GOD, KIRK CAMERON & HURRICANES

Former Left Behind actor Kirk Cameron made some comments about the recent hurricanes that, taken out of context and twisted by headline writers, made it sound as if Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s judgment on America. As if on cue the blogosphere went bananas.

Patheos blogger, Michael Stone is a good example:

“Cameron is toxic. His glib explanation and justification for his imaginary God’s cruelty and immorality is moronic … Cameron’s God is a misogynistic, moral monster, that lacks any moral standard, and apparently approves of rape, incest, genocide, and slavery, among many other unsavory and decidedly immoral acts.”[1]

Others, including actress Jennifer Lawrence, agreed with this blogger’s sentiments:

“Well, maybe it’s God punishing America for voting for a racist, self-serving, ego driven President. The hurricanes are hitting two states who voted for him. Like you said Kirk…coincidence? I think not!”[2]

Such charges against the God of the Bible are common, so what exactly does it teach about judgment and natural disasters?

First, no one on this planet knows when judgment will come or where it will fall, not even Jesus (See Matthew 24:36-39).

Carl F. H. Henry was a well-known theologian of the 20th century, respected for the profundity of his work, revered for his intellectual brilliance and spiritual depth, and the farthest thing you could imagine from an actor in a Left Behind movie.

Henry said:

“I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome “paradidomai” (“I abandon, or I give [them] up,” Romans 1:24) over America’s professed greatness … Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.”[3]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. It is presumptuous of anyone to say that any hurricane is God’s judgment.

It is, on the other hand, an opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need and that, according to USA Today, is exactly what they are doing. About 75% of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, an alliance of organizations that help FEMA, is made up of faith groups. Samaritan’s Purse, whom our church supports, is among them.[4]

Second, the only natural – disaster – type judgments recorded in scripture occurred after they were specifically prophesied by one of God’s servants as such. Think of Noah and the Flood, Moses and the ten plagues, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Otherwise we may understand disasters as a result of ‘curse on the ground’ from Genesis carrying out its work. Calling a hurricane the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday morning quarterbacking.

Third, every natural disaster is an opportunity for us to consider our mortality, our impending personal interview with the judge of the universe. The book of Hebrews explains that, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt.12:36). So Cameron is right when he says hurricanes are an opportunity for humility and reflection, as are other near death experiences.

Fourth, the best news that anyone can ever hear is that judgment has already happened and they missed it.

My brother lives two blocks from the ocean in Panama City Beach, Florida. A direct shot from Irma would have left his home under water and his town looking like New Orleans after Katrina. While he is concerned for his neighbors to the south he is also greatly relieved. Other towns absorbed the energy of that monster storm.

Scripture says all of us carry enough sin to be swallowed up by God’s ultimate judgment. But it also says that all of us can, if we are willing, take refuge in the cross of Christ. He absorbed the energy of God’s judgment for our sin (Romans 3:22-26).

Hurricanes and other natural disasters are to be expected on planet earth after the fall and cannot always be avoided, but they can be prepared for. So too with the judgment of God: It cannot be avoided, but it can be prepared for by taking refuge in Christ.

[1] http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/09/08/kirk-cameron-says-god-sends-hurricanes-internet-collectively-loses-mind/

[2] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kirk-cameron-draws-controversy-hurricane-comments-1037129

[3] Citation: Carl F.H. Henry, The Christian Century (Nov. 5, 1980). Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 8.

[4] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/10/hurricane-irma-faith-groups-provide-bulk-disaster-recovery-coordination-fema/651007001/

WAITING ON GOD AND PIZZA

I’ll never forget my boss’s reply to a demanding department head who wanted his project moved to top priority for our maintenance crew: “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me!”

I gasped and laughed out loud.  I did not think anyone, much less the head of a lowly maintenance department, could talk that way to one of the senior ministers in Atlanta’s largest megachurch and get away with it.

But he did.

I wonder if God wouldn’t say something similar to us when, in our hurry to achieve the next thing on our agenda, we run smack dab into the reality that our lack of patience does not constitute a crisis for him.

Ps. 27:14 Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord![1]

True, sometimes we use the excuse of waiting on God to cover a lack of planning or initiative. As Denzel Washington said, “Dreams without goals remain dreams, just dreams, and ultimately fuel disappointment.” But waiting on God is a pattern that runs throughout scripture.

Noah spent more than a year inside the Ark, sending out first a raven and then a dove to see if the ground was dry. Yet still he waited, even when the dove did not return, until God said, “Come out of the ark …”

Abraham waited till he and Sarah were past their normal childbearing years before God fulfilled his promise of an heir.

Joseph waited years in slavery to Potiphar the Egyptian, then two more years in prison before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and elevated to Prime Minister of the kingdom.

