THE GREAT HOPE

THE GREAT HOPE

“If you lose consciousness do you want me to stop at the nearest ER or do you want me to keep going to Duke?” We had already made a rapid stop on the side of 501 South near Roxboro to switch oxygen bottles when the first one ran out. My friend Paul was near unconsciousness as I fumbled the valve swap from one to the other.

“Keep going. Take me to Duke,” he said as he sucked down all the O2 from the fresh bottle that his ravaged lungs could absorb. The cancer he had been fighting for seven years was winning.

I hit the gas and tore down the highway, trusting that any police officer who might pull me over would agree with my sense of urgency.

That was April 14, 2013. My friend Paul never came home from Duke University Hospital. We buried him one month later.

Because it feels so permanent, the loss of friends and loved ones can have a devastating effect, creating a lifelong chain of grief and depression, unless we have a source of joy that is beyond the reach of death.

That source is what we celebrate this week. It is the great hope of the resurrection.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. [1]

The resurrection changes how we experience all of life, not just the end of it. Let me give you three ways that it has changed life for me.

First, I have no fear of death. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t look forward to saying goodbye to family and friends. I don’t look forward to pain and suffering. But as the Apostle Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

Did you see that? “To die is gain…to be with Christ, is better by far.” The fact of the resurrection tells us that what Christ promised can be counted on. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go there to prepare a place for you.” I don’t fear that place. I look forward to it.

Second, I live in hopeful expectation, of seeing loved ones yes, and friends who have believed, but the hope is far greater than that. I look forward to seeing Jesus face to face, the living Jesus I have known in his word, the presence I have known in prayer, through the veil, and in worship as “through a glass darkly.” “Now we know in part, then we shall know as we have been known.” No more shadows, no more veil but standing (or kneeling) in the presence of my King, rejoicing with him in the beauty, righteousness and glory of his kingdom, celebrating with him at the great feast of the Lamb and drinking anew with him the Cup of the Covenant.

Finally, every day is Easter to me. Every day is resurrection day. I live in the joy and freedom of the sons of God, for I too have “died to this life and been raised with him to walk in newness of life.” When I take up my own death in Christ (Romans 6) I am free to enjoy all of God’s good gifts on planet earth, good food, good fun, good friends and good love, without the fear that losing any of them to death is a permanent loss of real life. The true source of joy is beyond the reach of death.

My friend Paul knew that hope before he died. Now what about you? Where is your hope? If it is in this world alone, then count on it, you will lose it. But if you have the greatest hope, if it is in the resurrection of Christ, then you will have strength to face the loss of anyone or anything, and no one can steal your joy.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (1 Co 15:19–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

CLOSE CALLS AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

CLOSE CALLS AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

My friend and fellow pilot, Lee Hilty, had a close call Saturday night. The main rotor blade of his Robinson R22 helicopter hit about fifty feet up a sixty-foot tree, chopping the top off the tree and destroying the helicopter. One of the gas tanks separated from the craft and the other caught fire. The chopper fell about fifty feet with Lee in it, hit the ground, and burned.

Lee walked away, albeit with significant injuries. His report on the accident is quoted below, then I’ll make a few observations about providence.

“Hey Everyone! Thank the good Lord that I am alive! A slight mistake on takeoff was all it was.

I was at a friend’s house for supper at his private airstrip. The last thing I remember is playing rook. The friend said that I told him that I was going to hover, turn 180 degrees, then depart down his runway to the south, which would have cleared all trees in the area. This was in the dark of course. Instead, I hovered, turned 160 degrees and departed and hit a tree.

I remember seeing a flash of a pine tree. At this point, I was 50-60’ in the air. Somehow, the helicopter came down. Somehow, the helicopter stayed level. Somehow, I unbuckled my seat-belt. And somehow, I walked away from the helicopter myself.

If any one of these “somehow” things had not happened, I would not be here. I feel so blessed to have so many friends that are more than willing to say a nice word, to offer a prayer, to pay a visit or offer a helping hand. Thank you all very much!”

