Obama, the Bible, and Same Sex Marriage

It is impossible to turn on the news today or go to the internet without being confronted by the news of President Obama’s statement that he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married. While I can certainly appreciate his compassionate heart for people who feel they are unfairly being denied the possibility of a marriage to their same-sex partner, and I can even affirm that I believe the President to be my brother in Christ, I have to disagree with his position on clear biblical grounds.

At the heart of the issue is this, who determines what a marriage is and who can get married and who cannot? In the last 200 years or so, governments have played an increasingly large role in that decision and the religious community has played a smaller and smaller role. But for the entire period of human history prior, that was not the case. Prior to that time, certainly in western civilization, it has been the church, and I mean that in the broadest terms, that has defined marriage and informed the government on what is and is not a marriage. Clearly the tables have been turned. Now instead of the faith communities informing society and the government on what is and is not marriage, it is western philosophical, post-enlightenment philosophy that shapes the our understanding of marriage. We have gone from marriage being a sacred union between man and woman, to being a contractually based relationship between two people who want certain benefits of accorded such couples by the government and society. That is founded on faith in philosophy not faith in God.

But where does the church get its understanding of marriage? On what basis does it take a stand. Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a blog dealing primarily with homosexuality. That is only secondarily the issue here. What I am talking about is marriage and its roots. In the Christian community we look to the Bible as our revealed source of God’s truth. That is a given. You can debate the wisdom of that all you want but the fact is, the Bible is what Christians hold to as their depository of God’s will and wisdom. I say that as strongly as I do, so that it becomes clear, if you want to affirm same-sex marriage you are doing so with full knowledge that the Bible teaches otherwise. That may not matter to you, but it matters to millions of Christians in America and a billion world-wide. First let’s be clear on what the Bible does not say. The Bible does not say “same-sex marriages are sinful”. You won’t find those words. Why? Because rather than take a negative approach full of “thou shalt nots”, the Bible takes a positive approach and holds up the ideal that we are to strive for. The positive teaching of the Bible on marriage is that it is designed by God to be between a man and a woman. That teaching is so clear and so taken for granted that there were no same-sex marriages and thus no need to say anything against them. That doesn’t mean there was no homosexual behavior. There was. But same-sex marriage was unheard of so there was no need to speak against it. Rather the Bible says what marriage is, why it is and who is eligible for marriage.

To understand what the Bible teaches, we have to start with Genesis 2 and the account of the creation of man and woman.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

24For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-24

It doesn’t matter whether you think this actually happened as a literal event or that it is somehow a myth handed down to make a point. For Christians, and incidentally, Jews AND Muslims, this is something revealed to us by God to teach us about our origins, purpose, and destiny. As it speaks about marriage it is crystal clear that God made it to be a union between a man and a woman and that it has spiritual significance. They are somehow joined together as one. They are not just two people signing a contract detailing how they will share property rights or designating who can visit them in the hospital or any other such important issues. Those are the issues of the contractual understanding of marriage in the post-enlightenment west. The Bible is saying there is more, there is a binding together of man and woman in marriage that is instituted and blessed by God.

Some will say that the Genesis passage is Old Testament and therefore culturally irrelevant. For that reason it also needs to be recognized that Jesus affirmed this teaching in the clearest possible ways.  In Matthew 19 he repeats and expands on the teaching from Genesis 2 as a way of affirming the sanctity of marriage and the exclusive nature of the relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus does not deal with this as a cultural issue but rather as an issue of theological truth that is founded in the very character of God. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he also affirms that there is a spiritual component to the physical relationship that is supposed to be reserved for husband and wife. A biblical understanding of marriage must include the recognition that it is more than two people agreeing to live together and be partners in some domestic limited partnership. There is a third-party involved. The Bible says that God joins together a man and woman in marriage. That is why it is primarily a spiritual and not a civil matter.

In making any decisions about our view of marriage we must, or at least confessing Christians must, look to what the Bible says about marriage and seek to understand it and implement it as best we can. Some people may come to a different interpretation of what the BIble teaches. I understand that and can work with that. At least from there we can discuss the meaning of the passage and its application based on mutually agreed methods of literary interpretation. What we cannot do is simply ignore what the Bible says because we are trying to be compassionate, modern, or even fair.

What are the concerns in all this? Some who support same-sex marriage might simply say, “why don’t you just live your way and let them live their way?” That sounds so nice and reasonable and fair. But here is the problem. Because government now has the primary role in determining who can get married and what a legitimate marriage is, they also have the power to determine who can perform such marriages and who cannot. Given the nature of government to spread its power and authority rather than limit it, as an evangelical pastor I have a legitimate concern that the day may soon come when the government says, in order to have the authority to perform any wedding, I must be willing to perform all weddings, same-sex or not. You think that is far-fetched? Think the government would never do such a thing? Look at recent history. Religious hospitals are being faced with regulations requiring them to perform medical procedures they find to be immoral. Religious schools and other institutions are being faced with the possibility of being required to provide insurance coverage for those same procedures. Clearly the government has shown a willingness to ignore the conscience of people of faith and require them to do things that violate their religious beliefs. How ironic is that, when one of the foundational principles of our culture today is to respect the beliefs of others and not force anyone to adhere to your beliefs. It seems that only flows one way.

Let me make one final point. I place the blame for where we are, squarely on the shoulders of Christians and the Church, though probably not for the reasons you may think. It is not because we have failed to oppose such culture shifts vehemently enough with protests and indignation. Rather, it is because we have failed to teach and uphold the positive Biblical ideals on marriage, sex, and human relationships. Far too much of our teaching and preaching is moralistic do’s and dont’s without any solid foundation based on the character of God. Such moralism quickly gives way to what is expedient, easiest, or “most reasonable”. In other cases our teaching too closely represents the latest self-help steps to a better marriage or relationship. It is teaching, full of practical tips, void of Biblical power. We need to get back to a Biblical understand of the purpose of marriage, the oneness between man, woman, and God that is the glue that holds the marriage together. We need to be captured by the holy mystery of man and woman becoming one, and that being more than sexual intimacy but a binding of soul on soul that is for the benefit of society and the glory of God. Let’s live out the glory of a Biblical marriage that makes it so attractive and compelling that people would yearn for that ideal and accept no substitute for the blessings God has for them.

 

A Witness to Grace and Courage in South Sudan

Just days before we boarded a plane for South Sudan, another fight broke out along the boarder between Sudan and South Sudan.  Three days and five flights later we arrived in Malakal, a boarder town that just a few months ago witnessed two days of street fighting between rebel infiltrators from the north and South Sudanese militia. It was just one more of countless such battles that have taken place during the decades long civil war that ended with independence for South Sudan in July of 2011. The war, which claimed more that 2 million lives, has officially ended, but the fighting has not. In fact Sudanese President Bashir has recently declared that he intends to retake South Sudan and incorporate it back into Sudan. I have no doubt that the South Sudanese will resist that prospect with all they have. The latest round of fighting was set off when Sudanese planes bombed a town in South Sudan. The south retaliated and actually captured Heglig, a town in Sudan’s oil fields. Since then the sabers have been rattling overtime. Security in Malakal is a constant concern as I learned when I opened the door of the SUV we were to ride in and found that I was literally riding shotgun. An AK-47 was placed between my seat that the middle arm rest. A bullet hole was in the windshield in front of me at forehead level.

