FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

The tiny taxi’s wheels crunched gravel and sand as we dodged yet another car-sized hole in the washed-out road through the Himalayan foothills. Rounding a bend our host said something in Nepalese to the driver and he whipped the little car sideways, backed up into a gravel patch and stopped. We were on this road to view Mount Everest, but it remained lost to us all day, shrouded in clouds.

We found instead evidence of the movement of God that is also shrouded to most western eyes.

“Here,” said our host in clipped English, pointing to a narrow, red, three-story house built into the side of the hill, “this is a Church, and this is the pastor.”

The proud pastor, whom I’ll call Sundar, led us down into the second-floor. “This is the worship center,” he said. “My family lives upstairs and we work downstairs.” We removed our shoes and followed him inside a 30’ X 15’ room with no chairs. “Fifty people at a time worship. The Church has 250,” he explained. “Fifty-eight are baptized believers.”

Two pictorial Bibles graced the yellow walls, the whole narrative of Scripture on three-by-four-foot banners filled with 5” X 7” images from the Garden of Eden to Revelation. The Lord’s Prayer, in Nepalese, was on the far wall, The Apostle’s Creed stood opposite. So, this is how they do it, I thought. This is like the early Church, before anybody had Bibles. They tell the stories and recite the Creed to cement the meaning of the stories in place, then follow the Lord in prayer. Remarkable!

More remarkable still was the faith of Pastor Sundar.

Sundar started the church about ten years ago in a rented house near the district’s Buddhist temple and police station. “The first year was OK,” he said, “no problem.” But by the end of the second year, with more and more people attending, the Buddhist monk got angry.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” said Sundar. “The Buddhist monk attacked me. He slapped me three times saying, ‘Why did you come here? What do you think you are doing?’ and he mocked me, and the Church, and Jesus.”

“I was angry,” said Sundar, “so I prayed: God, what am I to do? If I grab him and throw him down the mountain he will die. Then the authorities will arrest me. So, what do I do?”

Immediately, God spoke to his heart, “Sundar, this chance to suffer for me many people do not get. But you get this chance. There is no need for you to take revenge. I’ll take care of him.”

“I am an easily angered man, but all this happened inside my heart in an instant. So, I threw my hands up and said, ‘Lord, I give thanks!’ And the Buddhist monk walked away, still mocking and joking about Jesus, and opened his clothing and urinated in public.” (This is an intense form of mockery for them, like saying: “I relieve myself on your god!”)

The quarrel had attracted three policemen from the nearby station. One said nothing to the monk. The second said to Sundar, “Why are you arguing with the monk? He does good things for the community!” The third said to the monk, “This man Sundar brings new things, good things to our town. You should not quarrel with him.”

“Within three months,” said Sundar, “The man who said nothing was transferred out of the area. The man who opposed me was paralyzed in half his body. And the man who supported me was left here. God confirmed his word to me that day.”

Nepal is an officially secular, but predominantly Hindu nation with stiff laws against evangelism. It is also the birthplace of Buddha. I was amazed by the strength of Sundar’s faith and the vitality of his Church. Professor Phillip Jenkins, in his landmark work, The Next Christendom, explains what I was seeing: “By most accounts, membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs in to the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority.”[1]

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of men like Sundar leading new churches all over the global south. They are expecting to meet persecution of all kinds every day and trusting God in the middle of it. Are we?

[1] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, third edition, 2011, p. 9, Kindle version.

GOD & HURRICANES

GOD & HURRICANES

Carl F. H. Henry, a well-known theologian of the 20th century who was respected for the profundity of his work and revered for his intellectual brilliance, wrote: “I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome “paradidomai” (“I abandon, or I give [them] up,” Romans 1:24) over America’s professed greatness … Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.”[1]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. Should we be thinking about hurricanes and other natural disasters as the judgment of God, or is something else going on?

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

On the other hand, natural disasters provide opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need. As Mr. Rogers said, “When bad things happen, look for the helpers.” Thousands of Southern Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and other faith groups like Samaritan’s Purse, which our church supports, coordinate their relief efforts through National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) and stay in disaster-stricken areas long after the storm has passed. In 2017, NVOAD’s CEO, Greg Foster, reported that “80% of all disaster recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.” That’s where God is working.[2]

The only natural – disaster – type judgments recorded in scripture occurred after they were specifically prophesied by one of God’s servants as such. Think of Noah and the Flood, Moses and the ten plagues, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Calling a natural disaster the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday-morning-quarterbacking.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Short of that, we should understand all natural disasters as the result of the fall and the curse.

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

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

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

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

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

[2] https://dailycaller.com/2017/09/10/christians-provide-more-aid-to-hurricane-victims-than-fema/

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

Humanity is broken and hurting. Hear some comments from hurting people:

I’m 48 years old and my wife has just filed for divorce. I never planned for this. I never thought I would be alone and have to start all over this late in life. On top of that it may bankrupt me.

