Christian Hope

“This increasing godlessness in America is actually a good thing, to be welcomed and embraced” (LA Times).  Professor Phil Zuckerman believes progressive secularism offers hope.

He admits that religious organizations do good, “however, such welcomed charity is ultimately an altruistic response to symptoms, not a structural cure for root causes.”  He promotes secular efforts to address housing and healthcare.  He believes secularism offers a better hope for human rights, environmental issues, and social justice.

I could reverse these charges. Secular solutions do not recognize the basic problem.  Humans are not “basically good” and just need more education.  We are selfish, prideful, and yield to our base desires. Reckon with that root cause and solutions make more sense. Yet somehow the secular hope is that a sociologist or politician will usher in a better program to fix the human condition.

It’s ultimately a worldview issue.  Where is the hope if life is only material and limited by time?  Where is the hope if we are all alone in a random, chaotic universe, and good and evil are just choices?  Where is meaning in such a universe, if you deny the science that points to the metaphysical reality of a Creator God?  Do you ever wonder how a mindless universe incapable of hope produces mindful, hopeful beings?  A faulty worldview and its solutions address symptoms and cannot sustain hope. But even a misplaced hope teaches you something.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes about misplaced hope. You can blame the object of hope (politicians or programs), or “decide that the whole thing was moonshine!” (lower your expectations).  Or as he wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”  Hope, even misplaced, points to the transcendent.

Christians have hope for life here and now because of our future hope. Paul reflects on the Resurrection of Christ and writes, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).  Christians have hope imprinted on our souls.  The hope Christ offers is that you are more than a physical body and are not alone.  Meaning comes from following Jesus into the sufferings of humanity and loving your neighbor.  The basic problem is human brokenness, but by faith your hope is in the One who loves you, makes you whole, and offers you eternity.

The hope of America and the world is Jesus Christ, not increasing godlessness.  But I agree with Professor Zuckerman on this: we should not fear what’s coming.  Not because secularism has solutions, but because Christians have hope.

 

Culture Shifts

Wall Street markets were closed on Good Friday.  Their other annual religious holiday is Christmas Day.  Given the cultural trend toward a secular worldview, one wonders how long before they cancel or rename those holidays.

Just in my lifetime I’ve witnessed that trend.  Growing up in a small town in the South, nothing was open on Sunday except churches and restaurants.  I guess the city fathers didn’t think the Lord would mind if we ate out after church meeting.  Grandma was certain that fishing on Sunday was a sin, so we didn’t.  And we certainly had no little league baseball games or practice on the Lord’s Day.  Blue laws tended to keep things quiet one day a week so we could rest from our labors.  Oh, the nostalgia of a sunny, lazy, Sunday afternoon with nothing to do, no place to go.

Times change.  Gallop dropped a poll last week showing church membership among Americans fell below fifty percent for the first time, extending a 20-yr downward trend.    Maybe that’s why more businesses keep Sunday hours (but not a certain chicken chain based in Georgia).

Gallup attributes the church membership drop to (1) fewer Americans claim any religious preference and (2) fewer religious Americans prioritize church membership.  The latter could be due to participation in religious activities in homes.  Barna Group research shows an increasing number of Americans attend religious meetings in homes.  They estimate 12 million Americans attend a house church regularly.

In The House Church Book, Wolfgang Simpson writes, “The New Testament church was made up of small groups, typically between ten and fifteen people.  It grew by multiplying ‘sideways,’ dividing like organic cells.”  The Bible mentions the church meeting in the homes of Aquila and Prisca (1 Cor. 16:19), Philemon and Apphia (Phile. 1:1-2), and others.  Over time as the church gained influence it began to build sacred spaces, shifting away from home meetings.

While the culture shifts toward secularization and away from traditional values, many churches in America are strengthening their members with home fellowships.  The last 30 years have proved their popularity, sometimes despite zoning threats against Christian friends meeting to pray.  Some home gatherings are part of a traditional church, others function as churches. Maybe the church is experiencing its own cultural renewal, a return to our roots.

