OF PANDEMICS AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD

OF PANDEMICS AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD

We are not the first to deal with a global pandemic and if God wills, we will not be the last. The only real question is: will we face it with faith in God and sacrificial love for our fellow man, or pull a Y2K kind of American Christian panic and hunker down in fear of the world outside?

Down the centuries, Christians were known to put aside personal safety in service to others during epidemics and other kinds of disasters. Are we ready to do the same today? If so, it will look a little different than it did in the past. Today it means putting aside our preference to meet together for worship, prayer, and preaching, and practicing social distancing.

Wikipedia reports that the 1918 influenza pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920; also known as the Spanish flu) … infected 500 million people around the world,[2] or about 27% of the world population of between 1.8 and 1.9 billion. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million[3] to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.[4][5]

The Black Plague or Bubonic Plague of Medieval times was worse. Wikipedia reports that it was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.[1][2][3] …The plague created a number of religious, social and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.

The plague was still a threat 200 years later during the Reformation, which gave Martin Luther and John Calvin, two of the greatest theological minds in history, the opportunity to comment. Both advised prudence in the face of such disasters.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564): ““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 & prudence are instruments of the divine dispensation.” Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Ch. 17.

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess.

Churches in Washington D.C., responding to the 1918 flu pandemic, closed from October 5 through the 31st. The most Christian thing to do in the current crisis is follow their example.

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?” the sweaty, African American man said as he handed back the glass Mom had given him.

“Whut,”? I asked.

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?”

“Momma, I cain’t unnerstan this man. Whuts he wont?”

“He wants more water, honey. It’s awfully hot outside. Here, give me the glass.” She refilled it and handed it back to the man who walked into our backyard every week, dumped our garbage cans into his large metal one, slung it on his shoulder, and hauled it back to the county truck at our curb.

I was about eight years old, and the only black men I met were the ones that collected the trash or trimmed the hedge across the street from my grandma’s house. I had no idea of the life these men led or of the events swirling through our country in 1968. But the Civil Rights movement was about to make itself known in powerfully negative terms in my small southern world. By the time I reached eighth grade in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, racial gang fights were regular events. And dodging them was an art form for this pudgy 13-year-old.

I did not understand the roots of the anger in my black classmates. All I knew was I felt like I was paying for something I hadn’t done and over which I had no control, and I was angry. Little did I know that they felt the same way. And as a people, they’d had enough of it.

About the same time that I was waking up to racism, future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was coming to terms with his anger about the injustice. In the new documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, we learn how this coastal Georgia, Gullah-Geechee speaking boy, grew up from poverty to become one of the youngest men ever appointed to the bench. And how the once-radical leftist became a bastion of conservative jurisprudence.

Schooled by his grandfather’s fierce work-ethic—“Old man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him,”—and Irish Catholic nuns sympathetic to racial oppression, Thomas was bound for the priesthood. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a white seminary classmate’s comment, “I hope he’s dead,” unleashed a fury in Thomas that drove him from the ministry and into the arms of campus Marxist revolutionaries in Boston. “I’m angry with my grandfather. I’m angry with the Church. If it’s a warm day, I’m angry. If it’s a cold day, I’m angry. I’m just angry. I’m angry. I’m sort of flying, lashing out at every single thing. Nothing is right.”

But a night of violence with campus radicals shook him to his core and drove him back to the Church where he asked God, “If you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again. Anger and hate,” he says, “are just other forms of slavery. Other people are controlling you.”

He would need that resolve when leftist ideologues tried to torpedo his nomination with bogus sexual assault charges during confirmation hearings. “We know exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed,” he says in the film. Thomas’s humanity, faith, and courage are reminiscent of Jacky Robinson’s in the movie 42 as he withstands without rancor the vicious assault on his character that he termed “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Watching his story unfold helped me better understand mine and strengthened me for the cultural battles we face today.

Black history month has come and gone, and the film is no longer playing in theaters. But it will be air on PBS in May, and no doubt be available soon on DVD and streaming services. In these culturally confusing, racially tense times, it goes down like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Every summer, we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But then I ate an Abbott tomato. I thought I knew what sweet was, but then I tasted a Turbeville, VA cantaloupe.

