I love Thanksgiving.  Aging has its perks and one is a blossoming realization I’m blessed with blessings I have no “right” to.  Traveling abroad has also helped destroy any sense of being entitled to this or that.  Clean air, clean water, safe neighborhood, shoes–comfortable ones at that, lots of food, safe transportation, and living in a representative democracy all sing for me.
And then there’s Betty.  It’s a special Thanksgiving when our wedding anniversary falls on it like it did this year.  38 years under the love, mercy and forbearance of a woman my friends like to remind me I don’t deserve.  They’re right.
We met in high school when we were fifteen.  In my junior year she was one of two new girls in our class, ones I casually told my mother “were prospects”.  I don’t remember who the other one was.  The only class we had together was a lecture where she sat in the back by herself.  Which was necessary because there wasn’t room to her left and right when she smiled.  

l zeroed in on her at a social event our Christian high school held early in the school year to help new students get acquainted.  We played a musical chairs style hand-holding game called “Walk-a-Mile”.  Guys cheated so they could hold hands with the girl of their choice.  Once or twice I ended up next to Betty but holding her hand left me speechless.

Several weeks later when some of us went to Virginia to help residents who were victims of Hurricane Camille, I asked her to sit with me on the van ride.  I wish I could say it was all good from there.  A month later I got my driver’s license and we began dating.  I thought we were having a good time but about 4 months later she broke up with me.  She had been trying to for some time but every night she planned to dump me I’d give her a gift.  Even the night she showed me the door I’d given her an early Valentine’s Day gift. 

Within days she was dating the school jock.  What did he have that I didn’t?  He was tall, good looking, and a talented athlete.  Hey, I had…, I had…, well, I was a pretty good ping pong player.  Plus, I had a job!

Over the next few months I had several dates but no one made much of an impression on me.  My sister asked me if I thought Betty and I would get back together.  I shrugged, “But I know that the way I feel around her, I’ve never felt with any other girl.” 

6 months later I found out Betty and Mr. ESPN were history and within a month we were back together.  Unfortunately the remaining dating years were rocky: I broke up 3 times–the last time 3 months before our wedding day.  Part of it was that we were so young, and I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing.

In hindsight, I didn’t.  The note that accompanied the flowers I gave Betty last week said, “For being what I never knew I needed.”  We were only out of high school a year and a half when we married; she was 18, I was 19.  And I didn’t know what kind of woman I wanted or needed.  Who can at that age?  But over the years I have discovered that God could not have found a more perfect woman.  I mean for me; someone who complements/completes me and I complete her.

Like every married couple, we have room to grow.  Last weekend we celebrated our anniversary by attending FamilyLife’s “Weekend to Remember” in King of Prussia.  (I can’t recommend that weekend enough; good biblical counsel that will gently but firmly call you to pay attention to your marriage; here’s the link http://www.familylife.com/site/c.dnJHKLNnFoG/b.5846045/k.8C0A/Weekend_to_Remember__Marriage_Getaway.htm?fromeventhp=WTRimage.)  We had some great talks–some were painful, but all valuable in making this wonderful thing called marriage, even richer.  Surely–apart from Jesus, this is God’s finest gift!

God and evil, or God over evil?

How big is your God?  How powerful is He?  Is your God biblical?  Is he sovereign or is He subject?  (Those are really the only two options.)  The Bible says He’s sovereign even over evil.  You’ve got to read John Piper’s provocative but glorious sermon on “Is God any less glorious because he ordained that evil be?”.  It was my guide through some deep waters in the wake of 9/11.  


voting, American style

The turnout on election day for midterm voting was unusually large–which appears to have favored Republican candidates.  Since then we’ve all been talking about what happened–whether we’re happy about it or disappointed, what should have been done or shouldn’t, and what it means for the next 2 or 4 years.  But in the midst of your political analysis, have you thought about something that’s remarkable?  

