Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

THANK GOD IM AN ATHEIST

Not many Americans would call themselves atheists; only about 3% according to Pew Research.  But that doesn’t count the practicing atheists.  I’m thinking about all the people who religiously go to church on Sundays but live the other six-and-a-half days as though heaven is empty and the Bible is fiction.

I’m not even talking about secret sins. Think about all those honest conversations between Bible believers, those of us who call ourselves Evangelicals.

Surely, we can all agree that friends must be able to speak honestly to each other, and without condemnation.  But when another follower of Christ confides in me that he’s undermining his jerk supervisor at work, what am I supposed to do with the New Testament idea of honoring God by the way I treat those in authority? (1 Peter 2:19) Atheism says the boss is a loser: he’s got it coming.  But a godly friend ought to sympathize, “Man, I understand why you’re so angry.  But I’m wondering if there’s a place for your faith in all of this. What do you think?”  No condemnation there!

When a married woman confides that her conversations with the new single guy at the office have gone well beyond innocent flirtation, what’s a friend in the faith to do? Atheism says we’re living in a whole new world: this seems harmless enough. But a friend who is also a believer has a different take. “Can we pray about this together?  It may feel harmless right now, but are you running away from sexual immorality, or tip-toeing toward it?” (1 Corinthians 6:18)  True friendship does require honesty, right?

In this week’s message on dealing with bad bosses, Pastor Cole reminded us how often we give each other a pass for doing evil.  Instead of coaching our fellow saints with faith and wise counsel, we tend to shrug and suggest we’re all only human. But that’s what atheists believe.  Followers of Jesus counter with 2 Corinthians 5:17.  “I am a new creation in Christ: the old has gone, the new has come!” Saints encourage each other to set our affections on this above, not the things of this world.

Suggest to a child that he’s not as capable of a B-average, and you’ll soon have a
D student on your hands!  Tell a teenager it’s impossible to resist fornication, and she’ll soon agree with you wholeheartedly.  Imply to a Christian friend under fire that nobody seriously expects to be holy all the time, and you’ll soon have an unholy friend in an ungodly dilemma.

Being the salt of the earth requires more than merely influencing pagans and unbelievers next door.  It means we are willing to rub off on our friends at church as well.

To catch this week’s message, click Take this Job and Love It.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

BURNING CHURCHOne of my favorite “true” stories is certifiably true.  I had wondered about it over the years but  I never managed to find any evidence for or against.  Then recently it was confirmed by Snopes.com.  How do you explain this?

The choir at West Side Baptist Church met religiously for rehearsal on Wednesday evenings at 7:20.  So of course, shock and terror spread quickly across little Beatrice, Nebraska, one Wednesday night when the church furnace exploded at 7:25 PM.  The blast quickly leveled the church building, with flames leaping everywhere.  The force of the explosion knocked a nearby radio station off the air and shattered windows in neighboring homes.

Fire rescue workers and stunned neighbors descended on the scene expecting the worst. Weren’t there fifteen regular members in the choir?  How many charred corpses would they be forced to unearth from the ashes and despair?  Much to everyone’s astonishment and relief, the answer was 0.

No one was killed in the tragic blast because on that chill February evening, all fifteen members of the West Side Choir arrived late for rehearsal!

  • Royena Estes had planned to leave on time, but her car wouldn’t start.  She called and asked her sister Ladona for a ride, but the high school sophomore needed a few more minutes to solve a geometry problem in her homework. They ran late.
  • Pastor Klempel and his wife were about to leave at their usual time when she noticed her dress was badly wrinkled.  She went back inside to press it, so they left home late.
  • Harvey Ahl was nearly always early for rehearsal, but on this evening his wife was out-of-town and he was having fun playing with his two young sons.  When he finally glanced at his watch, he was already running behind.
  • Marilyn, the pianist, had planned to arrive half an hour early to rehearse a difficult section in one of the songs, but she nodded off for just a moment and over napped. Because she was late, her mother, the choir director, was also slow to arrive.
  • And so it went on February 1.  One choir member took a nap and overslept. Another felt lazy and decided to steal just five more minutes wrapped up in her blanket. Two were frustrated when their automobiles wouldn’t crank.

So on the night when West Side Baptist Church exploded, not a single choir member was inside the building.  All had been providentially hindered by completely unrelated distractions, and everyone was uncharacteristically late.

Some would say they were all just lucky.  But the odds of all 15 faithful choir members being late on the very same night would surely be one in a million.  It calls to mind the promise from Ephesians 3:20 that our God can do more than we ask or imagine.

Lift up the Cross!

