Saturday, May 30, 2015

Learning from a Cardinal

While I'm fond of the bird, and don't mind either major sports team by that name, the lesson to which
Cardinal Francis George,
who passed away April 17
I'm referring is from a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. Let me share it with you.

Cardinal Francis George, retired archbishop of Chicago, passed away on April 17. Cardinal George was seen as a theological conservative within the Roman Catholic Church, and was not afraid to engage very publicly on issues from abortion to the gay rights movement. He often expressed concern over what he believed was the eroding of religious liberty in the USA.

Now, I am not an expert on Cardinal George's theology or pronouncements. But before his death he made a statement that has a powerful ring of truth that I find sobering and motivational.

This is what he said:
It is likely that I will die in my bed. My successor will die in prison. His successor will die executed in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."
I'm not sure about his timing--after all, his successor is in place. But he may be right--the time that it has taken for Christians of conviction to go from respected, to ignored, to targeted for their beliefs and practices

I'm not committed to his more positive ending scenario--if the Lord does not set in motion his judgments of the final days, then yes, Christians may be privileged to rebuild culture. But these may well be steps that move our world inexorably toward the day of the Lord, for which we earnestly pray because it will vindicate God's people and bring ultimate glory to the Lord.

But what struck me was the Cardinal's mindset. He saw what is going on, and what Christians (of all stripes) have taught and believed down through the ages, and understands the inevitable conflict that is ahead. And he wasn't encouraging us to believe that the tide will turn quickly.

As a pastor in a small town with lots of Christians around, it might be easy for me (and for all of us) to dismiss such thoughts, especially from a source that represents a very different take on our faith. But I just read the comments of an unidentified pastor from Niger, whose church was burned just a few months ago and who was leading his people in worship in the rubble just days later. His comment on this: "We knew this was in the Bible."

Do we know it, too?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Prodigal Son, Prodigal God: Thoughts from a Conference and Two Good Books

This past week I have had the privilege of being at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, in Asheville, NC. I'm actually writing this from the deck of the training center, looking at the clouds on the mountains (tall thingys where the ground has gone up for those of you who never leave Ohio). I'm here to attend a conference by a favorite writer of mine, Ken Boa, who has now become a favorite teacher--the man is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge and wisdom on theology, church history, science (he was trained in astrophysics), and spiritual growth. His books have been part of my devotional life for years.

"You keep using that word. I do not
think it means what you think it
means."--Inigo Montoya, 

The Princess Bride

In one of his sessions Ken worked through the story of the lost son in Luke 15. It's the story we call "the prodigal son." I don't know about you, but for years I assumed the word "prodigal" referred to the fact that he rebelled and went away from home. That is not at all what the word means (Inigo Montoya's words are floating through my head right now).

The word "prodigal" does not refer to rebellion, but to lavish generosity. It means to spend freely. The definition is "to spend money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant; having or giving something on a lavish scale." 

The prodigal son was "prodigal" in that he spent freely all the wealth that he was given, until it was all gone. His spending was, as his older brother later characterized it, a waste, but while it was going, he was probably the best friend his fellow-partiers could have hoped for. After he spent all, he found himself in dire straits, friendless, starving, and jealous of pigs' food.

And then, he came to his senses. As one of the writers Boa quoted said, he left "the insanity of sin." Boa went on to say that sin really is insanity. We always regret it, always rue our fall, and then we do it again!  But once the son came to his senses, he realized his foolishness, and decided right then to go to the father. And that is what we must do, whenever our insanity is overcome by the Spirit--we repent, and we go to the Father! We may not know what the Father's response and plan will be, but we know his heart, and we know his ways, and so we go.

But there is another "prodigal" in the story... another one who spends lavishly. It is the father, who lavished undeserved riches on an unworthy and ungrateful son. And when that son was repentant, he lavished him with even more that he didn't deserve. And when his oldest son was indignant, he generously invited him to reconsider and enter into the joy of the household. 

Of course, the father is the representative of God, our Father, whose gracious goodness to us is even greater. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, suggests that we should also see that all three characters can represent us--the older son being our self-righteousness, the younger our sinful selfishness, and the father our transformed character becoming like God. Tim Keller's book, The Prodigal God, rightly makes the father the central figure of the story because of his dealings with his sons. 

For me, after this week, two truths from this story take on new meaning.

First, I am still subject to bouts of temporary insanity. I never am happy that I sin. I hate that I do. And yet sometime today, I will choose something--some indulgence, some self-promotion, some self-centeredness that is sinful, stupid, and insane!