Riding shotgun, well actually riding "AK-47"

The root of the problem in Sudan and South Sudan is that Bashir has declared that Islamic Sharia law is to be imposed on all Sudan. He originally was content to let the Christian south secede so that he had little or no interference with his plan. It seems he hoped to also drive out Christians from Sudan and force them to move to South Sudan. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Christians remained in the north and continued to live out their Christian faith and witness. Despite threats, loss of jobs, destruction of homes, and numerous other hardships, they remain. Not only do they remain, but their service and love of their Muslim neighbors has resulted in continual conversions from Islam to Jesus. So Bashir’s latest statement is that the conflict will end either in Jubba, the capitol of South Sudan or in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan. His meaning is clear. One country or the other will have to conquer and impose it’s will militarily.

 

For three days in Malakal, Pastor Gus Davies, John Tardonia, Alan Carpenter, and I had the blessed honor of working with some of the most courageous and gracious people I have ever met. I have been to numerous countries over the last several years and encountered people in all sorts of situations. Never have a met a group of people who have endured so much, for so long, with such grace, courage, and even joy. The pastors and leaders that we are working with in Sudan and South Sudan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. They all know people, including family members, who are among the 2 million dead. Yet, they see nothing but opportunities to love their neighbors and their enemies. Often those two groups, neighbor and enemy, are one and the same. It seems that they view this fact as being convenient. Instead of needing to love a neighbor and an enemy, they get to love both in one person, half the effort.

Not only is the war part of daily life, but so is poverty, sickness, and deprivations that we in the west would find shocking. Consider two numbers. First, 95% of South Sudanese will never finish primary school, or what we in American call elementary school. Second, 50 out of every 1,000 women giving birth will die doing so. One person told us, “If you are sick and go to the hospital you will die. If you are healthy and go to the hospital, you will get sick and then you will die”. Yet as these wonderful people speak of the hardships in their lives they do so with a smile as they talk about all the doors such hardship opens for sharing the Gospel and loving the needy. They don’t seem to knotice that they are among the needy.

One of many South Sudanese pastors who inspired me with his joy.

At Northland Church we talk about the Church Distributed. By that we mean, every follower of Christ takes the church with them, everywhere, everyday, and that a gathering of two or three people in Jesus name is the church gathered. You don’t need buildings to love and serve people for Jesus and you can start churches anywhere, in a home, a business, under a tree. In Malakal we completed the second level of Distributed Church training for 74 pastors and leaders. In the 5 months since they attended Level 1, nearly 1,000 people have come to faith in Christ because of their efforts, and churches are being started in homes and numerous other locations. Among the trainees were fourteen from Sudan. At the end of the training we gathering them together to pray for them as they were returning north to an uncertain future. There was no fear, anxiety, or consternation in any of them, only the anticipatory joy of heading back into the lions den in order to conquer the lion with the love of Christ. One of them told me of being threatened with his life on numerous occasions. With a laugh he told me that his response is always the same, “I say to them, if you kill me I just get to go and be with Jesus in heaven that much more quickly”. I know that he says it with all sincerity and with a joyous smile on his face. The response is always the same. They either walk away or get this puzzled look on their face which opens the door to talking about the Jesus he loves so deeply.

During the time in Malakal we also met with the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the Anglian Bishop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Minister of Health for Upper Nile State. Each of them demonstrated the same courage, faith, and joy that had become so common in our time there. All four are desperate for us to work with them in changing the culture of South Sudan. From training their pastors, of the 475 Presbyterian pastors less that 40% are trained, to providing medical care and clean water, the doors are wide open for ministry that will glorify God and change lives.

Since returning to Florida several people have asked if we were frightened to be there. The fighting going on was about 100 miles from Malakal. Pastor Gus and I have spoken often on this subject and the conclusion is always the same. When you know that God wants you to be someplace, then the safest place you can be is in that place. The most dangerous place you can be is someplace, anyplace, else. That doesn’t mean there is no danger. Things could go badly, quickly. But that is where one must trust that the Lord of the Universe, who called you to that place, has a better perspective than you do. Additionally, the South Sudanese are not nameless, anonymous people. The pastors we trained are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family. Our being there, if only for a few days, was a huge encouragement to them. They were reminded that they were not alone, that Christians from as far away as Florida were standing with them in the furtherance of the Gospel and the changing of the world. How could we possibly stay home in our comfort, knowing that family needs us? Putting up with a few days of no running water, 100+ temperatures with no A/C, and bed bugs that made my hands look like I stuck them in a fire ant mound, was not even worth fretting over if it meant being able to witness the grace and courage of these amazing saints.

Pastors having a tea break in Malakal, S. Sudan

Pray for them. Pray for Sudan and South Sudan. Pray that these pastors and leaders are able to change the culture and change their world. Pray that God will in deed supply all they need through the riches available in Christ Jesus our Lord. When you hear a news report or read a magazine article that mentions Sudan and South Sudan, don’t just gloss over it because it it over there, somewhere. Instead let that be the reminder that you too are connected with people there. Stop your reading if only for a moment and ask God to continue to bless them with grace and courage. While you are at it, ask Him to increase those things in your life too.

The Trayvon Martin Case: What Would Jesus Say to Sanford Florida, You, and Me?

I have done all I could to avoid writing about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It seemed obvious that there was no need for one more voice to be put into the cacophony of anger, confusion, and dismay over what is at the bottom line an unbelievably  painful tragedy for two families. But two things have led me to the conclusion that it was time. One is a book I have been reading called Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a psychological study that, among other things, details the universal human reaction to not having all the information. We are notorious at jumping to conclusions and filling in the gaps of information and we usually do it in the worst possible ways. I found myself constantly reflecting on the various reactions to each tidbit of news that comes out in this case and felt I was watching a real-time display of Kahneman’s work. People have jumped to conclusions about both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. The second reason it became clear that I needed to address this issue is that I have heard very little from the Christian community, with the notable exception of an amazing presentation on racism by Tim Keller and John Piper. If anyone should be speaking to issues of racism, violence, and a community in turmoil, it is followers of Christ, because we should understand better than anyone, that ultimately when we all stand at the foot of the Cross, the savior who bled on it and died, did so for black, white, yellow, European, Asian, African, Latino, and all the other possible delineations of people. Jesus bled equally for you and me, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

If anyone should be speaking out it is the Christian community because this tragedy has the potential to either tear us apart or motivate us to come together and finally defeat this ugly beast called racism. The only way I know to defeat racism is through the power of God that comes only through a life changing relationship with Christ. And be certain that when I speak of racism I am speaking of how people of every race are to some degree racist. I am not saying that everyone is a racist. I am saying that no race, creed, ethnic group or gender is without people in it who treat those outside their group with disdain, hatred, or even violence. The sinners that we are means that we all battle with the propensity to trust our own kind and be suspicious of those we think are different. Racism has its roots in our sin which is why only a relationship with Jesus, the one who washes away our sin, can ultimately defeat our racist attitudes.