One such garden was across the street from our house. But none of its fruit would’ve been possible without Mr. Rice from down the street. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with the thing every garden needs: the plow.

The plow is hard and sharp. It rips through weeds, punctures the hard surface, and breaks up the clotted dirt. The plow prepares the ground for the beginning of life-giving things.

The spiritual life has a parallel in the plow: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in ‘putting off the old life’ and ‘putting on the new.’ Nothing happens without it.

Today is Ash Wednesday when some Christians mark their heads with an ashen cross to begin the season of Lent, a concentrated period of personal repentance before Easter. That’s good if it helps. Like an unused plow in an abandoned field, repentance has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture. But repentance is a spiritual discipline that requires regular practice if it’s to do us any good.

Nehemiah shows us how to do it.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins…we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the toughest part of the ground, the hardened surface of self. We come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t my environment, it wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my family, I did something wrong, and I’m responsible for it.”

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside, I look fine. On the inside, my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands… you gave to Moses.”

Finally, Nehemiah confessed to group sins. He used the plural pronoun, “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves responsible for what our culture is doing. But when we fail to speak up for the defenseless unborn, are we not responsible? When we fail to care for the poor, are we not neglecting our responsibilities?

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility, putting everything out on the table between God and us. That is essential if we want a response.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away, grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with Mr. Rice about that. He said, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time, there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are less than five.”

When I observe our culture and see the poison it produces, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

7 KEYS TO LONG-TERM LOVE

7 KEYS TO LONG-TERM LOVE

“Dear Pastor,

Please help. My man has gone into a shell and I can’t get him out. He used to be attentive, warm, and affectionate, but now he lives in his own world.

Don’t get me wrong. I know he loves me. He works hard, pays the bills, and helps around the house. But he’s just, I don’t know, gone somehow. He is distant, civil, but not engaging, polite, but superficial. I long for the connection we once had. I don’t think he’s having an affair, but I don’t know what to do.”

That lover’s lament is fictitious, but close enough to similar stories I’ve heard to make the point: long-term romantic success isn’t easy. Worse, many women have no clue about the things motivating their man’s behavior.

Thus, seven keys to long-term love.

First, validate his need for masculine approval. “One motive … compels men like few others,” wrote Patrick Morely, “It is foundational, perpetual, and insatiable: A man’s need for his father’s affirmation.” Your approval is not enough. If your man has unresolved issues with his dad, gently encourage him to seek peace and reconciliation.[1] If his father is absent, encourage him to let God be his father and let men of the church be his mentors. He will love you for it.

Second, validate his need for accomplishment. Every man has “an intense desire ‘to do,’ to master his world, to shape the course of events. Every man has a desire for significance, meaning and purpose; to accomplish something with his life, especially in his work. [2]” Validate that. Pray for him to find his purpose, be his greatest cheerleader in it, and celebrate each step he takes toward fulfilling it. He will love you for it.

Third, validate the financial pressure he feels. The pressure to achieve a higher standard of living is relentless and stressful. Empathize with the pressure he feels to provide the best of everything and let him know that a used car is OK, that cheap dates are just fine, and that you can wait for that expensive honeymoon until you’ve been working long enough to afford it. Do that and he will dig for ways to spend money on you.

Fourth, be loyal. Men are notorious loners. They learn early to be guarded lest someone take advantage of a vulnerability. They need a partner in life that they can trust with their weaknesses as well as their strengths. That kind of trust takes time to build and is easily broken. Ridicule him or betray his vulnerabilities and you will lose him. Keep his secrets. Prove that he can trust you, that you will not take advantage of his vulnerabilities, and he will kill himself to show his appreciation.

