Love will Get You Hurt

How would you summarize the 12 most essential teachings of Jesus Christ? On one hand, you’d want to be faithful to the things the Lord actually taught. On the other hand, you’d want to express those ideas so that people in a post-Christian world could get it and relate them to life. Over the course of 2021, I want to reflect once each month on what the most essential ideas of the Gospel my be. I won’t devote every week to the process because I want to stretch it out with time to reflect. At any rate, here’s my first thought:

#1: Love will get you hurt. Does that sound too negative? It was Jesus himself who insisted, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NIV) People who lay down their lives for other people often don’t survive to attend the Awards Ceremony at City Hall. How can self-esteem seekers in a 21st Century consumer society seriously relate to the call for self-sacrifice?

Frankly, people in the 1st Century weren’t so crazy about dying young either. Nobody expected to reach 65 and retire back then, but most people weren’t eager to leave the planet tomorrow! Even so, Jesus made that inconvenient statement over and over in a variety of ways.

He commanded that I must love God with all my heart and soul and strength; and I must love my neighbor as myself. (Mark 12:31) We’ve reduced that axiom to such a familiar cliche’ that I can quote it fervently without wondering what is required if I value God above my own comfort and safety, or if I must regard threats to my neighbor as hazardous to me as well.

The Lord could get away with these outrageous requirements because he was offering his listeners something extravagant and wonderful: a new life. Don’t misunderstand. This would not be a new life in which his followers would instantly do a 180 and suddenly begin to live morally upright lives, obeying all the commandments and always feeling good about themselves. Not that. Rather, Jesus offered men and women a different kind of relationship with their heavenly Father and a new way to draw upon his wisdom, his power and his love. “As the Father loved me, I also have loved you: abide in my love.” (John 15:9 NASV) Think about that. The Old Covenant taught Israelites how to live as a part of a holy nation, a peculiar people. The New Covenant is ordered around living in Christ’s love. The heart of the Old Testament was ten commandments dealing with worship, family, adultery, crime, and covetousness, but the commands of Christ are merely twofold: loving God and loving neighbors.

This is why following Jesus does not begin with a change of behavior. That’s what we tend to talk about and even attempt to measure in ourselves and others, of course. Am I going to church? Is she reading her Bible? Is he trying to convince others to become Christians as well? We operate from this false premise that Christ came to change our behavior when, primarily, he came to change our hearts. Recognizing the love of God and, quite naturally, beginning to love him in return shows up first in my attitudes, affections, and ambitions. After that it begins to alter my habits and daily life.

Motives matter. People who improve their behavior based on religious ambition, determined to prove something, tend to deceive themselves. They can’t accept the fact that they are unable to conquer all their selfish desires and impulses, so they tend to deny having them or behave as though temptation is not a problem anymore. It all begins to feel rather phony, so they compensate by pretending they are superior to others while, deep inside, they feel like hypocrites. This explains so much of the competition and pretense so evident in church life today.

By contrast, people who recognize the overwhelming love of God, who begin and end each day exploring the dimensions of his love, realize the wonder of it all is that God loves them in the midst of their failures and pathetic attitudes. They are so grateful for God’s patience with them that they tend to be more patient with the frailties of others. And the changes that begin to show up in their daily lives stem not from trying to prove anything to others, but rather from naturally emulating someone they love so much. Gratitude unlocks possibilities that guilt can never touch. (Romans 8:39)

The Christian faith seems similar to other world religions only to people who assume it’s about self-improvement and behavior modification. Those are, of course, key ideas that other religions cultivate. But in fact, the call of Christ is radical and unique because it begins with the idea that we cannot repair ourselves in any meaningful way and can find peace only in the God who has taken all the initiative, allowing sinners to rest in his love. (Romans 5:8)

That love will lead you into acts of generosity and sacrifice that feel painful at first. Occasionally, love calls us to lay our lives on the line for our neighbors. But as costly as those sacrifices may seem on the surface, the loss is far, far outweighed by the benefits. Followers of Jesus enjoy the rare privilege of knowing him, drawing upon his wisdom, being shielded by his authority. And even in the face of assaults from people who don’t understand, we enjoy the comfort of God’s nearness and the promise that Heaven will one day afford us his presence forever.

Love will get you hurt, but the point of Life cannot be the avoidance of all pain. The greatest life ever lived brought Jesus Christ to his own crucifixion! A truly satisfying life requires facing adversity and chaos in order to fulfill your purpose, enjoy the great adventure with others, and leave behind a legacy. The Love of God will take you there.

Lift up the Cross…!

Image above: The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

A Christmas Dark & Deep

It’s a very peculiar Christmas. From coast to coast, political rage and economic lockdowns have left many of us broken, discouraged and weary. The nation seems battered and adrift. Now COVID-19 has resurged to stalk the land, terrifying communities that went untouched last spring, and politicians say we must “cancel Christmas.” This is certainly not the season of cheer we have come to know in years gone by.

