Category Archives: Faith

The Power of Weakness

It began on a high note.

This historic week.

The crowd, though a somewhat odd assembly, was happy and enthusiastic.

Their hero rode upon a young donkey – his choice.

His followers cheered him as the coming king, the one who would make everything right. His triumphal entry into the ancient city stirred all of Jerusalem.

Who knew it would turn so tragic – and violent?

It seemed a great reversal.

The week that would change history and eternity ended not in joyful triumph but in condemnation and death. It would end not in the overthrow of injustice but in surrender to brutality.

The people’s expectations were dashed. Public opinion, once a happy friend, turned into a scornful and cynical mocker. Adoration mutated into contempt.

People have a prejudice against weakness; a fondness for power.

These people were no different.

If this Jesus has no power to deliver us from Rome. If he stands bound and silent before Pilate. If he won’t lift a finger in his own defense before the Sanhedrin. If he allows himself to be ridiculed and tortured by Rome’s barbarous soldiers, then we say,

“Crucify him!”

He is of no help – no value – to us!

The Creator of the universe permitted himself to suffer a painful and ignominious humiliation at the cruel hands of his creatures. They whipped him, beat him and tormented him. Then they cursed him, their Maker.

His love was that great – and reached that low.

To know God as he invites us to know him; to behold his wonderful salvation. To understand ourselves rightly and to appreciate the woeful human condition of which you and I are an undeniable and inescapable part, we must be led to Calvary.

We must survey the cross upon which the Prince of Glory died.

We see him taken prisoner in the garden. He had the power to call 10,000 angels to fight for him. That summons never came. All the hosts of heaven stood by with no call – no command from their almighty Captain.

Jesus told Peter this had to be.

Marched summarily through six illegal trials in less than a day, we see him before the authorities flaunting their power. He stands before the snarling, ruthless Pilate and then the pompous and inquisitive Herod.

Soon Jesus is the pitiable and bloodied object of Rome’s sadistic military.

We see him taken outside the city, stripped of his only garment, nailed to a cross and hung to die as a despicable criminal.

The crowd that had hailed him now taunted him. “Save yourself – if you can!”

It was for us.

Jesus chose powerlessness and submission to his Father’s will over the adoration of the crowd and the seductions of the devil.

None of this had anything to do with wielding earthly power, currying influence, promoting agendas, conducting focus groups, bowing to corruption, winking at evil or commissioning polls.

Paul tells us the Lord of All “made himself of no reputation” and became a servant. He gave up the free exercise of his divine authority. Jesus “emptied himself” (Philippians 2: 6-8).

Of all but love.

After he fed the 5,000, his excited followers had determined to make him king. But he slipped away and went into the hills to be alone.

John said Jesus knew what was in the heart of a person – and he didn’t trust it (John 2:24-25).

Jesus knew people were fickle. He knew they were easily deceived. He knew they were as sheep without a shepherd. He knew how quickly they could fall for the latest thing as the greatest thing.

He knew how easily people are manipulated. How they seek a human savior. He knew their carnal appetites, the hope they would put in politics. He knew the tragedy and futility of that misplaced faith.

He understood better than anyone the beguiling and ephemeral illusions of power.

Jesus knew the Source of true power – and the power of Truth.

That didn’t stop Satan from trying.

First by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and then through the mesmerizing clamor of human approval, the devil told Jesus he could have it all. All he had to do was sell his soul to the Evil One.

It didn’t work.

Jesus won.

On the cross, when all seemed lost and doomed, at the very hour his own Father turned away; in that hour, alone, while his mother wept, the crowds sneered, the sky went black and the earth shook, Jesus triumphed over sin, death and the devil. He defeated all the hosts of hell.

Jesus freed you and me in that instant from the eternal dominion of darkness and gained for us glorious entrance to his own kingdom of everlasting light.

“Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” he told the thief who died with him.

Because Jesus stood in our place, endured our shame, was condemned for our sins and paid the price for our guilt, you and I have the forgiveness of all our sins and true righteous standing before a holy God.

We have eternal life.

He did for us what none of us could do for ourselves. He did for us what none of us would do for others, even if we could.

Through his weakness Jesus delivered us from the power of Satan and the strength of sin.

Through obedience to his Father’s will he made us sons and daughters of the Most High – children of God.

Through his weakness Jesus Christ conquered the evil that assailed him and triumphed forever through the power of the cross.

For all who believe.

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Chasing Us

Through the dark woods the little boy ran.

As fast as his skinny legs would take him he ran. Through the gullies and up the hills; across the streams and over the fields he breathlessly scurried on.

His heart beat faster and faster.

