Monthly Archives: November 2017

Sutherland Springs

Sometimes I doubt.

I doubt what God does and what he allows.

I know these doubts are sinful and I confess them, repent and ask God’s forgiveness.

When something like Sutherland Springs happens – something so unimaginable, incomprehensible, senseless and tragic that it defies explanation, I’ll admit I can stumble.

I begin with the assumption of God’s existence – his unsurpassed love, unfathomable knowledge and unassailable power. My Bible tells me God is incomparable in every way the human mind can imagine – and beyond.

I accept all this as the underlying premise of my limited understanding but unquestioned faith concerning the eternal Creator.

God’s in control.

I embrace his promises. Rely on his love. Then I watch and listen to human events.

I see the clear contradiction. I marvel at this persistent enigma. I struggle to truthfully put them together.

The theologians call this theodicy. It’s been a mystery since time began. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there evil? Why do horrific things happen to good, God-fearing and faithful people? Why do babies get shot and killed? Why are families summarily executed?

In a small, rural, peaceful, loving church. During the Sunday worship service.

Of all places.

A safe refuge if ever there was one.

Devin Kelley walked up and down the aisle, firing a Ruger assault rifle at unarmed Christians gathered to praise God. Twenty-six of them died. Twenty more were wounded.

There was nowhere to flee. No place to hide. Easy targets. Helpless victims. Innocent lives. Filled with love for their Savior, their community, their church, their families, one another.

Good Christian people – people of stronger faith and greater love than I’ll ever have.

They are brutally murdered.

Massacred by hate.

I’m with the perplexed psalmist:

“When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me” (Psalm 73:16).
And the desperate dad: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Many explanations are offered to help us grasp the inexplicable.

That Sutherland Springs is beyond even the most brilliant and sophisticated understanding doesn’t stop us from seeking answers.

In this there is some futility – though sincere.

We always end up back where we started, praying for redemption and revival, waiting for the next horror – and more explanations.

The killings come with increased frequency – not “alarming” frequency – we passed that marker some time ago.

We’re not stunned any longer. We’re not even surprised.

We expect this.

Luther once called Satan “God’s devil”, limited in his ability to do harm; kept on a strong chain, albeit a long one. Still, the evil one is relentless, seeking to effect his agenda of hate and destruction anywhere and any way he can. The apostle Paul may have differed with Luther’s metaphor, for he described our ancient foe as “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).

Christians naturally place much of the blame on the devil and in this we are more theologically right than wrong.

Yet how much of this lies within the human condition? Within the hearts – and the values and virtues; the choices and leanings – of men and women.

We should understand the laws of nature, not just Nature’s God. What we sow – as individuals, as families, as communities and as a nation – is surely what we reap. We have sown the wind and we are now reaping the whirlwind.

We are becoming a nation without anchor or compass – morally and spiritually adrift. Unmoored from decency or civility.

Our politics are at their lowest ebb in over a century. Our language of public discourse is laced with profanity, riven by hate and corrupted by lies.

We are divided. We are angry. We have turned on each other. It’s as if the better angels of our nature have taken flight, leaving us to our worst selves.

Violence is so common in popular entertainment it has aestheticized us to the real thing. We see these monthly attacks – these horrific and brutal massacres – as the new normal.

CS Lewis wrote of this moral cause and effect:

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

It is tragically inevitable.

What America – including the American church – needs most is what it’s least likely to acknowledge: repentance.

Nothing less will truly heal our hurting land.

God loves us. He draws us to himself. He will hear our prayers. He alone can answer the longings and needs of our souls. He alone can end this awful pestilence and restore our national unity and happiness.

How long shall we stubbornly rebel against God’s moral law? And drink from the broken cisterns of wealth and power?

When House Speaker Paul Ryan said we should pray for the people of Southerland Springs, his twitter account was filled with angry denunciations about the futility of prayer and the need for gun control.

It’s true of course that prayer should never excuse inaction.

It’s also true that what we face in this nation is preeminently a spiritual problem.

No party, no president and no law can fix it.

Through the beautiful simplicity of their steadfast faith, the people of Southerland Springs, in their grief and unimaginable loss, may point our country to the way forward.