I was still in rehab, just recovering from a gran mall seizure brought on by spinal meningitis that could have killed me, when we learned that our daughter, contrary to everything we had taught her, had just “come out” as gay. We read the letter and sat down in front of her old bedroom door and wept broken and bitter tears.

My first husband beat me. The man I’m married to now doesn’t love me. I am fourth or fifth on his priority list. I’m so lonely and unhappy that I’m flying to the other side of the country to find a job and a new life. My life is adrift.

We only want to know one thing when we’re hurting. We aren’t interested in the weather. We don’t care about the stock market. And we sure don’t care about politics. We only want to know how to be healed.

Psalm 147, the second in a set of five that make up the last songs in the book, is a song about healing.

Verse two gives us the context saying, “He gathers the exiles of Israel.” The Psalm was written to help the people of God worship after their return from exile in Babylon. It was good to go home, but still a time of great brokenness and sadness. Their cities and towns had been destroyed, their property given to foreigners. Their spiritual, civic, and economic infrastructure was like Houston after Hurricane Harvey: a shambles.

The psalm shows us that God heals in four ways: “The Lord builds up; The Lord gathers; The Lord heals; The Lord binds up their wounds.” (V. 2-3).

First, he rebuilds what was broken down—the walls in Israel’s case. He gives them the tools and resources and leadership (under Nehemiah) to make their city secure once again, to keep out invaders, to give them stability.

God rebuilds our walls too. Brokenhearted people are often violated people. When we are sexually abused as children; when parents lose children; when we’ve invested years and fortunes in a career and suddenly lose it, our walls are broken down. We feel violated, less secure.

The healer of broken hearts helps us rebuild our walls. He brings together the tools, and the resources, and the leadership we need to make our city secure again, to give us stability in a shaky world.

Second, God gathers what was scattered. In Israel’s case it was the people, scattered about the Babylonian empire. Bit by bit and tribe by tribe, they made the pilgrimage back to the land of promise. God opened doors for them to leave. Cyrus the king issued a decree making money available. Property was returned. Travel was protected.

How does God heal us? He gathers what was scattered. Brokenhearted people are often lonely people, disconnected from healthy relationships with others. God brings us together for strength and encouragement. The New Testament is full of references to this. (See Acts 2:44-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).

God heals us when he gathers us to his people. When we become part of the living body of Christ, the Church, we cease to be scattered. We become connected to others who dispel our loneliness and welcome us into their lives based on our common relationship with Christ.

A challenge: do you isolate yourself? If so you are missing the healing God has for you. You may not like it at first, but it’s what you need, and God has it for you in his Church.

Third, God heals the brokenhearted with the brokenhearted. He heals the addicted with the formerly addicted; the divorced with the previously divorced; the grieving with the grieved, the hope and purpose from those who’ve come through on the other side of brokenness.

But there is a catch to all of this. Or maybe it’s better to say that the path to the healing power of God is counter-intuitive.

We are tempted in our brokenness to turn away from God, even to run. That’s the worst thing we can do. When the storm blows the hardest it is time to lean into him. The Psalmist shows us how.

Embrace humility in the pain. “Sing to him with thanksgiving,” it says (V. 4-7). Praising God when we hurt is a humbling thing, completely counter-intuitive. But that’s where the healing comes from. Lean into that wind. That’s what drives the fear and insecurity away, leaning into him with worship and praise, not running.

Finally, “put your hope in him.” (V. 8-11). Remember what Jesus said to Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus had died? “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” “Look to me Mary, look to me Martha. Put your hope solely in me.” It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

Many voices vie for our attention when we are brokenhearted, many people, many philosophies promise peace and healing. Only God can give us the order we need, the comprehensive understanding that leads to healing. Only God can give us himself.

BILLY GRAHAM ON LEADERSHIP

BILLY GRAHAM ON LEADERSHIP

In the film Blackhawk Down, a vehicle filled with wounded Americans comes to a halt in the middle of a hailstorm of Somali bullets. The commanding officer orders a soldier to take the wheel. The soldier protests, “I can’t, I’m shot!”

The officer is unimpressed. “We’re all shot. Get in and drive!”

Leaders keep going, even when combat rages around us and wounds pile up within us. Those halted by trials, who give in to self-pity and retreat into apathy, vanish like sand castles with the evening tide. Those who persevere become light houses on the shores of history. Martin Luther, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Chuck Colson, and of course Billy Graham, who died last week, the list of leaders who suffered huge defeats and kept going is long and no doubt one of your heroes is on it.

Harold Myra former CEO, and Marshall Shelley, former Vice President of Christianity Today International (which Graham founded), knew Billy well and worked closely with him. Their book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, records many of his trials and how Graham responded.

