October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Can you imagine that? What was that like? As an elder in a church, it’s hard for me to picture “a time of peace” in ours. There are definitely times where the problems in our church don’t seem too overwhelming, though it seems there is always some form of unrest happening.
But I became an elder during a particularly hard time for our church. I compared church leadership to a Jim Gaffigan comedy sketch I’d heard where he imagines what it must be like as President of the United States to be woken up early every single morning by an aide patting his shoulder and whispering, “Sir… Problems…”
The above passage in Acts follows a time of turmoil for Saul, and likely the church at large, as this newly converted Pharisee began stirring up trouble in Damascus and Jerusalem. Saul “preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” and “debated with the Hellenistic Jews” who then tried to kill him, so the believers he was with had to relocate him (v.s 27-30).
So maybe the “peace” the church enjoyed here was a reprieve from persecution, or maybe it was peace in the midst of persecution.
Most of the New Testament Pastoral Epistles were written to a particular church addressing a particular problem like heresy or divisions, so I don’t think the church ever enjoyed a lot of peace in the problem-free sense. In at least one of those epistles, we find an important reminder of the availability of peace not just before or after, but in the middle of trials.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:4-9)
Paul tells the church in Philippi about God’s peace that “transcends all understanding” that “will guard your hearts and your minds” from whatever threatens the joy we should have in Christ. How do we possess this sense of peace and “rejoice in the Lord always”?
- Know that “the Lord is near” (vs. 5). God’s presence kept Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego safe in King Nucchadnezzar’s fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25), and He will do the same for you. Jesus promised His disciples in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.“
- Pray (vs. 6). As an alternative to anxiety, ask God for help, remembering that worry does no good (Matt. 6:27). Also pray for others and thank God for what he’s already done in your life.
- Occupy your mind with “whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent… praiseworthy” (vs. 8). A heavenward focus on the good things of God is a mind and heart guarded from anxiety.
- Put into practice what you’ve learned (vs. 9). Hear, but also do (James 1:22). Evil never brings peace to the one doing it. Matthew Henry comments, “All our privileges and salvation arise in the free mercy of God; yet the enjoyment of them depends on our sincere and holy conduct.” We find peace in doing what God wants us to do.
Clearly, the peace God has for us to claim and find our faith strengthened through is not found in the spaces between life’s turmoil. Maybe God’s peace “transcends all understanding” because we tend to understand peace to be the absence of trials rather than the presence of God and God-given opportunities to grow in our trials.
October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis demonstrates why it was needed. Yesterday, the Pope declared that “condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out. And [it] is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel, because it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”
While it is true that human life is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, it is also true, based on the Bible, that God laid the foundations of capital punishment exactly because life is sacred to Him. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” This was part of a series of God’s commands to Noah and his descendants establishing the foundations of human government.
Later, Israel also applied the death penalty to sins other than murder, which nations are free to do and we are now free to debate. The big picture shows that God often showed mercy when capital punishment was due, and ultimately we all deserve death as those are the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). The Gospel is in fact based on this premise, and “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romand 5:8).
It’s important to know that God’s “eye for an eye” authority has been given to government, not individuals. From Rome, we read this: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For qthere is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for she is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” (Romans 13:1-4)
The Pope didn’t expressly say that God did not institute capital punishment. But to say that it is now wrong in every case is a contradiction to God’s word, and even conflicts with the teachings of the Roman Catholic church up until yesterday. Even the latest 1997 catechism on the subject morally permitted the death penalty in “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity.”
Clearly it wasn’t God’s word that changed over the millennia, but our own. Mankind established his own authority alongside God’s revealed word, and inevitably the two will not agree. This was the root of the problem Luther saw 500 years ago and the reason he saw fit to remind the Roman Catholic authorities that by Scripture Alone (“Sola Scriptura”) we know God’s infallible and unchanging rule of faith and practice.
September 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
One of the kids from our neighborhood got married two weeks ago, and I had the privilege of officiating her wedding. Her family was in celebration mode, dancing together at the reception. The bride’s brother had double the reason to be joyful as he and his girlfriend were expecting a child any day.
