Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hurricanes and the Cross

Over the past few weeks parts of the country have been hit by two category four hurricanes: Texas, devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and Florida, which most recently felt the impact of Hurricane Irma.  Harvey has claimed at least 70 lives, and Irma more than 40, and untold hundreds of millions of dollars in property has been damaged or destroyed.  In the wake of these natural disasters, it has been a wonderful encouragement to see the world in general and the church in specific rising up to meet the needs of our fellow human beings.  Humanitarian efforts and the prayers of thousands have gone out to assist those whose lives have been so violently and drastically changed by these weather events.  When we help those in need we have the glorious opportunity to image our life-giving God who likewise provides for us in our time of need.  Let us show him to those who suffer as a result of these hurricanes by helping them in their time of need.

When natural disasters such as these occur, it can be tempting to try and discern the reason(s) for why they have happened, or why, in particular, God has either allowed or caused them to take place.  Unfortunately, some (usually high profile) Christian celebrities sometimes foolishly connect the occurrence of natural disasters to sinful behaviors or political ideologies.  But the Bible does not tell us how or why we should link specific natural disasters to other circumstances in the world.  In other words, we have no biblical justification for saying "Hurricane Harvey happened because _______________."  We simply have no basis for knowing specifically why a natural disaster has taken place.

That being said, the Bible does guide our thinking when it comes to the occurrence of natural disasters.  Although it does not give us specific reasons why a disaster occurs, it does give us at least four general principles that we should consider, especially in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

1. Natural disasters remind us that this world is not as it should be.  All of us intrinsically know that when people have been killed by a natural disaster, it is not right; it is not good; it is not the way the world was meant to operate.  God created the world perfectly, and in his perfect creation there were no natural disasters.  The entrance of sin into the world brought with it death and destruction.  The world became a dangerous place to live when mankind fell into sin.  Since then, the world has been "subjected to futility" and in "bondage to corruption," and has been waiting eagerly for the time when it will be remade once more into a perfect dwelling place where that corruption and futility will be no more. (Rom. 8.20-22)  When we hear about the death and destruction that has take place as a result of the recent hurricanes, it is a reminder to us that the world is a sinful, fallen place where bad things happen.

2. Natural disasters remind us that Jesus is coming back.  Over the past couple of weeks I have seen several social media posts about how the existence of these two very severe hurricanes so close in proximity to one another is a "sign of the times," or in other words, a fulfillment of biblical prophecy that Jesus' return is more eminent than it was prior to the hurricanes or had the hurricanes not occurred.  It is true that natural disasters such as these remind us that Jesus is coming back, but it is not accurate to say that his return is more eminent now that the hurricanes have taken place.  When the Bible speaks of "signs of the times" it does not do so in such a way as to give us clues about the exact date or hour of Jesus' return, but rather as a general reminder that he is coming to recreate the heavens and the earth into a glorious dwelling where life will flourish and death and destruction will be abolished.  Hurricanes and other natural disasters point us to his future return, and encourage us to long for his return and for things to be made right again.

3. Natural disasters remind us that we're all going to die.  We are all close to death, be it by a natural disaster or at the hands of a drunk driver, or simply an accident.  In Luke 13 Jesus comments on an accidental disaster that had taken place in Jerusalem: a tower had collapsed and killed 18 people.  Jesus says that it was not for any specific sin that these people were killed by the tower collapse.  They were not more evil than others.  The tower simply fell on them because...it fell on them.  In the past year I personally have lost two acquaintances due to accidental circumstances: one by a drunk driver, and the other by an accidental drowning.  Both of those acquaintances were relatively healthy men in the prime of their lives who, on the day of their deaths, certainly did not plan on their lives ending.  But the reality is that death is close to each of us, every day.  When we think about natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it should remind us that we are all close to death, and that one day, much sooner than we think, it will be our time to die.