And second, because I am united by faith with Jesus Christ, the Spirit will wake me up--and I'll have that, "what am I doing?" moment. At that very moment, I need to remember who my Father is and what he has done for me in Christ, repent, and go to him--where I know I will find the forgiveness and grace I need, and the welcome I will never deserve. Because he is a prodigal Father!

Oh, and a third smaller point--I should always ask what words mean!

The bad news for you is that you are just as insane when it comes to sin as I am. The good news? The Spirit can cure you, too, and your Father is really generous--he is positively prodigal when it comes to grace!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Hymn For Pentecost

We are coming up on the anniversary of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty is one of my favorite new songs: a prayer for the Spirit that has come to work in and through us...

"Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God"

Holy Spirit, living Breath of God,
Breathe new life into my willing soul.
Bring the presence of the risen Lord
To renew my heart and make me whole.
Cause Your Word to come alive in me;
Give me faith for what I cannot see;
Give me passion for Your purity.
Holy Spirit, breathe new life in me.

Holy Spirit, come abide within;
May Your joy be seen in all I do—
Love enough to cover ev'ry sin
In each thought and deed and attitude,
Kindness to the greatest and the least,
Gentleness that sows the path of peace.
Turn my striving into works of grace.
Breath of God, show Christ in all I do.

Holy Spirit, from creation's birth,
Giving life to all that God has made,
Show Your power once again on earth;
Cause Your church to hunger for Your ways.
Let the fragrance of our prayers arise.
Lead us on the road of sacrifice
That in unity the face of Christ
Will be clear for all the world to see.

The List You Have Been Waiting For: Seven Things Church Members Should Say to Guests in a Worship Service

Thom Rainer gives a very helpful instruction to those of us in the church who may wonder if we can help visitors feel welcome. I've personally been using some of these, and I would encourage you to consider all of them. I can testify to the effectiveness of #7.

Click on the link below to read the article.

Seven Things Church Members Should Say to Guests in a Worship Service

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Russell Moore's Good Words on the Decline of American "Almost-Christianity

Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, has an excellent reaction to the Pew Research study noting the decline of those who identify as Christians in the U.S., along with the sharp increase of those who claim no religious affiliation. The article is here.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Prayer for our Nation

Today is the National Day of Prayer, and whether you are a part of an observance or not, this prayer might be one we could all use today. 

Our Father in Heaven,

Across our nation people are praying and we join them in coming to you on behalf of our country.
You are the God who establishes nations and their boundaries. You exalt leaders and peoples, and you humble them, all according to your will. You enrich all peoples with your blessings, pouring grace upon all of us like rain: the grace of life, of love, and of all that we have. You are good even to those who fail to acknowledge you.

Our nation has been singularly blessed for most of our history. You sovereignly guided our founders to draw principles of government from the teachings of the Bible. Our people have had more freedom to seek you and to live in accord with their understanding of Scripture than any other of our times. Your church has been immeasurably blessed within our borders and been privileged to be on the front lines of gospel advancement worldwide. These and many more blessings have come to us from  you.

But Lord, our nation now has joined with many others in a rapid descent into sinful and wicked paths, and we have seen the sins of our ancestors continue to plague us in our day. Where we once protected life, we now sanction its termination. Where we were once known among the nations for the strength of our families and the virtues of our men and women, we find ourselves lost in a moral and mental fog about what it means to be a man, a woman, a marriage, or a family. Our devilish practice of slavery was ended, but the stain of bigotry and hatred continues to mark our society, and we see whole neighborhoods and cities convinced that there is no true justice to be found. Almost daily it seems we see or hear new evidence that our nation has lost its way, and our future is bleak. We are a broken land, and in ourselves we find nothing good or hopeful.

Yet we have hope, because we know you, the one is merciful beyond measure. Our nation deserves your judgment; and we will certainly experience the judgment to fall on all nations when Jesus comes. We have no claim upon you to ask that you would be merciful to us, but those of us who are belong to the Lord Jesus come to you in the spirit of Abraham, asking you not to sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Indeed, we would be bold to ask you to do what you have done before—to pour out your Spirit in revival upon your people and cause the light of the gospel to shine from us into every corner of our nation. Only the repentance of your people and the witness of the Word can make a change that matters, and both of these are dependent upon your Holy Spirit. And so we humbly and hopefully ask that you would hear us from Heaven, forgive your people of our sins, and for the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the glory of your name heal our land. From the simplest home to the corridors of power, make your truth known and let it be heeded.

Give our president, our representatives, our state and local leaders, and all who make decisions that guide us your truth, but more than that, ears to hear it and hearts to follow it. Give our churches broken hearts for our failures, repentant spirits, and a fresh outpouring of your Spirit to empower us to speak your Word and obey it. And may you be pleased to give our nation one more season of your favor that we might be used for your good purposes.