You Matter

One way America recognizes its heroes is with the Congressional Medal of Honor. The award includes a citation which describes in detail what happened, including when and where. Last month, the President awarded the Honor to John Canley for his actions as a marine in Vietnam, 1968. Gunnery Sergeant Canley matters, and his name is etched into history.

History also documents a rather eclectic group of people who shared a common goal, to build a wall. It calls out scores of names, describing their actions and where they built. The account includes curious details. It notes the builders’ usual professions (priest, goldsmith, perfumer, government official). One man’s daughters helped with his section. Some worked beside their own houses. They undertook the work at personal risk, threatened with the accusation of sedition. (Neh. 3)

Why would the Bible record such detailed history? We know it outlines a grand narrative of God’s dealing with humanity, but it does so with stories of real people. In this story of the wall around Jerusalem, we witness what matters to God. People’s names, professions, and work locations are important. Where they lived mattered. The role of women mattered. God clearly cares about people, places, homes, and jobs because the details fill the Book.

The temptation is to think that in the grand scheme, you don’t matter much. You didn’t win a medal or make history. But let me assure you, dear reader, you haven’t escaped God’s attention, fortunately. Sure, there is an unnerving aspect of an all knowing God, especially if you are hiding something. Jesus said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matt. 10:26). Jesus knows your past, too. When Nathanael asked how Jesus knew so much about him, He answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48).

But there is a more profound level of knowing, beyond concealed things and fig trees. We see this when Jesus warned He would tell certain posers, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). Love makes the difference with this kind of knowing. “If anyone loves God, he is known by Him” (1 Cor. 8:3). Loving God begins with accepting the truth about Jesus Christ, who loved you first despite your (ahem) details.

So be glad that God knows you. The Bible says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). When you sacrifice and serve, “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:4). To you, He has revealed Himself as Immanuel, or “God with us.” You may never receive a medal of honor or write your name in history, but if the God of the universe loves you, knows you, and is with you, then you matter.

Adopted

Perhaps you’ve heard of Russell Moore. Some know him as a commentator on politics, policy, and social issues. Southern Baptists know him as the leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

What you may not know is that he’s the father of two adopted boys from Russia. This, along with being a theologian, gives him a unique perspective on adoption. In fact, he cannot talk about his sons’ adoption without talking about the meaning of adoption for Christians. In his book, “Adopted for Life,” he writes, “We believe Jesus in heavenly things – our adoption in Christ; so we follow him in earthly things – the adoption of children. Without the theological aspect, the emphasis on adoption too easily is seen as mere charity.”

The theology is clear. In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, “that we might receive the adoption as sons,” and by His Spirit we can call God our Father (Gal. 4:4-6). The Spirit of God is called the “spirit of adoption,” and believers are “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:15-17). Of course, being a Christian is not a prerequisite for adopting a child, but it certainly packs more meaning into the human act of adoption knowing that we are all spiritual orphans needing a Father. He is the one “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:15). An adopted family is just as real a family as we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Moore describes the horrifying conditions in his sons’ orphanage, and the agonizing, costly process of making them his own. The toddlers were unresponsive, deprived of human touch to the extent of causing developmental delays. After visiting with them weeks before the final action, the boys would groan and wail when the Moores would leave the orphanage. Those boys knew they had experienced something that they did not want to lose. They needed simply to belong, to be fully known and loved.

We see this theme several times in the gospels. A woman of ill repute anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears. The other men around were fairly disgusted with it. Jesus asked them a powerful question. “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44). They were blind to this abused and ignored woman. A non-Jewish woman asked Jesus for help, but Jesus refused twice, as though to draw out her faith. The disciples wanted her gone. But Jesus said, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” (Matt. 15:28). Both women needed to be known and loved.

Jesus stepped out of his perfect home into the horrifying conditions of a fallen world only to endure the agonizing, costly process of making you his own. He knows you. He loves you. You are the apple of his eye, the one He adopts into his forever family.

