Rich Mullins

Rich Mullins

The movie Ragamuffin begins with a raspy voice declaring, “I am utterly convinced that on judgment day, the Lord Jesus will ask one question and only one question:  Did you believe that I loved you?”  The movie is about Rich Mullins, the Christian songwriter and artist who called himself a “ragamuffin.”

Perhaps you are familiar with some of these songs composed by Mullins: “Awesome God,” “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” “Step By Step,” “Verge of a Miracle.”  You might suppose that the writer of these insightful pieces would be a person unscarred by the hardships of life.  Not so.

Mullins carried some heavy baggage, not unlike the rest of us. His hurts stemmed from feeling unloved and abandoned by people near him.  These wounds affected his ability to accept love, even from God.  Yet he relentlessly pursued a relationship with Jesus, with as many pained steps backward as strained steps forward.

He was driving in Kansas when a friend asked to play him a tape. In a few minutes, Mullins was so moved that he pulled over to weep.  It was Brennan Manning, the raspy voice.  He portrayed Jesus saying, “I know your whole life story.  I know every skeleton in your closet.  I know every moment of sin and shame, dishonesty, degraded love that’s darkened your past.  I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship.  My word to you is I dare you to trust that I love you just are you are, not as you should be.”  Because none of us are as we should be.

Mullins later met Manning, who explained that ragamuffins “are the unsung assembly of saved sinners who are little in their own sight, aware of their brokenness, and powerless before God. A ragamuffin knows he’s only a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.”  Manning later captured his thoughts on grace in The Ragamuffin Gospel.  Mullins added the foreword to the book.

Mullins’ lyrics for “Hold Me Jesus” are his honest, but hopeful testimony: Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all, when the mountains look so big and my faith just seems so small. So hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf!  You have been King of my glory, won’t You be my Prince of Peace?

Jesus Christ wants you to receive his unconditional love, even if you carry around pain and loneliness that can block your way to Him. He bore great pain to offer you his life-changing love.  Manning wrote, “Jesus is so unbearably forgiving, so infinitely patient, and so unendingly loving that he provides us with the resources we need to live lives of gracious response.”  So is Paul’s prayer that you “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).

Mullins passed away in a tragic accident in 1997. Manning died in 2013 at the age of 78.  But their message resonates that Jesus even loves ragamuffins.  The movie is on Netflix.

Being Real

Let’s talk about Donald Trump. Stay with me. This is not about politics, elections, or candidates. But if you pay attention to such things, I bet you’ve observed the same thing I have about him.

To say he’s flamboyant and inflammatory is an understatement. He is willing to roil any demographic when given the opportunity. And therein, I believe, is the key to understanding the popular response to this non-typical candidate for President of the United States. The fact that someone may not like what he’s about to say apparently doesn’t enter his mind, nor stop him from saying what he truly thinks. You might call it being frank, or ‘real.’ Apparently a lot of folks like that in a political candidate.

Maybe some of us Christians could learn a lesson here. Do we try so hard to convey a winsome message that we aren’t being real? “God loves you and wants to bless you” is true, but let’s not leave that unpacked. It’s not the real message if that love doesn’t include God the Son dying a vicarious death on a cross because you are a Sinner (Rom 5:8). It’s not the real message if the blessing of forgiveness doesn’t include the possibility of persecution by those who hate that you’re a Jesus follower (Mat. 5:10-11).

Jesus was ‘real’ but he didn’t step into history to show us how to achieve a political goal. A wealthy man asked Jesus what he should do to inherit the Kingdom, an off-point question since it’s about believing first. But Jesus obliged and gave him an impossible task to do. When the fellow left crestfallen, Jesus didn’t chase after him with a challenge to believe; rather, he let him struggle with the impossibility of doing, absent faith (Mat. 19:26).

When Jesus talked about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, many disciples left him. At the Feast of Booths, his teaching was so radical the crowd said he had a demon and the rulers wanted to seize Him. He was quite impolitic when he insisted on healing a blind man by the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, so the rulers wanted to kill him.

He knew many would not accept his statement, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (Jn. 8:58). They tried to stone him after that one. Same thing happened when he said, “I and the Father are one.” They knew he was making the audacious claim to be God (Jn. 10:30,33).

