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.”

FACING THE EVIL AMONG US The Las Vegas Massacre

My gut double-clutched as I heard the newsman’s report on Monday morning radio: “Over fifty killed, over five hundred wounded.” As John Stonestreet said on Breakpoint yesterday, we weep for the suffering and we call evil by name.[1]

That’s what I want to do today, help us face the evil.

Law enforcement will sift out a motive, and the debate will rage again about gun control, but in the end, these will not speak to our deepest fears. Remember that in 1995 Timothy McVeigh used a Ryder rental truck, fertilizer, racing fuel, and diesel fuel to kill 168 people, injure 680 others and destroy 25 buildings. On 9-11 Islamic terrorists killed almost 3000 with box cutters and airliners. No amount of investigation or new security will bring these people back.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation and the debates, the question will remain: Knowing something like this could happen again, how are we to deal with it on a personal, day-to-day basis?

The Reality of Evil

Historian David McCollough made this comment after 9-11, “We have for a long time now chosen to see everything in shades of gray. We have eschewed the idea of a clear line between right and wrong, good and evil. I think this event changes that.”

Paul called it the ‘mystery of iniquity’. Evil, how it works and why it torments us, is a mystery. But it is not a myth. It is as real as the thunder of a falling tower and as terrible as the rattle of an automatic weapon, and it resides in our hearts too.[2] Each generation must come to grips with the reality of evil.

The Mandalay Bay shooter was not always evil. He was a baby at his mother’s breast. He was a little boy playing sandlot baseball. But something happened and he turned. He was a free moral agent and made a choice to nurture the evil inside and let it grow.

The Bible teaches us that we have a choice.[3] The question is, what will we do with the evil within?

Salt to a Rotting Culture

Were all of us more truthful with ourselves we would admit violence in our entertainment is just as poisonous as pornography. The more we consume it the less we abhor it and the more it becomes a viable option for calming our inner demons.

No one knows what evil drew the Las Vegas shooter to that hotel high ground, but nothing is more certain than that he saw violence as his only response.

Evil comes from within, but it is nurtured by corrupt culture. Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world. Surely that means that we have a role in reshaping our cultural taste for violence.

Find True Security

Stories are already emerging of people who made narrow escapes, or left the venue like John Rich of Big & Rich, before the shooting began. But ultimately, safety has nothing to do with where you are or what you are doing. Safety is found in God alone.

I’m not suggesting we ignore security precautions. I’m just saying that five minutes or five seconds one way or the other is often the difference between life and death. And none of us knows which side of that count we will be on when we walk out the door.[4]

If you do not yet have a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, God doesn’t want to know your plans for tomorrow. He wants to know your plans for today. Will you trust him with all that you are for all of eternity?

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 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. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”[5]

Let your grasp of who he is be so firm, and your understanding and respect for his power be so immense, that no evil on earth can intimidate you.

[1] http://www.breakpoint.org/2017/10/breakpoint-mourning-wake-las-vegas/

[2] Matthew 5:19

[3] Ephesians 4:26-27; James 1:14-15

[4] Psalm 103:15-16

[5] Matthew 10:28-31

GOD, KIRK CAMERON & HURRICANES

Former Left Behind actor Kirk Cameron made some comments about the recent hurricanes that, taken out of context and twisted by headline writers, made it sound as if Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s judgment on America. As if on cue the blogosphere went bananas.

Patheos blogger, Michael Stone is a good example:

“Cameron is toxic. His glib explanation and justification for his imaginary God’s cruelty and immorality is moronic … Cameron’s God is a misogynistic, moral monster, that lacks any moral standard, and apparently approves of rape, incest, genocide, and slavery, among many other unsavory and decidedly immoral acts.”[1]

Others, including actress Jennifer Lawrence, agreed with this blogger’s sentiments:

“Well, maybe it’s God punishing America for voting for a racist, self-serving, ego driven President. The hurricanes are hitting two states who voted for him. Like you said Kirk…coincidence? I think not!”[2]

Such charges against the God of the Bible are common, so what exactly does it teach about judgment and natural disasters?

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

Carl F. H. Henry was a well-known theologian of the 20th century, respected for the profundity of his work, revered for his intellectual brilliance and spiritual depth, and the farthest thing you could imagine from an actor in a Left Behind movie.

Henry said:

“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.”[3]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. It is presumptuous of anyone to say that any hurricane is God’s judgment.