4. Natural disasters push us towards the cross.  Natural disasters not only remind us that we are all going to die some day, but they also encourage us to be ready to die.  Because we live in a world that has been disastrously affected by sin, and because death is close to each of us simply because we get out of bed in the morning, it behooves us to be ready to face it.  Again in Luke 13, as Jesus comments on the collapse of the tower that killed 18 Jerusalem citizens, Jesus says that the lesson to be learned from such a tragedy is to repent - to turn from our sin.  When we see suffering as a result of natural tragedy, we should realize that our time is coming, and that we need to be ready for it.  Each of us were born into a sinful state, separated from God.  In that natural, sinful state we are not able to live at peace with God.  But God has reconciled this - our most basic human need - by sending his Son into the world to live a perfect life and die a perfect death, and then rise from the dead.  By grace through faith in Jesus, we can be ready for when our time comes.  When we hear reports of death and destruction, we should be reminded of the folly of sin and our own need for redemption, and cling ever tighter to the cross and the redemption offered by and through the one who hung there.

In the wake of these recent disasters, the church has a wonderful opportunity to be Jesus to the world.  We can be his hands and feet as we meet the needs of those who have been touched by tragedy and loss, and we can be his witnesses to this world that is devastated by death and destruction of the life-giving, glorious truth of the gospel: death is coming for each of us, but it is not the end.  There is a Savior who will rescue us from its effects so that we need not fear when the rain comes and winds blow.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Get In The Game

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to coach my son's baseball team.  We had 13 players on our team, but could only play 10 in the field each inning.  This meant that each inning a few kids had to sit on the bench.  So I arranged our defensive scheme in such a way that everyone on our team would have equal amounts of time playing in the field and sitting on the bench.

But then, a few games into the season, something strange happened.  Some kids on our team would come up to me in the middle of the game and ask, "Coach, can I sit on the bench this inning?"  This question caught me off guard because, in my mind, our players were on a baseball team to play baseball, not to sit on the bench and not play baseball.  So I gathered my team around me one day and  told them, "If you want to sit on the bench during a game, I will certainly let you sit on the bench.  Now, because we have extra players, someone always has to sit on the bench.  But it should not be your desire or your goal to sit on the bench.  We are here to play baseball, not to sit on the bench.  So if you want to sit on the bench, fine.  Because I want players in the field who want to play baseball."

The Christian life is a lot like that.  Serving God with our lives is a lot like that.  In his wisdom, God has chosen to use his people to carry out his purposes in this world.  God calls people to serve him with their lives and to do what he has told them to do.  Sometimes, however, the things that God calls us to do aren't easy, and they don't gain us any recognition or notoriety for doing them.  Sometimes God callous to do things that we might rather not do.  And many times, a lot of Christians would rather "sit on the bench" than get in the game and be a part of what God is doing in the world.

The book of Esther is about a girl who has a choice to get involved in what God is doing in the world.  Someone was trying to exterminate all the Jews in the land, and Esther had it within her capacity to get involved in God's rescue plan for her people, but getting involved could mean personal sacrifice on her part, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to commit to that.  So Esther's cousin sent her a message and effectively said, "If you won't get involved in what God is doing to rescue these people, then God will find someone who will.  Now which would you rather be?  The kind of person who gets involved in hat God is doing in the world, or the kind who sits not eh sidelines while someone else takes your place?"

If God has called you to do something that you don't necessarily want to do, or something that you don't feel called or equipped for, do it anyway.  God will give you what you need in order to do what he wants you to do.  He will equip and resource you with what you need to accomplish his purposes.  And he will go with you to help you.  Don't just sit around; get involved in what God is doing in the world.

And you know what?  If you don't, he'll find someone who will.  If you're not eager to do what God has said to do, then God will go and find someone who is, and leave you sitting on the bench, twiddling your thumbs.  I don't know about you, but I don't want my legacy to be that when God called, I stayed home.  I want my legacy to be that when God called, I jumped into the fray; I got to work; I went to battle; I was a part of what God was doing in the world.  When I look back on my life, I don't want to be remembered as someone who thought about it so long that by the time I made a decision, the opportunity was over.

We are here to serve God, not to sit on the bench.  If you want to sit on the bench, then don't be surprised when you look back at your life and feel like you've never accomplished anything for the Lord because you never wanted to be in the game.

Unfortunately, one of the main excuses that people use to disregard the call of God is to say that they don't "feel led" to do something that God has directed them to do.  For some reason a feeling of calling is often used as a litmus test for Christian obedience.  This needs to change.  The Bible is full of examples of people that God used that almost certainly didn't "feel led" to do what God had said, but they did it anyway.  Ask Jonah if he felt led to go to Nineveh.  Ask Isaiah if he was excited about going to preach to a people whom he knew would reject him and his message.

