STACY & LYNN WANTED A WEDDING

STACY & LYNN WANTED A WEDDING

Stacy & Lynn (pseudonyms) visited our church for a few weeks in 2003. The two young women had hardened faces, ‘butch’ haircuts, and dressed like men. Lynn walked with a noticeable limp, like something congenital. It was evident to me (it’s a pastor thing, I can’t explain it) that both women were in deep emotional pain. They asked to meet with me. Sensing what this might be about, I asked two of our elders to join us.

Both women told incredibly sad stories of abuse, sexual and otherwise, from fathers, ex-husbands, and relatives. They asked me to officiate a wedding for them.

The elders and I carefully and gently explained the gospel. We explained God’s plan for marriage from the Gospels. We welcomed them to worship with us at any time. I explained that we often try to get our needs met and our injuries healed in sinful ways, that the path to healing begins with repentance and walking with Jesus.

When I finished, Lynn said, “So, will you perform a ceremony for us?”  

“No, I can’t, I’m sorry. It would be wrong.” I said.

“Ok. Well, we’ll be going now.”

I want to say that Lynn and Stacy gave their lives to Jesus that day. But they didn’t. They did have an encounter with gentle, respectful, loving men who were free to share the gospel of repentance and faith in Jesus’ name with them. We planted the seed, and I believe it will yet bear fruit.

I told that story in June 2004, in a sermon based on Matthew 19:1-6 on the gospel and public policy. I concluded by saying, “If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, what we shared that day may well become illegal and punishable by law.”

In Virginia, that day has come. The Virginia Values Act became law on July 1. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, the law “poses severe threats to churches, Christian schools, and other religious ministries that operate consistently with their beliefs on marriage and human sexuality. Under the law, they face a choice: abandon their biblical beliefs or face investigations, lawsuits, fines of up to $100,000 per violation, unlimited legal fees, and court orders forcing them to violate their convictions.” 

The law also “prevents religious schools from limiting admittance to those students and families who share their religious beliefs. And ministries that offer sex-specific accommodations—such as an overnight women’s shelter—must allow males who identify as women access to female-only areas.”

Further, the law makes it illegal for any pastor or church to explain our beliefs even on our website. For example, under current Virginia law, my essay, I’M NOT GAY AND YOU PROBABLY AREN’T EITHER, written to help young men with same-sex attraction sort through their confusion and find God’s best path, is now illegal.

LGBTQ and same-sex marriage advocates argue that we are just trying to force our religion on everyone else. So, as an evangelical pastor, I want to make something clear. Bad things have come from the malpractice of Biblical Christianity in this country. Christians mistreated some people with same-sex attraction. In large part due to the outcry of people in the LGBTQ community, many of us who consider ourselves to be Biblical Christians have become aware of this. We have had some “come to Jesus moments” about how we treat homosexual people. I am glad that they spoke out, and I apologize for the pain we have caused. Many Christians are now attempting to build bridges of understanding to the LGBTQ community. We will never fully agree on everything, but we agree that belittling and bullying one another isn’t helpful.

But none of that negates the fact that same-sex marriage is not only contrary to God’s design but also and unsurprisingly, bad for civilization. The landmark study on this topic by Sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, Austin, titled, The New Family Structure Study (NFSS), was praised for its rigorous adherence to the scientific method and its sampling size.

A summary of its key findings:

Compared with offspring from married, intact mother/father homes, children raised in same-sex homes are markedly more likely to:

  • Experience poor educational attainment
  • Report overall lower levels of happiness, mental and physical health.
  • Have impulsive behavior
  • Be in counseling or mental health therapy (2xs)
  • Suffer from depression (by large margins)
  • Have recently thought of suicide (significantly)
  • Identify as bisexual, lesbian, or gay
  • Have male on male or female on female sex partners (dramatically higher)
  • Currently, be in a same-sex romantic relationship (2x to 3x more likely) 
  • Be asexual (females with lesbian parents)
  • As adults, be unmarried; much more likely to cohabit
  • As adults, more likely to be unfaithful in married or cohabiting relationships
  • Have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • Be sexually molested (both inappropriate touching and forced sexual act)
  • Feel relationally isolated from bio-mother and -father (Although lesbian-parented children do feel close to their bio-mom – not surprisingly – they are not as close as children with a bio-mom married to father)
  • Be unemployed or part-time employed as young adults
  • As adults, currently, be on public assistance or sometime in their childhood
  • Live in homes with lower income levels
  • Drink to get drunk
  • To smoke tobacco and marijuana
  • Spend more time watching TV
  • Have frequency of arrests
  • Have pled guilty to minor legal offense

When Christians advocate for something in the public square, we do it out of love for others and the country’s good. Those who disagree should make better arguments. Instead, they are using legislation that threatens financial ruin to shut down all who disagree. And that is nothing less than tyranny.

