Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thoughts About the San Bernardino Shooting

So many things are going through my head today as I digest the news following Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino. Having lived there for seven years in my first ministry and during seminary, and it being Kathy’s hometown, you cannot hear about this tragedy without thinking about the past as well as the present. Thankfully, we’ve had no word of any harm coming to friends and family there. But fourteen families are grieving today, and the network of sorrow certainly extends throughout that community.

I’m saddened that before the situation was even resolved with the shooters dead or captured, some saw fit to moralize on the evil of gun violence in our society and the need for more gun control. I don’t disagree, and I’m not opposed to such measures if they are constitutional and can be shown to be able to accomplish real protections for society. However, every gun used in this case (as in every shooting rampage of late) turns out to have been purchased legally, with background checks, in California—which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. And the shooters here (a married couple) also had pipe bombs in their arsenal (illegal in any situation); thankfully, the bomb deployed on a remote controlled toy car failed to detonate. They also wore assault gear, had Go Pro body cameras to record the carnage.

As details have emerged, this incident looks like an intentional plan to inflict mass casualties, record it in order to scare others, and continue until dead. In short, this was a terrorist operation. It may not have been an ISIS or al Qaeda operation. The husband was a U.S. citizen who flew to Saudi Arabia to marry his wife and brought her back. His family says he was a religious Muslim, and it would seem they created their own personal arsenal to create their own personal jihad. This was not simply “workplace violence”—you don’t prebuild pipe bombs so you can react if someone insults you at an office party, and then wear a Go Pro while you shoot up a room at random. No, this would appear to be what many have feared—a radicalized, independent “cell” of Muslim radicals. I would probably feel better if we found that they were in league with a known terrorist group and not just homegrown, independent terrorists.

Another development that caught me off guard was a strong pushback against politicians and others who urged that people’s thoughts and prayers should be with those in San Bernardino during the ongoing incident. The New York Daily News highlighted tweets from four Republican candidates with the headline, “God Is Not Fixing This” and saying that these politicians were “cowards” for not doing something about gun control, and hiding behind “thoughts and prayers.” The Atlantic ran a similar story and talked about this as “prayer shaming”—I didn’t even know that was a “thing.” But it is, and it grows out of thinking that those who would call for prayer must be pro-gun rights and conservative. Further, it shows a commitment to the idea that praying is really doing nothing, and that God isn’t fixing this, but politicians and elected officials could.

Such thinking is profoundly wrong on many levels. Not all who pray are against gun control. When a crisis is ongoing, prayer is a proper response for those who believe in God. A person in the building contacted her father and her request was “Pray for us.” She was not arguing against gun control, she was fearful for her life and asked for the only help that she could seek—God’s. Can people (including politicians) use prayer as a platitude? Certainly they can. But it is no more platitudinous than decrying gun violence and calling for gun control before we even know what is going on.

This thinking also takes God out of the equation as not “fixing” this. Such an arrogant attitude springs either from disbelief in God or a purposeful disregard of such concepts as God’s sovereignty, moral responsibility, human freedom, and the existence and all-encompassing power of sin in a fallen world. Evil people will do evil because that is their nature, and it is the restraining grace of God that keeps all of us from being the monsters that we could easily be. Yet we cannot escape the issue of moral responsibility because in this case and all others like it, we always ask, “Why did they do this?” We want to understand what is, to us, incomprehensible. We want to say they were crazy or on drugs or offended or religious zealots, but we want a reason that we can judge.

Of course, those who believe in God will not be dissuaded from believing that prayer is one of the most important actions to take in any situation, regardless of what else we may be able to do. We also believe that God rules in the affairs of men, and has already told us that when humanity chooses not to acknowledge him, he gives them over to their own sinful desires and imaginations, to passions that will undo them, and to debased minds and thinking that will justify and celebrate doing what ought never to be done (read Romans 1:18-32 carefully, and see what it says about the human condition once the truth about God that is available to all is rejected). Our world continues to experience the evil that people can and will do as they exercise their choices out of their own motivations.

Finally, we do believe that God is fixing this world, but in a way that will bring divine judgment upon all who fail to acknowledge him and deliverance and blessing for all who receive his grace and forgiveness. In fact, “…now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).”
Until that “fixed” day, we repent, we worship, we pray, we bear witness, and as representatives of the truth and compassion of Jesus, we do what we can to stem the tide of evil in our society, whether systemic (such as racism) or individual (such as a lack of daily food).

And we wait in hope for that day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"I Finally See the Mountains"

An event 35 years ago reminds me that what's real isn't always visible

One of my favorite stories from my early ministry days happened about one month after I started seminary and my work at First Baptist Church of San Bernardino. It was quite a time for me, having driven cross country in a Buick Opel in August (without air conditioning) to begin both work and seminary in a new place. My mentor, Al Somers, was my senior pastor, and I was living in a small house on our church property, surrounded by the church buildings.

I left every Tuesday through Friday morning at 6:10 am to drive the 55 miles from San Bernardino to Talbot Seminary in La Mirada. It was three freeways and 2 major surface streets and traffic was already getting thick every day as I got off the freeway and headed to school. I often stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way if I had time, but when traffic was bad, getting there in time for my 7:30 class could be dicey--and it was Intermediate Greek that year, so I didn't want to be late and fall behind.

Like every other day thus far, I arrived on time, went to my first two classes, then to chapel, and then my final class for the day. I finished at 12:30, stopped at Del Taco for lunch (if you don't know what it is, you've missed out and I can't help you), and then headed home. I'd be in my office before 2:00 pm and work until 9 or so, breaking for dinner at some point.

