Monthly Archives: August 2014

If?

A crowd had gathered.

That could hardly have been this man’s intent. It was likely the last thing he wanted.

What he wanted he couldn’t seem to get.

This desperate dad loved his son -he loved him desperately. So he had brought the boy to a man he had heard about – a teacher.

Maybe he could help. Maybe he could heal his son. He had heard of this rabbi doing such things.

The son, perhaps a teenager, was seriously, violently and fearfully ill.

We find a description of this tragic case in the Gospel of Mark.

“He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk.” With tears in his eyes and grief in his voice, the father explained:

“And whenever this spirit seizes him [“whenever” indicates the sporadic, unpredictable nature of the boy’s horrific illness], it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid” (Mark 9: 17-18, NLT).

These seizures resembled epilepsy.

Jesus listened intently.

“So,” said the dad, “I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.”(vs. 18, NLT).

Dismissing a “faithless generation”, Jesus asked that the boy be brought to him.

Sure enough, the lad goes into a violent convulsion right at the very feet of the Savior.

Mark tells us that “the evil spirit saw Jesus” (vs. 20, NLT).

As a physician might, Jesus asked the man how long this had been going on. “Since he was a little boy,” he replied. “The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him” (vs. 22, NLT).

How easy it is to read these words without feeling the broken heart; the anguished hopelessness; the insomniac weariness – the sheer, raw emotion – of this parent.

He watches his precious and beautiful son writhing on the ground, foaming at the mouth.

Suppose this was your son?

Suppose this was your daughter?

A beloved grandchild?

Perhaps it has been. Perhaps it still is.

Alcohol, drugs, depression, loneliness, disability, disease?

Then you know.

Is any pain so great, is any heartache so inexpressible; is any grief or regret as inconsolable as the pain of a suffering child who belongs to you?

It’s impossible to grasp this narrative without somehow appreciating the depth of this father’s unalterable heartbreak.

With tears streaming down his face, the father pleads with Jesus.

“Have mercy on us and help us, if you can” (vs. 22,NLT).

“But if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (KJV).

“If you can.”

 If there’s anything you can do, if there’s any way you can possibly help us, if you have any power or any ability; if there is any solution or any cure …

“If?” Jesus asked.

Jesus looked at the father with a penetrating yet tender gaze. He studied the man’s bereaved face and took note of his tears.

Then Jesus gently smiled.

He knew this man. Here was a father who cared more than he analyzed. Whose love far exceeded his faith.

“What do you mean, ‘If I can?’ Anything is possible if a person believes” (vs. 23, NLT).

Anything?

Anything.

Then the man says something to Jesus that forever endears us to this desperate dad pleading to God for the life of his son.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve said this to Jesus more times than I care to recount.

And he knows I’ve thought and felt it plenty.

Perhaps you have too.

It’s simple. It’s direct. It’s humble. It’s genuine.

It speaks to human frailty even while it grasps for something more sublime.

It moves us by its vulnerability and its authenticity. It acknowledges weakness and hopes for strength.

It is the transparent cry for an undeserved answer; the longing plea for unmerited favor.

Let the King James more fully express its beauty and its pathos:

“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (vs. 24).

Here, in the honest tear-stained confession of a mere mortal, this dad speaks for us all.

How many times I’ve had to confess my own lack of faith and ask God to forgive my distrusting heart. How often have you and I prayed with supposed confidence in an almighty God, only to be harassed by that conditional conjunctive:

If.

If only this; if only that; if only …

“If” means “a supposition” and an “uncertain possibility”. The word – and the thought behind it – implies “a condition, requirement or stipulation.”

Dear Lord, I do believe and I need and want to trust you more than I do.

Help thou my unbelief.

Help me to overcome my lack of faith.

Teach me to trust you, “no ifs, ands or buts” – and grant me the strength and courage to do it.

In every situation.

Jesus could have sent the man home with his tragically marred son. For lack of faith, Jesus could have said no. Instead he healed the boy – fully and without condition.