Don’t lose your bearings: it could be much, much worse! I often think back to another very peculiar Christmas way back in AD 878. King Alfred and the people of Wessex had endured wave after wave of brutal Viking invasions. One by one, neighboring kingdoms had all gone down in flames. By Christmas, Wessex alone stood against the assaults. That’s when Guthrum sailed in from the north with a motivated army of trained berserkers. The royal stronghold of Chippenham fell amid a torrent of death and destruction, and Alfred along with a few other survivors escaped into the nearby swamps of Athelney.

There was little time and even fewer resources for making merry on the lam in those wintry marshes. The refugees found themselves huddling in a peat bog, grieving the loss family members, friends, and their homes. Some were wounded warriors who needed medical care and time to heal. Everyone was cold, wet, and utterly hopeless. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, indeed!

Alfred was a man of great faith; a visionary who could see far beyond his present plight. He was sure that his God was mightier than the Vikings and their coarse deities. There are fables that he disguised himself as a traveling minstrel and actually infiltrated the Viking camp to eavesdrop on conversations between songs. There’s one legendary fragment about a peasant woman who rebuked him harshly when she left him to watch her bread in the oven but the distracted king let it burn! This much we know: he sent messages of hope and unity to his scattered people and those of neighboring shires. Working remotely, he coordinated the effort to raise armies and train ordinary villagers for battle,

Five months later around Easter, Alfred summoned the displaced farmers and merchants of Wessex to meet him at Egbert’s Stone. There he rallied his shattered countrymen and called them to unite for a moment history would never forget. Somehow, those humble farmers and craftsmen beat back an army of seasoned professionals. Their victory at Edington was just the beginning. King Alfred called pagan Guthrum to faith in Christ and baptized him as his son in the faith. The two would go on to rule neighboring lands, living side by side in peace and prosperity.

There’s a message here, of course. Unrivaled opportunities often emerge from the unlikeliest of moments! Who would have thought poor King Alfred would eventually be known as Alfred the Great, the man who united tribes and kingdoms to give us the nation of Britain? Who would have ever imagined that the long nightmare of Viking terror would ultimately be ended not by superior armies, but by the Northmen coming to faith in Christ and learning to live in peace? And long before that, who could have ever supposed that a baby born in a backwater like Bethlehem would become the singular individual who could transform the relationship between people and God; who would be sung about and celebrated in nations all around the world 2,000 years after his death and resurrection?

No, Christmas 2020 may not have arrived with all the fanfare and feasting we expected just a few months ago. Let’s celebrate the birth of Christ anyhow! It’s a well-known fact that we live life looking forward, but can only understand it looking backwards. Trust God for that moment in the years to come when you and I look back to this deep, dark season and smile. One day you’ll confess, “With COVID-19 and chaos all around, who would have ever suspected what God was up to that Christmas?”

Celebrate the Savior once again this Christmas! And lift up the Cross…!

The Divine Interruption

My wife and I enjoyed an old movie version of A Christmas Carol last week. We were touched when Ebenezer Scrooge had his radical change of heart and exclaimed, ” I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year.” Afterward, I asked myself the question, “What would that look like- keeping Christmas?”

Some people leave the Christmas tree up for months, if not for the whole year. Of course, there was no lighted evergreen in the gospel accounts, so that’s more about holiday traditions than gospel truths. I suppose you could leave a nice manger scene on display throughout the year, but the wise men and shepherds- even the angels- were there only for a moment. Christmas is bigger than that- so much larger and more profound. And perhaps that’s the point.

So many of us, particularly in the USA, insist that Jesus is the Answer, but we want our answers promptly. We trust God for quick fixes, preferably through some political superstar or an infusion of cash. We’re happy to offer an occasional prayer or even to go out and vote in elections, but for the most part we’d prefer to go about our lives the way we have planned it all- without interruption.

But Christmas has always been about interruptions. Joseph and Mary interrupted their plans for a normal life; even traveled to Bethlehem late in a pregnancy. The shepherds had to leave their flocks in the field and the magi had to leave their books and manuscripts in the east. The astonishing good news that accompanies Christmas is that God’s plans are bigger than life!

And yet the next morning after Christ as born, not much had changed yet. There wasn’t anything fast about Christmas. The baby in the manger had been promised, hoped for, and talked about for a thousand years. What’s more, Jesus didn’t emerge from the womb healing the sick and issuing parables and spiritual principles. He had to grow up, thirty years it seems. Then he had to spread the good tidings across the land of Israel. Then his ministry was painfully interrupted by his death on the cross, or so it seemed at the time. Days passed and then the resurrection followed. Still more time would be required for the birth of the church on Pentecost. The plans and strategies of God are so vast and eternal that at every moment in earth time there’s is always more!

Keeping Christmas must be about trusting God’s heart even when you cannot see his hand. In other words, I will celebrate the work of God, even when it’s still underway and unfinished.

The original Christmas was about God showing his favor to outsiders. The magi were highly respected foreigners, most likely pagans, and the shepherds were disrespected locals. They were not the usual suspects you’d expect to be present at the birth of Israel’s Messiah. Instead, they speak to us of the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love! When Jesus became a man and a rabbi, he would teach his disciples that their dinner parties should not be limited only to close friends, but should also include the poor, the lame, the maimed, the blind.

