Sunday, July 25, 2010

Republican != Christian

Now, I realize this entry is likely to raise the ire of many who stumble across it, but it needs to be said. In case you don't have a background in computer science or discrete mathematics, the "!=" sign in the title stands for "NOT EQUAL," as in "Republican does not equal Christian." Now, in case you are fearful that I am about to begin bashing the Republican Party, fear not. I simply wanted to get something off my chest that has been weighing on my mind for some time. It is an idea that seems especially pertinant at a time when many fundamentalist Christians look on in horror as the introduction of postmodern philosophy into the Church threatens to completely erase the truth of the Gospel from Christian consciousness. If I may, I'd like to draw your attention to a section of scripture that has really been speaking to me of late:

"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God
." (Revelation 2:1-7)

What does this have to do with the subject of this post? In the simplest terms I can find to express it, the biggest problem in late 20th and early 21st century fundamentalist Christianity has been this:

While so many of us (myself included) are prepared to argue for hours on end when presented with a chance to speak out on homosexual marriage, abortion, prayer in schools, or any other controversial social issue, we become strangely tongue-tied, standing around with sheepish looks on our faces when presented with an opportunity to share the simple, yet glorious mystery of a King who would lay down His life for His subjects. We have forsaken our first love, and so we labor at trying to change those around us on the outside, rather than to introduce them to the one that can change them from the inside, forgetting that "the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Am I saying that Christians should keep silent and embrace the "tolerance" of the liberal when confronted with the opportunity to speak out on the issue of sin in our society? Certainly not, but we need to understand that the prevalence of sin in our communities is merely a symptom of a greater illness, and not the illness itself. Treating symptoms should never have become and must not remain the primary focus of the evangelical church.

You see, you and I as Christians can do nothing out of our own strength to change the hearts of those who are lost in the quagmire of sin. All we can do is to allow God's own words to show them that they are sick, then lovingly introduce them to the Great Physician who can heal the very root of their illness. If we spend all our energy attempting to treat the symptom, rather than the disease, then we are just as guilty of selling an empty social gospel as the postmodernists who have invaded our churches.

30 years ago, my father could not understand how the great apostasy described by Christ and the Apostles could possibly come in his lifetime. Now, for all intents and purposes, it is here. It is the eleventh hour. The time for band-aids is long gone. We need a doctor - and so do those around us.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Is Hell Real? An Answer to the Emerging Church

I recently read an article on that should make any Bible-believing Christian's hair stand up on end. The article is entitled "The Problem With Hell" and was written by David Allis, a professed minister of Christ. The article gives a short synopsis of the "traditional doctrine of hell," then goes on to list thirteen reasons why the traditional view of hell should be challenged. The problem is, none of Mr. Allis' reasoning is scripturally-based. Rather, it appears to be the product of wishful thinking and a careful remodeling of our Heavenly Father into something more resembling Santa Claus than the God of the Bible.

Here are a few of the reasons Mr. Allis gives to support the idea that the doctrine of Hell should be reexamined (parentheses represent a paraphrase of the supporting arguments given by Mr Allis):

1. Is Hell compatible with the nature of God? (The idea of hell seems incompatible with a loving God)

You've got it confused, Mr. Allis. Sin is what is incompatible with the nature of God:

The LORD detests the way of the wicked
but he loves those who pursue righteousness. (Proverbs 15:9)

He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. (1 John 3:8)

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

Unrepentant sinners cannot enter into the presence of God, and I know of no one who doesn't somehow fit into the list given in 1 Corinthians 6, myself included. You have it almost right a few paragraphs down in your article: Hell is the place for people who have steadfastly refused to enter into communion with God by placing faith in His Son. Christ Himself explains this in Matthew 13, when He tells us that at the end of the age His angles will "weed out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil." Reading a verse further on we find their fate: They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:42).

Christ lays out God's standard for righteousness clearly in the Sermon on the Mount: It is an impossibly high standard; a standard that none of us can meet, but that has been met on our behalf by the Son of Man.

2. God desires to save everyone (and only 5 - 20% of people throughout history would fall into the category of the "saved" according to Christian understanding).

Mr. Allis correctly cites 1 Peter 3:9 as evidence that God desires that all men be saved, but leaves out the critical context that surrounds it:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:8-13)

While the view that God desires all men to be saved is definitely scriptural, the supposition that God would compromise His position on sin and judgment simply because the majority of people refuse His voice is not:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)

So you see, it isn't news to God or any student of the Scriptures that there may well be more people in hell than in heaven after the judgment.

3 & 4. Will [Christians] know [about their loved ones in hell]? [How can Christians be] having a party while our loved ones suffer?

Mr Allis goes on to ask if the Christ we follow wouldn't "go downstairs (into hell) to do something to help those He loves but are suffering" and even offers to go with Him and help! Here Mr. Allis clearly ignores the teaching of Christ found in Luke 16, which explains that an impassable gulf is fixed between heaven and hell, as well as the teaching of Revelation 21. Those who are in heaven will be in the awesome presence of God. There will be no room for mourning, and all tears will be wiped away. Those in hell will find that they put themselves there and that they had at least some opportunity to avoid their fate. Christians who are worried about this possibility should spend more time witnessing to their loved ones and less time fantasizing about Santa God.

5. Hell is inconsistent with God's salvation efforts to date (That God would send His son to die for us, then suddenly stop His efforts to save us after we die doesn't make sense)

Again, Mr. Allis insists on ignoring the clear teaching of scripture:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

Scripture is clear on this matter; each of us has one life to live. Along with the many attributes rightly ascribed by Mr. Allis to God (merciful, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful) are a few others: righteous, just, and jealous. God's love and mercy are amply demonstrated by Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God's justice will be as amply demonstrated on the day of judgment:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. (Revelation 20:12-13)

6. The Scriptures aren't clear (on the matter of hell)

Really? I don't think it gets much clearer than this, Mr. Allis:

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
(Revelation 20:10)

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14-15)

7. The Problem of Religious Luck (essentially that our character depends on the circumstances in which we are raised and which are outside our control, so only the "lucky" will be able to respond appropriately to the Gospel)

And here we have finally gotten to the root of the problem: Mr. Allis is mistakenly trying to reconcile the truth of Scripture with the lies of humanism. While humanism teaches that people are basically good, or at least neutral from birth, wanting only for nurturing circumstances to become better, Scripture is absolutely clear on the opposite:

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

As it is written:
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God. (Romans 3:10-11)

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward and speak lies. (Psalm 58:3)

If Scripture is not somehow enough, the multitude of testimonies from people who have grown up in sexual slavery, from eunuchs, from murderers, from those who have themselves traded in slaves, and even from those who have come out of the church of Satan to become believing Christians and evangelists give the lie to this idea.

