04 July 2018

Independence Day: My Favorite Holiday

Independence Day is my favorite holiday. It is an occasion to celebrate our country’s existence and have some mandatory fun!  There is nothing particularly religious about it, and that’s just fine.  I like the family gatherings, cook outs, parades, and fireworks.  I like all the red, white and blue.  It is an uncorrupted holiday that is exactly what it is supposed to be. However, I believe that this secular occasion affords us the opportunity for important spiritual perspective and reflection.

First, Independence Day is an occasion to express thankfulness for God’s gift of our American government and its perseverance. This year we celebrate the passing of 242 years since a small group of men, representing thirteen British colonies, asserted that the time had come to declare their independence.  They made a long list of grievances against England and declared that independence was necessary and right.  After winning a war that few thought possible, the confederation of the new states decided to unite under a federal government with its own constitution. 

Christians throughout history have lived within a variety of governmental arrangements – monarchies, dictatorships, communist states, and democratic republics of various forms.  It is fitting to celebrate that in God’s gracious providence he has blessed us with government that guards against abusive power. The design of three separate branches has proven to be a practical check against the consolidation of too much power in one place. Christians can give thanks that God has graciously allowed our context to be a democratic republic in which we get to participate in the election of our own leaders and enjoy the privileges and protections of a constitution with a primary view toward preventing oppressive government. 

Additionally, we can give thanks that by God’s grace we are still here.  Every nation takes for granted its own existence.  Human pride causes us to believe that the United States will always be just as it is today – powerful, prosperous and blessed. No empire thinks in its days of dominance that a time could come when it wouldn’t exist.  Romans 13:1 reminds us, “…For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  We should be thankful for our Founders – Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and many others.  However, we should acknowledge that our country’s existence originates from the hand of divine providence.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged this is its closing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.” As we celebrate with our material comforts and security, let’s be careful to give thanks to the One who has given these good gifts and who has preserved our nation.

Second, we should remember to pray for our leaders.  Paul instructed Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers and intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions…”   It doesn’t matter if you voted for him or even if you like him, your Christian political stewardship is to pray earnestly for him.  She may be the antithesis of all you political views, but God has seen fit to put her in that position of leadership.  Pray for her.       

Third, Independence Day is an occasion for the church to renew its commitment to the proclamation of the gospel.  Because God has continued to bless us with a free society, the door for the sharing of the gospel remains wide open.  Our culture has always had sin problems.  Where sinful people exist in a fallen world the enemy is always at work challenging God’s design. Spiritual darkness pushes back against God’s good news. 

In America we have incredible freedom to proclaim our faith.  We should be thankful that the first of the amendments to the Constitution provided every individual freedom for personal religion.  The first phrase promises this freedom. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Since this was adopted in 1791, we have periodically fussed about what constitutes and establishment of religion, but never questioned that each of us have the right to our own personal faith and the right to share it with others.  We may receive some rejection, but no one is arresting us for telling others about Jesus.  

We would do well to be mindful that our American freedom must not be squandered on selfish individualism.  We have all the freedom we could ever ask for to live out our faith with boldness and share it with others without fear of persecution. 

On this Independence Day, let our hearts be full of gratitude for what God has established, pray for those God has seen fit to put into leadership, and remember that God continues to give us the freedom to be salt and light to our neighbors and impact our communities with the hope of the gospel. 

05 April 2018

How Easter Changes Every Day

Resurrection Sunday at my church was great, just like it probably was in yours.  It was encouraging to see people I hadn't seen in some time, as well as meet a few new faces. We worshipped and celebrated our belief that Jesus rose from the dead.

Now, we are back to business as usual.  Another Easter is checked off the calendar, and we'll do it again next year. But my question now is this:  If we believe Jesus really did come back from the dead, then what impact does that make on us every day? 

The empty tomb, when truly believed, defines our worldview.  It is the lens through which we view and judge everything. I'm not merely talking about what we might believe about God or behaviors, but how we confidently know where to go to discover what is right and wrong about anything whatsoever.

I'm sure you have had many moments when you evaluated your position on an issue or an idea about God, trying to decide whether it was right or wrong.  But, have you ever thought deeply about why a certain behavior or idea is right or wrong? 

