Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When Will You Bear Your Cross?


What is the cross?
So often in Christianity, truths become phrases, phrases become sayings, and sayings become clich├ęs.  We’ve formed a whole set of “Christianese” thanks to the process. Just imagine how foreign it sounds to someone outside the church to hear about “being born again” or “being washed in the blood”. And yet, we Christians are so used to our Christianese that I wonder if we really stop to think about what we’re saying. This might be true of the cross.
Sayings about the cross are pervasive in our church culture. How often we sing about it in our worship songs and reference it in sayings like “That’s just my cross to bear”. Jesus himself mentioned the cross a few times. The first time we see him do so in the Gospels is Mathew 10:38:
“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
It’s so clear that a cross, then, is central to our relationship with Christ! A cross is at the very center of our Christianity. Taking it up and following Christ is what it means to be a Christian!
So again, what is the cross?
It’s not the cute little ornament that dangles from our tiny chain necklaces. Nor is it the pinnacle atop every church steeple. It’s more than a symbol. In the disciples’ day, it was the reality of the most brutal execution imaginable. There was nothing cute about it; it was hell on earth. As John Macarthur notes about the cross:
“To [the disciples] it would have evoked a picture of a violent, degrading death. [Jesus] was demanding total commitment from them—even unto death.”
The same is true for us. Jesus perfectly demonstrated this violent, degrading death when he submitted to the Father’s will in bearing his own cross. His flesh was torn to shreds. He was beaten beyond recognition. He collapsed under the weight of the cross as he bore it to the very place where he would be stretched out and crucified on it. His own blood stained the cross where his hands and feet were nailed to it. This is what he suffered as he denied himself and was terribly persecuted by the world for his perfect righteousness.
And this is our calling as well.
Kind of takes the wind out of the sails of those “health and wealth” prosperity preachers, doesn’t it?
It would seem at first blush with this understanding of the cross in mind that true converts to Christianity would be few and far between. Who in the world would ever want an ending to their lives like Christ? Who in their right minds would even want a taste of the tortures of crucifixion?
But here’s an even more troubling thought. What if this cross—this terrible torture, this degrading death—cannot be escaped by anyone, believer or non-believer alike? You see, what else do we know about the cross? It’s the just punishment for sin. It was the death Christ bore for us when he became sin and was forsaken by God so that we in exchange could be righteous. The cross is a microcosm of hell.
It is a sample of the eternity unbelievers will spend apart from God.
If that is true, then the cross is something each and every soul on earth will have an individual encounter with, one way or another. So now, from a completely logical view, which version of the cross would we rather bear? Would we rather take it up and follow Christ in this world, or take it up and bear it in eternity apart from Christ? This is where the good news starts, because as we compare the two, bearing our cross now far outweighs putting it off till after death. Believe it or not, it can actually be a joy!
You see this theme of the benefit of suffering now for Christ as opposed to suffering for living in sin throughout First Peter. There’s almost too many verses on the topic in that book alone to list, but the highlights include:
“For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” 1 Peter 2:20
“But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.” 1 Peter 3:14.
“For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” 1 Peter 3:17
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” 1 Peter 4:1
“But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”1 Peter 4:13
This is one of the amazing paradoxes in the Bible. It is in taking up our cross that we can rejoice, because this suffering is for our good!! It helps cleanse us of sin. It drives us to rely fully on Jesus, who loves us and offers us a new, abundant life if we keep crucifying our old life and submitting to his will. We truly are blessed, even if we have to physically endure a cross! Have you heard the amazing stories of martyrs praising God even as they were brutally murdered? What kind of amazing life is this that even in torture we can rejoice?
It’s real, friends. Accept Jesus Christ as Lord and go ahead and shoulder that cross. It won’t be too heavy, I promise. It won’t be too hard. Look at Paul! He describes our afflictions as momentary and light in 2 Corinthians, the same book of the Bible where he lists his own afflictions, including, “Five time I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren. I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
Sheesh, if Paul can look at his own life and shrug his suffering off as light and momentary affliction, I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Put that in mind the next time you are tempted to complain about your “hostile” work environment or that nasty Facebook comment slamming your faith.
It’s time for us to faithfully surrender our lives to Christ. No more putting off the cross. Accept what Jesus has done for you on that cross and cheerfully follow his example in bearing yours! Let’s lose our lives so that we can find them. It’s the only way to live a truly worthwhile life!
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wished to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Mathew 16:24-26

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Glimpse of God's Care for Me in an Ordinary Worry

Has God ever given you a glimpse of His amazing, sovereign care for you, even in the little things? Have you ever gotten shivers as you realize that there is far more than just coincidence at play in your life? 

I was given just such a glimpse yesterday.

It started with something bad.

I was loading my mower into my trailer after one of my first few lawns of the day, slowly dismounting while brushing dust and grass clippings off me, when my eyes fell on a troubling little crack on my mower deck. I thought at first that it was just a bit of paint flaking off, but further inspection revealed that my deck somehow cracked all the way through in that one spot. And it looked like it could get worse.

This was not exactly a shiver-worthy God moment. More like a “God, I just spent $3,000 dollars on this piece of equipment; and it’s already developing a serious issue??” kind of moment. This concern was in the back of my mind all day long. I was imagining myself having to drill a couple holes in my deck and bolt down a piece of metal to hold the crack from getting worse. Nothing like a tacky hillbilly fix to a piece of equipment you were hoping would retain its value for a few years.

Fast forward to later in the day. My work done, I headed over that evening to a new customer’s place to get a bid in on the lawn. The man and his wife are super nice, both new believers and members of our church. It was so clear while talking to the husband, Doug, that his faith was real and impacting his life. If you ever need a pick me up, just get talking with a new believer, I tell you! It was really encouraging and refreshing.

But as good as this was, the real cherry on top and what really showed God’s sovereignty was this: On a whim, Doug asked to take a look at my mower. While I was enjoying showing it to him, somehow it came out that he loved to weld and fabricate metal. Almost out of the blue, he said he’d be happy to help me if I ever needed anything welded.

I must have stood blinking at him for a couple of seconds in shock that God had so quickly given me relief from my silly little worries. “As a matter of fact,” I blurted out, and showed him the crack in the deck.

And would you believe it, Doug’s eyes got wide with excitement, “like a kid in a candy store”, I said later to my mom as I related the story. He launched into a detailed description of how he could fix it no problem, “Like it never happened!” He then led me back around his shop and showed me his own lawn mower deck, where he had cut out a large spot of rust and welded new metal on. At least, that’s what he said he did. The deck looked brand new to me, he is that good.

All told, I had an offer to trade half a mowing for the quick welding job, and a free lesson in welding to boot. But even more valuable, I gained a new friend and look forward to some more fellowship with a great brother in Christ. I am confident that I just “happened” to notice that crack yesterday morning, that I just “happened” To be meeting Doug yesterday evening, and I just “happened” to show him my mower because God was orchestrating a chance for me to engage with a new disciple of His. I can’t wait to see what God wants from me in this new friendship!

God cares about us deeply and wants to be involved in our day-to-day, ordinary lives. He has far more than “just” saved us from eternal damnation, but has carefully prepared good works for us, his children, to walk in. He’s gone before and cleared the way through the tangled weeds of care and worry this world so often seeks to choke us with, and we can’t help but wander down this clear path. May we more than wander, but walk step for step with our Lord in what He has planned for us! And may we, even in the little things, be awed by His sovereign hand and give Him all the glory. Amen!