Providence is the practical outworking of the will of God in the lives of men that appears from our perspective as tragedy, chance, or circumstance.

As Winston Churchill wrote: “The longer one lives, the more one realizes that everything depends upon chance, and the harder it is to believe that this omnipotent factor in human affairs arises simply from the blind interplay of events. Chance, Fortune, Luck, Destiny, Fate, Providence, seem to me only different ways of expressing the same thing, to wit, that a man’s own contribution to his life story is continually dominated by an external superior power.”[1]

I have been a pastor for twenty-seven years and had many encounters with God’s providence. In each case the issue of life or death usually comes down to a unique set of circumstances, often micro-second timing. A few inches, a slight turn, one way or the other, and someone lives, or someone dies.

From our point of view these events are completely random, but not from God’s. As Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”[2]

But that often leads to another question: If God is completely sovereign, why should we take precautions?

Commenting on Deuteronomy 22:8, the command to provide parapets on roof tops lest someone fall off, John Calvin wrote, “For he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care; He has provided means and helps to preserve it, he has also made us able to foresee dangers; that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our debt is: Thus if the Lord had committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them…Thus folly and prudence are instruments of the divine dispensation.”[3]

Lee made a simple mistake, but the prudence that led our civilization to develop seat belts, energy absorbing cockpit seat frames and landing skids,  volunteer fire departments, hospitals, emergency rooms, burn units, and life flight helicopter services probably saved his life.

In a fallen world there is no such thing as life without risk, but with the right rules and procedures, risk can be mitigated. So, as the old saying goes: “Trust God and keep your powder dry.” Or, trust God, buckle-up, and put the phone down!

[1] Winston Churchill in Winston S. Churchill: Thoughts and Adventures. Christianity Today, Vol. 41, no. 12.

[2] Matthew 10:29-30

[3] Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

Pivotal moments often arrive when we least expect them. An email in the inbox, a phone call in the evening and life reaches a cross-road. A new path emerges. Will we take it? Nothing will ever be the same if we do. And nothing will ever be the same if we don’t. We want to know, need to know, is it the right one? Is God in this? How can we tell? How do we know it’s him?

A man named Nathanael had a day like that. His story is in John 1:43 – 51, a text that always intrigues. Why did Nathanael react so profoundly to Jesus’ simple statement in verse 47-48? Why, when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree …” did Nathanael make a pivotal declaration that would change his life forever?

“You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).

Most commentators focus on verse 51, linking it to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, and of course they are right. But that still doesn’t answer the question. Verse 51 came after verse 49. So, what happened? How did Nathanael know it was Him?

The first clue is in verse 48.

“How do you know me?” he asked. This, in response to Jesus’ comment, “Behold! An Israelite in whom is no guile!” tells us that when Jesus made that observation, he pinged something deep in the man. He revealed that he knew something about Nathanael that only God could know because Nathanael had only discussed it with God.

The fig tree is the clincher. Up until that point Nathanael could speculate that Jesus was a perceptive observer of human nature. But the fig tree in Jewish life is a literal place with a figurative meaning. A man sitting quietly under his fig tree is a man sitting in a peaceful place meditating and sharing his innermost thoughts with his creator. We might compare it to our favorite chair or place of prayer when we think quiet thoughts with God.

Imagine the topic of Nathanael’s meditation that day. What could it have been to draw such a powerful response? Something along these lines perhaps: “God I will not hide my thoughts. Nothing is hidden from you anyway. You know my going out and my coming in. I will tell you what I think and ask you my questions. Teach me your way.”

Imagine then that Nathanael goes on to speak to God about his struggles. It could be some sin or temptation. It could be unbelief or concerns about his people. It could be issues with his wife or his family or his work. We don’t need to know the specifics to identify with his struggle. We only need to know that he was being transparent with God in that moment under his fig tree. He was telling God what he really thought, even though it might not have been something he would want to say out loud at church. “God, I’m telling you the real deal here. I’m not holding anything back, not pretending to be holy. I’m just telling you the truth about what’s happening in my soul.”