This time of year, Wall Street fears an old rumor that Good Friday trading led to the worst market collapse in history.  Not the best reason to continue that holiday.  Some churchgoers act on a rumor that attending church tips the celestial scales in their favor.  I can think of better reasons to gather with believers, like community and worship.  And what if that gathering is not in a religious building, but a house?  Is that too much of a culture shift for you?

 

It Happened

The bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated as a focal point of the Christian faith.  Skeptics dismiss it as a myth or metaphor.

I love my non-believing friends and offer here a few of the many reasons to consider the Resurrection a historical event. I appeal to the scientific method of abduction, which is what detectives do as they seek the most logical explanation of a non-repeatable past event.

Was Jesus even a real person that died like the Bible says?  Consider secular sources.  Josephus was a first-century Roman Jewish historian who wrote an account of Jesus’ death by crucifixion.  Tacitus, also a first century figure and a Roman senator, recorded that Jesus “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilatus.”  They had access to eyewitnesses and no reason to propagate a fictional account.

Maybe the disciples made it up to save face?  For this to work, they would need to remove the body.  In fact, those who had Jesus killed circulated that story.  But it’s implausible due to security measures in place at the tomb.  It’s even more implausible when you consider that Jesus’ followers would have known it was a lie and yet they stuck to their story despite suffering persecution and death because of it.

Were the appearances of Jesus hallucinations?  The disciples were pragmatic working men, not dreamers.  They were disillusioned, afraid, and confused because they had no expectation of a resurrection – the wrong preconditions for hallucination.  Also, science has yet to document a group hallucination, and Jesus appeared to groups multiple times.  They touched him and ate with Him.  One time he even prepared their breakfast on the beach!  You and I would have enjoyed that.

What is the most plausible explanation for the empty tomb? No one ever produced a body to refute a resurrection “hoax.”  Hallucination cannot explain the multiple and simultaneous sightings of the resurrected Jesus.  Would a fabricated story transform frightened disciples into bold preachers of Christ’s Resurrection, releasing a movement that changed the world?  In Gunning for God, Professor John Lennox quotes Norman Anderson summarizing the evidence. “The empty tomb forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the Resurrection dash themselves in vain.”  The verdict: It happened.

The Bible offers you a challenge.  Prove that the physical, bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen, and you disprove Christianity.  It says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).  The question that remains is, will you follow the evidence?

A physical Resurrection is the most logical explanation of the evidence.  It proves that Jesus’ offer of love, forgiveness, and a living eternity with Him is real.  Christians celebrate it worldwide because we know it happened.

Honest Love

“Let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him” (1 Jn. 3:18-19).

Kim Scott was an executive with Google and other tech companies.  She tells about hiring “Bob,” a likeable guy with a stellar resume.  Soon it was apparent he couldn’t do the work. She and the rest of the team covered for Bob…for a while.  She finally fired him.  He reacted, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all cared.”  It was uncaring to let him think all is well.

Love embraces truth, and truth matters.  For example, if it’s true that God made you, then that defines you.  Truth matters because this is a sin-marred world that is good at deception.  It matters because you cannot be anything you identify yourself to be, and you’ll ruin yourself trying.  Isn’t it loving to be honest about that?

This might be inside baseball, but I’ve witnessed a lack of loving honesty among those who claim to represent the Christian worldview.  Is as though they realize the message of the cross really is scandalous and needs softening, modernizing.

The soft line is that if you try hard to do better, that’s enough.  Hope your good outweighs the bad. God loves you anyway and knows you try. So, keep trying, Bob!  The modern take is that if you interpret the Bible the right way and account for the current cultural mood, you’ll see God actually blesses what used to be “sin.” Great job, Bob!

