Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘prayer’ Category

Real Racism and Phony Outrage

REAL RACISTS

Wait!  Hold on! What’s happening here?  Until a week ago, the most frequently quoted Bible verse in these United States was “Judge not that you be not judged.”  It was the logical destination of every conversation about bad behavior and moral living.

Suddenly everybody’s racing to judge the racists who carried Tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. The President of the United States quickly condemned the evil and bigotry that unraveled into fighting and thuggery, but he was universally assailed for not specifically denouncing the white supremacists, neo-Nazi’s, and the Alt-Right.  The hue and cry became such an avalanche that even Wal-Mart issued a statement demanding more passionate condemnation. Bloggers and columnists and celebrities are stumbling over one another to judge bigots and Klansmen in the most absolute terms possible! We keep hearing the same talking points: there must be no place in America for people like this!

Whatever happened to tolerance?

A poll conducted by the Barna Organization last year found 74% of Millennials agree with the statement, “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.”  Overall, 57% of American adults agree that determining right and wrong is a matter of personal experience.”  The bottom line is that there are no moral absolutes: what’s right is what’s right for you.

This prevailing ethos practiced by most Americans leaves no room for being honestly intolerant of racists, much less judging them in public.  You don’t know their experiences. You have no idea what kind of bigotry they’ve suffered.  You don’t even know if they’re secretly overcompensating for secret shame over gender issues or sexual addiction. Maybe their hatred for racial minorities because of self-loathing that’s been building up for years.  What if all they need is understanding?  Haven’t we told that love is the answer for Jihadi’s who stock up bombs and weapons to kill civilians?  Surely there’s enough love to go around for a few neo-Nazi’s, too.

The universal spiritual mantra of 2017 America demands tolerance.  Judge not that you be not judged.

If there is no universal evil that’s always wrong, are we denouncing racism because it’s unfashionable?  And if we do agree that racism is an absolute, moral evil, that raises a logical question.  What else?  Once you acknowledge one sin that is always worthy of condemnation, might there be others?  And what if you never act out your racism, but only harbor that resentment in your heart? Isn’t it still a sin?  God says it is.

In case you’re wondering, I denounce racism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism in the strongest terms possible, and call upon hateful people to repent of their evil. That’s a consistent position for me because Christ has taught me there are moral absolutes. Like others who follow Him, I recognize that racism, hatred, greed, and lust are all tragic symptoms of a more fundamental problem: sin.  Sin destroys lives; not only the lives of those who practice iniquity but innocent bystanders around them as well.  We have been taught to hate the sin, but love the sinner.  We believe that the grace of God can transform the most twisted and evil life.  We encourage all sinners to confess their sins and turn to the One and Only Son of God.

I am proud to stand in unity with my black fellow Americans when they suffer bigotry or fear for the safety of their sons and daughters.  I have marched in Martin Luther King Day parades, and have demonstrated against the KKK in their hometown, Pulaski, Tennessee. I have ministered in Soweto, South Africa when it was an unelectrified ghetto crammed with disenfranchised black South Africans.  My church partners with a school in one of the toughest districts in Washington, DC. Sometimes speaking up is not enough. You have to show up.

But I am not willing to stand with all the trendy, hypocrites posturing to look relevant, gain social currency, or make a profit by jumping on the Outrage Train that’s racing around the cultural universe today. When condemnation feels this good, it’s usually a bad thing. Are we doing this because it makes us feel superior?  If we don’t believe there are moral absolutes, it’s sheer hypocrisy to condemn the behavior of others we don’t understand. And if I’m convinced there are God-given standards of right and wrong, why do I only speak out when the popular media grant me permission?  The voices against injustice that count most are those that dare to cry out in the wilderness when others cower in silence.

I hope you’ll join me in praying for the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was tragically run down near the rally in Virginia.  Please also pray for the families of two Virginia state police officers who died in a helicopter crash monitoring the violence that followed.  Today’s news is all outrage, all the time! There’s seldom been a world more desperate for Good News?  For such a time as this, you and I were brought into the Kingdom.

Lift up the Cross!