“I’m no different from you,” said Billy, “I would like to live a life free of problems, free of pain, and free of severe personal discipline. However, I’d had extreme pressures in my life to the point where I’ve wanted to run away from reality … I felt like going to the Cove (the retreat center he founded in North Carolina) and lying down in the cemetery to see how I fit.”

The apostle Paul also knew the wounds of leadership.

“I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:26-28 NIV).

Earlier in that letter Paul revealed his attitude toward suffering: “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9 NIV).

“Mountain tops are for views and inspiration,” wrote Billy, “but fruit is grown in the valleys.”

Leadership, of large organizations or small families, is exercised at a price. Plans run awry, friends fail us, the world wounds us and still the job must get done. As Churchill wrote, “Success is never final, and failure is rarely fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”

That was Billy Graham. Right after the comment about getting measured for his grave he said, “God has called me to my responsibilities, and I must be faithful.”

The truth is that at some level we’re all called and we’re all shot. Lead anyway and live for the commendation that all people of God long for: “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”[1]

[1] Matthew 25:21.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

VICTIMOLOGY 101

 

What do Islamic terrorists, LGBT activists, and the rioters in Charlotte all have in common? One would think nothing at all, but dig a little deeper and you will find an underground stream running through our culture that nourishes all three.

Welcome to Victimology 101.

The Jihadist rationale for violence depends in part on a doctrine that paints Islam as the victim of infidel oppression. So let’s say you’re the editor of a satirical French magazine that publishes some unflattering cartoons of Mohammed; or you’re a priest of another religion operating in territory claimed by Islam; or you’re a passenger on a plane that represents the prosperity and freedom of an infidel nation. Bang, slash, crash, boom you’re dead and it’s your fault for insulting Islam. That’s Victimology.

The LGBT rationale for imposing its agenda on photographers, bakers, florists, wedding venues, and most recently every public school in the nation regarding who can use what bathroom, is the same. “We’re victims! We have the right to impose our views on everyone in the country!” That’s Victimology.

The rioters in Charlotte, and other municipalities where police have been forced to use force have destroyed businesses, property, and lives for the same reason. “We’re victims!” They cry, as they perpetrate their scorched earth path to power. That’s Victimology.

Adherents of Victimology have at least three things in common.

First, their pain is their fame. They glory in victim status and expect everyone else to comply. Any attempt to diminish their status is met with indignation, anger, or accusations of insensitivity or oppression. Any attempt to persuade them of a need to change behavior in order to change outcomes is met with multiple rationalizations and blame shifting.

Second, they count on cultural co-dependency. “Compulsive rescuing, called co-dependency,” said Robert McGee, “allows the dependent person (or group) to continue acting destructively and keeps him or her in need of habitually being rescued, so that the pattern continues.”[1] We are suffering from national co-dependence. We rush to fix the problem when stepping back, taking a second look, and figuring out how to help the victim help himself would be better.

Third, emotion equals truth. No one is totally objective. But the adherents of victimology have no objectivity whatsoever. Thus, any appeal to dispassionate reality has little to no authority and is often twisted in order to validate the victim’s outrage.

“Now hang on,” you reason. “Some bad stuff has happened to Muslims, Gays, and Blacks at the hands of bad actors.” Of course it has. Welcome to the fallen planet, where power corrupts, racism lives, and gender-disordered people are hated for something that feels out of their control.

Any society worthy of the title civilized would want to address obvious inequities and open oppression of the strong against the weak and marginalized. I for one am glad to have learned what I have about Islam, same-sex attracted people, and racism by the conflicts we’ve endured over the past two-decades. But the missing truth is that you do not help one class of victims by creating another. That path is as old as mankind and littered with the rubble of civilizations.

Thankfully, there is a better way.

The most successful reconciliations in history are those that adopted and adapted the doctrines of Jesus Christ. Why didn’t the American Civil War continue as a perpetual guerrilla battle after Appomattox, as Jefferson Davis commanded? Because Christian Generals like Robert E. Lee wouldn’t allow it. How did South Africa overcome the rancor of Apartheid? By applying the doctrines of reconciliation taught in the Bible and applied by men like Desmond Tutu. Why did Rwanda not continue in a blood-bath of retaliation after the Tutsi’s defeated the Hutu’s in 1994? Because Christians led the way in reconciliation.

What can we do when we see Victimology at work?

First, refuse to buy into its precepts. Don’t participate in the pain is fame game, cooperate in cultural co-dependency, or acquiesce to the myth of emotion as truth. But just as important, be a student of Reconciliation 101. Do not take revenge. Let God be the judge. Forgive your enemies, as you have been forgiven. Be kind to those who oppose and oppress you, and look for ways to serve the greater good.

[1] McGee, Robert S. The Search for Significance. Pg. 63.