On that day, I was driving home, listening to the radio turned up to be heard over the wind coming in my open windows (remember, I had no a/c) as I drove as fast as traffic would allow to get  home and get cool. I wasn't really thinking about the drive until about 40 minutes from home, and then I almost drove off the road!

I don't recognize where I am! There are mountains to my left, my right, and ahead of me. Those ahead were snow-capped! What happened? Did I make wrong turn?

I glanced at the side of the road and saw the freeway sign; I was on Interstate 10 East, where I needed to be. The next exit ahead was one I recognized. But I didn't recognize the scenery!

Slowly it dawned on me that the day had been more than a little breezy, with a condition that natives called "the Santa Ana" winds blowing. The name was a corruption of a phrase for "devil winds," and not a reference to the city of Santa Ana, but what they were were high winds coming over the mountains and blowing toward the ocean. These conditions brought dry air, warm temperatures, and most importantly, blew all the smog and haze in the air westward toward L.A. and the ocean, clearing out all the valleys along the way, including mine.

What I was seeing is what my new home looked like when the air was clear. And it was amazing to see! I lived in the shadow of the mountains!

Now, I knew there were mountains around me. I had driven over them to come into San Bernardino. But as I descended into the valley the bluish/brownish haze filled in, and when you looked around from my porch or from the church or from most of the city, you saw hazy sky, and you didn't see the mountains unless you were really close. In that first month, I hadn't gone anywhere other than church, home, school, and a few homes for dinner that didn't give you any sort of panoramic view. So, while I had known they were there, I simply stopped thinking about them.

Until the air cleared, and I saw them. I think from that moment on, my perspective changed. I lived with mountains and valleys. I treasured the seasons when I could see them clearly (winter and spring were the best). And when I couldn't see them I missed them, and longed to see them again. But now they were a part of my reality.

I think that we all have a tendency to forget about mountain-like realities that we may "know" exist but have been so obscured by the haze and pollution of our lives that we forget about them. What are some of the mountains we may be missing? Oh, how about...
  • God's constant presence--"As the mountains surround Jerusalem (or San Bernardino), so the LORD surrounds his people"--Ps. 125:2
  • The Lord's willingness to help--always. "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth"--Ps. 121:1-2
  • The reality of the spiritual realm of powers arrayed on our behalf, like Elisha's servant was made able to see on the mountain where they were--2 Ki 6:17
  • The promise of dwelling in God's presence in a place he calls "my holy mountain"--Is 11:9, 56:7, 57:13, 65:25
I've only used four, and I've only used references that referred to "mountains" because they were easy. But there are so many more such realities. God's promises to us and his descriptions of what truly is and will be are powerful, but often missed when sin--including our own--pollutes our environment to the point we don't see or remember anymore. 

So, I'm here to shout to you today, "The mountains are there!" And I'm praying that God sends a strong east wind your way to clear the valley and remind you once again of his realities!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Inconsistency in Interpretation of Current Events

OK, I normally try to rein in my thoughts related to current events and politics. While my "conservative" leanings are no secret or surprise, I am not a lock-step "right wing" person, and try to think clearly on issues. Yesterday, as I heard people trying to link the Colorado Springs shooter with "pro-life" arguments against abortion generally and Planned Parenthood specifically, I became frustrated at the false equivalence. Just because one deranged person MAY have decided to do something heinous and would claim to be acting out of a motive to punish PP for its selling of baby parts (we don't really know what his motive is other than one report released by PP claiming a remark was made to that effect) does NOT mean that the argument against abortion or PP incited this man, or is somehow responsible for the violence. And his very anti-prolife actions do not justify ending the argument in any way.

Jim Geraghty writes a daily newsletter, "The Morning Jolt." He commented on this response and the generally unbalanced way such links between violence and a "cause" are drawn today. I was so impressed, I'm republishing it here (the links provided in the content are his, not mine).

The On-Again, Off-Again Arguments about ‘Dangerous Rhetoric’ Leading to Violence 

Let me get this straight. In the eyes of the Left . . .
. . . criticism of Planned Parenthood means something like the shooting in Colorado “was bound to happen“ . . .
. . . when an event by Pamela Geller is targeted by an Islamist shooter, it is “not really about free speech; it [is] an exercise in bigotry and hatred” and the attempt to kill her means she has “achieved her provocative goal” . . .
. . . while at the same time, investigators contend we may never know what motivated a 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez to kill four Marines and a sailor in an attack on Chattanooga’s U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center last July . .
. . . a shooting by a diagnosed schizophrenic, who believed that grammar was part of a vast, government-directed mind control effort, is characterized by the Southern Poverty law Center as having views that are the “hallmark of the far right and the militia movement” . . .
. . . while the shooter who opened fire in the lobby of the Family Research Council in downtown Washington in 2012, who planned to target the Traditional Values Coalition next, does not spur any need for a broader discussion or societal lessons about the demonization of political opponents . . .
. . . but there’s little reason to ask whether the Oregon shooter’s decision to target Christians reflects a broader, societal hostility to Christians, or whether it reflects his personal allegiance to demons . . .
. . . when white supremacist Dylann Roof commits an act of mass murder in an African-American churchSalon declares, “White America is complicit” and the Washington Post runs a column declaring, “99 percent of southern whites will never go into a church, sit down with people and then massacre them. But that 99 percent is responsible for the one who does” . . .
Do I have all that right? And does that make sense to anyone?
Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor suggest that those already driven by a desire or compulsion to kill other people are going to do so, and will merely latch on to whatever “reason,” justification, or excuse is at hand or is most convenient? Isn’t it ridiculous to expect sane people to watch what they say and restrict what thoughts they express in order to prevent a rampage by someone with an inherently illogical, literally unreasonable, not-sane thinking process?
Isn’t “don’t say what you think, because it might set off a crazy person” the most insidious form of censorship, because none of us can really know what prompts a crazy person to go on a violent rampage?