Fear raced through him like a freight train. He dared only once to glance back at the giant vicious predator. The bear was closing on the lad, his fierce growls of hunger growing louder as he pursued his tiny prey.

The boy finally reached the place of no return – and no escape.

He was cornered.

The little boy closed his eyes tight. The bear leaped on him from behind and gave a menacing final growl.

Chased – and caught.

Then just as suddenly, the bear released the little boy from his powerful grasp. The boy squirmed out and jumped to his feet and turned to face the bear. The boy giggled and ran into the bear’s strong limbs.

“I love you Daddy!” he gleefully exclaimed.

Hugging him tight, the dad smiled and whispered, “I love you too, son.” Taking the boy’s little hand in his, the father walked his son out of the bedroom.

Game over.

How comforting to know that the menacing bear you imagine pursuing you is really your loving father. Your unfounded fear melts away in the warm embrace of the one who would never harm you because he loves you more than you’ll ever know.

After all, he’s your father.

When Francis Thompson first published his iconic poem, The Hound of Heaven, many readers were at first startled at the metaphor of God as a relentlessly pursuing animal. But when studied and understood, the comparison pulsates with a passionate beauty. The poem is the story of God’s determined persistence in the face of our stubborn and foolish resistance.

We try to run and hide, but we can’t.

God chases us “down the nights and down the days … down the arches of the years …” We continually flee “from this tremendous Lover”, Thompson writes. Until, in time and circumstance, God corners us with his love. And we surrender, not into the grip of a ravenous hound, but into the arms of a compassionate and merciful God, who loved us all along.

After all, He’s our Father.

When Jesus first addressed the Almighty Creator of the universe, shrouded in sovereign, inscrutable mystery, as “Our Father”, the Jews were unaccustomed to such Deistic intimacy. Nor were the gods of other religions any more approachable.

People perceived a menacing bear, a hungry hound, perhaps, but not “Our Father.”

Still, Jesus pressed the analogy.

“You fathers,” Jesus said, “if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:11-13, emphasis added).

We all want to be good parents. Most of us believe we are, whatever else we may be. Is not God our Father capable of being so much more to those who commit themselves to his care?

That’s the point Jesus is making, not only in his Sermon on the Mount, but throughout his teaching and his stories – throughout his brief life on this earth: God is our merciful and loving Father. Yes, he will punish us, he will correct us, he will test us and he will teach us.

The one thing God will never do is hate us.

Why then do we so often fear him and flee from him? Why are we tempted in our sorrow and pain and suffering to see God as a cruel, vindictive or, at best, indifferent Sovereign?

The truth is, God is too kind to ever be cruel – and too wise to ever make a mistake.

The mistake is ours when we blame him. And when we doubt him.

God loves you and me perfectly. John tells us that “there no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18).

John wraps up our relationship with God into the arms of the Divine loving nature:

“We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (I John 4:16, emphasis added).

This is much more than a pleasant esoteric concept; it is a life-altering reality for the one who believes.

The Bible is nothing more – and nothing less – than the story of our Father’s abiding presence, his faithful provision and his unfailing protection. The essence of its panoramic display – cover to cover- is the Father’s unchanging, unconditional and endless love.

CS Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, consistently portrays the lion Aslan – the Christ figure – as neither tame nor safe but always good.

I don’t know why God should love me. I truly don’t. But I know he does, despite my occasional misgivings. It is his nature to love me. As Paul reminded Timothy: “he cannot deny who he is.” (II Timothy 2:13).

After all, he is my Father.

“God is love.” Here is the summation of his nature.

In this central, undeniable and incontrovertible truth is our hope – both now and forever.

He’s our “tremendous Lover.”

He doesn’t stop chasing us.

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Test at Grand Central

Looks can be deceiving.

We are easily beguiled.

Told not to judge by appearances, we do it because we can’t help ourselves.

It’s in our nature to look and decide. So often value is determined by the physical and so often we are wrong.

After his older brothers were rejected, Israel’s greatest king was discovered as an afterthought, a teenager tending sheep.

Well, God told the prophet, just remember, “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).

On television, The Bachelor took the country by storm, struggling mightily to find a suitable wife from among a dozen or more lovely young women. Himself a handsome, athletic, square-jawed charmer, he is surrounded by so much irresistible beauty he seemed overwhelmed to the point of tears.

We were invited to pity him, flirting and flaunting in so many exotic places with so many gorgeous women.

It’s enough to break your heart.

We are besieged with superficiality at every turn. It‘s a defining sign of our times.

Narcissism reigns, from Hollywood to Washington; from the mega-pulpit to the White House.

In the most famous passage of the Bible describing the ideal wife, we find only one reference to physical beauty. We read about integrity, perseverance, honesty, intelligence, dedication, hard work, wisdom, sound judgment, love and loyalty.