Fifth, speak his love language. Most women are more verbal than men. It’s just the way we’re wired. Unsurprisingly, many women say that their love language is words of affirmation and many men—most in my counseling experience—that theirs is physical affection. Not necessarily sex, but simple loving touch. “Whatever there is of me resides in my body,” writes Gary Chapman in his bestseller, The 5 Love Languages. “To touch my body is to touch me. To withdraw from my body is to distance yourself from me emotionally.” You may have many reasons not to touch him, but he is only hearing one thing: “she doesn’t love me.” Whatever the language, learn to “fill his love tank” with it and he will reciprocate.

Sixth, feed him. But you knew that.

Seventh, let him lead. Laura Doyle, author of The Surrendered Wife, “used to think that communication was the key to a better marriage. But that wasn’t how it turned out … Even though I have a degree in communications, trying for years to “communicate” with my husband never got me the connection I craved, but the principles of surrender did. One of those principles is that a surrendered wife is trusting where she used to be controlling.”

Like many strong-willed, strong-minded women, Doyle realized she had to make a choice to let her man be in charge. For example, men will not prioritize a task list like women or do things in the same order as women. She wants it done her way right now so, she does it now. The man thinks, “OK, I’m not needed here. I won’t go there next time.” Soon, a pattern emerges and next thing you know the woman is leading and the man is disengaging from the relationship.

The Apostle Peter encouraged women to let their husbands lead and “do not give way to fear…[3]

If you’re in a relationship with an abusive man do not submit to it and do not make excuses for him. But if you’re destroying romance by over controlling your relationship, I encourage you to let go of your fear, trust God, and let him lead. You will be amazed at the results.

[1] Patrick Morley, What Husbands Wish Their Wives Knew About Men, p. 16 & 30.

[2] Ibid, pgs. 35 & 46.

[3] 1 Peter 3: 5-6

7 Keys to Successful Romance

7 Keys to Successful Romance

My senses were assaulted at Wal-Mart last night. I strolled in, minding my own business, looking for our favorite frozen desert, when the smell of flowers and candy and a huge splash of red and pink displays hit my eyeballs like a baseball bat.

“Oh, yeah! Valentines!”

Call me distracted, but don’t call me unconcerned about matters of the heart. I’ve been happily married for about 36 years and doing marriage counseling for almost that long. Those displays reminded me that flowers and candy, important as they may be, are only the icing on the cake of a robust romance.

Here men, are the top seven things you need to succeed in love.

First, make an all-out commitment to Christ. (See Rom. 12:1-2 & John 15:1-4). All of us bring the baggage of our sinful nature into every relationship. When the flames of passion dissipate, as they always do, the baggage remains. Our lovers often want to “throw the baggage out,” so to speak, but that creates conflict. Abiding in Christ, making our lives a constant sacrifice to God and conforming our minds to his frees him to take out the trash and replace it with real love before it begins to stink up the relationship.

Second, develop the heart of a servant-leader. (Matthew 20:25-28). Successful lovers lead through service. Begin by leading yourself. Your lady wants to be your wife, not your mamma, your co-laborer not your wet nurse. She needs you to grow up, maximize earning potential, use money wisely, and stay out of unnecessary debt. She needs you to take care of yourself physically and emotionally, learn how to make good decisions, and be strong in the challenges of life. Not superman. Not unwilling to take advice and counsel. Just strong, full of faith, trusting God, looking ahead, paying attention, adjusting to contingencies, pursuing a goal, refusing to wither in the face of adversity.

She also needs you to take out the trash, run the vacuum, do the dishes, change the baby and—if you can do it without poisoning her—cook from time to time. It boils down to this: study her like a good waiter watches his table and provide for her needs. You will be amazed at what this will do for your love life.

Third, commit to communicate.  Men who succeed in love don’t hide behind the strong-silent illusion of manhood. Learn to say what you need and ask for what you want. Make sure you know your love language and how to speak hers.

Fourth, develop conflict resolution skills. Few people grow up knowing how to resolve conflicts in romance. We leave them to fester at our peril. Successful lovers learn how to have a productive argument, and then have one. They learn how to say they’re sorry, and mean it. They even learn to say that they were wrong, sometimes ;-). After that, they celebrate with ice cream and … well, read the Song of Solomon and you’ll get the picture. Good conflict strengthens love. Poorly managed conflict leaves deep wounds.