The good news is that the law is unconstitutional on several levels. ADF, on behalf of Calvary Road Baptist Church, Community Fellowship Church, Community Christian Academy, and Care Net filed a preemptive suit challenging the law. Hopefully, this will work out in the courts.

But that lawsuit would not be necessary if Virginia’s Christians had been paying attention and voting their values in the 2017 election. Our negligence gave us a one-party rule, and the Virginia Values Acts is one of many bad results. Our local delegate, James Edmunds, said, “They have undone in one session what took us twenty years to build.”  Too many stayed home. I hope that doesn’t happen this go around.  

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

Imagine 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 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.”

Not much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice or personal failure that seemed to disqualify them from the faith. Others were injured by fraudulent Christians and left the faith out of anger. A spate of recent books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and ex-pastors Rob Bell and Joshua Harris contribute to the 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?”

That is why we offer the Alpha Course every fall. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. It covers the ten most common questions people have about Christianity, including Who is Jesus? Why Did He Die? Can I Trust the Bible? How Does God Guide Us? What Does the Holy Spirit Do? Why and How Do I Pray?

Our Church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you’ve never attended one, I encourage you to find a course near you and go. Click here to find one in your area: https://alphausa.org/try.

WE ARE CAESAR: Christians and Politics in 2020

WE ARE CAESAR: Christians and Politics in 2020

A national election looms, and the contrasts between the candidates and their platforms could not be more distinct. How should we choose? Do the life and teaching of Jesus give us any guidelines?

Yes! Jesus faced a hotly contested political issue. His epic reply was: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.” (See Matthew 22:15-22). The story behind the quote is rife with political tensions that make ours seem mild.

The Story

Judea became a Roman Province in 6 AD after the failed tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus. After the census, the Romans levied a head tax on top of the property tax customs tax. Judas of Galilee led a revolt over it. The debate that raged at the time was whether a good Jew should pay the fee.

We can paraphrase the question to Jesus like this: “Can we pay taxes to Caesar and still give allegiance to God? Are we traitors to God for supporting this pagan leader’s rule over His land?”

The question was a trap. If Jesus rejected the head tax, he was liable to Caesar’s court. If he supported the tax, the Zealots—a violent political movement—would turn on him.

Every resident of Palestine knew someone, a brother, a father, a cousin, a neighbor, whom the Romans had victimized. They were sold into slavery, forced off their land, or executed for speaking out against oppression.

Moreover, the Messiah, like the judges of old, was expected to depose tyrants and enforce justice. Would Jesus measure up?

Jesus turned the tables and set a trap of his own. “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” He said.

They paid it with a Tiberian denarius, propaganda disguised as currency. One side had a profile of the emperor and a superscription that read: TI CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS AUGUSTUS (Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus). The other side had a picture of a woman seated on a throne holding an inverted spear in her right hand and a palm branch in the left. The superscription read “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” (High Priest). The Jews saw it as a portable idol promoting a pagan religion and hated it. So it was funny to watch the questioner dig around to find one, and then realize with embarrassment that all the Jews in the courtyard were frowning at the fact that he would have it on his person.

When he handed it over, Jesus nailed them with three piercing facts. The meaning of his reply runs something like this.

“Hypocrites!” He said. “Since you don’t seem to have any problem doing business with Caesar’s coins, you had better pay his taxes. Second, as much as you pretend to be offended by Caesar’s claims on deity, you have no qualms about bringing this pagan symbol into God’s holy temple. And third, by holding his coin, you already pay tribute to him, let Caesar have his idols.”

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, namely the thing that bears his image and name. But give to God also what bears his image and name – yourself.”God made us in his image. God saved us and called us his own. We owe him our entire being. Jesus is saying, “Caesar owns your money. God owns you. Don’t confuse the two.”

The Principle

The principle is this: Get your allegiances right, and your obligations will come clear. Render to the government what you owe to the government, and to God what you owe to God.

How does this story guide us today? To answer that question, we have to recognize the differences between our government and theirs. Our political systems are completely different. Thus our obligations are different.

Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a conquered country occupied by hostile troops and governed by foreigners. They had no vote or representation in government; they faced imprisonment, slavery, or death for protesting, and had no power short of open rebellion.