BURGER BASHMost Americans will be vegans within fifty years if current trends continue.  Think about it and you’ll agree this is not a radical idea.  Meatless menus and days without meat become more popular every year.  With each passing season, our affection for animals increases, along with the conviction that they must have rights, too. And very soon, there will be synthetic meats that boast of added nutritional benefits with the same great taste. You can imagine the labels: No animals were harmed in the production of this food product.

In 2070, our great grandchildren will look back on our generation with horror! No one will understand why we insisted on serving dead animals to our children and our dinner guests!  Quite suddenly, most of the shoppers and chefs of 2017 will seem like heartless barbarians.  We will join that long, death march into infamy only a few paces behind the slave owners, racists, and sexists who came before us.  We will be condemned and stigmatized for failing to adopt values of an unborn generation still 100 years away!

No, that’s not fair.  It’s not even rational.  We are all products of our particular day and age- Millennials and Generation Z are no different than Boomers in this regard.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  But keep this injustice in mind that next time you are tempted to scowl at those heartless Neanderthals who populate the Holy Bible.

The toughest thing about reading through your Bible in a year happens early on: the challenge of slogging through one scene of Old Testament battlefield carnage after another.   Why did Samuel slash King Agag to ribbons while condemning King Saul for not doing it first?  Why are women and children occasionally killed along with the soldiers in one battle or another?  We are perplexed that the Almighty God not only approves of such conduct but sometimes commands it must be done.

In fact, many of the heroes and heroines of the Bible walked the Earth some three thousand years ago.  Read that again: 30 centuries ago! The Ammonites and Jebusites and Amorites who surrounded their homeland were not enlightened, 21st Century humanists.  For most nations of that period, warfare was not about self-defense: it was the economy, stupid!  Most nations gleefully invaded their neighbors to expand their own territory, feed their own people, and bring home stolen treasure and prisoners of war to work in the fields. Most communities were not even bound by religious commands that they should not kill, much less not declare war.

Some like the Philistines or the Amalekites were so lacking in principle or human decency that they would launch sneak attacks year after year.  If terrorist neighbors persisted in waging war and killing your trusting subjects year in and year out, a desperate king’s only option might well be to finally make an example of one of those nations.  By inflicting such horrific death and damage to men, women and children alike, that king might hope to avert future bloodshed. It was a scorched earth strategy. Today it’s called the Nuclear Option.

Indeed, that rationale explains God’s command that the Amalekites would perpetually live under a divine curse.  When the Israelites first emerged from bondage in Egypt, they were weakened, broken in spirit, unskilled in desert survival, and utterly defenseless. The Amalekites not only chose to attack but came sweeping in from the rear.  This enabled them to first slaughter the stragglers- the lame, the sickly, the aging, and children leading flocks of livestock- before coming face to face with the armed men who could fight.  The divine curse that God decreed after that heartless act extended to future Amalekites like Samuel’s King Agag and Queen Esther’s Haman, a descendant of Agag. God made an example of them for the sake of other nations.

Some of the things that unsettle our tender sensibilities in the Twenty-first Century actually saved lives amid the cruel and uncivilized laws of survival of 800 BC.  And some of the ethics of the Hebrew people, so foreign to us, were actually advanced behaviors in a world where human trafficking, warfare, plural marriage, racism, and oppression of women were protected by the laws and traditions of most societies.

When Jesus taught us, “Judge not that you be not judged,” he did not suggest we should not evaluate good or bad behavior.  In context, he actually taught that we should not impose a standard for others that we would never apply to ourselves; do not judge with unjust standards lest you be condemned the same way. It’s a principle to keep in mind when we’re tempted to disparage Samson or Samuel or David.

Bible heroes met God on the mountaintops but they had to live their lives in the valleys. So do we.  Why not learn from the lives our God’s ancient people without disqualifying them because they didn’t live long enough to learn from us?  I always take along some grace when I journey through the Bible; the kind of grace Jesus carried for carnivores like me.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

FIGHT CLUBOur beloved battle hymn foresees the Lord returning to trample “on the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”  Well if that’s a fair description of the end of time, then surely we have arrived.  Those bitter grapes are everywhere, indeed, the world is a vineyard.  Without a doubt, we are awaiting the last trump!  (Don’t scream at me: that last word is not capitalized.)

Here is the USA, fight clubs still sweep the country, not among gangs like MS-13, but championed by young, well-educated, urban professionals.  College students riot after being offended by trigger words.  Popular politicians are shouted down and hounded off the stage at town hall meetings.  If your business flight isn’t delayed while stubborn passengers are pummeled and dragged off the aircraft, it may be forced to land prematurely due to a furious passenger assailing the flight attendant. Meanwhile, social media like Facebook and Twitter are so charged with rage, insults, and vitriol that ordinary people are afraid to sign on for their daily dose of baby pictures.