The Problem

Most of us would not have a job if there were no problems to fix. Teachers fix ignorance. Mechanics fix cars. Carpenters fix houses. Doctors fix bodies. At least they all try, and we appreciate them for it. Have you ever pondered what the world’s ultimate problem is, and what the solution might be?

Leslie Stevenson’s book “Seven Theories of Human Nature” explores that topic and the thinkers that influence Western civilization. Plato thought the problem was the weakness of the physical body. Physical and mental discipline would improve humanity. Karl Marx believed the problem was capitalism’s self-defeating contradictions that would lead to widespread socialism. His solution was for workers to arise and implement a state-controlled economy.

Sigmund Freud counseled that the problem is the inner conflict between desire and conscience. He wanted to minimize the influence of morality advocates. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte saw moral restraint as the problem. His solution was to avoid holding objective values.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner believed we are completely determined by our environment and we have no free will. He used behavior analysis and conditioning to improve outcomes. Konrad Lorenz was a medical doctor and scientist that studied animal behavior. He found that the problem is our innate evolutionary aggression, corrected best with positive feedback.

Notice the contradictions. The problem is either human weakness, economics, inner conflict, morality, environment, or evolution. It’s amazing that western civilization advanced despite these discordant voices and their divergent diagnoses.

Stevenson thinks they all miss the point. He writes, “If God has made man for fellowship with Himself, and if man has turned away and broken his relationship to God, then only God can forgive man and restore the relationship.” John’s gospel says we are created, but suffer with spiritual darkness. God’s solution is to shine the Light of Christ, so that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe” (1:12).

Tim Keller says it this way: “The biblical worldview uniquely understands the nature, problem, and salvation of humankind as fundamentally relational. We were made for a relationship with God, we lost our relationship with God through sin against him, and we can be brought back into the relationship through his salvation and grace.”

This formula corresponds to the world as we know it. Despite the horrors, ugliness, and evil in the world, glimpses of love and beauty make our hearts yearn for what ought to be. We want ultimate meaning, but we cannot create a deeply satisfying purpose for ourselves. The grace of God is the only solution for a fallen world, and you’ll only find His relational solution after you admit that your problem is you.

Jesus Follower

The early church referred to itself as “the Way” before it adopted the label “Christian.” If we were to select a new name unfreighted by modern mischaracterizations, we could call ourselves “Jesus Followers.” But what does that mean? Glad you asked. Here are four ways you follow Jesus, found in His talk with Nicodemus (John 3).

1. You are born again. If you’re old enough, you recall that Jimmy Carter popularized this term. Chuck Colson wrote a book with that title. It comes from Jesus’ comment, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v.3-8). Look, this doesn’t indicate a special category of Christian; rather, it is how Jesus explained a necessary spiritual transformation. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” He said. Paul explained this new life, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).

2. You speak what you know. Jesus said, “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen” (v.9-12). You know that Jesus lived, died, and lived again. You know that in Christ, your life is transformed into what it never could be otherwise. You know His power to live on this earth and His promise of a home in heaven. You are an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), joining God’s mission to reconcile the world to Himself.

3. You believe in Him. You demonstrate your faith in bridge engineers and airline pilots when traveling. You trust the grocery store and the restaurant when you eat their food. Belief is not a subjective conclusion about a fact. It is acting on that fact and accepting the consequences. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (v.13-18). Following Jesus means accepting who He said He is.

4. You practice the truth. “He who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (v.19-21). Human nature is selfish, prideful, and secretive. When you act sacrificially, humble yourself before God and people, and confess your sins, you are practicing the truth of God. When you love God and your neighbor, you practice truth. If this is the light you walk in, then that is evidence of God at work in you.

Spiritual transformation from darkness to light, death to life, is a mystery. But Jesus sent the Spirit of truth to guide you into all truth (John 16:13). Since the Spirit is like the wind, why don’t you let out your sails and see what adventure awaits you, a Jesus Follower?