Thankfully, our system of government is different. We have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to vote, and freedom to sue the government for justice. We also have the freedom to live and do business publicly as our religious conscious requires. We have not only the right but also the obligation to participate in government at every level. ‘We, the people’, are Caesar. But just as it was in those days, so it is today, Caesar isn’t Lord. God is. ‘We the people’ – in the form of the legislature, the courts or the executive branch – might make a law or ruling that runs contrary to the will of God. Because Christians have the option, we also must promote government for the common good and oppose or change those laws and rulings that are opposed to the common good. That is our obligation to Caesar.

Applying the Principle

To apply the principle, we need to think about both sides of the political equation: our allegiances and our obligations.

The Christian’s first allegiance is to the gospel. Our primary mission is the proclamation of the gospel, which alone can change the heart of a nation. Thus, we need to be wary about aligning ourselves with a particular individual or party.

Our allegiance to God, who commanded us to ‘love your neighbor’ motivates us to work for the good of all our neighbors, not just the advancement of our religion. Therefore, Christians must be impartial advocates of truth, no matter the political consequences.

What are God’s values concerning the political issues of the day, and what is our obligation as participants in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Abortion – God is the creator of life. Children in the womb are the most defenseless. Isa 1:17 says: Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (NIV) Christians should vote for the people who will do the best job of defending the unborn.[1]

Marriage – God established the moral order for the world he created. If we abide by it, things go well. If we abandon it, we can expect trouble. Christians should vote for people who will honor God by maintaining the traditional definition of marriage.

Religious Freedom & Freedom of Speech – Jesus commanded: “Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Religious freedom and freedom of speech are the two most important founding principles of America. Religious freedom is broader than the so-called freedom of worship. And freedom of speech is central to our ability to function as a civil society. Christians should vote for officials who will protect religious freedom and freedom of expression.

Economics

Jesus was clear about our obligations to the poor. But scripture also teaches, “He that will not work, should not eat,” and that all men should be responsible for providing for their families. No fair-minded person could look at the multitude of social services offered in this country and conclude that our government isn’t caring for the poor. Yet welfare fraud totaled $99.1 billion in fiscal year 2019. Christians should vote for officials who will do a better job of managing that system and reign in the abuses.

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” As we consider our civic responsibilities, let’s get our allegiances right, and our obligations will become clear.

[1] Biden’s VP Choice Expected, World News 8/11/2020.

IS GOD ALWAYS ANGRY?

IS GOD ALWAYS ANGRY?

Is God angry with us all the time, or is he something we never expected?

“When the person from whom I have the right to expect nothing gives me everything.” That’s Michael Card’s working definition of the Hebrew word no one knows how to translate: HesedAnd here’s the bottom line: If you don’t know hesed, you don’t know God.

Pronounced with a hard h, hesed is the missing link in most people’s understanding of the God revealed in the Old Testament. Every bit as powerful as “holy” or “righteous” or “just,” we often miss hesed because several English words are usually required to translate it. Thus, the title of Card’s book: INEXPRESSIBLE: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness (IVP Books, 2018).

Lovingkindness, a word coined by Miles Coverdale in his 1535 translation of the scriptures and borrowed by the translators of the King James Version, comes close. But it also, as Card explains, reveals the “linguistic gravity” of hesed, its tendency to draw other words into its orbit and the necessity of using them to understand it.

Truth, mercy/compassion, covenant, justice, faithfulness, goodness, favor, righteousness are the eight words most commonly surrounding hesed and filling out its meaning. But perhaps most important is that hesed is how God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Then the LORD passed in front of him and proclaimed:

Yahweh–Yahweh, is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in hesed (covenant-loving-kindness) and truth, maintaining hesed (covenant-loving-kindness) to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7 HSCB.

Hesed became a refrain, a foundation for songs and prayers down the long centuries of the Old Testament; the reason that, despite their sin and disobedience, the Israelites could boldly ask for what they knew they did not deserve.

He revealed his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel. The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in (hesed) lovingkindness. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever.  He has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Ps. 103:7-12.

What makes the God of the Old Testament unlike any other god, is that, despite Israel’s rebellion, God keeps covenant through sheer kindness. Card traces that kindness through the Old Testament with Moses, David, the Psalms, the prophets, and that ultimate expression of human hesed, Hosea. Then, though the actual Hebrew word does not appear in the New Testament, he anchors it in the life and teaching of Jesus who was full of grace–the New Testament’s closest parallel to hesed– and truth.