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Ephesians 2:8-10

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Would you rather fight your brother . . . or Goliath?

David had every right to be mad with his brothers. Here he was in 1 Samuel 17, delivering aid to the brothers he thought would be hard pressed in war, and they were instead caught in a fear-fueled stalemate. A horde of Philistines loomed on the other side of the battlefield, but his bros and all the men of Israel were too paralyzed to meet the threat in battle. Or maybe “paralyzed” is the wrong word for it. Israel’s soldiers were running . . . just in the wrong direction. They fled the battlefield at the mere appearance of a fierce brute you may have heard of before. The man who stood nine-and-a-half feet tall. The Philistine soldier who could hoist a weaver’s beam as a spear and who’s armor alone weighed 125 pounds. The giant Goliath.

And this giant was calling for hand to hand combat, a winner-takes-all duel of nations—the Israelite’s champion against the Philistine’s champion, Goliath himself.

So sure, maybe it was kind of understandable that David’s brothers were hiding in fear. We might be tempted to understand their cowardice, but David certainly didn’t. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should taunt the armies of the living God?” he shouted for all the cowering men around him to hear. He couldn’t understand why no one had risen to the challenge. With the living God on their side, after all, who wouldn’t want to take the giant out?

The response to David’s question by his oldest brother, Eliab, was a biting put down. Eliab was too scared to take on Goliath himself, but he wasn’t about to let his baby brother be the hero. “Why have you come down?” Eliab cries. “And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your insolence and the wickedness of your heart; for you have come down in order to see the battle.”

With this one sweeping verbal blow, Eliab sought to undercut David’s intentions, his occupation, and even his character. It was utterly unfounded and uncalled for, and a modern macho American portrayal of what happened next would feature David reducing his brother to shreds. He had plenty of dirt on his brother to sling back with, for sure. “Oh yeah, maybe I did come to see a battle, but looks like there is no one man enough to bring it!” “Samuel anointed me king over you, remember?” “If I’m wicked, what does that make you?”

But instead of bickering with his brother, David merely dismissed the insult and moved on, trying to find someone who would give him the scoop on the giant in town. Turns out, though, his brother wasn’t the only one to treat David like a nosy, annoying little boy who should be ignored. He was given the cold shoulder by the callous soldiers again and again. How frustrating it must have been to David to see such apathy and indifference! But still, he didn’t give in to his frustration and start quarreling with the soldiers. His question was probably double-edged. He wanted to know about this giant who was as haughty as he was hefty, but he was also challenging the soldiers to action. When they refused to answer him and rise to action, he didn’t waste any more breath on them.
David’s persistence and zeal finally got him an audience with King Saul, and then, a matchup with the Philistine brute. When the dust settled from their climactic face off—you know the story—David held up the severed head of Goliath for all to see. The Philistines lost their confidence and the soldiers of Israel finally found their courage at the sight, and an all-out rout of the enemy followed.

There’s a huge lesson here for all of us, I think, and that is this: What would happen if we stopped squabbling with our brothers, and started pursuing the real fights? Sure, some of our Christian brothers are annoying. They are camped on the sidelines of the battle, too apathetic to join in—or even, we might be tempted to think, drop the "a" in apethetic. But what would happen if we stopped trying to babysit fellow believers into being as engaged in the struggle for hearts and souls as we think they should be, and instead just got down to the business of slaying some giants?

I enjoy making snarks at Southern Baptists and the pandemonium at your local mega-church’s youth group just like most people do, and I so often gripe about Contemporary Christian Music or Tobymac’s latest attempt to “make Jesus music cool”. But all those guys are in my camp! The real fight is across the valley, and he’s yelling profanities and curses against my Lord. He’s a giant, a lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God. He’s a formidable foe, a doctrine spawned by demons, but I have been given something better than David’s sling to take him down with. As a soldier for Christ, I have been given divinely powerful weapons for the destruction of strongholds!

So, no more walking in the flesh. No more posturing and boasting and laying the smack down on my brothers who annoy me, or even insult me. Wherever there is teaching that is clearly contrary to God’s Word, that is where you’ll find the true warriors of Christ rallying. They won’t be found arguing over the worship music or the color of the carpet in the foyer. The personal strongholds of sin are what you’ll see stalwart Christians laying siege to. They will be focused on removing logs instead of pinching at specks. It’s time to run out into the battlefield and meet Goliath head on. When we trust in the Living God, there’s nothing we can’t conquer.

My sister Caroline recently lived this out. In talking with a local mega church pastor, trying to get him engaged in the fight for life through the Forty Days for Life prayer rally, she was frustrated with his response that he’d rather be known for “what he stands for, not what he stands against”. She tried to reason with him through a couple more e-mails (doesn’t standing for something automatically mean you will be standing against that which is contrary to it??). But when he kept graciously bowing out of the conflict to publicly stand in prayer for the endangered unborn, Caroline moved on. She had to get back to rallying the prayer warriors who were willing to stand and take on the giant deception of abortion. And through God’s blessing on the campaign, she saw much, much success in our community.

I wonder if, years from now, that pastor will regret that he didn’t have a hand in the transformation of our society from a culture of death to a culture that values life at conception. It’s not our place to say what battle he should or should not join, though. God will hold him accountable to that. We just need to be faithful to bring down the giants in front of us. And if we fight the right battle and bring a giant down, perchance our distracted or fearful brothers will find their courage and join us.

Now I, Paul, myself urge you by Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every though captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.

2 Corinthians 10:1-6

Saturday, June 10, 2017

All Roads Really do Lead to Heaven

    But who is waiting for us there? 

    If there is a heaven, there must be a heavenly being that created it. That means there is someone looking down on us from the top of the proverbial mountain we are climbing. We all have a divine encounter waiting for us, the moment after we die. When we have lived our lives to their entirety—when we finish climbing to the top of the mountain—we will be there, in the presence of our maker. Universalists have definitely got that part right, but it may not be the comforting truth they think it is.

   Who is this god that waits for us at the end of our life’s journey? Who is he whom we draw inevitably closer to with each climbing step, day by day? Will he love us and accept us merely for having made the climb, or is there some standard, some requirement of us before we can enter into that restful, joyous afterlife?

   If we accept that merely making the climb gets us into heaven, then that would qualify the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Bin Laden—men who went to their graves only after sending millions of people before them to theirs. Do we seriously want a god who would give these men everlasting paradise? I have a sense of justice that makes that thought untenable, and I doubt I am alone. There must be some standard by which we enter heaven. Justice would seem to require it.

   Is it the sincerity of our belief, then, that will get us to heaven?  If we make the climb firmly convinced and striving for the divine, even if our views of God differ dramatically from culture to culture, will it be enough to see us through? Unfortunately, this is a purely illogical view. There is no practical example of faith for faith’s sake alone being strong enough to overcome all obstacles. I can believe with all my heart that I can fly with the pair of cardboard wings I cut from a Wheaties box—but that faith is not strong enough to overcome gravity.