In processing all that is swirling around us I was taken back to a series of sermons I preached years ago. The basic idea for them came from John Ortberg who did a series of “What Would Jesus Say To…” messages. As Sanford Florida has come into an unwanted spotlight   I wondered what would Jesus say to Sanford, and all of us, about what we are experiencing. A few things came to mind:

Jesus would surely say, “weep with those who weep”. (Romans 12:15) True compassion must in some way impact your heart in the same way it impacts those who are in pain. Trayvon Martin’s family is feeling incredible pain and they are weeping. But George Zimmerman and his family are also in pain and weeping. Certainly the pain is different but it is no less real. And Jesus didn’t say to weep with certain people who weep, and don’t weep with other people because you have a problem with them. As followers of Christ we don’t have the option of being selective about to whom we show compassion and mercy. You don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with Trayvon’s family because you think he first struck George Zimmerman causing George to shoot in self-defense. You also don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with George Zimmerman because you think he hunted down Trayvon because he racially profiled him and forced a confrontation. First of all, none of us know what really happened in that fateful 60 seconds. We may have some idea. We certainly have lots of people filling in the blanks with speculation, usually speculation based on their preconceived notions and not objectively on the evidence. Secondly, even if we did know, we are still not given the freedom to opt out of weeping for and praying for, both families.

Jesus would say, “Take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5) That wonderful saying was part of Jesus telling us that before you start trying to get a speck of dust out of another person’s eye you need to deal with the huge log protruding from your own eye. In other words, we all have this propensity to be able to point out the slightest flaw in another person while being completely blind to our own huge shortcomings and faults. So before you start blaming Trayvon for being a hoodlum or George for being a racist (of which you have no real knowledge to base either conclusion, so I refer you back to the jumping to conclusions presented in Kahneman’s book) take a long and deep look into your own soul. What kind of anger, hatred, bitterness, and even latent or not so latent racism resides there? What are your issues that are driving your reaction to all of this? Do you have a general distrust of all white people? Are you immediately cautious around black teenage males? Do you tend to blame problems on “those people” whoever “they” are? Even the best of us are still tainted by sin and have to be vigilant in guarding our own hearts and subsequent reactions.

Jesus would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) When Jesus first said this, people tried to manage the expectations by limiting who qualified as “neighbor”. Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is whoever happens to be around you at any given moment. For those who wondered what it meant to actually love your neighbor Jesus made it clear that sacrificing for them and serving them in their need is loving your neighbor. At this moment, Trayvon Martin’s family and George Zimmerman and his family are our neighbors. They each are in a time of need. The needs are somewhat different, yet very similar. They need to know they are loved and that people who love them will stand with them to give comfort and strength. It has nothing to do with what version of the story you believe or who you believe. Loving your neighbor has everything to do with the fact that while you and I were still enemies of God, Jesus loved us enough to go to the Cross in our place. That love from God compels us to love one another, even when it hurts.

There is much more that I am sure Jesus would say to Sanford and to all of us, especially His followers. I suspect He would be calling for us to take steps in our own lives to knock down barriers, open up dialogue, reach across the racial divide and find out that “those” people are in the end, people. People like you. They hurt, they fear, they laugh, they weep, they dream. They do all the things you do and experience life just as you do. I think Jesus might also say that when the Trayvon Martin case fades from public prominence, and it will, followers of Christ must not let issues of racism, equality, love for neighbor no matter their color, fade from prominence in how we live. Check your heart and then check your actions. What are you doing to show the love of Christ to people who are unlike you? What are you doing to show that following Christ really does make a radical difference in how we relate to one another. What are you doing to show that we all stand as equals before the Cross of Christ?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

The Provocative Jesus

This was read at the end of the service at Northland today by my good friend Vernon Rainwater. He had just finished a great message on rethinking our view of God. This extended quote from Dorothy Sayers is the epitome of what it means to be a Provocative Christian. Love this and hope you will enjoy it as well.

Dan

“Author Dorothy Sayers was never one to live by convention. The only child of an Anglican clergyman, she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University in 1915. After graduating from Oxford, she made her living writing advertising copy until she was able to publish more and more of her fiction. In the early stages of her career, she fell in love with a member of a motorcycle gang in England, and joined them in their travels far and wide. Perhaps it was her unconventional life that led her to highlight the more unconventional side of Jesus’s own life and ministry. In a collection of essays published after her death, she wrote:”


The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore — on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe… He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before Heaven; but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations;

He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth and social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.

He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if He was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But He had “a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness. 
 
Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian: Eighteen Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 17.

Egypt: An Uncertain Future for the Faithful

Having just spent a week in Egypt, including time in Cairo, including a visit to Tahrir Square, I am struck by the somber mood that hangs over much of the country. If you have never been to Egypt before you might not notice anything out-of-place. This was my fifth visit to the country in the last three years and I could sense the change. People seemed more hesitant. Even among the more than 300 pastors and leaders that I spoke to for three days, there was a certain hesitancy that I felt. These are people I had been with on every prior trip, so I had some history with them to be able to read their mood. But it was not just these Christian leaders that seemed different. The whole country felt different. The energy of tourists was completely absent, down an estimated 80%. The once ubiquitous police are few and far between, replaced instead by more regular army troops. Shop keepers all spoke of how depressed the economy has become and how uncertain they feel about the future.

How did it get to this? Unless you have been living on Mars you know that on January 25th of 2011 a revolution erupted in Egypt. Thousands of Egyptians entered Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Incredibly on February 11th after three decades of being in power, Mubarak stepped aside. Throughout the next year there would be further protests, many deaths, violence, fear, as well as demonstrations of unity between Muslims and Christians, and the first truly free and democratic elections in Egypt’s history. The new parliament is made up of a majority from The Muslim Brotherhood and smaller numbers of extreme Islamists on one end, and an even smaller number of moderate to liberal freedom parties on the other end.

One of the themes I heard over and over again from Christians in Egypt is that they are so uncertain about what the future holds. There are many among the radical Muslim members of parliament, known as Salafists, who are calling for a complete Muslim state under Muslim law. Some of the them are calling for all women in the country to be veiled, for beaches and swimming pools to be segregated by gender, for all sales of alcohol to be banned throughout the country, even in resorts that cater to foreign tourists. Such moves would cripple tourism which accounts for 20% of the Egyptian economy. Some Christian leaders are so concerned about the future prospects for followers of Jesus that they are, for the first time, talking with moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in order to reach compromises that in that past would never have been considered.

For the average Christian there is a common theme that I heard. “I just don’t know what the future holds”. I understand what they are saying. Things have changed so much that they can’t see what the road ahead looks like. Will things settle down and freedom become a reality? Will the Islamist rule the day in the short-term but in time people become disillusioned and rise up and complete the revolution for freedom? Will Christianity be persecuted beyond what we can imagine? Nobody knows the future and they are understandably anxious.

In a message that I shared with more those pastors and leaders I focused on this question of the future and the insecurity they felt. The point was, we have never known what the future holds. In the beginning of 2010 they had no idea that a revolution was coming in January of 2011. They thought they knew the future based on the stability of the recent past. They, like all of us, projected into the future that it would be much like what we knew in the recent past and present. But that is never the case. We take comfort in that idea but it is a fools comfort. Life changes in ways we can never predict. There is no security in projecting what we know of the present into the future. We cannot trust in our ability to know the future. We can only trust in the One who holds the future in the palm of His hand. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and us to not be anxious about the future or about people who can destroy our physical lives. Instead He said that we must focus on the one who can give us eternal life. Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The point for any follower of Jesus, no matter where you live and in what time, is that you put your future in the hands of God. You trust not in your ability to know the future. You trust in the fact that you know the One who knows the future. Prior to January of 2011 the fate of Egypt was in God’s hands. Prior to 9/11 the fate of America was in God’s hands. Prior to anything in your life, your fate was and still is, in God’s hands. There is amazing comfort and certainty for the follower of Jesus if we have the right mind. We look not to our immediate circumstances for safety and security. Rather, as the old hymn says, “our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness”.