We must not forget that, in a fallen world, evil people (read, "all of us at some level or another") can also be unhinged people, and that combination will always be difficult to understand and their actions to explain.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Happy Day After Thanksgiving: Some informative links for your review...

So much going on, so little time to get to the heart of various matters. But thankfully, there are people smarter than I am who are doing a great job of reading, analyzing, and writing that help. So, if you are spending your day after Thanksgiving online instead of in stores, you can read these at your interest or leisure.

Presidential Politics--Rosenberg's "Final Four." For those following the Republican primary campaign, Joel Rosenberg has done us all a favor by reporting and opining on the seven candidates who came to a forum in Iowa and discusses their faith and its impact on their lives. More than that, Rosenberg looks at field and comes up with a "Final Four" that deserve serious consideration by those holding a biblical worldview, and he explains why. I largely agree with his analysis. You can find his article here.

Mars Hill Loses Another Pastor to an Edgy FaithI'm not surprised, but the successor to Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church has resigned. Being pastor of the megachurch seems to have convinced Kent Dobson that he isn't really sure what we mean when we refer to "God" anymore. You can read the depressing story here. What is very sad personally to me is that Kent is the son of the late Ed Dobson, long time pastor of Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, whose faithfulness in engaging hard issues, including his fatal battle with ALS, was such a tremendous testimony to grace and truth.

Survey stating "religious" kids were mean and stingy was "flawed," according to researcher. News outlets and social media fell all over themselves featuring a study that proclaimed non-religious kids were nicer and more generous than religious ones. It was trumpeted by many whose opposition to religion and its effects are well established. Now, another report has come out looking at the study and the reporting on it and concludes that the study was flawed and the reporting was over the top. Surprised? Here is the report on the study.

One Pastor's Call for Action in Response to the Chicago Shooting. Thabiti Anyabwile is an African American brother who pastors in the Washington, D. C., suburb of Anacostia and is a part of The Gospel Coalition. He has gained a bit of a reputation of calling the larger evangelical movement to greater concern for issues related to racial divides and injustices. He has responded to the release of the video of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald and the charging of the Chicago PD officer who shot him with murder with a call to action on the part of pastors. Read his blog and see what you think. I'm seriously pondering his points. The blog is here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thoughts on Fire

Fire has been a part of life for most of us who have lived in southern California. My wife's family lost their home and all their belongings (as did three hundred other families in San Bernardino) just before Thanksgiving, 1980. A dozen years ago, our family lived through the worst set of fires that southern California had experienced. It affected our city, even to the point that some stood at the top ridge of our church property and watched to see if we would still have that property the next day. It was much worse to the east and south. I was reminded of this when I came across the following essay I wrote about those days as they were finally coming to a close. I thought that you might enjoy reading it, too, and so I've reproduced it below. Remember, I wrote it a dozen years ago, in a different church and setting, but it still has, I think, some encouragements for us today.
Thoughts On Fire
            “It looks like Armageddon!”
            “Wow, fires, winds, now solar flares disrupting communications.  What next—pestilence?”
            “It’s all gone.  There’s nothing left.  Everything I had was in that house.”
            “She tried to escape, but got disoriented in the smoke, drove into a ravine, and died when the fire swept through.”

    These are all remarks I heard from people personally and on the radio coverage of the fires that just swept through our region.  The disasters have demanded and captured our attention, as we all have listened intently to see if our homes or those of our family and friends were in danger.  I’ve had calls and emails from around the country asking about us, and we’ve made a few ourselves to people in danger areas.  While most reports have been of safety, some have not been so fortunate.  Friends in San Diego Country report the deaths of neighbors when the firestorm swept through at 2:00 in the morning and caught people trying to get away.  A ministry friend told me of families in a church he served that lost their homes.  Many of you know people whose stories are similar, and we don’t yet know the full extent of damage to homes in the affected areas, camps in the San Bernardino mountains, favorite recreational areas, and so on.

            Among the many reactions I heard, those that reflected on biblical imagery were, of course, intriguing for me to hear.  As you might guess, they got me thinking about where those images come from.

            Some mentioned Armageddon and “end of the world” type scenarios.  Of course, our local disasters pale in significance compared to larger scale devastation (world wars) or biblical descriptions of the end times.  However, as I drove to an elders’ meeting on Monday night and could see the hillsides beyond our valley lined with flames, I understand the thoughts people had.  There is a greater fire coming to the earth, and it will mark the culmination of the age and of God’s wrath upon a rebellious world.  Sadly, most do not take seriously the truth that Peter shares in 2 Peter 3:10:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

            When someone says they lost it all in the fire, I wonder how many of us would say the same if all our possessions were gone.  Having gone through this before with other families, I have seen Christians who lose their homes and still trust God, rebuild, and get on with serving the Lord.  I have seen others who mourn as if their children had died instead of their goldfish, and seem to think God has betrayed them by letting them suffer.  Two passages come to mind—one that was last Sunday’s text:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you...(1 Peter 4:12).

…[E]ach man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work (I Corinthians 3:13).