Out of 21 verses, we find a single mention of the physical. It’s a negative one:

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised” (Proverbs 31:31).

That’s not a condemnation of beauty – which is a wonderful gift – it’s a verse about priorities.

John Preston discovered the book of poetry in a used book store in his hometown in rural North Carolina.

As he perused it, he was impressed not so much by the literature itself but by the delicately – penciled comments in the margins.

Thoughtful and sensitive insights John decided.

Inside the front cover he found a woman’s name and address.

John decided to write her.

It was bad timing.

The next day John was shipped out to Korea. He was still determined to make contact.

Despite the war, John wrote the woman again – and again. There was no reply.

Then, just as he was about to give up, he got a letter. She had written.

Graceful, studied and intelligent, she had a ready wit and a fine sense of humor. They developed an active correspondence.

Soon, John was smitten. He excitedly anticipated her every letter.

He asked the woman to send him a picture. He imagined what she must look like and he was naturally eager to confirm his highest expectations.

She was reluctant. If love was meant to be, she told him, looks wouldn’t matter.

They wrote each other throughout the war.

When John arrived home, he and the woman immediately arranged to meet. She lived in upstate New York and so they agreed to meet at Grand Central Station in New York City.

The meeting was set for 7:00 P.M. John arrived five hours early. He had brought her last letter with him. And the book of poetry he now so treasured.

“You’ll know me by the small red rose I’ll be wearing in my lapel,” she had written.

As the clock moved them closer to their destiny, John could hardly contain his anticipation.

And then he saw her.

Whatever he had imagined she looked like, this woman exceeded it. Tall, perfectly formed, and stylishly attired, she moved with grace and confidence. Her dark auburn hair cascaded around the most beautiful face he had ever seen.

She was simply stunning. As she walked towards him, he noticed her creamy complexion and then her riveting green eyes.

John caught his breath and rose to greet her.

Then his heart suddenly stalled. He quickly searched her lapel.

There was no rose.

John was so stunned he barely noticed her smile as she slid by him and said, “Going my way soldier?”

How desperately he wanted to turn and follow this young and graceful beauty.

He didn’t.

A few yards behind the beautiful woman, John saw another. She stood there expectantly.

She was a bit short and on the slightly stout side. Her face, though unadorned, was kind and friendly. She was wearing a plain sweater and printed dress. She carried a pocketbook.

She was a bit older than John thought she’d be.

This woman was wearing a small red rose in her lapel. John knew this was a test. This is why she didn’t send him a picture. But he knew what was inside and that was more than enough.

He smiled and embraced her.

“Would you like to go to dinner?”

The woman seemed confused.

“Look son,” she told John, “I don’t know what this is all about. But that young woman who just walked by came up to me about ten minutes ago and asked me to put this red rose in my lapel. Then she said that if you asked me out to dinner, I should tell you that she’ll be waiting for you in the restaurant across the street.”

The woman smiled.

“She said it was some kind of test.”

Celebrate the inner beauty first.

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The Beauty and the Power

They came from many.

Simple messages of concern and support.

“We are praying for Finley.”

Our four-year old grandson was back in the hospital, running a slight fever.

For most kids, this might mean aspirin, liquids and a good night’s rest.

Finley has leukemia.

His immune system is very vulnerable to the slightest provocation of fever or viral infection.

Finley has a number which represents his A.N.C.( “absolute neutrophil count”). This number is derived from his white blood cells. Since this represents his body’s ability to fight bacteria, when the number goes down, it’s serious.

Most of us have a count of about of 1,500 up to 8,000.

So when Finley goes below 500, he heads for the hospital. When he arrived at Children’s, his A.N.C. was 40. The next morning it dropped to 10. What’s interesting in all this is that Finley continues to act normally, though he may be in grave danger.

It’s been an interesting journey for the past two years, a rollercoaster of concern and relief. Beth and I have joined Fin’s parents, our daughter Suzanne and her husband Casey, in all the ups and downs.

In their faithful prayers, many others have also come alongside.

I was reminded of this amazing support when I asked colleagues at our ministry, Haggai International, and our church small group to remember Finley in their prayers.

Prayer is one of the most incredible gifts you and I have been given. It’s a miracle of access to the Creator of the universe, in all his glory, power and majesty.

Prayer not only connects us directly and immediately to God, without any human or angelic intermediary to screen our calls. Prayer also, in a very profound way, brings us to one another. It unites us. In all our variegated diversity of personality and demographic, prayer is something we share.

We may decide, act, think, debate and vote as many.

We pray as one.