Three Must Have Relationships in Your Life. (Pt 2 of 3)

His name was Joseph. Yet everyone called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement”. That name became such a part of his identity that today few people remember that his given name was Joseph and we refer to him only as Barnabas. So how did Joseph become Barnabas for the rest of history? There are two events in the Bible that stand out. The first comes in Acts Chapter 4:32-37. In the early church Barnabas is noted as one of the people who gave a large sum of money in order to insure that the poor were feed and had their needs met. That act of sacrifice was a huge encouragement to the first generation of Christians.

Later in Acts 11:19-26 we find Barnabas seeking out a young convert to Christianity and including him in the leadership of the new church at Antioch. That convert was the Pharisee named Saul, who we come to know as The Apostle Paul. In an incredible irony, that is only possible in a faith in which love and forgiveness are core values, Paul ends up leading a church that was begun by refugees who fled the persecution that he instigated before he came to faith in Christ. Imagine the kind of person Barnabas had to be that he insisted on reaching out and including the very guy who started the persecution that resulted in torture and even death for some followers of Jesus. Paul had already been rejected by the leaders in Jerusalem after his conversion. They didn’t trust him. They basically said, “great to know you are not killing us any more. We will call if we need anything”. So Paul ends up hundreds of miles away doing next to nothing for the expansion of Christianity, until Barnabas, The Son of Encouragement” takes a journey to find him and include him in the leadership of the Church at Antioch.

So what can we learn about being an encourager when we look at Barnabas? For one, he was willing to sacrifice for the sake of others so that they would be built up, strengthened, encouraged. He was willing to sacrifice financial resources so that people in need could have hope. He was willing to sacrifice his reputation when he brought in Paul for leadership. In both cases Barnabas thought more about the needs of someone else than he did about his own. But it wasn’t only the needs of the one he encouraged that he thought about. In bringing Paul into a leadership role, Barnabas was also thinking about the people Paul would impact with his ministry. He saw a gifting in Paul that needed to be encouraged to the surface in order to help others.

An encourager sees the positive impact another person does make, and can make, and comes alongside them to help it happen. What Barnabas did was come along side people to empower them, when nobody else would. That is what an encourager does. Far too many people are willing to point out the negative, where people are lacking, what can go wrong. Barnabas looked for what could go right and did what he could to make that happen.

Encouragers don’t care if someone else gets the limelight and credit. I think one reason why we don’t encourage one another more is that we are self-centered and worry that there is only so much credit and encouragement to go around. So in order to rise up above other people, we put them down or at the very least, withhold encouragement that might give them the strength they need to succeed. We see the opposite in Barnabas. He didn’t care if someone else received recognition and credit. In fact he seems to have been very happy when the one he encouraged had success. Very quickly in his relationship with Paul, he takes second place. Paul moves to the forefront as spokesman and leader. Lesser people would have been jealous, not Barnabas. An encourager does not worry about that. In fact an encourager finds delight in the success of those they encourage.

I have got to believe that over time, Barnabas rubbed off on Paul. Paul who was so encouraged by Barnabas, eventually became committed to a ministry of encouragement. Just one example comes from First Thessalonians 5:11-14 where Paul writes;

11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

How different might your life be if you had someone who encouraged you instead of discouraged you, built you up instead of tore you down, respected you instead of denigrated you? We all need people like that in our life. But we also need to be that person to others. If you are around people who are encouragers, it will rub off on you like it did with Paul. I learned this from a wonderful guy I meet as part of the coaching staff at North Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. His name was John Ross. John was the quarterback coach on that team and he was the consumate encourager. He always had positive feedback for players and friends. That does not mean he didn’t correct errors. Any coach has to do that. But he did it in a way that you knew he was on your side. John was quick to point out to other people how great someone was. I remember the first time one of my young sons met John. One of the first things he did was tell my son how lucky he was to have such a great dad. That is an encourager. What did it do for me? For one thing it motivated me to be an even better dad. Far from making people rest on their laurels, encouragement does the opposite. It gives people the motivation to live up to the words of encouragement and do even better.

Here is another thing I have learned about encouragers. When you give out encouragement to others it has a funny way of coming back to you. If you are always negative, the attitude that comes back to you will be negative. But if you encourage others, come along side them and build them up, you quickly find yourself in an environment of encouragement and others will encourage you. You will be paid back in kind. Dish out negativity and you will be paid back in negativity. Hand out praise and encouragement and you will find yourself rich in encouragement.

A very practical first step is this, look for someone who could use some praise, some encouragement, some positive reinforcement and give it to them. It could be as simple as telling someone how much their friendship means to you. It could be telling someone at work what a great job they did on a project, or what a wonderful idea they had. Find a character trait in someone that you admire and let them know you wish you could be as good at that as they are. The point is, build up people, encourage them. When you do that consistently, you will find that your life becomes filled with people who act as Barnabas in your life and encourage you.

Lessons from an Atheist: The Death of Christopher Hitchens

He is perhaps to most well-known atheist of the past two decades. He became infamous for his attacks on religion and religious figures seeing all religion as dangerous and destructive. It didn’t matter to him if you were an Islamic suicide bomber or Mother Theresa, who he accused of being an ambitious self promoter who was willing to take money from anyone in order to keep the poor even more poor. His books have been huge best sellers if for no other reason than the provocative nature of the titles. Who would not react to a book titled, God is Not Great?

In June of last year Hitchens found out that he had cancer. It eventually took his life this week. Along the way folks prayed for him, including his younger brother Peter who wrote a wonderful book titled Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that was the antithesis of Christopher’s life. (By the way, I highly recommend that you read Peter’s book no matter what your religious convictions. It is a fascinating study in how two people can take a similar path and yet in the end diverge to vastly different destinies.) In addition to people praying for Christopher there where some whose actions would only seem to confirm his view of religion. It wasn’t unusual to hear or read comments that made it clear that people were convinced Hitchens would get his just punishment in the end. The sad thing was that some of those commentators seemed pleased by that knowledge. Now I have no problem with believing in a doctrine of Hell and that there is a just punishment to come. What I do have a problem with is people who don’t grieve the possibility of someone ending up there. Jesus himself wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not understand the fate that awaited them in this life or the next. Should His followers respond any differently?

In thinking about the life and death of Christopher Hitchens it occurred to me that there are a few important lessons for Christians in particular and religious people in general.

Lesson Number One: Not All Criticisms of Religion are Groundless.

Hitchens had a point when he spoke of the danger of religion. Lets not be blind to the fact that people have used religion as an excuse for all sorts of heinous crimes. Granted the case can be made that it is people who have distorted the rue message of a faith but such hairsplitting is hardly convincing to a radical atheist and hardly comforting to the person who was tortured or killed in the name of religion. One common response is to list all the good things religion has done, founding hospital, funding orphanages, fighting slavery and so on. Getting into a back and forth listing of virtues and sins hardly changes anyones mind. The Christian response should really be one of honest acknowledgement of the truth and repentance over it. From there it would behoove followers of Christ to do everything they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus and call others to that radical life of self-sacrifice, loving your enemies, and loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and shape the future.

