ministry in a prison in Dayton, the renewal of a ministry in Costa Rica that will reach prisoners there, and an upcoming event that will reunite prisoners in the Dominican Republic with their kids and show a whole region of the world what the power of the gospel can do behind prison walls. 

What an amazing weaving together by God!

What an amazing God!

What a privilege to be here at Grace in Cedarville and see how God used us to be the point at which these stories intertwined!

And who knows what God may weave into the the design, or who might be a part of it, next?