Christians have a common understanding of the power and efficacy of prayer. The Bible promises us the difference it makes. James tells us the fervent, effective prayer of the righteous “availeth much” (James 5:16). Elijah’s prayers affected the rainfall, James writes, though the great prophet was only human.

Prayer is not some strange superstitious litany without meaning. It is laying hold of all the omnipotence of our almighty God.

Neither is prayer a magic key we turn to get the results we want. God is not a celestial genie in a lamp we rub for wishes. He is no heavenly bellhop.

Though there are examples of God changing his mind as the result of prayerful intercessions in the Old Testament, more often prayer is what God uses to change us than what we use to influence God.

There are times when I don’t know how to pray – or what to pray for. I’m weak when I should be strong. The Holy Spirit helps us. He takes the inarticulate anxieties and longings of our hearts and interprets them to our Father in heaven. The Holy Spirit prays on our behalf; pleads our case before the throne of God (Romans 8:26-27).

Before we ever speak – or try to – God knows.

Better we come to God with a right heart without words than to come with words and a heart not right.

There are times when silence is the best prayer.

We come to a quiet place to commune with God. He listens to us. We listen to him. Prayer must never be a time-constrained void we feel obliged to fill with words. In the silence he speaks in a still, small voice. We must listen carefully to hear it.

This is meditation – “when deep calls to deep”(Psalm 42:7).

We can’t know God unless we talk to him. And neither can we know him fully unless we listen to him. In silence. In contemplation of his holiness. In the quietness of our hearts.

Prayer is a discipline – and like any discipline, it improves and is strengthened through use – through practice. We must take time to pray. We must make space in our lives to pray.

Admittedly, that’s a struggle, at least for me. I’ve resolved to pray more, to make this a non-negotiable priority in my daily life. We can – and often do – pray too little. We can never pray too much.

In his wonderful book on prayer, Before Amen, Max Lucado points out that two things keep us from going to God – our independence or our feeling of insignificance.

It is futile and naïve to want to manage our lives apart from God – or to think we really can.

It is equally wrong to think God doesn’t want to hear us. That he doesn’t care. He delights in us when we come to him. He wants to hear all about it – even if he already knows. He is infinitely patient. He never talks over us.

We must come boldly before the throne of our gracious God. That’s how he wants us to come. God’s loving invitation is a standing one. When we come, we will discover God’s mercy and grace – his strength to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 4:16).

Knowing that others pray for us is a great blessing and encouragement. It gives us hope. It gives us comfort. That’s why we’re told to pray for one another.

Finley’s back home.

Someday he will be cured of his cancer. Someday he will know that many prayed for his healing.

I pray Finley will then rejoice in the beauty and power of prayer.

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High Stakes

I looked up.

They were gone.

Where were they?

The manager of our fitness center explained that some people were offended and disturbed by the news networks on the overhead televisions and demanded their removal.

“We’re committed to total wellness,” the young man pleasantly explained.

Apparently the news can be bad for our health.

He invited me to put my objections in an email, which he promised to forward to the executives.

I appealed to reason, tolerance and fairness. I suggested MSNBC should go before CNN and Fox News. I invoked Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to an informed citizenry.

Were he a gym member, I said, Tom would side with me.

I doubt it made any difference.

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says, “may you live in interesting times.”

We’re living in them.

That’s why some people are so upset at the news, they’re demanding not to have to watch it.

It seems everywhere we look, “things fall apart … the center cannot hold.” There is a growing “passionate intensity” (W. B. Yeats).

How can the sincere disciple of Jesus navigate through the rushing turbulent rapids of our present political discourse and be true both to conviction and to Christ? Without getting capsized and drowned in vitriol and superficial, hyperbolic “talking head” nonsense.

There seems no reasonable escape – nor any escape to reason. We must sail into this.

President Trump’s first year in office has been the wild ride most of us expected. His second promises more uncertainty, midnight tweets, charges, counter-charges and general provocation, denial, frustration, disruption, and confusion.

On both sides.

There appears no civility or normality in the political forecast. We ride upon a national storm of anger and division. We scan the horizon and see only the gathering clouds.

There is likely to be more coarsening and more fraying in our political culture this year.

What’s a Christian to do? Compartmentalize? Never permit the peace of worship on Sunday to interfere with the culture war on Monday? Or do we seek the more difficult and thoughtful path of a holistic, integrated faith that speaks to all of life.

Consistently.

Including politics.

Jesus denounced “an eye for an eye.” He said that loving our neighbors and hating our enemies wasn’t good enough. Instead he told us to love our enemies.

Jesus commanded us to bless those who curse us, to do good to those who hate us and to pray for those who persecute us. He reminded us that the sun rises on both the good and the evil. The rain, he said, “falls on both the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5: 38-45).

