praise & suffering shake hands

Go get a kleenex.  I’ll wait.

Daily I scan the newspaper obituaries.  No, I’m not looking for my name.  I’m watching for people I might know, but also if anyone died who’s connected to people in our congregation.  I’m intrigued by the stories about the lives–even of total strangers.  Of course, the younger they are the sadder they seem.

Death is the last enemy.  So ruthless, it brazenly taunts those left behind.  The closer the survivor was, the bigger the hole, the emptiness.  If disease first systematically dismantled the body, survivors have an additional burden of exasperation, questions, anger.  Believers who are dying or believers who weather their loved ones’ dying, ache and weep like anyone else.  But for those in Christ, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Our passion is that Christ be exalted in our bodies whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:20).

Mission accomplished for Zac Smith and his wife Mandy.  Zac was 33 when Christ was exalted in his death last May.  The young IT minister on staff at a South Carolina church filmed this video several months before he died.  His wife made the second one since his death. 

Soli Deo gloria.

safely deluded

20 years ago, British journalist and social critic Henry Fairlie wrote: “The desire for a risk-free society is one of the most debilitating influences in America today, enfeebling the economy with a mass of safety regulations and a fear of liability rulings.”  If he could only see us now.  

Kids 8 and under must be laced in car seats, and up to age 12 for the not-so-tall kids.  In Pennsylvania, helmets are mandatory for bicyclists under 12.  Some parents won’t let their children try fun activities that entail any risk.  Labels on plastic toys the size of buckets read: “Don’t eat this product”.  Smoke, radon, carbon monoxide detectors and devices dot our houses.  Restaurants stamp their menus with warnings about barely cooked meat so they don’t get sued.  Depending on the day and the most recent “study”, salt, butter, red meat or coffee will kill you.  Or bullies (I was a veteran victim) will disturb or jar your child’s psyche for life.  (I know, I know, some bullying is criminal.  Don’t send me emails.)

I’m not real fond of risks myself.  It’s my wife and son who jump out of airplanes.  Me, I put chemicals on my icy driveway and wear safety goggles/ear protection when using machinery.  Sometimes, anyway.  I  buckle up.  I buy sturdy stepladders.  To protect her, when my wife and I walk down the street against the traffic, I keep her on my left.  I wear a helmet when I ride my bicycle (probably saved me from a serious head injury last year) and keep the safety on on my hunting rifle until I’m ready to shoot.  I have life insurance, health insurance, car insurance, and home owner’s insurance. 

But if safety becomes the summa bonum, what might happen?  There goes your skiing.  That’s the end of the NFL.  My woodworking days are over.  So is traveling by car since auto accidents kill about 30,000 Americans each year.  (My wife insists air travel is safer but who is she kidding; little car problems–like running out of gas, are big airplane problems.)  And parents will make sure little Johnny is always in sight–even if he’s 12.  No more swimming, no more cheeseburgers (mmmm!!!), no more tree climbing, no more manufacturing, no more experimenting, no more adventure, no more fun.

Taking precautions is good–even wise.  But is safety–for ourselves or those we love most, on the verge of becoming an idol?  I’m talking as a Christian now, not just an American.  If avoiding risk matters most, what happens to God’s children?  Is this the life He had in mind for us?  Had he worshiped safety, would Abraham have ever left Haran?  Moses ever left Egypt?  Would the Israelites have still mixed it up with the Canaanites?  Would Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah still stayed standing while everybody else bowed to the image?  Would Hosea have agreed to marry Gomer?  

Would Jesus have come?  

Would the apostle Paul have gone the places he did for the sakes of some of the obstinate people he talked to?  Would 10 of the 11 disciples have been killed for their mission work?  Could I again take Bibles into countries where it’s illegal?  Would you be still willing to approach your nemesis and tell him the gospel?  If safety becomes our idol, what does that do to taking risks for God?  And how does it affect the next generation whom God will also ask to prepare to suffer for Jesus’ sake?  But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.  To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  (1 Peter 2:20-21)

The gospel was conceived in, executed despite, and distributed with great risk: Jesus came to a hostile world to die for the very people who murdered him.  The price to follow him is “Come and die”.  Exactly what 170,000 Christians around the world will do this year.  Not metaphorically, but actually be killed for Jesus’ sake.  Telling people about Jesus is risky.  Giving generously to gospel work is economically risky.  Refusing an order from your commanding officer could get you court-martialed.  Saying no to your boyfriend could risk your popularity.  Forgiving your enemy may tell her you’re weak and can be exploited.  All risky. 

Well, my computer’s exposed me to way too many electromagnetic fields today already so I’m shutting down.  See you.  And hey…, be safe out there!

