Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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Never Die

DEAD MAN WALKING

“We will make death optional.”  That’s the promise of some trendy research scientists who met in Silicon Valley not long ago.  The New Yorker described the chatter at a cocktail party where millions of dollars were being raised to fund the effort.  “We can end aging forever.”

It turns out that writer wasn’t hopeful we’ll ever actually see the God Pill that has generated such hype.  It would necessarily be produced by the pharmaceutical industry.  And the only way Big Pharma makes the big bucks is through healing diseases.  It defies logic and human nature that they might create a pill that would send them all out of business!  Let not your heart be troubled.

Think about this: the longer you stay on the Earth, the longer you’re away from Heaven.  I mean, I’m happy to do my duty here and put in my time: maybe 80  years or possibly 100.  But I’ve got bigger plans.

Last week at a neighborhood market, our checkout line was delayed endlessly by a customer with coupons, and a handwritten check, and lots of questions about prices.  As I finally reached the cashier, she shrugged and said, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long.”

I smiled and replied, “It’s okay.  I’m going to live forever.”  And I wasn’t being sarcastic.

That’s the ultimate fulfillment of the Christian Faith, is not?  We’re not here to learn how to have glam relationships or make tons of money.  We weren’t sent here to party or maintain tanned hardbodies.  Even pagans can do all those things without a mustard seed of faith or even a molecule of worship!  We’re here on TDY, to represent the Kingdom until we get to go home.

What was it Jesus told his grieving friend Martha? “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”  Call me crazy: I believe it. (John 11: 25 – 26) 

Eternal Life is not some spiritualized myth wrapped up in a paradox to calm our anxieties. It’s why the first century Christians were willing to die at the hands of angry Jews and corrupt Romans.  They didn’t forfeit anything: they were trading up for something better.

  • It’s why you and I can turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute us, give to any who ask, and confess Christ even in the face of execution.
  • It’s why we don’t mind walking away from privileges, pleasures or property here: because God will overcompensate us there.

The way some church people suppress all mention of Heaven and the great hereafter makes you wonder what they seriously believe.  There’s no doubt what Paul believed.  “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 17 – 19)

I’m not going to hold my breath until Silicon Valley delivers the God Pill.  By the grace of God, I’ve gotten to know the God-Man.  When life finally gives me its worst, the LORD is prepared to offer me His Best.  There’s no greater confidence than that.

So don’t be ashamed to let your neighbors and co-workers know what gives you so much confidence and joy.  It’s not because you go to church.  It’s because of what you’ve been promised by the guy who started The Church. (The One who made Sunday famous!)

You can listen to the companion message that inspired this blog.  Click Never Die.

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!

Learning to Live in the Mystery

living-in-the-mysteryPredestination may be the most offensive word in the Bible.  I know what you’re thinking: the Bible is full of words that offend one faction or another. What about incest, submission for wives, or the use of abomination to describe sexual activities now accepted by law?  The difference is that the mere mention of predestination can instantly create emotional rancor among saints who otherwise agree on nearly every other scriptural idea. For some reason, it can get church people riled up. It can send otherwise serene pastors into denunciation mode.

You don’t have to be a Calvinist (I’m not,) to recognize the idea that God selects some people in advance is clearly taught in Scripture.  “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” That is the clear teaching of Romans 8:29. There’s no question about God sealing some in advance.  The real debate centers on what is meant by “those he foreknew.”

  • Some suppose it means God knew them in an exclusive way.   That is, God knew some with a familiarity or a preference he did not express for others. Reformed theologians support this with verses like Romans 9:13, “Esau  I hated, but Jacob I loved.”
  • Others understand that an omniscient God can know in advance who will someday trust him, so he predestines those people- the ones already on track to someday choose him. Advocates of this viewpoint point to  John 3:16, the promise that God loves the whole world so much that Jesus came to die for them all.

It’s important for the saints to remember that there are serious men and women of great faith and integrity on both sides of the issue.  There are no ulterior motives on either side; no one attempting to distort clear teaching in order to water down the truth or justify some old sin now in fashion again.  The recognized voices in both camps root their convictions entirely in scripture.

I happen to be one of those who believe that God knows in advance who will eventually trust him, and that he somehow seals them ahead of time.  But I have huge respect for Christian thinkers who don’t agree: there’s absolutely no doubt that John MacArthur and John Piper and David Platt are godly warriors who would love to see the whole world saved. In fact, some of the most outstanding leaders of the Great Awakening could be called Calvinists. The celebrated sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was preached by Jonathan Edwards, an evangelist who was convinced God selects some and deselects others.  He preached to everyone he could get to listen because he had no idea who was elect and who was not.

