Category Archives: Faith

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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Contra Mundum

He was born poor.

His parents were frugal and hardworking.

His childhood was not an easy one. His mother, a woman of prayer, once beat the boy until he bled – for stealing a nut. His father was so verbally and physically abusive they became enemies for a time.

He once said it took him years to say the Lord’s Prayer without thinking of his own cruel father.

He later reflected that “the severe and harsh life I led with them was the reason that I afterward took refuge in the cloister and became a monk”.

It was an unlikely start for a man who would one day sway kingdoms.

He studied, he argued, he wrote and he thought.

He was, perhaps because of his childhood, pugnacious and defiant. Above all, he was a man of uncompromising conviction and iron-clad integrity.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the main door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 – five hundred years ago this month – he began a movement that would change the world forever.

The Protestant Reformation came not from a committee or a policy; nor a public opinion poll or focus group. It came from the heart and mind of a man who not only loved truth, and understood it, but was prepared to die for it. Luther was possessed of a passion that all truth was God’s and no amount of political, military or ecclesiastical power could storm its citadel or prevail against it.

The pure and simple Gospel found in the Bible – that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) – was Luther’s call to arms, the light to his path and the altar of his life – and, if need be, his death.

Luther assailed the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, though he himself was Catholic. He did so with a vehemence and candor that demanded a verdict of conscience from every citizen of the realm.

Attached to his arguments on the door of Wittenberg was this invitation:

“Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther….”

Oh, to have been there!

He threw down the gauntlet of scripture at the feet of religious tyranny and dared the corrupt to defy God himself.

“I have been born to war,” Luther wrote, “and fight with factions and devils; therefore my books are stormy and warlike”.

Luther could not abide the practice of the church selling indulgences in exchange for forgiveness of sins. God alone could forgive sins and the blood of Jesus Christ, shed freely for all, was its only payment.

Faith alone, not good works, gained admittance to heaven and eternal life.

But the Church in Rome had grown rich from its heresy and would not give up its power without a fight. Before long, this was a struggle not over indulgences but over papal authority itself.

“I have cast the die,” declared the German monk. “I now despise the rage of the Romans as much as I do their favor … I no longer fear …” Luther would go against the pope himself, “in language so violent as if I were addressing Antichrist.” He called Rome “that empurpled Babylon” and “the Roman Sodom.”

“If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free? For he is the greatest thief and robber who has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy name of Christ and St. Peter!”

When brought before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and ordered to “repudiate your books and the errors which they contain,” Luther stood his ground and budged not an inch:

“Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason … my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Whether Luther actually uttered the words “Here I stand” is not verified. But it’s what he did.

Martin Luther did more than stand.

He stood “contra mundum”.

It’s a Latin phrase meaning “against the world”.

Luther stood against the corrupt power and falsehood of his time – and for all time. He wrestled “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12, KJV).

Martin Luther was unafraid because he knew that one person armed with a righteous cause is mightier than all the hosts of error. He also knew that truth was real, it could be known, and that it mattered.

Luther, who loved music, left us with the greatest hymn ever written. In it, he reflects his own struggle on behalf of timeless truth and casts the epic battle as a contest between God and Satan. He describes God as “a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing”. He writes that God is “our helper” who stands with us and prevails “amid the flood of mortal ills”.

For Luther, no less than for us today, the outcome was never in doubt.

“The prince of darkness grim – we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure”.

Let us stand where Luther stood.

Contra Mundum.

“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still – His kingdom is forever.”

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The 32nd Floor

He was a regular guy.

A 64-year old senior citizen living in a retirement village in a quiet suburban town.

He was pleasant to his neighbors, never caused trouble, had not even a single speeding ticket and always parked his car in its proper place.

Normal and nice.

He’s someone you’d wave to when you drove by; someone who’d wave back and smile as he watered his flowers.

Nothing strange about him, nothing conspicuous, nothing unusual.

A great neighbor.