Egypt “My people”

About a year ago I put a photo of a woman beggar sitting by a Cairo street up on my computer desktop to remind me to pray for Egypt.  Would you too?  If you’re following the news you know that this great land of the scriptures (mentioned almost 700 times in the Bible) appears to be on the verge of a revolution.  I have an Egyptian friend who is taking the good news to his countrymen.  But I’m also interested because my wife and I were in Egypt in 2008.  That’s when I photographed the beggar.  It was in Cairo that we began a tour tracing the footsteps of Moses–and beyond (unlike him, we actually got to enter the promised land).  Egypt was breathtaking.  Admittedly Cairo’s not the cleanest city and the Sinai is a vast display of rocks and more rocks, but from the pyramids to the Egyptian Museum to Mt. Sinai to the Red Sea to the intriguing Egyptian people, I loved it all and can’t wait to return (planning to lead a tour in 2014).  
Within weeks the popular uprising which forced out Tunisia’s strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, appears to have infected the Egyptians with the hope that they too can force their President Mubarak from power.  It could happen today.  Then what?  I wonder how many of the frustrated who are thronging the streets have thought about who could follow Mubarak into the presidential palace.  “Anything’s better than this!” is often believed but rarely true.  The Muslim Brotherhood is the only significant opposition to the government and now that they have thrown their lot in with the protesters, they could well be in the best position to assume the reins of government.  

The West is wary of the Brotherhood which its leaders protest is an unfounded concern.  But is it nothing more than the innocuous fraternal religious organization it claims to be?  Although operative in many Arab nations, it’s home and roots are in Egypt.  It began in 1928 and remains strongest in the land of the Nile.  Although it has officially endorsed a nonviolent approach to political and religious change, the organization is enveloped by shadows which leave some analysts convinced they are linked with terrorists.  That would be unsurprising since their stated goal is to instill the Qur’an and Sunnah as the “sole reference point for… ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community…, and state”.  Which sounds suspiciously like the Islamic republics that jihadis envision.
In Lawrence Wrights’ excellent book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, he claims early Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb was a key influence for Bin Laden.  It is true that not all voices in the MB do–or did–speak with one accord.  Perhaps if they consolidate power moderate voices will prevail.   
We can pray that if there is a government change, like the Czech Republic’s “velvet revolution” 20 years ago, Egypt could experience a peaceful and bloodless transition of power to a capable ruling authority.  And a new dawn of economic, political, and religious hope for all Egyptians.  Pray for stability, for peace, for the Christians who are there (only about 10 million of Egypt’s 84 million are Christians), and for an environment where my friend can still spread the good news.  After all, the Bible says that a day is coming when Egypt and Assyria and Israel will worship God together, and be His blessing on the earth.  The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”  Isaiah 19:25.   

Christians in combat?

We who believe in the sanctity of human life are not just antiabortion.  US sanction to kill nearly 50 million preborn babies in 38 years is simply America’s largest and most glaring violation of God’s image in human beings.  That humans alone carry God’s image has other implications right down to our attitude toward someone we don’t like.  It also puts as at odds with many in the animal rights movement whose propaganda makes no distinctions between people and other creatures.
But as we discussed last Sunday, our critics sometimes tell us we’re inconsistent.  They ask, even in the case of murder, how can any of you support the death penalty?  Isn’t that piling sin upon sin by taking the life of someone made in God’s image?  And what about Christian soldiers who take the lives of men made in God’s image, on the battlefield?  If Genesis 9:5-6 says that anyone who takes the life of a person is himself to be put to death, why is it alright for soldiers to kill in combat? (Listen to entire 1-16-11 sermon at
Here’s a little more on that last issue.  I used to be a pacifist and pacifists insist that Jesus prohibited battlefield killings.  They point to Matthew 5:38-42 where he replaced the OT “eye for an eye/tooth for a tooth” with a new ethic: instead of drawing your sword, give an evil person anything he asks for, do whatever he demands.  In verses 43-47 he says instead of hating your enemies, “friend” them.  He says that part of what sets us so radically apart from unbelievers is that we even love people who don’t love us.
But these are personal ethics.  If you live on Oak St., this is how you treat everyone on Oak St. whether they’re nice, noisy, or nasty.  This is how you treat all the kids at your school–not just the popular ones or ones who are nice to you.  This is how you respond to everyone who asks you for something–whether they have a right to your stuff or not (uggh, I need some work here!).
But Jesus said nothing to suggest that He meant for the army to use these instructions as a military code of conduct.  The job of the state is to defend its people and to do so requires the weapons (Romans 13:4), the readiness and the will to kill.  Trouble arrives quickly if we expand what the Savior said to individuals, to all institutions.