At Providence, we’re halfway through a series of 12 messages called “Fire and Spirit.”  The main point is that the God of the New Testament is not ashamed of the Old Testament. There are profound mysteries at the heart of our faith.  We can’t boil it down to an outline or a pithy slogan or a tidy formula: the mind of God is too vast for you or me to understand.  That’s why it’s so important that you and I learn to trust God at all times and be comfortable with mystery: the things we can’t comprehend yet.

And when I find that other holy men and women read a particular Bible verse in a way that differs slightly from the way I read it, my first response must not be “What’s wrong with you?”  The central ideas of Jesus Christ and His Gospel are so clearly expressed and so broadly accepted, it’s okay if you and I don’t completely agree on every mysterious idea that awaits us in God’s Word.

No matter what you or I believe about the Elect, only God knows who they are. Neither proponents of Calvin nor advocates or free will can detect them in advance: only after the fact. What’s important for now is that we all cooperate to get the Gospel to every creature. We all agree on that.  Let’s begin there.

To hear Pastor Cole’s companion message on Living in the Mystery, “click here.

Lift up the Cross!

WHY is Not a 4 Letter Word

natural-selection

Why can lead to very, very painful questions, can’t it?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why was my child born with Down’s Syndrome?  Why was my fiancee’ murdered? Why me?

Followers of Christ can welcome ” why” questions, even the most heart wrenching ones. Here’s why: asking why reveals what you really, seriously believe about the origins of life and how we got here.  Just when it seems like everyone you know is celebrating Darwin and embracing the random evolution of the life on Earth, another victim asks why some tragedy has struck, and godless explanations of life on earth get shot to Hell.

If advanced human life is simply the chance result of random, unguided evolution, there is no meaning in life. Don’t even ask.  Love is not a commitment or a calling: it’s a chemical reaction. Family is not a divinely ordained institution: just a group of individuals linked by DNA. And if evolutionary biologists are correct, tragedies are just tough luck.  There is a real possibility that you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there’s no chance it matters.  All you do is pass along genetic material, not even knowing if yours is the good stuff or just junk DNA your descendants will have to overcome!

People who respond to tragedies with “why” questions intuitively know they are created by God, even the ones who insist they are atheists.  The only justification for asking why something bad has happened to you is this underlying conviction that the world was created in an orderly way by a God who is rational and good.  The combination of intelligent design and a loving Creator means there must be a reason why unfair things happen to undeserving people.  In fact, only the idea of divine creation explains the universal belief that some things are not fair and everyone should realize it.  Without a creator God, the ethos of the slime pool is eat or be eaten: it’s lonely at the bottom of the food chain… just not for long.

Your brain looks desperately for meaning in major life events for the same reason it automatically searches for familiar shapes among the clouds in the sky. (That cloud looks like a bowl of spaghetti, doesn’t it?)  Your brain is the product of an orderly creation by a rational God who built meaning into every corner of life.  At my core, I sense I was made by God and He is good.

Genesis 1:31 explains that God finished his work of Creation, paused to gaze at human beings frolicking among the beasts in the Garden, and concluded, “This is very good.” Everything was fulfilling it’s purpose.  And that purpose was light years more elevated than the survival of the fittest.  In the real world, the fittest sometimes give up their lives so the vulnerable can survive.  Evolution can’t explain that either.

If human life is only a matter of chance and time, your family crisis is no more meaningful than a dead sparrow on a windshield.  Extinction happens, folks.  Only faith can give devastated victims a comforting hug and reply, “I don’t know why.  I only know that God is good.” And that resonates with a broken heart.

Why is not a four letter word.  It’s powerful evidence that most of us know more theology than we ever assumed.  Build on it to nudge shattered friends and neighbors toward the One who also gives meaning to life’s joyful moments.

To hear the companion message, GOD + 0 = EVERYTHING, click here,

Lift up the Cross!

7 Ways to Make 2017 Amazing

year-2017New Year’s Resolutions won’t change your life, but new habits will.  Over the last few years, I’ve added some extremely helpful habits to my own life, and I’m working on a couple of new ones for 2017.  If you’re thinking about ways to make the coming year more kingdom-oriented and transformative, here are some power tips I can gladly pass along.