Keeping Christmas demands that I refuse to be discouraged by unexpected turns of life that I cannot explain. Neither will I grow weary in the tasks God has assigned to me simply because I cannot see instant results. Rather, I must look for the purposes of heaven and give thanks that He is trustworthy. It means opening up my life and my good will to acquaintances as well as strangers. I will not insulate myself with a few family members and trusted friends who can cushion me from the discomfort and unpredictability of life’s frontiers. Even in the Age of COVID-19, texts and emails still afford us all an easy way to connect with others and offer some encouragement and good news.

Finally and most importantly, keeping Christmas means I have made room in my inn for the Savior of the World. Like the houses of Bethlehem when Joseph and Mary came knocking, many in this generation have found their lives already full, too crowded with ambitions and attitudes to accommodate Jesus Christ as Lord. What better time could there be than the end of another year to evaluate where you’ve been and whether or not it has truly satisfied your soul? If you find you’re still far away from God, come home for Christmas. Ask Jesus Christ to come in and stay.

What are you doing to keep Christmas in 2020? Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas below. And as always, lift up the Cross….!

The Baby & the Emperor

We’ve arrived at a miserable season here in the USA: at any moment, roughly half the people in the country don’t trust the system. We distrust our own government and regard many of our countrymen as enemies. Many have no confidence in our elections. Most are convinced the laws do not apply equally to all citizens. It has become apparent that our massive, bureaucratic government is too vast and sprawling to fulfill its most basic purposes efficiently.

The good news is that Christmas is now in sight, and it couldn’t have come at a better moment. It’s a story so full of hope and good news that it’s easy to miss some of the wonder!

For example, Luke’s account of the birth of Christ begins with words so familiar that we can enjoy their poetry but neglect their power. “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.”

Here’s the big news from those little details: the God of Eternity does not require a friendly, principled government in order to achieve his purposes. In fact, he doesn’t even need key political leaders to be saints in order to advance his massive plan of redemption. Luke 2 allows us to see the most strategic part of God’s plan for the world being played out under a pagan emperor who maintained complete control of whole regions of the world, along with an unprincipled lackey he had set in place over Syria. Caesar could command ordinary citizens to make the costly journey home for the census because he also held the powers of taxation and even life and death in his hands.

So if you are convinced that our political leaders are completely out of control, perhaps it’s not as bleak as you fear. If Caesar Augustus could have known what was taking place in Bethlehem under his regime, he would have done everything in his power to stop it. Roman religion was used as a force to unite a sprawling empire. A savior demanding absolute allegiance would obviously challenge that state religion. And yet Augustus imposed a census that would send Joseph and Mary precisely to Bethlehem where prophecy required the savior must be born. Later, the Roman Peace he brutally enforced would allow the first disciples to travel all across the Roman world with the very contagious gospel. The Greek language was familiar throughout the empire because of an earlier conqueror named Alexander the Great. Because of pagan Alexander, one shared language allowed the Gospel to move across the Roman world much more efficiently.

Paul would later write, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” The time was full indeed, but not because of friendly governments or godly leaders. The moment was opportune because God had been expertly moving the chess pieces he plays so well.

There are times when people have the power to change their government, and that can be a good thing as long as the new regime does not become our sole reason for hope. On most occasions in history, however, we simply need to change our attitudes. The American Dream was conceived a long, long time before you and I were here to claim it or protect it. And it was originally envisioned by men who distrusted human passions so strongly that they even worried about their own frailties. They not only ordained checks and balances in their constitution, but they also added a way to amend it, just in case they had erred in some regard. The framers of the Constitution weren’t all godly men; simply people God used in the fulness of time.

This year it will be good to celebrate all the wonders of Christmas. Yes, the climax comes with the birth of a very special baby, the songs of angels, and a star in the east. But underlying it all is God’s promise that the wheels of heaven are always turning and the Kingdom is ever advancing- in season and out. Even when the winter is brutal and the cherished tree seems beaten and barren, the promise of God is that spring always comes and the tree will again bear fruit.

Lift up the Cross!

The Incredible Shrinking Church

Increasingly, I’m hearing serious Christians question the wisdom of the Almighty God. There is no joy in Mudville for church fans here in 2020. For ten years or more we’ve read about the numerical decline of the church in the United States; about the large number of NONE’s who show up in religious surveys; about college kids who leave the fold never to return. Now COVID-19 lockdowns have shuttered American churches for months. Many congregations have finally reopened only to find a third of their attenders have no interest in- well– attending.

“Is the Church doomed?” That’s what many are wondering as some states are once again locking down. What if all those stranded church members become accustomed to being unchurched at Bedside Baptist? “Where is God in the midst of this epidemic, and what is He doing anyway?”

I believe I know what God is up to. Remember the incident in 1 Kings 19 that follows Elijah’s incendiary victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel? The victorious prophet finds himself being tracked down by Jezebel’s henchmen dispatched to liquidate him. He flees to an isolated cave in the wilderness where he holes up for one of the most depressing moments in his life. Elijah whines to the Almighty that he cannot go on; everything is falling apart. The people of Israel are weak and unreliable; the wicked queen is wreaking havoc across the land, and this poor, discouraged prophet is the only stand-up leader left in the land!!! Could anything be worse than this?

