The Race

Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson made quite a splash in some circles recently.  They are both religious influencers who announced in writing that they are stepping away from the Christian faith.  That’s disappointing, but should we be surprised?  Probably not.

In recent years, Pew Research Center studies have documented the increase of the “nones” (religiously unaffiliated) in the U.S.  The most oft-cited reasons for people categorizing themselves this way is that they disagree with teachings on religious and social issues.  To unpack that, they find more truth in culture than in Christianity.  Statements made by Harris and Sampson reflect that trend, and raise a question.  Must authentic, Biblical faith pass a cultural litmus test?

Jesus was a bit counter-cultural.  A lot, actually.  Those who considered him a revolutionary used that as the proximate cause of his execution, which he willingly endured for His eternal cause.  He knew His followers would face the risks of cultural pushback and even apostasy, so He warned about it in parables (Matt. 13).  The seeds fell on rocky and thorny places, and they didn’t endure.  The weeds grew with the wheat, at least until they didn’t.

The New Testament book of Hebrews uses some version of the word “endure” eight times in chapters 10 – 12.  The context of that exhortation is faith, and reasons to believe.  It becomes apparent that endurance is the fruit of a well-grounded faith, not the cause of it.  Don’t miss that.  Such faith might make you a public spectacle because of your view of eternity (10:32-34).  But by faith you endure and do the will of God, not of the cultural influencers of the day (10:35-36).  Your time on earth is finite, but by faith your soul endures (10:39).

Hebrews 11, the “hall of faith,” describes the deeds of men and women who had an assurance, a conviction about eternal truth.  They actively resisted the incoherent truth claims of their day, and they are our examples.  They proved the world was not worthy of them.  You do the same when you resist our culture’s confusions such as, when people believe something it becomes their truth; faith is worthless because it doesn’t stop bad things from happening; and, if you don’t celebrate all facets of this cultural moment, you’re a hater and your religion is evil.

So, you’re in a race to the finish line of faith.  The goal is to get there, not to be first.  With all the encumbrances and entanglements around you, how do you endure?  How do you make sure you don’t become a “none” writing an awkward note to those who thought otherwise?  By “fixing your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).  Believe, and endure.

 

 

Meaning

Why am I here? Does life have purpose? These are questions probed by philosophers, but they are also very personal, freighted with implications.

Someone with no good answer is more likely to succumb to the modern suicide epidemic. “Psychology Today” magazine reports that the suicide rate now exceeds highway fatalities, and is higher than it has been since 1950. A pointless life is unbearable and lonely.

Author Thomas Wolfe concluded that loneliness is inevitable. In his essay, “God’s Lonely Man,” he expressed a certain meaningless. “All this hideous doubt, despair, and dark confusion of the soul a lonely person must know, for he is united to no image save that which he creates himself. He has no faith in him except his own and often that faith deserts him leaving him shaken and filled with impotence. Then it seems to him that his life has come to nothing.”

Contributing to the problem is scientism, the belief that science can answer all questions. Zoology professor and Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar warned young scientists about that. “I have in mind such questions as: “How did everything begin?” “What are we all here for?” “What is the point of living?” These questions become incoherent if you accept evolution as settled science. Why should you, a collection of molecules arranged by a meaningless, random process, expect to find transcendent meaning?

The Bible has answers that are coherent and reasonable. Its explanations correspond to what we observe and deduce. Scientists regularly observe evidence of design quite beyond the reach of Darwinism. We deduce that since nothing material causes itself, logic demands a First Cause, a Creator. So, to what end would God create your soul to reside in an earthly body? Abraham left hearth and home for unknown places because “he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Paul counted “all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). These men lived with purpose!

John Piper summarizes that your purpose is to magnify God. He compares that to a telescope by which the unimaginably vast universe can become visible to the human eye. “You are on planet earth to put a telescope to the eye of the world. That’s why you exist. By your behavior, your parenting, the way you do your job, the way your worship, and the way you handle your life, everyone should read, ‘God is great.’ ”

A transformed life of faith reflects the greatness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seek and know your Creator, Savior, and Counselor! You will find no higher meaning.

Home Forever

A young woman paced the sidewalk outside the pastor’s home. He and his wife were preparing for a picnic in the park.  They noticed woman’s tentative attempts to approach their door.

F.W. Boreham wrote about his experience that day. Realizing that the woman needed something, he invited her inside.  She poured out the heart-rending tragedy of her baby’s sudden death.  She needed help with the burial.  She confided that the baby was born out of wedlock, and was deformed.  That changed nothing for the pastor.  The next day he, his wife, and the woman laid the baby to rest during a driving rainstorm in a barren place.

