Monday, January 30, 2017

When Baptists are Atheists

I've always struggled to comprehend the sheer audacity of philosophical atheism. The confident assertion that no God exists is, in itself, a logical absurdity. To assert that anything definitely does not exist requires exhaustive knowledge of the universe, which only a God could have. How can a mere human say that he knows all about the universe beyond his own observation, or has plumbed the depths of all dimensions or scanned every moment of history into prehistory and before? It is a position that requires some knowledge of the object (God) in order to reject Him.

Yet there is another kind of atheism that is much more powerful. I was reminded of it in my devotions today, from Psalm 14:1--
"The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile, there is no one who does good."
This is the atheism of foolishness, that weighs actions without consideration of God's existence and God's will. When people eliminate God from their judgments and considerations, their choices and actions quickly descend into self-interest and, inevitably, sin.

Of course we can see this in the lives of non-believers around us. We note and mourn their words, choices, and actions. We look at the carnage of our world and can only explain it as the result of people refusing to acknowledge and honor God. And such evils are often done by those who claim religion or God, but demonstrate by their corruption that they do not truly know or follow Him.

But there is something more disconcerting about this idea. It would seem that any time we who know and love Jesus still choose sin, we have made a decision, however temporary, to look away from Him and to pretend He just is not there. How else could those of us who have understood that our sins are the cause of Jesus' suffering and the source of His pain, nevertheless choose once again to indulge ourselves as if it doesn't matter? Every time a believer embraces sin without thought of offense to God or consequence, he is living as what many have called a "practical atheist." And the more often this takes place, the more "atheistic" our lives will look.

Believers can live as though God isn't there to see, to warn, or to judge. And a person whose life gives evidence of such practical atheism has landed himself in the company of fools, biblically. How do we avoid such a state?

I would suggest that the issue is not intellectual. After all, we know and believe the Scriptures, and we confess Jesus as Lord. The issue is primarily one of vision or focus. What do we fix our minds upon--or more precisely, who?

If our eyes are on others and their thoughts of us, they become our gods and we are not just atheists when it comes to the true God, but idolators as well. If our gaze is turned inward on our own desires and wants, we become our own gods, choosing our own passions and desires and refusing to consider the authority of the very Savior we have embraced.

Practical atheism results when we take our eyes off Jesus, and fail to cultivate our love for Him and His promises of superior joys to those our hearts might choose. Turning away from Him is an attempt, however momentary, to pretend that all He is doesn't need to be "in the picture" right now. And any picture from which we exclude Him becomes the scene of disaster and ruin.

Before we go down another sinful path or another selfish excursion into evil thoughts, we must ask ourselves, "Am I seeing Jesus in this? Is He, who has promised to be my good shepherd, leading me this way? Can I discern His encouragement to pursue this? Or am I listening to His voice of warning, urging us to:
"Say 'no' to ungodliness and worldly lusts!"
"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you!"
"Watch and pray, that you do not enter into temptation!"
"Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life!"

Speaking to you all, and to myself, I encourage us all to be careful of the dangers of not taking Jesus into account always; let's not be Baptist atheists!

Friday, January 27, 2017

One Week; Two Marches; One Cause--Life on the Line

Today is the March For Life, and depending on whether or not the pressure from the President has prevailed, it will either get a lot of coverage or nothing in comparison to the “Women’s March” that took place last weekend. To be sure, the latter had star power, which an occasional event can create. It morphed from just a "pro-woman" march to a specifically anti-Trump event, generating even more interest. The March For Life, by contrast, has been an annual event, often the largest to take place in our nation’s capital year after year, but with little press coverage. This year, the sitting Vice President will become the highest-ranking official to attend.

Obviously, I’m not there. But today's occasion reminds me of a stark truth. Since anti-abortion laws were struck down in the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions in 1973, 60,000,000 Americans have been killed in the womb. The oldest of them would just be 43 this year. They would have increased the population of our nation by about 20%. Put another way, one fifth of us are missing.