Lesson Two: Religious People, especially Christian, Need to Sharpen Their Intellectual Game

Far too many people who claim to follow Christ are flat-out lazy when it comes to understanding what they believe and why. There is no place for lazy or sloppy thinking in the Christian world. Paul urges Timothy to be a diligent student of the Bible. Peter urges us to always be prepared with an answer for the reason of our hope. Particularly in the church in the west there is no excuse for a follower of Jesus not being able to explain and defend what they believe. The resources and training available are so abundant as to be almost obscene. Yet in spite of that, the average Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness causes the average evangelical Christian to quake in their theological boots. But if we are to in any way engage people and their ideas and have any impact in directing them to Christ, then we must be better students of the faith and know our Bibles far better than we do currently. I am convinced that much of the anger shown to Hitchens over the years comes from religious people who are insecure in what they believe and threatened by someone who believes differently but is not insecure. Anger is a secondary emotion. There is normally a previous emotion that triggers the anger. In religious debates that primary emotion is usually fear or frustration over not being secure in ones own beliefs.

Lesson Number Three: Love, Not Hate is Still Our Greatest Witness

There appears to be little if anything that people could say to Hitchens to get him to even consider the possibility that God exists. However, the love that people showed in praying for him and that I am sure his brother showed him, seemed to at least soften some of the harshness Hitchens so famously exhibited. Jesus made it clear that people would know that we are His followers by the love we have for one another. He also made it clear that we are to love others. Showing Christ’s love to people has a way of breaking down the intellectual arguments that they construct in order to protect their position. There simply is no intellectual defense against sacrificial love. Of course loving people in a sacrificial way is not easy. It requires work, commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. In that way it is exactly like the cross.

Lesson Number Four: We Are More Alike Than We Are Different.

Christopher Hitchens is not much different from me or you. We all go through life trying to understand the world and our place in it.  We all have questions of an ultimate nature, why am I here, is there a God, what happens when we die, am I loved? We all face loneliness, pain, heartache and loss. We all want love, acceptance, safety, and joy. We all end up facing the reality of our own death. Hitchens answered many of the ultimate questions in ways far different from me. But as a fellow traveler and “seeker” of answers, we share a great deal in common.  You do too. That realization in itself should cause followers of Jesus to have a far more benevolent attitude towards people like Hitchens.

If you want to get a wonderful little update on his life and death this NPR article is a great place to start.

If you want to read a fantastic assessment of modern atheism I recommend Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?  It is written by Alistair McGrath. I had the incredible privilege of taking a summer class at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University a few years ago in which McGrath was a featured professor. He is brilliant thinker and writer who has often engaged well known atheists in debate with a winsome and engaging style.

Things God Hates

Recently a friend told me of a conversation he had about God. When the person found out that he followed Jesus she told him she had a list of questions for God. One of them was, “why does God hate Halloween?” My first thought was “wow, I didn’t see that coming”. My next thought was, I am not so sure God hates kids dressing up and getting candy from folks. In fact I wonder if it doesn’t amuse Him on some level. Certainly there are other aspects of Halloween that are not pleasing to God but that’s not the point of this post. It is just to let you know how I got thinking about the question, what does God hate?

It is a very important question if for no other reason than “hate” has become a huge topic in our western culture. We now have a whole category of crimes in which we have ratcheted up the punishment because they involve “hate”. So if a black man kills another black man or a white woman kills another white woman, or a gay man kills another gay man, then it is just plain old murder. But if the black man kills a white man, or white woman kills a black woman, or straight person kills a gay person then we immediately start looking for a hate crime motive. Apparently killing someone you hate is more hideous than killing someone you only dislike or have no feelings about what-so-ever. It is also clear that you can only hate people who are part of some other category of person than yourself, at least as far as hate crime law is concerned. Additionally we have added hate “speech” to the list of crimes. And here is where we really are on a slippery slope. More and more we are seeing people use the “hate” card whenever someone disagrees with the lifestyle, political position, or ideas of someone who is different from them. So now the political discourse is filled with accusations of people being “hate mongers” simply because they disagree with a policy or practice. So if someone speaks about having tougher immigration laws then obviously they are a bigot and hate people from other countries. Or if someone wants to promote what they consider to be a biblical standard of marriage as being between one man and one woman, then they must hate gays and lesbians. Are there people who hold to such positions and do it out of hate? Of course there are. But not everyone who disagrees with someone or something is motivated by hate. Let’s go back to basic logic. Take this line of thinking; People from Boston are Red Sox fans; you are a Red Sox Fan; you must be from Boston. NOT! Similarly, people who hate gays are opposed to gay marriage, you are opposed to gay marriage, you must hate gay people. NOT!

What we see is the hate on any level has become taboo in western culture. Any notion of hate is seen as being barbaric. It is seen to be part of some primitive nature that truly civilized, enlightened people have outgrown. Surely, the thinking goes,we should have progressed beyond hate by now. If we are talking about hating people then yes, certainly as a follower of Jesus I would say that we need to get beyond the hate of people and learn to love people as Jesus has loved us. Both the Old and New Testaments are clear in their instructions to us to love others, even our enemies. But in typical mentally lazy fashion we have taken the injunction to not hate others and have applied it to everything in life. Where as the Bible is clear that hating other people, just because they are different from us, is wrong, we have made it morally repugnant to hate anything. That goes light-years beyond what the Bible teaches and what God does.

The fact of the matter is, there are some things in life that God hates and if we don’t hate them also, then we are not the people Jesus wants us to be. There are enough places in the Bible that speak of things God hates that it is not an obscure concept. Rather, it is central to His very character as God. There are some things that are so odious to God that He hates them. Consider this direct and unambiguous passage from Proverbs 6:16-19,

16 There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him:

17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,

18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil,

19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

So let me ask you, Is there anything wrong with hating those things? What would be the opposite of hating them? Surely we don’t want to say that we love “hands that shed innocent blood” or “a false witness that breathes out lies”. Ok so maybe we wouldn’t love them but does that mean we have to hate them? What is the other alternative? I suppose we could be neutral about them, which is simply another way of saying, indifferent, uncaring, unmoved. In some respects that may be worse. Do we really want to be indifferent to the deaths of innocent people? Do we really want to remain unmoved by the death and destruction caused by people who are devise evil in their hearts and are quick to run off and implement those evil plans?  Do we want to be so hard-hearted as to not have the least bit of inkling in our chest that this should not be? Being neutral, uncaring, unmoved, about such things is tantamount to approving of them, but without the guts to actually own such feelings. It is the weaklings way out, the rationalization of the moral coward.

God hates such things. He hates them because of what they do to people. He hates them because they violate his very character of being a God of justice and righteousness who cares for the broken and the downtrodden. He hates them because He is a God who loves those made in His image and to see them wrecked and destroyed by people who love evil causes a righteous indignation to rise up within Him. God hates such things because they are evil. Maybe that is the crux of the problem. We have so diluted our understanding of evil that we have lost the ability to be truly angry over it and the human devastation it leaves in its wake. How can you read about Gaddafi’s family pouring scalding hot water on a nanny because the nanny refused to beat a child and NOT get angry? How can you hear about a family denying water and food to a 10-year-old boy for days until he died of dehydration and not hate such evil? How can you hear of the tens of thousands or more of young girls trapped in the sex-slave industry and not hate what you hear? To not hate such things is to treat the people who suffer under them as less that worthy of our love and concern. We can understand having our hearts break over such things but we need to go a step further. We need to hate such things. Because God hates them too.