The woman found a home with Boreham’s church because they treated her with love, care, and respect. She must have known that the cemetery was not her baby’s home.  Ravi Zacharias comments, “The respect shown in a cemetery comes not because it is home, but because it is where we bid believing loved ones a temporary good-bye.  Jesus came from the Father and returned to the Father to prepare a place for you and for me.  That’s home.”  That’s your destiny when you believe Jesus.

He refers to Jesus’ words, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).  Jesus did not just speak of life after death philosophically, but he demonstrated it physically.  He assured Martha that her brother would live again saying, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:26).  Then he raised Lazarus.  Later he raised Himself from the dead.

This life beyond, in a prepared place, is where community, reunions, and love happen. Isn’t that what a home is?  This place is not just for being with loved ones again, but being with the One who loves us.  Jesus wants you to be with Him.

Stuart Hine was a pre-WWII missionary to the Russian people. They sang a hymn that he translated to English.  After the war, a displaced man told how he despaired of finding his wife, and longed to meet her again in heaven.  That inspired Hine to pen another verse to the hymn.  When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!

You worship a great God who rescues you from the bounds of time and decay! You can travel lightly on this earthly journey with the confirmation that you have a place to call home, forever.

 

 

Taste the Salt

Journalist Mindy Belz spoke truth to power at the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom sponsored by the U.S. State Department.  She argued that a culture will miss the Christian community when it’s gone.

Belz has a deep resume of reporting from war-torn areas while embedded with affected communities.  She said, “In Iraq, Christians formed the backbone of the middle class.  They were the shopkeepers and professionals.  Without them, Iraq is poorer.  The ‘victims,’ then, aren’t only those who are targeted.”  A society that pushes Christians to the margins writes itself into a groundless, exploitative pulp fiction.  It ignores the true stories of the past and present that tell of Christians seasoning cultures with compassion, dignity, and charity.

In ancient Rome, we rescued babies left to die, tended people sick with plagues, and fed the hungry including non-Christians.  In the Middle Ages we founded universities and advanced science and medicine.  Today we have organizations like these 2019 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion recipients: Scarlet Hope in Louisville, that rescues exploited women; Little Light Christian School in Oklahoma City that educates children of prisoners; 20schemes in Scotland that lifts people from poverty, crime, and addiction; Watered Gardens in Joplin, MO, that helps jobless and homeless men; and Purposeful Design in Indianapolis that provides woodworking jobs to former prisoners.

In his book, Unimaginable, Jeremiah Johnston describes how Christians benefit humanity, and why.  It’s because believers past and present have seen by this light: “God is loving; human life (that is, all life – old, young, sick, healthy, disabled, afflicted) is sacred to God; and…believing the kingdom of God was coming and yet in their midst, they prepared by caring for the sick, marginalized, and hurting, immediately.”  Indeed, that is what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, considered a magnum opus of ethics for His followers (Matt. 5-7).  And did He not elevate love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40) as the greatest commands?  Even if an individual or culture does not accept Jesus’ teachings, they will benefit from having people around who take them seriously.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?” (Matt. 5:13).  Make no mistake.  It’s not just about a grain of salt.  It takes many shakes of the shaker to bend the flavor curve, even as each grain does its part.  Simply said, you are part of something far larger than yourself when you participate in what the Father is doing in the world.  Jesus said He did only what the Father directed (John 5:19), and He’s our example.  God is glorified, and your life, family, and culture are more savory when your life of faith is lived so that people taste the salt.

Why Me?

“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1) is the epigraph in Days of Grace: A Memoir by tennis great Arthur Ashe.  Indeed, he endured much in his short life.

Ashe’s mother died when he was six.  His father raised him on the grounds of a recreation park, which providentially had tennis courts.  He spent childhood summers in the home of Dr. Walter Johnson who served up values and character along with tennis instruction.

Ashe was a student athlete at UCLA and coached tennis at West Point after graduation.  As a professional, he won three of four Grand Slam tournaments: the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon.  In 1975, he was ranked #1 in the world.  Yet he said, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments.”

Life took a turn when he was diagnosed with heart disease.  During bypass surgery, he contracted HIV from a transfusion.  He officially retired from tennis in 1980 at age 36.

Yet he endured.  Ashe helped develop: the ABC Cities program to promote tennis and academics; the Safe Passage Foundation for poor children; the Athletes Career Connection; the Black Tennis & Sports Foundation; 15-Love for those recovering from substance abuse; and the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.  He commented, “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life,” he said.  And what a life he made in his 49 years.