            To some extent, preliminary fires (literal ones) are reminders of two important truths for Christians.  First, that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Christian life involves suffering, even when we are doing right—but that such suffering is meant to purify us.  Second, the things that last for eternity cannot be consumed by fire, but living for the stuff that burns is, well, foolish.  I heard from someone who moved away from here a number of years ago.  He said that when he lived in southern California he was caught up, like everyone else around him, in the new car/new house/new clothes pursuits.  God took him through a fire-type experience.  Now he has a small old house, the same clothes, and a 1987 car—and he’s happy.  Do you think we need fires to tell us this?
            I have always thought that fire would be one of the worst ways to go—and stories of people perishing in fire are especially disturbing to me.  Yet that is the imagery that Jesus warns us with in describing the punishment that comes to all who have not repented from their sins and cried out to him for mercy.  It is Jesus himself who will say to such people,

“Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels…(Matthew 25:42).”

            He tells us,

“The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42).”

            Finally, there is a question that Peter asks right after that first verse I cited, about the elements being destroyed, and the earth and its works being burned up.  It is a query that we ought to be asking ourselves.  He says,

            “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be… (2 Peter 3:11).”

            It is a good question!  Yes, my house is still standing, but someday it and everything I have in it will be gone.  I can build monuments here, landscape gardens and parks here, preserve forests here—but none of it will stand the fire that comes.  Will this reminder that all the things that everyone prizes so highly and works so hard to acquire will disappear and have no lasting value speak to us?  Since what has been saved this time will undoubtedly go sooner or later, what kind of person are you going to be?

            Peter answers the questions by saying that the solution is to be found

“…in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat (2 Peter 3:11)!”
            Our behavior should be changed by our faith:  holy conduct is NOT clinging to that which is ashes in the making.  Godliness is living like Jesus lives, for eternal purposes.  By doing so we speed along the coming of that great final fire.  But why would we want to do that?  Peter tells us in the next verse.
 “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:12).”

             The reason we look forward to that last conflagration is that it is the only way that the better life, the eternal one, will finally come.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a dwelling place and things that last.  There are such things.  But they come to us after this age, not in it.

              Sometimes it takes a fire to remind us of what will never burn. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Deepening Your Devos: Tools to Make Your Time with God Stronger

One of the most common questions I face is how to improve one's regular (hopefully daily) time in prayer and God's Word. Yes, I know that there is no specific command to read the Bible daily (something that people before the printing press would not have been able to do at any rate), but we are told to desire it like a baby desires milk in order for us to grow (1 Peter 2:2), and it is to be light for our path (Ps. 119:105), and light and food are needed daily, so I have no hesitation commending daily intake of God's Word, and warning against not doing so.

Similarly, we all need to pray, if for no other reason than to remind our own hearts that God is there and is ready to listen. 

So, you've set out to have that daily time, but you don't know where to read. Or perhaps you read a passage and then say to yourself, "I have no idea what it is that I just read," or "I don't really understand a lot of what I'm reading." Rather than becoming discouraged, may I encourage you to consider one or more of a number of tools I have used myself over the years and found helpful. Not all would be good for everyone, but my guess is any number of them would be helpful for most people.

Here are some of the tools I have been encouraged by.

Devotional Magazines/Booklets
There are many others than those I will list below, but I have actually used all of these, so I can testify to their value.

Daily Walk and Closer Walk. These two devotional magazines are published by Walk Thru the Bible and take you through the whole Bible or the New Testament in one year, respectively. Each day there is reading to be done, and a devotional to follow. I've used both, and when I want to read through the Bible they offer structure as well as instruction in the page long devotionals. You can subscribe to either, and see other specialized devotional magazines, at

Tabletalk Magazine. Published by Ligonier Ministries (the ministry of R. C. Sproul), each month's magazine goes through a section of scripture with lessons developed out of the specific passages read. It is theologically deep (and be aware that it reflects Sproul's strongly Reformed theology). You can order it through

Our Daily Bread. This was one of the first devotionals I ever knew of, and it still offers a short passage to read and a brief story to go with it. It isn't going to take you very deeply into Scripture, but it might be a great first step for those who are trying to get started. It is available on our information table.

Devotional Books:
Most of these tools use Scripture as a basis for reflection, to encourage, or to guide prayer, and may be in addition to regular reading through a book of the Bible.

Handbook to Prayer. This is one of a number of similar books by Ken Boa, one of my favorite teachers on the subject of spiritual formation and growth. This book uses selections of Scripture for prayer, organized around a number of themes so that, if you follow the book through a week, you will have prayed through most of the major facets of prayer that should be a part of your prayer life. Praying Scripture is one of the best disciplines I have been taught, and whenever you are uncertain what to pray, using the Scriptures is always profitable and safe. Boa also provides a daily email with a similar structure that has elements from a number of his books. You can learn more at

The Valley of Vision. This collection of Puritan prayers has been great balm for my soul in its amazing depth and scripture saturated prayers. 

Daily Light on the Daily Path. This is a classic of scriptures brought together around specific themes, one set for morning and one for evening. You are not reading lengthy passages here, and the downside is you are not moving through a book or section of the Bible. However, the upside is that ever since this collection was pulled together, its words have powerfully blessed people. I still remember times when I used it and was amazed to have a collection of verses to read that day that applied so perfectly to my own condition or setting. I wouldn't use it forever, but a season in this book would be beneficial for most everyone.

My Utmost for His Highest. No consideration of devotionals can bypass this classic by Oswald Chambers. His reflections on verses of Scripture contain so many encouragements, I can overlook a few theological quibbles I have with some of the entries. You will be blessed going through this gem.

On This Day in Church History. Robert Morgan has provided a daily tour through church history, and each day's reading introduces a theme or person of importance in the life and history of the church. This should not replace scripture and prayer, but offers a great addition to your devotional time.