The shop owner who sold him a gun said he was very nice. “The kind of guy who’d mow your lawn, go to church; nothing about him concerned me at all. And we keep an eye out for suspicious characters. You can’t be too careful.”

The gun store owner remembered him when he heard the news.

Stephen Paddock had gone to a hotel and rented a suite on the 32nd floor. He methodically hammered out two windows, positioned two tripods near them and late on a Sunday night took an automatic rifle and began shooting. Below him was a crowd of 22,000 people attending a country music festival.

Before his ten-minute reign of terror was over, Paddock had turned a fun-loving outdoor concert into a bloody killing field. Fifty-eight people died. More than 525 were injured. It was the worst massacre in modern American history.

Paddock took his own life before police broke into his sniper’s perch. Investigators found 19 guns, several of them long rifles, in his hotel suite. They later found another 23 at his modest, well-kept home.

“Normal” ? “Nice”?

The intense search to discover a motive was proving amazingly elusive. Not a hater, apparently, nor was he part of any dangerous or controversial groups. Not into politics. There were no ties to international terrorism.

“This makes no sense.”

That’s what everyone said.

In his statement of consolation to a shocked nation and the grieving families, the President said this quiet, unassuming retired accountant had committed “an act of pure evil.”

Evil. It’s a spiritual word.

It appears in the Bible 613 times. The word “evildoer” appears twice; “evildoers”, 12 times.

Read the scriptures and you’ll see evil. Resident in the heart of every man and every woman. The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat our humanity; it reveals it for what it truly is, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Here, in its holy pages, stands the story of humankind’s fallen condition.

Vegas is the latest violent tragedy. It’s hardly the last.

This gunman may have acted alone but he’s not alone.

Stephen Paddock’s motive? We may never know. The cause of his horror? We do know that.

Or do we?

“The heart is deceitful above all things,” writes the prophet, “and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV).

Stephen Paddock’s heart, perhaps, but surely not yours. Not mine.

Yes, ours.

We are also evildoers.

You and I have the exact same depraved nature as Stephen Paddock. The same tendency toward evil. The same capacity to hurt and destroy. This is a spiritual genetic strain that runs through the heart of every human being. Though you and I might never commit such a horrific act – and recoil in offense at the suggestion – we daily reflect the same bent toward sin.

“There is none that doeth good; no not one” (Psalm 14:3, KJV).

“For all have sinned” (Romans 3:23,KJV).

There’s not one of us who hasn’t fallen short of God’s standard for right living.

No, we’ve not fallen like Stephen Paddock, but is this not a matter of degree rather than a question of universal, self-evident fact?

To many, such a monstrous deed makes no sense. It violates the optimistic confidence that man, once sufficiently educated, cultured and sophisticated; once liberated from the dark bondage of religious superstitions, will become perfect. He’ll live in a perfect and just society and will do no ill to his neighbor.

The government will help toward this utopia by spending money on programs and passing good laws. In time, we’ll arrive. If we just keep working at it.

It’s the liberal illusion.

Stephen Paddock shatters this illusion.

When we look no further than the 32nd floor, we are shocked at the senseless; we must find reasons outside ourselves to explain it. We can lose all hope in the face of what is ultimately the horrendously inexplicable.

We leave disappointed – and baffled. “Dumbfounded”, as Paddock’s brother admitted.

You and I must look above and beyond the 32nd floor if we are to have a right understanding and a glorious hope.

The tragedy in Las Vegas proved again that the worst of circumstances brings out the best in people. The selfless heroism of concert goers, the long lines to donate blood, the skilled efforts to save lives – these all remind us that God loves us so much because he made us – and made us in his divine image.

In God’s eyes, that’s our value. It’s why we’re worth saving. It’s him, not us.

God sent his Son to redeem us and someday he will place us on his new earth, where goodness, joy and peace shall last forever, unchanged and unchangeable.

Evil will be no more.

Without this eternal perspective, we are, said Paul the apostle, “more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (I Corinthians 15:19, NLT).