Five days later, this family was together again when it came time to have the baby. But this time they were together to grieve. The baby didn’t survive the delivery, and the parents had asked me to join them at the hospital to pray for them. This afternoon I officiated this baby’s funeral. What a difference a few days can make.This contrast brought to my mind a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, where King Solomon writes his observations about life and its ups and downs:
“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance. …”
There are 10 other pairs of seasons contrasted in this chapter, but those four lines stood out to me as a picture of how life goes sometimes. We often go back and forth from a time of dancing to a time of grieving, or from a time of laughter to a time of tears.
For sure, dancing together gives us strength when we have to grieve together, and laughing together helps us through the times we have to cry together. But it seems much harder to experience such extremes when they occur in such close proximity to one another, almost immediately plunging from one of life’s happiest occasions, a wedding, to this unimaginable depths of losing a child.
We can always expect seed time and harvest to be several months apart. But what do we do when the time to be born and a time to die are virtually the same moment? When we don’t have a lifetime of photos to look at and memories to share? What do we do then?
I think we should look for hope. We need something to look forward to, and something that will last.
Ecclesiastes 3 continues… “What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”
In that last verse we learn that “God has planted eternity in the human heart.” It’s interesting that we often talk about “forever” as if we have some kind of experience with it, like it’s a normal part of our lives, but it isn’t. We often say “I’ll love you forever,” but no one on earth has experienced forever. While stuck at a long traffic light we might in frustration declare that it’s taking an “eternity”, yet we’ve never seen eternity. Buzz Lightyear says he’s going “to infinity and beyond,” but isn’t infinity theoretical? We can’t count to or even calculate infinity with math. We can’t really even imagine it. The best we can do is get a little closer to it.
Maybe we think and talk so much about an eternity we’ve never experienced because God “planted eternity in the human heart” to give us hope that there is more to life than this life and its misery. If we think about eternity, we can perhaps imagine ourselves in it.
Solomon wrote in chapter 7, that “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” In this way, a funeral is better than a party because it’s where we contemplate eternity and how we might spend ours.
The best outcome in times like this is that thoughts about eternity give us hope. Hope that this family will see their child who died in infancy. We can take comfort in knowing this child is in heaven with His Creator. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” King David had this confidence about his own son, who had died before birth. “I will go to him,” he said. John Newton (the author of the hymn Amazing Grace) said, “I cannot grieve the death of infants. How many storms do they escape! Nor can I doubt, in my private judgment, that they are included in the election of grace.” I believe the Bible teaches that young children are included in this grace.
Where we spend our eternity depends on where we put our hope today.
The parents of this little boy, his aunts and uncles, and grandparents, all had other plans for him. Death was never part of God’s plan for us either. Death was foreign to His original creation, but mankind ushered this curse into the world through sin.
God could have left us alone in our sin, but He loved us too much in spite of it. Instead, in an act of amazing grace, God gave up His own Son who went willingly to the cross, suffering to pay for the sin that we all struggle with and see the effects of in creation. It is through faith in Jesus Christ, that we have that hope of an eternity with Him and others who rest in His loving arms.
We can’t see the full scope of God’s plan, or why God, the author of life, allow some children to leave us so soon. But we can know God’s plan of salvation, and through a relationship with Christ, look forward to a reunions with the the departed. This is the best hope we have in light of the reality of death.
1 Corinthians 15:54-57 tells us that “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, this saying will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We’re told in Revelation 21 that one day God will make all things new, and the new creation will not include death. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” Hope in Christ means there will once again be a time to dance, a time that will not end.
At the very end of Ecclesiastes, 12 chapters in, Solomon ends with his conclusion about the meaning of life. He discovers that it isn’t worth living without God. All is meaningless without God at the center. Of all the projects Solomon undertook to find satisfaction, He only knew satisfaction in knowing God. And God has given us His Son, to satisfy all that’s wrong with the world.
We can’t bring stillborn sons or daughters back, but we can go to them. John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Jesus was acquainted with grief, and suffered the cross on our behalf. He knows what we are going through, and He promises to go through it with us. And through faith in Jesus Christ, you can look forward to an eternity with Him.