When Betty and I walked in the door of the township building to cast our votes, dead ahead was an armed constable listening to a conversation between a “watcher” and a voter.  His presence was the only hint anyone could have had that there might be anything other than a peaceful transition of power.

On Sunday citizens of the West African nation of Guinea got to vote for a president for the first time ever.  Former prime minister Diallo ran against opposition leader Alpha Conde but they’re still trying to sort out who won.  Pre-election violence left 3 dead and it appears that both sides engaged in strong arm tactics to force opponent’s supporters from their homes.  Charges say as many as 20,000 voters were urged to flee or they would be killed.  The effect was to put them far from their polling places on election day so they couldn’t vote.

Voting history in the USA is hardly pristine.  Despite the lofty language of our Declaration of Independence, there has always been a back seat and a front seat.  Women and African-Americans had to fight to get their supposed “equal” right to vote; nor did it come easy for native Americans or Asian Pacific Americans.  But now we enjoy an election climate where the average American doesn’t expect opposition at the voting booth.  

Since my day off each week is Tuesday, election days are always laid back for me and I squeeze voting in among the other items on my to-do list.  It can fit it in before or after any errand or task, because I don’t have to plan to take a gun for defense, and I don’t have to avoid certain times that might be dangerous.  Both the voting and the subsequent transition of power–such as a shift in who controls congress, is pretty uneventful.  My fellow Americans, we have much to thank God for!

climate change apocalypse

It was 1968 and everybody was scared anyway.  Sons and brothers were dying in rice paddies in an unpopular war, kids were hopped up on weed, LSD and heroin, cities were ablaze, national guard troops were sweeping across university campuses with rifles leveled, and the background music to it all seemed bewildering to anybody over 30.  A generation gloomily hummed Barry McQuire’s Eve of Destruction as it marched toward the cliff’s edge. 

Into this powder keg of alarm Stanford scientist Paul Ehlich tossed his bestseller The Population Bomb.  In apocalyptic tones he predicted that hundreds of millions of the world’s people would die of starvation in the 1970’s and ’80’s.  Not a call to action, the author wrote that this WOULD happen “…in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  2 million readers bought the book and worried.  

The rationale seemed solid.  How could food production possibly keep up with the world’s exploding population?  It had doubled from 2 billion to 4 billion in a single generation, and seemed set to do so again.  Ehlich proposed radical solutions like starving any country that refused to implement population controls.  He claimed most scientists shared his fatalistic predictions. 

He wasn’t even close.

42 years later with the world’s population approaching 7 billion, food production in both developed and developing countries has far outstripped population growth.  The main obstacle to producing enough food is not the birth rate Ehrlich worried about, but political chaos.

The current discussion about global warming (sorry, climate change) has some similar markings: all the scientists agree, the specter is certain doom, it will be a worldwide cataclysm unless we take radical, immediate, and enormously expensive action–which will inevitably hurt the poorest in the world.

I don’t begin to have the scientific intelligence or vocabulary to debate the merits of scientific convictions that have become relatively uniform in the last 35 years.  But as a Christian I look at everything through the lens of Scripture.  Skeptics of the Bible will dismiss my point of view.  But my words are mainly for Christians who believe the Book is God’s revelation–and therefore accurate about whatever it mentions.  It tells us all sorts of things about faith–even faith about the future of climate change.

All the scientists–even the ones frustrated by the alarmism–admit the climate’s changed.  What they dispute is that humans are mostly to blame because of carbon emissions from fossil fuels.  And they dispute that it will lead the world to ruin unless we do something drastic; Kyoto and Cap & Trade legislation come to mind.  They suggest our weather changes are normal and cyclical and will not result in a world-destroying–or even radically altering, calamity.  

On Sunday I’ll be preaching from Revelation 8 about God’s first 4 trumpet judgments which are massive, nearly global environmental calamities unleashed not long before Jesus returns; loosed on what appears to be a rather normal, prosperous earth with lush greenery and fruit trees–not an earth inundated by the consequences of global warming (sorry, climate change).  

