Friday, August 29, 2014

Strong Comforter

One of the names for the Holy Spirit is "the Comforter." The name comes from the Greek word, parakletos, which speaks of being "called alongside" with the purpose of help. From this idea of assistance, we've moved to a word that sounds more like a "sympathizer," or a warm blanket. That's not exactly the same, is it? 

Now don't get me wrong. God wants to encourage and shelter and console his people in this life. But if the Holy Spirit is just a warm fuzzy presence saying "there, there," I'm not sure that really helps.

But that is not what the title "Comforter" means. As R. C. Sproul noted as he taught and wrote on this subject, when parakletos was being translated into English back in the 1600s, they wanted to use a word that meant "to come along side with needed strength or aid." They chose the word "comforter" because, back then, it meant that. It was from two Latin words, cum, which means "with" and fortis which means strength (the musical term "forte" is from this word). The emphasis is not on feeling better, but on being provided needed strength or help. In fact, the ESV uses "Helper" instead of "Comforter" for this very reason. Languages evolve over time, and with the word "Comforter" we went from powerful aid to a down quilt.

Interestingly, the same Greek term (parakletos), when used of Jesus in 1 John 2, is translated "Advocate," a term used for a lawyer--that is certainly one form of aid we can understand.

So, when you think about the Holy Spirit, don't think of a spiritual "warm blanket." Instead, consider him to be the person of the Trinity who gives you, by his presence with you, all the strength and power you need for godliness.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Different Realities

Friends from Ukraine write, “Hey, are people paying attention? Russia is invading us—sending thousands to fight alongside separatists and arming them.”

I haven’t had the heart to say, “No we really aren’t paying attention. You are probably on your own.”

Friends in the Middle East ask, “Are people at home up in arms about what ISIS is doing to tens of thousands of people here? Syria is in chaos, Iraq is falling apart, and the only things growing are refugee camps!”

I respond, “Well, we got mad when they killed a journalist, but that’s about it.”

Friends from south Asia inquire about ways that the nation has responded to the death of an American general in Afghanistan, or the murder of Christian aid workers. “Have there been memorials and prayer vigils? What did the President say about the general?

I answer, “Not really, and not much.”

White friends ask when everyone will get tired of all this pseudo racist stuff surrounding a thug who beat up a cop and then got shot. Black friends ask when whites will wake up to the systemic racism that permeates our society’s power structures.

I don’t have an answer.

I imagine all of these inquirers getting together, and asking rather pointedly, “then what in the world do people you know care about right now?”

That I can answer. “Well, a lot of them are dumping buckets of water over their heads and making a video about it to post on Facebook—it’s for ALS awareness. LeBron is coming back to Cleveland. The NFL and college football seasons are starting up. And the new season of most TV shows is about to begin.”

They have nothing to say.

And then I ask myself "what can I/we/our nation/concerned observers do to change all of these things?"

There is only one step I can come up with, but it is the best I could give.

I can pray. And so can you.

The question we may not want to hear next--"So, did you?"

Friday, August 22, 2014

Just a Bucket of Water...The ALS Challenge and its Detractors

These are the moments as a pastor when I would just as soon not know what all of you are doing on Facebook. I'm watching my FB home feed fill up with people "small and great" as this Sunday's text in Revelation says, dumping containers of various sizes over their heads filled with water--though it's called the "Ice Bucket Challenge," it seems to be cold water in most cases. The reason is that someone else did it and challenged them to follow through, either doing this or donating to research for ALS--a terminal, debilitating disease that has no cure. It raises awareness of this disease, and according to the ALS Association, it has caused their donations to climb to six times what was received last year.  It looks like...well, "fun" doesn't really apply, but it is being done in a good spirit.

Until...we have a number of people point out that the ALS Association funds research using embryonic stem cells. Dr. Georgia Purdom of AIG blogged here about it, and printed a statement by the ALSA that said they have limited embryonic stem cell projects, but that they might, under certain conditions, have more. They also said one's donations can be specified away from such research. But is that just allowing other funds to continue such research? Do we want babies created in test tubes and then destroyed so that their cells can be used to try and find a cure for other human beings?