I know this is a VERY partial list, and you will probably think of things I've left off immediately, but these resources have all been a help to me in different ways and different times, and I commend them for your consideration to help you grow.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Paris Attacks and Praying Christians

This morning, we are still reeling from the news of the attacks last night in Paris, seven different incidents resulting in the deaths of over 120 people, most of whom were in a music hall attending a concert. The instantaneous coverage around the world make us all feel as if we are in the middle of the crisis, and thus the impact of the attacks was even higher for those aware of the news last night. 

Within hours, social media was abuzz with stories, comments, hashtags, and memes. Calls for prayer were intermixed with outcries of rage and revenge toward ISIS. As I scanned many of the responses, I was uncertain what to do. I was appalled, sad, angered at the evil evidenced, and bothered by some of the inane analysis that seemed to lack a category for such evil being perpetrated in the name of religion (other than Christianity, which many can easily demonize in other settings). We can pray for those injured and the families of those who were killed, and of course we must keep up a continued crying out for the Lord to come and bring his kingdom, but our normal responses to help aren''t really necessary. France doesn't need our food, our bandages, our military, or our medical teams. 

But France does need our prayers. The nation is one of the least evangelized in Europe, and while churches are being planted and revitalized, the knowledge of the gospel and the hope that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ is rare. The two mission efforts we have supported are far from Paris, even though the whole nation has undoubtedly been shaken by these events. Prayers should include our brothers and sisters in the Baptist Church of Caen, France (pastored by Jamel and Yvan, disciples of Dan Lacey), and the church planting team in Lyon, France that includes Jesse and Ashley Leightenheimer. Pray that they have great wisdom in speaking into the lives of many who may feel their world has been undone by this, not to mention those with family and friends affected. If you know other gospel workers and believers in France, this is a critical moment for them and they need your prayers.

Pray for gospel witnesses to be grace-filled and proactive wherever they are in the greater Paris area. We may not know them, but they are still family and they have a window of opportunity; and pray for any believers who have been hurt or suffered loss.

Finally, we need to pray for our enemies--in this case those people who identify with ISIS and its work, who are in desperate need of salvation. Make no mistake, I will pray for them, even as I pray for the success of those who would hunt them down and defeat them. They are dangerous and deadly and must be treated as such, but they are also sinners who are not beyond the reach of the grace of God. 

I don't hold out a lot of hope for our world, and for peace in the Middle East. Attacks like this will continue, and the Bible doesn't encourage us to think things will get better before Jesus returns. But Jesus will return, and that hope (along with the gospel that explains how to have hope in his return) is what keeps us looking forward and looking up, weeping with those who weep in these moments but undeterred in our commitment to see France and the rest of the world hear the message of Jesus.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Turning Questions Around: What to Do When Being Verbally Pinned Down

I recently read a book that I am not going to recommend here right now, but that taught me something important (not that I didn't like the book, but there is material I liked and material I think is not endorseable, so I'll withhold citing it).

The book examines a controversial issue, and discusses the common practice of intellectual combatants to shut down an opponent. How do they do it? Simply put, you ask a question that requires the person to answer in a way that will make them look ridiculous, judgmental, close-minded, or all of the above. 

Example 1: A gay person asks a Christian, "So you believe that if I'm gay, I'm going to Hell?" What does the Christian say? If he says, "Yes," the discussion is over. If he says, "No," he feels like he's just denied the truth. 

Example 2: A skeptic asks a Calvinist, "So, you believe that God has already chosen the saved, so nothing I do changes anything, right?" The Calvinist can go hyper and say, "Right." Or, he can get all compassionate and say, "of course that's not true," but then proceed to get tied in knots over sovereignty.

In both cases, a questioner is trying to drive a person to say something that will be simple, straightforward, but marginalizing. It won't further conversation, but instead it will shut it down. But is there a way to face such things successfully?

I think the answer is yes, and we can learn it from Jesus. When people asked Jesus tough questions that might have seemed to demand yes or no answers, he often refused to play the game. Consider these questions Jesus was asked:

"Can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all?"
"Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"
"Are you the One who was to come, or should we look for another?"
"By what authority are you doing these things?"
"Are you the king of the Jews?"

When these questions came to Jesus from various sources, Jesus didn't just give simple answers, but did something else. He turned the question into a discussion.

To the divorce question, he asked what the Law said and a discussion began. On the tax question, he avoided offending either Rome or Jewish tradition by going to the coin involved to make a point. To the disciples of John the Baptist, he pointed their eyes to all that was going on and encouraged careful comparison of his work to the Bible's expectations of Messiah. And Pilate was made to think about the source of the animosity toward Jesus.

He redirected the question and truth was discovered as a result. Could this help us? Perhaps it can. Let's look at our examples.

Example 1: A gay person asks a Christian, "So you believe that if I'm gay, I'm going to Hell?" We might answer: "I'm not the authority on who goes to Hell, that's God's right as Creator and Judge. What do you think God might use to decide who might go to Hell?"

Maybe you think that's wimping out, but I would suggest that in the case of someone who is already expecting me to judge them, an answer that turns the question back on them and asks them to reflect on eternal judgment just might open a door for gospel conversation.

Example 2: A skeptic asks a Calvinist, "So, you believe that God has already chosen the saved, so nothing I do changes anything, right?" As a Calvinist, when I get this question, I usually respond, "Do you feel free to ask that question?" It's a weak joke, but I then follow up with, "Are you concerned that you might not be free to seek God?" If a person is at all open to talking about the gospel, this question may well open that door.