A week ago The New York Times ran a story in the middle of Hurricane Irma and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, showing how storms can destroy just about everything except faith. Storms instead strengthen our faith. Following a group from various churches doing disaster cleanup, The Times seemed surprised that, in crisis, the church does what the church is supposed to do.
Untimely death isn’t God’s fault, but God has the power to stop it, and sometimes He doesn’t. As Ecclesiastes tells us, human beings can’t know or see the full plan of God, otherwise we would be God. But we can trust Him because we know He is good, and our faith will grow stronger in the storm. Then, instead of shaking an angry fist toward heaven, we can put our hands to work on earth, helping our neighbor through tragedy, and putting our arms around them.
My prayer for this couple who lost their baby boy, and for you if you’re in a similar situation, is that you would feel the hands and arms of family and supportive friends and neighbors, and above all the comfort of God’s strong hand of love. God’s hand is outstretched with the free gift of eternal hope found only by faith in Jesus Christ, because “God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If you know Him, you have hope—the forever kind—and assurance that the time to dance will come again.
• Related post: Grief, Joy and God
September 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
I recently had the privilege of marrying a young couple, and after editing some personal details, decided to post the message I delivered during the ceremony here. The objective was to communicate a Biblical perspective on marriage and, of course, the Gospel. Both are gifts of God that require clarification in these times.
What is marriage?
Did you ever stop to wonder why we have this ceremony where a man and a woman are united in front of a bunch of people and there’s music and flowers and a party afterwards? Isn’t it curious that notwithstanding some differences in tradition, everywhere around the world, every culture throughout all human history has embraced marriage, this joining of a man and a woman in an exclusive and lifelong commitment as a fundamental unit of society, which has proven itself to be the best way to raise a family? Where did this idea come from?
It so happens that marriage wasn’t the invention of any country or government or religion or church, but human beings received marriage as a gift from God. At creation, God gave the first man Adam to the first woman Eve, and said what God has joined together, let no one separate. Marriage is God’s gift to us.
How do we respond to getting a gift? Well, it depends on the gift, doesn’t it? Some gifts we don’t like or end up using. Some of the gifts you get for your wedding may end up in storage, re-gifted for the next wedding you attend, or end up listed on Des Moines Swap for $15. Anyone have a gift like this in mind?
But what about the good gifts? You know what I mean. That prized thing that gets used and enjoyed and cherished for a long time, you take care of, and you wouldn’t give it up for anything. On your thank you note to the giver you include an extra paragraph spilling onto the back of the note expressing your gratefulness for the gift and how you use it all the time!
The wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs 18 tells us that “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and receives favor from the LORD.” When I’m feeling poetic and remember my own blessings, I refer to my wife Amy as my “good thing.” Consider marriage as a good thing, and a gift from God.
Not very long ago, I did a Facebook poll asking people to post what their favorite wedding gifts were. The top 3 types of gifts were cash (popular with the guys), non-stick cookware, and personal, sentimental type gifts like a drawing, painting, or hand-made quilt. Marriage, in a sense, is like cash. It’s highly valuable, basic and foundational to society. Like non-stick cookware, it’s a reliable gift you keep and care for and it’s a daily part of your life. And like those priceless sentimental gifts, marriage is something you cherish, create memories with and you won’t give up for anything.
One thing you do with a good gift is try to understand it and how best to use it. What was God trying to tell us with the gift of marriage? That it’s the ultimate expression of love between a man and a woman and the best way to bring up the next generation for the good of society? That’s true, but there’s more to it, something eternal: Marriage is also intended to be a picture of the love and commitment Jesus Christ has for us.
It wasn’t long after that first man and woman were joined in marriage that through their pride and disobedience, sin came into the world and stained everything. But even then, God had a plan to redeem us from sin. The God we take these vows before today is one of truth and justice, so He must judge sin, but He’s also a God of love and grace, and He stands ready to forgive anyone who accepts His free gift.