But it is 2 Peter 3:7 that specifically rejects the notion that man can do something cataclysmic to this planet while God looks on helplessly: …the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.  “Reserved” and “kept”.  In other words, people cannot so damage the planet that they thwart God’s future plans.  

Yes, we are still stewards of the earth and should take care of it like Adam was supposed to.  But abject fear is not warranted for the Christian who believes the Bible.  God has a future plan, is still in control, and has no intentions of permitting His handiwork to derail that plan.  It’s “reserved”, it’s “kept”. 

More thoughts on parental discipline

If you didn’t get them, here are the parenting books I recommended during yesterday’s sermon on the Grace of a Parent’s Authority:
  • Everyday Talk, by John Younts
  • Instructing a Child’s Heart, by Tedd & Margy Tripp
  • Kid’s Need… Lot’s of Love and a Spanking, by Jamie Pritchett
  • Humility, by C. J. Mahaney 
The last one is not a parenting book per se but there are some great gospel parenting tips in it. 

Some of you loved the sermon and some of you didn’t.  I know not even all believers are fans of parents using physical discipline, but I don’t think there’s a way to get around that it’s biblical.  Or that it has massive spiritual significance.  At the cross, the Father applied all the punishment for my sins and yours to the body of Jesus Christ.  Not only made Him bear that physical punishment, but in the most gruesome way ever devised by which to kill someone.  The Father planned it and saw that it happened (Acts 3:18).  If in Christ He suddenly grew adverse to physical punishment, why not find another way, a less gory way to atone for our sins?  

Because Jesus atoned for the sins of others, we call His work the “substitutionary atonement” (1 John 4:10).  Because God punished someone innocent–and perhaps because He did it physically, even some in the “Christian” world ridicule the substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse” by the Father.  I find this awful/awesome work stupifying, precious and worthy of worship.  

Most of the “expert” voices opposing physical discipline look to the social sciences as authoritative, not the Bible.  (As one opponent complained, “The Bible frequently condones practices that are outrageous to modern sensibilities.”)  Physical discipline is blamed for everything from lowering a child’s IQ to leading to violent behavior later in life.  But the #1 charge is that the spanking parent will eventually abuse.  It’s almost inevitable, some say.  If you discipline with a paddle (what the Bible calls a “rod” in Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15), you will sometimes abuse your child.  Or make it more likely that your child will abuse his child one day.
This argument is based on a logical fallacy that anything that can be distorted or perverted must be wrong in its original form.  Critics who object to the idea that God established husbands as leaders in their marriages use the same argument.  16 years ago someone gave me a book that basically said that just believing this is God’s will turns men into abusive tyrants.  I will be the first to admit that there are professing Christian men whose “leading” consists of little more than terrorizing their wives.  But that’s not Bible.  It’s an aberration of what God says.  In the same way, there are parents beating their children with fist or paddle who never ever arrived in the vicinity of discipline; it’s all abuse. 
The irate mother who slaps her son in the face in the jeans aisle at Wal-Mart isn’t disciplining him.  Nor is the father who refuses to paddle his daughter but often yells at her.  The child whose mother says, “one…., two…, two and a half…” is not being disciplined.  Nor is the child who is being told, “You make me sick!”  Discipline’s objective for the believing parent is to cooperate with God to make a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Therefore it is done as an act of worship, done with great love for child and God, and done diligently.  And no, not harshly.  

In an anti-authority age, I suspect we need more authority in our homes, but not more authoritarians.  More moms and dads with the spiritual spine to lovingly establish expectations and enforce them.  And be able to say to their children, “I’m sorry sweetheart, what I said to you was wrong.  Will you forgive me?”  Both will help the gospel make more sense to our children. 

Gospel Hope for the Abuser

On Sunday I preached that a wife should submit to her husband.  (We do things like this from time to time to keep attendance levels manageable.)  Near the close of the message I addressed several questions wives might have in the “What if…?” department.  What if my husband’s passive, or is a tyrant, or fails anytime he tries to lead, or abuses me; am I still to submit–and what does that look like?  