He could have been bitter about not growing old.  Yet he said, “If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.”  One of the best things that happened was his faith.  He was raised in the Christian tradition, but trusted Christ only after observing the lives of his friends Bob Briner (TV producer) and Stan Smith (Ashe’s competitor in tennis).  These men’s lives were consistent with their faith, and Ashe invited them to pray with him and help him in his faith in Christ.

Ashe’s accepting attitude is reflected in these sometimes difficult words:  “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thes. 5:16-18).  You can be thankful that disease and death have no final authority over you.  To view health and earthly life as your standard of peace and reality is to obscure eternity.  The Psalmist says, “Lord make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am” (Psa. 39:4).  By faith you’re passing through this life saying, “Thank you!” not “Why me?”

Beginning and Ending

The WWII era was a frightening time as people realized that life as they knew it could actually end. Two leaders from that period noted the link between beginning and ending, expressing hope even in those dark days.

The British army had finally turned back Rommel’s tanks in North Africa. In a speech in November 1942, Winston Churchill tempered his nation’s thrill over the victory. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The beginning had been quite bleak with the embarrassing defeat at Dunkirk. Some had even called for terms that would have resulted in the liquidation of the British Empire. Yet Churchill saw reason for hope. He continued, “Here we are, and here we stand, a veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world.” A few years later, this hope would be realized as a new beginning for post-war Europe.

As the shooting war was ending, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for resisting Hitler and Nazi brutalities. He was in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and later Flossenburg. In April 1945, at the end of a Sunday service, the guards came for him. His fellow prisoners knew what this meant. He said, “This is the end…but for me it is the beginning.”

This history reminds you that what looks like an ending might well be a beginning. A childhood completed is an adult life begun. A long goodbye at the airport begins the journey of a lifetime. The loss of health begins a certain thoughtfulness about the gift of life. A career completed means time for new pursuits. A friendship turned toxic begins a season of forgiveness. The passing of the faithful means “to be at home with the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:8).

You are not abandoned to the chaos of meaningless endings. Jesus owns beginnings and endings! He said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6). He is there in the world’s beginning (John 1:1). He is there in the end, promising, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He will be there when you take up residence in the Father’s house (John 14:2). You can trust him to renew you through your beginnings and endings.

The Christian life is an ending and a beginning. If you are in Christ, you are “a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Reconciled to God through Christ, you begin a life of peace with Him. If God can love you so, then He can take whatever rough ending you endure and buff it into a beginning.

To the River

America’s Voices In Israel is an organization that arranges trips to the Holy Land for prominent and influential Americans. Let’s hear from two men who had similar experiences on their trips.

As a believer in high school, Deshawn Watson prayed about his football career. He agreed to play at Clemson and was key to their college football national championship in 2016. He went on to become a star for the Houston Texans. During his trip to Israel, he was immersed in a place thought to be where John baptized Jesus. “It is simply overwhelming to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River,” he said.

Mario Lopez began his acting career in 1984 and soon landed a key role in the TV sitcom “Saved by the Bell.” He still makes regular appearances in both small and large screen roles. He also received baptism during his trip to the Holy Land. On Twitter he announced, “I’m about to get baptized. It’s a beautiful day. There’s a really cool Catholic priest that’s gonna do me the honors. So I’m going to join these fine folks and then, bam! It’s on!”

The Jordan River meant quite the experience for those two men, as it did for John the Baptist. He baptized there to reflect repentance from sin, but he resisted baptizing Jesus “who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus insisted, “In this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mat. 3:15). Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his public life, and associated Him with John’s prophetic message. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal the righteousness of God, accessible to you by faith (Rom. 1:17).

Christian baptism is often misunderstood as the entry point to a lifetime of earning God’s favor. Oxford Professor John Lennox likens that view to a college career. “There’s an entrance process and ceremony that gets you started. A few years later you face your final exams. Your professors cannot guarantee you graduating because the system is based on merit. People say, ‘Yes, my religion is like that. There’s a ceremony performed on a child or adult. There are teachers, but they cannot guarantee that at the final assessment God will accept me. I behave as well as I can, and cast myself on the mercy of God.’ That’s not Christianity. In religion, acceptance comes (hopefully) at the end of the journey. In Christianity, it comes at the beginning.”

Baptism, then, is a celebration of life and acceptance by God! It acknowledges God’s righteousness as a gift by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). It is authorized by Jesus when he tells his followers to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Luke 28:19). Baptism is your first witness to the world that you believe Jesus and identify with Him. Let’s go down to the river!

Of Men and Angels

James Madison lived to the advanced age of 85 and helped birth our nation. He became known as the “Father of the Constitution” which was adopted when he was a young 36.  He led the drafting of the Bill of Rights, and served as our fourth President.