Mr. Allis goes on to write that all this teaching about hell seems more damaging than helpful to the cause of the Gospel, that the idea of hell represents a lowering of the standard of God's love to a level less than that of humans and to reiterate that the concept of hell just doesn't seem consistent with a loving and merciful God. It is a sure bet that there are many people out there longing to hear the "good news," as taught by men like Mr. Allis. The scripture warns that us this will be so:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

Make no mistake, friends: hell is real and awaits all who reject the truth of the Gospel and the call of the Holy Spirit, who testifies about the Son of God (John 15:26). The real good news is here:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

That the Creator and Lord of the universe would love us enough to die for our sins, and that he will confess us before the father, if we confess Him before men is the true good news.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Do You Know This Man?"

My Dad (The Devolutionist) was once discussing matters of faith with my uncle. Now my uncle is a Jehovah's Witness, and like many in that faith, he is aggressive about spreading what he believes to be the good news of the Watchtower. He is passionate about his faith and equally passionate about debating in general. I think if you gave my uncle a choice between a bologna sandwich and a chance to argue religion or a steak dinner with the obligation to engage only in small talk, the steak would be safe from my uncle's teeth. As usual, they went back and forth on a number of issues, concerning heaven, the existence of hell, how a person attains salvation, and so on. As my uncle countered my father's questions and statements with more of his own (in general, most practicing Jehovah's Witnesses know their Bible pretty well - at least the parts they believe to be salient to their faith), it occurred to my Dad to pose one final statement to my uncle, and it is one every Christian should know how to answer for him or herself and, more importantly, for anyone else that asks:

"You can be right about everything else, but the only thing that really matters is who is Jesus, and what are you going to do about Him."

It's a very valid question. You see, there are millions of people around us who are dying, and we are letting them die. They believe they securely strapped in their life-jackets, but the jackets they are wearing are filled with lead plates, rather than buoyant foam. And we stand by on the boat, watching them furiously tread water as their faces sink beneath the waves.

They are dying, because, all too often, our feeble attempts at sharing the Gospel begin and end with asking whether a person believes in Jesus. Very often the answer is "yes." And we let the matter drop, either because we are satisfied with that simple answer, or because we are stymied by it, and don't know where to go from there.

You see, when someone professes to believe in Jesus, we need to ask the next logical question; one that Jesus Himself asked His followers:

"But what about you? Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15)

You see, many who profess faith in Christ would give very different answers than those taught by the Scriptures. The Watchtower teaches that Christ is an exalted angel, the first of God's creations. Brigham Young taught that Christ was an exalted man, the son of a glorified Adam. Islam teaches that Christ was a prophet. Even many in Christian denominations are confused about the identity of Christ, though the Scriptures spell this out very clearly. In Christ's own words:

"Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:17-18)

"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" (John 8:58)

In those two places in Scripture, as well as in others, Jesus takes for Himself titles that are clearly reserved elsewhere for God Himself. In Isaiah 43, the God of Jacob identifies Himself as the First and the Last. In Exodus 3, God identifies Himself to Moses as "I AM," indicating His everlasting and ever-present nature. In the Revelation, we know it is Christ speaking, because the Father never died! In John 8, we know the use of the present tense is a correct translation because of the reaction of the Jews of that day: "At this, they picked up stones to stone him..." (John 8:59) - an appropriate reaction to what they perceived as blasphemy in their misunderstanding of Christ's nature.

There are many other evidences of Christ's identity as God in Scripture. We as Christians should know them by heart, lest we let our loved ones drown clinging to a false Christ that is powerless to save them.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hurry, Pull the Shades!

Saturday morning, a bright and sunny spring day. It's after 10:00, but you yawn as you look out the window and sip your coffee - still in your pajamas, the pattern of lines embossed on the right side of your face by your bedspread just starting fade in the late morning light. A sudden knock at the door shatters the comfortable solitude of your kitchen table. You peek through the living room from around the corner and your palms break into a sweat as you spot two young men in crisp white shirts, paired with spotless black slacks and ties and set off by shiny black name-tags. Oh, no! Did they see me? Shhhh! turn down the TV! Maybe if I just pretend I'm not here, they'll go away.

Has that scene ever played itself out in your home? As I sit here red-faced, I must admit it has played out in mine - and more than once. As I drove home from visiting my parents the other day, I listened to a recording my Dad gave me of a sermon preached in his church almost 40 years ago by the late Dr. Walter Martin - the original Bible Answer Man. You see, the pastor of my parent's Southern California church, concerned by the weakening influence of the Gospel in his community as the Age of Aquarius swept over the nation, resolved that the truth of the Gospel would not be allowed to quietly evaporate in his community without a fight. He arranged to have Dr. Martin be the guest speaker in a week-long series of seminars at the church, all targeting fundamental Christian apologetics and the equipping of believers for evangelism.

As I listened to Dr. Martin's description of the culture of the day and the issues facing the Church, I was amazed when my Dad told me that I was hearing a sermon preached back in 1972! Dr. Martin didn't pull any punches, when it comes to the duty of Christians: The "work" of every Christian, first and foremost, is to believe in Christ, unconditionally:

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:28-29)

Beyond this, every Christian is commanded to share the gospel:

Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32 - NASB)

Not only are we commanded to share the gospel, but to be prepared to defend it:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
(1 Peter 3:15-16)

As Dr. Martin relayed a sad account of a woman who proudly described her strategy for dealing with Jehovah's Witness who come to the door - "I pull the shades, lock the door, and pretend I'm not home," he reflected on what a sad commentary that is for an evangelical church that once thundered with so much authority that hardly anyone dared ignore it. He proposed, rightly, that the Christians of today are simply not equipped to defend the gospel. We know what we believe, but we don't know why we believe it. The only way find out is to go back to school. And the only school we need is gathering dust on the top shelves of our bookcases.

As Dr. Martin took his audience through a defense of the concept of the Trinity, I thought to myself, "Hey, this isn't that hard. I could do this!" I can, and so can you. All we need is to do our homework.

One final thought I would leave you with: God isn't interested so much in winning arguments as He is in saving souls. And each and every person we meet is a person Christ died to save.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Can You Spare a Glass of Water?

A friend of mine recently returned from a mission trip overseas. It was a short trip - only about 10 days, but definitely perspective-changing and even life-changing for my friend. The funny thing is, the single most memorable event for my friend happened, not in the mission field, but in the airplane on the first day of the trip! In fact, God began speaking to my friend in a way he never expected before the plane's wheels even left the ground. It happened something like this:

As the time for the mission began to draw near, my friend began in intense study of the message he felt God was calling him to bring to the pastors, elders, and churchgoers in the country he would be visiting. He had learned of the trip rather late, resolved to go, and had spent at least 40 hours over the previous week in direct study for the trip In spite of his efforts, he still felt woefully unprepared for what the trip might bring.