Supreme Truth

In case you didn’t notice, the Senate finally finished vetting a candidate for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course you did. The news cycle was filled with emotionally and politically charged stories. It was a boon for those who sell news by writing headlines and counting eyeballs. They made us feel it.

All seemed normal until an accuser stepped forward late in the confirmation process. Wildly different truth claims emerged. The gloves came off. No Marquis of Queensberry Rules. Finally the latest FBI report came in, but it changed the feelings of few. The new headline posted the report summary and invited, “Judge for Yourself.” What, judge my feelings? No way.

We used to be a post-modern culture, so they say, meaning we are entitled to our own private and unassailable truths. But the term of the day is now “post-truth.” That means feelings matter more than facts and truth. Isn’t that what trigger warnings and safe spaces are about?

If feelings trump truth, it means opponents can claim the other does not want the truth to come out, when what they mean is my feelings are paramount. It means deceptions and distortions of facts are irrelevant. It means preferences change your feelings rather than facts change your mind. You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.”

We’ll live in this emperor-has-no-clothes fairytale until we recover the sanctity and reality of objective truth. It is a sole light source that casts out darkness. It is exclusive and intolerant, calling out other claims as posers. Truth matters in a court of law, in the accounting office, in a medical practice, and in bridge construction.

Truth also matters in matters of faith or non-faith. Consider the self-evident truths that nothing can cause itself, that humans have a sense of morality and self-awareness, and that living organisms have irreducible complexity. These point to a Creator, unless of course, you feel differently.

Pluralism’s intellectually dishonest claim is that all paths lead to truth. Feels good, but the problem is that world religions assess different problems, with varying solutions and destinies (topic for another day).

Jesus’s purpose is truth. At His trial, He answered Pilate, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). Good question!

Jesus claimed to be exclusive Truth, God incarnate. He claimed to be the promised Jewish Messiah. He claimed to prepare a place for you in eternity. He claimed to have the power to raise you from the dead and take you to be where He is. That’s His supreme truth claim. You can trust your feelings, or you can trust Him.

Names

Identify this quote:  “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”

The quote means that a name doesn’t change the essence of a thing.  Yet we do use labels to identify and describe.  Clintonite and Trumpian are political.  Calvinist and Arminian are theological.  Capitalist and Socialist are economic.  But none of these names change a person’s essence, made in God’s image.

Some names are intended as pejorative.  If you’re into hashtags, #ShePersisted and #Deplorable are both labels coined as derogatory terms, now embraced by their targets.  A more ancient example of that is, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).   Unfortunately, “Christian” has become freighted with centuries of use and misuse, and remains offensive to some.

Trying to make a name for yourself may not be wise.  You know the Tower of Babel story when God confused their language, but why were they building it?  “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).  The name they wanted would reflect their success in religion and strength in numbers.  God nixed that as self-aggrandizement.

Have you seen that curious Bible passage about new names?  In a message to the church in Pergamum, God says, “You hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of (persecution)…To him who overcomes, I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it” (Rev. 2:13,17).  A secret name written on a white stone?  A bit mysterious, but it does signify that God knows you personally.

Back to that quote.  Juliette was saying that her Romeo’s name Montague should not prohibit their union despite the feud between families.  I’ll borrow Shakespeare’s point.  We identify with Jesus even if those close to us feud with his loving grace and his claim on their lives.  It’s less important to me whether I’m called Baptist, Christian, or Bible thumper.  What matters is that God knows my name, and He can call me any name He wants (just don’t forget to call me to heaven!).

Charles Miles (d.1946) was trained as a pharmacist.  He left that career to become a composer and publisher.  Some of his lyrics read, “There’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine, yes it’s mine!  With my sins forgiven I am bound for heaven, nevermore to roam.”   The Bible says, “There is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  That name is Jesus Christ.