It’s the way back.

To God.

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Thoughts for Thursday

I found it a bit amusing.

And a bit confusing too.

A news anchor was asking the father of one of the UCLA basketball players arrested in China for shoplifting why he wouldn’t thank President Trump.

The President had apparently intervened to get the three young athletes released. True to his nature, the president expected public credit and thanks for doing this.

The father stubbornly refused to thank the president.

Trump fumed and said he should have left the kids in jail in China.

This high profile argument over gratitude – or the lack of it – was timely.

This Thursday we all shift gears.

At least for a day.

We will gather with our families in our homes and partake of this American ritual called Thanksgiving. It’s a secular holiday of sorts – made more so by the frenzied material pursuits of the following day – Black Friday.

Thanksgiving was proclaimed officially a national holiday by a president quite different from Donald Trump. Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t the type to seek, expect or demand gratitude for himself, recognized the importance of thanking God for his blessings and his hand of protection upon the United States.

It was the pivotal Northern victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War that prompted Lincoln to issue his proclamation in November, 1863.

Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson and his successors did not believe it appropriate for the government to be officially encouraging any expressions of gratitude to a higher power, for fear of violating the separation of church and state.

Lincoln disagreed. He was too convinced of the mysterious reality of Divine Providence not to want the country to somehow acknowledge it. He subscribed to a giving God. Faith was, for Lincoln, a reliance of hope.

We turn on this day – as we should every day – from our needs and wants to the blessings we’ve been given. We take time to count those. It’s a holiday for reflection. Thanksgiving is a time set aside to encourage renewed perspective.

In this, it is the country’s most shared spiritual holiday – uniting us for a time beyond sectarian and political beliefs and our deep differences – to embrace thanks as a healthy attitude of the soul.

In his Lamentations for Israel, the prophet Jeremiah reached toward a fresh perspective on God and his grace. In the midst of declaring God’s anger over the nation’s sins, Jeremiah praised God’s faithfulness, even in Israel’s darkest night.

“ It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3: 22-23).

In God’s unfailing mercy and compassion the prophet would place his undying hope. Even surrounded by the rebellion of apostacy and it’s tragic consequences, Jeremiah would still look up.

He would find cause for gratitude toward a gracious God.

“O Lord,” cries the weeping prophet, “Thou hast pleaded the causes of my soul; Thou hast redeemed my life” (Lamentations 3:58).

Redemption in the midst of sorrow.

Like a garden, a thankful spirit should be carefully and faithfully cultivated in our hearts, in our minds and in how we live and how we see life.

We must seek it as a habit.

Gratitude can revolutionize our lives. It can lift us from a valley of despondency to sunlit hills of hope. It can help us see through the gray fog of our current circumstance and find a clearer and truer view.

Giving thanks can transform negative, critical and self-obsessed attitudes into positive, patient and generous spirits. It can turn despair into hope.

This has been a season of trials and heartbreak for the American nation. Many of our fellow citizens have endured natural disasters. Others have been the victims of violence and hate.

Perhaps in your own life, this has been a time of challenge and disappointment – perhaps perplexity.

Thanksgiving is a great time to take stock.

“We are too prone to engrave our trials in marble,” observed Charles Spurgeon, “and to write our blessings in sand.”

Yes, God pleads the causes of our soul. What are those?

Our salvation, so rich and free. That he chose us and pursued us with his mighty love, captured us by his grace and preserves us by the power of his word.

Our faith, that we may come boldly to the throne of a gracious and omnipotent God, know that he loves us supremely and gives us his grace, comfort and strength in the hour of our greatest need.

Our families and friends, who bless us, enrich us, make us important, give us joy, and who encourage and comfort us when we need that human touch.

Our freedom. How blessed we are to live in this great land. And to know when we gather Thursday, that thousands of men and women will be separated from their own families this holiday season, stationed around the world, protecting us from harm.

You and I have 10,000 reasons to be thankful.

In the summary of his poem Ulysses, Tennyson wrote “Though much is taken, much abides.”

Life is not for most an unbroken string of spectacular blessings and blue – sky ascents.

We lose, we gain. We laugh and we cry.