The answer to the why question that lurks behind every assertion is really the most important question.  If you can't articulate why you think something is true, then you have to admit that you're on pretty shaking ground.  People can still reject your why, but at least it's clear to them and you why you believe what you believe.  

Some people may just shrug their shoulders with the acknowledgment that they haven't really thought deeply about why they believe what they believe.  Some may say that cultural consensus usually points the way over time. Others may appeal to an individualistic sense of just what feels right.  Some may appeal to reason.  The reality that people have diverse opinions about all kind of issues and why they think what they think begs some important questions.

First, who is to say that he or she has the authority to assert what is right or wrong about any matter or issue? Isn't it arrogant to think anyone has THE TRUTH?  Who could possibly have that kind of authority? Yet, at the heart of any discussion about God or right or wrong is the unavoidable matter of authority.  For anyone to declare something right implies that some proper authority stands behind the assertion. 

I think we understand this in practical life.  Because of their roles, certain people have been given certain amounts of authority to exercise moral judgments and even enforce them (police officers, judges, lawmakers, etc.).  But these roles are an authority that is granted.  And it is expected that these draw upon a higher authority so that they make the right decisions.  An individual does not have a individual authority of his own.  His behavior is kept in check by an outside and greater authority.  If an individual begins to think he is above that authority, it usually is going to lead to behavior we define as criminal.  And in regards to those who have the responsibility to guard and enforce the moral rules, codes of conduct, laws and guidelines are in place to keep them on the right moral track too.       

So, for example, if the government declares it is wrong to steal, it is drawing on some kind of authority itself to tell citizens that it's wrong to steal.  The police officer who arrests you for stealing is drawing on that same authority that created the law that they are charged to enforce.  The really interesting question is where did the idea that it's wrong to steal come from?     

This leads to another logical question: How can we have any confidence of the existence of an objective, authoritative source of truth that defines and guides our existence?  In other words, what can guide us in determining what we should believe about the nature of our existence and our behavior?

All this brings me back to Jesus and the resurrection that we just celebrated on Easter.

Religious leaders and common folks alike wondered about Jesus' identity.  Jesus made authoritarian claims about himself and his message.  A logical question came from many: "Who do you think you are?"  He was also asked for some kind of proof for his claims.  "What sign do you give?"  Or some said, "Who can testify to the truth of your claims?"  

Frankly, as I read the gospel accounts, and I observe people asking these kind of questions of Jesus, I totally get it.  I probably would have been asking the same kind of questions with the same degree of skepticism.  If you were really listening, it sounded like Jesus was claiming to be God!  When they picked up stones to throw at him, they had been convinced that was exactly what his was claiming.

Jesus gave hints of his authority in the miracles he performed.  Those certainly got people's attention and got them talking.  Many perceived that God was working through him.  Many entertained the idea that he was some kind of special prophet.  They knew the stories of miracle-working prophets, such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. They just hadn't seen one themselves! 

The prophets had been called of God to correct the people and draw them back to God's commands and expectations.  The miracles God did through them gave them credibility and authority among the people.  Jesus' miracles gave him credibility to many, but only a limited credibility.  When he began to claim that he was God in the flesh who had come to lay down his life for sins, people shifted their thinking.

What they initially thought were miracles that evidenced the power of God, they now could only logically conclude were works of the Devil.  What else could make sense?  The miracles were undeniable!  But the blasphemy and heresy he was speaking was equally undeniable!  Even his closest and devoted disciples were having a difficult time getting their heads around Jesus' claims about himself.

When the religious leaders finally managed to get Jesus executed, they thought they had defused a potentially explosive situation and silenced a dangerous heretic.  And if that were the end of the story, then we would have to conclude they were right.  Furthermore, I wouldn't be writing about Jesus now, and we wouldn't have celebrated Easter.  He would have faded into obscurity along with countless others.  But something unprecedented happened that turned Jesus from an object of hostile rejection into the authoritative source of revealed truth. 

When Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the people in the city asked the question, "Who is this?"  They knew his name by then, but what they were pondering was deeper.  They were struggling to understand Jesus' significance.  Just one week later, the empty tomb provided the definitive answer, proving he was exactly who he had been claiming to be.