You may recall that God rebukes the weary prophet and sends him out to stand on a ledge. First there’s a storm force wind, followed by an earthquake, then a raging fire. But God is not found in any of those theatrics: rather, he is waiting to speak to his servant in a small still voice. And he reminds Elijah that there are 7,000 godly men and women scattered throughout the land, awaiting their next assignment from the Lord God all mighty. No, that’s not a million man army, but this is the God who used a solitary lad with a slingshot to slay a giant warrior and defeat the massive armies of the Philistines!

For too long, church people in the USA have taken false comfort from one statistic or another about most Americans being Christians, or attending church. We have arrogantly concluded that our majority status guarantees our freedom and our reputation as the greatest church in the world! But what happens when we’re suddenly a just small minority and the majority of our neighbors see us at backwards, bigoted and destructive? We may not know, but we’re about to find out.

That’s why God is refining the Church here in 2020. Christ warned that we’re a wicked generation if we can interpret the signs of the sky but cannot read the signs of the times. Well, today’s cultural headlines are hard to miss. Our “one way” theology is divisive and racist. Our sexual ethics are ancient and unacceptable. As if that’s not enough, our worldview is superstitious and anti-science. Now the momentum and the spirit of the age have turned against us and the cultural heroes of Antifa and BLM are already mocking our ideas, burning our Bibles, and defacing our church buildings with impunity. So it begins. (Note: black lives do matter, however BLM is a self-avowed Marxist organization.)

Tragically, the people of God are not yet ready for real warfare. Decades of prosperity and respectability have left us soft, easily discouraged, and unwilling to sacrifice for the Kingdom of God. Great wisdom is required, but many of our older saints are huddled at home, hiding their lamps under the COVID-19 bushel basket. And at the other end of the spectrum, our youthful vitality has been diverted and wasted. Many of the trendy new church gatherings in urban areas have been reduced to spawning grounds for traditional bachelors and bachelorettes who can hook up afterwards for a few drinks and a roll in the hay.

A friend who heads up a high-tech audiovisual company recently shared a bleak vision of the future of some churches. When the pandemic cancelled all the concerts, festivals and exhibitions that normally keep him busy and profitable, he found himself in demand from churches who needed to begin streaming their worship services online. Before long, most of his time was spent meeting with pastors and worship leaders, working on hardware and software for making the most of YouTube and Facebook. Sadly for him, his brand new “ministry” to church leaders was less than inspiring. To his dismay, he found that the majority of his church clients actually hoped that streaming would catch on so that they would no longer have to deal with the inconvenient and inefficient task of getting the saints together in person for worship! Many pastors and worship leaders were quite happy with their new status as TV ministers!

Church leaders who find live worship services exhausting and unnecessary will never be able to lead the resistance against a rising tide of persecution that will fall upon US churches in the decade now before us. And cultural Christians who are content to offer God nothing more costly than an occasional hour of singing and sitting on Sundays, will quickly cower when their reputations, jobs and lifestyle are suddenly at risk. For this reason, our heavenly father has begun to refine our faith like gold, and burn away the dross.

You could call it the storm before the calm. We will be a stronger, more dynamic body after the Holy Spirit restores our passion for Christ and a hunger for obedience. Our numbers will be much smaller, but the world will find that our worship and our words begin to have more resonance in the marketplace of life. And history will record that the church somehow rebounded from decades of losses, becoming a force to be reckoned with once again. There’s a powerful burst of light at the end of the tunnel, but right now it’s the tunnel that looms ahead.

The Great Reset is hurling in our direction. It won’t be easy, but it may well be the defining moment of the 21st Century for the renewal and resurgence of the Christian Faith. Look for some biblical principles to guide us next time we’re together, but in the meantime, be ready.

And lift up the Cross…..

The Cowardly Lion

Halloween is near and Americans must once again choose the costume they’ll be wearing. Joe Exotic from Tiger King will surely be a trendy option this year. Then there’s Alexander Hamilton from the musical and maybe Karen from Central Park. But again in 2020, the most popular put-on will surely be people dressing up like Christians.

The disguise suggests “I am a follower of Jesus Christ.” That requires an ethos of loving God with all my heart, and my neighbor as myself, even the one who differs from me. It’s about the conviction that the biggest peril facing men and women is their own personal sin nature and defiant attitudes, not the behavior of nations, races, or political groups. Confession exposes my own evil choices and bad attitudes, not those of my adversaries. Picking up my cross and walking in the Truth has obvious consequences: I will generally be out of step with the pop passions and faux fashions of the moment.

But if it’s only a costume, I can take it off when I get back home with my bag of treats.

I guess that’s why so many church people have locked themselves down during this spiritual and cultural upheaval. Surely, we talk openly about spiritual truths in the safe space of small-group Bible Studies, but why do we suppress all that redemptive truth when we’re out on the street? Black Lives Matter ideologues are not ashamed to publicly champion Marxism and the overthrow of the traditional family. Abortion activists never hesitate to publicly support the destruction of unborn infants, even right up to the moment of conception. But where are all the Christians who can vouch for personal responsibility, the power of Truth, God’s grace for sinful humans, and the love of Christ that can bring us back from destruction?

