AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

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.

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.

THE SHEPHERD KING

THE SHEPHERD KING

My wife, an artist, crafter, and master decorator, paints a different picture every season on the canvas that is our home. For that she draws on decades of crafts she has created and collected, all of which are important but none that rival her collection of crèches’, only thirty of which made the cut for this Christmas.

Few things say so much with so little as a manger scene, but I wonder, are we really listening? If we had to explain the scene to someone who had never heard the story, what would we tell? What is the meaning of that baby in the manger? Why is there a star on top? And what are those angels, shepherds, and wise men all about?

A phrase from Matthew’s version of the Christmas story stands out. It’s a combination of the messianic prophecy in Micah 5:2 and the fulfillment of God’s promise to provide a leader for Israel in 2 Samuel 5:2. “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6).

The phrase that lingers in the air, the one I think we miss at Christmas, is “ruler.” The star pointed the Magi to the one born “king of the Jews.” The shepherds went in haste to see the savior, who is “Christ the Lord.” The angels sang “glory to God in the highest …” Jesus is God, the ruler that would come. Jesus is the Shepherd King.

Kings are not the thing these days. There are only forty-three left in the world, and only eleven who have ruling authority.[1] Rulers make the rules and execute the laws of the land. They are supposed to govern, which means hold back the chaos so endemic to this fallen world. A ruler is one to whom obedience is owed. But we prefer to rule ourselves, and who can blame us? All earthly rulers suffer from the same sinful nature we inherited from Adam and we suffer with them.

But the babe in the manger is no mere earthly ruler. Jesus is the Shepherd King who lays down his life for his friends.

Let’s be real-world about this. What does that mean to a farmer who can’t get his beans out of the field because of the rain? To a sister whose brother hates and despises all she calls good? To a childless couple longing for a family? To the parents of a drug addict? To the children of an adulterer who walked out on his vows? To the man with same-sex attraction who wishes it wasn’t so? To high school teachers who get cussed every day and never see discipline applied? To a small business man working 60-70 hours a week to feed and clothe and educate a growing family? What does it mean in a world, as Jordan Peterson likes to remind us, where chaos is the norm and shalom is rare indeed?

It means many things, among them that chaos will one day come to an end and peace will reign. It means that all who have disobeyed and refused to repent will be punished and that those who have sacrificed for the King in his absence will be rewarded. It means that those who longed for the love of a family will inherit the family of God.  That now, even though we cannot see him, we have a shepherd who cares for us, a law that governs us, principles that guide us, his church to encourage us, and his Spirit to empower us through the chaos until the Kingdom comes. It means that we can afford to give ourselves away in love for others, including our enemies, as he gave himself on our behalf knowing that what we do in his name will be remembered by the King when he comes again to rule.

In the unlikely story, with all Herod’s might arrayed against him, of the birth and survival of the baby Jesus we also have the knowledge that what God purposes will get done. No matter what outward appearances indicate, as long as we are aligning ourselves with him, we will share in the glory of the King’s successes and receive his affirmation when he returns.

All hail the Shepherd King who rules and reigns on high

And grace and peace to his faithful ones until the day draws nigh

When he shall come with trumpet blast to take his earthly throne

And bless the world with righteousness when chaos is undone.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/07/22/meet-the-worlds-other-25-royal-families/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ae8d33c41cd9

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

Maybe you remember one of my favorite scenes from the first Indiana Jones movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The villain, French archaeologist Beloche’, leans in to the drunk, grieving hero who believes he’s just lost his girlfriend, “Jones!” he insists, “the Ark is a radio for speaking to God!”

“You wanna talk to God?” the angry Jones slurs as he reaches for his pistol and begins to stand, “Let’s go see him together. I got nothing better to do!”

But before Beloche’s thugs can gun him down, friend Sala’s children rush in shouting, “Uncle Indy, come quick!” and haul him away to safety.

Everybody wants to communicate with God, but fewer and fewer seem to know how. That’s become apparent in many pastoral conversations I’ve had recently.

“How can I tell if this is what God wants us to do?”

“How can I have a more fulfilling spiritual life?”

“Why are there so many different kinds of churches and what distinguishes one from the other?”

These questions and others like them come up more and more often and, even though the questions are quite different, I find my answers keep circling back to the same theme: what the Bible is and what it does in our lives.

The Bible is the Word of God and therefore speaks with absolute authority on every theme it addresses. But don’t take my word for it.

Jesus, whom the Apostle John called “the Word,”–another way of saying God incarnate—also called the Old Testament, “the word of God.”[1] The Apostle Peter explained that the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit.” He also designated Paul’s writings as equal in authority to “the rest of the Scriptures.”[2] And, most notably, Paul explained that all Scripture is “God breathed,” in other words, inspired by God and therefore completely authoritative.

Without the Bible we cannot know how to become a Christian, how to live as a Christian, or how to grow up into full spiritual maturity. Our response to the Bible is first to seek to understand it, then trust it, then obey it. When we do these things we are understanding, trusting, and obeying God.[3]

More than anything else, what distinguishes one church from another is how they think about Scripture. Is it the only authority for all matters? Or is it one among many? It doesn’t matter very much which label a church wears, what matters is its commitment to Scripture as the Word of God.

Those are the basics about the Bible, but something much more powerful, much more transformative and fulfilling awaits when we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, trusting and obeying it. It’s best captured in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [4]

This book is alive. The Spirit of God breathed it into the lives of its authors and breathes through its pages still, as they are read, studied, and preached, accomplishing several things in our souls that only it can do.

It awakens within us the knowledge of God’s holiness, our sin and separation from him, his love for us in Christ, and the salvation available only through him.[5] It reveals to us our true selves before the one true God who is full of holy love, speaking tender words of illumination, conviction, encouragement, and power for his children.[6] It gives us God’s wisdom for living healthy, joyful, meaningful lives.[7]

The list goes on and on, but I’m running out of space.

Want your questions answered? A spiritually fulfilling life? A radio for speaking to God? Read the Bible, trust it, learn how to properly interpret and apply it, and above all obey it. You will be speaking to God, and more importantly, he will be speaking to you.

[1] John 10:35

[2] 2 Peter 1:21 & 2 Peter 3:16.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, p. 17

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 4:12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] Acts 2:22-41; Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-15

[6] Hebrews 4:12; 2nd Peter 1:3-4;

[7] 1Cor. 2:6-13; James 3:1; Proverbs 2:1-15.