Let this certain hope of a once and future resurrection be a comforting confidence that lifts us forever above that 32nd floor.

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Dad’s Coleman

It was quite an experience for a thirteen year-old boy.

My dad, who took hunting, fishing and the great outdoors with a seriousness of purpose and joy of heart fit for Field & Stream, had arranged for my brother and me to join him on a three-day fishing trip to northern Maine.

We would fly – the whole way.

It was July and summer still reminds me of my incredible journey.

I’d never been on a plane. We flew from Harford, Connecticut to Bangor, Maine. Then we jumped on a small plane in Orono, home to the University of Maine, and flew about twenty minutes to a town called Millinocket. But our plane rides weren’t over and my dad had saved the best for last.

We boarded a pontoon plane for the final leg of our journey. I watched the water churn white with foam as the floats glided us across the lake and we mounted up for the clear, picturesque flight over the green wilderness. We had been in the air for nearly an hour when we touched down on Henderson Pond.

It’s important to know that the word “pond” in Maine is not so much a metaphor as it is a misnomer. This was a good-sized lake.

The only way into Henderson was by sea plane. There were no roads, no homes, no stores – and no power. It was a beautiful and tranquil place and the stillness you heard was the majesty of creation.

We unpacked and got settled. As darkness began to envelop our small cabin that first night, Dad took charge. After all, if you were going to be in the middle of nowhere, our dad was the guy you wanted to be with. From a carefully packed box Dad removed the magic that would transform our tiny sanctuary.

It was a forest green Coleman lantern.

As he pumped the small knob to prepare the kerosene for ignition, my brother and I watched in anticipation. The small glow grew bigger and soon the Coleman was shedding its warm light across the room. Then Dad took the lantern and carefully hung it high above the table. It lighted the whole cabin.

Each night was the same – out came the Coleman and behold, there was light.

Had it not been for that Coleman lantern, those three nights in the Maine wilderness would have been pretty dark. But Dad had come prepared and he had brought the light.

When Jesus prayed for his disciples on another dark night in an upper room in Jerusalem, he asked his heavenly Father for light. And his prayer wasn’t just for the men in that room who shared his ministry and would lead his church. Jesus prayed for his church throughout time. He prayed for you and for me and for all those who would be his true followers.

“Sanctify them through thy truth,” Jesus prayed. “They word is truth.” (John17:17, KJV).

Jesus did not ask the Father to sanctify – that is to consecrate and make holy – his followers through emotion or experience; or politics, popularity or fads; or subjective reasoning and relevant argument. Holiness, Jesus knew, comes through the truth and nothing but the truth.

Jesus also knew the sole repository of all truth was the word of God. And so he inextricably linked them as cause and effect, as a hand slips into a glove. God’s truth is the only source of spiritual awareness, wisdom and progress. And God’s word not only contains that truth – it is God’s truth.

Truth is what ultimately matters – not our opinions or feelings or our latest ideas.

Polls and supreme courts can never alter God’s purpose, his mind or his will. It cannot abrogate his truth. Not even slightly. God doesn’t change his mind about his law; he only grieves in his heart at man’s defiance.

God’s word is our light in the darkness.

This is the foundation of Christian faith. Though it is lashed today by the torrents of post – modern cynicism, it stands firm. Peter reminds us that though heaven and earth shall fade away, God’s word shall forever remain.

It is the assault upon the possibility of absolute truth – and the fear and embarrassment of defending God’s word to a culture in wholesale rebellion to it – that has led the Christian church to a slippery accommodation with the world. Paul, who commanded Timothy to “preach the word”, laid down the gauntlet to believers living in pagan Rome: “Let God be true and every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4, KJV).

This must still be our standard and the moral line Christians draw in the shifting sand of public opinion.

Now more than ever, you and I must follow the light of God’s holy and unchanging word.

“We only progress in sound living,” said English preacher Charles Spurgeon, “as we progress in sound understanding.”