But here is the trick. We need to hate such things and at the same time not be consumed by our hate. We need to be people who point to redemption and forgiveness and restoration. Our hatred of evil must become a motivator for good. Our tendency when we hate is to become destructive and vindictive ourselves. We become that which we hate. Maybe that is why so many of us try to avoid any hint of hate. But in God’s case, when He looked at the destruction that sin brought upon humanity, He turned to a plan of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration. He did it by way of the Cross of Calvary. Jesus came and died in order to defeat the things God hates. He did it because He loves those who are caught in the bondage of such evil. In an irony of all ironies, he suffered that death at the hands of people who hated him and for people who hated him. That truly is hating the sin and loving the sinner.

The World Ends on May 21st Part 2

Just thought I would add this link from CNN’s religion blog. It gives great background into the folks traveling the country proclaiming that their leader has figured out that the world will end on Saturday.

Admittedly  you have to admire their willingness to forsake everything to get out the message that they think is true, even when the Bible is so clear that they cannot possibly know when Jesus is coming back. It also makes me wonder what is wrong with so many other Christians who do know that Jesus is coming back someday, maybe even May 19th or 20th, yet we go on about our lives as if that is insignificant.  I think the point of Jesus not letting us in on the day of His return is so that we treat everyday like it could be. We treat everyday as a chance to love our neighbor more, serve them in Jesus name, and look up in anticipation of His revealed glory.

Come Saturday morning I fully expect to be on my back porch having breakfast with my wife, reading Hebrews Chapter 4, doing some final prep for the two classes I teach on Sunday morning, and trimming a few Bonsai plants. I also suspect I will take more than the normal causal look into the clouds, just in case.

May 21st and the End of the World

Maybe you’ve seen the billboards. Apparently many people have been wrong about the end of the world. It will not come in December of 2012 like some students of the Aztec Calendar think. We don’t have that much time. In fact we have very little time. Only to this Saturday to be exact. At least that is according to Harold Camping of Family Radio in California.

For the past several months, caravans full of Camping followers have been selling all their possessions and traveling America, preaching a message of impending doom. People have left behind family members, jobs, and empty houses. They are warning people, the end is near, Jesus is coming back on that day and the Rapture will happen. To a person they believe that Camping has accurately interpreted the Bible and picked the right day. Part of the reasoning is that according to Camping, May 21st will be exactly 7,000 years since the Flood of Noah. Of course they are not paying much attention to the fact that Camping had predicted that the world would end in December of 1994. Clearly that didn’t happen. Camping himself admits to a miscalculation the first time but is certain he has it correct now. Of course, I am sure he was certain that last time.

What is tragic is that these folks have completely upended their lives. They have sold homes, emptied bank accounts, cashed in pensions and annuities, and have been on the road for months preaching on street corners and putting up billboards. And they have been doing this not only in the USA but in Europe as well. In many cases they have left behind family members who just could not go along with this insanity. I keep wondering what will happen to them when they wake up on May 22 and are still here. What will happen to their faith? What kind of depression and grief will overwhelm them?

Jesus said we can never know the day or the hour of His return. InMatthew Chapter 24 He makes it crystal clear that nobody can possibly know this. He also makes it clear that this is intentional on God’s part. If we knew when He was going to return, being the kind of people we are, we would go about living our incredibly self-indulgent lives until a day or two before hand. We would live one way for years and then totally change how we live for a few days. What Jesus urges us to do is live each day as if that could be the day He comes back. He wants us to live in anticipation of His return just like servants should always serve their absent master as if he could walk in the door at any moment. He wants us to live lives that are always about our relationship with Him, always about being faithful, always about serving our King.

Recently at a small group discussion for Financial Peace University we were dealing with the question of being prepared for retirement. Someone asked, “What do we want to do when we retire?” My answer was immediate. I want to keep doing what I am doing now. I love what I get to do and to retire just seems like a waste of time and potential. I don’t look at work now as a burden to endure till I don’t need to anymore. I look at it as a blessing and privilege and joy. So why would I change that? If that is the case when I think about retirement then I think it is the case if I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, I don’t think I would really change of what I am doing. I might make a few extra phone calls to some people I have been trying to introduce to Jesus, just to give it one more shot. But that wouldn’t really be any different from anything I am doing now. I wouldn’t hunker down with my family awaiting anxiously for the end. Why do that? If I am right on how I read the Bible, that would only be the beginning of us spending eternity with Jesus as part of a new heaven and new earth. No need to hunker down at all. I certainly wouldn’t travel around in a caravan declaring the end is near. That would be counter-productive. Who really listens to those folks anyway.

I think the only thing I might really do differently is look up a lot more, just in case I could catch a glimpse of the clouds rolling back and see the triumphant return of the King of Kings.

If you know and love Jesus there is really no need to get all worked up over end of the world scenarios. It is something we are told to look for, anticipate, be ready for. How do we do that? By serving Jesus everyday is if it could be the last day of this age and the first of the next.

Responding to the Death of Bin Laden

I have seen a huge out pouring of celebration and joy from countless people across Facebook, Twitter, and outside the White House on the news. It rivals the cheering for a Super Bowl or World Series victory celebration. Something about this carnival like atmosphere gives me a certain discomfort and leaves me puzzled.

There are two reasons for my reaction. The first is, I wonder what the response is of the family members of the 2,977 people who were killed by Bin Laden’s followers. I just don’t picture them dancing in celebration and toasting with free beers on the house. The death of Bin Laden is sure to bring back the pain and loss that his heinous actions forced on people. I suspect that for many if not most of those surviving family members, there is a satisfaction, a sense of finality. There is certainly a feeling of a weight being lifted. But joyous, raucous celebration simply doesn’t fit when you have lost a loved one to a murderer. You can’t rejoice. You can give thanks. You take a deep breath. You whisper to those you lost, “rest in peace, we never forgot you. We miss you. We love you.”

My second thought goes to the Lord. How does God want me to react to the death of Bin Laden? I am reminded of Proverbs 24:17-18 Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; Lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him. I find those words to be about as disconcerting as anything God has said. Part of me wants to rejoice and celebrate. But I have to ask, why does God not want me to rejoice and celebrate when my enemy stumbles and falls? I think that in part is has to do with guarding my heart. To celebrate the fall of my enemy is to put myself in a place where my pride and arrogance can easily overtake me. I must never forget that I was God’s enemy before coming to faith in Christ. Instead of rejoicing over my stumbling and fallen sinfulness, God went to the Cross through Jesus Christ and died for me. God did not rejoice over my fall, but instead suffered on my behalf.

Don’t get me wrong. I am glad that justice has been served. I find a certain peace and satisfaction that Bin Laden is dead. But you will not find me out cheering and celebrating and dancing. Instead, I think I will be praying for the families who lost those they love that they may find some measure of peace.

Trapped in a Suburban Twilight Zone

“As a Christian there is stuff I know we should be doing, and really want to be doing, but in our lives right now there just isn’t enough time.” Does that sound like something you have said? If you haven’t said it, is it at least how you have felt, yet you never dared speak those words out loud for fear that doing so would somehow force you to deal with the reality of what your own ears heard your mouth say?  In a recent conversation a friend relayed just those words to me. They had been speaking to someone who has a longing, a deep yearning, to do something more, something significant for the kingdom of God. They even have a sense of what that would be. But they just don’t have the time. Now we are not talking about starting a ministry that will end world hunger in forty days, or bring the Gospel to every person on the planet in their own language by next year. We are talking about things like, “I need to be in community with other followers of Christ in a way that we really do life together”. It is about the yearning “To live in such a way that I know my neighbors better and am serving them as Jesus serves”. It’s about “having a more devoted time of prayer and reading God’s Word so that it shapes me into who Jesus wants me to be”. It is about stuff that every follower of Christ can and should do, but so often says, “I just don’t have time”. Something is seriously wrong.