Here is some honest love.  The Bible says you are a broken, lost sinner in need of a Savior.  That’s the scandal.  You are not “basically good” but when God re-creates you in Christ, you inherit His goodness.  Your high calling is to live out that new identity.  Transformed by the love of Christ, you don’t excuse or bless sin; you abandon it.  You flourish as a human by believing what God says about you and by being reconciled to God through Christ on His terms.  Love doesn’t participate in lies and omissions.  It speaks the truth even when painful.

In the foreword to Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel,” Rich Mullins states the gospel of Christ as “the good news that, although the holy and all-powerful God knows we are dust, he still stoops to breathe into us the breath of life – to bring to our wounds the balm of acceptance and love.”  Living by that good news is the best antidote to a world untethered to reality.  To know and speak that truth is honest love.

“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

Effective Follower

“Follow the science!” is the cry of parents who have lost their patience with school districts in America yet to resume in-person learning. They have heard that the CDC has given a green light to opening schools closed by the COVID pandemic.

The CDC published guidance that “presents a pathway to reopen schools and help them remain open through consistent use of mitigation strategies.” It also says, “As science and data on COVID-19 continue to evolve, guidance and recommendations will be updated to reflect new evidence.” I appreciate the recognition that science isn’t “settled” in this case. In fact, science often overrules previous conclusions based on new evidence. So, to “follow the science,” you need to be somewhat circumspect.

The human effort via science to understand our world has yielded fascinating and powerful results. It has provided discoveries and inventions that affect many aspects of our lives. Yet science does not and in fact cannot have all the answers. Take the COVID vaccine, for example. Science has answered the question of how to prevent this infection. But science cannot answer who ought to be the first to receive immunization. That is a moral question, one lost on the people who finagled a way to jump ahead of nursing home residents and healthcare personnel. They followed the science, right to the front of the line.

Floating around in the minds of people today is the worldview that the universe began with a spontaneous, self-caused event which produced our solar system. Over millions of years, life fermented from a broth of ancient oceans and evolved to what we see today. With such unintentional origins, it follows that you should decide your morality and control your destiny. So why not jump to the front of the line, following your desires?

On the other hand, if God created you then He has much to say about life and morality. Science, then, becomes one means to know the Creator as revealed in the physical world. The more science reveals the mysteries of creation, the more difficult it is to deny the Creator. Follow the science and behold the transcendent! John Lennox writes, “There is an intelligent God who created, ordered and upholds the universe. He made human beings in his image…endowed with the capacity not only to understand the universe but to enjoy fellowship with God.”

The Bible says that by Jesus “all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible – through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). To enjoy fellowship with Him, answer His call to “Follow Me!” Do that and you will experience the life of an effective follower.

“Great are the works of the Lord. They are studied by all who delight in them. Splendid and majestic is His work, and His righteousness endures forever” (Psa. 111:2-3).

The Narrow Way

I have a Peach Pass.  That means I can exit the multi-lane freeway through the toll gate and use the single lane with light traffic that skips past the notorious Atlanta congestion.  I usually experience survivor’s guilt when I see the hapless souls stuck with the trucks, going nowhere.

It reminds me of something Jesus said.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:14). It’s not the small gate and narrow way that alarms me.  It’s the “few who find it” part.  He also said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24).  He went on to describe people who were knocking on a door claiming with futility the head of the house should know them.

Why is the portal to the truest expression of human life, living in communion with God, hard to find?  Part of the answer is God’s common grace.  You experience the beauty of creation, the love of family and friends, or success in your endeavors and things seem right with the universe.  If life is good, you can fail to realize that you still need to be reconciled to God.

In “Screwtape Letters,” C. S. Lewis imagines comments by a tempter sent from the devil, whose enemy is God.  Screwtape says, “The only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light…Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”  Indeed, the wide gate and broad road are the comfortable, default way of life. That’s alarming.

But all is not lost.  Once, people asked Jesus, “Who can be saved?”  His response?  “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).  God has made a way when there seems to be no way.  To be specific, Jesus said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved” (John 10:9).  He is the small door.  He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).  He is the narrow way.