  1. Read through the Bible in twelve months. There are schedules that allow you to advance book by book; others that allow you to read selections from the Old and New Testaments and Psalms every day.  Reading the whole Bible in a year will require discipline, but it will pay big dividends.  You will not only gain new insights into scripture, but your confidence will soar! For resources, click here.
  2. Train to be an Encourager.  Nobody ever receives too much encouragement, and most people could use more.  Be more intentional about noticing good things others do, times when people around you seem down and out.  Make it a point to offer words of kindness or encouragement at least twice a week.
  3. Take a walk with Jesus.  Schedule a couple of hours on a nice day to go off and be alone with the Lord.  Identify a scenic park or some other uplifting location.  Take your Bible and perhaps some quiet music.  Spend two hours walking around, reading from the Word, journaling, and listening for the small, still voice of God.  This is guaranteed to become a day you remember for years! You’ll soon schedule another.
  4. Stop complaining.  Take this a week at a time: just promise yourself you won’t complain about anything- not even the weather.  When you find yourself tempted, pause and pray or find something worthy of praise.  Be  relentless in shutting out all forms of complaint for one full week.  Then do it for another week… and another.
  5. Drink more water. The Bible says wonderful things about water and even compares Eternal Life to it.  Let the water cleanse your body and remind you that Jesus is truly the only water that allows the one who drinks to never thirst again.  Put a few bottles of the wet stuff in your fridge and drink it three times a day.
  6. Take notes in worship.  Write down great ideas that arise while you’re praising God. Take notes on pertinent ideas from the message.  You can collect them and review them later, or you can toss them.  Just the practice of writing things down will make the event more memorable and will help you listen constructively.
  7. Measure your prayer life and increase it 20%.  Set aside a week to actually inventory how often you pray, and which times and settings are more helpful.  Then set a goal of 20% more time in prayer, and train yourself to take advantage of the times of day that are more conducive to prayer.  Go for variety: use lists once in a while, read from the Psalms and other prayer books, pray aloud some times and write your prayers down on other occasions.  Grow your prayer life and watch your walk with the Lord become more satisfying and productive. God listens!  It’s really true.

I don’t think about these things as self improvement.  Rather, I see them as self surrender. I am looking for new ways to open myself up to God’s grace and allow more of his character and purposes to flow through me.  It’s not about trying harder.  It’s about trusting more.

There seems to be a lot more enthusiasm and positive attitudes across the USA than we’ve seen in several years.  But if the only hope and change that excites us is the political variety, we’ll be crashing and burning once again before the year is done.  I’m building more spiritual muscle and vision into my life because I believe God is ABLE.  I hope you feel that way too. Happy New Year to all my friends and fellow disciples!

Lift up the Cross!

 

Losing It

silenceThis is a true story.  In 1614 the Christian faith was spreading rapidly through one region of Japan and beginning to take root.  For a number of political reasons, the government decided to crush and eliminate this threat to national unity.  A ruthless,unrelenting war against missionaries and evangelists was unleashed.  In October of that year, fifty-five persons of all ages were burned alive alongside the Kamo River in Kyoto. There were elderly people, young mothers, and children as young as 5 or 6 years old.

A crowd of 30,000 spectators gathered to observe the spectacle.  Here’s how an Englishman standing among the crowd described the event: “When the faggots were kindled, the martyrs said sayonara to the onlookers who then began to intone, The Magnificat, followed by [Psalm 113 and 116]… Since it had rained heavily the night before, the faggots were wet and the wood burned slowly; but as long as the martyrdom lasted, the spectators continued to sing hymns and canticles.  When death put an end to the victim’s suffering, the crowd intoned [a Latin hymn with these lyrics: ‘You are God, we praise you/ Your are Lord, we acclaim you/ You are the Eternal Father/ All Creation worships you.’]”

God not only commends saints who die for their faith; he encourages it.  Hebrews 11 concludes with this epic celebration of martyrdom: “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy…!” In Revelation 3:18, the Christ encourages us to ask for gold tried by fire; that is, fiery trial.

Here in the safety of our American fortress, Christians like you and me think of ourselves as tolerant and open-minded: we can talk openly about sex, adultery, pornography, or atheism- anything except the glory of the martyrs.  We send teams to the mission field praying that Jesus will keep them safe: not that God will make them dangerous.  We can scarcely summon the courage to suggest our young people consider the mission field. Heaven forbid we should think of them martyred for Christ while spreading the gospel! Mention personal sacrifice and we imagine two hours in church when the espresso machine is broken!