Think about this for a moment. There is stuff you know you should be doing and even want to be doing, but there is just not enough time. WOW! How is that possible? How can you not have time to do something you know God wants you to do and you have a desire to do? Is God playing some kind of cosmic joke on you? He gives you a desire and longing to do something and then makes the days too short for it to be possible? He gives you a desire and a command to spend more time with your children but at the end of the day He arranges your priorities so it is impossible. As a result you are left feeling frustrated, disappointed, and guilty. All because you haven’t done what you are sure God wants you to do? All the while, deep in the recesses of your soul is this feeling that God is just not being fair. He asks something of you then seems to make it impossible to accomplish. It sounds like an episode out of the Twilight Zone, where some unseen entity is running experiments on a person to see how long it takes for them to go nuts when faced with a crucial task that just can’t be completed, no matter how hard they try.

What makes this especially surreal is the explosion of modern time-saving devices. Devices that were supposed to free us up for all kinds of noble pursuits have completely failed. It took my grandmother a couple of hours everyday just to make dinner. Now we can pop it in the microwave or order take out and save hundreds of hours a year. It used to take the better part of an afternoon to cut and rake the yard with a rotary, manual push mower and a rake. Now the whole thing gets done in 30 minutes with a direct drive mower with bag attachment. We don’t even need to waste the 5 minutes it takes to make a hard-boiled egg. You can buy them from the grocery store by the half-dozen. And they are already peeled for crying out loud! So what is the deal?

The deal is, we have allowed a picture of a suburban American lifestyle and the upward push of economic advancement to compete with the good that God has for us. At worst I have seen this drive for the nicer house, newer car, advancement of the career and social status, literally rip families apart. At best it has people living a life with a veneer of respectability, rushing to soccer games, participating in church events, attending social functions, but underneath, no one is happy. The parents are at odds over money, time, and other priorities, and the kids have a nagging sense of insecurity because there never seems to be any sense of contentment or peace or tranquility. There is a constant striving for something more and an underlying angst that if we get that “something more” we will still be left feeling unsatisfied.

Some may think that the problem is in our yearning, our appetite for things. It is because we want so much stuff so strongly that we are left hungering for more of the respectable, comfortable, suburban dream. I was reminded recently that C. S. Lewis maintained that the problem we have is not that our appetites are too strong, but that they are too weak. Our appetites for things like comfort, respectability, social standing, and the like, are actually very small appetites. They are but unfulfilling morsels that have the allure of greatness but the substance of vapor. Yet we are made for much more. We have placed within us a longing and yearning for the eternal, the holy, the majestic. We have a hunger for true meaning and significance. We have been created by God to be His image bearers in the world, to be vice-regents over creation, to reflect the glory of a holy, eternal, all-powerful, gracious, loving God. Our hearts ache to fulfill our created purpose. Stupidly we think we will fulfill that purpose by filling our lives with middle-class morality, respectability, and comfort.

There is nothing inherently wrong with running the kids to soccer games, having a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and working at a job that demands much but pays well. What is wrong is when those things become our means to fulfillment, when they become badges of our right relationship with God. We are fooling ourselves when we think so. At that point they are merely idols we worship. And like all idols they over promise and under deliver. And we are still left unfulfilled, frustrated, and yearning for something more. It is only when we take the radical and provocative step of laying down those idols and looking to find our fulfillment in a full on, sold out relationship with Jesus that we find our purpose. Do you want to be in real community with others but have no time? Then dump an idol and replace it with opening your home in hospitality to others. Do you want to make an impact in the life of someone in need? Then forget about your gym membership and spend the time tutoring an inner city child. Do you want to leave a lasting legacy of God’s grace and mercy, then bag your vacation and spend two weeks every summer for the next ten years serving orphans in Haiti or Africa. You see, there is time to fulfill those yearnings God has placed within you. The question is, are you willing to break out of the suburban twilight zone and lay down your idols?

Easter: The Most Important Day in History

Historians love to speculate on the what ifs of major historical events. What if Oswald had missed in November of 1963 in Dealy Plaza? What if Von Stauffenberg had armed both bombs and placed them on the other side of the table leg in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair? What if Richard the Lionheart had lived to return to England and kept his brother John off the throne? What if attempts on Mohammed’s life in Mecca had succeeded? One can go on for days thinking of such things and it can be an interesting academic exercise. But of all the interesting speculation there is one event that stands out as the most important event in all of history. It is the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in the early half of the 1st Century, on what we now call Easter Sunday. Now that the latest celebration of Easter is a day in the past, let’s consider the implications of this most historic event.

On that Sunday morning, a handful of Jesus followers went to the tomb in which his body had been placed following his crucifixion for blasphemy, claiming to be God, on Friday. They went fully expecting to find his lifeless body wrapped in the sheet it was carried in. Their intent was to finish the proper burial preparations that were left undone as he was hastily buried. What they found instead was an empty tomb and two angelic messengers proclaiming “why do you seek the living among the dead. He is not here. He is risen”. We read about it in among others places, Luke 24 verses 1-7. The subsequent appearances by Jesus to more than 500 people, including the forever nicknamed “Doubting” Thomas, who then fell on his knees and declared of Jesus, “my Lord and my God”, turned what had been seen as a fatal defeat into the most remarkable, stunning, and controversial turn of events in history.

There are at least three reasons why the Resurrection of Jesus makes Easter the most important day in all of human history. First there is what The Apostle Paul has to say about it in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead then the Christian faith and all we believe about it is a huge waste of time, effort, and devotion. Not only that but we are to be pitied for believing in something that is only of benefit for this life, and in fact makes this life harder to live. Worse yet, it makes us liars about God claiming He did something that clearly He did not. In other words, Paul is saying that without the Resurrection of Jesus there is no such thing as the Christian faith. No one would be following Jesus if He was still dead and in the grave. Those people who went to the tomb that morning had already resigned themselves to the fact of his death. They went not looking for a Risen Savior but looking to honor in death one that they loved. If Jesus had not risen, Peter would have eventually gone back to his fishing nets, Matthew would have reopened his tax office, Mary Magdalene would have slipped into depression and back to her former lifestyle. Saul of Tarsus would have continued his Pharisaic studies and never encountered the Risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, thus robbing the world of the man who would become known as Paul, and the third most influential person in history behind Jesus and Mohammed. Europe, North Africa, and the Near East never get evangelized. You could even make the case the Mohammed remains a polytheistic herder in Saudi Arabia and Islam never happens. The list goes on so far and deep, it becomes impossible to speculate on how the world evolves if Jesus was never risen.

But that is only what the resurrection means for history and world events. There is a second reason why Easter is the most important day in history. If in fact Jesus was risen from the dead, it validates his claim to deity. Historians, scientists, and the average Joe and Jane all agree, zombie movies aside, that people simply do not come back from the dead after being buried in a tomb for three days. The uniqueness of the resurrection points to Jesus as actually being who he claimed to be. Those angelic messengers reminded the women at the tomb that Jesus had spoken of this ahead of time. They and the rest of the followers had either misunderstood or simply shrugged it off as hyperbole. Now they were forced into an understanding of Jesus that was far beyond what they every hoped or imagined. Jesus of Nazareth was also, Lord and Christ, Only Begotten of the Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He was God in the Flesh. Mysteriously Fully God and Fully Man. His subsequent ascension to the Right Hand of the Father has Him seated in Glory from where He will come again.