The overjoyed dad hugged his son and they returned home.

It was a miracle not of faith but of grace.

“What do you mean, ‘If’?”

May God bless you and your family.

 

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Why Not Now?

Randal Lyle has a dream.

Randal’s dream is as relevant and timely as Ferguson, Missouri and as ancient as the scriptures.

Rooted in the prayer of our Lord, it is a dream for our time and for all time. Central to our faith, it is the expression of our love.

It is a dream of heaven that heaven sent.

And for the Rev. Dr. Lyle and the Meadowridge Community Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, the dream is becoming an exciting reality.

It wasn’t always that way.

A decade ago, when Pastor Lyle first came to Meadowridge, this Southern Baptist church was struggling just to stay alive. It was, as many churches in America are, an all-white church. Lyle told a reporter from the Fort Worth Star Telegram how sad and frustrated he felt when he’d see a non-Caucasian family visit only to realize that they would not likely return.

As difficult as it might be, Randal Lyle was determined to see that change.

“We began to pray and ask God to make us the church he intended us to be.”

With the help of others who shared his dream, Randal led a ten-year transformation that has made Meadowridge today a thriving multicultural body of believers.

The church’s motto?

All Races United in Christ.

 With an average attendance of 230 on Sunday morning, fully 30 percent are African Americans. Hispanics, Asians and other races also attend.

Integration is working – in this church, on Sunday morning, the most segregated hour in America.

Along the way, with God’s help and the infusion of the Holy Spirit, men and women began to overcome their prejudices – in music, worship, leadership and all manner of areas where they learned to “give a little bit”, as one member put it.

In this beautiful and wonderful process called spiritual maturity and growth, people discovered how great it felt to be set free from their cultural chains.

Rev. Sidney Simon, an African-American associate pastor at Meadowridge, told Star-Telegram reporter Jim Jones that the essence of their dream was to fulfill God’s dream for the Church.

“Our goal,” says Pastor Simon, “is to reflect what heaven is like. God is breaking down the barriers that separate us. If we can’t get along down here on earth, how can we get along in heaven?”

Amen Sidney!

If the Church of Jesus Christ won’t set the example of a color-blind society, what institution will?

Who has a greater example? Who has a greater power? Who has a clearer mandate or higher calling than the Church?

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if we can’t make racial harmony and unity work here, we can’t make it work anywhere.

And be very sure of this: it’s important that we do.

In time we will weary of Ferguson. The criminal justice system will work its will. The protestors will go home, and the media turn to other stories. The tumult will subside and the tragedy will take its place alongside others in our history.

But we dare not forget Ferguson’s point.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War and well into this most advanced of all centuries, racial hate still lies just beneath the surface of our national consciousness in this land of the free. At a single gunshot, it can rear its ugly head and show us how divided we still are and how far we still have to go.

If Michael Brown had been white or Darren Wilson black, most of us would have no idea where Ferguson is.

I’m ashamed to tell you what ran through my head when I saw the looting on TV. I asked God to forgive me. It was a self-revealing moment.

It can be subtle, sophisticated and seemingly innocent, but nearly all of us struggle with prejudice in some form or fashion – and to some degree. Racism is part and parcel of our fallen state. It’s as insidious as it is real.

Only in confronting it can we gain victory over it.

Which is why what Randal Lyle and Meadowridge Community Baptist Church are doing is so exciting and so important. Not just for them but for all of us.

Jesus prayed for his church in the Garden on the night he was betrayed. He asked his Father to sanctify us by the truth, to keep us uncontaminated by the world and to love each other.

And he prayed that we would be one.

Facing the multiple prejudices of his own time, and acutely aware of his own hatreds before he came to faith in Christ, the Apostle Paul told the Galatians that in Christ:

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.”

Those distinctions by which it was so easy to judge and condemn and suspect one another were now gone. They were destroyed by Jesus in his finished work on the cross. They no longer count. They no longer matter.