What was that gift? John 3:16 says “for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This freedom through Jesus is a gift, not something we can earn or buy or even register for. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”
Bad gifts will come and go, but recognize the rare and precious good gift when you see it. James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that every good gift comes from above. God has given us much, hasn’t He? There is also the gift of each other. I know [Groom] considers [Bride] a gift, and [Bride] says the same about [Groom]. And they both agree that any children resulting from this union are a precious gift from God too. You also have the gift of lifelong friends here today who have loved and supported you, and each of you have the gift of a new family to be a part of. And about your marriage, the gift of God we celebrate here today: Use it, enjoy it, cherish it, take care of it, be thankful for it, and don’t give it up for anything. And finally, may the gift of eternal freedom in Christ guide your perspective in all of these other gifts.
That’s my hope for each invited guest here today. Jesus comes where He is invited. [Bride] and [Groom] have both invited Christ into their marriage, and into their individual lives. He wants to be in yours too.
Closing Prayer: Our God and heavenly Father, giver of life and breath and everything else, we thank you for the gift of marriage, and your many blessing bestowed upon us. As the truine God and Creator of the universe, you have made us in your image to seek and value relationships. As we witness this wonderful relationship solemnized in marriage, may we seek your face above all, by the extension of Your love and grace, “that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” paying the ultimate price to unite us to Yourself. We pray for [Bride] and [Groom] in their marriage, that You would in Your Spirit strengthen them as husband and wife and parents, and teach them to continually rely on You. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
August 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
The Bible’s antidote for racism (and other bad ideas)
The defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 signaled the end of Adolf Hitler’s poisonous ideas about “superior” and “inferior races” of humanity. But the recent displays of white nationalism resurging from relative dormancy in Charlottesville, Virginia remind us that evil persists in a fallen world. In America, we can’t put our own racist history to rest when it’s still so pervasive in our culture.
In the Bible we read about divisions of race and ethnicity, Jews and Gentiles, about women and children often viewed as property, and the enslavement of foreigners and those viewed as inferior. None of this was part of God’s good creation. While Scripture describes racism, sexism, and supremacism, it prescribes a solution through understanding who we really are.
First, we are all one race: mankind. All human beings are descendants of Adam and Eve (who, contrary to popular depictions, were likely not white). Genetically or taxonomically, there are no differences that provide a rational basis for ranking people by physical characteristics like skin color.
Secondly, we are all image-bearers of our Creator. As descendants of Adam and Eve, every human being—man, woman, child-—is made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and therefore equal in inherent dignity and value. By Genesis 3, Adam and Eve had sinned, and it wasn’t long before racial discrimination was conceived as sin spread to all mankind.
Thirdly, and consequently, we are all sinners for whom Christ died. Because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we have more in common than we like to admit. But the good news is that God loves us all so much that He sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sin, so that through faith in Christ we are saved (John 3:16). This offer is available to everyone. From God’s perspective, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Far from condoning racism, the Bible is an invitation to freedom for those Romans 6 describes as “slaves to sin.” From liberating Israel from Egyptian bondage (Exodus) to Paul’s message that it is “for freedom that Christ has set us free…” (Galatians 5:1), God is clearly for freedom and equality and against sinful notions of human superiority and inferiority.
“Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey.” (Malcolm de Chazal)
Racial differences are artificial, idealized by people seeking to control other people. If we choose to see ourselves and our neighbors as God sees us—one beloved yet fallen race of God’s image-bearers for whom Christ died to redeem—we can see there is no room for racism and a lot more room for love.
“For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14)
(Related post: Why Racism Shouldn’t Exist)
August 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
From USA TODAY Tech: “The universe as we know it shouldn’t exist. Unlocking the reasons why may depend on once again striking gold in a mine buried a mile underground in rural South Dakota. … Scientists believe equal parts of matter and antimatter should have been created during the formation of the universe. But that didn’t happen, and no one knows why. Instead, the visible universe is dominated by matter. Neutrinos may be the reason why… Over the next 10 years, workers will remove more than 870,000 tons of rock and install a four-story high, 70,000-ton neutrino detector… The project will cost more than $1 billion, but scientists hope the payoff from about 12 million neutrinos per second passing through the detector will be far larger, tantamount to striking gold on a universal scale.”(1)
The fact that there seems to be more matter than antimatter in the universe has baffled secular scientists, but only because of Materialistic or Naturalistic presuppositions, assuming that matter and nature is all there is, and that you are an accident.