“It’s difficult for us to imagine how a being who is infinite in power submerses that power in kindness,” writes Card. “But a deep realization of this aspect of God’s hesed is as revolutionary for us today as it was for Israel … It dismantles that nagging imagery of the angry God of the Old Testament. That perception simply has no place in a biblical understanding of who God is.” God does get angry with us, but anger is not what defines him. It builds slowly and recedes rapidly because he is rich in hesed.

INEXPRESSIBLE is easy to read. The chapters are brief, the stories are captivating, and for those who want to go deep, the footnotes and resource material are easy to use. If you are hungry to know more of God’s love, you need to know hesed.

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

The church I lead ran its first Alpha Course in 2011. We’ve hosted it eight more times since then (twice one year and none in 2018) and 2019 was the best ever! The reason? Not because our team was any better than previous years. We had many of the same people. And not because the food was any better, although it was great. And not because the Alpha Course now features a high-quality video journey with two young hosts in fascinating global locations along with in-person interviews instead of just a guy giving a talk on a stage. We used the new videos in 2017. The difference was that the 2019 Alpha Course at our church had more prayer support than any previous year and it showed in at least five ways.

First, prayer preceded the partnership between the Task Force leader, me, and the Alpha Course Host, Jeff Good. Jeff and I went into this partnership after attending the Alpha Course National Leadership Conference in Arizona last winter. We prayed together in the hotel room and at other times during the conference and came away convinced that God would have us offer the course this year. After that, we agreed to meet weekly to pray for this year’s course.

If you’ve ever spent a long time praying for a specific project, you know what I mean when I say that many direct answers to prayer don’t seem all that spectacular. Things just occur or become obvious or apparent that weren’t apparent before. Things flow. For example, all we knew when we left Arizona was that we were going to offer the course and we needed to pray. We didn’t know who would lead the Task Force and who would be the Host. The Task Force leader oversees setup, meals, and clean up. The Host does PR and everything else. But over time it became apparent that, even though I’d been the host most years and I’m no cook, I should lead the Task Force and Jeff should be the Host.

Direct answers to prayer and evidence of its power appeared in other ways as well.

I realized we probably didn’t have enough budgeted to pay for all the food and the necessary advertising. We also needed a new catering plan that would involve the whole church. But before we even had the catering plan, someone donated $1,000 for the food. Then, a thought “occurred to me,” You dummy, Karen Schopen owns the best restaurant in town and has been in the hospitality business her whole career. Ask her! And voila! We had a new catering plan that included the whole church working together as a team.

But we still needed someone to massage the menus and recruit the cooks and select the right serving setup and make sure I kept everyone up to speed. Enter my excellent wife who, though she’s never cooked for fifty people in her life, knew exactly what to do and how to get it done. Almost the whole church participated. No one felt exhausted and burned out at the end. The meals were great! And the cost? We spent $942.04 on food!

Then there was childcare! Before we could even ask her, Karin Theo offered to do a children’s program concurrent with Alpha. Karin recruited helpers from the whole congregation, and we didn’t have to worry about this part at all. A big relief for me!

Technological problems overcome. We wanted this Alpha Course to feel seamless and high quality to our guests, but we also knew that, technology being what it is, glitches happen. We prayed about that and sure enough, about halfway through the course, the sound card went bad on the computer. One of our guests who is a whiz with technology had it figured out for us before dinner was over.

Finally, and most important, friends who are genuine seekers felt free and safe to ask their hardest questions and hear answers. People in the small groups developed great relationships, shared their deepest struggles, and grew closer to God. One, totally new to the area and our congregation, even joined the church.

With all that in mind I want to ask you to do three things. First, join us each week in prayer for the 2020 Alpha. Second, ask God to show you what part you can play in an Alpha Course near you. Third, begin praying and talking it up with your friends as God provides opportunity. Be ready to invite them when the time comes. I believe the 2020 Alpha Course will be the best ever!

Haven’t heard of The Alpha Course?Click here: The Alpha Course.

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.

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

“If it hadn’t been for the Christians—all the churches that showed up—we’d still be mucking out,” said the man, a Casino worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was October 2006, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of Biloxi. A crew of about ten men from our church, partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, were in Mississippi to help a family rebuild. I had taken a break to do some man-on-the street interviews with my new video camera.