   We must also keep in mind that Hitler and Stalin believed firmly in their own manifestations of faith. No one was sincerer about his faith then Hitler when he made possible the murder of 6 million Jews. He was walking the talk of what he believed about religion and the Jewish people. The sincerity of our faith is just not a valid claim to heaven. Faith is only as good as what it is placed in.

   So what belief is strong enough to get us into heaven? Can we rely on our good works? If it is possible to get into heaven not on the basis of the sincerity of our faith but of our goodness, we would first need to describe what “good” is. Stalin thought his communism was an ultimate good, worth killing 20 million of his own citizens for. Hitler believed the Aryan Race was good. If “good” is left up to our own discretion, Stalin and Hitler still get to enter heaven. There must be some absolute code of right and wrong that transcends what us so often selfish, twisted humans can come up with. And since it transcends our own understanding, we must believe that the divine creator made it for us—and will hold us accountable to it. He is less like a fan cheering us up the mountain, and more like the referee holding us accountable to play by the rules. And since it is a foul and harms the other players in the game, our heavenly ref will throw us out of the game if we violate the rules. For the first time, the Hitlers, Stalins, and Bin Ladens of the world don’t make the cut. We're making progress!

   This view of God as our heavenly judge leaves us with only three religions to follow: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Islam and Judaism are works-based religions. They hold that you have what it takes to storm the gates of heaven and enter victoriously. Haven’t we already established, though, how shaky it is to believe that the human race can do good? What if not only are we incapable of establishing our own right and wrong, but we can’t even keep the right and wrong revealed to us by God? Have you ever lied, stolen, lusted, coveted, or taken God’s name in vain? Have you failed to keep the five pillars of Islam? Yep, you’re out.

   That’s the problem with works-based religions. We can never be sure we’ll make heaven, and what’s more, the evidence and an honest evaluation of our hearts seems to suggest we won’t make the cut. At this point, we’re in dire straits.

  Is there any hope in Christianity? Here’s the standard Jesus lays out for us to “make the cut”. He says in Mathew 5:48: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

   So . . . if we’re relying on ourselves to get past the gates of heaven, we’re done for.

   But that is where Christianity makes a break from all other religions. It doesn’t depend on us, but on what Jesus has done for us! He knew we couldn’t live up to the perfect standard it takes to spend eternity with our heavenly Father, so he came and lived a perfect life for us! He offers this life in our place, to pay for our sins. Where all other world religions say do, Jesus says done.

   The Lord is compassionate and gracious; He does forgive transgressions. But yet at the same time, because He is a righteous judge, He can’t leave the guilty unpunished. (Exodus 34:6-7) That is why Jesus had to die for our sins, the just for the unjust, so that he could bear the penalty we deserved and we could go free! That is how God can be both a righteous judge and a compassionate forgiver.

   This the amazing good news that we as Christians get to share with the world! If you confess Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved! For those of us who already have confessed Jesus as Lord, we are called to be trail guides to others following behind us up the mountain! We need to stop worrying that we will be called “close-minded” or “intolerant” (Check out this post, btw, for a true definition of tolerance), and stand unashamedly for this good news! There’s still some people standing at the crossroads. They’re asking for the ancient paths, they’re asking where the good way is; they want to walk in it (Jeremiah 6:16).

   Can we help them find it?

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me”. John 14:6

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Horror of Lot, a Righteous Man

 Lot would be a lot easier to understand if it wasn't for 2 Peter 2:7-8.

Reading the Old Testament account of his life, Lot, Abraham's nephew, appears to be a cut and dried case of an apostate (someone who has left faith in God). When Lot and Abraham had to part ways due to their quarreling shepherds in Genesis 13, Lot moved into the Jordan valley. He was drawn to that lush, fertile valley, but the problem was, that's where Sodom was. Lot drifted closer and closer to that city, where "the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord". By Genesis 14:12, we learn that Lot was living in the city of Sodom. That's when the first round of calamity fell upon the city thanks to a war. Lot was taken captive by a couple of warring kings—a perfect time to cut ties with Sodom, wouldn't you say?—but when Abraham providentially came to his rescue, we find that Lot returned to Sodom!

He was captivated by that city of sin. It lured him back into it's culture, and when the Biblical narrative returns to Lot in Genesis 19, we find that Lot was sitting in the city's gates. The gate of the city in those times was the hub of commerce and official affairs. Lot had not only moved back to Sodom, but he had become a prominent member of it!

We learn just how much the culture had affected him later in the chapter. When the depraved Sodomites catch site of the handsome angels that pay Lot a visit, they gather with mob-like force in front of his house. They call on Lot to bring out the newcomers so that they may have sexual relations with them. Lot's response to this lewd, disgusting request is almost as horrifying, though! His reasoning is exactly as follows in verses 7 and 8, "Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly. Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof."

How absolutely corrupt must a city be that the moral option was to let two virgin daughters be gang raped. Or at least that is what Lot believed, because the licentious worldview of Sodom had deeply permeated his thoughts. The ugliness of Lot's life doesn't stop there either. Later, on two consecutive nights he is driven to a drunken stupor and lies with a couple of girls without thought—habits we can assume he learned in Sodom. Those girls, though he didn't know it in his drunken state, were his daughters. In Genesis 19:36, it says "Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father."

Lot's story is so horrifying that I am sure a lot of pastors would rather skip over it then preach about it in their churches! Some might wonder why it is in our Holy Bible in the first place!

And that is why 2 Peter 2:7-8 is so confusing:

"And if he rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds)."

Righteous? Seriously? Lot the righteous man seems to be the absolute epitome of a contradiction. And yet there we have it. It's like Peter was making a point out of calling Lot righteous; he uses the word three times in that short passage to describe him. So Lot, we must conclude, though allured and drawn into the culture of Sodom, hadn't quite accepted the sinful lifestyle its residents had dove headlong into. Rather, he played at the edges of Sodom's culture, flirting with their worldview, but yet somewhat repulsed by it at the same time. Trying to enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin without being the sinner. Enjoying life in Sodom, but trying not to get burned by it.

Well, he avoided being burned--but only because the two angels sent to warn him about Sodom's impending doom literally drug him out of the city. Genesis 19:15-16 "When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, 'Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.' But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city."

We are repulsed by this "righteous man", as well we should be, but just how hypocritical is our repulsion, I wonder? Are we, in much the same way, soaking ourselves in a culture that has turned from God? Are we content with this culture? Are we even enjoying it?

Modern America's culture is this Godless culture. We have denied God's law and have propped up our own. Divorce is opted for 50% of the time. Premarital sex is the norm. Pornography traps most every guy in destructive habits, but is largely unlegislated. Ripping apart precious new life in a mother's womb is fiercely defended and advocated for. Same sex relations are openly encouraged and accepted. Mutilating your body to become the opposite sex you were born as is praised as "realizing yourself'".

Songs worship this culture. Movies picture it for us. We are asked to like it on social media.

So as Christians, are we distinctly different from this Godless culture? Would we have to be dragged from it like Lot, hesitating to leave the pleasures of Sodom? Unfortunately, in my own life and the lives of many, many of my Christian friends, the answer would be "Yes". Oh sure, we are against the "big stuff". We may stand strong for the rights of the unborn and the Biblical definition of marriage, but how often do we flirt with or are allured to join the more "acceptable" facets of our worldly culture? How often we justify that one sex scene because the rest of the movie is "good". How often do we nod along to that catchy song, that same song that extols behavior that falls solidly in the list of worldly vices rather than fruits of the Holy Spirit? Do we even expect anymore what we consume of the culture to be pure, honorable, or lovely?