Now, you may (like me) feel like it's hard to come up with winsome answers and feel like, when asked, you will probably just say, "uhhh..." But perhaps you can join me in thinking about some of the tough questions we face, and are going to face, and how we might use them to open up possible discussions instead of just telling someone the cold, hard truth. After all, our goal is to win people to Christ, not win one particular debate or argument. 

A final note: never lie, and never deny truth. But realize you don't have to always lead with the final blow.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Unworthy: When Feeling Bad Isn't So Bad

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”  Luke 17:10

Do you have those days when you just don’t feel very good about yourself? I hope so, because I do. It’s not really a pity party or anything like that. It’s more that sense of not being where you wish you were in terms of maturity, or feeling like you should be better, farther along, stronger, more loving, more forgiving, less irritable, more mature, smarter, or wiser than you are at this point in time. I was feeling some of that yesterday morning. And when I think of all the blessings I have, all I’ve experienced, all of the grace and mercy I’ve experienced, and all the lessons I’ve supposedly learned (and even taught), I feel a strong sense of unworthiness of all those kindnesses. There are times when a sense of being unworthy of God’s goodness and grace becomes almost overpowering.
  • When you realize how much you take the goodness of God and others for granted.
  • When you recognize how blessed you are but you don’t feel particularly grateful.
  • When you sense the reality of sin’s consequences in your life but you don’t think about the offense of sin toward the One who died because of it.
  • When you find that you see others receive grace and wonder why, while at the same time needing grace and treating it as a right.
  • When you fall into “that sin” that has been such a challenge in your life right after deciding it was time to change.
  • When you realize that you have been judgmental toward people with obvious sin problems, but you have let your own socially acceptable or easily concealed sins go without a thought.
  • When you think about how long it’s been since you saw yourself as not good, not holy, and not right about almost everything.
These and many other circumstances may shake us and make us alarmingly aware of just how unworthy we are of God’s kindness toward us. And they probably should.
However, Jesus concludes a very sobering dialogue with his disciples about obedience with the statement above—those who have done everything they were supposed to do are not praiseworthy—in fact, they will see themselves as “unworthy servants” –unworthy of any praise or special treatment because all they have done is what they should have done anyway.
Now, there are at least two problems with this passage. First, we tend to think that when we’ve done what we are supposed to do, that we are demonstrating something good and praiseworthy in us. And in this context it just isn’t so. Second, if the people who did everything that they were commanded are “unworthy servants,” what does that make us, if we are doing less than what we are commanded?
The only answer I can come up with is “even more unworthy!” We can’t spiritualize this passage or make it say less than it does. Perfect obedience to all commands doesn’t make us “worthy” of the Master’s (God’s) praise. It only makes us properly obedient to the Master. We who don’t obey perfectly are even less praiseworthy and more “unworthy” of our position.
But at this very point we need to stop thinking about unworthiness and start thinking about grace and the message of the Gospel. Isn’t this the point? Isn’t it the truth we trust in that Christ Jesus came to save “sinners,” not worthy people? Feeling unworthy is actually in line with the truth, but it has no bearing on our standing before God.
am unworthy, and will be unworthy on my very best or worst days. But the worthy One, Jesus, has taken away my guilt, borne my punishment, and applied His perfect righteousness to me. He makes me His co-heir because He wants to, not because He owes me. Discovering my unworthiness ought not to be alarming but simply another “reality check” about me. And it makes the grace of Christ just that much more amazing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Congregational Primer

When we speak of a "congregational" church or government for the church, there are a number of ideas that may come to mind that are not healthy. While I would never want to opt for some outside authority, either denominational or hierarchical, to make decisions for local fellowships, we have not always taken time to consider what that should or should not look like.

Some of us have grown up with a “political climate” as our model—this is wrong. Having a congregation of believers prayerfully consider what is to be done and then express their combined wisdom should not involve adversarial politics, because we are all in this together. It may involve animated discussion of the text of Scripture, how interpretations are formed, what the ramifications of interpretations or decisions might be, and so on. But it should never be about winning and losing, but humbly participating. If our path is the one chosen, we are thankful that God gave that wisdom. If our path is not, we are equally thankful that God has guided the church. And we only question a decision that is clearly opposite the teaching of Scripture--and such questioning may require us to move to another fellowship if the matter is of primary importance (the kind of matter that affects salvation, for example).

Some of us have grown up with a complacent attitude—this is also wrong. Many of our younger members aren't really interested in church government, and yet those who lead the church have such a tremendous impact on what we are all taught, how we prioritize for ministry and money spent on ministry, how we staff the church, and so many other important issues. Complacency in congregational churches will lead to both unchecked leadership and a much greater influence on direction by the smaller portion of the congregation that exercises its ability to vote and make choices. If that small group has an agenda, that can also be very dangerous. The church needs its members to care about its direction. It is wonderful when people trust their leaders, but the choice of trustworthy leaders has to be made by the congregation.

So, how should a congregation approach a decision about a change, as we are doing now?

Normally we should hope for unity, and we should accept a strong consensus. And if we believe our leaders are acting in good faith to implement plans and directions according to their understanding of Scripture, they should receive the benefit of the doubt with an attitude of godly submission. It should never be the thought that a "unanimous" vote would somehow be too much like a rubber stamp! I'm afraid that someone (or a few someones) in our church must think that, because in ten year's time, the only matter to ever receive a unanimous approval in a ballot vote has been the acceptance of the annual meeting minutes--and that has not even received a unanimous approval every year. How is it that God might have led someone to vote "No" on a deacon  or a pastor or a missionary candidate that every other member in the church who voted said "YES" to--every time we vote? It makes me wonder if this demonstrates a love for the unity of the church that Paul said was so important in Ephesians 4? I love this church, and even when suggesting things that may not pass unanimously, I want to do all I can to encourage agreement. When someone finds nothing--not a single deacon candidate, a single budget, or a single special action that they can support, I don't think the problem is with congregationalism or with the rest of the church. 