Is this viable? In the world in which we live?

Is it realistic?

In politics?

Most Christians voted for Donald Trump because they figured he’d fight for them.

He has.

Trump has boldly battled the Democrats and the media. He may not share their evangelical faith, but he has championed the Christian causes.

He put a brilliant conservative on the Supreme Court. Like the ancient unbelieving Cyrus, Trump has been a friend to Israel, recognizing its sacred city, Jerusalem, as the nation’s rightful capital.

Given the high stakes, maybe we should make a moral exception in politics.

But is there any place where Jesus doesn’t go? Is there any area of our lives where we’re allowed to check our faith at the door? Is there any arena of human endeavor where Jesus Christ hasn’t already declared, “this is mine”?

As the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper said, every square inch is His.

Christians must seek God’s face and pray. We must ask for divine wisdom to figure this out – to think it through. We must find an answer that honors our faith in Christ before our loyalty to a president or a party.

Must we win – at any cost?

Have Christians ever truly prevailed over the world in the struggles of politics and culture? Must we now – even at the price of our Christian witness? Have we ever actually been a Moral Majority?

Haven’t the followers of Jesus been more often on the scaffold than the throne?

Yes, in the end we do win. Because Christ wins and we’re with him. But do we prevail in this fallen world? Is political power our weapon and election victory our goal?

Is politics our idol? Do we worship at the altar of power?

Are we called to be successful? Or faithful?

“Is this vile world a friend of grace?” asked hymn writer Isaac Watts.

Chuck Colson, who once flew too close to the alluring flame of power, later wisely observed:

“The kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One.”

Anger, revenge and hate toward others are not signs of courage or conviction. They are sins.

The Church of Jesus Christ prevailed over Caesar in the violent First Century not by electing believers to the Roman Senate.

Wrote historian Will Durant in his seminal work, The History of Civilization:

“There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known.”

The weapons of our warfare are not the world’s. But they are mighty to the pulling down of strongholds (II Corinthians 10:3-4).

The stakes for our faith are high.

Let us choose wisely.

“For not with swords’ loud clashing, or roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”

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The Indispensable Presence

It was a conversation between friends.

One was pleading with the other.

It’s not the first time – nor the last.

Moses talked with God with a greater familiarity than most.

Inside the so-called Tent of Meeting is where God and Moses would come together and hash things out. In that sacred place of divine intimacy, “the Lord would speak with Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).

It was a holy intimacy we observe throughout the Old Testament – an intimacy of smoke and fire and clouds and wind – an intimacy rooted in awe.

This was quite unlike the easy familiarity found in many worship services today.

Moses appears before God seeking divine reassurance in the midst of yet another crisis.

God has had it up to here with his chosen people.

He’s fed up.

It’s no wonder.

After liberating, leading and miraculously protecting the people of Israel, God has seen their response: a rollercoaster of broken promises to trust and obey. Once safely on the other shore of the Red Sea, as soon as Moses ascends Sinai to receive God’s commandments, the people decide to make their own god in the form of a golden calf.

Then they party.

“Moses? We don’t know what became of him”, they cry as they dance half naked in a celebration of unrestrained compulsion.

God decides to wipe Israel off the face of the earth for their rebellion. Unfaithful, unthankful and unrepentant, they’ve pushed God too far.

Only when Moses appeals to God’s promise to the nation, and to God’s integrity and his reputation should he go back on that covenant, does God change his mind. Only a leader who knew God and had a close relationship with him would have dared or been able to make such a national intercession.

Now God tells Moses to lead Israel to the Promised Land. “Get going,” God tells him, “you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 33:1, emphasis added).

When God’s angry with the people, they belong to Moses. When Moses pleads for mercy on their behalf, the people are God’s.

Not once but twice, God refuses to go with them. “I will not travel among you,” God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way … If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you” (Exodus 33: 3, 5, emphasis added).

God’s hot!

This is more than a mere divine annoyance or even a divine separation – this is the threat of divine annihilation. God can’t be held responsible for what he might do.

God tells Moses: Go – and take these sorry people with you. But don’t expect me to go along.

I’ve had it.

You’re on your own – and good luck! I’ll send an angel along to guide you.

But now Moses, the leader God chose out of the burning bush and commissioned to set an enslaved people free, has come before God again. This time, to argue his case.

Moses reminds God of God’s favor upon him – and of the consistently intimate relationship they’ve enjoyed through all these ups and downs of leading a great but wayward people.

For Moses, the guiding angel is not enough. He wants God himself to go with them – and no one else. He must have the divine presence.

“If you don’t personally go with us,” Moses pleads, “don’t make us leave this place” (Exodus 33:15).