Of all the Christmas texts available for poetic reflection this Christmas, few of us will deal with aging Simeon’s prophecy to Mary during the dedication of Jesus at the Temple. The old man describes the ministry of the Messiah, and adds parenthetically for the young mother, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul, too.”  That’s clearly a scribal gloss: Everybody knows the Gospel makes us rich and happy!

Read Revelation this Christmas.  Jesus looks forward to celebrating in Heaven with all the martyrs who have given their lives in service on the Earth. He offers extraordinary rewards to those who dare to lose it all without regret.

In American churches, our brand of worship is high-tech, but low-ambition.  We aspire to joyful experiences with Christ.  We pray for God to heal everybody.  We feel persecuted when a clerk at Macy’s says, “Happy Holiday!”  Sadly, we cannot imagine why anyone would stand there watching godly people burn, and sing, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.  O Lord, I am your servant.  Praise the Lord!”

The narrative from Japan is taken from the introduction to a 1966 classic, Silence by Shusaku Endo.  It is an elegant, historical novel based on actual events.  I’m reading it for Christmas this year, and feeling unworthy.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

Facebook Derangement Syndrome

fds

Facebook encourages us to share our thoughts and feelings with the whole world- instantly, unfiltered, and unedited.  That’s one reason why the site that made social media a household term has now become such a bore.  Who knew there were so many angry, insecure people in the world? You could call it FDS.

Where did we lose those timeless truths; the insight that it’s generally not healthy to share everything you’re thinking and feeling instantly and unedited?  You can injure other people.  You can create unnecessary hostility and tension.  And you can make yourself look inexcusably ignorant, superficial, and immature.

When I was five or six years old, a garrulous neighbor stopped by the house to visit my mom. In my young mind, it must have seemed she had been going on and on forever.  So I blurted out a sensible request I must have heard someone else use: “Oh! Just get to the point!”  I don’t know how long the neighbor stayed after that: only that I got a swat on the bottom and a trip to my room!  My shocked mom later explained it’s uncivilized and unkind to say everything that comes to your mind. One of the most reliable metrics parents use to gauge how well their kids are growing up is simple self control.

Scripture counsels the people of God: “This you know, my beloved brethren, but everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” (James 1:19)  In the Old Testament, the writer of Psalm 141 prays, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Outrage is like formal attire: it’s only appropriate for select occasions.  But in American society today, indignation has become the first line of defense.  In the realm of Twitter, you have to say it in 140 characters or less, like it or not.  That means we should tweet less and think more.  The real question is not how many characters are required, but rather, what kind of character does this message reflect?  Am I behaving like a jerk?  Do I seriously know all the facts?  Does this really need to be communicated?

There are many, many reasonable responses to an unwelcome situation.  There are replies that can pour oil on troubled water.  There are attitudes that suggest this is not a crisis; we can all work together.  There are answers that apply the balm of Gilead to bruised and broken hearts. And then… there is the Personal Apocalypse!  Everybody on the floor! Now!

We live in a dysfunctional, distressing culture; so much that I often find indignation rising in my heart, quite unjustly, over something as simple as a thoughtless remark.  I quickly bite my lip. Silence can truly be the pause that refreshes.

  • Sometimes I realize the emotion that’s in order here is surprise.  I wasn’t expecting that! So I reply, “Sorry, you caught me off guard.  Tell me again….”
  • Once in a while, I realize that I am at fault.  It’s painful to be informed I have needlessly injured another person.  “I’m sorry” is always a good start.
  • Occasionally a situation occurs that simply disappoints me.  Sadness is a necessary part of life.  It’s not an occasion for a lawsuit or a fist fight. It’s okay to be sad once in a while.
  • Then there are those moments that are embarrassing.  My face glows red and I have no idea what to say.  So I break the ice, “Well, this is awkward….”  People smile and relax.

Even on occasions when outrage is appropriate, it’s often not effective.  Human trafficking is as outrageous and barbaric today as it was in the 19th Century when the British economy was dependent on slavery.  Outrage didn’t end legalized human bondage: that sort of rage fizzles too quickly:  too intense and not focused enough.  Rather, human slavery was finally outlawed in Britain as the result of prayer, cooperation, statesmanship, determination, and tenacious, tireless resistance against barbarism. It required a generation. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to live decades of ones life in a state of perpetual outrage, although some people foolishly try.  Even crusaders have to occasionally lighten up and let a few things pass unchallenged.

A thousand years before Christ, Scripture noted “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”  In a world of Facebook flatulence and Twitter twaddle, that principle is just as valid as ever.  Being measured is a part of being wise.

Lift up the Cross!

 

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