Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘contend for the faith’ Category

Show Me My Cross

CROSS AT DREAMSTIME

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  It was true in the second century when Tertullian first penned those words, and it’s been the experience of saints somewhere on the planet in every age since.

In his profound spiritual reflection, Silence and Beauty,  Makoto Fujimura reconsiders the awe and the agony of the Christian community which took root in Japan in the 16th Century. The number of believers there soon reached 300,000, a feat so amazing that missionary Francis Xavier concluded Japan, of all nations in Asia, was “most suited for Christianity.”  When the backlash came, it was brutal, demonic, and devastating.

Fujimura, himself a believer, describes a monument to 26 Christian martyrs from that era of darkness that descended on the church: a few missionaries, some adult believers, and two boys, Ibaraki and Anthony, the older being 13 years old. This particular group of believers was force-marched 480 miles from their home to a hill in Nagasaki.  The ordeal began with their ears and noses being cut off, and it concluded with twenty-six crosses lined up and waiting at their destination.  The tormentors must have been certain this nightmarish ordeal would bring about a change of heart.  They had miscalculated.

As soon as they arrived, one of the battered lads stepped forward and called out, “Show me my cross.” The other boy followed, “And show me mine.”

In spite of our reverence for the cross, many of us in the West scarcely consider the power and the impact of suffering for righteousness.  In our age of convenience and consumer values, the idea of enduring affliction for a higher cause seems unnecessary at best and maybe even ungodly at worst. Why would I do that?  And yet a friend described for me just last night how she slept on the floor beside her husband’s sickbed night after night as he lay dying, just to be near him in his final hours. How commonly we skip meals when a family member is suffering.  Many of us understand bearing discomfort for loved ones, and yet for Jesus…?

The Book of Job can be a perplexing struggle, but our problem is not just the poetry.  The ancient hero’s dark night of the soul seems like utter folly to us.  We throw up our hands, asking why God’s people should suffer bad things; finding no answer.  In fact, that’s not the question God addresses in this familiar story.  Job could never have discerned that his misery had resulted from a conversation in Heaven. Neither can you or I detect spiritual forces and purposes that turn the wheels of heaven just out of sight.

Job’s story asks a more compelling question: Do we really love God, or do we simply use him for His blessings?  The old man clung to God even as his earthly assets went down the drain.  Later in the New Testament, Paul was convinced he could know Christ better by  bonding with him through his own afflictions.  “I want to know Him..!” (Philippians 3:10)

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost sight of Heaven.  It’s easy to become addicted to the comforts of here and now; offended by anything less that The American Dream.  Then I recall the promise of Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  The most splendid experience in that kingdom will be his presence.

Scripture teaches the saints to pray for gold refined by fire.  Many of us might find it helpful to take a look at Silence and Beauty; or just read the Book of Job again, more slowly this time.

Lift up the Cross!

Hacksaw Ridge:Blood & Beatitudes

hacksaw-ridgeMel Gibson’s latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, was a religious experience for me.  You’d probably never expect to hear anything like that about a war movie so agonizingly violent. But there’s a cross in the title when it appears on the screen.  And the Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of the story.

Perhaps you already know the plot.  Desmond Doss is a devout follower of Christ, a Seventh Day Adventist who carries a Bible with him when he goes off to World War II. Because he has taken a  vow never to touch a weapon, he enlists as a conscientious objector and volunteers to serve as a medic.  Remarkably, the movie manages to celebrate Doss’ principled refusal to fight, without ever demeaning the character or convictions of the warriors all around him who do risk their lives to wage the war for freedom.

Amid the carnage of a just war, Hacksaw Ridge brings to life some of the most noble ideas of the gospel: turning the other cheek, blessing those who hate you, praying for those who despitefully use you, demonstrating mercy to your enemies. You’d never expect to see forgiveness play such a prominent role in a drama so charged with gunfire and explosions! And I cannot remember when any other major motion picture has portrayed the call of God with so much majesty and respect.

As the heroic Army medic roams a vast battlefield of terror and death, all the while praying, “Lord, let me save one more,” all I could see through my tears was a man carrying a cross. I was jolted by the reality of how little courage is required for my level of sacrifice on the battlefields of life today.  Each of us is called to pick up a cross and follow.

Everybody’s different: Hacksaw Ridge may be too bloody for you. I would suggest it might be worth occasionally closing your eyes to let one saint’s testimony rock your world.  I expect to encourage all the leaders at our church to experience this story on the big screen. It’s truly a keeper.