I bet you’ve had discussions like that with God. I know I have. Then you open the Bible and it speaks to you in a way it never has before, or a song comes on the Christian radio station, or a man or woman of God delivers a word that pings your soul and you know without doubt that God saw you under your own fig tree. You know without doubt that your pivotal moment has come. You will confess that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” or you will not. Either way, you know it was Him and you know life will never be the same.

When that moment comes, don’t be afraid. Take the turn. Follow him. He knows you better than you know yourself and he will take you to places you never dreamed you could go.

NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

You’ve no doubt seen it, the Gillette ad titled: “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Obviously, the shaving supplier’s marketing gurus hit a nerve. It had twenty-five million hits on You Tube and forty million on Twitter. But they may have also punched a hole in the bottom of the brand. Forbes reports, “reaction to the ad has been overwhelmingly negative, with comments on its YouTube channel running negative by an astonishing ten to one margin.”[1]

That’s not to say that everything Gillette was selling is wrong. Men and boys are having a tough time and need better role models. They are falling behind in education, are twice as likely to be diagnosed ADHD, commit most sex-crimes, refuse to get help when depressed, are more likely to commit suicide or end up in prison for murder. But the Gillette ad, and the American Psychological Association’s recently released guidelines for working with men and boys which preaches the same message, toe the gender-fluidity line of LGBTQ activist ideology. As John Stonestreet says in a recent Breakpoint, “the solution isn’t to caricature and then reject masculinity like a disorder. It is to re-discover and embrace real masculinity, which God declared to be “very good.”[2]

Stu Weber, in his excellent book, Tender Warrior, teaches that real masculinity can be broken down into four roles a man should play in all his spheres of influence: King, Warrior, Mentor, and Friend. “To the degree (these functions) are balanced the image is clear, and the man and those around him flourish. To the degree they are abased and abused, the image is distorted, the man withers, and those around him experience pain.”[3]

Of the four roles, King is the one least understood by men and most disrespected by pop-culture. The film, Black Panther, gives it a pretty good nod, but the authority and leadership inherent in the role are increasingly suspect. The best way to regain that respect is to properly fulfill the role.

Toxic masculinity abuses authority. True leaders exercise authority under authority. People were amazed at Jesus’s teaching because he taught as one who had authority (Matt. 7:29). But Jesus recognized that His authority was under authority. “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.” (John 12:49).

Toxic masculinity serves only itself. Weber explains that a King is a Pro-Visionary, a man who looks far into the future to plan and provide for those he serves. Like the biblical men of Issachar, he studies and understands the times and how to navigate them successfully. And like the biblical kings of old, he does this in multiple spheres: his immediate family, his church, his community, and his country.

Toxic masculinity abdicates the shepherding role. But a King provides order, mercy, and justice, creating an environment where life can thrive in a disordered world. With dignity and restraint, he holds himself, his family, his church, his community, and his country to the high ethical standards revealed in scripture. When it’s time to execute justice, he is a velvet covered brick. Men who do this won’t always be popular in the short run, but the people they serve will experience shalom.

A man doesn’t have to own a country to be a king. He just has to play the role and the kingdom will come to him.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/charlesrtaylor/2019/01/15/why-gillettes-new-ad-campaign-is-toxic

[2] http://www.breakpoint.org/2019/01/breakpoint-pathologizing-masculinity

[3] Stu Webber, Tender Warrior.

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

The crowd was frenetic, chaotic, out of control. Hundreds, then thousands of people, rushed from every corner, out of every gate, jumping fences, hurdling ditches, and throwing clothing on the ground in adulation.

No, it wasn’t an Elvis concert.

The two men in the center of it were overwhelmed, not knowing how to react to the adulation, until they saw the local priests leading a couple of bullocks toward them with garlands for gods and the tools of sacrifice in hand. That’s when they tore their shirts wide open yelling: “HOLD IT! STOP! We’re just people like you! We’re here to tell you about the real God who made everything!”

Even with that, Paul and Barnabas, apostles of Jesus Christ, were barely able to keep the Lystrans from sacrificing to them.

