Monthly Archives: April 2015

That One

“Hi Mister! I’d like to see your puppies.”

The young boy smiled broadly.

The farmer led the boy to a pen where a litter of puppies scampered eagerly about their mother. The farmer was selling them and the boy had been saving his money. The farmer watched as the lad carefully scrutinized the black and white pups. After a few moments, the boy pointed to a quiet puppy sitting alone in the back of the pen. He called him and the little dog gingerly limped toward the boy, wagging its tail.

“I’d like that one,” the boy said.

“Well,” the farmer said softly to the boy, “I’m not sure you want that puppy. He was born with a bad leg. He can get around OK but he’ll never be able to run and keep up with you like these others would. Wouldn’t you rather have one of these other healthy pups?”

“I really want that one,” the boy insisted. Then the boy reached down and slowly lifted up his pant leg, revealing a steel brace that was attached to a special shoe. “You see Mister,” the boy explained to the farmer, “I don’t run too well myself and I figure this little guy will need someone who understands him.”

Someone who understands.

In all our weakness and vulnerability; in all our frailty and our fears, how much each of us needs someone like that. The world is not a sympathetic place. The world does not understand, the world doesn’t want to understand – the world cannot understand. That’s why we sometimes feel quite alone – surrounded by busy people on a mission that doesn’t include us. Like the little limping puppy, we struggle to keep up in the competitive race of life. And when it seems that everyone can run and jump except us, it’s not always easy.

Yet suppose that the greatest, most powerful, most awesome, most wonderful and most glorious Being in the whole universe understood you more completely than anyone else you’ve ever known. Then imagine that this eternal, omnipotent Being was a God of infinite love who not only knew and understood you fully, but in understanding you, loved you with an unfathomable love.

God does.

This is every Christian’s joyful testimony. We are unfailingly and unchangeably loved by the God who never changes and cannot fail.

At the center of God’s love, of course, is his glory and greatness. But there is also the element of mercy and redemption – and matchless grace – that makes divine love higher, longer, wider and deeper than anything we could ever experience.

God’s love is beyond dimension. That’s how he can understand us – and it’s why he does.

In Christ, God proved his identity with us. This is the glory of the incarnation. God came because he cared. And God cares because he came. And through his Son, God showed us he understood.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses,” the writer of Hebrews tells us, “but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.(Hebrews 4:15, NIV). Jesus understands our weaknesses and temptations because he has been “just as we are.” Sinless, yes, divine, certainly, but also fully human. And in the humanity of Christ we have hope.

We know that Jesus has been “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15, KJV).

I love that King James rendering. It’s so tender, compassionate and expressive.

Our Savior has been “touched” – moved and influenced.

Our High Priest isn’t some stoic god playing chess in the sky with our lives. He knows how you feel – intimately, deeply, and fully.

He knows too your “infirmities” – the frailties of mortal man. He understands your doubts and your fears. Because he was once in the flesh, he appreciates the limitations of the flesh.

The prophet Isaiah reassures us that God is never through with us, even when we’re down. “A bruised reed He will not break. And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.” (Isaiah 42:3, NASB).

God embraces us – the wounded, the limping. God will not break us while we are bruised. He will not snuff us out even if our fire of holy devotion that once burned bright may now be only a smoldering ember of pain and regret. God’s Spirit will fan life into us once again. He will never give up on us – even if we give up on him. Because he understands us, God loves us the most when we deserve it the least.

Every church must be a place where the wounded are welcome. God’s family isn’t what you join after you’ve got your act together. It’s where you’re safe to come while you’re getting your act together.

When we limp, God doesn’t pick on us, he picks us. “I’d like that one” he says. To him, despite our limp of sin and weakness, we are very special.

We are God’s gracious choice.

He holds us, cares for us, feeds us and loves us. God adopts us and he takes us home.

He understands.

May God bless you and your family.

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Play Dixie

There was plenty of celebrating.

That’s the way it is when you win.

It’s human nature to whoop and holler and congratulate yourself.