That said, precisely because Christians believe even their enemies bear the image of God, soldiers who love and serve Jesus take life because they must, not because they enjoy it.  Which distinguishes them from secularist soldiers who hate their enemy–or from religiously-driven soldiers who feel each kill earns them more points with their god. 

General Sherman was right; war is hell.  Yet men must stand ready to defend their nations or communities from the designs aggressors have on them.  Neither Orwell nor Churchhill actually said it but the quote “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm”, reflects reality.  Those who live in the world’s snake pits where it’s dangerous to sleep too soundly, understand all too well the peace that only strength can bring to a community or nation.  Praise God that one day the Prince of Peace will reappear to put an end to it all! 

White as snow

In another instance, it would have been beautiful.  On Tuesday we took 2 of our grandsons to the Pennsylvania Farm Show.  Pulling them in a red wagon, we navigated past piles to see the cows, pet the alpacas, laugh at the ducks sliding down a ramp.  We stuffed ourselves with nutritious black holes like french fries (yummm!) and chicken nuggets.  After the horse pulling contests we headed for the parking lot.  It was dark and the snow was falling.  Beautiful.

Except that we had 60 miles to drive.  Without salt, the roads were treacherous.  As we gingerly navigated Rt. 283 we passed three different cars littering the median and ditches like so much thrown away rubbish.  The snow continued to fall.  

We dropped off the boys and went home.  After fixing some food we turned on the outside lights and watched the heavy flakes piling up on our patio and pergola.  Now it was beautiful.  The next morning we awoke to 7 inches coating everything.  It was fluffy, yet heavy enough to collect on  the evergreens and overhead wires.  The sun peaking over the neighbor’s house dappled some of the white with rainbows.  In awe I snapped some pictures before grabbing the shovel.
Beautiful.  White.  No dirt yet, just pristine snow, blindingly white.

I am a sinner.  No one knows it better than me.  I’m a veteran at sinning and at being forgiven.  I will never get this right.  True, as the Spirit has sanctified me, I sin less, and especially the sin habits have loosened their grip.  I am on a war footing with sin rather than making peace with it.  But I will go to my grave and my final interview, speckled with sin.  If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth (1 John 1:8, NLT).  Unlike the virgin snow, my heart and life looks like snow after it’s been driven on, spit on, mixed with mud, and belched on by exhaust pipes. 

Yet by the blood of Jesus Christ–at that final interview, my robe will be as white as virgin snow.  God will not see me as I really am; but as His Son really is.  God once said, No matter how deep the stain of yours is, I can remove it.  I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow (Isaiah 1:18, NLT).  Oh glorious thought!  Unbelievable grace!  Merciful Savior!  They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white (Revelation 7:14, NLT).

Today the snow’s not so white anymore.  But the robe Jesus bought me, is.  (Yea!! Easter’s a’coming!)

Yes, the Bible!

Today, convictions you have will prompt you to make dozens of decisions: what to wear, what to eat, whether or not to speed on the way to work, how you respond to a subordinate who’s insubordinate, what to do if the other kids are bullying someone in the bathroom, whether to lie or tell the truth in the report–even if it makes you look bad, how much money to spend for a car, whether or not your daughter can stay out after midnight, what color to paint the kitchen, what to do when you realize you were wrong, what magazines or online sites to read, which candidate to vote for, how much money to give away and who to give it to, what movie to see, and who to spend time with.  
True, types of beliefs are as varied and shaded as Benjamin Moore paints: beliefs you have about health, economics, aesthetics, relationships, priorities, morality, parenting, marriage, and politics.  But make no mistake, they are the engines to your decisions.
For example, deciding what to wear today may well be driven by beliefs about yourself and others.  I’ll choose the black shirt for tonight’s date with my wife if I believe that black makes me look especially handsome.  The woman wears a low cut blouse on the day she interviews for the promotion believing her male boss can be influenced by a woman’s flesh.  Even though a guy’s not overly concerned about his appearance he won’t wear the same shirt Friday he wore Monday because he believes others will notice and conclude he’s dirty, can’t afford many clothes, or is a slob.
On Sunday I will urge the people of our congregation to start reading the Bible regularly this year if they don’t already.  My 6-year Bible reading plan takes slackers like me through the Bible in six years (I know some of you SEAL-type Christians do the whole thing in a year), plus has us reread 5 key books annually.  Or I’ll suggest finding a plan online or use the one in the back of their Bibles.