They must no longer divide us.

There is no longer black and white.

“For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28, NLT).

And heaven?

It will be the most racially diverse, inclusive and multicultural experience you and I have ever had.

Why not start now?

May God bless you and your family.

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The Right Fit

Izzy Friedman was what you might call an unforgettable character.

Izzy lived on Deer Isle, Maine, where my mother was born and raised. He owned a clothing store on the island. It was probably the only one. An outgoing man, Izzy was always excited to see people enter his store. And Izzy was always anxious to please his customers and get a sale. He was nothing if not enthusiastic.

Izzy Friedman was a natural born salesman. You might say he had the gift.

On occasion, customers would attempt to return clothing that didn’t fit. But first, they had to get by Izzy.

And one might say that getting by Izzy wasn’t easy.

“What’s the problem here?” Izzy would ask with a big smile.

When it was the fit, Izzy was prepared:

“If it’s too big,” he’d say, “it will shrink. Too small? It will stretch”.

Izzy didn’t claim that one size fits all. It was more like any size would fit anybody.

How often did Izzy’s logic – and his persuasive manner – prevail? That’s hard to say since I wasn’t there. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

A lot of churches and ministers today are like Izzy Friedman. They want customers and they want sales.

Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ too big? Is it too cosmic, too powerful, too holy, and too supernatural? They can shrink it.

Is the Gospel too small? Is it too narrow, too intolerant, and too dogmatic? They can stretch it.

Whatever the problem, whatever the objection, whatever the reluctance, these religious salesmen aim to please.

They’ll make the Gospel fit.

They have to – it’s the only way to get people in the door and keep them in their seats.

Too many churches and too many pastors in America have tried too hard for too long to try and make Christianity palatable to the postmodern taste. They have used smoke and mirrors, sound and light, and tricks and gimmicks.

They have shrunk, stretched and twisted their message.

As our culture has slid toward Gomorrah, these shallow attempts at popularity have appeared increasingly pathetic and desperate. People have ended up either cynically rejecting or naively embracing the latest church fad.

Truth can easily get lost in that shuffle – or worse -sacrificed upon the altar of what is mislabeled as “relevance”.

The contemporary church too often longs to be loved by the world. It seeks a credible acceptance of the Christian message –a message too willingly “tailored to fit” the “seeker’s desires”.

We work overtime to find new marketing techniques to sell Christianity to a world grown increasingly hostile to its claims. Tragically, the more we seek to win the world by becoming like the world the more the world holds us in mocking contempt.

That is the sad irony of all this. It cannot possibly succeed, not in the end. Clever tactics may fill a church but they empty the heart and mind of the rigorous truth of the Christian faith. And the unsaved have no lasting respect for the apologizing and groveling Christian.

Bait and switch is a poor substitute for authentic Christianity.

The Gospel of Christ – the old story of Jesus’ unchanging love and saving grace; his death and resurrection; his perfect humanity and sovereign deity – doesn’t need to be redesigned, reformatted or repackaged. It needs to be preached without compromise and without apology.

We don’t need more accommodation in the evangelical pulpits of this country – we need more courage.

We need more Jerry Mitchells – my friend from California who has been holding forth the Word of Life and preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God at the same church for a quarter century. Jerry knows God doesn’t pay attention to polls – and neither does Jerry. A gifted communicator, Jerry might have more people at his church if he’d only compromise the truth – just a wee bit. But he’d rather have the approval of God than the praise of men.

May the good Lord increase his kind.

There’s nothing wrong with using technology and crafting creative strategies. It’s good and necessary that churches upgrade and update their methodologies. But let’s be careful that these methods are our servants and not our masters; our means, not our end.

When he bowed before his Father in the garden, Jesus prayed for us. He asked God to make us “holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth” (John 17: 17, NLT). Jesus added that you and I, as his disciples, would be hated by the world because we do not belong to the world. “The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world” (John 15:19, NLT).

