THE GREAT HOPE

THE GREAT HOPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLOSE CALLS AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

CLOSE CALLS AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Matthew 10:29-30

[3] Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

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

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

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

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

The first clue is in verse 48.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

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

No, it wasn’t an Elvis concert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

BETTER THAN MEDICINE Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

BETTER THAN MEDICINE Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

I have a file labeled: When Science Catches Up with Scripture. Stories from all over find their way into that file; from law, medicine, the natural sciences, child rearing, business, archaeology, and psychology. To qualify, the story must record observations or research on a topic—that’s the science part—that “discover” something already revealed in the Bible. I get a chuckle out of these stories because most of them sound so, “Aha! We’ve found something totally new!” But to those of us familiar with Scripture, they sound like children celebrating when the square block fits the square hole.

I hope to write a book about it one day and if I do the power of gratitude will be one of the chapters.

U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT reported on it in 2001 with HAPPINESS EXPLAINED. Harvard Medical School ran a story titled, IN PRAISE OF GRATITUDE in 2011. And BE THANKFUL: Science says gratitude is good for your health, appeared on the Today Show in 2015.

Much of the research on the topic has been performed by Dr. Michael C. McCollough, of the University of Miami, and Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis. A few of their findings on the practice of gratitude include better sleep, lowered blood pressure, and better immune systems. Other researchers found the habit of gratitude associated with less fatigue, lower inflammation, and healthier heart rhythms.[1]

Or, as Scripture has it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength. [2] That’s the Scripture part, written some 3,000 years ago 😉

But key words in the reports are “habit” and “practice.” Like physical workouts, the benefits of gratefulness come only to those who exercise their gratitude muscles often. Want to bench-press some of those benefits into your life? Try these routines:

Journal your gratitude. Write down five things per week for which you are grateful. The process forces us to pause and think about the good things in our lives and writing makes a permanent record to help us remember. That’s a good thing!

Write thank-you notes. It cheers up others as it increases our gratitude quotient. Win-Win!

Thank your mate daily. Husbands and wives who thank their spouses for the little things have less trouble working through problems in their marriages. Find specific things to thank them for and do it daily.

Compare down, not up, and give something away. It’s easy to find people more privileged and envy them. Most advertisements are designed to make us unhappy with what we have so that we’ll buy something else. But those are gratitude killers. Contentment comes to those who realize how good they have it and share their abundance with others less fortunate.

When Christ’s disciples returned from their first mission trip, they celebrated saying, “Even the demons were subject to us in your name!” But Jesus reminded them: “Do not rejoice in that, but that rather your names are written in the book of life.”  If you have not yet received Jesus Christ as your savior and Lord I urge you to do it today. For He is the greatest of all reasons to give thanks. Thank God for providing you with eternal life through faith in his Son and no matter what troubles come your way, you will always have something to celebrate.

Happy thanks-giving! It’s better than medicine!

[1] Adapted from Lauren Dunn, “Be thankful: Science says gratitude is good for your health,” TODAY (5-12-17)

[2] Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Pr 17:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.