I wonder how our nation might have been different if those millions had lived. Here are some of the realities that we know to be true.
  • Our nation would have many more African Americans than it does. Abortion has been disproportionately practiced as a primary means of birth control within poor communities, and the highest single demographic is the African American community. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, would rejoice in this outcome, since she saw “races” other than white as being a threat to society. 
  • It should be assumed that at least a portion of these people would have been highly productive, intelligent people whose contributions to society would have been significant. Perhaps the discoverer of a cure for HIV/AIDS, or forms of cancer was among them. 
  • There would be a higher percentage of women alive today. Sex selection abortion exists, and wherever it is practiced—with or without government sanction, more parents choose to have boys than girls. Yes, it is not supposed to be practiced in our enlightened culture, but there is no practical way of stopping it if someone chooses to pursue it.
  • It is more likely you would know more people with Down’s Syndrome. Studies indicate that the population of people with Down’s Syndrome in the U.S. has dropped 30% in the last decade, and that the majority of women who receive a DS prenatal diagnosis abort that child. 
I also wonder what it says about a society that doesn’t seem to miss 60,000,000 of its own, and can allow them to be killed without concern. Diseases that kill a fraction of that number have telethons, rallies, ribbons, and awareness campaigns. A casualty figure of 60,000,000 in war would make pacifists of us all.

One final thought was prompted by a number of statements made by people I know to be believers after the Women’s March, talking about their participation in the march out of “solidarity” with those the march was said to represent—women whose rights were being taken away and freedoms curtailed. Allusions were made to doing this as Christ-followers, suggesting He would be marching, too. The very public removal of pro-life groups, along with the pronounced support for all things LGBTQ from the national march were not cited as problematic by any of these people whose comments I read.

Jesus encourages compassion for all people in whatever state we find them, but His compassion would never be at the exclusion of the truth that sets free or of righteousness that saves. And the Bible pronounces specific woes on those who call evil “good,” and good “evil.”  Christians participating in the national march had to check any “pro-life” credentials, beliefs, or advocacy at the door, and would have been excluded had they dared to say that marriage was superior to living together, same sex relationships were not God’s will for people, and the Bible was God’s authoritative truth. Solidarity, in this case, meant silence when it came to matters of eternal significance. And that silence could not be broken even to acknowledge the continuing murder of a million unborn girls and boys every year.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Burying Sinners and Saints

There's an old joke about a young pastor called to a small town church many years ago. In the town were two notoriously evil brothers, who were also rich and powerful. They used their money and power to great advantage, until one day one of those brothers died. 

The surviving brother came to the new young pastor and said, "I want you to preach my brother's funeral. And if you will do it, I will give your church one million dollars." 

Stunned, the preacher was about to say yes, when the man added, "But I have one condition. You have to say that my brother was a saint."


"Say, 'he was a saint'--the very words! Do that, and I guarantee your church will receive one million dollars."

The preacher, though new in town, knew the brothers' reputations, and was hesitant. He also knew how little the church had in its accounts, and what that money would do for repairs and the work. He asked if he could think about it for an hour or two. The surviving brother agreed.

One hour later, the preacher said "I'll do it."

On the day of the funeral the preacher took his place in the pulpit. He began, "We are here to remember and bury a man you all know. He was a scoundrel in every conceivable way. He was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. If there was a way to do wrong, he would find it. And if you ever thought he was doing something good, it was only a ruse to trick you. Yes, he was a very bad man. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!"

In my calling, I've buried a few sinners along with quite a few saints.

I did more than my share of funerals last year, and have already done a memorial service in the first week of 2017. Thinking back over these services in the past year, they were all for professing believers, most of whom were well known to me and gave clear testimony of their faith in Jesus. 

I don't get very many calls like I used to when I was in California from funeral homes looking for a minister to do a funeral or memorial service. Those were very interesting events. The reason I'd get the call was that the family wanted a "minister" to perform the service, but they were not "church people" in any meaningful way. This meant that I would meet a family for the first time during a very difficult moment, and they would have as little idea of what to expect from me as I did from them.