Again, are we becoming more and more like Lot? Are we like the proverbial frog in the kettle who can't sense the slowly rising temperature of the water he is soaking in and doesn't know to jump out even as it boils him? It saddens me so much to see this willful conformance by Christians to our increasingly depraved culture. When will we draw the line and say "enough is enough"? When will we make a clean break with our culture and accept abundant ( if radically alien) lives living for Jesus and Jesus alone? Is a clean break even possible anymore, or are we too saturated?

Come out, I beg of you, any righteous Christian. Come out, come out, come out! Don't be consumed by our culture. Don't get burned by it. Don't live your life with one foot in Christ and one foot in the world. It isn't possible to serve two masters, and it is miserable for you to try to do so, isn't it? Will angels have to come for you on your dying day and literally drag you to heaven away from the world you tried so persistently to hang on to?

I'm preaching this to my self as much as you, friends. There's so many pleasurable sins I justify and hold on to. But no longer. Christ wants all of me, and I want to give all to Him! I picture my Christian life right now like an explorer cutting his way through thick jungle underbrush with a machete. There are so many sins that so easily entangle me, but relying on God's strength within me, I want to cut myself free of them! Will you grab a machete and join me?

Maybe it is that secular radio station you need to stop listening to. Maybe it is that song on your playlist that insinuates premarital sex. Maybe it is that movie that presents a destructive message but is just so fun to watch. Maybe it is finally getting filters and accountability software on your devices. Can you see the ways you have been permeated by sin? Can you dam up these channels of filth flowing into your mind, and replace them with streams of refreshing, living water?

The amazing grace of the Gospel--what makes the good news the really good news--is that though we are sinful like Lot, God views us as perfectly righteous through our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is how Peter could view Lot as righteous, because Lot, for all his failings, still retained a faith in God. It is an incredible relief to know that if we have accepted Jesus as Lord, there is nothing we can do to lose our salvation. Like it says in the very next verse after the passage of 2 Peter 2:7-8, God knows how to keep the righteous from judgement. Still, I don't want to leave behind a terrible legacy like Lot's. I don't want my life to be a sad record of wasted potential, How terrible to think that Christians years from now might be horrified by the way we went along hand in hand with this culture! God has given us all we need to be different—to live incredible, devoted, faith-filled lives that will leave the world in awe of our great God. It's time to be transformed. It's time to make a break from the pattern of this world and live for Christ!

Let's make a clean break from this culture that is increasingly becoming more like Sodom, without having to be drug reluctantly from it. I am of course not saying we should isolate ourselves completely from the world; Jesus left us in it for a reason! I am only saying that though we are in the world, the world doesn't need to be in us!

I am ready to offer my life as a living sacrifice to God, no matter what that means for my culture choices. "Here I am, Lord, do with me what you like!" is my prayer. Will you pray it with me? And don't just say "yes", please. Think long and hard about it for a moment, because praying this prayer will play out practically in a lot of decisions to limit cultural intake. It will look like visiting the theater way less. It will look like sifting through the scads of admittedly bland contemporary Christian music to find those great, faith-based songs to make a new playlist from. It will look like different lifestyle choices that will place you solidly in the camp of the monks and nuns in the eyes of the world. But what may look like a puritan, "holier-than-thou" lifestyle in the eyes of the many is in reality that abundant, joy-filled life in Christ!

I have given you fair warning, so now that you know what I am asking . . .

Will you join me?

 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1-2


Monday, May 15, 2017

Sirens and Sin, Symptoms or Sincerity


In Greek mythology, seafarers were enticed by the beautiful music of the Sirens. Half bird, half women, these strange creatures would captivate the sailors with their songs, drawing them off course and toward their island. The sailors, so enthralled by the music, wouldn't notice the deadly shoals surrounding the islanduntil it was too late. Many a ship met its end on those sharp rocks, plunging their passengers into the tumultuous surf and a battered, brutal death.

When passing nearby the Siren's island, the hero Odysseus ordered his men to plug their ears with beeswax and to tie him to the mast of the ship, so determined was he to stay on course and resist the seduction. And yet, he wanted to hear for himself the Siren's songs, so he left his own ears unplugged. However, he commanded his sailors that no matter how he begged and pleaded, they were not to untie him. With these safeguards in place, they passed by the Siren's island. Odysseus heard the songs, and he was indeed enthralled by them. He struggled against his bonds and begged the sailors to untie him, but heeding his earlier commands, they only tied him tighter to the mast. Odysseus and his crew made it. Just barely.

Another fable tells of Jason and his crew as they approached the perilous island. Jason had brought along the gifted musician Orpheus for such a time as this, and the musician played such beautiful music on his lyre that the sailors and their captain passed by the Siren's island without giving thought to their seductive songs. Their ears were not filled with beeswax, but Orpheus's captivating, beautiful music. Why would they need to destroy themselves for the passing pleasure of the Sirens' song when they had something much better and lasting to listen to right on board with them?

In much the same way, I wonder how we deal with the temptations of sin. It is absolutely inevitable that we will pass close by the islands of seduction in our own journeys in life. We pass by them every day! As Christians, we are determined not to be wrecked by the sin, and that's a start. But how will we work this out practically? Will our first response be to tie ourselves rigidly to the mast of our ships? This will certainly keep us from casting ourselves overboard, but does it truly help when we have a heart that still wants to listen to the Sirens calls?

What if instead of first turning to rigid safeguards, we filled our minds and hearts with something much sweeter and purer than sinour relationship with Jesus! If we could but faithfully abide and grow in our walk with our Lord, the Siren song of sin would fade into the background and become less and less of a temptation. As the great hymn says:

"Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace."

I am absolutely confident that this is truth. I have experienced it in my own lifeand want to experience it more! So what does this "turning of our eyes" look like practically? How do we strengthen our relationship with Christ? An incredible amount of this practical advice is found in Ephesians 5. I would highly recommend reading the whole chapter, of course, and will post a link to the chapter at the bottom of the page, but for the sake of sticking to a concise post I will hit the highlights for you. We are told to follow God's example as dearly beloved children, to walk in love just as Christ did (verses 1-2). We are no longer darkness but children of light (verse 8), and therefore we should find what pleases the Lord and do it (verse 10). Having no part in the deeds of darkness but rather exposing them (verses 11-14), we should make the most of our time and every opportunity we are given (verses 15). With this context in mind, I especially want to zero in on verses 18-20:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Like the sailors aboard Jason's ship, this is the sweet music we should be filling our minds with! Music is a powerful tool, my friends, and it can be used to seduce us to sin or to draw us to a heartfelt expression of worship. Let's use it for God's glory! Also notice the relationship of thankfulness in the latter portion of these verses. We should be in constant, genuine communication with our heavenly Father, thanking Him for all He has given us and done for us! If we can focus constantly on God's blessings, sin loses all it's curb appeal, amen?