What gives?  C.S. Lewis offered a precise diagnosis of today’s world three-quarters of a century ago.  “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither.”

There’s a powerful idea we’ve abandoned, and it begins with trans.  Does anything come to mind? Not transsexual: but transcendent.  People who cherish transcendent values can live with disappointment and adversity in life because their spiritual convictions lift them above the moments of mundane frustration. Because they believe in heaven, in divine wisdom, and in the power of love, spiritual people literally transcend the down times by trusting Providence and practicing delayed gratification. People of true faith believe many of the best things in life are invisible at the moment, and other treasures are awaiting the fullness of time.

Materialists, on the other hand, expect satisfaction every day because they live in a world filled with things; and things are supposed to bring us joy.  Who wouldn’t be happy with the newest smartphone, the most gargantuan HD TV,  and a futuristic home where smart devices do everything for them effortlessly?  Apparently, that’s not nearly enough for most people.  Look again at the seething multitudes all around you.  To paraphrase a former president, “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to smartphones or social media or antipathy to people who don’t agree with their ideas as a way to explain their frustrations.”

People who hope only in the here and now have no patience with delay and defeat, even the most fleeting variety.  And therein is found the crux of our national despair.  We suffer from the most powerful forms of addiction; big money and big government.  And now that both of us have failed us miserably, we are left in the misery of withdrawal.  We traded away the transcendent spiritual truths that could lift our souls from the Slough of Despond.  Very soon, perhaps an old cliche’ will begin to resonate once again: Jesus is the Answer.  The world is not enough… seriously.

Lift up the Cross!

 

BEHIND BARS

I lost my enthusiasm for capital punishment just about a decade ago.  For most of my life, I had assumed the death penalty must be okay because it has the Old Testament stamp of approval.  Then as I was doing some research for a Bible Study on John 8, Christ’s defense of the woman caught in adultery struck a nerve.

Don’t misunderstand: Christ never condemns capital punishment.  He came to fulfill the Old Covenant, not abandon it.  But when a “lynch mob” approaches the Lord asking for his verdict on a woman they’ve just caught in adultery, he apparently notices the injustice the narrative makes so clear.  If the woman is guilty because she was actually caught in the act of adultery, where is the man who was obviously in bed with her?

Jesus seems to affirm capital punishment when he suggests it’s okay to follow through and stone her.  But he adds that telling caveat, “But let one of you who has never sinned cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)  This underscores the problem of selective condemnation; a practice he denounces on other occasions as well.

  • Don’t condemn others for sinful behavior you practice as well.
  • Don’t destroy someone else for an offense you have often committed in your heart.
  • And of course, the clear implication here is that we shouldn’t execute a woman caught in adultery if we allow her partner in sin to walk away in freedom.

To borrow a phrase from American liberalism, capital punishment should be legal but rare.  (I feel the same way about war.) It should be rare because compelling DNA evidence and reliable eye witnesses are frequently not available.  Because of faulty memories, political pressures, and lingering racism, it’s apparently not so hard for an innocent man to find himself locked away on in an American prison.  It’s bad enough to lose twenty years of your life for a crime you didn’t commit; worse still to be rushed off into eternity with no chance to ever correct that injustice.

Of all people, Christians should be most sensitive to the possibility of an innocent victim being wrongly convicted and sentenced to lethal injection or a firing squad or a cross.  It happened to Jesus.  What’s more, in recent years groups like the Innocence Project have seen dozens of wrongfully accused men and women finally set free from prisons- some from death row.

I suppose extreme measures could still be legal for profound cruelty that goes beyond the pale.  A civilized society might decide to execute serial killers or terrorists who brutally murder scores of innocent victims.  A nation does have divine authority to wage war and execute justice in defense of its citizens.  One might draw a bright clear line in the sand, but the standards for imposing capital punishment should be more bullet proof than those for sending someone to prison. The evidence should leave no doubt the defendant is absolutely the one.

So I’m troubled by the news from Arkansas that eight inmates are about to be executed in 11 days before the state’s supply of potassium chloride expires.  The governor says it’s necessary; that many of these men have occupied death row cells for more than twenty years.  Perhaps, but it looks like a celebration of death by government. It naturally arouses the dread that destroying eight human lives with a hasty deadline in mind must surely increase the odds that a wrongly accused man gets the ax.

Okay, maybe that’s emotional, but I get emotional about unborn babies as well. We’re talking about human life here. And it seems to me that the sanctity of human life relates to more than the issue of who is responsible for what happens to a human in a womb. Being pro-life means I also care about what happens to a human being in a death row holding cell. If there is a chance he’s an innocent man, it’s unjust and irreverent to impose a penalty that could never be corrected.

Lift up the Cross!