My Peach Pass works in the neighboring states of Florida and North Carolina.  They have welcomed me to travel on those privileged lanes.  It is good to know that the right way to travel is open to you, even if it is narrow and few find it.

Prayer: Our Father in heaven lead me to turn from my ways, to know the Way, and to walk in him.

Healing Words

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity… (It) sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell (Jas. 3:5-6).

Smith College is an elite women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.  It is suffering from too much attention lately, including a recent article in the New York Times.

Cafeteria worker Jackie Blair worked on campus at a camp for children during the 2018 summer term.  One day when a college student entered the cafeteria, Blair mentioned that it was reserved for the children.  The student ignored her and took food to a nearby lounge area.  A janitor saw the student in the closed dorm and notified campus police per protocol.  The officer made brief contact with the student but took no action.

That evening the offended student posted on social media, “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith.” She claimed racial profiling and gender bias. She “doxed” Blair and a janitor (who wasn’t there).  Her words set the world on fire.

The college put the janitor on leave.  They initiated police sensitivity and staff anti-bias training.  During that training, Jodi Shaw refused to accept the premise that she is inherently privileged and biased because of her race.  She resigned and may sue the school as a hostile workplace, an ironic twist.

Blair has been harassed by major media outlets.  After being turned down for a job she said, “What do I do?  When does this racist label go away?”  Recently retired Tracey Culver said, “We were gobsmacked – four people’s lives wrecked.  How do you rationalize that?”  She said that because a law firm investigated on behalf of the college and found no evidence of bias at that dorm incident.  The original offense never happened, though the Times insisted the student’s deeply felt personal truth mattered more than facts.

I have no interest in taking sides here, but I do see this as an example of the power of words.  They can tear down, set afire, and deceive.  Or they can encourage, edify, and reveal.  Speak quickly and you will say the most impactful words you will ever regret.  Slow down, manage your emotions, and consider whether your words are true, kind, and necessary, and then your words will reflect wisdom.

The world today is complicated by social and moral upheaval, but how you speak to it is not. Consider the simple lesson from Sunday School:  “O be careful little tongue what you say!  For the Father up above is looking down in love.  So, be careful little tongue what you say!”

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov. 12:18).  Speak healing words.

Shoveling Love

LA Times columnist Virginia Heffernan received some pushback.  She wrote about her neighbors shoveling snow from her driveway without her asking.  She labeled what they did “aggressive kindness.”

She apparently despises her neighbors because of their politics.  She compared their act of neighborliness to Hezbollah favors and Nazi politeness. That over-the-top comparison is why pundits hit her.  She also stated the obvious: “Loving your neighbor is evidently much easier when your neighborhood is full of people just like you.”

Her struggle is actually with loving her “enemy,” a startling ethic stated by Jesus. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”  He included that in his call to perfection, a very high bar indeed (Matt. 5:44ff).  How are we to do that?

It helps to realize God loved you before you were ever aware of him, and while you were a spiritual orphan.  “How great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God” (1 Jn. 3:1).  God’s love is empowering. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).  C. S. Lewis explains that the Divine gift to man “enables him to love what is not naturally loveable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering.”

That empowering love not is not a feeling or speaking, it’s a doing.  “Let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 Jn. 3:18) and that includes enemies.  Who is your enemy, anyway?  Maybe someone despises you for your politics or religion.  Maybe your intersectionality score is low.  Jesus didn’t directly address that question, but he did answer this: “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus told the story of a man who did what the religious people wouldn’t.  This man of a despised race helped the victim of a highway robbery.  He did it at a sacrifice to himself.  This Good Samaritan story illustrates Jesus’ charge to love your neighbor. He showed that your neighbor may be a stranger or an enemy who despises you.  Either way, to love is to be like God who loved you first.