So should we participate and forget it, object and criticize it, or do what one pastor friend did, and participate but add a caveat about being careful where you donate? Is this a time to demonstrate concern or discernment? Do I join in the social media fun and frenzy, or stand up as a Christian killjoy who can find the cloud in every silver lining?

If awareness is all that was raised, no one would care. And technically, if you accept the challenge and douse yourself, you have avoided having to make the donation--that's what everyone who gives the whole challenge says, "I've been challenged, and now I'm challenging my friend Stan and if you don't do it you have to give $100 to ALS research." But donations are "pouring" in, so it's not just awareness. I do wonder how many of the wet awareness raisers I've seen are donating money though.

I also wonder how much of this is a combination of motives. Some of my FB friends seem to like any occasion to star in any video. Many are enjoying being called out and calling others out to do this, like a giant, viral, dare. Some have been personally touched by the ravages of ALS on friends or family--and it is a scary and insidious disease.

So, what should you do? Here's how I would respond. 
1. This is the equivalent of a social media chain letter, or one of those posts that says, "I love Jesus. Repost if you do, too." Or even worse, "If you are really my friend, comment with a word that you think of when you think of me." I am always (confession time here) so tempted to post, "NEEDY!"  I hated chain letters back in the day, and I hate this kind of manipulation. I almost get the impression that some are desperate to participate to fit in or raise awareness of their own creativity. That is obviously not true for many, but this is a mixed motive moment.

2. ALS  should be thought about and fought against. So should all sorts of physical manifestations of the curse of sin upon this world.

3. Christians ought not to check their moral concerns at the door when evaluating research associations. Birth defects deserved medical research, but the "March of Dimes" campaign against them lost the support of many through their promotion of abortion as a means to avoid such defects. Children should be educated, but UNICEF spends money on international programs I find abhorrent. 

4. If you say you are "raising awareness" of ALS and not giving money to fight it, you are just starring in your own video. If you dumped water over your head, dry off and go make a donation. BUT, either find a place to donate in line with your convictions, or specify where your donation to the ALS Association goes (Read their statement about this here). If enough donors make the point that we won't kill some humans to save others, perhaps the point will be made.

5. Make all decisions about your charitable giving based on principles, priorities, and values from God's word. Think about them, pray for God's guidance, and do what you believe God wants done with his resources. For many of us, though not all, we should cultivate the impulse to give, rather than stifle it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Living in The World We Don't Want

Having returned last week from a great vacation (which includes strictly limiting news media, social media, and email), I find I've returned to a world that I don't want to live in. Consider:

Christian homes marked for attack in Mosul, Iraq. The
Arabic "n" marking stands for Nazarene, a pejorative name
for Christians.
Days are stretching into weeks where a radical Muslim group (ISIS) is killing Muslim "heretics," crucifying Christian converts in Syria, killing and persecuting Christians in Iraq, and performing ethnic and religious "cleansing" that is more public and visible than the early stages of the Holocaust. All those nations that swore "never again" are now simply saying, "again?"

Rockets launched at Israel from Gaza by Hamas
Meanwhile the national descendants of Holocaust survivors in Israel have faced renewed anti-Semitism in Europe and international condemnation for military action in Gaza, which has been launching missiles toward Israeli citizens for years, and still refuses to stop. With Gaza in ruins, Israel halted military incursions, and what happened? Gaza launched more missiles. The typical response in the news? ISRAEL LAUNCHES NEW STRIKES, and only later in the report, "in response to 70 missiles launched by Hamas in Gaza." Hamas is committed to war until Israel is destroyed, and yet we call on Israel to show restraint, just like we would if Cuba was continually shelling Florida.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine
Russian aggression against Ukraine is roundly condemned, as was its aggression against Georgia a few years ago, but when Russian weapons in the hands of Russian puppets in Ukraine shoot down a passenger jet with hundreds of lives lost, no one does anything...just like the good old days of the Cold War when the Soviet Union shot down a passenger plane with hundreds aboard and no one did anything. Russia is on the verge of annexing more of Ukraine and possibly invading. But suggesting that we are back in a new Cold War is considered foolish.