I want people to read the Bible because it’s got power.  As a faithful but lost churchgoer for many years it was the Word of God that brought me to repentance and faith in Christ.  Not just once, it was the “often” listening to God which brought me salvation.  So I am impassioned to see people absorb this book as God’s booming voice more than a religious accessory or home accent for the end table. 
Reports that a recent Rasmussen poll claims only 25% of evangelical Protestants (that’s us) read the Bible daily, is in sync with a 2003 Gallup poll in which only one in four American Christians said they read the Bible regularly to find direction for their lives.  Huh?  So how do we find direction?  How do we make decisions?  How do we know who God is and what he wants?  Or who we are and what we should do about it?  What yesterday was all about and what today and tomorrow might bring?  As “followers of Jesus Christ” how do we know what followership looks like in a marriage, friendship or citizenship?  How do we know in what to find hope?  
One title I thought about using for Sunday’s message was “Stop having devotions!”  I think some of us who do “have devotions”–that is, read a few Bible verses each day so we can say that we did, don’t read with an ear to hear God’s booming voice.  We keep religious duties by reading our religious relic, not as one half of the conversation between ourselves and our spellbinding, unbelievable, sacrificing, loving, God.  I wonder if that’s worth anything.

Oh, how we need the Bible!  Not on the end table or bookcase, but like a lifesaving intravenous drip–over time, it accumulates in our souls to make us more and more like the Jesus Christ who saved and sanctifies us.  And yes, it may even affect decisions about what to wear!
How can a young man keep his way pure?  By living according to your word.  Psalm 119:9. 

what about santa?

How should Christian parents handle Santa Claus?  Is it OK to tell children there is one–or let them believe it if they hear about him from other children or relatives?

For every Christian parent who thinks it’s a harmless fantasy for their son or daughter to enjoy along with their friends, there are three who are adamant that no Christian parent should permit a son or daughter to risk being distracted from the Christ child at Christmas.  
I’m not convinced that all the Santa “trappings” are that big of a deal.  For example, I don’t know that letting little Timmy sit on Santa’s lap at the mall and tell him what he wants for Christmas undermines the manger.  Or that buying some discount wrapping paper decked out with Santas is a spiritual calamity.  
I do think it matters more what Timmy’s mom and dad tell him–or let him think about Santa.  If l tell my children that the guy at the mall or on TV delivers their presents on Christmas eve–or neglect to correct what friends tell them about Santa, I wonder how that is different from deception?  And even if they can’t say the word or define it, I think that’s exactly what children will look back on it as once they learn the truth.
Why not tell them that Santa Claus is a fable based on fact?  Tell them the story of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) who lived in A.D 200-300’s.  We don’t know exactly when because there’s not a single historical document from his day speaking about his life.  But biographers writing within 200 years say his parents died and left him with great wealth.  Which he gave away. One of the most famous legends is that a poor man with three daughters could not pay the dowry to marry off his eldest daughter.  He was even too broke to buy food.  The story goes that Nicholas learned of it and threw a bag of gold in the house during the night.  He did the same with the second and later the third daughter.  He wanted to do it anonymously but the last time the father was waiting and discovered the identity of his benefactor.
Later when he was in the ministry, he reputedly put gold coins in shoes when they were left outside the homes.  In the early 300’s when Diocletian set out to destroy the church, Nicholas was imprisoned for years.  When released he continued to faithfully serve the Lord for several decades.  While I don’t put much stock in some of the outlandish miracles he’s claimed to have performed, to me it’s telling that he neither wrote about himself–nor had others write about him.  We know that he existed, but he seems to have been quite disinterested in leaving a personal legacy.
Which makes the tale of him being chosen Myra’s bishop, plausible–and marvelous.  When the bishop there died, Nicholas traveled to the city with other ministers and bishops to select the man’s successor.  As was his custom, Nicholas got out of bed early and went to the church to pray.  An elderly minister was already there and asked him, “Who are you my son?”  
“Nicholas the sinner” came the humble reply.  “And I am your servant.”  The aged priest asked him to follow him and they entered a room of the assembled bishops.
“I had a vision that the first one to enter the church in the morning was to be our new bishop.  Here is that man: Nicholas.”  Indeed he was chosen as bishop.  His generosity and humility are legendary.  But legends usually have a core of truth to them.  That’s the core our children can benefit from.  At least, if it doesn’t eclipse Jesus.  Nicholas would have hated that.

her heart for God’s heart

More from October’s Lausanne Congress in South Africa: story of an 18 year old student originally from North Korea.  No wonder the third world is where the Spirit’s got room to work.  A testimony like this repudiates the prosperity gospel and makes a case for suffering as one of God’s most powerful tools in kingdom building. 

[Sorry if you tried the video before only to discover it’s just partial; there’s a defect in the embedding code.  This link should work.]

