Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

That Bloody Grace

 

DUNKIRK BOAT

The motion picture Dunkirk recaptures the story of how grace transformed a colossal military blunder during World War II into a historic rescue of epic proportions.  It appeared to be a moment that would cost Britain the war. More than 300,000 British and French soldiers and sailors found themselves trapped on a beach at Dunkirk, encircled by a tightening noose of Nazi troops and tank brigades intent on slaughtering them all.

An opening caption from the movie explains they were waiting for deliverance; hoping for a miracle. Their answered prayer would arrive in the form of some 700 small, privately owned boats shuttling warriors away from imminent disaster over a few days and nights.  It was a costly miracle; unarmed fishermen, merchants, and school teachers risking everything- and some losing it all– for the warriors who had marched off to war to save them in the first place.

That dimension of grace- the ominous, terrifying part– explains why we who call ourselves Evangelicals can seem so false, so inauthentic, to a skeptical world. With a wink and a smile, we sometimes reduce the extravagant gift of God to a free toy in a box of cereal. We are quick to argue that our salvation is better than recreational drugs, more thrilling than immoral sex, more satisfying than a meal at a five-star restaurant.  And God has tossed it into the box for free if you’ll say a prayer and come to church.  Open up the box, find your free gift inside, and you’ll be hap-hap-happy forevermore.

If that doesn’t sound very convincing to thoughtful people, it’s no wonder.  It’s not even persuasive to religious types who sometimes prefer not to think.

I once participated in a popular ministry that trained believers for evangelism.  It was organized around a simple outline that explained the wonder of grace, the sacrifice of Christ, and the urgency of repentance and faith.  In case a listener should confess Christ, there was a simple prayer of faith.  That was followed immediately by a brief recap of the Gospel along with directives to read the Bible and watch out for Satan.

I once heard a trainee ask a leader, “Why are the attacks by Satan not mentioned until after the personal commitment?”  The leader replied, “Well, we don’t want to discourage people.”  Maybe that’s why they become disillusioned and drop out later.  Where is all that uninterrupted peace and joy, anyhow?

I suspect skeptical Millennials and Generation Z will demand full disclosure. The gospel delivers followers of Jesus Christ to a higher quality of life, but not a perpetual Happy Hour.  Faith is not a Safe Zone; it’s never far from danger. Christians live as though something is at stake because it is.  Something very important is on the line.  Worship is a celebration, but godly living happens on a spiritual battlefield.  It’s messy.  We are compelled by love to get our hands dirty. Ask any parent: real love really hurts.

If the saga of Dunkirk remains deeply fascinating today, it’s not because the boats were so small or so numerous.  Most of those vessels had traveled the Channel before. Dunkirk captures the imagination and inspires us today because a profound catastrophe on a massive scale was about to explode on that beach in France; and because so many who could have looked away were willing, instead, to choose love over safety.  Amazing grace is always about someone who has chosen love over safety.

The battlefield where Jesus Christ won the day for us was splattered with his blood. It followed years of rejection, inconvenience, and sacrifice.  Christ even warned his disciples that very soon they, too, would be arrested, hounded, threatened, and put to death (Matthew 24:9.)  It hardly sounds like a Carribean cruise, does it?

The Lord practiced transparency: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The grace of God is deep and awesome.  It reaches us in our darkest moments of despair.  It transports us to a life of purpose, satisfaction, celebration, friendship, and adoration. But the moments in the mountains are particularly delightful because the months in the valleys test our faith to the limits. Ultimately our saving faith is like gold, which can only be refined by fire, but which becomes more precious after it is purified.  And one day we arrive in Heaven!

So give ’em the whole gospel!  Let them see that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. And lift up the Cross!

 

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The Fearless Embrace

LiL RED RIDING HOOD

Who will you be today: the champion you dream of being or the person you’re afraid you are?

For most people who feel trapped on the hamster wheel of mediocrity, the problem is not lack of talent or bad luck or even bad fashion instincts.  You don’t have to make a million dollars or win America’s Got Talent to climb out of life’s overcrowded basement and create some excitement.  Consider this: God can indeed do more than you ask or imagine, but there must be a reason he gave you a brain and a heart!

