Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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The Mad Dash for Last

RACING FOR LAST

The difference between music and noise is rhythm.  That’s true whether you listen to hip hop or hymns. Beyond the notes and scales and measures, the basic idea of tempo is so critical that there are more than sixteen different Italian words for the pace of a melody. Allegro makes the heart race with joy, while adagio calls for calm and unhurried tranquility.  The fermata looks like a bird’s eye, and it commands the musician to rest.  The pause is placed there for a purpose.

Rhythm is also the difference between mere existence and a purposeful, satisfying human life.  The Creator who engineered the human body designed it with different speeds for changing seasons, and he not only suggests a regular fermata: he requires it.  The Ten Commandments set aside one whole day each week for a break in the action in order to rest in God.  Later the Gospels recount the life of God’s Son, who extended this invitation to us all: “Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  There’s labor.  But there’s also rest.

That small still voice of God makes a lot of sense when you occasionally detect it, but it’s more commonly drowned out by the roar of 21st Century voices screaming from the bleachers.  Go for it!  Don’t look back!  Do it all night!  No time to Wait!  No stopping us now!  We are a generation hooked on speed. There is no such thing as enough.  We have convinced ourselves that rest is impossible unless we get away.

A friend of mine confesses, “I don’t know how to relax!  Even when I force myself to slow down and do nothing, the things I should be doing make me tense and anxious.”  My buddy has a spiritual problem but his name is Legion. I know this because sometimes I have the same problem.  It’s a heart condition that’s as common as dirt.  But it’s not irreversible.

Sunday was not set apart for the saints because churches needed a whole day for worship.  Rather, the Day of Rest reminds us that human beings need a whole day to renew our spirits, sharpen our focus, re-energize our hearts, and lead families to delight in the Lord.  We need a day to capture visions.  We require a day for reflection on our decisions and dreams of our future.  The Lord’s Day is a testimony: the most important assets in life are produced by God’s labor, not our own.

The idea of pausing to wait upon the Lord is central to everything we do and believe in the Church.  It speaks of our confidence in the Gospel: Christ accomplishing what we can only trust him for.  It underscores our conviction that we are body and soul; that the soul requires nurture as well.  When the French Revolutionaries of 1793 conspired to eradicate the hated Christian Faith once and for all, they abolished the seven day week. Those firebrands were convinced if they could obscure Sunday as just another day, the faith would weaken and die.  It was, of course, their strange new calendar that died, and only twelve years later.  But they were right about one thing: the Lord’s Day should be sacred to his people.

It would probably require another radical revolution to recover that unique role of Sunday here in the USA.  Sadly, the Lord’s Day has become Football Night in America, more associated more with the interceptions than the resurrections. But thinking Christians like you and me would be wise to rediscover the power of reverence and rest; and reclaim the sacred place of Sundays in our lives.  Whenever I discipline myself for stillness simply to be present, I am surprised anew by the presence of God, who has been waiting in the stillness all along.  Shabbat.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

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Nobody Dies Here Today!

A DROWNING PREVENTED

“Is there a shark in the water?  What’s everyone looking at?”  The spectators on Panama City Beach were transfixed by the unfolding horror of an entire family being swept out to sea. Nine members of the Ursrey family had been caught up in a powerful riptide and cast helplessly into fifteen feet of dark, turbulent waves. Their cries of terror barely reached the shore.

A few men rushed into the sea and began to link arms.  Quickly others went racing out to join them.  Within minutes, a human chain began to take shape in the midst of the chaos. People who could not swim joined hands in a surf rising to their necks. Swimmers paddled out to the end to link arms.  Soon eighty men and women had instinctively orchestrated a human lifeline nearly 100 yards long.  They reached the imperiled victims and, one by one, passed them safely back to dry land.

One of the older members of the Ursrey clan suffered a heart attack but recovered at a nearby hospital.  Another swimmer was treated for a broken arm. Everyone went home alive.

