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.

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.

OF TIME AND TELOMERES

OF TIME AND TELOMERES

“My arm won’t quit hurting and I can’t figure it out. It hasn’t slowed me down yet, but I’m in constant discomfort.”

“The weather has cleared, and I need to be out working but my back is a wreck. I can hardly move. I’m on my way to the doctor now.”

“My wife used to walk five miles with me every day. Now she can barely make it down the block and the doctors don’t know what’s wrong.”

“I never felt old, but once I did, I got old quick!”

I could fill pages with such quotes, and not all of them from my baby-boomer peers. Some are men and women twenty years or so behind me. They got me thinking about time and telomeres, or frailty, the inevitability of it, and how to handle it.

Telomeres form a kind of protective cap at the ends of our chromosomes. Scientists liken them to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces that prevent them unraveling. They degrade as we age and as they do, disease becomes more likely.[1] As sure as the sun rises our telomeres will unravel and with them our bodies.

Of course, this is not news. David sang, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” [2]

And Moses wrote, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”[3]

The young never imagine getting old but are wise to take good care of themselves. I never believed in unions with their high labor costs and productivity choking rules until I saw what low-profit-margin manual labor and inadequate support does to the bodies of young men. It isn’t pretty. Most of them are somewhat crippled by age 55 and unable to work by 60. I still don’t like unions, but young contractors could learn a thing or two from them about the bids they offer and the jobs they take. Their bodies might last longer if they did.

Middle-aged people, even in white collar jobs, can see their slow-down coming. But most don’t take time to think about it. They’re in the middle of margin-less living, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Richard Swenson. And most aren’t setting aside the financial resources that will provide security when they can’t keep up with the guys in their thirties. Spending less and saving more would go a long way to securing their future.

My grandma, who was not known for profanity, shockingly said, “I don’t mind being old, it’s just such hell getting there!” Most senior friends will agree. They know now what their 30-something selves never imagined, and some are depressed by it. But they shouldn’t fall prey to the lie of uselessness. Remember Simeon who blessed the baby Jesus, and the prophetess Anna who did the same (See Luke 2:25-38)? Drink deeply of scripture and develop a life of prayer. Think about the major life lessons you’ve learned—you remember them as stories—and boil them down to short sentences, personal proverbs you can share when the time is right. They are invaluable to the blades of grass coming up behind you.

Frailty is a fact of life, but Christ has overcome it for all who will believe. He died for us that we might live forever and rose from the grave to guarantee that promise. Long after our flower has faded, and our earthly place has forgotten us, we will be living in flawless bodies that time and telomeres cannot touch.

Have you put your faith in him yet?

[1] From Wikipedia.

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 103:15–16). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Ps. 90:12

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

 

 

CAUSE & EFFECT IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD

How we live affects our ability to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit on the one hand and avoid entanglement with evil on the other.

One of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read was M. Scott Peck’s Glimpses of the Devil. Peck was a clinical psychiatrist and author of several bestsellers in the 1970’s and 80’s including, The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie. Glimpses is the full account of the exorcisms of two of his patients.

With degrees from Harvard and Case Western Reserve, Peck did not see the Devil behind every mental disorder. In fact, until the day he met Jersey, a patient profiled in the book, he did not believe in the Devil. His experiences with her and another patient convinced him not only of the reality of personal spiritual evil, but also of cause and effect in the spiritual world.

“There are two states of being,” Peck wrote, “submission to God and goodness or the refusal to submit to anything beyond one’s own will—which refusal automatically enslaves one to the forces of evil. We must ultimately belong either to God or the devil.”[1]

Science is always catching up with scripture, and Peck the twentieth century scientist, had caught up with things the Apostle Paul taught in the first century about the spiritual world.

Some things we do provide an avenue for evil influence in our lives. Practicing falsehood, indulging anger, and habitual stealing, “give the devil a foothold,” Paul wrote.[2] But who, or what, is the Devil?

The Devil is a hateful, violent, twisted being that despises God and loathes people. He is attracted to sinful behavior like flies to garbage, laying his larvae of spite, lust, and greed to hatch into maggots of bitterness, violence, sexual predation, and avarice. Thus, his evil influence in life spreads like the stench of a landfill on a hot summer day.