Only God’s word can enlighten and instruct our minds and convict and comfort our hearts. Only his word can show us the way.

The psalmist exclaimed in awestruck gratitude:

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105, KJV).

In a world growing darker by the day, that’s even better than Dad’s Coleman.

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Rider on the Storm

It’s happening.

Again.

As I write this, Hurricane Irma, a massive Category 5 monster, is taking aim at the islands south of Florida. It could hit the Sunshine State – either coast – by this weekend.

The governor has already declared the entire state a disaster area.

Or Irma could veer toward the Gulf of Mexico and strike Mississippi or Alabama.

Nobody knows for sure. Meteorologists call the various possibilities “models.”

People wait. They prepare. They pray. Nobody can control what Irma will do. Where she will go. How hard she will hit.

He can.

He does.

Nothing underscores for humankind its utter impotence than an impending storm. We plan and orchestrate everything else. We prepare for storms the best we can but it is a reactive mode we’re all in.

The elements send us scrambling in fear and dread – gathering, filling, hoarding, hovering and fleeing.

When it comes to the weather, we’re out of control.

God alone rules the forces of nature. The order he made he commands. His omnipotence rises above our weakness. His sovereignty breaks in powerful display upon our frail dependence.

“In his hand are the depths of the earth,” writes the psalmist, “and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land” (Psalm 95:4-5, NIV).

Hurricane Harvey rained down devastation upon the Texas coast, reminding us again of how vulnerable we all can be in a matter of hours. We looked so small; God so big.

In the boat with his frightened disciples, engulfed in terrifying tumult, Jesus stood to stop the storm. “Peace, be still,” he ordered. The sea turned as calm as glass; the air as soft as a whippoorwill on a summer night.

The silence of peace.

It all happened instantly. God simply turned the dial on his universe.

Jesus looked at his disciples and smiled. “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Instead of being reassured, they grew even more fearful. Looking at each other in amazement, they said:

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”(Mark 4: 39-41, NIV).

Rich Mullins gave us the iconic praise:

“Our God is an awesome God! He reigns from heaven above.”

Harvey taught more than the awesome power of an awesome God.

It taught us, too, of the faith and resilience of its victims. In the face of incalculable loss and the threat of death itself, these men and women looked to God, the Maker and Ruler of it all, for strength, protection and guidance.

For all the Harveys of this world, the Psalmist offers timeless hope:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof” (Psalm 46: 1-3, KJV).

Jesus never promised that the winds and the rains would never beat against our house. He told us that if we built our house upon the rock, it would stand in the midst of the storm.

While many lost their homes in Harvey, many also clung to the Rock of Ages who would take them through the deep waters.

The God who created the world, the God who commanded the storms, is the same God who would protect them and their families. This was their prayer. This was their plea to a God who is not on only all – powerful, but all – loving.

Harvey united the nation. Most disasters do.

On a Sunday morning, our pastor invited the congregation to the front of the church to pray for all those affected by the storm. He read the proclamation by President Trump setting aside a National Day of Prayer for the victims.

Here was a reminder, in a deeply divided country, that while we may vote as many, we pray as one.

It shouldn’t take a national catastrophe to unite America. It shouldn’t require a tragedy to lead us back to God. But Harvey did and that was good.

Very bad events can also bring out the very best in people.

Thousands of their fellow citizens did something to help the suffering Texans. Our daughter Suzanne, who lives in Longview, Texas, challenged her husband Casey to shave off his very pronounced beard if she could raise at least $1,000 for the Harvey relief effort.

In less than twelve hours, they were headed for Houston, towing a trailer- full of goods.

Casey was clean-shaven.

They sent back some great pictures.

Suzanne’s mother and I were proud of them. More importantly, we knew the Apostle James would have been too. Nothing so endears people to the Christian faith as when they see it put into action.

The extraordinary compassion of others – their sacrifice and generosity in the face of overwhelming suffering and need – is a reminder of our shared humanity and the image of God stamped upon every human life.