We’d rather dwell in this wilderness desert until we die than try and enter the Promised Land without you.

God’s presence is more than desirable – it is indispensable to the child of God.

With God, his people may go to the uttermost parts of the world. Without him, we dare not venture across the street. The enabling power of the Great Commission is found in the unchanging promise and presence of Jesus Christ: “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

“How will anyone know that you look favorably on me – on me and on your people,” Moses reasons with God, “if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth” (Exodus 33:16).

God changes his mind – once again. Moses persuades him. God agrees to go. His holiness and justice find balance with his mercy and love.

And Israel gets to the Promised Land and becomes – and remains to this day – a great nation.

God’s presence is as indispensable for his people today as it was the day Moses pleaded for it.

His presence sets you apart.

As you look forward to a brand New Year, here’s the greatest comfort you can have this side of eternity:

Every day that you rise from your bed; with every mile you travel; with every problem, challenge or decision you face; every heartache, illness or setback you may suffer, the God of Moses whispers to your heart, “Fear not, for I am with you … I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you” (Isaiah 41:10).

God’s indispensable presence is your strength.

He’ll never leave you.

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Lesson from a Dark Hour

Movies.

They’re fascinating.

Every one tells a story.

Movies are not only a vital part of America’s culture – they’re part of the collective American psyche. They have helped to tell the unique American story – and the story of civilization.

Film tells the story of life – in all its grandeur and depravity.

This is why Christians need to watch movies.

Although an enthusiastic movie buff, I’ve seldom recommended a movie in this space.

I remember urging you to see The King’s Speech, the inspiring true story of how George VI overcame his stuttering on the eve of World War II. Then there was the towering depiction of America’s greatest leader in Steven Spielberg’s incomparable Lincoln.

Now comes a movie for the New Year. A film for this New Year.

Darkest Hour tells the gripping story of the pivotal weeks in May, 1940, when England turns to Winston Churchill, another ex-stutterer, to lead the nation through its greatest crisis of survival.

English actor Gary Oldman portrays the iconic British statesman with the rarest of skill. If the movie was nothing more than that – a one – man show – it alone would be worth much more than the price of your ticket.

Oldman is Churchill – in appearance, speech, action, idiosyncrasies and thought – a remarkable transformation combining award-winning makeup with a stunning performance that is unforgettable – and Oscar-worthy.

Oldman spent 200 hours in make-up and got nicotine poisoning from smoking so many Cuban cigars.

This movie, however, is much more than one man’s talent – as prodigious as that is.

Here is the story of an ancient and noble nation fighting to live. And how one man inspired its people to do just that.

We are reminded of the cataclysmic threat and deep uncertainty of that critical moment. So very much hanged in the balance. The whole world teetered on the abyss of what Churchill would describe as “a new Dark Age.”

Anxiety and dread hung over the British Isles like a thick London fog.

England needed the right leadership. In Churchill, the man and the moment met. If one believes at all in God, this was Providential.

What’s well to remember in watching Darkest Hour – and tempting to forget sitting in a comfortable twenty – first century theater – is that the outcome of all this was very much in doubt.

England and the whole world faced a very fearful future.

Hitler had invaded France, Belgium and the Netherlands. He took them all. Churchill beseeched FDR for help but the president expressed his regrets at America’s implacable neutrality and in-bred isolationism.

England stood alone.

Many British politicians, including Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain, thought England must negotiate with Hitler and, failing that, surrender. If Churchill resisted, they were prepared to declare him crazy and remove him from office.

In his excellent review of the movie in National Review, historian Victor Davis Hanson, wrote:

“Oldman reminds a generation of amnesiac global youth that nearly 80 years ago, the dogged defiance of a 66-year-old Victorian Englishman – portly and not much over 5-foot-6 – saved Western civilization from Nazi barbarism.”

For Christians, there is much value in watching Darkest Hour.

Especially heading into a New Year.

Churchill was a man of great courage. In the midst of ridicule, attack and political incredulity, he stood firm and determined. He was not swayed by political opinion but by what he knew to be right. A weaker man, under pressure, would have faltered and entered peace talks. Churchill never.

We must be people of courage. Paul the apostle told the Philippians not to be intimidated by their enemies. Just like Churchill, he wrote, “We are in this struggle together” (Philippians 1:30).

Churchill was a man of great convictions. He understood Hitler when most did not. He despised appeasement. He was prepared to fight; to lay down his own life if need be. He embraced a set of inviolate principles which he declared he would “never surrender.”

We must be men and women of convictions in the midst of moral appeasement. We must not only stand but know what to stand for – and, when required, to stand alone and to always be prepared to give an answer for the reason for our hope (I Peter 3:15).