The whole scene struck me as such a vivid picture of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Most of the eighty individuals who made the rescue possible could have done nothing on their own.  Many could not even swim, and others could not have managed the tide that day. But united in one great purpose, each did what he or she could do and lives were snatched from despair and destruction.

Jessica Simmons and her husband were among the bystanders who were so quick to respond.  Grabbing an abandoned boogie board she’d just spotted on the beach, she went rushing to the scene, ignoring the grim voices warning, “Don’t go out there!”  She had already resolved, “Those people are not drowning today. It’s not going to happen.  We will get them out.”

Jessica and her seventy-nine fellow heroes were driven by something sorely missing in the Church today: urgent compassion.  Death and condemnation are not the most effective conversation starters in reaching out to our lost friends and neighbors, but those two painful realities should quietly drive us to talk, to intervene, to build bridges. You and I are surrounded by people at risk but we typically seem far more concerned about sunscreen and cold drinks than the fate of people we love.

I’ve gotta resolve in my heart: “Nobody goes to Hell if I can help it.  It’s not going to happen.  I’ve got this.”  I have to pray, drawing down some fire from Heaven.  And then I have to find opportunities and step up to say something about Christ or His Kingdom.

Thankfully, Roberta Ursrey can’t even recall the most terrifying moments of her ordeal at sea.  But she easily remembers the chain of determined faces and the strong hands that tirelessly passed her family members to safety.  “These people were God’s angels that were in the right place at the right time,” she said afterward.”  If most people don’t believe in angels anymore, it’s because they don’t see them very often.  As Jesus followers, you and I can fix that problem.

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all.”  2 Corinthians 5:14.

Lift up the Cross!

For the actual news report, see nwfdailynews.com

 

Don’t Look Now, But…

 

ISIS CRUCIFIXION

When 22 people died outside a concert hall in Manchester, England, the media coverage was wall to wall.  The cry went up that something must be done! Journalists followed the investigation.  Press briefings were scheduled regularly. With broken hearts, we pored over color photographs of the victims, many of them only children, and we listened to bystanders describe their horror.  The world grieved as the story unfolded for a week.

Five days later, 29 Christians in Egypt died when terrorists attacked their bus. Forty-two others were seriously injured and the assassins got away.  That story vanished in less than 48 hours.  No color photos.  No interviews with authorities. No tragic details.

Here’s what you probably never heard.  The Christian group of parents, grandparents, and children were traveling in two buses to pray at a monastery. Their vehicles were stopped by terrorists outside the town of Minya.  After the buses were surrounded by killers, passengers on one of the buses were forced to exit the bus one by one.  As each reached the door to face masked gunmen, they were asked, “Are you Muslim?” None of them were. Each was then given a chance to renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam.

As each passenger confessed Christ and refused to convert, he was dragged a few feet away to be killed by either a shot in the head or a slit throat.  One at a time, nineteen adults, and ten children were ordered to become Muslims or die.  One by one they were instantly murdered.  The criminals then fired on the group in the second bus, injuring 42, before speeding away to safety.

Why are tragedies like the one in Manchester more interesting or important than massacres like the one in Minya, Egypt?  I suppose it could be racism.  Or maybe we only care about tragedies that involve celebrities and beautiful people.  But I seriously believe two reasons are more likely.

The media run away from Christian martyrs because they are a powerful witness to the Christian faith.  When random concert-goers fall prey to terror, in the wrong place at the wrong time, it makes the rest of us feel sad but lucky.  But when Christians die because they refuse to renounce their faith, it speaks to the power and the freedom ordinary people discover in Christ.  No sane person willingly dies for something he knows is a lie. Historically, seeing the deaths of Christian martyrs has inspired others to follow the Savior as well.  The secular media wants no part of anything like that!  So a vague headline about people dying in a bus attack manages to cover the bad news without accentuating the Good News.