So you might be thinking Jesus had it coming. True, but not because of what he said. He had it coming by his own choice. It was for you. You are real to him, even if he isn’t to you. The humbling premise of the Christian gospel is that something is wrong with you, and you need a Savior. There it is, being ‘real.’ It’s not Mr. Trump’s job to stump that real message, that’s on us, brothers and sisters. Believe it!


C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

Some of the stories in the news these days about people identifying differently than the way they were born are confusing.  We all wear labels whether we realize it or not, and for the most part they help our friends and acquaintances know who we are.

C.S. Lewis could be somewhat crass, but never cruel; silly but not sacrilegious.  He supposed Jesus could be considered either as crazy as a man who says he is a poached egg, or as deceitful as the Devil of Hell.  Perhaps you’ve heard his argument that given how Jesus self-identified, he was either a lunatic, a liar, or Lord.  He summarized this way: “You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.”

So how did Jesus identify himself?  Just within the confines of the gospel of John we find a trove of claims.  He told the woman at the well, “I who speak to you am (the Messiah).”  Isaiah tells us the Messiah would be Almighty God and Everlasting Father and Jesus knew that.

Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.”  People clearly understood that he equated himself with God and were incensed about it.  When He said, “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living water,” He declared that the deepest, most basic, and most enduring human need can only be met by knowing and believing him.

He said, “I am the light of the world” as he made the blind man see.  “I am the door of the sheep…if anyone enters through Me he will be saved.” “I am the good shepherd” that lays down His life for the sheep.

Over and over he says, “I am.”  But probably my favorite is when Jesus enraged an argumentative bunch with, “before Abraham was born, I am!”  Here he claimed the very name of God as revealed to Moses at the burning bush.  Shocking!  Lunatic, liar, or Lord?

Skeptics don’t think the ‘LLL’ argument is very strong because to them we can’t be sure what Jesus actually claimed.  They would dismiss the gospel of John as a fabrication of his followers.  If so, skeptics need also explain why his followers who walked with him, knowing it to be a lie, would suffer persecution for a myth of their own making.

I’m convinced of John’s narrative of how Jesus self-identified as God the Son.  “I Am,” he said, and he still is.  Identify with him, believe him, and live!

The Resurrection

Rembrandt "The Resurrection"

“The Resurrection” Rembrandt

 This week, Christians are celebrating an event that fulfilled ancient prophecy, surprised early believers, and validated the claims of Jesus. His Resurrection is so central to the Christian faith, that skeptics know instinctively that if it is proved to be a hoax, then Christianity falls like a house of cards. In fact, Scripture offers that point almost like an invitation to investigate: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1Cor15:14).” 

 As you might expect, it has been investigated. Christians have logical reasons to believe that Jesus came back to life after he died, even though believing the Bible is enough for most of us. 

 An early cover-up is recorded in Scripture. The people that won their capital punishment case against Jesus were so concerned about his claim to rise from the dead that they posted a guard to stop the theft of his body. These same guards later reported angels, earthquake, and an empty tomb, but received bribes to say Jesus’ body was taken. 

 His foes could have proved the Resurrection a hoax by simply producing Jesus’ body. They couldn’t, so they propagated their own deception to blame on his followers. At least we know that friend and foe knew that the body was gone. 

 But is the empty tomb enough to believe the resurrection account? Consider the behavior of the disciples. Immediately after Jesus’ death, they huddled behind locked doors fearful that they would meet his fate. Perhaps they just hoped to return to their former lives. What a defeated bunch! 

 Here is the illogic. Why would such a group concoct a cover-up and maintain it against the religious and political power-brokers that were determined to end Jesus and his following? Why not simply write down what he said as an inspiring teacher and avoid further controversy? Why declare in public venues and at their trials that Jesus was not just a good teacher, but arose from the dead and is the expected Messiah, the living God? They looked their accusers in the eye and said they would obey God rather than men. Would the eye-witness followers of Jesus have suffered and died for what they knew to be a lie? 

 Is the Resurrection just a metaphor, and did his followers invent the Christ of faith from the historical Jesus? It is far more logical that Jesus’ followers were emboldened by something shocking, terrifying, and exciting. Only a bodily Resurrection after a gruesome crucifixion and death could have transformed them so. 

 If he did return from death, then Jesus is as He claimed, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and our faith is not in vain. In His Name we find life, meaning, and the hope of eternity. Join the celebration! 