Churchill was a man of great confidence. He believed in England. He believed in the preservation of Western civilization. He believed Hitler could be defeated. He believed in the triumph of right over might. In this supreme confidence Winston Churchill never wavered.

You and I must be people of confidence. We have every good reason for hope. We may not know what the future holds but we know a sovereign God who reigns through all the changing fortunes of men and nations. He loves us. He will protect us. He will guide us. He will provide for us.

God not only knows the future – he has ordained it. Because he is the planner, the plan is flawless. Because he never changes, neither does his love for us.

And so we must remain – with joy and hope – confident in all that is ahead.

These are the lessons we may learn from one of history’s darkest hours – and from the life, words and example of the man God used to help defeat tyranny and secure freedom.

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The Question

It was the end of another busy and extraordinary day.

Twilight.

Finally a time to rest and reflect.

Gathered around the flickering fire that eased the descending chill, the men talked softly on this calm and beautiful star-studded evening.

They were happy and excited. They had never experienced anything even close to this.
The response of the growing crowds, the teachings, the miracles.

What had taken place in Decapolis, near the Sea of Galilee, was incredible. Hundreds of eager people seeking to be healed came to him: the blind, the dumb, and the crippled.

He healed them all.

These men – his closest followers who had left everything to go with him – were amazed in his presence.

Jesus had taken the disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi. He wanted some quality time with the men who would one day carry his message to the world.

On this hillside, around this fire, on this night, he would ask them. The time and location were no accident.

Caesarea Philippi was a very religious place – and also religiously diverse.
Theologian William Barclay wrote:

“Here was an area where the breath of ancient religion was in the very atmosphere. Here was a place beneath the shadow of the ancient gods.”

A religious secularism, intriguing and sophisticated in its scope, not entirely unlike the religious attitudes of twenty-first century America.

Jesus looked at them intently.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16: 13).

They were silent.

They looked at each other.

Andrew spoke first.

“Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah.”

Thaddeus added: “But still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16: 14).

Jesus gently nodded his understanding and smiled. He knew there would always be conflicting opinions.

It seems somewhat strange that Jesus would have asked such a question. He had expressed no particular concern about what others thought of him. He was fearless in what he said and did.

He offered no apologies for his controversial and unprecedented teaching. His call was to faith and obedience.

There was absolutely nothing equivocal or tentative about this man. He had no interest in polls but here he takes one.

Like everything else, this was intentional. He was setting a cultural and religious backdrop against which he would contrast popular opinion with personal belief. In the final analysis, Jesus is saying, what others think is quite beside the point.

The confusing differences and ideas of the crowd offer neither clarity nor help. They never have; they never will.

Jesus knew this, of course. He wanted these men to know it too. Jesus wants us to know it.

That everyone had an opinion shows how little things have changed.

Jesus looked at them.

“But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (verse 15, emphasis added).

Jesus has ratcheted up the conversation.

Here is the intimate emphasis. In the Greek of the New Testament, it may be rendered:

“But you yourselves – who do you say that I am?”

Again there was silence.

Jesus permits no escape from the very personal and central verdict each of us must render about him.

Peter said some wise things. He also said some foolish things. What he said was always bold.

In answering Jesus on this night, the rough and unschooled fisherman spoke with uncharacteristic deliberation, as if startled by his own confidence.

“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16: 16).

Here is the point – the vital reality – where Peter stakes his life on his belief. It’s the greatest single declaration of conviction and allegiance recorded in the Bible.

We may call it a human insight, except that Jesus, in commending Peter’s faith, says it comes from God.

Peter speaks with definite singular affirmation:

The Christ.

The Son.

The living God.

So must each of us – individually, for all time and into eternity.

Jesus does not stand crowded among equal and competing gods, conjured-up by Athenian-style sophisticated intellectuals in our politically correct age of relativism.

Jesus Christ alone is God, Messiah, Redeemer, Savior, Lord and King. Beside him, there is no other.

Someday every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess it.

It will be unanimous.

What you and I think of Jesus – what we believe about him – matters. Forever.

In the end, Peter spoke for them all that night. They would march to the ends of the earth proclaiming his answer and lay down their lives for its truth.

“Who do you say that I am?”

This is the question of this Christmas. And of every Christmas.

Jesus is Christmas. Jesus is Christianity. This season is not just some warm glow and eggnog. It is the joyful celebration of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

Ask the prophets who foretold his birth.

Ask the angels who announced it.

Ask Simeon who held and blessed him in the temple.

Ask Zechariah whose loosened tongue heralded the coming Messiah.

Ask the wise men who bowed down and worshipped him as their King, though he was but a child.

Ask Handel, Watts and Wesley who wrote the immortal songs that triumphed his nativity.