God had just healed a cripple through Paul. The Lystrans mistook them for a repeat of a Greek myth where Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as servants for a while to get a read on human devotion. In the myth the two deities finally remove their disguises to receive the worship that was their due and offer blessings to their worshipers. When Paul and Barnabas ripped their garments open to reveal puny humans inside it popped the Lystran’s bubble. A few hours later they were stoning Paul. (See Acts 14:8-18).

Living in the selfie generation makes it hard to keep our shirts buttoned, so to speak. We need help avoiding self-deification. The best way to do that is by serving others in three practical ways.

Serve simply. Just show up and do what needs to be done. A great example happened on a tragic occasion. In the days when most shoes had to be shined, a young father of four lost his life in an accident. Instead of saying, “If there’s anything I can do,” one of the neighbors knocked on the door and said, “I’m here to shine the children’s shoes.” That simple service spoke reams of love into the young widow’s soul.

Serve today. With “his face set” on his way to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last time, Jesus had a lot on his mind. Yet he stopped to heal a blind man. Setting aside our agenda for the day, even if it isn’t an emergency, is a huge expression of humility.

Serve silently. I borrow this one from the late Stephen Covey who taught: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We serve best when we listen close, empathizing with others without expressing our own thoughts.

Of all the ways to serve, this is one of the most personally beneficial to the servant. It is also the most difficult and humbling because we think so much of our own experiences and like the sound of our own voices.

Covey explained that silent service also enhances our effectiveness as leaders. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.[1]

When we practice silent service, we give people what they need most. That’s why this is so helpful in the pursuit healthy humility. We learn to value others above ourselves and in the process give them life.

[1] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pg. 241

ABORTION SURVIVOR’S LAMENT

ABORTION SURVIVOR’S LAMENT

The details are vague now, so many decades hence. He sat on a curb or was it a granite ledge? outside the downtown clinic. Either way it was cold, barren, like his heart. The girl—yes, still a girl only 17—was inside, had disappeared into the sterile glass door of the nondescript building. She had found the place, or had he? He couldn’t remember. Either way, it hadn’t been there long, a new edition to the healthcare—cruelest euphemism—landscape. But he had found the money. Oh yes, that he clearly recalled. He found the two hundred dollars it took to end the life in her womb. In blind, self-centered cowardice he thought he was solving a problem, keeping their secret. But the cold reality of what he’d done began unconsciously seeping into his soul that day like the humid chill coming through the concrete. He paid the doctor to kill his son.

How could he have done that? How could he not see? The evil was obscured in those days. “It’s just a blob of cells,” they said. But he should have known.

Little did he know in 1977 that he was only a grain of sand in the mammoth cultural landslide that was the sexual revolution. Free love never was victimless. Roe V. Wade, that revolution’s greatest victory, remains the longest bloodbath in history with the longest trail of traumatized survivors.

Time moved on and so did he until about a decade later, when his first child was born. Something clicked, a window opened inside, and he began to see. Life is precious! He should have taken the blow, not the girl. Not the child. He should have taken the guilt and shame with her and provided for them both. That’s when he started attending the annual pro-life march downtown on January 22nd. It was the least he could do, the only thing he knew to do besides giving to crisis pregnancy centers, to publicly repent and repudiate his past. To do something about the future.

It wasn’t enough. At least, it hasn’t been so far. The Pro-Choice propaganda political action machine continues to cover the selfish cowards—yes you men, I’m talking to you not the girls, not the women; you are the ones God holds responsible to protect the defenseless and provide for your children—among us. It did so again this week when forty-four Senators refused to back the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, the one that requires doctors and nurses to save the life of a baby who survives an abortion.

How could they? How could they be so blind? So selfish? So cold and hard? How can the doctors and the nurses, sworn to “first do no harm” stand aside and watch them die? They can no longer hide behind youthful ignorance or scientific uncertainty. They know. They KNOW what we are doing. They know the landslide has killed millions of innocents and yet they refuse to protect and defend.