How often the worst in nature brings out the best in man.

People helping people.

The God of Nature is the God of love. This is his world. He made it. He rules it. He works even the bad things together for good.

“He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.”

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Can You See Her?

Jake Brigance had an uphill fight on his hands.

This wouldn’t be easy. Not in Canton, Mississippi. The heart of the segregated South.

His client, Carl Lee Hailey, had asked Brigance, a white man, to defend him. Hailey was black.

The jury was all white.

Brigance was an untried attorney with little confidence he could persuade anyone of anything.

Despite the grim odds, Carl Lee believed in Brigance. And placed his life in the young lawyer’s inexperienced hands.

Weeks earlier, Hailey’s ten-year old daughter, Tonya, had been abducted, brutally raped and beaten by two white supremacists. They had tried to hang the girl but when the tree limb broke, they dumped her bruised and broken body off a bridge into a riverbed.

Somehow, Tonya survives.

Brigance tells the grieving Hailey there’s a good possibility the rapists could walk free.

In blind rage and revenge, the father opens fire in the county courthouse and kills the accused.

He is arrested and charged with murder. The DA seeks the death penalty.

The remainder of the story is about the trial and the racially charged atmosphere in which it is held.

Every movie tells a story. Some are told well and make a powerful point. Others are told poorly and the audience wonders what the point was.

The 1996 film, A Time to Kill, with an all-star cast, is not only an outstanding courtroom drama but a soul-searching account of bigotry and the difficulty of overcoming it.

The movie came to mind during the recent Charlottesville violence. As we have so often before in our turbulent times, we witnessed again man’s inhumanity to man – and the unreasoning hate that fuels it.

Charlottesville exposed the human heart in its innate vulnerability and deceit. The images we saw on television reminded us of the fallen nature of humankind, the precarious treachery of our passions and the frailty of our social compact.

The heart of the race problem in this country is a problem of the heart.

The seeds of hate planted in the heart germinate through experience and circumstance. They grow, and in the right condition at the right time, they burst forth to rear their ugly head in violence and chaos. As one writer observed:

“Violence begins in our hearts before it ever hits the street.”

Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wisely warned us:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

In his closing argument to the white jury in Canton Mississippi, seeking leniency for a distraught African-American father avenging the horrible assault upon his young daughter, Jake Brigance fell back upon a simple appeal to truth.

He asked the jury not “to just talk about the truth, but to actually seek it, to find it, to live it.”

Then the young attorney asked the men and women sitting in judgment:

“What is it in us that seeks the truth? Is it our minds or is it our hearts?”

Brigance told the jury that “until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be evenhanded.” Until that day, he said, “we have a duty under God to seek the truth, not with our eyes and not with our minds where fear and hate turn commonality into prejudice, but with our hearts – where we don’t know better.”

Brigance then asked the jurors to close their eyes.

He told them the story “about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this little girl.”

He recounts in graphic detail her violent assault by the two rapists. How, “in a fog of drunken breath and sweat” they violate her.

“And when they’re done, after they killed her tiny womb, murdered any chance for her to bear children, to have life beyond her own, they decide to use her for target practice. So they start throwing full beer cans at her. They throw ’em so hard that it tears the flesh all the way to her bones – and they urinate on her.”

Brigance describes the attempted hanging:

“They have a rope; they tie a noose. Imagine the noose pulling tight around her neck and a sudden blinding jerk. She’s pulled into the air and her feet and legs go kicking and they don’t find the ground. The hanging branch isn’t strong enough.

It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck, and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge and pitch her over the edge. And she drops some 30 feet down to the creek bottom below.

Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body, soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood – left to die.”

Brigance raises his voice:

“Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl.”

Then he pauses and lowers his voice.

“Now imagine she’s white.”

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” – Ezekiel 36:26 (NIV).

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Stay On It

When Alice came to a fork in the road during her Adventures in Wonderland, she asked the Cheshire cat which way she should go.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the cat grinned.