Winning is for winners. Losing is for losers.

The tall, gaunt man dressed in black moved slowly to the open window and wearily smiled at the exuberant crowd of 3,000 gathered below.

The band had been playing for some time and now waited for his request.

Abraham Lincoln paused and smiled again at the joyous crowd. He had never been particularly musical and always graciously declined to join in public singing. Yet he also enjoyed music, describing it, according to one friend, as a “simple unalloyed pleasure.” Self-deprecatingly unpretentious by nature, Lincoln once professed, “I only know two tunes, one is ‘Old Hundred,’ and the other isn’t.”

“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” the president told the expectant crowd. “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it…I now request the band to favor me with its performance.”

The crowd cheered and the band struck up Dixie.

It was Monday, April 10th. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant the day before, ending the most devastating and tragic war in American history. This was a first symbolic step toward Lincoln’s noble vision of a re-United States of America.

That Friday, 150 years ago this week, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Without regaining consciousness, the president died at 7:22 the next morning. It had been an act of vengeance committed in the name of the defeated South by a deranged narcissist.

Lincoln’s vision of national reconciliation after four long and costly years of bitter and blood-drenched conflict would perish with him. In a sad irony, the South had lost its most powerful ally – and its best friend – in the long and painful effort to heal the deep wounds of civil war.

The nation would eventually once again become the United States. But the path to reunion would be more difficult and filled with recriminations. Lincoln wanted the South restored. Now it would be punished.

As a presidential historian, I am often asked if I believe Lincoln was a Christian.

He kept his faith a private and personal matter, as most presidents have. It’s therefore impossible to say for sure, regardless of what some historians insist. While he often attended, he never joined a church. As a young and intemperate politician, he published a pamphlet advocating against religion. He later retracted it. Some suggest that after the death of his 11-year old son Willie in the White House, Lincoln gave his life fully to Christ.

It’s easier to make the claim that among all our chief executives, Abraham Lincoln – ambitious, scheming and shrewd politician that he surely was – was also among our most Christ-like presidents. He need not be deified as some American messiah, sacrificed on the altar of freedom on Good Friday. But in his temperament and his character, Lincoln consistently displayed those qualities that Christians seek and God desires.

Lincoln carefully read the Bible and knew it better than most ministers.

In his humility and patience, Lincoln was Christ-like. His favorite poem was Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Man Be Proud? Often slighted and mocked by the press and other politicians, he took it all in good humor.

So too in his mercy, his forgiveness and his extraordinary and tender-hearted compassion, Lincoln displayed an impressive Christian outlook that might be the envy of many believers.

There is not a single instance of Lincoln ever seeking mean-spirited revenge against his enemies or ever fretting of what any of them thought of him. His magnanimity was most fully and eloquently displayed toward the South as the war drew to a close.

It was his humble appreciation for the inscrutable purposes of a sovereign God that led Lincoln to refuse to blame the South for the war but to lay the blame upon the country as a whole. He recognized that “both sides” had responsibility. And he perceived God’s divine judgment in it all.

That is Christ-like wisdom.

He pleaded at his second inaugural for “malice toward none and charity for all.” He urged the nation to go forward “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” and to “bind up the nation’s wounds” – to heal the deep divisions. He said the country must “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan” – both North and South.

This was Lincoln’s vision for a stronger – and in the end – a happier republic. It was not steeped in angry and arrogant retribution but guided instead by “the better angels of our nature” – by kindness and goodness.

Even in the midst of violence and hate.

In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul called them the “fruits of the Spirit.” He said the followers of Jesus Christ should display these spiritual attributes in our daily lives. It’s remarkable that Lincoln’s towering place in history is cemented, in large part, by these Christian virtues.

And 150 years later, it’s an inspiring example for us all.

May God bless you and your family.

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Bake Me a Cake!

“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man.

Bake me a cake as fast as you can.”

Well, not so fast, actually.

What is that distant thunder we hear in the heartland of America?