If we receive the news of the empty tomb as true, then that answers our question about our source for truth.  If we receive the witness to Jesus' resurrection, then we must recognize that God has given us our objective and unchanging source of truth to guide our individual lives and our society.

If you choose not to accept the historical witness to Jesus, then you are still left with the challenge of finding that authoritative source from which you define what is right and wrong - even if you choose to believe God doesn't exist.  Or, you can just receive what others pass down to you without much thought about it one way or the other.  Regardless, you will be still working from some source, even if you haven't defined it.   

For Christians, the empty tomb is not only about what Jesus did to forgive us for sin and provide us hope in living and in dying, it became the place where I can intellectually drive in a stake and say, "Here is the place where all truth and authority was confirmed!"

So on this Thursday after Easter Sunday, I can with confidence know that I have a source of truth for living.  I don't have to rely on the fickleness of cultural consensus, the fallible minds of men, or just a "might makes right" mentality.  When I need to know how to know God and what to believe about my behaviors and attitudes, I have the source. That source is Jesus.  Why?  Because he claimed to be God, and the empty tomb proved it.  And to know Jesus is to know the witness to him. The Bible is that outside, authoritative truth because it bears witness to Jesus who has the proven authority. 

Therefore, let us take up the Bible with a grateful and humble confidence because of the empty tomb and follow Jesus with the same zeal of those early believers who actually saw him.          

24 February 2018

Drop the Rock

We are most like God when we choose to demonstrate mercy and forgive.  

You probably are familiar with the story.  Jesus is teaching at the temple in Jerusalem.  By this time, the Jewish religious leaders have positioned themselves firmly against Jesus.  While Jesus is teaching one morning, a group of Pharisees bring a woman into the gathered crowd.  They report that she had been caught committing adultery. Although her guilt never seems to be in question, she is nothing more than an expendable pawn in their scheme to undermine Jesus. 

The Pharisees pose what they think is a straight-forward and air tight question that will put Jesus between the proverbial rock and a hard place. "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So, what do you say?"  They thought they were clever.

If Jesus were to say, "stone her," then they could accuse him before the Roman governor of asserting an unlawful authority.  The Jews were not permitted by the Romans to take such matters into their own hands.  In addition, if Jesus had consented to this capital punishment, he would come off as severe with the people.

If Jesus were to say, "forget what Moses wrote,"  then they could accuse him of being against the law of their faith and contrary to their hero and lawgiver, Moses.

I imagine the parking lot discussions that took place among these Pharisees over a few days, until they put the finishing touches on their perfect plan to ensnare Jesus.  Now they had hatched the plan, and it all seemed to be unfolding perfectly.  Whatever answer he gave, it would work against him - so they thought.

We see by Jesus' example, that we don't necessarily have to answer every ridiculous question that may be posed to us.  Instead, we read that Jesus stooped down in the middle of this incredibly tense moment and wrote on the ground.  The Pharisees were probably thinking, "Ah, we got him!  He doesn't know how to answer this one!"  We don't know how long Jesus did this, but it appears that the Pharisees grew impatient.  We read that they repeated the question to him.  Then, in the climactic moment, Jesus stood up tall and said, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."  With that, he stooped over and began writing on the ground again.

We don't know if these guys had already started passing out rocks or not, but we do know that they each, one by one, walked away in shame.  What did Jesus write?  If only we knew!  Regardless, it seems that as they considered their own hypocrisy that they knew they were in the wrong.  The woman seems to have been guilty; but they were the ones with evil hearts that Jesus exposed.  If they had rocks in their hands, I can imagine the dull thud of them dropping to the ground as they walked away.

As the story resolves, we see the woman is still there among the awkward silence of the crowd and before Jesus.  Jesus breaks the silence and asked the woman a question to which the answer is so obvious that it really isn't a question. "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She respectfully answers the question saying, "No one, Lord."  Then, in an act of grace without compromise Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more."

From this story we learn a great deal about forgiveness.  We see examples of both grace and hardheartedness.  We see real people with real problems encountering Jesus.  

The women is guilty of her sin (apparently, since Jesus told her to stop), and she is being used by others to accomplish a wicked plan of which she probably has no knowledge.  We can only image her shame as she stood silently in front of this crowd as the instrument of the Pharisees' leverage and the object of the crowd's scorn.  Did she know about Jesus?  Had she heard anything about him at this point?  Had she heard about his miracles?  I think it's likely.  We know that she needed both forgiveness and instruction.  She gets both from Jesus.  I like to think this encounter with the savior changed her.  I hope she left there with a penitent heart and got her act together because of the grace she was shown.