“I don’t much care where,” Alice responded.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.

Alice adds: “… so long as I get somewhere.”

The Cheshire cat grins again: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

The Cheshire cat reminds us that destination determines direction.

If where we finally “want to get to” is quite flexible – if our destination doesn’t truly matter – then any road will get us there. Alice doesn’t want to stand still; she wants to go “somewhere”, she’s just not sure exactly where. The Cheshire cat reassures her that if she just keeps walking she will indeed get “somewhere.”

When it comes to religious faith, there are millions of Americans – in fact a record number – just like Alice – and plenty of grinning Cheshire cats to urge them forward on their path to “somewhere”.

Just when Protestants were losing their majority status in this country for the first time, dipping to a record low of 48%, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life discovered that nearly 20% of those it surveyed chose no religious affiliation. As Protestants, who historically dominated a Judeo-Christian America, sunk to a new demographic low, the “Nones”, as they are called, rose to a new high. Forty-six million place themselves in this category. They like the ambiguity, freedom, and tolerance of an open- ended religion.

What do these “Nones” believe? Nothing in particular and nothing too strongly, it turns out.

Most of them affirm God and prayer “somewhat” and in some form. As one None put it, she “embraces the sacred in all religions”. Here is a smorgasbord spirituality that fits the tenor of our times and the disposition of our culture. You may know a None. He or she is your neighbor, your co-worker, perhaps a member of your family.

When it comes to matters of faith, these folks “don’t much care.”

Greg Smith, senior researcher for the Pew Forum, told USA TODAY reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman:

“The rise of the Nones is a milestone in a long-term trend. People’s religious beliefs …play an important role in shaping their worldviews, their outlook in life and certainly in politics and elections.”

This is The Theological Crisis. It is a crisis of belief.

At the conclusion of his parable about a persistent widow and a relenting judge, Jesus promises an ultimate and compassionate justice for his chosen people. Then he poses a rhetorical question regarding the close of history:

“But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?” (Luke 18:8, NLT). The King James Version is more direct: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?”

It’s an important question.

The Pew Forum may have recently discovered the Nones. Jesus always knew they were coming. And Jesus knew that remaining faithful to the truth – his truth – would be a decisive and courageous test for his followers in this new secular age of disbelief.

Sound doctrine and theology; right thinking and unconquerable faith have always guided the Church – through even the darkest periods of widespread skepticism and apostasy. These must firmly anchor us – and guide us – today.

It’s true, of course, that it’s always easier to blend in than it is to stand out. There is a price for courage and conviction. That price has, at times, been high but Christians have always been willing to pay it – even with their own blood if necessary.

Let us examine our faith.

Let’s reflect on it, study it and measure it in our own hearts and minds. Let’s know what we believe and why. Let’s make sure we attend churches where God’s Word is preached and taught without compromise or apology.

We must be always ready to “give an answer” ( I Peter 3:15).

Then let us go out into the world.

A world where so many do not know God, or worship him or even give him thanks; a world that, professing to be wise, thinks up “foolish ideas of what God is like”; a world where minds have become “dark and confused” (Romans 1:21, NLT). Let us go into this world and there, by God’s grace and strength, live out daily the faith we profess.

Theology is not some dusty and antiquated system of irrelevant and idle speculations. It is the very heartbeat and sinew of Christianity. Our faith must be the most important thing about us. We must know it, embrace it, defend it, contend for it, love it and live it.

Only right understanding can result in right living.

Keeping faith in an age of doubt is never easy – but it is a thrilling adventure.

The path we choose to travel has always been narrow and hard to find but the journey’s always been worth it. This may be the “road less traveled” but it makes “all the difference”.

It is a road that doesn’t just lead to “somewhere” – it leads us to eternal life and God’s heavenly kingdom.

It leads us to our destiny as his children.

It’s the right road. Let’s stay on it.

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Strange Isn’t It?