As the Devil’s influence swells in a life that makes room for it, so the Spirit’s effect wanes. The knowledge of God’s presence, the strength to withstand temptation, the wisdom, discernment, healing, prophecy, and other manifestations along with love, joy, peace, patience and self-control fade when we ignore Him and indulge evil.

The Spirit of God is gentle, pure, and quiet. He does not go where he is not welcomed.[3] We can choke his influence by our hard hearts.[4]  He grieves over sin in the life of a believer the way a parent is saddened by a wayward child.[5] But when he is welcomed he brings sweet fruit.

Welcome the Spirit of God into your life. Make room for him daily through meditation on Scripture, worship with the Psalms or other spiritual songs, and prayer. Abide in Christ, trusting in his completed work for you on the cross and obeying his commands, and his Spirit’s influence and power in your life will grow.

[1] From the Preface.

[2] Ephesians 4:27

[3] John 20:22

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:19

[5] Ephesians 4:30

PLAYGROUND FAITH In a Toys R’nt Us World

PLAYGROUND FAITH  In a Toys R’nt Us World

Our church took a step of faith this month, spending about $10,000 on a new playground that should serve us for another twenty years. But the faith had nothing to do with raising money. Being a frugal bunch, we had been setting aside funds for capital improvements for years. No, the faith had to do with spending it on play-equipment in the first place. The way things are going in America, playgrounds could become a thing of the past, relics of the baby-boom gone bust.

Consider the trends: Seventy-year-old icon of childhood, Toys R Us, just closed all 800 stores, blaming the Amazon insurgency along with Wal-Mart and Target for its market decline. They were also over-leveraged, but the root of the problem is declining demand. “Most of our end-customers are newborns and children,” they said in a statement, “and, as a result, our revenue are dependent on the birthrates in countries where we operate. In recent years, many countries’ birthrates have dropped or stagnated as their population ages, and education and income levels increase.”[1]

Bottom-line, men and women aren’t getting married as often or as young as they used to. When they do they aren’t having as many babies, if they have any at all. Breakpoint’s John Stonestreet reports that the U.S. fertility rate is near 1.77 children per woman, or below the replacement rate necessary to sustain our population at current levels.[2] Children are expensive to have and costly to raise, we reason, and that’s true. But the more we treasure our treasure the less we value life.

The roots of this lie in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the advent of “the pill,” when we divorced sex from marriage and devalued children in the process. But it has greater ramifications than the closing of a toy store chain. The supply of young workers that keep an economy growing and social programs funded declines as the population grays and demand for social services increases. Financial crises loom as this population mega-shift occurs.

But there’s more to it than that. Having children pleases God and drives spiritual growth.

From the Genesis mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” to Jesus’s command to “let the little children come to me,” the Bible is a pro-children book. “Children are a reward from God … a crown to the aged,” wrote Solomon.[3] Ask any grandparent and you will hear “Amen!”

Raising children from diapers to diplomas is the most demanding thing anyone can do, and the most spiritually rewarding. Kids expose our selfishness and call out service: will I buy that new boat or put money aside for braces? Volunteer to coach soccer or stay in bed on Saturday mornings? Children also challenge our moral inconsistencies: “Daddy, should you really be driving that fast … on the way to church?” Most uncomfortably, children reveal our character flaws just by sharing our DNA. It’s humbling to realize that those little ones who “look just like Daddy!” also share his penchant for show-boating, self-pity, arrogance, and mendacity.

Finally—and this is only a partial list—children teach us total dependence on God. Ask any parent who has ever said, “My child will never (fill-in-the-blank),” and they will tell you that there is only one God and we aren’t him. We have no ability whatsoever to control outcomes in the lives of our little ones. God created them, gave them free will, and allows them to use it. Sooner or later—and the sooner the better—we release them to him and pray, trusting when they fall that he will raise them up, and rejoicing when they succeed.

So, building playgrounds is an act of faith. But having babies is even greater. May God bless us all with more of both.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/15/toys-r-uss-baby-problem-is-everybodys-baby-problem/

[2] http://www.breakpoint.org/2018/04/breakpoint-toys-r-us-to-close-down/

[3] Psalm 127:3 & Proverbs 17:6