Fifth, commit to commitment. Hollywood will tell you otherwise, but all loves ebb and flow, wax and wane. Remember this: it’s the promise that keeps the love, not the love that keeps the promise.

Sixth, practice the art of forgiveness. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that “love keeps no record of wrongs.” Romantic relationships are fragile flowers. They cannot bear the chill of resentment. They wither under a grudge. Forgiveness lets the sun in and keeps the life-giving water flowing.

Seventh, work at it like a gardener. Loving a woman is like keeping a garden, not like fixing a car. A car needs a timing belt once every 100,000 miles. Romance needs daily attention like a garden needs a gardener. Every day he’s there, feeding it with the sunshine of his affection, pulling the weeds of conflict, watering it with encouragement, and fertilizing it with affirmation. And every now and then, maybe when Wal-Mart reminds him, he feeds it the Miracle Grow of flowers and chocolate. A man like that will enjoy a fruitful garden of love. The guys who don’t get weeds.

Succeeding at love is not brain surgery men, but it does take humility, commitment and work. Trust God, practice these habits and you will succeed.

SEVEN TESTS OF TRUE FAITH

Do you ever wake up in the morning and not feel like a Christian? Wait, let me re-phrase that. Do you ever wake up and, even after your first cup of coffee, not feel like a real believer? What do we do with that?

And how about those people who attended church and sang the songs and said the prayers and served the community but whose life choices now seem totally out of sync with biblical ethics? What do we do with that? How do we come to grips with our fickle feelings and feckless friends when it comes to spiritual things? How do we know if we or anyone else is truly in the faith?

It is not a new question.

The Apostle John answered similar questions in his first letter to the churches. He gives us seven tests of faith that help us distinguish between true and false believers. They also comfort and confirm us on those days we doubt our salvation when our emotions are wiggly, and our faith is weak.

The overarching test, the one that provides the foundation and frame for the whole letter, is the Christological, or the “Christ” test. We see it in 1:3; 2:22; 4:2-3 and 5:7-12, among others. It maintains that Jesus Christ is God’s Son in the flesh who lived a real earthly life, died for our sins and rose from the dead, ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and will return to rule one day. If we do not believe that, we are not “in him.”

This belief is no mere intellectual assent or culturally acceptable confession. Ask just about anyone on the street if he believes in Jesus and, he will say yes. (OK, ask it in the South. I can’t vouch for other parts of the country). Belief, in the New Testament, means the complete acceptance of and compliance with Jesus’s claim to be Messiah, the Son of God, the only atonement for our sins and, the only hope of eternal life. It means he has our ultimate loyalties.

But as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the tares, and as we see in the lives of Judas and other people in Scripture, it is possible to fake it. That’s why John provided six other tests.

  1. The light test, 1Jn.1:5-7. True faith lives in truth or with biblical ethics. Lives characterized by wickedness and error are in the darkness. Lives of holiness and truth are in the light.
  2. The humility test, 1Jn 1:8-10. True faith practices humility about personal sin. If we recognize and confess our sinfulness, he cleanses and purifies us. If not, “we make him out to be a liar.”
  3. The obedience test, 1Jn. 2:3-6. True faith obeys. If our lives are characterized by obedience to his commands, we “know we are in him.” If we say we are his, but our lives are characterized by disobedience to his way, we are lying to ourselves and everybody else.
  4. The love test, 1Jn. 2:9-11. True faith lives in love. Lives characterized by love for others, including those outside the faith, are in the light. If not, we remain in darkness.
  5. The worldliness test, 1Jn. 2:15-17. True faith loves the things of God. Covetousness, lust, and boastful pride belong to the world.
  6. And finally, the persistence test, 1 John 2:19-25. If we depart from the faith as it was handed down by the Apostles, we do not have the Father or the Son. But if we persist in that faith, we remain in him (v.24).

18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.[1]

Feelings will lie to us, and friends will sometimes forsake the way. But God’s word is true, and you can count on it.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (1 Jn 3:18–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.