I would be thanked for coming, and then be assured that, while the deceased hadn't been to church in years, he (or she) was a "fine Christian" who followed the golden rule, was a good family member, and was kind to pets and strangers. I would often try to move the conversation toward the gospel. At first it was to see if the deceased might have, at some time in life, heard and acknowledged it. But it was also to see if anyone in the family had any knowledge of it. Occasionally I would see a knowing look or glance, often followed up with a whispered conversation that told me I had a gospel ally in the family. More often, there were just blank stares or polite nods, and then we would move on to the service planning.

Why would I do these services? Honestly, it wasn't for the dead. They were gone and I had nothing to offer them. It was for the opportunity to preach the gospel in the service to the living. Strangely, even though the "guest of honor" may have had nothing to do with God, mourners have an openness to consider eternal things that seldom is seen outside of funerals. I found that I could divide a service into two parts: the first was a remembrance of the deceased, and then I would say something like, "as a Christian minister I've been asked to lead this service for you, and I wouldn't be doing what I should if I didn't offer some words of comfort and hope to you who are here, even as we all realize that someday we will be facing our own end." I'd go to the scriptures and speak of God's love, man's sin and alienation from God, God's holiness and justice and what that means for sinners, and how God's mercy and grace have opened the way of forgiveness and life: not through performance but through a person--Jesus Christ. I would pray for those grieving, and ask that God would not only ease their sorrow, but draw them to His offer of life.

What was amazing to me was that in those settings I never was criticized for "preaching"--in fact, families uniformly were grateful. I don't know why, and I can't say that I know of anyone who was converted then. But it was an open door I was glad to take.

Harder were those few services where relatives expected me to tell them that their rebellious, hard-hearted, recently deceased relative was running around heaven having a grand time. I still remember one service where a rather well-known rebel-hearted youth died in an accident of his own making while intoxicated. He had made no secret of his rejection and mockery of faith. I followed the format that I outlined above, never speaking ill of him, but not pretending he was something he was not either, and was thanked by many--but not by the family. In fact, I received an incensed call from a fire-breathing grandma who could not believe that I hadn't told everybody what a saint her grandson was. The burial, which was scheduled for the day after the funeral, would proceed with a different minister! 

This all came to mind recently as I was preparing for the memorial for a real "saint"—a lady who had lived over 90 years and manifested her faith through her life. I use the term "saint" in its biblical meaning--a believer, yes, but an obvious believer. No need to wonder if she understood truth, or believed it, or lived it. Having met her almost 40 years ago, and having been her pastor for over a decade, I know her faith, and so I could speak with confidence about her continuing future life and joy.

I've had a string of these kinds of funerals of late, including this dear woman’s husband, and just a few weeks before, a member who was a retired missionary and continuing friend. I am blessed to do them. For in such cases, I can recount their lives--not perfect by any stretch, but faithful. I can not only speak of their profession of faith, but their examples of faith. I can tell or hear stories that remind me of how God used them, when they were willing to be His instruments. And I can once again remind those in attendance that God's promise to saints is that absence from this body means being present with the Lord. When I leave these services I am prodded to consider my own path of faithfulness, even as these brothers and sisters take their place in Heaven's great cloud of witnesses to the faithfulness of God.

What kind of encouragement will your funeral be? What kind of words will be said? How will those who know you remember you? What mark that will count for eternity will you leave? Will your preacher have to work hard to come up with good things to say, or even worse, will he have to simply offer remembrances of a life past and then preach the gospel, without ever drawing the connection between the two?

In one of those services for an unbeliever, I used a little liberty I drew from the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31--you can take time to read it right now if you don't know it). I said to the audience, "If _______ were able, I think he would speak to you right now in the strongest terms to turn to Christ and believe!" I'm not positive that's true, but if Jesus says in a story that someone in Hades had that impulse, I think it might be a fair supposition in other cases, too.

As you go about this day, don't assume you are guaranteed any more of them. And realize that when you leave this life for the next, your story will be told. I hope it will be a story of faith realized.