Several months ago the Babylon Bee posted a satirical article that is an all-too-real representation of the way most Christian's respond to God's call.  That is, we tend to be eager to follow God when it involves doing something that we enjoy doing, or doing something that will gain us accolades or recognition.  But the reality is that serving God with our lives is not necessarily easy, and it doesn't necessarily include doing things that we enjoy doing.  But the question is not whether we will enjoy what God has said to do, but whether or not we want to be a part of his plan and purpose in this world.

God has a plan and purpose in the world that he is constantly working out.  And in his wisdom, he has decided to use us - his people - to carry out his purposes.  Ultimately it is God's power that accomplishes those purposes, but the way God moves is through his people who are willing and eager to obey his voice.  Through those who are willing, the Lord goes out into the world; the Lord shakes the earth; the mountains quake when God's people say, "Here am I!  Send me!"

Monday, July 3, 2017

Baseball, Ice Cream, and Hope

This summer it has been my privilege to coach my son's 9-10 year old little league baseball team. It's been a long and rough season for the West St. Paul A's, as we started the season 0-14.  Problems at the plate and in the field have plagued our team, but our players have been improving as the season goes along, which is really the most important thing.  But wins have been hard to come by for our team.  

A couple of weeks ago we played our regularly scheduled game, and something strange happened: we took the lead in the first inning.  After the inning was over, we were ahead 3-2.  And then the next inning came and we added on to that lead.  By the last inning of the game, the score was 13-4 in our favor.  As the coach I was excited because I really wanted our team to get a taste of victory, and to be able to celebrate a job well done together, and to finally be able to say that we won a game.  
I had previously told our team that at the time of our first win, I would buy them all ice cream from the snack bar located at the ballpark.  So during this game, before the last inning, I called my wife over to the dugout and told her to get ready to buy the treats for our team at the conclusion of the game.  "But don't buy them yet," I said.  "I don't know yet if we're going to win."  The other team had not yet completed their last turn at bat.  I hoped we were going to win, but I just couldn't be sure.  We had had leads in games before, but the other teams came back and beat us.  Could we hold on to this lead and secure the victory?  I didn't know, but I hoped so. 

Then the opposing team came up for their last at-bats.  They scored a run.  Then another.  Then another.  But finally, we were able to shut them down and came away with the win, 13-7.  Now that our victory was certain, I looked over at my wife and gave her the signal to go buy the ice cream!  There were smiles all around.  

When the Bible talks about hope it does not talk about it in the way that I hoped for our team to win that game.  My hope for winning was uncertain - it was a possibility, but it was never guaranteed.  The Bible talks about hope in a very different way: biblical hope is a confident and eager expectation of something certain.  

The foundation for biblical hope is not the skill of little league baseball players or the law of averages, but the character and nature of God.  If I hope that our baseball team will win the season tournament at the end of the summer, my hope will be founded on the ability of the players to win baseball games (which has not been a firm foundation thus far!).  Or, think about that promotion at work that you are hoping to get.  What is the foundation of your hope?  The approval of your boss, or your sales numbers, or your seniority level, or whatever.  When it comes down to it, those are all very shaky foundations upon which to place your hope. 

Biblical hope is founded on the character and nature of God.  God is always faithful to his promises, and he will always do what is right.  As Christians, we look into the future with hope that is founded upon who God has said he is in his word, and what he has said he will do.  This means that when we are in trouble and hope that God will deliver us, our hope is very secure because God has promised to deliver us, and he is always faithful.  Or if we are unjustly treated we hope that the wrong will be made right, and our hope is very secure because God is a God of justice.  

Psalm 43.5 says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."  As the author of these words thinks about the problems in his life, he knows that there is no reason for his soul to be down cast, or for him to suffer inner turmoil if his hope indeed is in God.  Because hope in the one, true, faithful God of the Bible is not "iffy."  It's not a gamble; it's not a 50/50 chance.  Instead, it's a sure thing, because that's the kind of God that God is.  He is a God who keeps his promises and does what he says he is going to do.