“My house didn’t get destroyed like some of my neighbors,” he said, “but it was full of mud and water up to waist high. I’m not a churchgoer, but as soon as the storm stopped this group of kids from a church showed up and asked if they could help me clean it out. I was ready to start the rebuild within a week. No way it would have happened without their help.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re taking a team of 13 people to Pearland, Texas, next week, to partner again with Samaritan’s Purse and help another family rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And the thing is, no one is surprised that a small church group from Virginia is traveling on its own dime to help people in Texas. Americans just assume that is what people do, but it wasn’t always this way. That ethos came from Christianity.

Followers of Christ have, since the beginning of the church, shown up to serve when the rest of the world was headed for the hills. When a pandemic broke out in ancient Rome, Christians, including key leaders, stayed to help the sick and dying. When the plague took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe in the middle ages, Christians stayed to serve while others fled. When the tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Christian missionaries already in country rushed to help the Muslim population there. When the Ebola epidemic hit Africa, Christian missionary doctors and nurses stayed to fight it. That service ethic, based on the individual’s value as an image-bearer of the living God and Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, changed the world. Now, American’s just expect it.

Some people are wondering out loud these days what it would be like if we could just get rid of Christianity, or somehow limit its cultural impact. Nikolas Kristof, of the New York Times, reported in 2015 that, “In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”[1]

This is especially true when Christians, who are called by God to love their neighbor as themselves and to stand for truth in all things, speak and act on their convictions regarding human sexuality, gender, marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.

But, historian and theologian Jeremiah Johnston, who along with his wife and five kids had to evacuate his home near Houston during Harvey, says, “It was the Christians, the people of faith, who immediately mobilized and invaded this city to help saying, ‘I love Jesus. I believe people are made in the image of God. We’re not going to sit here and let you suffer alone.’ I live in the most diverse county in America … but I never saw an Atheist tent anywhere, or an agnostic society tent, I never saw the ‘Free Thinkers’ helping people whose lives were destroyed. There’s a real world-view reason that is behind that.”[2]

Kristof concurs, it’s “true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”[3]

The faith that causes Christians to serve disaster-stricken people is the same faith that causes us to provide free marriage counseling, speak up for the unborn, encourage adoption, help women with unplanned pregnancies, advocate for traditional marriage, fight porn and sex-trafficking, provide free meals, tell the truth about transgenderism, advocate for prison reform, and stand up for freedom of conscience and religion in the market place. The same Lord that calls us to serve tells us to speak truth in love to all who will hear. It’s why we do what we do

[1] nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster

[2] Warren Cole Smith interview of Johnston on the Listening In podcast, December 21, 2018. See also Johnston’s book, UNIMAGINABLE: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.

[3] ibid

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

THE REASON FOR GOD’S WRATH

Wrath’s purpose in our lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.

Someone once asked, “Do you believe people can change?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also experienced it.”

“What makes them change?” He asked.

“The power of God working from within, but there is only one way to get that.”

“What is it?”

“Humility. Usually precipitated by pain.”

“Huh?” My friend didn’t like where this was going, but I could tell he was still interested so I pressed on.

“Most of us won’t do what the Bible calls repentance—giving up our role as Lord and Master of our lives, as well as giving up our sins, and giving ourselves over to God—until our way of doing things has caused enough pain and frustration to make us consider that God might have a better plan.”

What I didn’t tell him was that the pain that we experience is a manifestation of the mercy of God through the exercise of his wrath. It is one of his greatest, though severest, blessings.

Temporal wrath, the kind we experience during our earthly lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.

When we think of God’s wrath we often think of cataclysmic natural phenomena: the great flood of Genesis or the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Some have even said that hurricanes and the like are evidence of God’s wrath. But a passage in Ezekiel, along with others in the New Testament, offers a different take.

Ezekiel 20:25-26 is a record of God’s wrath against Israel for her sins. It reads: “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror, so they would know that I am the LORD.”

Israel had become hard of hearing. God had sent plenty of warnings by previous prophets; notables like Elijah and Elisha and Jeremiah. But Israel had refused to listen. So God “gave them over.” In other words, he let them experience the full consequences of their choices. Instead of his civilization-building, order-preserving, life-giving Ten Commandments they ended up with a system of frustrating laws under which no one could flourish. Worse, instead of the purity and peace of temple worship they ended up sacrificing their firstborn, murdering their children to appease the new gods they had chosen over Jehovah. This was God’s merciful wrath in action: That they might be so filled with horror at their own behavior they would recognize their folly and return to him.

God’s merciful wrath is also visible in the New Testament. Jesus, responding to his disciples concern over some false teachers, said “let them alone, they are blind leaders of the blind, they will both fall into a ditch.” Paul, in Romans chapter one, repeats the phrase, “gave them over” when explaining God’s wrath. God “left them alone” so to speak. Each time the result is the same: people experiencing the painful and destructive consequences of their choices.