Does God Gamble?

does-god-gambleGambling is not even a possibility for God: he already knows the outcome of every competition, the answer to every question. But there is a moment in the Bible when God makes a bet with the Devil!  It’s found in the most ancient book of the Bible when Satan taunts the Almighty and questions the sincerity of a holy man named Job.  The devil insists that upright man of faith doesn’t seriously love God but simply plays along for the benefits. In fact, he’s so convinced that he makes a wager: take away all blessings the guy has enjoyed and he will quickly walk away from his faith.  The sudden deaths of all his children and the loss of all his possessions leave Job’s walk with God completely intact.

So Satan makes a second wager. “Okay, but take away his health and I guarantee you he will curse you to your face!”  God permits his faithful servant to be physically afflicted within an inch of his life because He places so much confidence in Job’s personal allegiance. Wow!

People are wrong when they suppose the story of Job is written to explain why bad things happen to good people.  Neither Job nor his friends could have ever understood why he was stricken: the reason was a wager in heaven they could not have detected or explained! The real question raised by Job’s story is this: Who wins the bet?

The answer comes in Job 2:10.  When Job is covered from head to toe in agonizing, oozing, festering boils, his agony leaves him writhing in pain day and night.  What’s more, the mysterious condition costs him his respected status in the community.  Friends turn their backs and abandon him.  His grieving wife encourages him to curse God and die.  And to all of this, the man of God replies, “Must we receive only good things from God and never anything bad?”  The narrator then summarizes, “In all of this, Job did not sin.”

So God wins the wager- of course!  In all his misery and disgrace, Job clings to his confidence that God is good and loving.  Yes, he complains; but in all those cries of frustration, his concern is only that God doesn’t understand.  He pleads for some way to stand before God and make his case; to clarify anything God has somehow misunderstood!

Job’s tireless pursuit of God answers the other big question raised by the story: do believers really love God or do we just play along for the blessings?  There is no doubt that Job’s faith is fourteen karat, the real thing.  And ours?

Sometimes you and I make Satan’s case. We are attracted to popular titles and slogans that promise faith will make us happy: God’s Best for You; Your Best Life Now; Every Day a Friday!  We seize upon the fantasy “If God is in this, everything will go smoothly!”  When friends enjoy prosperity, we slap them on the back and say, “You must be living right!”

Except that Job was living right.  So was the Apostle Paul.  So was Stephen, the first martyr; and William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament in hiding; and Lottie Moon, the missionary who died of malnutrition because she gave her food to orphans during a famine in China.

The first and best blessing from Heaven is God Himself.  It is He who gives us life, meaning, and purpose.  It is Christ who holds the forces of the universe together by the power of His Word.  And it is He who makes Heaven heavenly, ensuring that all those other wonders of eternity can satisfy us.

In the face of a life seeming to collapse all about him, Job insists, “God is enough.” Whatever happens here, he confesses, when the skin worms destroy my flesh, in my flesh I will see God!  Job is one of the first people in the Old Testament to truly understand resurrection.  He’s also one of the very first to truly understand faith.  Blessings are just a by-product of faith: the presence of God is the prize!

To hear Pastor Cole’s compelling message, click Is God Enough.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

The Saving Power of Hollywood

hd-tv

If you’re still wondering whether Muslims outnumber Christians in this country yet, you may be seriously out of touch.  Entertainment has eclipsed us all as the most popular religion in the USA. If it has never dawned on you that TV is the chief prophet for the most recent religious revival in the 50 States, think again.

Talent contests like The Voice or America’s Got Talent now emphasize “the story” as much as the talent of the young people on stage.  If you have struggled against all odds on the wrong side of the tracks in Detroit; or if you have battled against an abusive father or same-sex discrimination as a teen, Hollywood can save you.  I’m serious: every show now features tearful video testimonies to the power of show biz to change damaged lives. And you don’t even have to pray for anybody: just vote as many times as possible.

There are  reality shows like Home Free which give away dream homes to Americans with tragic life stories.  If destiny has dealt you a losing hand, reality TV shows have the cash and the star power to reshuffle the deck.  Each week, tearful winners testify to the power of the American Entertainment Industry. Amen and amen!