It would have been foolish of me to buy the ice cream treats for our team before the game was even played, because my hope of winning would be based on their ability and effort.  But living and walking in hope in God being true to his promises is not foolish - in fact, it's wise and prudent, because God never slumbers nor sleeps.  There is nothing that will keep him from keeping his promises to his people.  We can know that we are hoping in God when our lives begin to take on the characteristics of someone who is looking forward to a future "payoff" of God's faithfulness with eager and confident expectation, whether that happens in this life or the next.  The question is, what should my life look like if I am living with an eager and confident expectation for God to be faithful to his promises?  This is what it means to hope in God, and to live a life that is characterized by hope.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Exclusion of Inclusion (or, The Intolerance of Tolerance)

One can't help but chuckle to oneself when considering how often those who hold to the "tolerance" and "inclusion" doctrines find themselves in violation of the same.  Inclusion of all people and all causes simply isn't possible (it's a logical contradiction), and it's funny (and sad) to see when those who fight to be inclusive come to the grim reality that their worldview collapses in on itself when taken to its logical conclusion.

The most recent example of this played out locally this past week.  Gay Pride Parade organizers uninvited the Minneapolis Police Department from participation in this year's pride parade, much to the chagrin of the Minneapolis Police Chief, Janee Harteau, who is herself a lesbian.  Parade organizers uninvited the police department because of the recent verdict in the Philander Castile shooting.  The reason the police department was uninvited?  Because parade organizers don't want to exclude those offended by Castile's shooting and the not guilty verdict given to Geronimo Yanez - a police officer.  Parade organizers apparently felt that to "include" the police department would "exclude" those who protest law enforcement in general.  In order to "include" those who were affected by the Castile shooting and verdict, parade organizers decided to "exclude" the police department.

Chief Harteau, however, took exception to this "exclusion" and said that she was "beyond disappointed" by the decision of the parade organizers.  It became a flap in the media, and parade organizers reversed their decision and re-invited the police department to take part in the parade.  Parade organizers released a statement that said, in part: "...we received input from impacted parties and through this input we recognize this decision has made members of the law enforcement community feel excluded, which is contrary to our mission to foster inclusion.  Our intent is and was to respect the pain that the people of color and transgender communities have experienced as of late, but our original approach fell short of our mission" (emphasis mine).

So, initially Pride leaders excluded law enforcement in order to foster the inclusion of people of color.  But now, having been snubbed, law enforcement put pressure on the Pride leaders to be re-included but at the expense of people of color, whose sensibilities have now been excluded.  So much for "inclusion."

Whenever you try to include some, you will - by necessity - exclude others.  It's just the way the world works.  A child is able to follow this logic, and also to find the fatal flaw in a worldview that goes against it.  But nevertheless, this is the prevailing worldview for a startling amount of people in our society.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Death Is the Ultimate Form of Healing

When I was a teenager in high school I had an unofficial spiritual mentor named Al.  Although I had grown up in the church, I was a baby Christian at the time, and Al was a fount of biblical wisdom that I quickly latched on to.  Al even spent some of his time in an informal discipleship group with myself and a few other teenage boys, talking about science, God, the Bible, and anything else we wanted to talk about.  Al was a retired biology teacher at Henry Sibley High School, so the conversations of the group often turned to matters of science and faith, particularly within Al's discipline of biology.  

Once, during a discussion on biology, Al said something that has stuck with me ever since.  We were talking about the human body and its ability to heal itself and be healed by medicine, but then Al said, "Death is the ultimate form of healing."  To be honest, this statement perplexed me initially, as the notion that the physical process of death could be considered a form of healing was completely foreign to me at the time.  When I thought of healing, I thought of a person getting better, or recovering from an illness or injury through time and medicine.  And when I thought of death I thought of disease or injury so severe that it caused the body to cease its functions, and that medicine had failed.  To me, death seemed like the exact opposite of healing.  