Is Jesus, food, or both the good news?

  • 10 days in October
  • 4000 invited guests
  • 198 countries represented
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • International Congress on World Evangelization
  • Beamed to 650 global sites in 91 nations
They called it Cape Town 2010.  Perhaps the largest gathering of international Christians…, ever.

The Lausanne Movement is the brainchild of Dr. Billy Graham.  Preaching in more and more foreign countries the great evangelist pondered how the world’s evangelical Christians could work together to evangelize an increasingly complex and unstable world.  After sharing his vision with 100 world leaders, in 1974 Dr. Graham gathered 2700 Christian leaders from 150 countries in Lausanne, Switzerland (hence the movement’s name), a congress TIME magazine described as “a formidable forum, possibly the widest ranging meeting of Christians ever held”.

Lausanne launched a movement.  A second congress was held in 1989 in the Philippines, and this year’s was the third.  The impact Lausanne has had on world evangelization and Christian unity has been far reaching.  But there’s always been a current of tension in each congress as well as in the dozens of conferences sponsored in between, over the relationship of evangelism and social efforts to relieve suffering.  Which claim is right?
  1. The primary work of the Church is evangelism 
  2. Although the primary work of the church is evangelism, working for things like feeding the hungry should be the result of individual faith and a call on the church.
  3. The work of evangelism and the work of meeting people’s legitimate needs are equally the work of the Church, are equally the work of the gospel.
In his address to the delegates Pastor John Piper preached that Christians must respond to all kinds of suffering of all people.  Then he added, especially respond to the threat of eternal suffering–in other words, without neglecting social justice, evangelization is at the front of the line.  World Vision’s Corina Villacorta emphasized that the acts Jesus did when he was here was riddled with compassion for people’s sufferings.  She decried the inequity between rich Christians and poor ones.

In the face of such tensions Denver Seminary president Dr. Mark Young quipped from Cape Town, “Those primarily engaged in social justice and development ministries quote St. Francis, ‘Preach the gospel at all times —  necessary, use words.’  Those involved primarily in preaching wish that St. Francis had said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times — If necessary, don’t use words.'”

It’s not just Lausanne.  For over a hundred years this tension has pulled the American church back and forth.  Many remember how mainline Protestants in the early 1900’s got so preoccupied with social justice issues they dispensed with evangelism.  (Remember Glenn Beck famously warning his listeners that if their church talked about social or economic justice, they were code words for communism?)  Some of these denominations never recovered biblical Christianity but preached a “social gospel”, a form of good news which turned out to be bad news: Jesus got demoted from atoning sacrifice to nice example.  Certainly in this case, the food was not the good news.

Fearful of this slippery slope, some Christians wash their hands altogether of things like soup kitchens, health clinics–of anything that smacks of “social services”.  But repeatedly the prophets, Jesus and the apostles send us to meet people’s needs: the poor, the widows, the orphans, lepers, aliens (outsiders).  The Scriptures say…
  • Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
  • Share your food with the hungry…, provide the poor wanderer with shelter…, when you see the naked…, clothe him.
  • Faith without works is dead.  
  • Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
  • Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
  • Sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.
There’s no way to dodge the Bible’s mandate to care about–and for, those in need.  Nor any way to dodge the Bible’s mandate that every Christian is a missionary (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:18-20) tasked with taking the message that Jesus died and rose again to save sinners like me, to other sinners.

Again, it’s the relationship between the two that’s dicey.  Which takes priority–should a local church give both equal attention?  In a recent discussion with Capitol Baptist Pastor Mark Dever, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis insisted everything from racial reconciliation to helping the poor should be the  church’s work–they’re “integral” to the gospel he said.  Dever agreed that the gospel has social implications and that people genuinely transformed by the gospel should care about anyone in need.  And help individually as led.  But he couldn’t agree that it’s the church’s main job.  That, he said, is evangelism and discipleship.
Manhattan pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian will keep the discussion alive with his just-released book Generous Justice about which he asserts: “All I know is, if I don’t care about the poor, if my church doesn’t care about the poor, that’s evil.”

I think I can agree with that.  However, the enemy is happy to use bad or good things to supplant the gospel.  For example, until Jesus returns, there will always be hunger, poverty, suffering.  Jesus said so.  True, some of our forebears used that to excuse a lack of concern and assistance for the poor.  Because we cannot erase something does not mean we cannot alleviate it.  

But the danger to Christ’s church remains that if the magnitude of evil, suffering, hunger, AIDS, poverty, and sex trafficking gets to us, we may throw all of our time and resources at those great needs and perhaps neglect the good news whose effects transcend this life.