I doubt that Moses had this message in mind when he recorded those stories in Genesis, but for those of us in the smartphone generation, where information is instantaneously at our fingertips, it’s important to understand that life does not move on our timetable and God is never in a hurry.

The list is long and full of success for people who learned to wait on the Lord. Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah come to mind. But waiting on him is not the same as doing nothing. It is more like waiting on the pizza delivery man by putting the plates on the table, the ice in the glasses, and the salad in the bowls and getting the dressing out of the fridge. It is a time of watchful expectancy instead of indolent passivity; patient trust and preparation instead of fussy anxiety and inconsequential busyness.

When the trust is total, the heart is quiet, and the preparation is complete, the task is entered into with confidence and the results, usually, are satisfying. Either way we are living with respect for the One who is truly in charge.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ps 27:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

BECAUSE HE IS GOOD

“Dad, I need some lunch money for school this week,” said my youngest daughter one evening when she was still in high school. Without a thought I opened my wallet plucked out ten dollars and handed it to her.

Then I asked, “Did you get the chores done we agreed on?” I had given her a list before leaving on a trip to Canada and had only just returned.

She said, “Well, I got most of them done but I didn’t clean out mom’s car yet like I promised.”

It didn’t matter. I gave her the ten bucks anyway. You can tell where this is going right?

Think back to the last time you felt like you failed God in some way. You failed to give an offering at the worship service, or you missed the service altogether. You skipped your devotions but somehow had plenty of time for your favorite TV show. You got exhausted and cranky and hurled invective at someone else who failed. You’re nodding your head aren’t you? We’ve all “been there done that.”

Jesus told a parable on prayer for people like you and me. It’s about a man who receives a late night visitor but has nothing to offer his guest. So he goes next door and asks his friend for bread. It’s recorded in Luke 11:5-13. The most well-known verses are 9-10: Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.

But the lesser known verse, the one with the message we often miss, is verse 8: I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Emphasis mine).

Jesus concludes: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Here’s the bottom line on answered prayer: You don’t have to be perfect to receive the power of the Holy Spirit necessary to live the Christian life. You just need the boldness to believe that God is a better parent than you are. God does not answer our prayers for his power because we’ve been regular in our devotions; or because we are faithful tithers; or because we’ve faithfully taught, or sung, or served in some other way for so many years. He answers them because he is good.

So be bold, ASK, even when you feel like you don’t deserve God’s power. He gives it because he is good.

BEARTOOTH PASS And the Glory of God

BEARTOOTH PASS And the Glory of God

“Every time you ride the pass you have to have a plan A, plan B, and plan C, and be ready to execute either one of them at any moment,” said my new friend and guide, Associate Pastor Rob Griggs of Word of Life church in Billings, Montana.

I soon had reason to appreciate his humility and respect for nature.

Rob grew up riding the Beartooth Highway, sixty-nine miles of winding road, stunning views and terrifying terrain that tops out at 10,947 feet between touristy Red Lodge, Montana, and the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park. It opens Memorial Day weekend, or as soon as they can get the snow off, and can close any day of the year for weather.

Rob’s words became prophetic as we rode out of the sunlit lowlands and into the pass. The sky grew dark and menacing, wind buffeted, rain threatened and the treeless, rock-strewn landscape felt more and more forbidding. Miss your footing or worse, overcook a turn on that road, and you are in for a thousand foot plunge on rock-strewn slopes.

But it was more than that. The power and proximity of the weather, thousands of feet up into the atmosphere and exposed as we were with no trees or buildings for shelter, the barren, austere peaks and fields of granite took on spiritual significance. Psalm 104:3 kept playing in the back of my mind:

He makes the clouds his chariot

and rides on the wings of the wind.

4        He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants. [1]

“I’m for plan B!” I said as we took a photo break near the summit. I was wearing summer riding gear: mesh jacket and fingerless gloves, and was already cold. The churning mass of dark cloud and rain pounding the peaks a half mile to our west made it clear we were also about to be wet.

He grinned and said, “I agree! Here, you might want these on the way down,” and handed me a spare pair of gloves. We beat a hasty retreat to some welcome shelter and hot food back in Red Lodge.

Fast forward a few days and the pass was a completely different experience as our family drove in a borrowed Suburban from the Cody, Wyoming side, up the Chief Joseph Highway, and northeast into Montana along the Beartooth. Bright blue skies, puffy white clouds, and gentle breezes brought out all the majesty and beauty of the peaks. The big SUV made the road less intimidating, the chill air less penetrating. Yet still, these mountains have a presence, a personality, a power that will not be taken for granted, that demands respect and not a little humility from the people that play on their slopes. “Enjoy me,” they seem to say, “But do not take me for granted.”