But as I've considered Al's words over the years and have continued to study the Bible, it has become apparent to me that Al's words can only be understood and appreciated from a Christian worldview.  The Bible teaches that Jesus has defeated death, and that Christians who are trusting in Jesus will inherit eternal life at the time of their physical death.  In heaven there is no pain, no disease, no injury, and no death.  Those things exist on earth, but not in heaven.  On earth we are plagued by illness and disease, injuries and weak bodies that are susceptible to germs and bacteria.  In heaven, none of those things exist.  When a believer goes to heaven, all of those earthly afflictions that plague our bodies are instantly healed through physical death.

There are many biological and medical conditions that can plague our bodies on earth, for which there is no cure.  Speaking personally, I have a skin condition that I've been told will linger on for the duration of my natural life.  There is no cure.  But some day, when I die, I will be healed of this condition, and the means by which I will be healed will be my death.  My death will result in my ultimate healing.  Similarly, my dad has lived with the effects of polio since he was seven years old.  At his death he will be healed of his affliction.  He doesn't want to die, necessarily, but I know that he is looking forward to this healing.  

Just this last week, a 98 year old saint and member of Riverview passed on to be with God in heaven.  For years she had been struggling with the effects of living in a 90+ year old body, and she was tired and ready to go to heaven, so she had been praying for that to happen.  A couple weeks ago, however, she fell and broke her pelvis, and was put in hospice care, suffering from severe pain every day.  She continued to pray that God would heal her - by allowing her to die.  And God did.  God healed her of her pain by taking her to be with him, where there is no such thing as old age and the complications that come with it, and there is no such injury as a broken pelvis.

In Psalm 40 David describes himself as having fallen into the "pit of destruction" and a "miry bog." (Psalm 40.2)  He's not speaking literally here, but rather that the circumstances of his life are like living neck-deep in a slimy swamp.  He asks God to help him, and as he awaits God's deliverance, he considers truth about God's mercy, love, and faithfulness.  He says, "As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me!" (Psalm 40.11)

When we think of our physical healing, I think it's safe to say that we don't often think of being healed through death.  We tend to think that God's unrestrained mercy and steadfast love and faithfulness will manifest itself in our lives through the restoration of our physical bodies.  We think of God using doctors and medicine to restore our bodies to their original health before we became ill, and indeed, this is often the case.  It seems evident that David expected God to deliver him from his physical circumstances and restore his body and condition to the way it was before he suffered this affliction that tossed him into the "pit of destruction."  And if and when we are restored to a healthy physical disposition, then we declare that God's mercy has indeed been unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness have preserved us.  

The error we make in this thinking, however, is that God would be any less merciful or loving or faithful if he healed us of our afflictions through death.  In fact, as my mentor Al implied, God's mercy, love, and faithfulness are most fully realized in death, when a believer is removed from this life and is joined with Jesus in paradise.  God does indeed use the process of physical death to heal us of our afflictions, and healing through death is a good thing.  

But then, why seek physical healing?  If death is such a wondrous release, why not just speed along the process and take my own life?  Just a couple of years ago, Brittany Maynard gained widespread attention for her assertion that she would end her own life if and when the circumstances surrounding her cancer became too difficult to live with.  She fulfilled her plans, and took her own life as a means of ending the pain and suffering she was experiencing.  The act of taking one's life, however, is not a result of a Christian or biblical worldview.  We do not have power over life and death and healing. Only God does.  Only God gets to make those kinds of decisions.  Even when we suffer, we trust that God knows what is best in matters of healing, life, and death.  We have no authority to take our own lives.  Only God has the power and authority to give life, and only God has the authority to take it away.  We must not presume to be God and take life.  

This way of thinking should help us to reframe the way we think about death, especially when a Christian dies who has been suffering from an illness or unpleasant circumstances.  In the example of my 98 year-old friend who passed away this week, her death brings sadness, but also much relief and joy that she has been healed of her pain.  When we find ourselves in the "pit of destruction," we remember that God's mercy toward us will be unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness will ever preserve us.  And we pray that God will restore our bodies to a good physical condition in the here and now.  But if he does not, we await and long for his unrestrained mercy to us at the time of our death, trusting that God will give us the exact kind of healing that we need. 

Just a couple of years after I left high school, my mentor Al was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away shortly thereafter, forever healed of the cancer that afflicted his body.  He was pulled up out of the pit of destruction once and for all.  In his death, the Lord's mercy was fully unrestrained, and his steadfast love and faithfulness was proved in its most full way.