Finish Well

AuburnI’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. I doubt I’m alone, especially by the time Valentine’s Day arrives. It seems better to think about finishing something, not just trying hard to start something that should have been done a long time ago anyway. Surely you’ve heard a sage in your life say, ‘don’t start something unless you can finish it.’

I am a Georgia man, but Auburn educated. Early this football season I enjoyed the high ranking of so many teams from the SEC West, and all the chatter about how dominant our division was. Such power made it easy to explain away the intra-division losses. Commentators crowed about the possibility of two SEC West teams in the new playoff scheme. Problem is, we didn’t finish well. Auburn didn’t, for sure, unless you count a new defensive coordinator as the highlight of the season.

Finish well. That’s not a goal, but a lifestyle, which applies to faith, too. I have observed in over a half century of life and decades as a pastor, there is a caricature of faith that turns away the unbeliever and discourages the believer, so neither finish well. G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The past is a graveyard of good intentions slain by the belief that Christianity is just a strict and high moral code to keep.

The Apostle Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Was it traveling the world, planting churches, shaking off a snake bite, speaking to rulers? Was it keeping all of his New Year’s resolutions that led to this self-congratulation? Doubt it. He finished well because he counted “all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

This caricature of faith I mentioned omits the relationship. Authentic faith is about the person of Jesus, God the Son, the one who loves you. It embraces change wrought by God. Consider that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Faith in Jesus means a new life lived by a moral code written on the inside.

Seems that God would be more than willing to answer the prayer, ‘if you’re really there, help me know you.’ Finish well by finding the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Come to think of it, that would be a good New Year’s resolution!

“Come to me…and I will give you rest.” – Jesus

Define the Terms

On February 6, 2014, President Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. As an evangelical Christian, I find many of his actions while in office objectionable. But in his NPB comments, he touched on several themes that I appreciate, such as specific calls for the release of Kenneth Bae and Saeed Abedini, American Christians being imprisoned for their faith in North Korea and Iran. On the other hand, some of his remarks seem misleading. I think it’s wrong to try to impart motive or unstated meaning to someone’s words or deeds, without justification. So at the risk of violating my own prohibition, I offer some reasons to consider more carefully what the President said in these three excerpts:

1) “And here we give thanks for His guidance in our own individual faith journeys. In my life, He directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who(sic) were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. And I’m grateful not only because I was broke and the church fed me, but because it led to everything else. It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. “

Without naming him, Obama is speaking of Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a controversial figure to say the least. (Remember “God d*** America,” and “America’s chickens have come home to roost”?) Wright was described by the Chicago Sun-Times as a “close confidant” of Obama, who described Wright as “like family to me. [Wright] strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children” and was the one who “introduce[d] me to my Christian faith.” Based on his writings and sermons, Wright’s religion could well be described as anti-American, Afrocentric liberation theology. At the risk of over-simplification, if Wright said that he “embraced Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” it seems that he would mean that since Jesus’ mission was to set his fellow black African Jews free from the historic oppression of the white race, Wright embraces that mission and hopes to save others who are oppressed by rich white people. At the very least, the Biblical concept of Jesus as God the Son who died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins for all who believe in Him as Messiah or Savior, seems a stretch for Wright. So what exactly does Obama mean by these words? Might he agree with his close confidant and pastor for 20 years?

2) “Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.”

But not if you’re the Little Sisters of the Poor. This is the Catholic order struggling in court to get relief from Obama’s health insurance law that forces them to violate their closely-held religious beliefs. If they lose, their choice will be to either capitulate and violate their conscience, or cease to “strengthen America” by serving the poor. How could Obama make this and other religious freedom statements at the NPB, knowing that the Little Sisters, the Green family of Hobby Lobby, and Liberty University are all seeking relief from his administration’s violation of their previously-protected religious freedom, unless he believes that not all religion strengthens America? This encroachment on religious freedom is not to prohibit some extreme ritual. It forces Christians to act in a way they consider immoral and ungodly. So what does he mean by religious freedom?

3) “We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love. Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, as we’ve seen in the Central African Republic recently, even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God. Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.”