Lift up the Cross!

 

Deck Chairs on the Titanic

make-disciplesWhere did Christians get the trite idea that we’re supposed to change the world? If we can all agree on anything about the Book of Revelation, it is this: the church doesn’t reform the world.  To the contrary, John makes it clear the world will get worse and worse until God finally brings the curtain down.  Like it or not, our unsinkable world will one day go down.

Think about it: Joseph was empowered by God to become the second most powerful man in Egypt, but he didn’t even change Egypt, much less the neighboring world.  David led Israel to become a stronger nation, but certainly not a center of spiritual revival.  Daniel saw God do mighty miracles but Babylon remained a bastion of paganism till the day it fell.

God never directs us to change the world.  Isaiah dismissed the nations as a mere drop in the bucket to God. Rather, Christ commissions us to make disciples and win souls. Winning a Christian majority may eventually change the spiritual worldview of a nation, but not necessarily.  The largest church in the world continues to thrive in communist China where oppression has recently intensified. Regimes decline. Fashions fade.  Souls last forever.

Enter the words “world” + “change” in a Bible concordance.  What you’ll find is Romans 12:2, which admonishes us “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  The only guaranteed change that happens in the world occurs when Jesus transforms the individual men and women he has saved by grace through faith.  How will they hear without a messenger?

I am convinced the vision of miraculously changing the world has become a destructive paradigm, at least for our generation of saints.  It shifts our emphasis to political elections and social activism.

  • The quickest way to change the world is to elect a new president or improve the economy, right?  If you can’t figure that one out, just Google “Moral Majority.”  Political changes are easy come, easy go: except they don’t come that easy.
  •  In addition, we tend to be sidetracked and enraged by the moral decline all around us. We spit in the eye of the malign culture and its captives, rather than steeling ourselves to grow outstanding disciples in a lifetime struggle against decay and hostility.  We have to become better planters.

One of my heroes, William Tyndale, eventually had a huge impact on the world but it was generations after his violent death at the hands of the government.  His English translation of the New Testament enabled simple farm boys to sing the scriptures as they went about plowing and harvesting.  In time, his ministry really did change the world but his goal had simply been to make disciples and win souls.

God is big enough to change the world in his own season.  The task for us is less daunting: share the gospel and win souls.  Entrust the gospel to disciples who are trained to share it with others.

There must be a reason Revelation is the final book in the Bible.  The closing four chapters guarantee that God will change the world forever.  Until we finally reach chapter 19, the church must persevere under fire and preach the undiluted but often unpopular gospel. Change will come in God’s time.  We tirelessly make disciples one soul at a time.

Lift up the Cross!

The Rising: Has it Begun?

AWAKENINGWhen Bruce Springsteen wrote The Rising, he was thinking mostly about the first responders who ran heroically into peril after 9-11.  But he also sensed there was a resurrection quality to the anthem.  His song came to mind again today as I thought about the Church here in the USA.  After years of decline and discouragement, I have begun to suspect The Rising may well be underway in Christian America.

Millennials have reached their tipping point in regard to marriage.  Just a few months ago, we turned a corner: more of that generation are now married than single. Young Americans have historically shied away from the Church until they have married and begun think about babies.  A friend who is well-known for his research into the church scene sees evidence at the national level that the return of Millennials to Christ and his Kingdom is now beginning to build. They were simply delayed in the journey by their tardy embrace of matrimony.

In the face of so much hostility, the Gospel and followers of Christ are showing up everywhere. Christians have featured prominently in  medal ceremonies at the Olympics in Rio. Michael Phelps reported to ESPN that his high profile recovery and transformed attitude are rooted in his reading of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.  After taking Sundance by storm, The Birth of a Nation comes to the big screen this fall.  The writer/director/star of the film is Nate Parker, an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ.  The NFL and NBA are well known for athletes like Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins, and Stephen Curry, who confess Christ and the power of the Gospel.

No doubt, there’s a difference between a fashion and an awakening.  The Jesus Movement became a fad back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  Pop music celebrated The Spirit in the Sky and love for fellow man. Books and movies were electrified by tales of exorcism and theories from Revelation; but the world was much more inclined toward faith and biblical values back then. The breakthroughs happening today are in absolute defiance of an angry, secular culture.  Believers are beginning to boldly swim against the cultural tide.