From beginning to end, the Bible’s theme is Jesus Christ.

His birth in Bethlehem is the uniquely orchestrated, impressively detailed, compellingly accurate, beautifully expressed and amazingly fulfilled prophecy of the Old Testament.

He is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

                                                  “Oh come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

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Jesus and Women

He said he meant no harm.

He realizes now it was wrong.

Clearly there was a misunderstanding about intentions – perceived or real.

Al Franken, Democratic United States senator from Minnesota, is resigning.

It’s major news. We only have 100 senators in a nation of 340 million people.

For the past three weeks, things in the senate had been pretty quiet. Franken, serving his second term, had been accused of sexual harassment by a woman news reporter several years ago, before he was a senator. He acknowledged the offense and apologized.

Then other women came forward with multiple charges of sexual misconduct.

By midweek, the tipping point came.

Democratic women senators began calling for Franken to step down. They were joined by their male colleagues, including the Democratic leader in the senate. It seemed another senator joined the public chorus every two minutes – statements and texts grew from a stream to a mighty current in a few hours.

It happened that fast.

Senator Franken’s resignation came the same week that congressman John Conyers of Michigan, the Dean of the House of Representatives, serving there since the 1960s, also resigned amidst mounting allegations of improper sexual conduct.

The allegations against Franken and Conyers followed widespread similar public charges that have swept through Hollywood, the news media and the corporate world for several months, claiming the careers and reputations of well-known leaders in their fields.

In the special senate election in Alabama, Judge Roy Moore, the Republican – and staunch conservative Christian crusader – has been accused by several women of sexual assault, one claims when she was 14. Moore has fiercely denied all charges, calling them an evil attack against him for his moral stands. President Trump, whose own record on this sort of thing is less than pristine, has endorsed Moore anyway.

Just in time for the holidays, this new cultural phenomenon, with all its sordid, tawdry and spewed-forth details, has raised a central moral question for our anything-goes, sex-drenched nation.

What does it mean for a man to truly respect a woman?

What male behavior toward women must stop? And if not, be publicly condemned and punished?

Sexual harassment and assault; threats and intimidation; fear of retribution. For too many, especially in the workplace, this is a woman’s reality. Powerful, aggressive men trying to get what they want, feeding their lusts; acting entitled.

Washington is the narcissism capital of the world.

Egos are massive, manner and speech arrogant; men have dominated; deference is paid and fawning sycophants are plenteous. It’s not a pretty picture. Men’s quest for power includes their grasp for women – especially vulnerable subordinates.

The halls of power have always been rife with unbridled sexual presumption. And the longer men have wielded power the more obnoxious and predatory they have become.

The underlying cause of all this, other than men’s libidos, is a contemptuous disregard for women as equal human beings. Only a man who looks down on women could be guilty of performing what has been graphically described by the victims of these assaults.

Our elected officials are no saints and we would do well to resist holding them to that lofty standard. They are only human and the ways of our capital would tempt Francis of Assisi.

Still, we must hold our representatives to some standard of decency. Otherwise, our self- government becomes itself corrupted by increasingly licentious leaders.

When that happens the very soul of our republic is infected.

Here’s the good news – best remembered and celebrated in this Christmas season.

God and his Son Jesus have a very high regard for women.

When the Creator of the universe entered human history, he chose to become the “offspring of a virgin’s womb.”

God dispatched the angel Gabriel to visit Mary and he told her she was “highly favored” and blessed among women (Luke 1:28). Another angel told Joseph he should not fear becoming Mary’s husband. No condemnation, embarrassment or scandal would be permitted to touch her pure and holy life.

A woman nursed God, bathed him, clothed him and changed his diapers. What beauty is there in the condescending incarnation! And what honor conferred upon a woman.

Mary raised Jesus to adulthood, perhaps as a single mom for some of that time.

No one in history did more to recognize and embrace the dignity and equality of women than Jesus Christ. In a culture and time when women were held in low regard.

Jesus honored his mother. He invited Martha’s sister Mary to sit at his feet with his disciples, the inner circle, and learn of his coming kingdom. Even when her sister wanted her in the kitchen. He forgave the young adulteress when, under law, she deserved death and gave her a second chance at new life.

Jesus permitted a prostitute to anoint his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then, in the presence of a houseful of prideful men, Jesus forgave her sins which, he acknowledged, were many.

Jesus condemned the self-serving exploitation of easy divorce (Matthew 19:7-9) and raised a purer and higher standard against lust and adultery (Matthew 5: 26-28).

Because the Messiah came, Paul tells us, there is no longer male or female. We are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

What does it mean for a man to truly respect a woman?

Jesus set the example.

Let us follow him.

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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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