It sounds like Obama is talking about Islamic terrorists, but did you see what he did there? He mentions “hatred” against people because of “who they love.” This is not just a veiled jab at Russia’s Putin and the flap over gays and the Olympics. Apparently, anyone who believes in the sanctity of marriage as ordered by God is part of a twisted religion. Look, there are all kinds of perversions of the human condition. Perversion of speech is lying; perversion of trust is infidelity; perverted view of life or possessions is murder or theft. Yet no one accuses folks holding to these standards of morality as having a twisted religion. When Christians help each other, and their neighbors who suffer from any perversion, it is an act of compassion, not hatred and twisted religion.

As to “conflicts along religious lines,” there are plenty of examples of Islamists killing and driving out ‘infidels’ that Obama could have cited. But do you know what recently happened in the Central African Republic? Muslims are being driven out, because the people in self defense can no longer tolerate the Islamists murdering and destroying their people and homes. Why choose this example of religious conflict, one of the few where the Muslims are on the receiving end? I’m not defending what’s happening there, I’m just asking exactly what was the message with this example?

As for the “killing of the innocent,” it’s enough to recall Mother Teresa’s words from the 1994 NPB event: “But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child…Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.” So, just who does Obama think are the innocent that should be protected?

I hear the President’s words, like faith, Jesus, Savior, freedom, love, innocent. At first they seem good, especially in looking for something, anything, encouraging from this White House. But on closer examination, I’m reminded of why I continue to be driven to prayer over the direction of our country. You see, the truth is found in how you define the terms.

Not Welcome Here

After spending American treasure and blood to root out terrorists and improve security in Iraq, life has become much more difficult for some Iraqis. In fact, it’s shocking to realize that Christians in Iraq were more secure under Saddam than now. After murders of Christians by church bombings, beheadings, and crucifixions, the Christian population in Iraq is reduced from 1.5 million to 0.5 million. Similarly, the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya, encouraged by the American government, unleashed the burning, bombing, pillaging fury of the Islamists against Christians. The expansion of Islam by the sword is not unfamiliar to history, and continues also in Syria, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Bosnia to name a few. The trend is clear: Christians aren’t welcome where Muslims are in power.

Lest you take too much satisfaction in our American freedoms, the same sentiment is picking up steam here as well. Don’t believe it? Consider that New York Governor Cuomo said, after lambasting the morals held by evangelical Christians and Catholics, that these kinds of people “have no place in the state of New York.” A wedding cake business in Oregon, owned by Christians who believe in the sanctity of Biblical marriage, were told by a judge they have to provide their services for a gay couple. It seems that if their private beliefs affect their public actions, they no longer have religious freedom. Christians with traditional beliefs about marriage are not welcome in Oregon. New York and Oregon are considered “blue states.” These are but two examples from this month’s headlines, but it is not hard to find that similar stories have increased in number in the last few years. The trend is alarming: Christians aren’t welcome in America’s states or courts where liberal Democrats are in power.

Throughout history, Christians start hospitals and schools, help the poor, and generally work for better communities to live in. Why drive us out?

In Islamic nations, the reason is clearly intolerance for Christians and our Savior. Some of that may be true in America as well, i.e. God has made some exclusive truth claims in the Bible, which rankles the post-modern, all-truths-are-equally-valid illogic. Our gospel holds that everyone is broken and needs fixing (lost and need a Savior), contradicting the popular notion that people are basically good, and must improve with self-help since there’s no One out there.

Christians hold to a set of values, like sex is designed for heterosexual marriage, babies in the womb are innocent persons made in the image of God, healthy people should be encouraged to work, and the environment is for stewardship, not worship. How hypocritical we are if values like those are just discussed in our homes and houses of worship, and not lived and promoted? Therein is the rub against popular culture, which may be the main reason for the accelerating Christian pogram. Christians dare live and express values that are politically incorrect and counter cultural.

The Apostle Paul called the cross an “offense” or “stumbling block” (Gal 5:11). For the message of Christ to be effective, a person must know he is in need, even if that means being offended. And that message of offense is often transferred to the message-bearer, regardless of whether the message is conveyed by action or word. Jesus saw that coming. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you,” he warned. How are we to respond? Well, the One we follow says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We are “Citizens of heaven,” but hoping to bring heaven to earth. “Live life God’s way,” is our call to our culture, “and there will be more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” Faith in Christ Jesus is life transforming, not just a religious activity inside a building on Sunday. It takes courage to be salt and light in a tasteless and dark world, especially when that makes us not welcome here.