To promote the adoption of the Constitution, Madison wrote a series of articles published as The Federalist Papers.  In No. 51, while explaining the need for checks and balances in government, he makes a key observation.  “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”  This reflects the Biblical view of the fallen human condition which makes government necessary.

It is worth noting that the Founders never believed that a constitution and laws are enough to make government successful.  Madison wrote, “Is there no virtue among us?  If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.  No theoretical checks – no form of government can render us secure.  To suppose that any form of government can secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical (illusory) idea.”  George Washington said, “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.”  Another Founder, John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton.  He warned, “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery will ensue.”

What does this mean for today?  Well, men are still not angels, and current events (and politics) reek of rotten materials.  Many reject God as the source of virtue (morality), which reduces it to simply choices.  Or, if it’s legal it’s moral, which is entirely backwards to Madison’s thinking.  What a contrast with what French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1838!  “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.  America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

America was founded on liberty, unalienable rights, and government only by the consent of the governed.  These hopes stand on the twin pillars of constitutional government and personal morality.  Morality must come from our Creator else it becomes entangled preferences, power struggles, and ugly arguments.  Even Jefferson and Franklin, not known to be Christians, recognized the need for transcendent values.

On this Independence Day, join me in praying that America will return to our founding, mutually dependent principles of liberty, virtue, and faith.  After all, men are not angels.

 

Aging Fruit

The young fancy themselves wise, unable to reason with their feeble minds;
the old fancy themselves feeble, unminding the season that finds them wise.

Growing old isn’t for the faint of heart. Ok, that’s cliché. Tennyson said it better in “Ulysses.” “Death closes all; but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with gods. We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are – One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” To be wise in advanced years means having a vital (noble) interest and a resolute (heroic) courage to engage life.

An inspired life is a joyful one. Robert Louis Stevenson writes in “The Lantern-Bearers” about boys and their bulls-eye lanterns. They took great joy in the tiny lantern buckled to the waist, well hidden beneath the topcoat. His point is that the source of a person’s joy is not in the “salts and acids” of what is seen. “We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales.” Do you exist solely in the salts and acids, or has inspiration lifted you? Old age is no excuse.

Ronald Reagan exemplified inner joy and resolute courage. In 1984, he was the oldest person (73) to be elected President. When the issue of his age came up in debate, he looked to his opponent Walter Mondale and said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed!

Where does someone find a work of noble note, and a heroic heart strong in will? The Psalmist has the answer. “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age” (Psa. 92:12-13). That righteousness is not your own but “through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9).

The older you are, the more keenly you realize what you don’t know. But you have the wisdom of life experience, something to offer to the yet age-challenged. As long as you continue in your earthly tent, you have reason for joy and a purpose for life, along with your hope for eternity. By faith, endowed with the righteousness of God, you will yield fruit in old age.

God Hath Wrought

Samuel Morse was a portrait painter in 1825. He was away from home working in New York City when he received a message that his wife was sick. The next day another message said she had died. He immediately rushed home only to learn that she had already been buried. Working through his grief, he determined to improve long distance communications.

In the decades to come, he contributed to the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph, and received a patent for it. He crafted a transmittable alphabet. In 1844, he transmitted a long distance message in Morse code from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington D.C. to Baltimore. The historic first message was, “What hath God wrought?” (Num. 23:23)

That question is part of the story of Balak urging the prophet Balaam to curse God’s people, even though God had blessed them. The immediate retort was that God is not fickle or changeable, like humans. He had already declared that Balaam was not to curse the people. Instead he was to bless them, and the time or place of the question didn’t change the answer.

Israel was not like the other nations which relied on mysterious divinations to communicate with their gods. Israel enjoyed immediate revelation from the one true God. The evidence was in how He guided and empowered them, not least of which was the liberation of His people from Egypt. The people knew the answer to “What hath God wrought?” because they saw it. No words of Balak or Balaam would alter the blessing.

From that time, to the time of Christ, to now, God has not changed. He reveals Himself and His works. Even when you simply take a walk in the woods, His nature is “understood through what has been made” (Rom. 1:20). The greatest deed God hath wrought is recorded in history, never to be forgotten, and forever unchanged. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to die on a tree to set you free. I cannot say that’s what Mr. Morse had in mind, but it seems a distinct possibility.

We need no long distance communication from God; He is immanent and accessible. We need no mysterious means to know about Him; He has revealed Himself. He has declared truth that does not change; religious whims of the day notwithstanding. He is hope for the widowed, comfort for the grieving, and love for the lonely. He is a friend to the traveler, the forgiver of the repentant, and the anchor for your soul. The one who practices truth has come “to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:21). By faith in Jesus you have a purposeful and eternal life. That, God hath wrought.