Today’s fashion lumps everyone into groups of either oppressors or victims. Every member of a group must think alike, stick together, share the same dreams. By contrast, the Gospel teaches that we are individuals, not wooden pegs to be forced into demographically shaped holes. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 ESV) The Father sees individuals as more powerful than their intersectionality, and the only identity that matters is being an heir in Christ. Where are the thousands of voices offering that unfashionable truth?

The meme of the moment screams that most Americans are racists. That’s a vast and meaningless generalization, but it is true that all of us are sinners. Where are the voices who add that truth to the conversation?

The new religion of 2020 asserts that certain injustices literally justify the burning of homes and businesses, the injury and death of innocent bystanders. Where are the followers of Christ who calmly counter, “The Golden Rule says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Will you accept it gladly when someone who hates your ideas brings a bomb or a torch to your house, your workplace, or your family?”

For more than a generation, preachers and writers have alluded to a “God-shaped hole in everyone’s heart.” Today I heard a self-professed atheist use the same expression, explaining that too many empty young Americans are trying to fill that hole and find meaning in life through protests and riots for a cause so vague and abstract it can never be defined or fulfilled. Why did an atheist have to make that observation on TV?

Those of us who follow Jesus must realize that our fear of Covid-19 does not excuse us from living for Christ, just as our fear of rejection doesn’t excuse us from speaking the truth whenever we can, thereby encouraging others to speak it and think it as well. If we seriously believe we are a “silent majority,” why in heaven’s name are we silent and fearful? If the truth we hold actually resonates with most other Americans, why are we so afraid to speak it?

Political Correctness is nothing more than adolescent peer pressure for adults. It warns that if you observe the obvious and speak the truth, you will suffer insults or exclusion. So what? It’s not like I’m going to be crucified, disemboweled, or burned at the stake! One day I’ll stand in Heaven alongside saints who boldly embraced terrors like those because they dared to live and speak in the name of Jesus Christ. Do I really want to explain to them that I was paralyzed by nothing more than the fear of what others might think?

Scripture is clear that God expects more of those to whom he has given much. With so much freedom, wealth, and diverse avenues of communication at our disposal, Americans like you and me have more responsibility than saints who resisted anti-Christs in centuries gone by. Ezekiel likens the people of God to watchmen who must warn our countrymen about the spiritual consequences they face. We are not accountable for their response; only for clearly speaking the truth to them.

This Halloween season you may well find Dorothy and Toto, or Tin Man or the Scarecrow ringing your doorbell one night.  Let it be a spiritual reminder to you and your household.  In the Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion already had the courage he longed for; he just needed a medal.  In 2020, the cowardly Christian already has the meaning and purpose our world is searching for; he just needs a voice.

Lift up the Cross!

 

Why Prayer Doesn’t Work. Part 2

Prayer can summon the limitless power of heaven into a crisis on the Earth. Or it can be little more than a token expression we use to let others know we care. “I’ll be praying for you,” we say when someone shares a personal problem. The sentiment may be comforting but what if the follow-through never happens?

A few years ago, I wrote about some of the biblical reasons Why Prayer Doesn’t Work. For example, scripture says some prayers aren’t answered because they never get offered; others fall short either because I ask with wrong motives or because my lifestyle continues in defiance of God’s character and purposes.

But there’s another scriptural reason for prayers that seem to go MIA the moment they are offered up. In John 14:14 (ESV), Christ explains, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” At first glance, that sounds like a free airline ticket to anywhere! This text is one of the reasons so many believers end every prayer by saying it’s in the name of Jesus. Isn’t that the point: just say the name of Jesus? Not exactly.

We all know what it actually means to say something or do something in the name of someone else. For example, I might choose to honor you by making a contribution in your name to some charitable organization. But if you strongly support the sanctity of human life, it would be tone deaf and even insulting for me to make a gift to Planned Parenthood in your name. Your name might be on the receipt, but my gift would be working against one of the most sacred priorities of your life. To do something in someone’s name demands that I must act according to the interests and purposes of someone else, not myself.

The same is true for praying in the name of Jesus Christ. More than simply invoking his name like a magic spell, doing anything in the name of Jesus means advancing his interests, his purposes, his Kingdom. There is no doubt the Kingdom of God is organized around the mission of getting Good News to the far reaches of the Earth, for example. He also cares deeply about how we develop as individual saints, and how much we rely on divine wisdom rather than human influence and strategies. That’s why the visionary idea of praying for two million dollars to spend on a private plane for your personal soul-winning strategy might not resonate in the mind of God! The Lord might well prefer a different plan that relies more heavily on spirit power than cashflow.

God is not a genie in a lamp. It’s extremely common to read personal prayer requests on Facebook, each one followed by 20 or even 200 assurances of “praying.” Pardon the skepticism here, but should dozens of acquaintances in distant cities instantly claim healing for an infirm saint “in Jesus name” without pondering the various ways God might desire to use this particular incident? It cannot be God’s desire that no one ever dies: heaven would remain empty! And as discouraging as trial and tribulation may feel, sometimes we do indeed suffer for the glory of God in the interests of character building or demonstrating grace to unbelievers. Christ told one blind man that his condition was not related to sin, but was simply for the glory of God. So it was God’s will to restore his sight on that particular day, but it had also been God’s will for him to be blind until that moment with Jesus.