There is hidden wisdom often overlooked in the biblical account of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.)  In just moments, Elijah confidently calls down literal fire from heaven after his pagan competitors have waved their hands and prayed all morning but to no avail.  The courageous prophet clearly believes in God as he scores his historic victory over the queen’s cronies.  But only one chapter later, still believing in the God of Israel, Elijah can be found cowering among the rocks, trembling in fear, and hiding from Jezebel.  How do you explain the difference?

Quite obviously, the things Elijah believes about God are unchanged from his success on the mountain to his humiliation in the cave one chapter later.  What’s different about his defeat is that our hero has permitted the alarm bells and warning lights of emotion to overshadow the calm voice of his Wonderful Counselor. He allows fake news to send him spinning into a panic attack.

That’s how fear takes charge in a life of faith.  I lose my traction and give in to those voices that warn disaster is about to strike; I will fail miserably at this new venture; I am not equipped for the destiny God has set before me; and more basically, I am just a screw-up! Lies don’t need credibility in order to cast their spell: they just need some poor sucker to welcome them in unchallenged.

Who will you be today: the person of influence you dream of being or the shmuck you’re afraid you are?  That world renowned philosopher Anonymous sums it up this way: “Never be afraid to try your hand at something new.  Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic.”

When fear and insecurity threaten to shout down your brightest ambitions, pause and take a deep breath.  Then ask yourself:

  • Is that frightening idea positively, universally true?  Is The End of the World as you know it literally the only possible outcome?
  • How does that unlikely idea make you behave?
  • How will your life be different if you crush that irrational idea today and give God some room to work?

Embrace your calling!  Faith and fearlessness are a winning combination.  One opens the windows of heaven; the other slams the door on emotional hysteria that drives you away from ambition and adventure. You and I must lock and load the promises of Christ (John 14:27.) “Peace I leave with you, my parting gift to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Cast your fears to the wind, and lift up the Cross!

 

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

 

CSI: Naked and Afraid

NAKED AND AFRAID

It could be just another crime scene.  There’s a naked man, unconscious and bleeding, lying there alongside a mountain pass. Apparently, he was the victim of a robbery so there is no identification.  In Christ’s haunting saga of the Good Samaritan, the mystery is not what happened, but what happens next.  The most important clue, the detail commonly overlooked by people on the case, is one unpleasant but revealing word.

Stripped.  The Bible specifically says the robbery victim left for dead along the Jericho Road was naked.  His attackers had “stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)  Gone was his prayer shawl, the tallit men of the region always wore. For Hebrew males, there was a tzitzit on each corner, a tassel that denoted reverence for God.  The Law required that Jewish men have a dark blue thread woven into the tzitzit. The Samaritans, their despised cousins, would have have been identified by a white thread in their tzitzit or perhaps light blue.  Without their traditional robes and clothing, the Jews and Samaritans looked just alike.

So the Jewish priest and the Levite did not step around the poor man, leaving him to die, because they were too busy to help a neighbor.  They couldn’t tell if the man was their neighbor or not!  Despite their calling from God to love their neighbors as themselves, their definition of “neighbor” was just too narrow to afford a stranger the benefit of the doubt.

What makes this parable so helpful and so compelling is the singular detail it does not divulge. The priest and Levite were Hebrews, and the Samaritan was obviously not Jewish. But the identity of the robbery victim is as mysterious to you and me as it was to the Samaritan arriving on the scene. Yet seeing a helpless human being in desperate need of assistance, this man from Samaria was moved with basic human kindness. We’re not even told he was a religious guy.  But here’s the bottom line: he didn’t have to rise above any feelings of resentment for an enemy.  He didn’t see an adversary.  All he could see was another man whose skin and features were mostly like his.

Love isn’t blind.  It just doesn’t need a formal introduction to act.

Writers and preachers tend to mock the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite who walk on by, but that dilutes the message.  In his telling of the story, Jesus allows us all to see the enemy, and it is us!  We have all failed at one time or another to look beyond the cultural disguises others affect in order to see the human heart that beats deep inside.  Skin-deep compassion must be a common condition.

For instance, historians tell us that young Mohammed reached out to both Christians and Jews around Mecca when he was trying to find his own spiritual bearings.  Sadly, both groups frowned upon pagans in their hometown as savages to be avoided; not neighbors to be loved and cared for.  Sadly, we know what happened next.  Even today, many of us are so agitated over Islamic extremism and open borders that we’d not only leave a Muslim-looking victim lying in the road, but we might kick him while walking past.