Psalms

If you’re like me, you find yourself in seasons when you can’t take the news anymore. Not surprising since the business model of most cable news outlets is to gin up outrage to capture your eyes. Stop warring with news reports and find peace in a place that soothes the heart. I offer you five reasons to meditate on the Psalms.

1. As an aid to worship. Worship isn’t just a place, a service, or music. It is acknowledging God and His intervention in human affairs. “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name! The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace” (29:2,11). “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness” (150:2).

2. When life is not going well. Julie Andrews sang about roses, kittens, and mittens, favorite things to remember when the dog bites and the bee stings. But when light thoughts cannot lift the weight of life, the Psalms helps you cast your burden on the One who loves you. “Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (120:2). “Be gracious to me, O God, for man has trampled upon me; fighting all day long he oppresses me. When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You” (56:1,3).

3. If you like poetry. Ancient Hebrew poetry uses parallelism, meaning lines are linked to affirm or oppose each other. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (51:2-3). “He supports the fatherless and the widow, but He thwarts the way of the wicked” (146:9). “The wicked borrows and does not pay back, but the righteous is gracious and gives” (37:21).

4. When nature inspires you. Psalm 8 speaks of babies, the moon, and stars. It reflects on God’s care for humans and human care for animals. It closes with, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” In another place, “The God of glory thunders, the Lord is over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful” (29:3-4).

5. To know who Jesus is: “He said to Me, You are my Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance” (2:7-8). “My God, my God why have You forsaken me? All who see me sneer at Me. They pierced My hands and My feet. They divide My garments among them” (22:1,7,16,18).

Another way to enjoy the Psalms is through the work of modern hymn writers like Keith and Kristen Getty. (Lookup Psalm 24 on YouTube for a Celtic rhythm.) Either way, let the Psalms refresh your soul. Whatever is lovely, whatever worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Perspective

For a while, Hurricane Florence was larger than the states of North and South Carolina combined. I was amazed at the geostationary satellite images from 22,000 miles above the equator. I was pained at the local images of flooding and destruction that satellites cannot capture. Different perspectives, different responses.

In 1990, Bette Midler recorded the song, “From a Distance.” The lyrics explain “from a distance the world looks blue and green. From a distance there is harmony. From a distance we all have enough and no one is in need and there are no guns, no bombs and no disease. God is watching us from a distance.” So, if we back off far enough we won’t see problems anymore because after all, that’s what God does? That’s one perspective, I suppose.

Maybe time lends perspective. We can learn from the past, and with time we might make more sense of it. But C. S. Lewis opined that God would have people “concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the present – either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.” He warns against dwelling on the past, and temptations focused on the future: fear, greed, and lust.

So, distance and time are not reliable ways to reset your perspective. I’m thinking of another song, recorded by Amy Grant at age 18. “She’s got her Father’s eyes; eyes that find the good in things when good is not around; eyes that find the source of help when help just can’t be found; eyes full of compassion seeing every pain, knowing what you’re going through and feeling it the same.”

God doesn’t watch from a distance. He became flesh and dwelled among us. The widow burying her only son and the distressed and dispirited people He saw with compassion. A rich young man captivated by his possessions, He saw with love. His dead friend Lazarus and the city of Jerusalem filled His eyes with wet grief, even though He is the Resurrection and Peace, their only Hope. (John 1:14, Luke 7:13, Matt. 9:36, Mark 10:21, John 11:35, Luke 19:41)

You need a fresh perspective not filtered by your own memories and biases. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “Odd as it may seem I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self who does my living is like a stranger to me.” But you are not limited by that. In Christ, you are a new creation and you have His mind to appraise things the way He does (2 Cor. 5:17, 1 Cor. 2:16). His indwelling Spirit means you have your Father’s eyes, a clear and eternal perspective.

God Alone

“Washington monument hailed as obelisk to Moloch.  Gathering planned this Sunday.”  If that were a real headline, the idolatry would be easy to spot.  Yet modern idolatry is a thing, and can be rather subtle.