Could it be that God wants me to pray for others because those prayers will grow me and unite his people?

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:5-15) is intended to be a model for people who want to learn how to pray. Read it again and you’ll notice it’s not at all like a shopping list with items for God to bring home. We are taught to rely on the Father for our daily bread: beyond that, the requests are all about forgiveness and the power to forgive others; strength for temptation; the coming of the Kingdom; and the desire that God’s will can be fulfilled by us just as it is carried out by angels in heaven- instantly and completely.

Read the prayers of Paul throughout his letters. He prays that his beloved friends will have spiritual insight; the power to sense the purposes of God; unity as brothers and sisters; the instrumental work of God in building them up and growing their souls. Paul’s requests are a far cry from those long, detailed “to do” lists so many churches maintain and publish weekly for God.

Don’t miss the point here. The biblical instructions that we should pray for others is clear and consistent in scripture. (We should also help care for them, but that would require more than 5 seconds.) James instructs anyone who is sick to call for the elders and ask for prayer. My point is that we must not be glib and superficial about praying in the name of Jesus when we have not paused to think for a even moment what his purposes might be. Whatever God’s desire might be for one individual’s cancer diagnosis, I can be assured that he desires for every believer to grow in faith and character through every situation in life. What if God’s first answer to my troubled friend’s prayer is me?

It’s always biblical to pray for people who are hurting, struggling, or bearing up under great pressure. Although it’s quite natural to find ways I can offer comfort in a difficult season, it’s also important to seek ways to cultivate faith and encourage Christlike character- even lead a friend to faith. In other words, if I plan to end my prayer by invoking it’s all in Jesus’ name, I must surely begin that prayer by asking for divine insight and wisdom. “Lord, my friend and I are walking through this valley of the shadow looking for your sign posts and listening for your small still voice…”

We must not simply pray in the name of Jesus: we must live that way. And we must faithfully lift up the cross…..

How We Lost Normal

Sound familiar? You’re speeding along the interstate, caught up in happy thoughts, exciting plans and your favorite music. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and good times are waiting just ahead. Then suddenly you glance at your fuel gauge to discover you’re on Empty and there’s not another exit for 25 miles!

That’s what happened to the United States in March. We were celebrating all the wonders of 2020, a year of vision, progress, and a rocking economy. We were streaming our personal playlists through wireless earbuds and loving those binge-worthy TV programs on Netflix. Suddenly we were awakened by a spreading virus and a cruel lockdown. Schools and malls and theaters closed, sporting events were all cancelled, and churches were ordered to stop meeting. Surrounded by vacant streets and unpopulated highways, we glanced at the fuel gauge and discovered we had been running on empty.

Spiritual Emptiness: it explains why the United States has been paralyzed in fear by a virus that’s insidious but not nearly as deadly as the black death or other horrors which have stalked the Earth. It explains why so many US churches remain shut down after six months, despite the teachings of scripture and the guarantee of the First Amendment that government cannot trespass on the freedom of religion. It was not so long ago when most Americans believed that death is not The End. It seems like only yesterday when pulpits across the land rang with the promise of Life Everlasting, courtesy of a Lord who had historically been resurrected from the grave. Faith began with picking up a cross, an instrument of death, and following a rabbi who was crucified…and raised back to life!

Risk and sacrifice are an integral part of a healthy life. The apostles did not walk fearfully among the enemies of the Gospel but boldly embraced the danger. They defied ruthless governments, faced angry mobs, sailed unpredictable seas, and touched lepers. They were fearless because there is more here than meets the eye, and Eternal Life is so much bigger than mere life. They handed down to us a faith that is death-defying.

Today we have adopted a new theology, the confession of enlightened consumers that “Life is Good.” There’s no need to wait for heaven when you can have it now, or so we were told. So we gleefully cashed in the promise of Eternity for the pleasures of Here & Now. The downside is that neither a spa weekend in Aspen nor the mansion of your dreams offers very much comfort when death threatens a painful exclamation point at the end of your life sentence.

Jesus crystallized much more than a religious idea when he asserted, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’ (John 11:25) The most essential element of the Good News his followers carried to the world was not simply the cross, but crucifixion and resurrection. If you never noticed that, read the sermons of Acts. Christ’s factual, literal resurrection was the basis for our expectation of life after life. That’s why Paul insisted “For if the dead are not raised then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (I Corinthians 15:16)

When US churches began to dwell on popular tips for happy marriage, positive parenting, wise money management, winning against stress, and having your best life now, we finally lost our grip on the radical biblical alternative: your best life is yet to come! Paul reminded the saints, “But as it is written: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, / Nor have entered into the heart of man/ The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.’” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

Normal life was pretty comfy back in January 2020, wasn’t it? No nation had ever been so free or so prosperous. Posh restaurants and upscale arenas were as full as our personal schedules, and everyone was free to reach for the stars. But that freedom and prosperity had been delivered to us at great cost by generations of people who based their lives and sacrifices on particular big ideas. The ideas of Christ were so pivotal to the West in general and the United States in particular, that they were embedded in our core attitudes and ethos, despite the fact that not every American was a true believer. Eternal rewards, divine justice, sharing our blessings, caring for the downtrodden, and working hard as a way of honoring God were already baked into the cake we’ve all been enjoying. The Church was God’s watchman, His defender of Truth, his lighthouse for Eternity.