It’s easy to be condescending toward competitors, especially when they seem so angry. But false religion is not always a form of competition: more often it’s just a way to be connected to something instead of nothing.  And rage is frequently an expression of fear and desperation.  Of course, Islamist extremists are not seething with fury because they live in poverty; many don’t. They’re angry because they’re empty.  That spiritual hunger leaves them vulnerable to political players with personal ambitions.  They are dangerous, but they’re not really monsters.  They’re just people.

According to Jesus, loving God by loving my neighbors is the key to my faith. It’s also the key to their’s, being loved unconditionally by a fellow human being who knows Christ. As the Samaritan generously offered mercy to a fellow human being in need, let’s you and I go and do likewise.  We can take our frustrations to prayer closets and ballot boxes. Let’s take our love to the streets.

And lift up the Cross!

 

dreamstime_m_20815583

We were camping on the veldt in Tsavo National Park in Kenya.  Our long line of tents was set up facing an elephant watering hole about fifty yards away.  As we turned in for the night, a sentry armed with a rifle paced between the campfires burning to ward off the animals.

After 11:00 PM a solitary male lion approached our camp on his way to the waterhole. We were an unexpected barrier blocking his access; the fires and the sight of the guard all very intimidating.  So the big cat began to roar as he skulked along the rear line of our tents, first one direction and then the other, back and forth. I fell asleep to the distinctive lullaby of a snarling lion, the king of beasts expressing his violent displeasure.

It called to mind 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  And it struck me, lions don’t roar when they’re hunting.  They roar when they’re angry or threatened.   When Peter warns us to be alert because Satan is like a roaring lion, he’s also tipping us off: all that racket means our adversary is angry and frustrated. It doesn’t sound like a successful hunt, does it?

That’s why we in the Kingdom continue to hear the same old snarling cliches and tired slogans recycled from Hell again and again. Don’t the enemies of Christ ever come up with new material?  If it doesn’t work the first time, then roar louder the next time, right?

Just this morning, a friend asked how to answer an insult hurled endlessly in print and conversation.  How can Christians be offended by Islamist terrorism when we did the very same things during the Crusades?  I just smiled.  In the first place, the Crusades happened a thousand years ago. How is it that people who cannot remember 9/11/01 have such vivid memories of 1095 AD?  But more importantly, the Crusades were launched as a defensive measure to resist the unrelenting slaughter and kidnapping of peaceful pilgrims hoping to visit the Holy Land and walk where Jesus walked.  The motivation was never about claiming new nations for Christ or forcing anyone to convert. The Crusaders were always a last ditch response to foreign aggression. Quite notably, the Christian pilgrims were not being killed and kidnapped by offended atheists.  (For details, read God’s Battalions, Rodney Stark’s highly acclaimed defense of the Crusades.)

Earlier this week, I found myself offering encouragement to a frustrated professional who came by my office. He had fallen away from another church years ago and was attempting to explain his rationale for rejecting the faith.  Along the way he assured me that all religions are the same: “Islamic extremists kill people but so do all those Christians who bomb abortion clinics.” I didn’t lose my smile, but I did politely interrupt.

“Which evangelical abortion clinic bombers do you have in mind?” I asked.  Abortion clinic bombings are so incredibly rare that death by falling into vats of chocolate must surely be more numerous.  And just because we know a bomber hated abortionists, doesn’t mean we know he loved Jesus.  In fact, killing innocent people is compelling evidence he didn’t know Jesus Christ and was simply deranged or just mean.  That’s a far cry from the armies of suicide bombers and masked executioners who carry the Koran and shout “Allahu Akbar,” as they wage bloody war on civilians.  The man in my office sighed as he conceded the point.

With all due respect to the sincerity of Islamic State killers and Boko Haram rapists, you don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize those kinds of activities are ghastly and unthinkable to followers of Jesus Christ! There are no Christian majority nations where angry mobs stand in the streets chanting for death to any other nation or even another religious group. Nothing could be more unlike Jesus.

Angry, snarling pagans are still trying to toss Jesus into the lions’ den.  But their arguments are toothless.  Their facts are just fake news.  And even a spoonful of Truth seasoned with gentleness and respect can often shut the mouths of the lions- or at least enlighten the spectators watching from the gallery.  Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel, and don’t let mindless slogans and bogus history lessons lie there unanswered.  But speak the truth in love, with all gentleness and respect.