Yet, for all that is past, we may say thanks.

For all that is to come, yes.

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In the Desert with the Devil

It was brutally hot during the day.

It was bitterly cold at night.

It was a barren land.

He was alone in a vast wilderness – a desert.

He must have felt it – to the very depths of his pure but still physical being.

He had just been blessed, baptized by his cousin John and commended by his well-pleased Father.

But from this celestial celebration he went into the wilderness.

This was his wilderness. His experience. His testing.

Luke says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Ghost” (Luke 4:1, KJV). In this he was hardly alone. The Spirit was with him. In fact, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus to this desert.

Luke describes this experience. So does Matthew. Mark says little but notes that this happened “immediately” after Jesus’ Baptism and that our Lord was “with the wild beasts”, intimating a forbidding place.

It was here – in this arid, rocky wasteland – that Jesus spent 40 long days and, Luke tells us, “in those days he did eat nothing” (Luke 4:2, KJV).

When those days had passed, Jesus was terribly hungry.

We who have fasted a day or so – or even a week – might have some idea of what Jesus felt. But we were never in a desert. Not likely alone. And not for 40 days.

There, in the weakness and longing of his hunger, the test came.

This is the second great titanic clash of spiritual powers recorded in the scriptures. There have been many others, of course: tests, deprivations, temptations and trials.

The Bible is a book of spiritual conflict from beginning to end. But they all pale in comparison to this one – and to the much earlier one.

The first temptation took place, not in a wilderness but in a garden. It came not to a man alone but to a man and his wife. The first temptation came in a place of sinless perfection and beauty. The second great temptation came in a world filled with sin and a place of unadorned barrenness.

The devil came to the first Adam – through his wife Eve.

Satan used pride – as C.S. Lewis called it, “the greatest sin.”

And the devil made a frontal assault upon the authority – the very veracity – of God’s Word.

“Hath God said?” he rhetorically asked Eve. The devil knew what God had said.

But here he must plant a seed of doubt in the woman’s mind and in her heart (and the man’s too, we’ll not let Adam off so easily; he was there when God spoke his command). The first step, let the biblical record show, was to call into question God’s Word.

The disintegration – and the descent – begins there.

It always does.

Perhaps God didn’t mean it. Perhaps we just don’t understand it. Perhaps God’s being unfair and unreasonable in this matter. After all, what’s wrong with a little supposedly forbidden fruit? It looks so good. It must be OK. It would have to be OK. Otherwise, why would we want it so badly?

Perhaps God didn’t say it at all.

Adam and Eve had every reason to resist but surrendered.

Our second Adam had every reason to give in but resisted.

Again, it was pride that Satan used. Again, it was a direct assault upon the Word of God. And again it was craftily laced with questioning and doubt.

But this time, the quotations were from the written record. Jesus and Satan both knew the scriptures.

As in the garden, the devil struck again at hunger, appetite and physical desire. He knew how long Jesus had gone without food.

“If you are the Son of God,” he whispered, “tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3, NASB).

Jesus came back at him – with the Word of God. He wielded the Sword of the Spirit in the power of the Spirit which filled him even now in this lonely and forsaken place.

“It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus replied, “but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4, KJV, quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3).

The Word is paramount. It is the true bread.

Twice more before this ordeal ended, Satan thrust at the Savior with pride, ambition and twisted texts. Each time, Jesus parried with the Word of God, the mighty sword of truth.

With this sword, Jesus Christ defeated Satan in the wilderness.

No wonder John calls Jesus the Word become flesh.

How sad when Rob Bell, once an evangelical mega-church pastor and hero to thousands of young Christians, tells Oprah Winfrey that homosexual marriage must prevail because how can “letters written 2,000 years ago” possibly compete with the longings and desires of the human heart.

Without a compass we become lost.

Without an anchor we drift.

Without a plumb line, we sway.

Without confidence in the unchanging and ever-relevant authority and power of the Bible as God’s Holy Word, individual Christians have nothing to say to a hurting world. And the church has nothing to say worth listening to.

When God speaks all discussions must cease. When God is silent, all discussions are irrelevant.

May we never compromise and never apologize for declaring, with Jesus, “It is written.”

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