Christians in America turn their backs as well because stories about martyrs in other lands reflect poorly on the quality our faith here in the West.  In persecution lands, believers risk their lives and the safety of their children to attend worship services and even public prayer times. They worship Christ in the open, fully aware that churches and Christian gatherings are soft targets. But in the Land of the Free, we casually skip worship on Sundays to take our kids to soccer practice or recover from a mild headache.  Just imagine, if youth sports leagues existed in Minya, Egypt, those unfortunate children could have saved their lives by skipping church and going to play soccer instead!

In America, churches report that “regular worship attendance” is now defined as twice a month.  Think about it: when worshipers in Egypt and China become as committed to Christ as we are, the rate of martyrdom could be slashed by half!

The most difficult question facing the American church today is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  We already know the answer to that question: character, faith and the purposes of God.  The harder question is this one: What is a Christian, anyway?

Jesus said no one can come after him without first being willing to deny self, pick up a cross, and follow.  In the religious ghetto of American life, that particular Bible verse is just about as welcome as stories of Egyptian children who are willing to die violently before disappointing Jesus.

To hear the companion message, click Waging Peace

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

Do You Believe in Miracles?

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!

Don’t Get Mad, Get a Life

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!

 

God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

Childlike Faith vs Childish Religion

childlike-faith

Kids take the winding path when adults choose the short cut.

Children wish they could make time move faster, but grown ups want to slow it down.

Little guys would rather play than eat. Big people want their meals on time.

And none of those distinctions were in the mind of Christ when he coached his budding apostles, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)  When the Lord called for childlike faith, he had a specific quality in mind which he explained with his next statement: humility.

That is, kids realize they’re  small and need the care of more powerful individuals. That’s why toddlers become so clingy and insecure when one parent is away: they want as much adult care as possible.  As a result, little kids are comfortable being out of control.  Sure, there are those terrible two’s and occasional tantrums, but kids spend most of their time living comfortably under the authority of bigger people.

New Testament faith is the cultivation of that kind of dependence among the children of God.  Have you ever noticed how often people of faith are compared to children in the Bible?  I’m thinking children of Israel; the warning about causing one of God’s little ones to stumble; the directive to call upon your Father who is in Heaven.  Have you ever wondered why the model prayer set forth by Jesus includes a plea that God will provide us with our daily bread each day?

Childlike faith is the recognition of my scale in the universe: small, lacking in resources, and dependent on outside intervention from someone more powerful. Turning to God is not a last resort for people of faith; it’s the first line of defense in a world that seems seriously out of our control!

I have come to believe that’s why awe and wonder are so lacking in the Christian Faith of this particular generation.  Awe is a combination of love, fear, and surprise that leads to reverence.  An awesome motion picture leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence.  An awesome rocket launch leaves masses gazing quietly at the empty sky. Moments of wonder leave us feeling small; speechless in the presence of something vast and beyond our reach.

The trouble with grown ups today is that we have fallen in love with devices we believe can give us complete control.  My smart phone gives me mastery of my calendar, my photographs, favorite music, plus instant access to all my friends wherever they are.  Alexa orders flowers for my wife and turns the AC up or down!  That sense of personal power is a carefully curated illusion, but an illusion all the same.

In fact, cherished relationships can crash and burn quite suddenly- often completely apart from our actions.  Circumstances change, health conditions spiral downward, finances go south, best laid plans hit the wall, and cars come crashing through restaurant windows. Just last month a friend diagnosed with Stage IV cancer early in December was gone to be with God by Christmas Eve!   In the most important areas of life, the only thing I can affect is my own behavior; which can often seem useless at best.

Childlike faith doesn’t chafe at the authority of God.  Neither does it need to understand what God is thinking when he takes a particular course of action. Children learn to deal patiently with major decisions whose only explanation is “because I said so.”  So do children of God.  Because unless we are converted to childlike faith, we will never enter the Kingdom.

Take some time to be dazzled by the presence of God and the timeless power of His Holy Word.  Go out of your way to offer God true worship this week.  And lift up the Cross!

For last week’s message, The Trouble with Grown Ups, click here.

 

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