Neither an election nor a vaccine can fix what is wrong with the USA today. There is no chance for any real recovery until the saints recover the Gospel- in our hearts first, and then our churches. “Reopening the country” will begin with reopening our Bibles and again digesting the ideas of God that have historically infused the life of humankind with purpose and courage. Begin with the four Gospels, allowing the life events of Jesus of Nazareth to wash across your mind and seep again into your subconscious. Move on to the Acts of the Apostles and ask what drove these heroes to death and beyond. Let the Gospel clean you out, like freshwater rushing through a rusty pipe. Pray with desperation, asking God to restore your soul.

When you sense the first embers of true faith are being rekindled in your soul, practice obedience. Contact some friends and neighbors to ask how they’re doing and how you can pray for them. Put on your mask and get back out into the world of people. Be aware of the COVID19 virus but don’t be obsessed or terrified. Life is bigger than all of this- much bigger.

If your church is still shut down, look around until you find a place of worship that has reopened. Go there and worship in person with them. The Coronavirus is significant, but it’s not as crippling or as deadly as the hype surrounding it. (Fact: even a 74-year old who is slightly overweight has a 94% survival rate if he actually contracts it!) And death is not nearly as dreadful as it seems in 2020’s pagan America. For saints, it’s a doorway to Heaven where delights and wonders await us that eyes have not seen nor minds imagined.

America needs you to reopen your Bible… and pick up your cross.

Thinking for Yourself

One of the landmark achievements of Western Civilization has been the advancement of individual liberty. Throughout most of world history, your destiny was preset by your class, your clan, your race, or your caste. There were privileges associated with the right group, class, or nationality; there were liabilities suffered by other groups, those losers of life’s lottery. Only some could legally inherit. Only some could wear certain colors. Only those on the bottom rung could be crucified.

The transition from class rivalry to individual identity can be traced back to the gospel of Christ. Galatians 3:28 sparked a revolution in the ancient world: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Faith trumped genetics and demographics! Anybody could inherit the riches of Christ.

You’ve heard those words many times before, but pause for a moment and imagine hearing them in the era when they were written by Paul. If you were from Galatia at the time, Romans considered you the dregs of society; outlaws, low life, human garbage. If you were a woman, you were further down the food chain. If you were a slave, you had absolutely no reason for self-respect or hope for a better life. Jesus turned the system of class and group identity on its head with his radical behavior: lunch with a low-class tax collector; chiding Martha for not leaving her place in the kitchen to sit at his feet with the men as her sister had done. Surrounding yourself with low-class fishermen was not the accepted path to success among highbrow Jewish people, but Christ has come to chart a new course.

Jesus taught that we are not accountable for the sins of those in our group, either past or present. He discounted the conventional wisdom of the day when he told a man born blind that his condition was not because of any sin his parents had committed but simply for the glory of God. The bad news is that we all inherit a curse from Adam and Eve, but the good news is that any man or woman can rise above that human condition through a faith relationship with God. Old Testament Rahab was a harlot and a Canaanite- dreadful demographics– but grace and faith changed her identity to win her a place in the bloodline of the Messiah.

The voices of identity politics are loud and extremely vocal today. You have no significance beyond your race or the group of victims to which you belong. If you are white, you are a racist. If you are a man, you have oppressed others to maintain your status in the male hierarchy. If you are black or female, no matter how wealthy or influential, you are still being oppressed by the system. This is all nonsense, of course. It takes no account of talent or character or perseverance or life choices or geography or culture. But even worse, it’s dangerous because it threatens to take us back to the days when merely belonging to an out-of-favor group or class could mean you were legally ostracized, punished, discriminated against, or even enslaved. Identity politics was precisely how slavery was justified throughout most of history in virtually every region of the world, and long before the birth of America. Some groups were considered inferior; good for nothing else. Our word slavery actually comes from the term Slav, an ethnic group of white Europeans who were cruelly trafficked by their neighboring nations for generations.

This is one of the reasons the Church has always been a primary target for dictators and Marxists who see an opening for power. Followers of Christ see individuals rather than groups, and we don’t allow someone to be mistreated or marginalized because of race, gender, or national heritage. We know anyone can be a child of Abraham and an heir of Christ. And because we belong to the family of God, our highest allegiance is toward heaven, not any earthly regime. It’s hard to manipulate true believers because we resist political schemes that turn one group against another so all can be controlled. Bitterness is not a fruit of the spirit.

Watch out for 21st Century wolves who define you only as a member of one sub-group or another. Beware when leaders seek to enflame you because another group is more privileged or better resourced. Walk away whenever anyone in authority explains how one class or race of people is evil and must be penalized or treated differently. That’s what Nazis do. That’s what Marxists do. That’s what Fascists, radical Muslims, and authoritarians do.