Heffernan’s neighbor may have heard Sen. Ben Sasse calling for an end to political feuding.  Sasse said, “You can’t hate someone who shovels your driveway.”  The corollary is that it’s easier to love someone when you are shoveling their driveway.  It’s sacrificial.  It’s in their interest. And that’s why it is God-like.

To love like God loves you is to sacrifice on behalf of others, putting their interests before yours.  Know when to be generous, and allow yourself to be inconvenienced.  Listen more than you speak. Do not let disagreements about religion or politics stop you from being kind.  And maybe you shovel your neighbor’s driveway.

Nature’s God

I have found that the most inspiring use of social media is to enjoy the beauty of creation as posted by friends.  They see, they admire, they share.  Simple formula.  I have done the same.

I have seen the ancient Appalachians framing horses and green pastures.  Hikers on high hills marvel at rock formations and unusual flora. Soaring reds and lavenders trail the setting sun promising, “I’ll see you on the other side.”  Today’s warmth lays aside for tomorrow’s gentle snow. Green holly is bejeweled in red and capped in white.  Now do the daffodils awake so soon?  The hungry honey bee considers the humble chickweed’s purple blossom her royal feast.

I’m no poet, but the Creator is and nature is his scroll.  He beckons you to see what he has done, and marvel.  The Bible says, “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).  If you look at nature and marvel, then you know enough about God to honor him as God.

George Washington Carver certainly did.  He said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”  Carver was born into slavery in Missouri.  He became the first black student at Iowa State in 1891, and earned two degrees in agriculture.

As a longtime researcher at Tuskegee Institute, he found alternatives to cotton which was depleting the soil.  He developed hundreds of products from peanuts and sweet potatoes.  He told of his inspiration.  “When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is reserved for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me.”

Carver came to faith as a child.  He saw a boy walking to Sunday School.  “I asked him what prayer was and what they said. I do not remember what he said; I only remember that as soon as he left I climbed up into the loft, knelt down by the barrel of corn and prayed as best I could.  That was my simple conversion.”  That’s the story of the esteemed professor who found beauty in creation and truth in its Creator.  Do likewise, and you will have something inspiring to share with your friends!

“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Psa. 8:3-4).

 

Foolish Delusion

On a recent episode of “Real Time,” Bill Maher repeated his charge that religion is “mass delusion.”  He has suggested before that science and thinking are opposed to faith.  By framing faith as ignorant, he would convert you to his irreligion.

Here’s the full quote.  “The inconvenient truth here is that if you accord religious faith the kind of exalted respect we do here in America, you’ve already lost the argument that mass delusion is bad.”  He was criticizing delusional conspiracy theories and found a way to disparage Christians in the same breath.  It’s true that outlandish conclusions drawn from random facts and innuendo are not harmless.  But that’s not Christianity.

One of the foundational beliefs of Christianity is that God exists.  Is that ignorant? To answer that, let’s call British professor and philosopher Anthony Flew to the witness stand.  As a longtime atheist he wrote, “It is impossible to establish the existence of God, or even to show that it is more or less probable.”  But in 2004, he courageously announced a change.  He concluded the evidence of modern science indeed establishes the existence of God.

As a new Deist he wrote, “Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.”  He also pointed to the DNA genome, saying “that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.”

Thank you, Dr. Flew for recognizing the evidence for design and the logical inference that God exists.  We don’t have space to call witnesses to explore other evidence, such as the logic of the material universe requiring an immaterial first cause and the impossible odds of the unguided appearance of the precise parameters necessary to sustain life.  Nor can we explore the questions, how is it we all have an innate sense of morality (how could a material universe that “is” place within us a sense of what “ought” to be?) and why ignore the evidence of the Resurrection of Christ?

The Bible anticipates discussions like this.  It says, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).  Vocal and influential people may claim to be wise and knowledgeable, while canceling God talk as foolish.  Yet that “foolishness” contains the keys to answering the ultimate questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.  One wonders who is delusional, Mr. Maher.