The third and final reason for the resurrection being the most important event in history has nothing to do with the grand sweep of world events. Rather it has everything to do with your life. If in fact Jesus is raised from the dead then what does that change about your future? Will you follow him and put your life on a new course? Or will you simply allow the resurrection to remain this unexamined religious oddity, locking it away in a compartment in your mind, not letting it interfere with life today? Not only does history change completely if the resurrection never happened, but so does your future if you chose to believe it.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Matt 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
In a time of revolution and upheaval, and following possibly the most violent century on record, it seems almost laughable that there could possibly any real hope of bringing peace into the world. Yet Jesus seems to think that there are peacemakers and that they have some special relationship with God. So what is it that these peacemakers do and why such a special relationship with God?
The first thing we need to come to grips with is our understanding of peace. The definition we commonly accept, the absence of war, is woefully lacking in-depth and has little to no relationship to the Biblical understanding of peace. We have become so accustomed to wars, both global and local, that we have accepted the absence of bullets flying and rockets falling as somehow constituting peace. By such a definition the blessed peacemakers would be those who get the bullets and rockets to stop. When I was a child and through my teenage and early adult years, the United States and the Soviet Union were not shooting at each other. Yet there was no peace. We called that time, The Cold War. Nobody really felt that we were at peace. During elementary school we had regular drills on what to do in case of nuclear attack. Our neighbors actually built a bomb shelter in their back yard. It was not a time of peace.
The most commonly known biblical word for peace is the Hebrew word shalom. It means far more that just the absence of bullets and rockets. When you great someone with shalom you are pronouncing that you pray their world is one filled with the joys, blessings, and contentment that can only come with a right relationship with God. True peace is about healthy relationships of openness, trust, and love.
The ultimate blessing of Shalom is when you are at true peace with God. This is not a concept that is readily considered in our world. Most people seem to assume that since they are not in a fighting war with God that they must be at peace with God. After all, God would never be mad with us would He? Isn’t the idea of an angry God an ancient, superstition born out of ignorance? Not according to the Bible. Because of our sin we are literally at war with God. We fight against the reign of God in our lives. We worship anything but God. We act as if things are fine because we are not standing on the mountaintop shaking our fist at God and He is not hurling lightning bolts at us from the heavens. Yet the Bible says that “since we have been justified though faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” Romans 5:27 Prior to coming to faith in Christ we are not at peace with God. We were still God’s enemies. Yet out of His love for us, while we were still sinners, Jesus Christ died for us so that we can have true peace, peace with God as out Father.
So how does this fit with the blessed peacemakers of The Beatitudes? If you have peace with God you have something that you should be sharing with others. You become and ambassador for Christ. Consider what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God as reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God”
So the peacemakers are those who are giving their all to see that people are reconciled to God. Why are they called sons of God? Because they are following in the footsteps of the Eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was given the ultimate ministry of peacemaking on the cross. There is nothing more important that you can do for someone than to help them find ultimate peace with God through Christ. That doesn’t mean that efforts to stop the bullets and rockets are waisted. They are extremely important. But we should never settle for the lack of such things as being true peace. We humans are so very prone to accepting something that falls short of the God’s best design for us. We accept the good and fail to experience the great.
If you have been reconciled to Jesus, then you need to be a peacemaker and give yourself to the ministry of reconciling others to Him. If you have not been reconciled with God, the with Paul, I implore you to do so. You will never have ultimate peace in your life until you do.

Why I Bonsai

People often ask me about my hobby of doing Bonsai. What got you interested? Why do you do it? There are a couple of reasons that all merged together one day several years ago.

First of all there is the plane fact that Bonsai trees are flat-out amazing. When you see a three-foot tall pine tree that under normal circumstances would tower 60 feet over your head, who doesn’t stand in a little bit of awe. So ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the science and the beauty of Bonsai.

Second, as I was doing a year-end inventory of my life and character I really sensed that one of the things I needed to work on was patience combined with perseverance. By that I mean that willingness to wait on something that would a long time and the drive to stick with it for years if need be. I have had far too many 80% finished and sensed that the next step God wanted me to take in the development of my character could be learned through Bonsai. It actually fits far better than I ever imagined. One of the things I have learned about Bonsai is that no tree is ever finished till it is dead. Now I have “finished” several trees, especially in the early days. At one point my wife asked if I was growing trees or collecting empty pots. She asked this as she looked at the collection of a half-dozen pots, that sat like ceramic grave stones, in honor of the trees that once lived in them. But once I learned to keep them alive and thriving it became apparent that you never finish with a Bonsai. It is always growing till it dies.

That idea, that you are never finished with it, it is always growing till it dies, is one of the many lessons of the Christian walk that I have seen paralleled in growing my trees. As a follower of Jesus, I will never be a finished product until the day the Lord calls me home and completes the transformation of my character in one dazzling moment. Any Christian who is not regularly working on his or her growth in Christ does not understand that in this life we are never a finished product. We are always being pruned and shaped by the Lord.

Another aspect of Bonsai that I find wonderful is that you can Bonsai any type of tree. Lots of people think that Bonsai is a particular type of plant. They think of a pine or juniper and The Karate Kid snipping a piece of one of Mr. Miagi’s trees. The fact is, Bonsai is the art of making a tree small enough to grow in a pot. Bonsai literally means, “tree tray” or tree in a tray or pot. So I have pines. junipers, Ficus, azalea’s, elms, boxwood, and holly trees all of which have been “bonsaid” and are growing in pots on even on slabs of marble. That brings up another lesson in faith. There is no one single picture of what I Christian is. There is amazing variety in the material that God works with. Christians come in all sorts of colors, ethnic and language groups and from every conceivable culture.

This is usually a 40 foot tree. It is about 3 ft now and planning on getting smaller

The Chinese Elm to the left is usually a 40-60 foot tree. It is about 30 inches tall and I    may even make it a bit shorter. It loves colder climates and drops all it’s leaves in the    winter. Six weeks ago it looked like a dead stick. With Spring arriving I have to trim the  leaves back every week.

The landscape to the right is a group of Ficus. It stays green year round and when we get a frost I have to bring it inside. The marble slab that it sits on is about three feet wide.

This is my newest project. It is a holly that I dug out of our yard after working with it from   time to time for about three years. Eventually it will move out of the training pot and into     a shallow ceramic Japanese pot. I love the windswept look and plan to make it even more   dramatic.

What should be the same about all Christians and is true of all Bonsai, is that ideally  they look like smaller replicas of the original. The ultimate goal for me when someone  looks at one of my trees is not that they say, “oh a Bonsai”, but that they say, “that looks  just like a real tree”. The ultimate goal for me when someone looks at  my life as a  Christian is not that the say, “oh a Christian”, but that they say, “that looks  just like  Jesus”

When I cut a branch off a tree, or wire the trunk to move in a certain direction, or cut off a  bunch of leaves, it always has the purpose of conforming that tree into the ideal, full-grown, mature tree. Paul says in Romans 8:29 that we are being conformed into the  image  of Christ. That is  the reason for the struggles, hardships and joys we have. It is to  make  us more like Jesus. When the Lord cuts something out of your life, when he forces you to grow in a certain direction, when he cuts a bunch of unnecessary decoration from your life, it is always with one goal in mind. It is to conform you to the ideal of a full- grown, mature follower of Christ. One who people will look at and say, “that looks just like Jesus”.