From Physics.org: “One would expect the Big Bang to produce equal amounts of matter and antimatter, and, since the two annihilate one another on contact, this should have led to a universe with no particles, filled only with radiation. This problem can be solved if there exists some process that favours matter over antimatter, leading to the excess that we see today.”(2)
Is there “some sort of process that favours matter over antimatter”? Christians believe there is a Creator who favours a certain kind of matter—us, and the universe He created to point us toward Him.
A physics community driven by the assumptions of Materialism will continue to dig for answers, this time going underground in a 10-year $1 billion search. We may discover great things in the process, but for the answer to why this universe exists, we can dig into God’s revealed Word and find it now for free:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1) …God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see… He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17) The heavens proclaim the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1)
An undirected, undesigned “Big Bang” should not have resulted in this universe. But this universe is exactly what we should expect if God created it.
“Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding.
Search for them as you would for silver;
seek them like hidden treasures.
Then you will understand what it means to fear the LORD,
and you will gain knowledge of God.”
1) Lackey, Katharine. “Secrets of the Universe May Lie in an Old Gold Mine in South Dakota.” USA Today. Gannett Company, 09 August 2017. Web. Accessed 09 August 2017 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/science/2017/08/09/secrets-universe-may-lie-old-gold-mine-south-dakota/534457001/)
2) Physics in Society. “Why Is There More Matter than Antimatter?” Physics.org. IOP Publishers, Web. Accessed 09 August 2017 (http://www.physics.org/article-questions.asp?id=121)
July 27, 2017 § 1 Comment
An EarthSky report(1) tells us “Northwestern researchers found that up to half of the matter in our Milky Way galaxy may come from distant galaxies. As a result, each one of us may be made in part from extragalactic matter. That is, atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and so on in our bodies may be created not just by stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, but by stars in far-flung galaxies.”
Put another way, we are the result of ejected gas (Ew!) from exploding stars in a galaxy far, far away. Carl Sagan famously said “we are made of star-stuff” in 1973, but the idea that we are made of the same basic elements as the rest of the cosmos has been talked about by astronomers since the 1920s.(2)
And that’s accurate, according to the Bible.
Genesis 2:7a tells us that “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground…”, and indeed the 11 basic elements (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc.) found in the human body are also found in the top layers of the earth. They are not just earth elements, but they can also be found in the stars.
Where God’s Word differs from Naturalistic Cosmology is not the what but the how. “God formed man” out the same stuff which He created to fill the universe. Why not? That we are beings formed by an all-knowing and personal Creator, who loves us and also wrote us into His grand story, means we have purpose and value. Beings accidentally formed by “far-flung” star farts can have no real purpose or value. Unless you’re on purpose, you can’t have purpose. A purposeful creation isn’t true because it’s a happy thought; it’s a happy thought because it’s true.
I think regardless of theistic or atheistic belief, we all know better. Most people, even after contemplating that we are merely chemical accidents still live as if human beings have intrinsic value and dignity and rights and purpose. After all, people high on Naturalism or Materialism aren’t particularly depressed or suicidal due to the logical conclusion that life has no real meaning. Carl Sagan even romanticized the brute fact that we are just materials from space: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”(2)
Why do we hang onto this idea of lasting purpose?
There was more to God’s creation of man than forming his body from the elemental “dust”. The second half of the above verse (Genesis 2:7b) says, “…and (God) breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Those common particles of physical substance landing on earth didn’t make us alive. There is no conclusive evidence that life can arise from non-life, especially from natural and undirected processes. Far-flung atoms sticking together cannot make a living thing, much less a rational, moral, self-aware living thing. Only God can do that, as He did when He breathed life into Adam.
At the same time, “man became a living soul.” We are alive and we are more than biology; We are body, soul, and spirit—image-bearers (Genesis 1:27) of a triune God gifted with clues of an eternal dimension (Ecclesiaste 3:11) and knowledge of a Creator, which we sometimes suppress (Romans 1:18), along with His moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). I think it’s the soul that yearns to know that we are more than just far-flung “stuff”, and that there is more to our existence than a temporal and purposeless life.