Now to clarify, I am definitely a strong supporter of rigid safeguards! For instance, I have accountability software on my computers in addition to an accountability partner to help me in my fight for purity. My contention is not that safeguards are terrible, but that they are insufficient without an impactful relationship with Jesus Christ. Without something other than sin to captivate our attention, we will be like Odysseus in regard to our safeguards. Though restrained, we will be struggling against them, trying to be free of them, trying to lose ourselves in the Siren's song. That is why Jesus equates lustful and angry thoughts of the heart as sin in Mathew 5:21-28. Merely restraining ourselves from the outward symptoms of sin is not enough. We need to dwell on things pure and honorable (Philippians 4:8) and to sincerely love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might! (Deuteronomy 6:4). 

With this close relationship with God in place, it will be much, much easier for us to find and walk in that way of escape when temptation comes. That is my desperate prayer for myself and for all of you: that we will be faithful to grow deeper and deeper in Christ. The Sirens' calls are loud and so easily able to entangle us in this post-Christian culture we are living in, but we have found a treasure, a lifesong so much sweeter to live in. Let's lose ourselves in the eternal beauty and abundance of life in Christ, not in the fleeting, destructive pleasures of the world! Amen.

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
1 Corinthians 10:12-14

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Ants, Boys, and Summertime--The importance of young men's savings

Do you all remember the story of the grasshopper and the ants? One fine summer day, a grasshopper notices a troupe of ants slaving away at carrying food back to their hill. He laughs at the ants, wondering why they are so concerned with storing away food in the middle of summertime, when food can be found literally everywhere! Growing off bushes, falling off the paper plates of local picnickers, growing on tall golden stalks or even taller stout treesthe possibilities for food are endless! So why busy yourself with storing it away when you could so easily partake in a feast and then spend your lazy summer afternoons in song and dance? The grasshopper tries to reason in this way with those diligent, but seemingly miserly, ants. They counter his advice, however, with some of their own: summer is a time of abundance, but winter is coming where there will be no food. One must store up enough food to get safely through that season.



The grasshopper, of course, is too busy with his song and dance and instantly attainable pleasures to listen to the ants' warning. When the winter comes and he suddenly finds the food to be utterly lacking, he has nothing with which to sustain himself and suffers much hardship.

In much the same way, I wonder if we young men are a lot like the grasshopper. In this relatively abundant, carefree season of our lives, we don't have much financial burden. Are we content to concern ourselves with song and dance and pleasure and not to diligently strive to store as much away as possible for the "lean" season of starting our own families? How long will we be content to ride the coat tails of our family's provision before we get serious about providing for ourselves? When should our family make us get serious about providing for ourselves?

If you're anything like me, young men, the incredible feeling of having a sizable bank account for the first time is met with many temptations to spend it. There's so much fun out there to be had, and so many expensive grown-up toys to acquire!

It's not just the big purchases either that can nab us of our savings. How many "small purchase" habits are we getting into? That daily coffee or snack run, the habitual trip to the movies, our carefree attitude towards eating out (and eating out expensively, to satisfy our ravenous appetites), our (sometimes time consuming and expensive) hobbies--all of these can become serious leeches to our savings. Just a $5 coffee habit drains you of $1,825 dollars a year. That's more than what most of us pay for vehicle insurance! Whereas the one huge purchase of a new expensive toy might be compared to the breaking of the dam of our savings, it's the trickle of small purchases through that dam that is just as dangerous--if not more so, since they often go unchallenged.

I am, of course, not saying that we should become absolutely miserly and never spend money on fun. Well-earned entertainment or vacation is very beneficial and a worthwhile reprieve from the grind of work. And please, please spend some time and money connecting with your family and friends and building those relationships! My only contention is that fun should never become our primary motivation in spending our income, and it should never rob us of the opportunity--or more accurately, the necessary requirement--to start saving the majority of our paychecks.

I am worried that most of us young men are in for a freezing cold dose of reality when we start our own families. What's more, the bad spending habits we've formed in our carefree summertime won't be easily broken free of when we're independently funding ourselves. There is hope, however, in taking saving seriously right now. There is no more time to waste. If we commit to wisely stewarding our funds even during this season of relative abundance, we can lay a solid foundation to build our own family off of.

This is a Biblical principle, too, found often in the book of Proverbs. We are told in Proverbs 24:27 to "prepare your work outside and make it ready for yourself in the fields; afterwards, then, build your house". It's our job in this season before starting our own household to diligently lay up the necessary resources to build our own home (or buy our own home). What's more, Proverbs also draws us to consider the industrious ant:

Go to the ant, oh sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
Proverbs 6:6-8

So who will we be like, young men? Will we indulge ourselves like the grasshopper in the pleasures of this summertime and let our chance to save up resources and wisely invest them pass right by? Or will we be diligent like that little ant and wisely steward and store away savings, preparing for when the days of summer run out? The choice is yours, but fair warning: this warm, pleasant summertime will fade faster than you realize. The cold, harsh reality of the expenses of the adult world loom imminently on the horizon, like a bleak winter storm. Will you be ready to meet this storm and not only survive, but thrive? 

Again, the choice is yours, but choose wisely. Like in how the parable of the grasshopper and the ants ends, there won't be any room in the anthill all winter long for a grasshopper who doesn't care to support itself.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why the Truly Tolerent can't Tolerate the Tolerance of the World

Have you ever been in the same room with a clicker? They sit there, an isle in front of you and three seats to the left, and while you are trying to concentrate on the speaker, they have this strange fascination with clicking their pen. About every second second. Every once in a while they'll break their rhythm and rapid fire a few clicks. Click . . . click . . . click click click . . . click. You're about ready to lunge across the isle and strangle them. That would probably raise too much negative attention though. So you opt for a well aimed spit ball instead.

Your friend on your right places their hand on your arm, digging their fingers into the crook of your elbow, and whispers at you to remain calm. It's a free country, they remind you, and they urge you to live and let live a little. You marvel that someone could be so even-keeled in the face of such blatant annoyingness, and you sigh as you put your straw, with loaded spitball, down.

Meanwhile, the friend to your left catches the attention of the clicker and smiles warmly as the clicker glances over her shoulder. Your left-side friend raises his own pen and starts clicking too, in a touching moment of acceptance that leaves you struck mute with horror.

In this scenario, who is truly tolerant? Is it the friend on your left or right? Before we answer, it might be helpful to look at the definition of tolerant. According to Webster, it means being "willing to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own."



With this definition in mind, wouldn't you answer that it is the friend on your right who is tolerant? He's not a clicker himself, but he's willing to give someone else the freedom to click. The friend on your left isn't exercising tolerance, but rather is converted into clickerhoodism.

If tolerance is really accepting beliefs that are different from your own, doesn't that imply that you disagree with the person your are accepting, or is it wrong to disagree at all? Should we all have the same feelings, habits, or beliefs?

The logical approach is to realize that we can't possibly all have the same feelings, habits, or beliefs. Look around you. We all come from different backgrounds and cultures, and our experiences vastly differ and have shaped who we are in vastly different ways. Isn't that a main tenant of our recent thinking in America, that we are culturally diverse? Isn't it the gospel of Post-modernism that we all have different truths shaped by our experiences?

It would seem, then, that tolerance is allowing for differing beliefs, not trying to conform all beliefs into one. So then, why do those on the liberal left try and force us to not only allow their beliefs, but to accept them? If we don't agree with them that marriage should be radically redefined, for instance, we are attacked as intolerant bigots. But by the same token, isn't their claim that we are wrong and should accept their beliefs on marriage incredibly intolerant and bigoted?