God’s temporal wrath works to induce revulsion in us, disgust at our own behavior, and such horror at the consequences of our choices that we are willing to consider another way to live.

Every one of us deserves God’s wrath, the eternal as well as the temporal consequences of rebellion against him. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Are we any better? Not at all! … There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away. They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”[1]

Thankfully, eternal wrath—the eternal consequences of our rebellion against his goodness—is not the end God has for us, at least not for those who hear the message in painful consequences of ungodly choices. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[2] Christ absorbed the wrath of God for us so that the only version of it we would experience is the kind that helps us change, not the eternal version.

God’s wrath in our lives is a blessing in disguise. It is designed to help us see the awfulness of sin so that we will turn to the savior.

[1] Romans 3:9-12.

[2] Romans 5:6-8.

AVOIDING WANNABE PHARISEES: Four Ways to Protect Your Freedom

“Exclusiveness and exclusion always result from making a false idol of purity. Pharisaism, in fact, is the result of a perverted passion for theological purity just as ethnic cleansing is for racial purity.”

Os Guinness

Our separation from God makes us want to belong to something exclusive, something important, something that will give us a sense of belonging and significance. Examples abound. Until his 2017 retirement, NASCAR fans were either part of Junior Nation, or they weren’t. Duke basketball fans are willing to endure the scorn of all NCAA fandom to identify with Coach K’s success. Harley Davidson is so popular that, not only do they earn hundreds of millions on non-motorcycle merchandise, people tattoo the company logo on their bodies.

Our desire to belong is matched only by our penchant to exclude. Every clique—from the silly to the deadly serious—has those who are in and those who are out. Airlines have first class, business class, and the unwashed masses class. Colleges have fraternities, sororities, and nobodies. The media-elite have the Trumpsters, the Nazis had the Jews and the Shia Muslims have the Sunni. Clearly, we love to exclude one another as much as we long to belong.

Sadly, the church is not immune. No matter how often Scripture tells us to accept, love, and serve one another, we find reasons to belittle, berate, and exclude each other. And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Moses had confrontations with Korah and his band[1], Jesus had the Pharisees, and Paul the “spiritually superior” Corinthians as well as various Judaizers—legalists who wanted Gentile believers to obey Jewish customs—to deal with.

To this day and to our shame the evangelical world has various versions of wannabe Pharisees: people who insist on imposing their convictions about non-essentials on those who are walking in the freedom purchased for them by the Cross of Christ. Few things are more damaging to a Church, diverting its energies away from its mission or derailing its spirit in worship than such division.

Why do Christians find so many things over which to break fellowship? And how do we nurture unity in the face of it? How do we deal with wannabe Pharisees and avoid becoming one ourselves? I offer four principles.

First, keep a clear conscience before God. Wannabe Pharisees want to impose their conscience on your life, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the Spirit within or the clear instructions of Scripture. Make sure you aren’t engaging in something that opposes Christ. As Paul warned the Corinthians not to “participate with demons,”[2] ask yourself, “Am I uncritically adopting and aligning myself with a worldview and values that are opposed to Christ?” If not, you are free.

Second, ask, “is it beneficial to me and everyone else?” Wannabe Pharisees find fault with all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly “Christian.” Insisting that everything we buy, eat, listen to, or read must be labeled “Christian” or it isn’t spiritual enough is not only transparently shallow it’s also completely subjective. It puts the freedom Christ died to give us into the hands of unqualified spiritual umpires.

Third, disengage with wannabe Pharisees as soon as possible. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will end up in the ditch and told his men to “leave them alone.”[3] Paul told Titus to avoid foolish controversies and “have nothing to do” with divisive people after a second warning. Wannabe Pharisees don’t know when to quit, mistaking our kindness for consent to continue badgering us with their priorities. Withdraw from the conversation and let there be no mistake.

Finally, ask, “does exercising my freedom open doors to evangelism or close them?”[4] Jesus said the Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens and put them on men’s shoulders,” but refuse to lift a finger to help. He warned them that they, “… shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” by their hypocrisy. Wannabe Pharisees are more concerned with controlling others than helping them know peace with God and freedom in Christ. Never let someone rob you of the joy of sharing the life of Jesus with someone else.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” [5]

[1] Numbers 16

[2] 1 Cor. 10:20-11:1

[3] Matt. 15:18.

[4] 1 Cor. 9:19-23

[5] Ga 5:1