So why should the church mimic the world? Why do we seek so often to fit in when we should instead stand out?

Jesus warned us against seeking “the approval of others … Popularity contests are not truth contests … Your task is to be true, not popular”. (Luke 6:26, The Message).

Now that’s the right fit!

May God bless you and your family.

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A Letter to Ruth

He detested typewriters.

He wrote all his personal correspondence – and it was extensive – with a pen. He believed the noise of a typewriter interfered with the flow of creative thought.

His brother later typed his letters, being the only one who could decipher the scrawled penmanship.

This particular letter on this day required thoughtful attention. It was the reply to a young girl named Ruth Broady. Ruth had written to say how much she enjoyed his books.

He smiled at the affirmation. He loved children as much as he hated typewriters. Taking pen carefully in hand, he wrote the date in the upper corner: 26 October, 1963.

“Many thanks for your kind letter, and it was very good of you to write and tell me that you like my books; and what a very good letter you write for your age!”

He paused for just a moment. Then he wrote:

“If you continue to love Jesus, nothing much can go wrong with you, and I hope you may always do so.”

Then he paused again. This next part would be interesting:

“I’m so thankful that you realized the ‘hidden story’ in the Narnian books. It is odd, children nearly always do, grownups hardly ever”.

The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature ever written, was sometimes attacked by academics as racist. Others assailed it as sexist. Everyone had an opinion; everyone had an interpretation. The scholars thought they knew. This work of allegorical fantasy was examined and analyzed from various perspectives and prejudicial mindsets in search of supposed underlying cultural themes.

In the end, CS Lewis knew that children would get it.

They would embrace it in its purity and creative beauty. They would accept it and enjoy it for the wonderful and imaginative story it was.

Children would cast no cynical judgment on the work nor offer any smug critiques. They would perceive “the hidden story” that “grownups hardly ever” recognized.

What Lewis appreciated about children is what Jesus also celebrated.

Jesus attached great importance to child-like faith.

When his disciples got into an argument about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven – a childish preoccupation typical of adults – Jesus stopped them and startled them.

“And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:2, KJV). Jesus didn’t want these arguing grownups to miss “the hidden story” and so he brought it center stage.

Jesus looked at the little boy and smiled. He caressed the lad’s tousled hair. And he held him tenderly in his arms.

Then Jesus looked at his disciples – the men who would be the first leaders of his church.

“Except ye be converted and become as little children,” he told them, “ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, KJV).

How often have men and women missed the profound simplicity of the Gospel because they’ve refused to believe it could be that uncomplicated? They’ve wanted to add to it, analyze it and work for it. Anything but simply accept it as God’s free gift.

That’s too easy. Nothing this important could be that simple.

So many people remain blinded by their sophistication and cynicism; by their success, their money and their power; by their intellect, the approval of their peers or political correctness.

Saddled by skepticism, they miss the “hidden story” of God’s great love. They fail to “become as little children” and so never enter the kingdom of heaven.

They miss it.

When the disciples scolded parents for bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed by him because they thought it was a distraction, Jesus brought them up short.

“When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples” (Mark 10:14, New Living Translation).

These men had a lot to learn about children and the Kingdom of God and this was another teachable moment.

“Let the children come to me,” Jesus told them. “Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children” (vs. 14, emphasis added).

Then Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (vs. 15, emphasis added).

Then Jesus gathered these little boys and girls lovingly into his arms; he hugged them and put his hands on their heads and he blessed them.

Children are humble, transparent, trusting, affectionate and unaffected. Many lose these qualities as adults. And when they do, the kingdom of God grows more distant.

The true Christian is one who has not lost the child’s heart.

Pray that you may always be child-like in your love and faith.

“I’m afraid the Narnian series has come to an end,” Lewis wrote in closing his letter to Ruth Broady, “and am sorry to tell you that you can expect no more.

God bless you”.