It's not helpful to our society to try and force us all to believe the same thing. What's more, it won't work! Tolerance should focus on how we differ, and how we should differ politely. Throwing around terms like "bigot" or "close-minded" is not helpful, to either side. It is more like the bickering and squabbling of middleschoolers trying to get their way on the playground. We should instead seek for the civil exchange of our different opinions and beliefs, and the common curtesy of allowing people to have different conclusions. In my own life as a Christian, I will definitely share what I know to be true with you, but I also give you the liberty of free will, just like my God does. I won't slander you as a close-minded, Christian-phobic individual if you disagree with me. I only hope you will extend the same curtesy to me, and allow me to have my own beliefs. This is America, after all, where we should have the freedom to believe what we want to believe, as long as that belief is not criminal in behavior. That is true tolerance.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Liberty and Justice for All--Even Suspected Terrorists

Imagine a suspected ISIS terrorist is caught in your neighborhood. Not only do the police find a van full of weapons and explosives, but there is evidence to suggest that he was going to go on his killing rampage the very next day. Your mind flashes to images of other attacks like those in San Bernardino or at Ohio State University, or the terrible attacks abroad like those in France or Sweden. It makes you sick to think that such terror could have happened in your own backyard.

You want this fear removed as far away from you as possible. You want this suspected terrorist to be dealt with swiftly--locked up for life, or even better, eliminated. That way you never have to fear that he will return to your neighborhood. You know how long the courts take to condemn someone. You can't imagine what the hold up could possibly be, though. The man is Muslim. He posts pro-Islam Facebook articles on his wall. And he had a van full of deadly weapons, for goodness sake!

A thought crosses your mind that you wish the lengthy court process could be skipped all together, and that this terrorist could be dealt with some good ole frontier justice. People strung up on a high tree don't have a chance at escaping custody, after all.

Believe it or not, though, I am thankful for that long court process.

Never before has a nation been built on such a fair judicial system. The balance between judge and jury and the rights of the accused to due process and equal representation was almost if not completely unheard of before America. I am incredibly thankful that if I am accused of a crime, I can't be secretly carted away and dealt with behind the scenes like victims of the German Gestapo were. And I am very, very wary of measures to remove those amazing checks and balances in our judicial system for anyone, even suspected terrorists.

Believe it or not, a lot of these privileges have been removed for suspected terrorists, thanks to the Patriot Act. They may be searched without a warrant, have their property seized as "evidence", and they may be detained without access to a lawyer, hearings, or any formal sentencing. Though I understand the importance of having legislation to allow for quickly neutralizing a terror threat, the Patriot Act clearly takes it too far in that it erodes deeply-seated principles in our constitution like the fifth and sixth amendments (right of due process and trial by jury).

No matter how guilty we think a person is, it is imperative that we uphold the fairness of our judicial system! What happens if the sentiments in our nation change (like they already have been) against conservative Christians?  What if it was deemed child abuse to homeschool your own children, or anarchy to own your own weapon? Wouldn't we want a fair trial, as opposed to our rights being immediately violated on the grounds that we are so dangerous or despicable as to be a "special case"?

If we start cutting the corners in our judicial system now, who knows where it might lead. This does not mean that our courts are coming to "moral" decisions all the time either. There are some crazy decisions our courts are making. Believe me, I am very aware of that. But at least those decisions were made out in the open, through a fair trial that can be reviewed and hopefully criticized. This post is not about the relativistic liberalism that has snuck into our courts, but the importance of the way our courts were established and how they should be upheld. We need to keep the idea of "innocent until proven guilty" in the forefront of our nations psyche, and we need to make sure that the process of proving someone guilty remains just and fair. Let's not let fear drive us to undermine the very system that protects us. Our nation has been founded on liberty and justice for all; let's pledge ourselves once again to protect those ideals! The integrity of the United States of America depends on it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Lord of the Flies and the Lord of the Universe: a case for reading secular literature

Imagine you are on a ship, just offshore from an island on fire. Black smoke billows from it and stings your eyes and burns in your nostrils, wreathing the scene in a haze. Orange flame towers above you in the tree tops and runs at you like a freight train as it crackles through more and more of the underbrush. Heat shimmers on your face and makes you want to shrink back. You would be terrified if you were any closer to the island, but from the safety of your ship, the fierce scene mesmerizes you. You are awed at the fire's destructive power; you feel insignificant and hopeless as you watch it burn before you.

Then you see them.

Tiny figures burst out of the forest, just ahead of the flames. They run like it's the fires of hell behind them, and to them, that's exactly what it is. They avoid being roasted alive only by putting a safe distance between them and the fire by fleeing across the sand. They're fleeing right at you, and drawn to their plight, you immediately make to help them. You lower your ship's boat and draw in to shore. You run towards them. You are shocked to notice that they are all boys, somewhere between 6-12 years of age. What is more, they are half naked and filthy. They carry sharpened sticks and have clay and charcoal smeared on their faces like war paint. They look like mini savages.

You assume they've been playing and in their fun set off the fire that is now ravaging the island.

"Fun and games," you say.

You look around at the fire and the destruction, and it suddenly strikes you as tragically comical that these little boys had blundered their way into a life and death situation because of fun. You decide to make light of it, since this is a small, deserted island after all, and no real harm was done. So you grin at the foremost of the tiny savages, the one who had burst out of the forest first, and say, "We saw your smoke. What have you been doing? Having a war or something?"

The filthy boy only nods.

You press your joke further. "Nobody killed, I hope? Any dead bodies?"

The boy's answer, though, is without a hint of mirth. It's dispassionate and yet strained, like the last gasp of an animal of prey that has been hunted and harried to the point of exhaustion, to the point of giving up. Suddenly your grin is gone, and a cold shiver runs up your spine.

"Only two," the boy says. "And they're gone."

Suddenly the horror of it all dawns on you. They aren't play-acting. You stare around at the filthy boys. Now you notice the wild look in their eyes. Now you notice the blood on their spears.

This moment you're caught in, this island you've stepped on to, is a real-life nightmare.

This is the scene you will be immersed in at the ending of William Golding's modern classic Lord of the Flies. I had heard some about the book, of course, and had finally found the time to read it. I approached it skeptically, not at all sure what kind of secular mumbo-jumbo I might be stepping into.

When I began to read Lord of the Flies though, I was instantly captivated by a powerful story, an analogy more profound than most. Golding expertly draws attention to the fatal flaw in every attempt secular humanism has made to set up a Utopia on earth: Mankind, even in it's most innocent age of adolescence, is radically depraved.

Golding's outlook of humanity is intentionally brutal and fatalistic. His classic, published in 1954, serves as a warning in the middle of a century fraught with failed utopias. He clearly illustrates the hopelessness of man's attempts at saving ourselves through government or society. When the protagonist, named Ralph, fails to keep the band of boys stranded on the island from doing the one thing that could have saved them--keeping a signal fire going--you fully emphasize with him and are left to reflect on why so many valiant attempts at good ideals have failed. Why didn't alleviating poverty by equally sharing riches utterly fail, for instance? Why does every government, no matter how strong and how secure in their rules, eventually collapse?