A tall man, my friend had purposely reserved a bulkhead seat on the plane, to give him room to stretch out. As the crew began their preflight preparations, my friend settled into his seat, determined to make the most of the eight-hour flight in last-minute study for the trip. As my friend settled in for the ride, one of the neighboring passengers tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me. I hate to do this to you, but we've agreed to switch seats with a young couple so their family can sit together. Would you mind letting us out?" Great, my friend thought, as he looked up and saw his new neighbors. They had a baby. So much for studying.

My friend immediately noticed something else about the family: They were very obviously middle-eastern. In a post-911 world, you can imagine what thoughts might go through an American's head, sitting on a plane next to a middle-eastern family. My friend had a couple of those thoughts, even pausing to text another friend, joking about "being ready for anything." As the plane took off, my friend brought out his notebook and Bible, determined to study in spite of crying babies or any other distractions.

"Excuse me," an accented voice politely asked, "is that a Bible?"
"Why yes, it is," my friend replied.
"And are you a Christian?"
"Yes. yes, I am."
"I was raised Muslim all my life, and I've never really understood Christianity. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"

My friend was thunderstruck, and immediately shamed by the thoughts he had entertained during the preflight preparations. "Of course," he replied. My friend began talking with the young couple , taking them through the story of creation, the history of Israel, all the way through the New Testament, explaining Christ in the context of creation, original sin, and the law. At one point, so engrossed in the discussion that she didn't want to miss a thing, the young woman moved out of her seat and sat on the floor near my friend. Before my friend knew it, seven hours had gone by and it was time to land. Now, I would love to tell you that the young couple accepted Christ as their Lord on the spot, but it didn't happen that way. They did, however, graciously thank my friend, telling him that Christianity made much more sense to them now. They also asked if it might be possible to come see my friend and visit his church. My friend was completely humbled by the experience, as was I, when I heard the story. Two things struck me about my friend's account:

1. There are people out there who are literally thirsty for the Word. Thirsty enough to sit raptly listening to it for seven hours - on the floor, if need be. It shames me to think that sometimes I am itching to get out of my pew at church after just 45 minutes. My friend was so engrossed in his need to prepare for his mission, that he almost missed the mission field in front of him: "I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 25:43-45).

2. God's will will be done, sometimes with our joyful participation, sometimes in spite of our own misguided efforts. In the grip of the lesson God was patiently teaching him, my friend abandoned his carefully planned sermons the first day of the trip. As the Lord chastised my friend for his pride and haughtiness, my friend realized that what God was showing him was something we all need to hear. Listen to the words Christ spoke to the lukewarm church, the church at Laodicea, a church that had given up living the Christian in favor of playing the Christian: I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. (Revelation 3:15-19). Words we all need to hear.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sir, I Messed Up

I learned one of the biggest spiritual lessons in life from an Army Lieutenant Colonel. I don't know if he was even a Christian, and I have no idea if he realizes the value of what he taught me. I didn't even realize it myself, until quite some time later. In fact, I still seem to forget that valuable lesson all too often, and every time I do, it ends up costing me.

You see, I messed up. Nothing that would be criminal, at least, not outside the military, but a screw-up, none the less. I was in a fairly prestigious position. I was a member of a team, and I had a job to do. It was my responsibility, my assignment, and I forgot to do it. Because I forgot, my team had to delay their mission preparations. I can't even remember what the thing was (probably sending out a message of some sort or another), but I do remember getting summoned to my team chief's office. My team chief verbally reprimanded me, and I left, feeling low for letting my boss and my team down. I finished the task I had forgotten and went on to my other duties.

Later in the day, I had to see my team chief again, probably to get some paperwork signed or or an order approved, and that is when the lesson occurred. Still feeling remorseful about letting my team chief down, I brought up the task I had forgotten. "Didn't we already talk about this?" my team chief asked. "Yes, sir." I replied. "Did you fix it?" "Yes, sir." "Then what do you want to go back there for? Let's move on, okay?" I came to attention sharply and walked out, feeling a weight lift off my shoulders.

You see, that Army officer taught me a valuable lesson that day; two, in fact: The first is summed up in Hebrews 12:5-6: And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." As Christians, we are justified the moment we receive Christ as our Lord, but as humans, we all go through a process of becoming sanctified, that is: becoming more like Christ. That process starts the moment we are saved, and continues until the day we die. We screw up. It's inevitable. And as we screw up, the Lord calls us into His office and disciplines us. If He doesn't, something is wrong: If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. (Hebrews 12:8)

The second lesson is simply this: Once the Lord disciplines us, He moves on, and so should we:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. (Psalm 103:11-13 (NASB))

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

What the Colonel taught me is simply this: you mess up, you take your lumps, and you press on. If God has shown you your sin, and you've confessed it to Him and done your best to make it up to the people you've hurt, then it's time to turn your eyes forward and move on. You can't do anything for God if you insist on staying stuck in the past.

Guard Duty

In basic training, they keep you under constant pressure. Fear might not be exactly the word, though there is more than a little of that to go around. There are limits to what the drill instructors can do to you, but they do their best to convince you otherwise. They are pretty good at it, too! Anxiety might be a little closer to the mark. Will you make it through? How many times can you mess up without getting washed back to Week One? Is five and three quarters inches close enough to six to avoid a demerit?

Mostly what I remember about basic training is being tired all the time. You're constantly on the move. When you're not PT-ing, marching, in a classroom, or filling out endless forms and tests, you're trying desperately to get your underwear to stay in that perfect 6-inch square, ironing, polishing your boots, and checking and rechecking your pockets for lint, laundry tags; anything "unauthorized" than can get you a demerit on your next inspection. It's almost impossible to squeeze all the stuff they make you do into one day, so you cheat. You polish your boots after lights out, while a buddy watches for any sign of the drill instructor. When you do get to bed, it's often a fitful night, broken periodically by the fateful sound of taps clicking menacingly on the floor as the instructors make their midnight rounds.

To add insult to injury, they shorten your already short sleep rations even more by handing out... you guessed it, guard duty! Now there is no earthly reason for guard duty in basic training, except as an exercise (and maybe to keep the other recruits from going AWOL). You are surrounded on all sides by an operational base, with armed guards everywhere and offices full of drill instructors pulling their own midnight shifts. No, guard duty is purely a training exercise - one more way to mess with your already sleep-deprived head. Here is how it works: They give you a little briefing, explaining the rules for entry into the barracks. They are simple. Everyone shows an ID, and the face on the ID must match the face on the person. No exceptions. When you hear a voice on the intercom, you answer... immediately. If you don't, they assume you were asleep, and you get to visit the commander the next day.