There’s a familiar scene in 1 Kings 19 in which we find Elijah  fleeing for his life,  cowering in the wilderness.  He cries out in despair that he’s the last believer left in the land and Jezebel is determined to assassinate him.  God scoffs, and tells his prophet to man up and get back to work.  “I have reserved 7,000 souls who have not bowed down at the altar of Baal.”

After two decades of gloom and doom reports of rising atheism, irreligious young Americans, and declining churches, we who follow Christ in the USA may be a bit like Elijah in his throes of depression: we have forgotten there is always more here than meets the eye.  Yes, Europe has drifted into spiritual death; but Africa is exploding in revival. God may not be finished with America yet.  There is still time to follow the road not taken- the narrow one.

So let’s never stop praying for fire from Heaven.  But let’s not be so discouraged that we fail to see the first signs of spiritual springtime spreading across the land.  I’m looking all around for sparks to shelter and glowing embers that can be fanned into flames.  These may well be the Good Old Days.

Lift up the Cross!

 

Make Believe War

ATTACK AT NICE

Another day, another slaughter at the hands of terrorists.  This time, it’s a beach in France.  This time, the body count is 70 dead and counting.  To no one’s surprise, the heartless executioner was named Mohamed.

No wonder there’s a rising tide of rage against apathetic world leaders.  Once again, President Obama will condemn the violence, insult the coward who did this, and reassure us with promises about ultimate victories.  French President Hollande rushed into a press conference to comfort the helpless masses, and assure them France will be stronger after this.  Of course, we heard the same kind of platitudes after the last massacre of innocents, but it’s clear nothing has changed. Talk is cheap, particularly the kind of glib rhetoric that offers empty promises and meaningless slogans.  The savages are waging a real war with deadly weapons with a vengeance.  The nations have responded with pretend warfare, verbal assaults and pleas for peace.

But this is not a political blog.  As I listened to all the same, old tired promises and empty threats on my radio while driving to work this morning, it struck me that you could say the same thing about the spiritual war being waged by the Church today. Here in the USA, atheists, pagans, and radical activists continue to mount a shock-and-awe campaign against the foundations of civilization.  We have lost all the battles for social values: the right to pray in public events, the sacred right of the unborn to live, conjugal marriage, and even biological gender.  But that’s all happening because we are losing on a larger, more strategic front: the hearts and minds and souls of men and women.

This week, the Pew Foundation released polling data that indicates non-religious voters are now the largest voting bloc in the USA- outnumbering both Protestants and Catholics. Their number has increased by 50% just in the last eight years. For details, click here.

Every Sunday, pastors and Christian leaders across the land stand in pulpits to assure us of the certainty of our victory. Does that sound familiar?  We are waging a spiritual war. Our cause is just. Souls are at stake.  The weapons of our warfare are not man-made, but they are mighty.  The battle is the Lord’s.

I’m not questioning the Lord’s willingness to fight, but isn’t He supposed to have an army?  He’s the general- not the infantry, right?  He’s the head: that means there is a body complete with hands and feet and eyes and a mouth, right?  There’s no doubt that Christ will finally win the war, but if you and I carelessly forfeit millions of souls of men and women in this particular battle, that’s on us.

Reports describe the street along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice last night as too ghastly to televise. There were corpses everywhere- bloody and mutilated, some only children. If only we had eyes to survey the streets and buildings around the world where the spiritual carnage numbers in the hundreds of thousands: people who could have been saved but, tragically, were never reached.  People who are still moving, but are doomed. Many won’t even know what hit them.

It’s counter productive to be angry at “them.”  They are lost and confused as well. The problem is “us.”  We should be angry at ourselves.  And then we should repent and cry out to God for grace and mercy and power.  And then we should resolve to stop the make believe war and the head fakes:to go risk something, to engage in a spiritual skirmish for souls.

The battle is the Lord’s. Yeah, yeah, yeah: but we are his Special Forces. It’s clearly going to require a work of divine race to get us off our butts and into battle. Please join me in praying for courage, vision and fire from Heaven.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

Resistance Thinking (2)

LOVE OF GOD

Just yesterday, most Americans had never heard of gender dysphoria; and transsexuals were found mostly in schlock movies like the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Today we are warned there is a national epidemic for which the only cure is the wholesale renunciation of the male-female concept of gender.  Oh yes, and all individuals must be free to enter the restroom or locker room that fits the way they identify today.