So, is there ever a time when you should vote “No” on a change?  Here are five suggestions…

  1. Vote no if a proposal violates Scripture
  2. Vote no if the status quo is a superior, biblical approach
  3. Vote no if you do not trust the teaching or the motives of the pastor(s)
  4. Vote no if you do not trust the wisdom of the leader that made the recommendation
  5. Vote no if the change will endangers the flock
I would think that most of these should be obvious. I would also hope that any person who held one of these reasons would love the church and its leaders enough to share their concerns or biblically confront them in the cases of 3, 4, and 5. 
What about positive reasons to vote “Yes?” Here are five more suggestions...
  1. Vote yes if you believe the proposal lines up with Scripture
  2. Vote yes if you see biblical and practical rationale for the change
  3. Vote yes if your pastors have shown trustworthiness in decisions
  4. Vote yes if your leaders have a record of showing good judgment
  5. Vote yes if you see potential benefits of the change for the flock
Finally, consider these principles to help a congregation and its members (that would be you) to act and decide issues biblically.
  1. Study the issues in Scripture
  2. Listen to what leadership has to say
  3. Pray (and fast) for wisdom, unity, and blessing
  4. Be willing to follow the congregation’s decision
  5. Submit to your leaders as they implement decisions
  6. Humility for everybody!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thriving in Babylon: A Title and a Challenge

Larry Osborne is a pastor from Oceanside, California that I've known since the late 1980s. He has led a solid church ministry in northern San Diego County, but it is his books that have really challenged me, especially the titles. They are such good titles, and they set you up for a great experience reading his books. 

His book on getting people connected in and committed to a body of believers? Sticky Church.

His book on what happens when our "standards" become too important to our Christianity at the expense of grace? Accidental Pharisees.

But his latest may be his best title yet (can't say about the book because I just got it). It is using the life of Daniel to learn about how those who love God can live, serve, and prosper even in a culture that stands for all the wrong things. It calls for "hope, humility, and wisdom." The title is Thriving in BabylonThe book is certainly timely, because of its subject matter. But that title just grabs hold of me, almost making me shout "That's it! That's what we need to do!" I don't know that there ever was truly a "Christian America"--in fact, I'm pretty sure there never was. But there was a time when America and Americans took most of their cues on the nature of life, right and wrong, the value of human life, the definitions of human relationships, and more, from biblical understandings. After all, all men being "created equal" doesn't stem from evolutionary thought, atheism, or rationalism. I know we are not the "morality police," but Christian faith has been the "morality source" for the underpinnings of the nation. It was that niggling "all men are created equal" that was the impetus for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and a few other good things.

Those days are gone. Forever. Don't assume the next election will change it all back. It won't. We are, as another book title from decades ago put it, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Christians have always been "strangers and aliens" in this world, but in America, an illusion developed that because our values had shaped the nation's founding in so many ways, we would always have a better culture and an easier way in the world. No more. 

Unlike Daniel and his friends, we have not been carried off into captivity. Instead, we have had the true nature of being exiles made clear as the glossy curtains of America's civic Christianity have been ripped down. It's taken long enough that the coming generation has no real memory of it being different, but historically, the pace of the change has been breathtaking.

So America isn't the promised land. It is Babylon. A powerful nation with dangerous rivals who would eventually overthrow it, Babylon was not a friendly place for Jewish faith to thrive, and to do so as a captive carried off to serve in the palace would be even harder. But Daniel and his friends decided that a hostile environment didn't change the truth from God or the power of God to accomplish the will of God. When they could seek accommodation (in their diet for example), they did. When they could serve (interpreting a dream or serving in administration), they did. And when they couldn't compromise and needed to trust God (as in not worshiping an image on pain of death), they did. And they didn't just survive--they thrived. They made a difference and an impact. And they did so with no guarantees that it would all turn out for them. Even though it did, as Osborne says, they were "exceptions, not examples."

America is a powerful nation with dangerous enemies, and it is not necessarily a place that fosters faith or faithful obedience to God. It seems to have become (or is certainly on its way to becoming) another Babylon--not in the biblical prophecy in Revelation sense, but in its increasing opposition to God and His Word. Yet, many of God's people in Babylon managed to do so much more than just survive. It wasn't just Daniel and his friends. Whole communities of captives in Babylon kept the faith alive. Synagogues were born in Babylon, and biblical scholarship among Jews actually flourished--one of the great copies of their laws was called "the Babylonian Talmud" because it developed there. Many were able to thrive, because they didn't forget God, and they knew he had not forgotten them.

That's what we Christians need to do. We need to decide to thrive. It doesn't matter what the culture may adopt next, or whether we won't be popular or respected or tax exempt! We know our God, and he hasn't forgotten us or lost control of his plan. And because we are still here and the end hasn't come, there is still the opportunity to bear witness to truth and know that our witness and fruitfulness can thrive. So, let's do this. Let's not back off what we believe, but let's stop being surprised that others don't believe it. Let's expect iniquity to abound--these are, after all, the last days. But let's remember that when sin abounds, grace still abounds much more. Let's believe that God may be making the lines between truth and lies clearer, and pushing those who claim to know him to show where they stand. Let's believe that some pressure (and maybe some persecution) is going to be the catalyst for cleansing and empowering God's people. And let's thrive, like the faithful Jews in Babylon, or like the church just after Stephen was killed, or like believers in China for the past sixty years.