Now the fun begins. They let you wait awhile and get settled in. Then the DI comes to the door and sticks his face up to the window. You know who he is; you see him every day, but you can't let him in. He screams and shouts and threatens to kick your... well, you get the idea. If you lose your nerve and let him in, you're toast. If you hold out, he'll finally flash an ID, maybe too quickly to see, so you endure another round of abuse, speculation about whether your intelligence qualifies you to be off of life support, whether your parents had any kids that lived, that kind of thing. Or maybe the white DI flashes the ID of a black man, or of a woman. You let him in, because you weren't really looking at the picture. God help you.

For the Christian, living in the world, can be like guard duty, only the enemy isn't an angry DI, it is Satan... and our own nature. James explains how sin enters a person's life like this:

When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)

You see, we can be our own worst enemy. Sin starts out as temptation from inside; a thought - a greedy thought, a vengeful thought, a lustful thought, a small seed. Temptation grows into sin as we nourish the thought, watering it and caring for it, instead of pulling it like the weed it is. Before we know it, we have let the DI in and we're in for a trip to see the commander. So how do we avoid the discomfort of explaining to he commander why we let the unauthorized person in? It's simple, really, but we make it so hard in practice:

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)

You see, we must stay on guard. When we have a thought that just doesn't look right, we need to stop it at the door and ask it for ID. If it screams at the window, we draw the shade and turn away (just don't try that in basic training). We need to pick up our basic training manual and study - everything we need to fight off that thought is in there. And if we fail? If we earn a trip to the commander? More on that next time...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lions and Tigers and... Lambs? Oh My!

In case you have been under a rock these past few weeks, Tiger Woods, the icon of the golfing world for the past two decades, has fallen. And fallen big. A short newsbreak about a mysterious car accident spiralled in a matter of days into a full-blown scandal as tale after shocking tale of marital infidelity came to light.

As I made my way to work several weeks after the scandal broke, I tuned my radio to a popular sports station and was greeted by a discussion on Tiger's upcoming press conference. Now, it is telling that Tiger's agent chose to schedule the conference during the height of the Winter Olympics - undoubtedly to divert as much attention away from the scandal as possible. Even more telling, perhaps was the fact that, in spite of the fact that the conference occurred in the midst of the Games, it was the number one sports story of the day. The discussion the morning of the conference centered around the types of fans that would tune in to hear the statement, and what they would want to hear Tiger say.

The first group of fans, contended show's host, would be the die-hard Tiger fans. To their mind, Tiger didn't owe a thing to anyone - except his wife - and any apology Tiger might give should stay between them.

The second group would be the those on the far right; nothing Tiger could say will appease them. He will remain a pariah to them, shunned for the remainder of his public life.

Still a third group of fans would be the fence-sitters. They want to forgive Tiger, but they need to hear him say the right things. What things? Simply that he messed up and is sorry, and that he'll try to do better from here on out.

The fourth and saddest group of people are those who really don't care one way or another about Tiger; they just want to hear the dirt; the juicy details of where, when, and with whom. They are the voyeurs, vicariously living the lives they perhaps wish they could live - through their favorite (or simply most controversial) celebrities.

So which of those groups should we as Christians fall into? Hopefully, none of the above. You see, Tiger's life could be seen as a microcosm of an essay, a poem by the wisest of all earthly kings - the Book of Ecclesiastes. Like Solomon, Tiger had it all (though on a much smaller scale): success, wealth, beautiful homes and boats, even women wherever he went. What have all of those things brought him? By all appearances, not enough to satisfy him. As Christians, what should we hope to hear Tiger say? My hope would be for something like this:

" I had it all.
I had more money than I could spend in a lifetime, and it left me empty.
I reached the pinnacle of success in my field and raised it, and I wanted more.
I had any woman I wanted, but each encounter just made me hungrier.
I had mysticism and meditation, but the peace they brought me was fleeting.
I had it all.
And I had nothing.
I would gladly trade it all for a sip of the water the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God, offered the woman at the well."

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)

Tiger, the water is cleaner than any spring water; fresh, cool, and yours for the asking. Won't you come take a drink?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Me First!

The other day, my wife and I followed some of the teens from our church youth group to a "Jam" concert featuring several popular Christian bands - some with names I even recognized! Have I mentioned how hanging out with the youth can really energize those of us who are starting to "sit, soak and sour" in our pews? Anyhow, the event was awesome, though I know my age is really starting to show when I have to stuff cotton in my ears to cut the sound to a decibel level my tired eardrums can manage (well, except for Third Day - I really had to hear them completely uncorked). All in all, it was a great time. Our youth even "adopted" an orphan from Thailand halfway through the show, agreeing to sponsor her financially until she finds a permanent home.

The only blemish on an otherwise exceptional night occurred on the way into the concert. As we made our way from the main road into the venue parking lot, we came to a turn where two lanes of cars narrowed into one. As we approached, it seemed like most of the drivers were taking turns merging: first one car from the right lane, then one from the left, kinda like the teeth of a zipper. When we came to the front of the line, we paused for the next car from the opposite lane, then started to take our turn. To our surprise, the woman in the car next to us refused to let us in, hanging onto her steering wheel like grim death; her grill seemingly glued to the bumper of the truck in front of her. My wife motioned that we were trying to follow a van now several cars ahead of us, but to no avail; our neighbor kept her eyes fixed firmly ahead with all the determined concentration of a Bulldog eying a hamburger.

At first, I was angry. I really wanted to follow the woman to her parking spot and suggest that if she wished to drive like she was the only person that mattered, perhaps she should remove the fish symbol from her car. Fortunately, we were able to spot our youth up ahead and catch up to them, and in the excitement of seeing several of my favorite Christian bands for the first time ever, I mostly forgot about the incident. As we left the concert, I happened to spot the same woman, and my irritation flared up again... And as I pondered the idea of blogging about how ugly selfishness looks in a Christian, I began to experience a sense of conviction about my own motives and behavior. The following verses seemed to leap out of the dark at me like a neon sign:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:5)

And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:40-41)

Now, what these verses says to me is that I should automatically be willing to put others (or let others go) first, even if I think I have a right to go first. They tell me that before I go passing judgment on anyone else, I really need to take a critical look at how my own motives and behavior measure up. They tell me that I should give grace, rather than insisting on justice, since I received grace myself at great cost to our Lord.

As I think back on all the times I have really lost my temper behind the wheel (okay, there are too many to really remember all of them), those two verses kinda make me want to slide down in my seat a bit. So I had to wait behind one more car before catching up to our group. Big deal. How do I know the woman in the car wasn't following someone herself? I don't. What had I really lost? Nothing... especially compared with the guilt I would be feeling right now had I really given the woman a piece of my mind and only then remembered the wisdom above.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Faith Like a Child (Relayed by Mom and Dad)

We were in a serious drought. The kind of drought that only people who live west of the Mississippi River can relate to: no rain for months at a time, the ground a dry Martian landscape of cracks that puffed up in fine powder with every footfall. As my sister listened to a news report on the drought, water restrictions, and the danger to crops, she asked a simple question: "Mommy, why don't they just pray for rain?" My Mom told her what a wonderful idea that was and suggested she try it. "Okay, Mommy." My sister skipped off to bed. The next morning, as we headed for the door, my Mom noticed my sister carrying an umbrella. "Why are you taking the umbrella, Sweetheart? It's sunny outside!"