Less than a month later, CS Lewis, who never lost his child’s heart and never stopped loving Jesus, walked through the Gates of Splendor into a heavenly kingdom more glorious, more beautiful, more colorful and more creative than even he could ever have imagined.

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Seriously

Who hasn’t seen him – usually in a New Yorker cartoon?

He’s standing on the sidewalk, long hair and a beard, wearing a sandwich board with “The End is Near” emblazoned on it. People walk by, paying no attention to either him or his message.

We smile.

Predictions of doom have often been the subject of scathing humor. The self-styled prophet warning us of the world’s imminent demise gets no respect. No one takes “the end of the world” very seriously. It makes for interesting movies –apocalyptic themes have always done well in Hollywood. Jerry Jenkins and Tim LeHaye gained quite a following a few years ago for their Left Behind book series.

When the Malaysian jet crashed – shot down (probably) by Russian separatists – on the same day Israel went into Gaza, I got one of those temporary “oh boy” sensations. “This might really be the end-game”, I thought.

Perhaps everyone gets those fleeting thoughts and feelings when the world suddenly heaves. I shouldn’t confess it in light of the tragedies but there was some sense of what may be called “apocalyptic anticipation” as I watched these two major events unfolding on the news amidst global uncertainty.

Could this finally be it?

If Jesus was about to split the eastern sky with his lightening and the trumpets were about to blast from heaven to signal our Lord’s return, what Christian wouldn’t get a little excited?

The world wrings its hands in anguished bewilderment when tragedies and wars happen – and certainly we must all mourn death and destruction; hate, violence and injustice.

But the follower of Jesus Christ also believes in a glorious future when God will make all things new. We know, because we trust the Bible as God’s prophetic and authoritative Word, that it truly is darkest just before the dawn.

Without Christ, renewed hostilities just 90 minutes into a 72-hour ceasefire symbolize the futility of a hopeless end. With Christ, world events only draw us nearer to an endless hope.

In view of how these predictions are treated in popular culture, it is a bit surprising to learn that according to a recent Pew Research Poll, 41% of respondents expect Jesus Christ to return to earth by 2050. That was almost as many (46%) as those who said that Christ would probably or definitely not return by that year. It’s interesting that 58% believe that there is going to be another world war during their lifetime. People also believe that epidemics and natural disasters are going to increase in the days ahead.

Despite growing pessimism about the future of the world, most of us think – and live – like the world is never going to end. In fairness, how else can we order our daily lives, practically speaking? We plan, we save, we decide, and we prepare as though the future won’t be all that different from the present – at least not in any apocalyptic way.

Perhaps some of us – subconsciously – are hoping it won’t be. If this is the case, then it’s certainly easier not to contemplate such things.

The repeated “crying wolf” predictions about how near the end is – which have gone on for centuries – have led Christians into a certain passivity in our thinking about prophecy. It isn’t that we don’t believe what the Bible says about the future, it’s just that prophecy doesn’t command much of our serious attention.

In his graphic portrayal of future events, Jesus tells us that the last days will resemble those in Noah’s time: “In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away.”

Then Jesus said this:

“That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes…you must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming…You must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.” [Mathew 24: 37-39; 42, 44, NLT]

“When least expected.”

After more than 2,000 years of waiting and wondering, we live today in an age of little expectancy. What most of us expect is that tomorrow will be pretty much like it was today. We sure aren’t looking for the clouds to be rolled back like a scroll, or Jesus to appear in the sky on a white horse, accompanied by thousands of holy angels. We’re not expecting to hear trumpet blasts, nor are we expecting the elements to melt with a fervent heat.

But didn’t Jesus tell us: “You must be ready all the time”? Isn’t it wrong not to be?

Jesus may not return for another thousand years. Then again, he may come back tomorrow.

The King is coming. Only God knows when. He alone has planned it and only he knows the hour. But unlike the little boy who cried wolf or the hippie in a sandwich board, God and his Son are taking the future seriously.

So should we. And be excited.

May God bless you and your family.

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