BOOMER AND MILL

As an active member of the Baby Boomer Generation, I often find myself arguing that most Millennials are not slackers (or hippies, just in case anyone remembers those psychedelic snowflakes from the Boomer years.)  Not only that, I think they’re making smarter choices than those of us in my generation did. We need to stop slamming them and offer a little appreciation.

Yesterday I read an article about the recent boom in toys being sold to adults. There are so many grown-ups snapping up Lego sets and other childhood favorites that a new term has evolved: kidults are voting age people who play with toys.  Naturally, the writer quickly injected that Millennials are leading the pack. That’s nuts!  What about all those Boomers and Builders who attend coloring parties and order their coloring books and crayons from Amazon?  I haven’t heard anyone call them slackers or brats.

A lot of Millennials have good instincts and are growing up into awesome adult men and women.  Consider just the latest evidence of a rebounding generation:

  • 58% of younger Millennial males want to be the breadwinners in their homes so their wives can stay home to raise their children.  Guys in my generation wanted so many expensive toys like boats and sporty cars that we nearly kicked out wives out of the house to find jobs. (Council on Contemporary Families research.)
  • A growing number of Millennial females are ambitious to stay home and raise their children.  What a novel new idea: children raised by their own parents. Many Boomer women were convinced they could have it all but found out too late that actually means a little of everything and a lot of unsupervised children.
  • The Millennial pastor tends to stay in the same church longer than pastors from earlier generations did.  (Thom Rainer/ Lifeway Research) Millennials are less likely to demand instant success and are more likely to sacrifice in order to start new churches in order to do things right from the ground up.  In my generation, the paradigm was a ladder that one climbed by jumping to a larger church every 3 years.  Longer pastorates will lead to healthier churches.

History doesn’t advance in straight lines.  That’s why nations don’t decay, decline, and go to Hell in three or four generations.  Just when you think The End of a civilization is at hand, you have a generation like the Millennials who put the brakes on decadence and irresponsible behavior and navigate a U-turn to retrieve lost treasure from the past.

Millennial Americans will come around on those questions of sexual ethics… just like every other generation has done.  But unlike their parents, the idealists in this maligned generation have the heart and convictions to build stronger families, healthier churches, and a more dynamic society.

It’s always darkest just before the dawn.  Thank God for the “entitled” generation and lift up the Cross!

Lights Out!

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Have you ever awakened from a nightmare so jarring that your heart continued to race even after you opened your eyes?  What now?  Like most people, you probably reached over and switched on the lamp.  Within two seconds, those clarifying beams of light had cast out the darkness and vaporized those lingering gremlins.

Jesus called his followers the light of the world.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he explained.  “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5: 14 – 15)

The Lord has a simple point: don’t conceal your power.  And yet we do.  For instance:

I bury the light of Christ when I suppose unbelievers need to be reassured I’m just like them.  Where did I get this deadly idea that being transparent means I show off my sin nature?  I struggle to be completely inoffensive by laughing off self-destructive behavior, winking at temptations, and self-censoring every honest word that might possibly reveal how differently I see life!

  • The problem here is that unchurched people don’t really fear that Christians aren’t like them.
  • They are actually convinced we are just like them- except that we pretend to believe quirky, obscure religious ideas that make us strangely nervous when we talk about them. Nobody takes that stuff seriously.

My witness is more compelling when neighbors and co-workers realize I care about them even though I am quite different from them.  Because I believe the most important assets in life are spiritual and supernatural, I reject materialism.  I am completely convinced that I’m going to live forever- just like Jesus promised those who live in him.  I believe that God has high expectations for me, so I make demands of myself even as I show grace to everybody else.  I can smile through my tears because God is in control.

My unchurched neighbors don’t really believe Christians are never sad: they just think we’re hypocrites with synthetic smiles.  It’s harder to dismiss my story when it’s apparent that I sometimes experience sadness or frustration: I just refuse to be ruled by misguided emotions.

No wonder multitudes aren’t streaming into American churches for answers: they don’t have any questions!  We in the Church have convinced ourselves that the only way to get close to lost people is to turn off the light!  “They don’t know Jesus! Hurry! Lights out!” I dare not let them see that I’m different!  Put a bag on it!

That’s why lost people assume we’re just like them- except that we go to churches on Sunday mornings to talk about religious ideas we don’t honestly believe. Why would they possibly aspire to change anything to become more like us?  In our hearts, it’s painfully clear we’re already just like them.

Let’s you and I do something radical and unsettling for Easter.  Tell someone you care about that you’re going to live forever!  Smile and trust God’s promises even when your heart is broken. Define what holy really means and then explain why it hurts so good. Let your transparent life raise questions in the hearts and minds of the clueless.

Turn on the Light and leave ’em wondering!

Lift up the Cross!

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