"It's going to rain, Mommy" replied my sister, "I prayed for rain last night." And with that, she hopped out the door, umbrella in hand.

"Lord, please don't let my daughter be disappointed," my Mom prayed throughout the day, "she's so young to have her faith tested."

By the time school was over, our city was awash in a downpour.

Would it have rained, anyway? Possibly, but rain was not in the forecast. Would God send rain, just to strengthen the faith of a first-grader? I have no doubt, that He would, if it suited His purpose. I believe there are a few simple principles here, as illustrated in scripture:

...You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2b-3)

The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour. (Matthew 8:8-13)

Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor." And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
(Matthew 13:54-58)

When we ask God for something, we should examine our motivations, as James advises us to do. Are we asking for something so we can feed our own worldly desires? If so, we shouldn't be surprised if we don't receive it: God is under no obligation to answer sinful or selfish requests, no matter how much faith we have (and no matter what some popular televangelists may say to the contrary).

Does what we are asking suit God's purposes, or our own? As we become more and more molded to Christ's image we will find that those two often overlap. At a glance, the Centurion's request to heal his servant may have seemed selfish, but it suited Jesus' purpose in illustrating that He had come to seek and save the lost of all nations, not just of Israel. Judging by the Centurion's humility, he had also been listening to the teachings of Christ and His followers, and we can guess that his motivation was prompted by care for those under his authority, rather than simple monetary loss.

Finally, do we believe God can and will do what we ask? In Matthew 13, Christ makes it clear that, if we want God to do the impossible, faith is an absolute prerequisite. When we pray for rain, do we get out the umbrella?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Last Will and Testament

Most of my first few years in the military are a blur. Nearly 25 years after I first raised my right hand, memories of basic training, technical school, and my first assignment are beginning fade like old weathered photographs. From time to time though, some of those distant memories suddenly seem to jump into sharp focus. As I read through Paul's last few letters to the churches he helped to found, one of images that shoots to the forefront of my mind is of preparations for Desert Storm.

In those weeks and months leading up to the assault on Saddam Hussein's war machine, the common soldier, sailor, airman, or marine had little idea of what to expect. Those were the days before CNN footage of brilliant fireworks erupting over Baghdad as frustrated anti-aircraft batteries tried vainly to shoot down invisible stealth aircraft. We knew that we would win... eventually. But we also new our enemy had a huge army and Soviet-made weapons we had never been tested against. We were hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. Among the memories of processing lines, mass vaccinations, and weapons qualification, one that stands out is of a quiet room, in which two dozen or so young men and women prepared hand-written wills under the guidance of a sober-faced legal clerk. My will was short and to the point: "...all of my assets, I leave to my wife and unborn child." Maybe three or four sentences in all.

As I read Paul and Timothy's letter to the Colossians, it strikes me that his writing was a lot like that. He wrote like a man who knew he had not a lot of time left, and wanted to make every word, every sentence count. After a brief salutation, the letter gets right to the point: If you forget everything else, remember what you first believed about Jesus:

- That He is God in the flesh and the creator of all things
- That He holds the entire universe together
- That He is the head of the church
- That He rose from the dead to overcome death itself
- That He has paid the price for our sins that separated us from God
- That if we believe in Him, God sees us as perfect, without sin

Paul later goes on to address false doctrines that were seeping into the church and other things like standards of behavior, but it is evident that the first thing he wanted to make sure he did was remind us of all we should know about Christ. I wonder, as Paul sat in Rome, did he guess that he might be executed before the letter was finished? If he did, it makes sense that he would write the most important part of his message first. I think Paul was trying to tell us all something: we can fully understand nothing of the Bible, or of God's universe, without first understanding His Son and the work He did for us.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:6-8)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Does God Ever Get Tired?

My daughter has always loved to sing. When she was two, she would sing and hum to herself in the car. She still does, until she realizes we're listening to her. She especially liked singing in church. The church we attended at the time had an upbeat contemporary worship style with a nice mix of classic hymns. One day, we were singing "Our King is Exalted" and I realized I could hear my daughter's sweet voice ringing out amid the music and the crowd. As I bent closer to listen, I has to suppress a belly laugh. She was right on key and right on time. The only difference in what she was singing was a subtle change in the lyrics; to her young ears, "Our King is Exalted" had become "Our King is Exhausted."

My wife and I had a good laugh about it on the way home, but as I look back, I am inclined to wonder: Does God ever get tired? Does He ever need a vacation? If the question is simply whether God ever gets physically tired, the answer is easy:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom. (Isaiah 40:28)

If the question instead is "Is there a limit to God's mercy? Can I exhaust God's patience?" the unfortunate answer for some of us, is "yes." Now let me explain: The Bible clearly teaches that no amount of right living can earn us God's favor, apart from Christ. Were right living required, or even able to save us, there would be no such thing as grace, nor any need for it:

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:5-6)

The Bible also teaches that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven the believer in Christ:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 7-9)

This is great news for the believer in Christ! Since grace is delivered to us on the basis of what Christ did, rather than what we do (or don't do), it is as limitless as Christ is perfect.

The Bible does; however, teach that there is one sin that, if left unrepented, cannot and will not be forgiven. John refers to this in 1 John 5:16 as a sin "leading to death." Christ Himself referred to this sin in Mark 3:28-29: "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." Christ uttered these words in response to those who denied He was the Christ, preferring to accuse Him of working miracles by the power of the devil.

Friends, the simple fact is this: We can speculate all we want about those in far-flung places who have never heard the Gospel, but one thing is certain: if we do hear the good news that Christ has overcome death and has Himself died for our sins, and yet go to the grave choosing to reject the prompting of the Holy Spirit to receive Him as Lord, we are certain to experience God's judgment, rather than His grace. For our intents and purposes, we will have exhausted the inexhaustible.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Help, Our House is Made of Bleu Cheese!

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" (Matthew 6:25-27)

We were happy in Colorado. I was nearing my 18-year mark in the Air Force, and we figured it was a sure bet we'd retire and go on to a second career in Colorado Springs. We had a church family we loved, and we enjoyed the outdoor life in the Rockies. Our house was high up in the mountains, away from the hubbub of the city. One Tuesday, on our way into work, my wife and I were talking and she casually mentioned that the only regret she had over my Air Force career was that we had never had the opportunity to go overseas as a family...