(Oh, and maybe you'll want to read the book, too. You can order it here. I haven't finished so I can't offer a full endorsement yet, but I like what I've seen so far.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A summer of shifts and shocks

It's the midpoint of summer, and as often happens, plans for a slower pace have been blown to bits by the onslaught of the summer "specials"--those things that come along where you decide, "Sure, I can do that, it's summer and the normal stuff isn't happening." Except, as you probably know, much of the normal stuff does keep going, and now you have more to do than you thought.

Don't get me wrong; the special stuff makes the summer exciting and, well, "special." We've hosted a few special events at our church that have been a real delight. We've had unexpected guests in our home, spent enjoyable time away, and were blessed with unique opportunities to serve. This weekend, for example, we're hosting 40-50 TCKs (third culture kids) attending a cultural "re-entry seminar for a Nacho Bar!

But it's been a very different summer in a number of key points. The weather has been atrocious. Here in Ohio we had the same terrible winter that lots of the rest of the country had, and because of that you hope for a respite in a beautiful summer. We managed to get one week of that--in Myrtle Beach on vacation. Coming home, we've had mainly clouds, rain, and cool temperatures until this week, when we went directly to hot and humid with thunderstorms. I can count on one hand the number of warm, sunny days we've experienced (OK, maybe the thumb of the other hand would be needed). Our experience is not different than so much of the rest of the country.

There have been a few disappointments this summer for people and relationships. I've seen people who were seemingly getting healthy die, and had people who said they would be around decide to disappear.

But it's also been a summer of unsettling news and change. I won't take time to revisit the Supreme Court decision to require all states to recognize the union of same sex couples as "marriage." In overturning a fundamental definition that has existed from the beginning of history, five justices have just done something that undermines family and society, defies common sense, and finds a "right to marry" that simply does not exist in the Constitution (the basis for any ruling they are making). It would be as if they declared blue to be yellow, along with yellow being yellow, and pity the person of aesthetic soul and conscience, as well as logic and a smidgen of historical sense who says that only yellow is yellow.

ESPN ignored genuine heroics by people who achieved great things, paid incredible prices (and in some cases lost their lives) to achieve success in the realm of sport and have served as examples to inspire others, and chose a former athlete who is now a transgender celebrity whose actions have more of the self-aggrandizing than the self-sacrificing about them to designate as the winner of their "Courage" Award. How does milking your former athletic glory and subsequent celebrity marriage, reality TV show, and coming out on national television count as courage?

Planned Parenthood's medical director was video-recorded having a nice lunch over which she sips her wine and discusses the proper way for an abortionist to crush heads and legs of a fetus to save the liver for sale. It's guided by ultrasound, don't you see? And the reaction of many? How terrible that such "sting" videos make the news--unless it is a video for a cause we like!

Our government officials have negotiated a deal with Iran that ensures their continued ability to enrich uranium and move toward possession of a nuclear weapon, while they lead public chants of "Death to America" and continue to hold four Americans as prisoners for no justifiable reason, including a pastor. If you read Joel Rosenberg's novels and commentary on current events and prophecy (not to mention those scriptures themselves), you can't help but shudder at these developments, just a little bit.

And as we get ready to select a new president next year, one party can't field a single candidate who would say a good word about any abortion limitations (ban on late term procedures, require an ultrasound to be shown to the mother, allow the father a say, parental consent for minors, forbid when pain can be felt, etc.) for any reason [For me, abortion is one of those "beyond debate" issues, and when given the chance I will ALWAYS for a pro-life candidate, having led me to vote for candidates in the past whose other positions were not mine, but whose commitment to protecting life was solid. That's me, and I'm not telling you that you are wrong if you disagree, but do think about it.]. Their front-runner seems unable to give straight answers, tell the truth about past decisions, or hold a position held ten years ago, but the others just can't seem to attract any real attention yet.

And the other party? Well, it is quite a "party" actually, with more candidates than people who attended my last birthday party. I actually can respect a number of them, and they all support protecting life, EXCEPT THE CURRENT FRONT RUNNER! I am mystified that a blowhard billionaire can, by sounding mad as h###, move to the front of the pack when he supported the current president that he blasted seven years ago, gave money to his potential opponent from the other party, and has advocated policies most in his party abhor. He recently said a decorated veteran and senator, who was a POW in Vietnam, was not a war hero just because he got shot down and spent years in a POW camp. The billionaire says he likes guys who didn't get captured. He ought not to be taken any more seriously than his TV show. But I also have to wonder what makes a man (or woman) say, "I am sure I can pull away from 15 others and be the next nominee and president." When does self-confidence slide into self-delusion?

Just for good measure, I'm seeing reports of an expected mini "Ice Age" coming in my lifetime (maybe we can promote more global warming to stave it off), and a 30% chance of an earthquake that will wipe out the Pacific Northwest coast in the next few decades. The economic recovery isn't huge, and financial institutions are very nervous, as Greece's eventual default may rip through the world's banks, if China's massive economic slowdown doesn't shake them first.

So, let me see where I stand.
  • I can't count on my bank account or retirement.
  • I can't count on the environment.
  • I can't count on the ground under my feet.
  • I can't count on political candidates or solutions.
  • I can't count on my governmental leaders.
  • I can't count on the culture.
  • I can't count on the media.
  • I can't count on law or judges.
  • I can't even count on the weather. 
Even I can see that, perhaps, this is a not so gentle reminder from the God of our salvation that there is only One in whom we can trust and never be disappointed. How about you?