And lift up the Cross!

 

Coffee with an Exorcist

THE EXORCIST PHOTORob is not a priest: in fact, he’s a police officer.  On duty, one of his tasks is training other officers to respond to subjects who are agitated, delusional, or otherwise suffering from some form of mental illness.   It’s what he does when he’s off duty that got my attention. Rob rescues people who are demon possessed.

Believe it or not, a mental health professional referred me to him.  A trusted friend of mine had described an extraordinary scene that erupted at a small dinner among friends late one evening. When I recounted what my friend had experienced, the therapist replied, “I’ve never seen anything like that in the field of mental health.  It sounds demonic to me.”  So that’s how I came to meet an exorcist at Starbuck’s on a Saturday morning.

Rob’s assault on the gates of Hell began late one night in 2007, standing alongside an automobile in a mall parking lot with a troubled young man inside pleading for help. Over the next four hours in two or three different locations, he found himself staring into the eyes of Hell.  He prayed, quoted scripture, prayed some more, and even called in a local church pastor for a while.  Around 2:00 AM, an evil spirit came shrieking out of the dazed victim, and an exhausted young police officer, soaked in perspiration, realized The Exorcist was more just pulp fiction.

Many episodes later, he draws an interesting comparison.  In the first century, people tended to perceive demons everywhere because they didn’t understand mental illness. Today we’ve been so programmed to look for mental illness and mood disorders that we don’t recognize the spiritual, the demonic when it should be apparent.

To my surprise, he doesn’t invoke mystical words or the jargon we often associate with demonology and exorcism, although he can pray in Latin. What makes this guy so compelling is the way he draws on the sermons of Jesus and core ideas of the Gospel. “Certain events or problems seem to open human beings up to demon activity,” he explains. “Things like trauma, sexual abuse, and unforgiveness.”  Even Christians can suffer spiritual oppression when we allow resentment to build up in our hearts and refuse Christ’s commandment to forgive those who offend and injure us.  “You don’t do it for the other person.” he elaborates. “You do it for yourself.”

When he finds himself face to face with someone who may be either controlled or at least harassed by an evil spirit, Rob doesn’t reach for a crucifix or a flask of holy water. “Intercessory prayer is key,” he asserts. “Always begin with intercessory prayer. Sometimes, it’s the prayer that provokes the demon to reveal himself.”

Most of us are familiar with the Gospel accounts of Legion, a wretched man inhabited by more demons that he could count (Matthew 8.)  Crazed and out of control, he lived among the gravestones, screeching and howling every night.  In a world already sensitive to demon possession, his terrified neighbors could not recognize his problem: he was their problem.  Their conventional methods, binding him with ropes and even chains, had failed every time.  Jesus of Nazareth was not afraid to peer behind that familiar one thousand yard stare to diagnose the ancient evil that afflicted him from within.  He cast them out with a simple command.

Immersed as we are in high-tech and Twitter feeds, you and I quite naturally try to boil our faith down to a short list of slogans: the gospel for dummies.  We tend to be uncomfortable with mystery- even the mysterious nature of the Holy God of Eternity. Despite biblical assurances that his thoughts and his ways are infinitely higher than ours, we’re still pretty sure we can explain anything with a smartphone and a Google search. Think again!

Author and theologian John Piper recalls his own experience in an exorcism several years ago.  And he emphasizes 2 Timothy 2:24, ” Teach with gentleness, correct your opponents in love. God may perhaps grant them to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth and be delivered or escape from the power of the evil one who had taken them captive.” Notice scripture’s use of the word perhapsit’s complicated.

Demons are not science fiction.  Even as skeptics dismiss the very idea as superstitious nonsense, they watch breaking news reports about the senseless and agonizing death some human beings inflict on strangers and ask “How could a human being ever do something like that?”  There is obviously more here than meets the eye.

The Book of Revelation foresees a new wave of demonic warfare just as the Final Countdown begins.  In other words, we won’t get out of here before all of us have encountered demons in the escalating conflict. Our victory is certain, but it won’t be cheaply won. “They overcame the devil by the blood of the lamb, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

Be ready for He is coming!  And lift up the Cross!

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!

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