Jesus died to set us free and adopt us into a family that transcends all races, languages, class groups, and national borders. You are accountable only for your own sins. And Christ has made a way you can be fully forgiven, justified, transformed, and included. Unlike the class warriors and race hustlers who dominate the media today, Jesus Christ did not come to shame us or to punish us. He didn’t even come to re-educate us. He came to rescue sinners; to redeem us and make us free indeed!

Lift up the Cross!

 

High Noon in the Valley of the Shadow

No, my friends, 2020 is not the most turbulent year in American history. We’ve seen urban violence, political rage, racial division, and unpleasant surprises at nearly every turn this year, but in 1861 the country actually erupted into a bloody civil war. Only a century later, riots in our major cities had become so violent and terrifying that the 82nd US Airborne was deployed to Chicago to battle snipers and end the contagion. Our season of discontent is not unprecedented.

Neither is the Novel Coronavirus the most serious threat ever faced by the Church. Granted, COVID-19 is contagious and people over seventy are at increased risk of sickness and death, but in just a few years this strange episode will be nothing more than a footnote. (We’ve already forgotten the Hong Kong Flu which killed over 100,000 Americans in 1968 when the US population was 33% smaller. We remember Woodstock which happened the same year.)

Compare our present discomfort to a moment in 177 AD when Rome’s Rhone Valley exploded in violence against the church. Resentment against foreigners, particularly those who did not support local pagan traditions, had been simmering for years. One day it suddenly came to a boil and violent mobs rushed into the streets of Lyon, beating Christian men, women and children in their homes and dragging them off to jail. From there they were taken to the coliseum where cheering crowds watched as they were savaged by lions, torn apart by dogs, and roasted with red hot chains wrapped around their bodies. Yet this distress was never a setback for the church. The saints endured it all as a sacred testimony to their savior who had also died violently for truth.

After months of being shut down by government decrees here is the US, some churches are returning to worship in many states. In other states, governors continue to maintain the lockdown. Grocery stores, abortion clinics, liquor stores, pot dispensaries, and drug stores have remained open, classified as “essential” businesses. The First Amendment notwithstanding, the freedom of religion is still cancelled, perhaps even until a vaccine is found. (Such a discovery may be imminent but, historically, we have never found a vaccine for a coronavirus before.)

In places like New York and California, a few brave pastors have defied arbitrary state decrees and have reopened their worship centers to welcome worshippers. But strangely and ominously, many congregations across the land continue to bow down to irrational governmental decrees. Many, many in the church are content merely streaming videos on Facebook and YouTube for members cowering at homes to protect their health. Would anyone seriously call this courageous?

What happened to us? How can we explain this defection of the churches at a time when ordinary Americans remain isolated, lonely, frightened, stressed out, in financial peril, and searching for meaning? In other generations, believers would have stood tall to make this our finest hour, rather than rushing to the exits. What has changed among the people of God?

Fear. That’s the uncomfortable answer. We are paralyzed with fear for our safety and our lives.

Reading Colossians 3 this week, I was reminded of a spiritual treasure that seems strangely absent today. “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body, and be thankful.” (3:15 NASV) One doesn’t see much of that peace radiating from the lives of church people in the USA today. To the contrary, we generally sound as anxious, terrified and discouraged as our unbelieving neighbors. But if the peace of Christ means anything, it must mean that I am capable of rising above my momentary fright to be obedient to Christ. In Nero’s Rome, fearless saints who defied the empire were dipped in tar, strapped to tall poles, and set fire as torches to light the emperor’s garden parties. We can imagine that their stomachs must have tightened nervously as they faced death singing hymns to God, but their faith never faltered. The peace of God ruled their hearts.

It’s pathetic and uninformed to quote Romans 13:1, insisting we must obey our governing authorities. Paul wrote those words during the reign of Nero when Christians lost their lives defying the scheming emperor and his edicts. We don’t submit to politicians or even pastors when they violate our conscience. Rather, we dig down into the peace of Christ and carry our cross.

If the Christian faith only works during times of peace and prosperity, then it’s not a faith at all; just an attitude. And if the call to deny self, pick up a cross, and follow Christ came with some kind of expiration date so that it no longer applies to 21st Century disciples, we should surely wonder which other parts of the Gospel are obsolete and no longer apply! Finally, if an emergency order from a governor can outweigh the authority of Heaven, God forbid that I should die during a state of emergency. I might be lost just like all the others who have no hope.

The peace of Christ will show up in this generation when we devote some of our COVID-19 downtime to finding our Bibles and reading the Word of God. Colossians 3:16 NASV continues, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

It’s high noon in the Valley of the Shadow. A virus is stalking the land, big cities are on fire, and oppressive political leaders have banned public worship services. Antifa thugs are burning Bibles in the streets, and setting churches on fire. This time, the frightened townspeople peering through the windows of the saloon are not waiting for Gary Cooper to show up. They are looking for Jesus. And we are the Body of Christ.

Lift up the Cross!