It is, on the other hand, an opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need and that, according to USA Today, is exactly what they are doing. About 75% of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, an alliance of organizations that help FEMA, is made up of faith groups. Samaritan’s Purse, whom our church supports, is among them.[4]

Second, 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.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Otherwise we may understand disasters as a result of ‘curse on the ground’ from Genesis carrying out its work. Calling a hurricane the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday morning quarterbacking.

Third, 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). So Cameron is right when he says hurricanes are an opportunity for humility and reflection, as are other near death experiences.

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

My brother lives two blocks from the ocean in Panama City Beach, Florida. A direct shot from Irma would have left his home under water and his town looking like New Orleans after Katrina. While he is concerned for his neighbors to the south he is also greatly relieved. Other towns absorbed the energy of that monster storm.

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] http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/09/08/kirk-cameron-says-god-sends-hurricanes-internet-collectively-loses-mind/

[2] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kirk-cameron-draws-controversy-hurricane-comments-1037129

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

[4] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/10/hurricane-irma-faith-groups-provide-bulk-disaster-recovery-coordination-fema/651007001/

JESUS’S UN-AMERICAN DREAM

Michael Jordan, principal owner and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets and one of the greatest professional basketball players ever, retired from the court in 2003 as one of the game’s wealthiest contestants.

The owner of the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf, for whom Jordan played most of his career, remarked at the time, “He’s living the American Dream. The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you do want to do.”

I do this. So do you. We like to set up our lives so that we don’t have to get involved with the world’s problems if we don’t want to. We can’t do it on the scale of a wealthy person like Jordan. But we do it in other ways. And when we do we leave Jesus’s decidedly Un-American dream for us out of the equation.

What is Jesus’s Un-American dream?

You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and place it under a bushel, but on the lamp stand; and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 15:13-14).

All of us are aware of the increasing darkness of western culture. We see corruption, rampant immorality, the porn epidemic, the growth of the so-called euthanasia movement, the redefinition not only of marriage but of what it means to be male and female even in kindergarten, and the increasing assaults on religious freedom.

We see it and far too many of us react in fear and withdrawal, happy to cast blame on “them,” “the culture,” or “the world,” but unable to see the Lord’s Un-American calling on ourselves.

The late Anglican cleric John R.W. Stott made a pertinent observation about this.

“If the house is dark at night, there is no sense in blaming the house. That’s what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is, “Where is the light?”

“If meat goes bad, there is no sense in blaming the meat. That is what happens when the bacteria are allowed to breed unchecked. The question to ask is, “Where is the salt?”

“If society becomes corrupt like a dark night or stinking fish, there’s no sense in blaming society. That’s what happens when fallen human society is left to itself and human evil is unrestrained and unchecked. The question to ask is “Where is the church?”

God leaves his people – us – here for a reason. He could have said, “Come out, be separate, start a holy commune, create your own economy, your own schools, your own record companies, your own TV shows. Isolate yourselves in suspicious fear of all that is in the world.  Hide out in the holy ghetto until I come and get you!”

But that isn’t what he said. He said, “Stay there! Stay in the world! Keep it from rotting. Guide it toward that which is good!”

We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. That’s Jesus’s Un-American dream for us.

BECAUSE HE IS GOOD

“Dad, I need some lunch money for school this week,” said my youngest daughter one evening when she was still in high school. Without a thought I opened my wallet plucked out ten dollars and handed it to her.

Then I asked, “Did you get the chores done we agreed on?” I had given her a list before leaving on a trip to Canada and had only just returned.

She said, “Well, I got most of them done but I didn’t clean out mom’s car yet like I promised.”

It didn’t matter. I gave her the ten bucks anyway. You can tell where this is going right?

Think back to the last time you felt like you failed God in some way. You failed to give an offering at the worship service, or you missed the service altogether. You skipped your devotions but somehow had plenty of time for your favorite TV show. You got exhausted and cranky and hurled invective at someone else who failed. You’re nodding your head aren’t you? We’ve all “been there done that.”

Jesus told a parable on prayer for people like you and me. It’s about a man who receives a late night visitor but has nothing to offer his guest. So he goes next door and asks his friend for bread. It’s recorded in Luke 11:5-13. The most well-known verses are 9-10: Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.

But the lesser known verse, the one with the message we often miss, is verse 8: I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Emphasis mine).

Jesus concludes: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Here’s the bottom line on answered prayer: You don’t have to be perfect to receive the power of the Holy Spirit necessary to live the Christian life. You just need the boldness to believe that God is a better parent than you are. God does not answer our prayers for his power because we’ve been regular in our devotions; or because we are faithful tithers; or because we’ve faithfully taught, or sung, or served in some other way for so many years. He answers them because he is good.