And don't even take time to think about domestic issues: border problems, shooting of unarmed civilians in Missouri and Ohio, and a government that passes laws, only to ignore them or delay implementation because they will create political cost and economic pain.

The breathtaking pace at which our culture has embraced and prized relational choices the Bible says  are sin (unfaithfulness to marriage vows, divorce, wholesale rejection of marriage by many couples in favor of cohabitation, and acceptance of same sex marriage) is yesterday's news. As mentioned in Romans 1, people now are not just doing wrong, but celebrating when they get others to join in.

Meanwhile, Christians who feed the poor and place orphans in homes are bad when they follow their consciences and the clear teaching of scripture, refusing to recognize same sex marriage or to offer insurance that pays for abortion of infants in the womb. Of course, these Christians, and all Christians through the history of the Church, are holding views and values that civilized societies have, until the last one hundred years held as well.

Dr. Kent Brantly, missionary doctor being treated for
Ebola, has been labeled "narcissistic" and guilty of
idiocy for going to Liberia instead of working in the US.
And for all who make the terrible mistake of linking political conservatism with biblical Christianity, the statements of Ann Coulter (and a few others who made similar comments) that a Christian doctor who contracted the Ebola virus while serving in Liberia was "narcissistic" and his current medical condition was "idiocy" show that even our supposed "friends" in this world don't really get what good is.

Perhaps these events may be the tipping point for those who have been so convinced that "American exceptionalism" was true and we were a nation in character unlike any other. True, our history has evidenced many blessings from God--but blessings are by definition undeserved. They are grace--either common or special, but grace nonetheless.

Perhaps circumstances will finally disabuse those naive Christians who think we will bring the kingdom of God's power, ethics, and circumstances to earth by our good works--reversing the curse by our kindness.

Perhaps, but I doubt it. But this is a moment for repentance, and for courage. We repent, because it seems that only extraordinary evil awakens us to the evil around us, when in fact evil has been our constant companion. We repent because we Christians in America have lived as if suffering and tribulation were exceptions for Christians, and not the rule, and we have allowed the vigor of our faith to diminish accordingly. We have forgotten that Jesus told us, "in the world you will have tribulation.," not that it will only come after you've gone.

But it is also a time for courage. How? Because in that same passage, Jesus said, "in the world you will have tribulation, but take heart (take courage, be encouraged), because I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Note that we don't jump up and down for joy at tribulation, but we recognize it is not the final destination or experience for those who know Jesus. He sometimes protects from evil, sometimes delivers through it, but always promises that his victory is our confidence. Evil did not stop him from redeeming his own, and evil will not stop his people from inheriting eternal life. And so we are to have courage--be brave and bold, though we don't have any strength or power of our own. It is courage anchored in Jesus' death and resurrection, and it will be needed for many in the days ahead, because tribulation is our current "promise." But Peter says it is "for a time" that we are tried. Paul says it is "momentary" and "light" in terms of comparing it to the weight of the glory and good that is coming. But it is real.

Don't freak out at how bad things are. Some of our brothers and sisters are wondering how we've missed how bad it has been for a long time for them. Don't wring your hands, although you can and should be moved with compassion. Pray for the needs and suffering you see. Pray that God will strengthen those going through the fire right now. Do what you can--give if there is a need you can meet and a way to meet it. But as the fire and destruction and collapse of  "Christian culture" continues, pray for yourself, that your faith will not fail. Pray the same for others. Dig into the Word. Find other believers with whom you can pray and study and prepare. Hold on to truth, and tell it even if it is unpopular. Speak it clearly, humbly, and in love. The Church is always to have a place in public life, even if it is to be ridiculed for views and beliefs that are unpopular.

This world is not a place we would, or should, want right now. But the day is coming when, after judgment falls, Jesus will make all things new. Keep your eyes and heart fixed on that hope, and the present distress will not overwhelm you.