Just two days later, I had an email in my inbox directing me to report upstairs to sign for my next assignment. I went upstairs with some trepidation, fearing a remote assignment away from friends and family or (perhaps worse) an accompanied tour someplace boring, away from the mountains. To my shock, the assignment was an accompanied tour to Germany! I called my wife... "Honey, you'll never guess what. I got an assignment to Germany! Do you want to go?" The response was instant. "Yes!" As much as we loved Colorado, the chance to live in Europe as a family was too much to pass up.

We quickly put our house on the market, and we had an offer within two weeks of listing it. God was blessing our move. Everything was just falling into place. We began the routine of paperwork and inspections, confident we would be out of our home and in an apartment within a month, enjoying our last summer in the Rockies before our new adventure. Little did we know that was just the beginning of the longest four months of our lives. One afternoon I received a fateful phone call. "...There's a problem, the inspector found a lot of mold in your attic. Your buyer has withdrawn their offer." Mold! In a place where the humidity regularly dips into the 20s! I crawled up into the attic and my heart sank at the sight of an expanse of black and gray wood.

It turned out our house had several small building defects that all worked together to seal the attic up tight. While the humidity outside hovered around 25%, the humidity in the attic was over 90%! What ensued was a protracted ordeal of conversations with our home builder, a lawyer, to whom we explained we just wanted to get out of Colorado with our finances intact, and the Air Force personnel flight - "Could they pretty-please figure out some way to put off the assignment so we could settle our disastrous situation?" At first the news was all bad: The builder would not and really could not buy our home. A professional remediation service indicated that the repair costs would total over $13000.00, and that was if the roof didn't need replacing! The Air Force refused to delay the assignment. We were headed for bankruptcy for sure. My coworkers joked that they could see the gray advancing across my scalp by the day.

As the days passed and our legal fees mounted, we began to get desperate. We sold many of our marketable possessions; guns, tools, furniture items. We desperately sought ways to lower our monthly expenses, should we need to pay for an empty home while living in Germany. Finally, we decided to take both our cars and trade them for a subcompact. We prayed that God would show us whether that was His will. It wasn't. The dealer offered us ridiculous sums for our cars - well under blue book for both of them. I stormed out of the dealership, angry until my wife reminded me that we had prayed God would close any doors He didn't want us to go through.

We came home, got on our knees and offered a simple prayer. "Whatever and however you want us to do, God. We'll do it. If we need to go with the clothes on our backs and start over, okay." That very night we received a phone call from our Realtor. "I have an offer for you on your home from a man who specializes in water restoration." It was just less than what we needed to be out from under the house, free and clear. We offered a counter for that little bit more and the buyer accepted, as - is. We had lost our down-payment, but would leave Colorado unencumbered.

In the end, the Air Force pushed back our assignment long enough to settle with the builder. The builder agreed to return the cost of our down payment, plus expenses, and our lawyer, who said he found it refreshing to work for a couple who just wanted what was fair - nothing more, cut his fees in half. As I look back, I can see God's providence in all of the happenings of that year:

- We would never have taken an assignment, other than one overseas. I would have separated, instead. We now live just three hours from my parents, brother, and sister - on the other side of the country and far from where we grew up.
- The move came five years into the life of our home. The statute of limitations for building defects in Colorado was six.
- We have a wonderful new church home, and our children love it here.
- We learned in those few months how really perishable our earthly treasures could be. We're still learning, but we have a whole new perspective.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Fish Story

I love camping. I love being outdoors. I love the fresh smell of pine and sage and sleeping in a warm bag, with frosty mountain air on my face. My wife tolerates camping, mostly because there are no computers, XBoxes, or other distractions to interrupt family time. So, when our friends offered to take us camping with them to a lake in the high Sierras, we jumped at the chance. Now, as much as I love camping, I really haven't had much experience with fishing, but after watching my friend cast his line into the water and pull out a couple fat lake trout, I figured "how hard could it be?"

So I cast my line and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Since the fish obviously weren't interested on that side of the boat, I moved and cast again. And waited. And waited. Waiting in the sun is thirsty work, so I handed my rod to my wife and went to the cooler to get a drink. No sooner than I did (Bet you saw this coming.), and there was a tug at the line. My wife pulled up a nice plump lake trout. She squealed with glee as our friend helped her bring it in, and was instantly hooked (pardon the pun). She cast again and brought up another fine specimen.

In a huff, I took over the rod and cast in the vicinity of my wife's success. After what seemed like an eternity (I think my friends stayed out longer than they planned, out of pity), I got a bite! I reeled and reeled, full of excitement, finally landing, well... something a little larger than a goldfish. I'm almost convinced it was a trout.

Now, I wasn't thrilled at being skunked at that manliest of pastimes by my wife (my eight-months pregnant wife, at that), but I sure did enjoy the taste of pan-fried trout that evening. And it's a good thing my wife caught what she did -- my catch of the day amounted to about 2 or three bites. Is there a moral to this story? Yep; here it is:

One of the first recorded commands we see Jesus giving at the beginning of Matthew is: "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19). The last of Jesus' recorded words in Matthew read: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20).

It is interesting to note that being a disciple of Christ was equated with fishing for people from the very beginning of His ministry. From the earliest days with His disciples, Christ was preparing them for a life of spreading the Gospel. You see, witnessing to others about Christ isn't merely one of the approaches to Christian living; it is the only approach.

Now I have no way of knowing whether those two fish my wife caught were just happening by at the right time or whether they were lured to the area by my initial casts. Similarly, we may go our whole lives earnestly telling others about Jesus without ever actually seeing our words transform a single life, but at the same time we have no way of knowing whether the seeds we sow will begin to germinate just as a fisherman downstream casts his line into the water. We do know that God makes us this promise, concerning His Word: "so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:11).

And that should be enough to keep us casting, whether the fish land in our basket, or go on to get hooked downstream.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Theory of Relativity, or "Grandma, what time is it?"

When I was a young boy, my cousins lived on a lake up in Northern California, about nine hours drive from where we lived. One summer, our family made plans to have a reunion at the lake. When I found out, I was beside myself -- I couldn't wait! Well, my Dad had to work the rest of the week, but my Grandma was off, so she offered to take me and my sister up early with her. Poor Grandma. In those (not so long ago) days, lots of cars still didn't have air conditioning, and even if they did, it could be dicey running the A/C in the hot California climate, so my Grandma picked us up for the trip just before sunset to make the drive in the cool of the night. The trip went something like this (very abbreviated to spare the reader the torture my Grandma endured):

Me: "Grandma, how long will it take to get there?"
Grandma: "About ten hours. We won't get there until morning. Try to get some sleep."
Me: "Okay. Grandma, what time is it?"
Grandma: "It's Eight O'Clock, honey. Just try to sleep, we have a long way, yet."
Me: "Okay, Grandma." (waits about an hour) "Grandma, what time is it?"
Grandma: "It's Eight Oh-Five, honey. The time will go by faster, if you go to sleep."
Me: "Okay, Grandma" (waits another hour, at least; maybe two) "Grandma, what time is it?"
Grandma: "It's five minutes after the last time you asked me. Please go to sleep"
Me: "Okay, Grandma." (closes eyes and waits an eternity) "Grandma, are we almost there?"
Grandma: "No, honey. It's only Eight-Thirty. We still have a long way to go. Go to sleep."
Me: "Okay, Grandma" (waits another eternity) "Grandma, what time is it?"
Grandma: (sighs, takes off watch and hands it to me)

When I was a kid time really did speed up or slow down, depending on my circumstances. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas took ten years, easy. A day at Disneyland was over after what seemed like an hour, maybe two. 30 minutes in the corner and I would have swore I saw the sun rise and set 5 times. As a grown-up, I experience the same thing, only in reverse ("What, Christmas already. I just paid off last year's Christmas!").