It is the collective voice of conscience. It is the cry of faith.

It is the bugle blast of courage.

The State of Indiana set off a firestorm of controversy in recent weeks when its legislature passed – and its governor signed – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Christians who supported it drew a line in the cultural sand of our new morality and said, “No further.” It would now be illegal to force any person to deny his or her religious beliefs.

That declaration was met by other cries:

“Bigotry!” “Discrimination!” “Jim Crow!” “Intolerance!”

People were getting hoarse.

The new law was over-broad, flawed in its wording, awkwardly explained and often sheepishly defended. Corporate interests, fearing the vindictive wrath of an articulate and wealthy constituency, lined up to threaten Indiana’s political leadership (ironically Republican) with economic sanctions were the law not immediately repealed or, in the nomenclature de jure, “fixed.”

We’ve seen all this before.

Homosexual activists and their liberal allies invoke the weary shibboleth of racist comparisons. Business cowers and politicians either grandstand or temporize, depending. And the envelope is once again pushed forward, a victory for the forces of correctness.

But this time may have signaled a difference.

Despite its legal weaknesses, Indiana’s new law was as morally sound as a dollar. In seeking to protect the sincerely-held religious convictions of all its citizens, the law sought to balance the need to prohibit discrimination with the need to guard an inviolate constitutional right.

One wouldn’t have concluded much thoughtful nuance from the hyperventilated debate, but the reality is that this issue is about competing and yet equally valid rights and protections.

Discrimination is wrong.

Religious freedom is sacred.

Most Americans agree with both these propositions.

The government’s job is to balance these interests when they come into conflict.

The Christian’s duty is to place obedience to God above allegiance to the state.

While refusal to serve gay people at a place of public accommodation – a restaurant for example – was the unsavory and unrealistic illustration invariably cited by the law’s opponents, the protections sought were of a quite different nature.

If a baker who is a Christian is asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding and he is religiously opposed to homosexuality, as most Christians are and will remain, is he being asked to deny his faith by participating in the wedding? Would he be disobeying his conscience before God if he joined in an activity which he believes is sin? The same may be asked of a Christian florist.

Should civil authority force him to do this? Should the law have the right to punish him if he refuses? With anti – religion and especially anti-Christian sentiment growing, these questions will become increasing relevant and paramount.

This concern is the result of the legal triumph of gay marriage. It prompted the Indiana law.

The state will need to decide. And so will the church.

So too will the individual believer.

Where will the line be drawn? Where should it be drawn?

And in a sea change of morality, what will come next?

Will the law and the courts now be used to force people to forsake their moral convictions – to coerce under threat an approval of behavior against conscience itself? Could churches eventually be targeted? In Houston, led by a lesbian mayor, they already have been.

This is not “live and let live.” This is becoming, “renounce your beliefs or else.”

Followers of Christ must continue to display respect and charity toward all people.

No thoughtful Christian believes we should return to the days when homosexuality was illegal. Nor do most believe a gay citizen should lose his or her job because of sexual orientation or be refused public accommodations or service. In this sense, we have, as a society, advanced along the course of a reasonable justice. Christians in this country have accepted gay people as fellow citizens entitled to the equal protections of the law.

In the Old Testament book that bears his name, Daniel, living in captive exile in a land that rejected his Jewish faith, offered the king an accommodation on the rule about the food he and the other captives could legally eat. Let them eat as they wished and then see who was more physically fit at the end of ten days (Daniel1). Daniel prevailed and he and the other young men passed the test.

In making this offer, Daniel displayed both discernment and decisiveness; diplomacy but also determination. He showed respect to the authorities without compromising his righteousness.

But later, when the law insisted that the king alone be worshiped over God, Daniel refused to bow to anyone except the Lord who reigned supreme over all civil authority. He knew the price for his unwavering loyalty. He was willing to pay it.

Christians must remain conscientious objectors to all sin, whether in the guise of “rights” or not.

“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (I Corinthians  10:31, NLT).

Even if it’s baking a cake – or not.