Tuesday morning I got awake early thinking about this blog and out of left field God brought an incident to my mind from about 37 years ago that I’d just as soon forget.  I couldn’t go back to sleep and for the next hour and a half lay there (hey, it was my day off!) thinking about that awful day, with a growing and disturbing suspicion I was to write about it.  

Betty and I had been married about a year when we took a trip to the ocean with some friends.  We stayed in a boardinghouse and did the typical ocean things: get burnt on the sand, eat junk on the boardwalk, shop.  We were with the other couple some, but sometimes by ourselves.

Without going into detail, I’ll just say that I wanted Betty to do something one way, but she did it another way.  When she came back from a walk with the other woman and I found out what she’d done, I remember raising my hand to strike her while she cowered with her hands raised over her head for protection.

With my hand in the air, I willed it not to go further.  Later my rage was replaced by shame.  Maybe Betty’s fear was replaced by denial because she does not remember the incident.  Until several years ago we never talked about it and I never threatened her again.

As I said Sunday, it is Islam that lets a husband threaten and hurt his wife, not Christianity.  While the Qur’an counsels a husband to lock his recalcitrant wife in a room, deprive her of sex, and even whip her, the Bible tells a husband to love his wife like Christ loves the Church.  It infuriates me when I hear of a man who says he loves Jesus yet hurts his wife, but I know all too well how deep the root of sin runs.  Apart from God’s grace, I am that abuser.  

Back then, I was religious and churchgoing but not a Christian.  Once God saved me He began a work in my heart as a husband that I cannot thank Him enough for.  I am still on the way, but at a Keystone marriage conference a dozen years ago when Betty said publicly that I was the most gentle man she’d ever met, it was one of the high points of my life.  Only God could have changed a man who saw marriage as something for me to see it as something for Him–and us.  

Even abusers can find hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He saves the repentant and trusting sinner from hell but that’s not all He died for; He died to save us from the poison of sin’s power–in all its forms.  With Jesus, even the abuser can change.  His sanctifying power is available to those who will humble themselves enough to admit their sin, and ask the Lord, his wife, and Christian brothers, for help. 

the gospel matters most

Tim Challies is a Canadian blogger and church elder.  Last weekend Christian luminaries like Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Wendy Gritter and Peter Rollins swept into Tim’s hometown of Toronto for an emerging church conference called “The Eighth Letter”.  Each presenter had 15 minutes to share what they thought God’s most urgent message would be today if He addressed one to the North American church and added it to the 7 he wrote to Asia’s churches in Revelation.
Facing something of a lion’s den at the podium, Tim passionately insisted that getting the gospel right is the most urgent thing for the church.  Every other good thing pales in comparison.  It’s worth a listen for every Christian.  It’s about 2/3 of the page down on the 10/6/2010 entry.  http://www.challies.com/   

Houston, we have an authority problem

When I was a high school student trying to be a hippie without the commitment, I didn’t have much good to say about authority; any kind.  The underground newspaper I published my senior year was full of broadsides against the establishment (60’s jargon for authority).  I volunteered no alternative and I doubt I ever really thought about what would happen if the president, the police, my parents, my teachers, or church leaders decided I was right and quit.

Anarchy is what happens in the absence of governance.  It’s when no one calls the shots, no one leads, no one rules; or maybe someone tries to but governs too weakly to influence those they lead, are too weak to restrain the violent or the opportunists in their midst.

Yesterday I began preaching a series of sermons on submission called “Can we learn to love the grace of authority?”  “Grace” because I think authority is such a good thing that it can fit into the category of “undeserved blessing.”  Yet I don’t think people in general like it–not even Christians.  