Beartooth Pass teaches me spiritual lessons. It makes me think about the maker of heaven and earth, who rides upon the wings of the wind. It reminds me to enjoy him, but not take him for granted. And it makes me want to take my friends to see him in all his terror, glory, majesty and beauty.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Ps 104:3–4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

EMBRACING YOUR JESUS CRISIS

There is an old story about a gathering of people listening to recitations of the 23rd Psalm. One man everyone wanted to hear was a well-known actor with a deep melodious voice. He wasn’t a particularly spiritual man, but he appreciated the Psalm and was happy to comply. He stood and delivered it beautifully and everyone was duly impressed. Then a very old gentleman, one with no great skill at public speaking, but a man whom everyone respected, was also urged to recite. He slowly rose to his feet and in a quiet voice quoted the Psalm from memory. As he spoke a hush fell over the room, a silence and peace no one wanted to disturb even after he sat down. Finally, the actor spoke the truth everyone knew: “I know the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd.”

Many people are like the actor in the story. They say things like: “I’ve read the Bible. The teachings of Jesus are brilliant. I like the idea of going to heaven when I die. As far as religion is concerned, I check the “Christian” box on official forms. But this whole idea of a relationship with God is beyond me. I know other people experience it. I believe they are genuine. But I don’t seem to be able to have it myself and I don’t know why.”

A story from Luke 5:1-11, the story of the calling of the first disciples, offers a clue. Jesus was seated in Simon’s boat, teaching. He finished, turned to Simon (later called Peter) and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Now Simon was an experienced fisherman, a concrete, rational businessman. He was also tired. He and his partners had fished all night without a catch. He had every reason to politely decline. What Jesus was asking wasn’t rational. Peter could have cited a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But Jesus wasn’t thinking about fish. He was working on Peter’s faith, precipitating a crisis in Peter’s life by purposefully, intentionally, and meaningfully pushing him to choose between Peter’s will, intelligence, experience and knowledge, and Jesus’s command. The question was not: would they catch any fish? The question was: would Peter obey?

Peter did obey and the rest, as they say, is history. They caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. But again, it wasn’t about the fish. It was about what happened inside of Peter. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” he said. In other words, Peter now knew Jesus on a whole new level, knew Jesus as God’s Son, and his shepherd, because when his “Jesus crisis” came, he obeyed. He chose submission over experience, Jesus’s will over Peter’s. Life was never the same for Peter after that day.

The ability to experience a living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within, does not depend on a blind leap of faith–far from it. It depends on how we respond to our “Jesus crisis” when he calls us to obey against all experience. And call, he will. Perhaps he already has in your life. Perhaps you’ve had many crises with Jesus and, like the rich young ruler in another story, “went away very sad …” without obeying, never knowing the incredible peace and power that comes from obedience. My prayer for you is that the next time he brings you to that moment of crisis you will, like Peter, obey. I promise you, your life will never be the same.

 

GOD’S LOVE AND HELL

A book by a well known evangelical casts doubt on some things Jesus said about hell and judgment. The basic question is: If God is love, why does he send people to hell?

But there is a twofold problem with the question. It assumes that we understand human nature and God’s love as they are presented in the Bible.

We do not.

We have childish, unbiblical notions of human nature. We believe that we are better than we are–that sin somehow does not corrupt us. We also have confused ideas about responsibility. We tend to blame God for our choices. We misunderstand his nature, imagining his love as grandfatherly sentiment, his holiness irrelevant, and therefore, his wrath is considered impossible.

When we do think of God’s wrath, we equate it with human rage. But Tim Keller has a good definition of God’s wrath: “It is not an out-of-control temper. Wrath is the settled opposition and hatred of that which is destroying what we love.” Imagine your reaction to cancer in a dear friend. That’s wrath. God hates the things that destroy us, including the things that come from inside us.

We are capable of much evil, much selfishness, much that is perverse and opposed to that which God holds dear. We destroy the bodies he gave us with toxins, neglect, and inadequate care. We destroy the souls he gave us with greed, gossip, lying, self-righteousness, self-pity, and lust. And we destroy others with cutting words, economic oppression, relentless criticism, and betrayal.

We also assume that Jesus was too kind to mention hell. But he said more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. He warned us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

He also taught that hell is self-chosen saying, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:18-19 NIV).

C. S. Lewis said it like this: Unless someone wants God and God alone he would be utterly miserable in heaven. It would be a crime to send him there for heaven is all about God.

Finally, the good news that Jesus came to proclaim is that God wishes to save us from hell. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). That’s God’s love at work, absorbing the wrath that we deserve, and making it possible for us to know him now and join him in eternity.

How do we do that? By receiving him into our lives as Lord, as Jesus also explained, “He who receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20 ESV). And, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 13:25 NIV).

So the question is not, “Why does God send people to hell?” But rather, “What do I really want? Do I want Jesus Christ and God the Father who sent him? Or do I want my own life, my own way?”

Either way, the choice is ours.