Spiritual truths once taught in Sunday Schools and Bible Studies are now conveyed through 60″ HDTV screens or laptops with wireless speakers.  No, it’s not those old school lessons about faith in God; sacrifice for others; honesty; or humility.  The values and virtues of the 21 Century are Tolerance, Diversity, Recycling, Kindness to Animals, and being Yourself.  We have repented of the New Testament in favor of the Now Testament.  And this is the Good News: you’re fine just the way you are as long as you have the faith to express yourself.

No wonder interest in churches has faded in every corner of the country.  The local church finally has the big screens, but we can’t compete with the big money and the big names! It’s too bad we ever tried, isn’t it?

Somewhere in our journey to Relevance, too many of our churches gave up on the supernatural! Our number is Legion.  We let go our ambition for the dramatic life change that always follows the Gospel of Christ.  We began to settle for the low hanging fruit: things like counseling, weight loss, support groups, and spending all our energy on interventions to end human trafficking or advance racial equality.  No doubt those causes are good, and they make us feel warm and significant somewhere inside.  But they’re not the best.  They are not the Main Event.

I suspect we began to lose the next generation when we accidentally packed away the Gospel along with all those 16 mm movie projectors and audio cassette players.  It seemed edgier, more current, to engage the culture than just save souls.  We embraced the rush of feeling empowered, instead of praying and waiting for the power of being saved.  We surrendered the high ground of Hope, and went charging down hill to meet the rock bands and movie crews in the valley of Hype. The rest is history.

When the Church competes with Show Biz, their beauty and their bling and their buzz will overpower our 2nd-rate special effects every time.  What Hollywood cannot compete with is the undiluted, outgunned, unafraid-to-seem-irrelevant Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And for a long, long time, they haven’t had to.

I’m praying for a Great Awakening to sweep across Jesus Churches of all shapes and sizes all across the Land.  I hope you will join me in praying for a powerful movement of the Spirit of God among his people; a call to share the truths of Christ even when they seem untimely- as they often have throughout history.  Pray for a mighty army of newly awakened men, women and young people determined to stop Dancing with the Stars and start following Jesus with a cross once again.  It’s surely late, but it’s not too late.

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!

 

Night of 1000 Fears

fear 02Bonhoeffer described it as “this fog spreading over everything, this sense that there is no way out.”  He was speaking of fear, the chill paralysis visibly stretching its tentacles through the churches of Germany as the Nazi menace continued to build. Alas, it seems that fog has come creeping in again, but this time it’s global. Perhaps the forces of terror seem so much larger now.

Or maybe the universe feels small.  Like the secluded tribes of the Amazon who once shrunk the heads of their fallen enemies in order to harness their spirits, we boiled our world down to an amusement park.  Cut off from the vast reaches of Eternity and disconnected from the certainties of undying truth and unfailing love, we huddle like orphans in the dwindling wilderness of Self.  When my personal needs and fleeting desires define the size of my world, every hint of adversity threatens looming disaster.

Not so long ago, panic attacks were found only in Stephen King novels and clinical journals.  Today it sometimes feels that everyone you know has experienced that form of paralysis: the pounding heart, the stampeding fears, the jolt of awakening suddenly at 5:00 AM and staring instantly into the yellow eyes of dread and despair.  Where did we learn this hopelessness?

The terrorists are plotting to kill us.  The Zika-bearing mosquitoes are drifting in our direction.  Shadowy immigrants are gathering along the borders, waiting to invade and overwhelm.  The economy is faltering and suffocating.  The leaders of the nation- any nation, every nation– are out of touch and out of control.  Nothing can save us now: from the culture rot or the cancer threat or the imminent loss of career.  Not to mention growing old and unattractive!

When Jesus implored, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest,” he was writing our names in the sand. Surrounded by people who could instantly forfeit everything in the event of leprosy or at the sighting of a foreign army massing just across the river, Jesus could also empathize with the temptations of people like you and me still twenty centuries away.  The Good News means more than just not going to Hell: it means not living daily in emotional turmoil despite the constant rumblings of Evil.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27

We cannot wish our fears away: we must give them away.  We run to the Savior and offer them up to him.  And then we practice authentic faith: worshiping God fearlessly, loving others tirelessly, refusing to cower on the sofa, but deliberately remaining engaged with a universe of truth, love and light that makes my grandest earthly fantasies seem small and tawdry. Faith opens my eyes to the sprawling, magnificent universe outside my Self.