In the book, the boys fear a terrible beast is trapped on the island with them. They hunt for it, knowing that if they can but destroy it there will be lasting peace and safety on their island. The revelation, though, is that this beast--this wicked Lord of the Flies--is inside all of us. When we see the boys throw off all sense of government and morality and fully embrace their true nature, they become as terrible as their worst nightmares about the beast. Ralph, the only boy left at the end to try and bring them back to a sense of societal structure and humanitarianism in trying to keep the signal fire going, is ostracized and then hunted by his increasingly savage peers, as if he were the beast! This final hunt, the ultimate culmination of the boy's depravity, is the final scene of the book.

So why in the world do I recommend reading this secular book? It is, as you can see, quite dark after all. Doesn't it fall outside of the things pure and lovely that we are supposed to dwell on in Philippians 4:8? I would counter that even the Bible has what we would consider some really "dark" narrative that is included for us to dwell on. When we see Joshua and his soldiers wiping out whole cities of Canaanites, we are left to reflect on the seriousness of sin to God and on how far men will run from Him. When David commits adultery and than tries to cover it up with murder, we reflect on even how the man after God's own heart was still tragically vulnerable to sin. These reflections are what is right and pure about a story that clearly isn't so.

In the same way, Lord of the Flies gets the problem of human nature right. It is a surprisingly honest secular work that doesn't have any kind of rose-colored approach to our condition. In a world that has embraced secular humanism (the idea that religion has to be kept private and only "logical" steps to save humanity should be considered), Lord of the Flies clearly demonstrates the futility and dead end of any such attempt at humanism. Though Golding doesn't give Christ as the answer to our terminal condition, he does leave his audience groping for something outside of themselves--a void we can seek to fill with the amazing truth of the Gospel!

The next argument goes somewhere along the lines of "Well, you are either for Christ or against Christ." This is very true, but this doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to engage with the other side. We should understand how unbelievers think; we should be able to discern their gropings for truth and be able to respond with the hope of Christ. And one of the most non-threatening ways to do this is to read their literature. Another great example of this is the Unwind Dystology I recently read through. This dystopian series is written from an unbeliever's perspective and it gets a lot wrong, but it does raise serious questions about topics like abortion, the meaning of life, whether we have a soul or not, and what is right and wrong. The author's wings are seriously clipped by post-modernism (truth is relative to human experience), and he wasted a ton of potential due to this. But it is interesting that even with how hard he tried to support Post-modernism, he did come to the conclusion that there were things right and wrong on a universal basis. For instance, dismembering unwanted, helpless young ones is wrong, no matter what you use to justify it. Sound familiar? 

Now this is of course not a license to go read any secular work you want. There is secular literature that is clearly harmful to us in that it doesn't provide any deeper thoughts other than the exploration of sin. These are books that have no edifying value at all and should of course be avoided! I would place series like Harry Potter (witchcraft, it's main theme, is clearly wrong in the Bible) and The Twilight Saga in the "off-limits" category. I thought of reading the classic 1984, but after reading a synopsis and discovering the reasons the protagonist rebels against the "Big Brother" totalitarian regime, I decided to steer clear of it. I started the Divergent series, because it was supposed to deeply explore human emotions and identities, but I gave it up after the first book, sick of the relativism and Tris's obsessive crush on Four. Instead of raising questions about humanity, Divergent was urging that we are essentially good and need to diverge from oppressive, over-arching stereotypes. The right was vague and the wrong was also vague. It seemed to be just as miserable of a slog through the story for the protagonist herself as it was for me the reader, as she struggled with what was right and wrong but never came up with any more concrete answers other than that she should just accept herself for who she was. So, unlike Lord of the Flies, Divergent pushes us to just accept ourselves as good and further away from the hope of the Gospel, and I believe it is a story that should be avoided.

Basically, we shouldn't read secular literature for entertainment alone, and we shouldn't read it at all if it is going to deliver a message that is clearly anti-gospel. For those secular works that are willing to take an honest approach to the problems of our nature or the flaws in the systems we set up, though, I would encourage a discerning read. The Giver is another excellent example of such a secular work, as it very helpfully explores that question we have in Christian theology about whether we can be human without free will. It's not as simple an issue as "never read secular works", because their are many great insights in secular literature if we are willing to strap on our spiritual armor and approach them with discernment. We should be like discerning miners, sifting through the dirt and casting it aside--but stopping to examine the jewels we find and using them to our advantage and the advantage of others. Let's pursue helpful truths like those found in Lord of the Flies, so that we can use them to build a bridge to our unbelieving friends and share the Gospel!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Facts, facts, facts!

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

This is a quote taken in the middle of a humorous passage from Charles Dicken's Hard Times, where a school master is railing about the importance of facts, and facts alone, in the training of his little charges. While of course this school teacher probably missed the importance of human emotions like love, compassion, and fear, he got it right that when humans reason, the best course for them is to be well grounded in facts.

No matter what issue we are approaching, whether it be politics, healthcare, social issues, or theology, our viewpoints should be factual and well grounded, rather than vague, emotion-driven responses to life experiences. This flies in the face of Post-modernism, which says that ultimate truth is unknowable and that humans should base their perception of truth off their experiences. If you feel like a woman even though you are very clearly a man, your feelings determine your truth, Post-modernism would say.

We as Christians, however, know ultimate reality. There is absolute truth, and it is Jesus Christ. We don't need to cry like Pilate "what is truth"? Instead, grounded in our firm faith in Christ, we should hunt for truth and speak it boldly to one another:

"As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ."
Ephesians 4:14-15

Perhaps this is why gossip and slander are such a big deal to God. We are no longer like the old man who is caught in webs of deception and trickery; we are new creations with an understanding and hopefully a yearning desire for truth. This should be especially true of our theology, but it should leak out into every aspect of our lives. If we really do believe in absolute truth, then we can be absolutely certain that there is truth to be found all around us.

For instance, the topic of vaccines is a blossoming issue in our homeschool circles, and it is time we all did some serious study on the benefits/risks to vaccines, so that we can approach the issue with a factual, well-balanced viewpoint. I would encourage all of us to give a fair hearing to both sides of the debate, but to not accept what either side is saying at face value. Hold them both to the refining fire of truth. If the facts don't back up their claims, then reject their argument.

Don't even accept someone's experience as a way to justify their argument. For instance, in his viral post about the failure of courtship, Thomas Umstattd Jr.'s main argument against courtship is founded on the experiences of his grandparents and their "going steady". It worked for them, so why shouldn't it work for us? He doesn't point to the differences of our grandparent's culture compared to ours and how divorce was not often considered back then--not because the couples were so happily married after their dating experience, but because divorce was still considered a harmful evil. You will also notice in his post that he has a lot of broad statements about how "Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married. It never happened. Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I’m talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce."

His statements are frightening, but we have no basis to know whether they are really true or not. He gives us no specific examples of these divorces or these bitter and jaded singles. While I am sure he has some friends who have been divorced or are bitter and jaded, how do we know if they were really pursuing courtship or marriage in a God-honoring way? Could there have been more at play than just the "failed" system of courtship?

Again, someone's experiences doesn't make their argument automatically true.