Maybe some of our evangelism tips our hand.  You know, when we skip the whole sin thing.  “Celia, I know you’re feeling very alone; just invite Jesus in and He’ll be your friend.”  Or, “Craig, I know you’ve been battling depression for a while; just trust Jesus and you’ll find a purpose for living.”  Those may be benefits of the gospel, but they certainly aren’t the gospel.  The gospel is a new and forgiven life from Jesus that requires humbly bowing the knee (Philippians 2:10).  Do we shy away from saying so because people–maybe people like us–are allergic to authority, period?

When some Christian parents won’t correct their children in love and strength, I wonder if with some it’s because they themselves have a bad taste in their mouths about authority.  Which leaves them few choices except pleading, yelling, pouting, bribing, or effectively turning their God-given authority over to their hapless child.  What a tragic and lifelong price children may have to pay for mom and dad’s misunderstanding.

And then there are the husbands who won’t lead their wives.  Good riddance to the men who have mistreated, bullied, or led their wives harshly.  But as the pendulum arcs back the other direction, can’t we jump off in the middle and be strong men who are willing to assume our calling to lead our wives like tender shepherds instead of the stereotypical tyrants detractors take us for?

What about the government?  Many of us evangelicals are politically conservative.  Accordingly, we fume and rant over a government we think is too intrusive, too liberal, too quick to spend money.  Some justify cheating it because its laws are ridiculous–or just because it’s too confiscatory and they feel entitled to keep what they can get away with.  Those of us who wouldn’t go that far pay taxes and vote, but do we realize the institution is God’s?  Pray for it and rejoice in it, accordingly?

Submission to authority has a pecking order: if human authority tells me to sin or opposes God, I must resist it, object to it like Peter and John did (Acts 5:29).  And there is a way to submissively disagree with any authority.  Even the prophets were able to do that with God.  But I hope this series gets us all to peer into the Word and let it checkmate any misconceptions about authority that our friends or culture have instilled in us.  Because based just on Genesis 3:1-9 alone, rebellion against any authority God’s established is Satanic.  Check out the Satanist’s pentagram.  And then the symbol for anarchy.  Hmm. 

Mutant Christianity

This post is for those 35 and younger (hey, I had to pick some cutoff age!).  On Sunday Pastor Brandon mentioned a CNN article on a troubling new book entitled Almost Christian.  The author is Princeton Seminary prof and United Methodist minister Kendra Creasy Dean who suspects many “Christian” teenagers, actually aren’t.  Aren’t Christians.

Teen or not, what do you believe?  About God, Christ, yourself, grand purposes, the world, the future?  I’m not talking about the things you don’t know, but what you say you do believe.   

OK, next question: will you find it in the Bible?  You sure?  Read the CNN article:

If you’re over 35 and went ahead and read anyway, do you think this is a problem limited to the younger set?  Me neither.  Luke 6:46.

Not the cape & mask kind

Friday afternoon Tyler and Becky made each other the same promise I’ve had most couples repeat at the marriage altar: “…whether you are healthy, sick, or even bedfast.”  

The next morning Sam died.  My neighbor was 65 but had been dying for seven years.  A welder by trade, he also served as a pastor for 31 years in various places.  Then he fell from a roof and suffered major head trauma.  The injury and necessary medications left him physically and mentally disabled.  He could speak but not hold a conversation; he could shuffle along to the car sometimes, but not get up and walk on his own.  

Instead of letting him waste away in a nursing home, Hannah tenderly cared for him at home.  By herself.  Weak as he was, her husband still towered over her.  She fed him, bathed him, dressed him, cared for the house and grounds, took him to the doctor.  She did it all.

Without complaint.  No pity party.    

“…or even bedfast.”  A couple of years ago I told her, “You’re one of my heroes, Hannah.”  No cape and mask could substitute for the love-in-practice of tenderly caring for a mate who can no longer care for you, no longer love you, no longer protect you, no longer provide for you, no longer keep you warm on cold nights, no longer take care of himself.  

You’re still my hero, Hannah.  You stayed, you served, you glorified God.  Well done.