The Pharisees model for us the state of being consumed with resentment and ill will.  They were holding a grudge against Jesus.  They wanted him to be silenced.  Jesus had already called them out for their hypocrisy. He had spoke the truth to them about their hard hearts and evil motives.  And they didn't like the attention that Jesus was drawing to himself.  They seemed to fear that Jesus was on the verge of causing political unrest as well as threatening their favorable position with the people.  All of this combined to lead them to an attempt to bring ruin down on him. He was the target for the rocks they wanted to throw.  The woman was just a means for that end.   

We see a woman who needs mercy and forgiveness, men who need to learn how to show mercy and be forgiving, and a savior who is merciful and forgiving. 

But what I have observed in myself and others is a tendency to be like these Pharisees.  We combine a self-righteous sense of being in the right with contempt for another who has hurt or threatens us. We soon find ourselves showing up with a rock in our hand looking for the opportunity to throw it.  This happens because of a choice. We choose not to forgive.  We choose to hurt. 

When we choose to be dead set against another and not show mercy, understanding and forgiveness, we can expect to observe some typical symptoms to which we should pay attention.  

1. A bitter spirit takes control. 

That person that we have a grievance with evokes in us a resentment that becomes a toxin in our soul.  This resentment festers into much more than simply an initial hurt or offense taken from a specific incident.  It becomes a grudge.  And that grudge becomes a cause.  

2. We withdraw fellowship.  

The festering, bitter spirit inevitable leads us to avoid the person who is the object of our resentment.  We find that we can't stand to be around him because it stirs up that hostile feeling. We stubbornly refuse to take steps to reconcile; therefore, we try to avoid that negative feeling by simply abandoning our relationship.

3. We nurture a disposition of suspicion. 

As a consequence of our resentment and bitter attitude, our carnal imagination takes over.  This person can now do nothing good.  Every action is suspect, and we are sure that this person's intentions and actions are always the problem.  Of course, we're no longer speaking, so we can't really know.

4. We pick up a rock. 

The resentment and bitterness in our spirit, combined with our own sense of self-righteousness, begins to justify our desire to see this person suffer.  We may not literally want to throw a rock at his head (or maybe we do), but we will take the opportunity to run that person down with our words, and we may even look for an opportunity to cause difficulty for that person.  At the very least we find ourselves wishing bad things for him or her.

Our goal should be to look like Jesus.  In the story, Jesus is the model of wisdom, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.  He neither gives the woman a pass on her sin, nor does he throw a rock.  He silences the Pharisees by pointing out to them the hypocrisy of their action and the evil of their motivations.  And before a watching crowd, He displays the nature of a gracious God. 

Is it time to drop the rock?  Is there someone with whom you have fallen into disagreement who now is your rival or enemy?  Is there someone who hurt you, but you refuse to forgive?  Is there a person that you are simply waiting, with your rock in hand, for that opportunity to let loose and cause injury?  If so, you need to drop the rock.  You need to do it to obey God.  You need to do it to show mercy and be gracious.  You need to do it for yourself. 

When we think of our own sin, like Jesus directed the Pharisees to do, then we rediscover our own neediness, find humility, and strip ourselves from the pride that continues to prop up an unforgiving spirit.

God has called his children to be examples of love, mercy and forgiveness.  This is how an unbelieving, but watching world knows that we belong to Jesus.  Because when they see us, they see him reflected.  They see us turn the other cheek.  They see us forgive seventy times seven times.  They see us forgive as people who have been forgiven of much.  They see us as ministers of reconciliation and peace.

We can't wait until we feel like forgiving.  Our selfish, sinful nature will win out every time if we follow our feelings.  Forgiving others is a choice we make.  And when we choose to forgive, the Holy Spirit will do a good work in us, in the other person, and in the situation.  We must trust God and follow his word and Christ's example.   

In all our relationships, and especially in the household of faith, we need to keep in mind what Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers. "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you"(4:31-32 ESV).    

Independence Day: My Favorite Holiday

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