This is not going to go well.  Progressives will continue to taunt traditionalists that only bigots and haters seriously care who’s sitting in the adjacent restroom stall. And alarmed parents will reply that only perverts and fools would demand that males who self-identify as females must be allowed to shower with adolescent girls.  And then a few religious folks will cap it off by snarling, “I’m a Christian and this is a sin against God.”

Last time, we acknowledged that it’s not very constructive to wade into a political debate firing Bible verses.  If my adversaries are unbelievers, my scripture doesn’t resonate with them; in fact, it proves I’m in the narrow minded religious minority.  A more rational approach might be to begin with the medical evidence that we are over dramatizing an adolescent phase that almost always passes, and an emotional disorder that responds to counseling, not surgery. For last week’s blog, click here.

Here’s my second principle for joining this cultural conversation (and many others:) In everything, lead with love.

It’s not helpful to suggest your Christian faith should automatically trump the opinions of other citizens who happen to be atheists or a Unitarians.  But it’s downright destructive when you make that statement with a condescending glare. We are the people who love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are the ones who turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and are controlled by the love of God.  Even atheists who know nothing about our theology realize that we boast about love that is supernatural. They are right, of course.

We are not allowed to resent people who disagree with us- even radical activists who hope to undermine our traditions and deny us our civil rights.  We cannot hate our fellow Americans, even if we rightfully believe they are drilling holes in their end of our national life boat.

Paul leaves us a vivid example in Acts 17.  As he walks through Athens where pagan statues clutter every street and public pavilion, the great evangelist’s heart is broken. Scripture says his spirit is provoked.  What’s more, some of the intellectuals actually insult him, mocking his barbaric accent.  In response, Paul greets them warmly, quotes their favorite pagan poets, and respectfully warns them that the age of repentance has now dawned. They should turn to Christ.  He never rebukes them: he builds bridges.

This principle also applies to discussions of race, Black Lives Matter, and policemen who feel they have targets on their backs.  In having conversations with black Americans or frustrated law enforcement officials, I don’t have to win some kind of debate.  Trying to understand another person’s concerns is not the same thing as agreeing with them. I want to ask thoughtful questions, listen respectfully, and then plant positive but subversive images of which will linger in their minds long after they walk away.  The love of Christ lays the best foundation for cultivating haunting conversations.

More next time.  In the meantime, lift up the Cross!

 

God Turns the Page

RUSSIAN SAINTS

God has such a sense of humor!  While many believers in the USA have been brought to despair by their choices in an upcoming presidential election, one can hardly believe what’s happening in the once “godless” Land of the Tsars.  It’s seldom reported here, but there is a nuclear explosion of faith unfolding in Russia!  More than 70% of the Russian people now identify with the Church, and President Vladimir Putin long ago renounced atheism to join the Orthodox Church.

Even as US congregations grope to find their way through the shadow lands of same-sex marriage, transgender restrooms, and mainstream resentment of churches, Russia seems to be in a renaissance of traditional values.  I obviously have no idea how sincere Mr. Putin is in his faith, but here’s what he says about society: “We must protect Russia from that which has destroyed American society.”  He’s talking about anti-Christian secularism.

We have finally bid farewell to that era when the USA was the World Center of Christianity. That doesn’t mean we will never enjoy spiritual revival: I pray that we do.  But it suggests that much bigger movements of God are afoot in distant shores.  The ground beneath us is shifting and powerful forces are driving the Gospel in new directions.

  • The engine of church growth and renewal is relentless in Africa today.  In the face of militant Islam stalking some nations with violence and intimidation, the Christian faith is like a tidal wave of love and worship sweeping across the continent.  There are literally megachurches whose pastors urge members to stay home occasionally so that more new believers can be accommodated in their jammed worship centers.
  • The biggest church in the world is still in China. Recent reports of intense, new political crackdowns on Chinese pastors suggest the saints are once again multiplying at rates considered out of control.
  • In Iran, a vast and growing population of Jesus-followers are worshiping together weekly and quietly awaiting the fall of the hateful Imams.
  • And then there’s Russia…!

Here in the States, we would do well to take our cue from the saints beyond our borders who are rocking this world.  Our destiny does not rest in the hands of either a Democratic insider or a Republican outsider, and we must stop wringing our hands as though God has lost control.  The Lord hasn’t lost any clout, but he may well have lost interest in American churches as flat as a three day old Coke.  The Creator has nothing left to prove: it’s we in the church who have something to prove.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.  Joel 2: 12 – 13

Let’s stop praying for a new candidate in the race, and begin to pray for a new heart in the church.

And lift up the Cross!

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