This truth-driven approach to every viewpoint you form may put you at odds with people. Like Joel Belz, journalist for World Magazine, says, "Nothing spoils a good story like a whole lot of research." It's way easier to accept hearsay than to search out the truth behind it, especially if that hearsay aligns itself with our beliefs, but let's refuse to compromise and stand unashamedly in our pursuit of truth. We're Christians; it's our calling. I couldn't agree more with Belz's encouragement to us all in the subtitle to his article I read last night: "Let's be vigilant not to spread fake news as fact."

With so much fake or horridly-slanted news out there, let's hold each other accountable to diligently pursue and speak truth into every aspect of our lives, whether that truth agrees with our viewpoints or not. As Christ's representatives, truthfulness should be our witness. Let's live it out!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Does God Call Us to Prioritize Which Neighbors We Serve?


I find my seat against the back wall of the central living room in the retreat lodge. I settled into the hard plastic chair, scanning the cramped room around me. 25 or so of my dear brothers in Christ from our church are gathered. Despite the tight, uncomfortable quarters, the mood is light and filled with anticipation. The men chat jovially, and when it comes time to join in worship, we sing full-heartedly. The excitement and fellowship in the room is so tangible that it surrounds me like a warm, comfortable blanket. Who cares about sitting on this rock-like plastic chair for the next couple of hours. Our church’s annual Men’s Retreat is one of my favorite weekends of the year, and judging from the mood of the men around me, I am not alone in this sentiment. We are all looking so forward to studying God’s Word together and growing in Christ together!

A reflection of this is the group approach to the messages shared. We have not invited a guest speaker these last couple of retreats. Instead, we have men from the church step up to deliver messages. It gives us commonality that way, a close bond of growing together and speaking truth to one another in love. Tonight, it is our dear brother Mike Aust presenting a message. Our theme for the retreat is “Loving Your Neighbors”, and I knew he would tackle that theme head on in his message. Mike is that kind of guy. He is quiet, but confident. A man who seems to think before he speaks, but then speaks with authority what he thinks.

I’m not disappointed as I listen to his message. It flows straightforwardly, if a little sporadically thanks to some technical issues and the heavy amount of scripture he asks for volunteers to read. He asks us, “Who is our neighbor?” And after a pause, thanks to the common wariness of a trick question, Dr. Williams on my right shifts in his hard-plastic chair and says, “everyone.”

Mike nods at this and affirms that that is what he would think too, but then we begin to investigate the heart of God to learn who our neighbor is. We see clearly from verses like 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 5:11 that God has a heart for the needy and the lowly. We learn in Psalm 12:5 that God will arise and help the needy and set him in the safety for which he belongs.

At the same time, we learn of the opposite category to the needy in other verses: the arrogant. What is God’s heart towards these neighbors? We see a prayer in Psalm 72:4 to “vindicate the afflicted of the people, save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.” We see clearly in Psalm 138:6 that “God regards the lowly, but the haughty He knows from afar.” What is more, the wounded man on the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan is clearly needy and the one who is provided for, while the arrogant Priest and Levite are nothing more than a sad footnote in the story—an example of who not to be. God exalts the humble, but opposes the proud, is the main sentiment buzzing in the room at this point.

The challenge Mike leads us to as a result of this study is: does loving our neighbor include service to the arrogant? If we are made in the image of God and should seek to portray him, do we serve our arrogant neighbors the same way we serve our needy neighbors?

Now people are shifting in their seats, as if it has just occurred to them that they are, in fact, very uncomfortable. The anticipation has swung to a growing feeling of tension, of confusion in the eyes of the men. As Mike’s presentation winds to a close, it is Stephen Johnson, a man I have worked for and respect a ton, who sparks the conversation we all have been left wanting. As if the tension in the room was a gas vapor that had just found a flicker of flame, the conversation explodes among us men.

“Who then is our neighbor?” Stephen asks.

That is the question in all our minds. It would seem, mistakenly or not, that Mike just asked us to seek to reach those who are needy rather than those who are arrogant. The response this provokes is varied and quite possibly volatile, if it weren’t for the committed love and commonality we men of Shoestring Valley Community Church have for one another. The first response that grabs my attention is from Monte Bainbridge, a worship leader in the church, who points out that we all are arrogant, to varying degrees. It is not a question of reaching out to the needy over the arrogant, for such a notion would force us to split each other in half, to try and minister to one side of us while ignoring the other. We are all both needy and arrogant.

Jeff Oien, a logger and self-described “simple man”, chimes in, agreeing with that sentiment. Everyone around him is his neighbor, obviously, and should be reached out to the same whether they are arrogant or not. In fact, the arrogant are very needy, just in a different way.

Mike responds that “okay, well if you want and that is what God has called you to. But I’m warning you, you won’t have a ton of success.” He shares a couple times he has tried and “failed” to reach the arrogant. The men of the church are quick to point out that when you share God’s Word, it is never a failure. You can plant seeds in the heart of the arrogant even if it doesn’t look like they have responded in any meaningful way.

I watch my dad. He keeps raising his hand to speak—but not far enough to be obviously seen. He gets about as far as ear-level with each raise of the hand, and then usually ends in scratching the back of his head. My dad, ever cautious to create a scene, clearly has something to say. I think at first that he is going to confront Mike’s line of reasoning, but I am surprised by what he says when he gets a chance to speak.

It is in context with Forty Days for Life, which is to be expected since our world has kind of revolved around the campaign this spring. My dad shares how though we pray for the arrogant Cecile Richards, leader of Planned Parenthood, to come to faith in Christ and would share the Gospel with her if we ever got a chance, it is the needy women being victimized by abortion that we are primarily seeking to serve. It’s the needy that deserve our devoted attention.

Mike agrees, “I heard once,” he says, “that the arrogant deserve our prayers, while the needy require our service.”

Jim, who has a last name I can’t attempt to spell out correctly and who is about as quirky as his last name (in a good way), shares how Jesus spoke to all, the Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners. This strikes me as untrue, because Jesus clearly responded in a different way to the arrogant Pharisees, saying some pretty harsh things to them and veiling the truth from them in parables. As I have listened to the back and forth, my thoughts have slowly formed around another example in Jesus’s ministry.

I finally get a chance to speak up near the end. “What I hear Mike saying,” I say, “is that we are to have priorities in who we seek to reach. As much as we would like to reach the world, we can’t. I was thinking about how when Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to share the good news of the Kingdom, he told them to shake the dust off their sandals in towns that wouldn’t receive them and move on. God doesn’t call us to keep wasting our energies to reach people who won’t receive us. We should primarily serve the needy who actually desire our help.”

There are some nods of agreement, and Mike says that was a great example of what he was talking about. I feel weird aligning myself more towards the “priorities” side of the aisle—because honestly, I agreed whole heartedly with what Jeff had said about everyone being our neighbor. And I can see some brothers disagree with what I said. Is there a way to love everyone as our neighbor, I wonder, while still recognizing our specific calling to serve the needy?

Pastor Dean closes the discussion time by emphasizing how much he appreciates that our church can have these discussions. It’s a sign of a healthy church to seek out truth together, and to express our opinions in a way that will not cause division, but to help us grow. I can’t agree more. While the conversation was tense, it never became divisive. We all appreciated the chance to wrestle with this interesting perspective on loving our neighbor. It is a great way to start the retreat, and the lodge’s living room is still a comfortable place of fellowship and anticipation. I find that I don’t mind at all the soreness from sitting on the hard-plastic chair for the last couple of hours. It was well worth it.