Take politics.  In certain quarters, the ideal is free healthcare, free college education, and universal basic income.  In this system, utilities and transportation systems become public resources, and the economy is planned by elites while corporations are panned as evil.  Others can debate the pros and cons of such.  My point is that this system looks to government as a kind of god.

Nietzsche declared that modern man had killed God, so only manmade systems remain. In response Francis Schaeffer explained, “A person can erect some sort of structure in which he lives, shutting himself up in that frame and not looking beyond it.  It can sound high and noble, such as talking in an idealistic way about the greatest good for the greatest number.”  Idealism and noble words are no substitute for self-evident truths.

Our Founders said that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights, and government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.  In other words, the government answers to the people, and the people answer to God.  Yet the 20th C. brought a stunning shift toward secularism, which removes God and reverses the others so that people answer to the government.  This makes the state an idol with godlike powers to decide issues of morality, freedom, and human value.

Nations can be deceived by subtle idolatry, and so can individuals.  The early church father Origen said, “What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.”  Billy Graham preached, “We worship ourselves, the things we’ve created and made with our hands.  Materialism!  All of these have become gods.  Sex is a goddess.  These are the modern gods.”  John Stonestreet alliterates the idols of our day as “sex, self, state, science, and stuff.”

The Bible gives reasons to worship God.   He is good.  He accomplishes his purposes in the affairs of men and nations.  He is eternal.  He judges with compassion.  It also warns of idols:  “Those who make them will be like them.” (Psa. 135:1-18).  Worship changes you, and everyone worships something or someone.  Joshua sounds the clarion call of the ages.  “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve!” (Josh. 24:15).

St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”  He who is revealed as one God in three Persons has formed you for Himself.  As you worship Him with your life, He molds you into the image of the Son, fills you with His Spirit.  Find your rest as you worship God alone.

Burdened Community

The Loneliness Epidemic is upon us. It is the rotten fruit of rugged individualism, the prison food of digital isolation, the sour stew of broken relationships.  “Psychology Today” reports that in the last 50 years, loneliness has doubled in the U.S.

There is an answer for that Epidemic, and it’s not the CDC in Atlanta. It’s you.  It’s community.

The late John McCain was a little less lonely in that Vietnamese prison camp than he might have been. They bound his arms with ropes as a form of torture.  One guard surreptitiously loosened the ropes during his shift.  Later, on Christmas Day, that guard drew a cross in the dirt with his foot. McCain understood that a fellow believer had taken a risk to relieve his burden.  McCain did the same when he refused early release so another POW could go home.

Creating a loving community involves risk and sacrifice. The early church (Acts 2, 4) understood that.  They sold their possessions to provide for those in need.  Their crisis was persecution, but everybody has one – it’s the human condition.

Puerto Rico seemed a tropical paradise before Hurricane Maria. The devastation was so complete that counting the dead and rescuing the living was nigh impossible.  In “Christianity Today,” Pastor Gadiel Rios explained that God “used these trying times to refocus the spiritual mindset of congregations everywhere, reshaping our understanding of the Christian life as it was intended to be: saved people living in true community, loving God, loving their spiritual brothers and sisters, and loving the lost souls.  A few days after the hurricane, local congregations started to meet.  A sense of shared community kicked in, and everyone started to look for opportunities to serve the most pressing needs.”

They rediscovered the building blocks of community. The Bible says it this way:  “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).  Does this not reflect Jesus words, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)?  In his essay “Luggage of Life,” F. W. Boreham explains, “He only invited them that He might offer His yoke and burden.  Here is something worth thinking about. Christ gives rest to the heart by giving burdens to the shoulders.”  To carry each other’s luggage “is the law of Christ, the law of the cross, a sacrificial law.”

Loneliness and tragedy call for love. If you are like Jesus, you sacrifice your time or treasure for others, and find tangible ways to love those whose burdens are heavy.  “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10).  Don’t wait for community to find you; create it yourself by following the law of Christ: love your neighbors by bearing their burdens.