Denying myself, lifting my cross, and going after Jesus is the antidote for fear. Difficult outcomes seem far less tragic when they all provide me with either a mirror for reflecting the glory of Christ, or a pathway into His Presence.  But it’s an art, not a science.  We practice it daily in word and deed.  We confess our fears and rest in the love of Christ.

Meditate on this: There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.

And lift up the Cross!

Prayer is a B_ _ch

BEACH CHAIRSThe strangest thing: no one has ever asked me, “Pastor, could you please teach me how to pray?”  That’s crazy because I’m frequently asked to teach people how to study the Bible, how to share their faith, how to fast, how to prepare a sermon, even how to find their spiritual gifts.  Despite the fact that 95% of church folks confess, “I know my prayer life is not what it should be,” no one has ever asked me to show them how to make it right.

That’s why I think prayer is anti-American.

The same Americans who boldly fight for the right to pray at football games and commencement ceremonies aren’t even up to a minor skirmish when it comes to a quiet conversation with God in private.  And it’s not because most church people are actually lost, or because they don’t love God.  It’s just that prayer seems like a waste of time for many Americans.  It’s a fact: we value our time and we’d rather spend our limited hours doing something– actually doing it ourselves.  Invite us to a Bible Study.  Organize us for a mission trip. Rehearse us for a worship spectacular complete with music and fireworks!  But don’t ask us to just sit down and do nothing. That’s un-American, isn’t it?  Doesn’t the Bible say something about working while it’s still daylight?  Indeed.

It also says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)  For all my frantic, over scheduled, hyper-drive fellow saints, I want to offer up a fresh, new paradigm for prayer. For my fellow worshipers in the USA who cannot imagine anything meaningful happening in a prayer closet, except maybe coming out of it, would a new image help?

Devotional prayer is much like a trip to the beach.  You have to take off your shoes and slow down.  You walk more slowly and finally you just stop.  You need to hear the roar of the sea, and fall into the rhythm of the waves.  The noises of people slowly fade into the background as the cry of the gulls begins to do something inside your heart.  The things you do on a beach are not much different from regular life- sitting and lying around, running or throwing a frisbee, walking or standing around in the surf.  The presence of something vast and a purpose that is profound make everything seem different on the seashore.

God moves slowly.  Granted, he was able to release the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt so quickly that there was no time for the bread to rise.  But more commonly, the God of Eternity tends to work in seasons, generations and even centuries.  Not so much in seconds!  No one can outrun God, but when he pauses to talk, you could run past Him! So prayer requires that highly motivated, overcaffeinated people do something almost impossible: slow down and come to a halt.  Be still and listen.  Devote yourself to stillness even if nothing happens for a bit.  In an invisible Kingdom, important things can well be happening when it seems like nothing’s going on.

Most of us are familiar with the episode in 1 Kings 19 in which God speaks in a small, still voice to one very discouraged Elijah.  You may recall that God first sends a mighty wind that blasts the rocks on the mountainside apart.  Then he sends an earthquake that rocks the whole region.  Next he dispatches a raging fire that scorches everything in sight.  Only after all the chaos is finished do Elijah’s ears detect the gentle whisper of Eternity: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  We can read the entire account in less than five minutes.  It probably lasted for hours! The legendary man of God stood there waiting for hours, enduring all manner of terrifying phenomena, before he was finally rewarded with the gentle sigh of a loving Go. Sometimes you can do nothing but wait.

“But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31.)

Devotional time alone with the Father is not much like 21st Century America, but it is so very much like 1st Century Jesus. In only three or four years, he managed to accomplish everything required of him to redeem the world and launch the Church, and he did it in spite of all the days and nights he spent alone in prayer.  Dare I say because of all the days and nights he spent alone in prayer?

The first step forward into the presence of the Almighty God is counter-intuitive to us in America: stop.  Let your life slow down. Let your heart slow down. Be intentional and find a quiet place: force everything to stop for fifteen minutes even if nothing supernatural happens.  Somewhere in the Kingdom of Light, something supernatural will occur.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

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