You see, time is relative. Oh, I know they have all kinds of atomic clocks and astronomical devices that tell us differently, but time really does depend on where you are and what you are doing. Need more proof? How fast does a year-long sabbatical in France go by, compared with, say... a year in San Quentin?

Perception of time also depends on how long you've been around. 2 Peter 3:8 tells us: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. You see, when you have been around forever, a year starts to seem awfully small.

Here's the deal. If you are reading this blog, chances are you've been around 10, 30, maybe 80 years. Not really a lot of time, and it goes by faster with each passing day. The thing to understand, though, is that you and I are going to be around forever, one way or another. In context, that passage from 2 Peter reads like this:

By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

You see, Hell is very real, and it's about a billion times a billion worse than anything that could happen to you in San Quentin. Forever there would last a really long time. God doesn't want any of us to have to go there, so He is waiting. For now. What are you waiting for?

Monday, January 25, 2010

But... It's on the Internet!

At my work, we have a tongue-in-cheek saying; "If it's on Power Point, it's gotta be true." A lot of people seem to feel the same way about the Internet. Somebody published it, and they sound really smart, so it has to be true!

I remember reading an article a year or two ago on the Internet. I don't remember where it was published or who wrote it, but I remember vividly what it was about: sayings that are attributed to the Bible, but don't appear anywhere in scripture. I remember the article so vividly, because among the half-dozen or so sayings examined by the article, I knew that at least two did appear in Scripture, at least in concept, if not in the exact verbiage:

1. "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Though you won't find this exact phrase in the Bible, there is ample scripture to support the idea that discipline is a necessary part of successful child-rearing. Proverbs 13:24 is one example: He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him. Proverbs 22:15 admonishes us: Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him. Lest we think the Bible endorses harshness with our children, the Bible also warns us: Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

2. "Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you." Edit: As my sister pointed out, this phrase appears in the Bible nearly verbatim (depending on translation), in Luke 6:31: Do to others as you would have them do to you. Beyond that, Jesus echoes this principle again as he teaches that the Law can be summmarized : 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Others that were mentioned, such as "God helps those who help themselves," depend largely on context, as to whether they are supported by Scripture. Jesus came to help the helpless, yet we are sternly admonished in 2 Thessalonians 3 to work for our sustenance in accordance with our God-given abilities.

The point is simply this: If you want to know what is in the Bible, don't read my blog or anyone else's. Read the Bible!

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)

Of Terminators and Jedi Knights

DISCLAIMER: The Terminator series of films are popular, but violent movies also containing vulgar language, and brief nudity, and are not endorsed for family viewing in any way by the author of this blog.

Today, I have a cold. Having a cold made me think of the Terminator - for no particular reason, except that the Terminator doesn't get colds. Now, if you don't know who the Terminator is, he is this super-cyborg from the future. He looks like a human (which undoubtedly helps keep movie production costs down), but inside, he is a robot. He speaks in an ominous, flat, monotone voice, which is good because he is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who excels at ominous, flat, monotone voices. Anyhow, in the second installment of the Terminator franchise, Schwarzenegger's role is a complete reversal from the first movie, in which he was simply a bad-guy futuristic assassin. In "Judgment Day", his character is still a Terminator, but has been sent back from the future to protect a young boy, rather than assassinate him.

Schwarzenegger's character provides some comic relief in an otherwise violent film as he tries to become more human, first learning how to use crude jargon in his speech, later learning how to smile. As he jokes and plays with the boy he was sent to protect, the boy's mother begins to realize that the Terminator is the only worthy father-figure for her son; one who will never abandon or abuse him, never get sick and die on him, or ever let him down. In the end, the Terminator paints an almost messianic picture, as he is willingly lowered into a pool of molten steel, sacrificing his (life?) for the sake of humanity. As I pondered the idea of the Terminator as a messiah-figure, it dawned on me that the idea of a single savior who alone can rescue humanity from disaster is something we see repeated over and over again in our popular culture: Star Wars has a savior born of a virgin (!) and foretold in prophecy; the Matrix has a main character, who again is the object of prophecy and who rises from the dead (!) to defeat the enemy.

Clearly, humanity longs for a savior we can look to to rescue us from evil, from our failing world, even from ourselves. What a shame it is that we look right past the true savior described by the prophet Isaiah, preferring to invent our own:

(Isaiah 53)
1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

No CG-enhanced Kung-Fu here; no light-sabers or infrared vision. Just a deliberate act of ultimate sacrifice on the part of a loving God for His people, that ...whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I Wanna Be A Rock Star

My Dad has '50s and '60s music. A lot of '50s and '60s music. I grew up listening to his collection at home and in the car; sometimes just in the background, sometimes at ear-splitting levels. Some of it I found as boring as my Dad undoubtedly found the Lawrence Welk bubble-machine music my grandparents listened to. Some of the music; however, I could really relate to. It had a raw edge to it like the punk and hard rock of my own generation. One of those early songs in particular came to my mind the other day as I was thinking back on my childhood dreams and aspirations: "Something Else" by the late Eddie Cochran. Cochran's music inspired a whole generation of punk and rock musicians -- his most famous song "Summertime Blues" was still being covered 30 years after his death by bands like the Ramones and Joan Jett.

Anyhow, "Something Else" is a fun song about a guy who sees a girl and starts daydreaming about how cool it would be to have her as his girlfriend. A little later, he sees a hot car and starts dreaming about how cool it would be to get the car so he could impress the girl and make her his girlfriend. In the end, he is standing at the girl's door; the car that is parked out front is his old jalopy, instead of the new convertible, but the girl is as beautiful as ever.