In his forties a young man walked into his life. Energetic, intelligent, eager to serve alongside and be mentored. It took a while because he was so busy with family and work, but finally it clicked. Another window opened. “The timing is about right,” he thought. “This could be my son.” A strange wave of grief and gratitude washed over him. “God you are so good to me. I don’t deserve this privilege, but I accept it as a gift from your hand.” Many more surrogate “sons” have come and gone since, and slowly the wound has healed.

“Perhaps,” he wondered, “perhaps now, with the evil so blatant that they celebrate infanticide, this new generation of brave young men and women will finally have done with the death dance. Perhaps now, if enough of us will tell the truth of what we did and what it cost and how merciful God is—perhaps now they will ignore the propaganda, listen to the still small voice of conscience, and end this revolution for good.”

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

Denny Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 was particularly poignant for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team had just buried their former president, Joe’s 49-year-old son, J. D., who died of a neurological disorder in January. I bet Joe’s family would happily forfeit the trophy and all their successes if they could have J.D. back. But that’s not how they roll.

It reminded me of other personal disasters I’ve witnessed.

Seventeen years ago, this week, I walked with my friends Phil and Shelley Ramsey, as we buried their eighteen-year-old son, Joseph, who died in a car wreck.

A late-night phone call, “Pastor, can you come? Our baby was born with undeveloped lungs and isn’t going to survive.”

A distraught counselee, “I’m thirty-nine and pregnant with our second child and my husband just left me. Where is God?”

Pregnancies that miscarry, dream jobs that become soul shredders, the number and diversity of things that can disappoint and disillusion in life is endless. But it’s worse when we think God has somehow let us down.

Evangelicals are particularly prone to this. We’re taught all our lives that God loves and cares for us: “His eye is on the sparrow,” said Jesus. “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you,” wrote Peter. That’s true, but not the whole story. Most of us have a truncated biblical world-view about suffering and it costs us dearly when trouble comes. We cherry-pick the verses we like and forget the context. We think life is supposed to be a Disney World ride when it’s more like the Daytona 500, where the big wreck is always in the offing.

Life’s inevitable disappointments are often about unmet expectations, of God, others, and our selves. When we line them up with what the Bible actually reveals about people, life, death, the world, and God they may not be easier to bear but they do leave us less confused and better prepared to overcome.

Scripture tells us: “time and chance happen to everyone,” including us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” but all sparrows fall. “He knows the number of the hairs on your head,” but they will turn white and turn loose. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that can be expected to crack without warning. All humans are “slaves of sin,” prone to follow our self-destructive passions and hurt those we’re supposed to protect. The heart is “deceitful above all things … who can really understand it?”[1]

Depressed yet? I’m not aiming for that, but it’s imperative to see that nowhere in the Bible does God promise us sunshine without sweat and smiles without sorrow. Aligning expectations with revelation dilutes frustration.

What has he promised?

To make us part of his tribe. To share with us his joy. To suffer with us when we hurt. To give us his strength. To counsel and comfort us. To love us even when we don’t love ourselves. To stand with us in life’s battles. To shape us into little Christs. To providentially provide for us and through us the things we need to survive. To empower us to participate in the awesome and terrifying task of advancing his kingdom. To give us a purpose, a future, and a hope, a reason for joy in the midst of pain. And to glorify us with Christ when he returns.[2]

Joy and sorrow will ever run parallel tracks until that day.

Joe Gibbs Racing took their fifty-four-pound trophy to Steak ‘n Shake, Sunday night, just like they did after their first win in 1993. It was the biblical thing to do.

Life is like the Daytona 500, a difficult, fascinating, disappointing, exhilarating, often dangerous, always high-stakes ride. Trust God and buckle your seat belt.

[1] See: Eccl. 9:11; Matt. 10:29-30; 2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 6:6-22; Jer. 17:9

[2] See: Eph. 2:19; John 17:13; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:26; John 15:5; John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Rom. 8:35-39; Rom. 8:15-17; Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:19; Acts 1:8; 1Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:12; Rom. 8:18.