The tree is dead.

It was a pine tree that grew more than twelve feet before it succumbed.

It was planted in Los Angeles to honor the late Beatle George Harrison.

What killed the tree?

Beetles.

A bark beetle infestation, actually.

That’s ironic.

Irony. Life is filled with it. The dictionary defines irony as “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result”. Irony is the most surprising outcome. It’s the unlikeliest choice or circumstance and the least expected result.

The Bible is saturated with irony.

It’s almost as if this is God’s modus operandi. He delights in it. The Creator revels in the surprise ending. If not for its amazing, come-from-behind irony, the Bible might be a rather dull book.

God chooses the tiniest, most inconspicuous nation to be his own and preserves it for centuries through suffering and exile, bringing it back to its ancient homeland where today it triumphs against all odds.

Through deeply flawed yet courageous men – and some noble and brave women – God delivers and leads his people. Who on earth would have chosen the likes of Abraham, Jacob, Moses or Gideon?

How colorless the biblical account would be without them.

How did a young Jewish boy named Joseph, sold into slavery by jealous brothers, rise to become the prince of Egypt who rescued that land from starvation? Who would have picked a lad tending sheep to be the mightiest king Israel ever had? And how could this ruler later lie and commit adultery and murder and still be a man after God’s own heart?

How ironic. How strange.

A mighty general is told to wash in the dirty Jordan River to find his cure for leprosy.

Five smooth stones and a slingshot slay a heavily-armored giant. Actually it only took one – and a brave young man who had come in from the fields with a lunch for his fear-struck older siblings. Now we see why none of them got the royal nod.

In human form God visits the world he made. He comes through a young virgin and her poor carpenter husband and is born in a stable in a little town called Bethlehem.

The Ruler of the universe is surrounded by animal dung. The hotels were all filled up. There was no room anywhere else.

Ordinary working stiffs – unknown and uneducated fishermen – become the disciples of Jesus and the first leaders of his church.

Five loaves of bread and two fish – a boy’s lunch – feed more than five thousand.

The fiercest persecutor of the church – a proud and stubborn Hebrew intent on strangling Christianity in its crib – becomes its most gifted and eloquent defender and spreads its message throughout much of the known world. He plants vibrant churches, writes nearly one third of the New Testament and becomes Christendom’s greatest theologian. He dies a martyr to the cause he once despised.

How ironic. How strange.

Over and over again God performs not only the miraculous – he does the improbable, the incredible, the shocking.

If humans did it, they’d be called foolish. But God has done it – and does it still – in the Bible, in the history of nations and in the history of the world.

He does it in our own lives. You know he does – you’ve seen him at work.

God is ironic for a reason.

Paul tells the Corinthians to remember that “few of you were wise in the world’s eyes, or powerful or wealthy when God called you” (I Corinthians 1: 26, NLT).

God makes unlikely choices.

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.” (I Corinthians 1: 27-28, KJV, emphasis added).

Don’t you just love that? The God of the eleventh inning – and the eleventh hour.

Foolish, weak, base and despised things – “things counted as nothing at all” (NLT).

These are so often the instruments – the ways and the means – God chooses and uses.

Why? To what end; to what purpose?

“That no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Corinthians 1:29, KJV).

He does it to keep us humble. With his irony God punctures the smugness of man.

God’s irony is wrapped up in his sovereignty, reflects his majesty and displays his grace and glory.

If it were any other way, we’d be tempted to take the credit instead of praising him for his miracle.

William Cowper said it well in 1773:

“God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm”.

Paul – who must have marveled at his own improbable spiritual journey – exults in joyful wonder at the inscrutability of God:

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33, KJV).

Yes, God often chooses “nothings” and uses them “to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (NLT).

Strange, isn’t it?

And so very comforting.

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LOL

There once was a little girl sent to stay with her great aunt in the country for the summer.

While the home was beautiful and pristine, the great aunt was a staunch Presbyterian of an unusually staid and humorless variety.