I can relate to that song. You see, I wanted to be a rock star (Okay, sometimes I secretly still do). I wanted to be that guitar hero sliding around on stage as thousands of girls screamed my name. Later, as my faith grew a little, I modified that dream. "Okay God, how about a Christian rock star, with thousands of good girls screaming my name?" Alas, it was not meant to be; being a rock star, even a Christian one, was not my calling. I know this for a couple of reasons: If ministering through music was truly my calling, I might have bought a guitar sometime before I turned 40. And looking back, I see that my motivations behind those fantasies were purely selfish. James tells us clearly that God doesn't answer "yes" to our prayers, if the motives behind them are flawed: When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3)

I now serve in a fun, but quite ordinary job as a computer programmer, and I am reasonably good it. My family isn't wealthy or famous, but is blessed to have a comfortable home, food on the table, and enough money left over to experience God's awesome blessings as we work and travel with the youth in our church. I take heart in Paul's exhortations to all of us, famous or anonymous, rich or poor:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (2 Thessalonians 4: 11-12)

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1: 11-12)

I wanted to be a rock star. Now, I just want to be in God's will... and maybe someday get good enough on that guitar to lead a campfire song or two. Oh, and like Cochran in the song, I did get the girl, after all.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cleaning Out The Attic

Today we finally took down our Christmas decorations (don't laugh - this is the first weekend we've had at home since Christmas). As we attempted to cram yet another year's worth of holiday memories into our packed attic, it occurred to me that we really hadn't cleared out our junk since we moved to our new home two years ago. Though it wasn't how I originally intended to spend my Saturday, I resolved to dive into the array of boxes, bins, and trunks tucked under our eaves and attempt to thin out the chaotic jumble.

Now this isn't the first time I have cleaned out the attic; my family and I have been blessed by 20 years of service in the military, and Uncle Sam has strict limits on the amount of stuff he lets his nieces and nephews lug from place to place. As I carefully pulled the treasures of previous years out into the daylight to examine them, it struck me that I had practiced this same ritual many times before. Some items I had no idea why I had kept in the first place and I quickly discarded; others, like old love notes exchanged with my wife, brought a quick smile as I read, then tenderly placed them back in their box. Still others were items I had kept around simply because I had paid for, and was unwilling to part with them, even though they were of no further use to me.

As I packed away the last of the Christmas decorations, it occurred to me that the process of clearing out my attic is a lot like the process many of us go through as we try in fits and starts to become more like the Lord who saved us. I can empty my spiritual attic out for a short time, but sooner or later it becomes full of stuff again. Jesus illustrated this principle in Matthew 12:43-45, explaining how a merely religious person can clean up his life for a time, only to find himself in a much worse state than before, as seven evil spirits come to dwell in the heart that previously housed only one.

While the truly born again need never worry about being possessed by a demonic spirit, I believe there is a principle here worth remembering: our spiritual attics will be full of something. Some of those things have no business in our lives and need to be discarded quickly; things like old grudges or covetous fantasies. Others are like the things that have served their purpose and are simply no longer needed; things like guilt over sins long ago confessed, forgiven, and forgotten. Still others are worth keeping around; happy memories of fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, or memories of God's divine intervention in our lives. But once we clean out the debris in our attics, how do we make sure it doesn't come back? The answer is simple: stuff the attic with things we'll never have to throw away, and there'll be no room left for trash:

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

We have been studying the book of James recently in my Sunday School class. Reading James isn't super fun. It's a bit like looking at yourself in a mirror under blazing fluorescent lights. Now, I can look at myself in a mirror in a Mexican restaurant any time. In the soft glow of the faux candelabras, I look three shades darker, ten pounds lighter, and fifteen years younger. I walk out feeling pretty good about myself, despite the fact that in the span of 60 minutes, I inhaled enough calories to feed a small country for a week. Leaving the restaurant, I go on into a super-warehouse store flooded with light. Pausing for a much-needed bio break, I glance at myself in the brightly lit mirror and I am horrified at what I see! My face is a pale lunar landscape of craters and mountains. There is a party favor protruding from each of my nostrils, and my belly-button is unflatteringly molded by my now too-small large polo shirt.

The book of James is a lot like that brightly-lit mirror. In fact, James himself compares the Bible to a mirror as he explains what Christians ought to look like. As I read James, my carefully built self-delusions crumble one-by-one. One item James speaks out on at length is my tongue. He compares it to a carelessly-handled flame that can burn down a whole forest (Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.. James 3:5-6).

As I read about the untamed tongue I am reminded of a horrific series of events that unfolded before our eyes just a few years ago. A popular talk show producer decided it would be a great idea to have a special "secret admirer" segment on the show. The host described the depth of the secret admirer's affection while an anxious and excited young man waited on stage to be introduced. When the fateful moment came, the young man was horrified to learn that his admirer was another man! Tragically, just a short time later, driven by rage and shame, the young man killed his admirer.

In stark contrast to that ill-advised attempt to entertain America, stands the testimony of a little white-haired man in Sydney, Australia. In gratitude to Jesus, who saved him from his wretched life of immorality, he vowed to tell at least ten people a day how to receive forgiveness for their sins. He did this for decades without any idea whether his words had any impact at all, or were just falling on deaf ears. Only days before his death did the little man learn that his words had influenced at least 100,000 people, world-wide.

What kind of fire will I start with my tongue / text / tweet today?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Optimism of Youth

Losing your passion for the Gospel, or for ministry? Try hanging out with your youth for awhile. They are passionate about everything. If they like it, you'll know. If they don't, well, you'll know that, too. They are the most transparent, genuine people I know, and they surprise me every time I give them a chance to, with their insight, compassion, and love for each other and for Christ. A good friend of mine sent this verse to the kids in our local youth group this week to encourage them in their personal ministries:

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:12)

After spending a weekend with them and watching them minister first-hand, I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Dad, the dEvolutionist

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my Dad about the history of the world and life in general, when it occurred to me to ask where the great minds of our time are. Where are the Aristotles, Galileos, and Newtons of our age? My Dad replied (only half jokingly) that maybe people are devolving.

From a creationist's perspective, that would make perfect sense. If God created a world without blemish, which was later ruined by sin, introducing mortality (Romans 5:12 : Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned), it stands to reason that people started out as good as they were going to get, and that decay, disease, and pollution are actually weakening the genetic makeup of each successive generation.

While it is fun to speculate about sin's effect on the physical world, my conversation with my Dad got me thinking about the planet's spiritual evolution. It is interesting to note that just a few short decades ago, Christians and non-Christians alike were in general agreement about what behavior constituted evil. Fast-forward to today, and the only thing you will find general agreement about is that there are as many moralities as there are people.

We are often surprised by the rapid decay of morality in our world, but we shouldn't be: This too, was laid out in the Bible nearly 2000 years ago in Romans 1:28-32 : Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

While the state of the world is indeed, sad; it isn't nearly so sad as the Church's response to it. We spend so much of our time trying to fight the symptoms of devolution, rather than sharing the medicine that is capable of reversing our spiritual genetic decay forever:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11).

I'm reminded of a recent commercial that tells us we "catch a cold not a mucous." Like mucous, popular Christian targets like abortion, same-sex marriage, and banning prayer in public schools are just symptoms of a disease for which Christ is the only cure.