May God bless you and your family.

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As a Matter of Fact

It was unimaginable.

Maybe life would go on but for them it would be forever changed by the tragedy of these past few days.

Hope and joy had turned so quickly to despair and confusion. The events unfolded beyond their control – and beyond their belief.

Anticipation they once held with such certainty now seemed so long ago, shattered by the inexplicable horror and fear that had engulfed them.

As they walked, the two of them, they spoke of what they had seen. What did it mean – “all these things”? Why did this happen? What would the future hold now? It would doubtless be something quite different than what they had expected.

Luke tells us that these two disciples “communed together and reasoned …” as they walked the dusty seven miles from Jerusalem to a village named Emmaus (Luke 24: 15, KJV).

They were trying to process all that had just happened.

This was hard for them. It’s hard for any of us to understand tragedy and dreams that vanish overnight.

Lost in deep thought, their hearts riveted with grief, they sought to comfort one another. So absorbed in their shared heartbreak, they hardly noticed the stranger on the road who “drew near, and went with them” (Luke 24:15, KJV). Luke tells us that this was a divine concealment – “their eyes were held that they should not know him” (verse 16, KJV).

He was friendly – and showed concern.

He asked them what they were discussing and why they seemed so sad. What’s happened?

They stopped on the road and looked at him. They seemed amazed, even in their sadness.

The man named Cleopas asked him, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who does not know what just happened there?” (Luke 24: 18, NCV). The things that took place have stunned so many.

“What things?” he asked (verse 19, KJV).

Cleopas told him about “Jesus of Nazareth.” He was a mighty prophet, in both word and deed, favored by God and the people. But then “the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted”(KJV) – “we were hoping” (NCV) that he was the Messiah, the one promised so long ago, who would come and set Israel free (verse 19-21).

Our hopes soared.

And now he’s dead.

This all happened three days ago, Cleopas explained to the stranger.

But there’s more.

Cleopas told him that some women who visited his tomb that very morning insisted it was empty! There was no body! So Cleopas and others went to see for themselves. Sure enough, they saw the tomb and it was empty. But where was his body?

A mystery.

Cleopas hesitated.

These women had told them that they had seen “a vision of angels, which said that he was alive” (verse 23, KJV).

Alive?

Alive!

Jesus may have smiled, struck by the irony of his anonymity.

What Jesus did next is worth noting. He didn’t engage their speculations or ask any more questions. He didn’t join them in wonder. He didn’t ponder unknown meanings.

He taught them.

From the Old Testament, as they walked together on the road to Emmaus, Jesus expounded on the promises and prophecies concerning himself. He ignored theories and taught truth.

What has just happened is not fantasy, he told them. It’s fact.

This is not some hallucination. This is reality.

As they neared the village and it was getting dark, Cleopas and his friend persuaded Jesus to have dinner with them. As Jesus prayed and passed around the bread, their eyes were opened and suddenly they recognized him.

And then he was gone.

Jesus had always been audacious on the subject of death.

“Destroy this temple,” he announced to the stunned Pharisees, “and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, KJV).

To the grieving sister of a dead friend, Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11: 25, KJV).

No other religious leader in history promised to defang death – to conquer this last enemy – and then did it.

He tells you and me that if we place our faith in him, we will never die. And then he asks us simply:

Do you believe this?

When he appeared to his disciples, after his resurrection, he was again taunting death.

Ha! You look like you’ve seen a ghost!

“Why are you frightened?” he asked them. “Why do you doubt who I am? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do!” (Luke 24: 38-39, NLT).

Jesus held out his hands. He showed them his feet.

Then he ate some broiled fish while they surrounded him and stared in dumbfounded amazement.

Where was his body? Here was his body! Not hidden or stolen but eating dinner.

The resurrection is more than a feeling or a sentiment or even an indwelling power.

It is more.

The resurrection is not just an experience. It is an event. It is history.

It is a matter of fact.

He Is Risen!

He Is Risen Indeed!

May God bless you and your family.

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