So be bold, ASK, even when you feel like you don’t deserve God’s power. He gives it because he is good.

JESUS, COLBERT & SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

You’ve probably seen the meme with Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show on NBC, holding a Bible next to a picture of Jesus saying, “I would like to read to you what Jesus said about homosexuality … I’d like to, but he never said anything about it.”

Colbert ran this gag in 2012 and the debate has moved on since then with most people assuming he was correct. But a young mom passed it along to me this week, asking for clarification and, assuming she represents a larger group, I’m sharing my response with you for your edification.

At first glance Colbert would seem to be correct. Enter the word “homosexual” into your e-Bible concordance, limit the search to the four gospels and you won’t find Jesus using the word.

It is true that, unlike the Apostle Paul, the Lord never used the word homosexual, but he did address the issue of human sexuality and his teaching does more than affirm the traditional view, it is its foundation.

First, Jesus, who never traveled outside of Palestine, was a Jewish rabbi speaking to a first century Jewish audience. Paul, on the other hand, was a Jewish missionary to a predominantly Greek and Roman audience. In Jesus’s culture homosexuality was probably present, but not out in the open, ditto pedophilia which he also never mentions. Homosexuality and pedophilia were notoriously common among the Greco-Romans Paul was teaching, which explains his emphasis on the subject.

Jesus did, however, refer to homosexuality in a different context. When he taught, in Matthew 15:18-19, of the heart as the source of sins he used the broadest term possible — the Greek word is porneia — to describe sexual sin. Porneia is not limited to one particular sexual sin, like adultery, but includes the whole sweep of sexual sin. Any sexual activity outside of the marriage of a man and a woman was considered porneia, including homosexuality.

Second, Jesus affirmed that marriage is between male and female. In Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus explained what marriage is by going back to the original design of God in Genesis 1:27, 2:23 and 24. The union between male and female is the order of creation, God’s design for men and women. This is the foundation of everything Jesus taught about human sexuality. Same-sex marriage is a direct contradiction of his teaching on sex in general, and marriage in particular.

Third, Jesus condemned homosexual practice in his condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Matthew 10:15 Jesus explained to his disciples that in the judgment to come the towns that refused their message would suffer a greater judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah. Again in Matthew 11 Jesus denounced Capernaum telling the people, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Some say that Sodom was only judged for its brutality to strangers but you have to ignore the clear meaning of multiple Old and New Testament texts to arrive at that conclusion. Sodom and Gomorrah are bywords throughout the Bible for sexual perversion, especially homosexuality. Jesus, though he had many opportunities to do so, did not upend the teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. He affirmed it and quoted from it.

When we dig a little deeper we find, as with most things surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage, that the truth is more profound than a five second night show gag.

RENDEZVOUS WITH JESUS: Alpha 2017

A new friend sat across the table at the local deli, eager to tell me what had happened to him.

“On the third week, when Nicky Gumble led in prayer, I prayed with him and gave everything to God. I told God I couldn’t do anything without him and didn’t want to try. Up until then I had some good days and some bad days, well, really a lot of bad days and some OK days, full of anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. All of that is gone. I felt this incredible lightness after I prayed. I’m sleeping the night through now, and I’m so happy.”

That was in 2011, about five weeks into our first Alpha Course, and conversations like it have continued to happen ever since. That’s the reason our church will offer Alpha in September for the eighth time since 2011. I’m writing today to ask you to pray for the course and for friends you might invite this summer.

Haven’t heard of Alpha? Wonder what it’s like?

The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community.

Learning is a process that happens best when we are in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. People who have attended church all their lives will enjoy it. Those who’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity will also enjoy it and come away enriched, with new understanding and new friends.

The Alpha Course Team, the people who make the event happen each fall, consists of two parts: task force, and hosts / facilitators. The task force prepares the meals and handles logistics. The hosts / facilitators make  guests feel welcome and facilitate small-group discussions. The only prerequisites to serving on the team are to have attended the course at least once and meet a few times prior to launch for prayer and training.

One of the most important things our Alpha team has learned over the years is that the primary reason people attend the course is because a friend has invited them. So even if you choose not to serve on an Alpha Course team, your prayers for and invitations to friends really count. Of course you’ll also want to attend with whomever you invite.

The coolest thing in the world is to sit with new friends, see the peace and joy on their faces, hear how awesome it is to know that they are loved and cared for by the Creator of heaven and earth, and know that we got to play a small part in their rendezvous with Jesus.

Interested? Visit  http://alphausa.org.