The aunt never laughed. Nor did she smile – at any time or anything. She did go to church – religiously. Her niece went with her. They sat in dignity on a long wooden pew and listened to long wooden sermons preached by the dull and joyless black-robed minister.

The little girl grew bored and despondent with all the strict rules of her aunt’s immaculate house.

One day, out for a walk and some fresh air to escape the indoor stuffiness, the girl came across a pasture. Standing with its head hanging over the old wooden fence, a mule stared forlornly at the girl.

She went up to him, gently patted his nose and looked into his sad eyes.

“Don’t feel so bad Mr. Mule,” she said softly. “My aunt’s got religion too”.

Author, critic and biting atheist H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.

Christianity has been perceived as a joyless enterprise by non-believers for centuries. The biggest part of this is due to conscientious Christian crusaders intent on ridding the world of all that the world finds pleasurable – and faithful activists find morally repugnant.

To paraphrase the apostle Peter, Christians are usually better prepared to give an answer for the despair that is within them than the hope.

Christian activism – and it’s had a profound and busy role in shaping American culture throughout history – is too often defined by what we are against than what we are for.

Hating the sin – that’s the easy part. Loving the sinner? Ah, there’s the rub!

There’s plenty to criticize and condemn in a world headed for hell. We find ourselves living as aliens in a foreign land that used to be our home.

That’s how it feels sometimes.

It’s harder to find the joy that creates a bit of heaven for the weary fellow-traveler. The great irony is that joy ought to be a high note in every Christian’s experience. We ought to find something to laugh about. Our joy ought to be a blessing to share with others.

Find a Christian who never laughs and never smiles and you’ve discovered a walking contradiction.

Humor is one of God’s exquisite gifts.

Leaders have found it of value and comfort.

Abraham Lincoln sat in a solemn cabinet meeting reading stories from a book. He’d read one out loud and then he’d laugh. None of his cabinet officers joined him. They knew of his reputation for telling funny stories; to many it was an undignified annoyance.

How could the president laugh amidst a nation drenched in the blood of a horrendous civil war?

Finally Lincoln paused and looked at the serious faces seated in dignity around the great oak table. His eyes glistened.

“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die. You need this medicine as much as I do”.

Ronald Reagan is beloved by many not only for his courage and convictions but also for his great sense of humor and perfectly-timed stories.

Humor is a powerful tool – and an even more powerful antidote.

The Bible tells us that a happy, joy-filled heart is good medicine. A broken spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).

Jesus must have laughed often. We know he loved to tell stories. What else would explain how the publicans and sinners gravitated to him like a magnate. Jesus was criticized by the stuffy Pharisees for partying with the lower-class.

Children loved Jesus too and followed him everywhere. It wasn’t because he was a joyless, austere stick – in – the – mud. It’s because he was fun to be around.

Jesus understood joy.

On the night of his betrayal, he told his disciples:

“Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:22, NLT).

There, on the eve of their greatest failure and most devastating sorrow, their Friend was reassuring them of their coming joy.

Christians, of all people, should have the most joy and happiness in their hearts, and in their lives. Nothing in this world can give us true and lasting joy – and nothing in this world can ever rob us of it.

Not really.

We don’t have joy because we are without problems – heartaches or perplexities or loss. We face those along with everyone else. We are not immune to suffering or exempt from it.

We rejoice because we know that suffering and sadness do not have the final word.

We may weep for a night, perhaps for a season, but the promise of God is unfailing: “Joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5,KJV).

Let’s thank God for Joy. It’s a fruit of the Spirit, right up there with Love and Faith and Peace.

“Don’t cry because it’s over,” said that wise sage, Dr. Seuss, “smile because it happened.”

Peter asked God to fill us “with an inexpressible and glorious joy” because, in the end, faith would save our souls (I Peter 1:8-9).

That’s something to be happy about.

“The most wasted of all days is the one without laughter.”

So go ahead.

LOL.

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