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.  

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Voice

I woke up to terrible new today.  My sister and a friend of mine both texted me to tell me that Chris Cornell had died.  I couldn't believe it.  I have been following Chris Cornell to one degree or another for the past 23 years.  I couldn't believe he was dead.  One of the greatest rock and roll voices of my generation was gone.  And in the hours that followed, it was discovered that his death was a a result suicide by hanging.  What a tragedy.  I'm still having trouble accepting it as I write this.

It's interesting how things affect you.  I've never met Chris Cornell personally.  I've seen him in person at four concerts over the past 10 years, but that's it.  It's not like we were close, or that he even knew I existed.  But following him and listening to his music for the past 20+ years makes me feel like I know him.  And as recently as just a couple weeks ago, I was listening to his most recent album and thinking to myself about how much I was looking forward to whatever it would be that he released next.  The man truly had a musical uniqueness that would be difficult or even impossible to duplicate.

That being said, I've tried to duplicate it.  There are several musical artists that I've tried to copy in my own musical pursuits - people that I have tried to emulate in my own singing and guitar playing.  Chris Cornell was number 2 on that list.  The way he sang was perfect.  I tried to sound like him when I sang (although, of course, I paled in comparison).

Equally tragic was that he seemed to have his life together in a way that many of his peers from that same era of music didn't.  Curt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland all died, mostly due to drug and alcohol problems.  Chris Cornell also went through a time of substance abuse, but came out of it.  He seemed to be doing well in his personal life.  He was married and had two children.  Apparently there was more going on than anyone realized.

23 years ago my seventh grade year was coming to a close, which coincided with the grunge music explosion of the early 90's.  Grunge music was all the rage, and anyone who was anyone at my junior high school was growing their hair out and wearing flannel shirts, and I was one of them.  I scooped up the very little money I had made mowing the lawns of neighbors and went to the local music store, intending to purchase my very own piece of grunge culture.  I had heard Pearl Jam and Nirvana before, and was a fan, but thought that purchasing one of their albums would be too risky, as my parents still kept a somewhat short leash on the music I listened to (although, as the third child the restrictions placed upon me weren't as tight as those placed on my sisters), and I thought they wouldn't approve of me owning an album by either of those bands - they were common enough that I think my parents had heard of them by that time, and didn't approve.  I decided to buy an album by a lesser-known band, and I hoped the music would be innocuous enough so as to not draw the criticism of my parents.  The album I choose was "Superunknown" by Soundgarden, on cassette.  It was the first album I had ever purchased with my own money, of my own accord.

I brought the tape home and showed it to my sister Susan, who was also into grunge music, although she was in high school at the time.  Her initial reaction was one of displeasure, as she thought it would be laden with foul language and immoral themes.  Before showing her the tape I had gone through the lyrics to scout them out for any cuss words.  I assured here that I only found two: "D*mn" and "P*ss" (I suppose the latter isn't technically a cuss word, but it was considered to be vulgar back then).  Believe it or not, that seemed to assuage her concerns, and we both listened to it.  A lot.  I would watch MTV at friends' houses (we didn't have cable at my house), just waiting for the video for "Black Hole Sun" to come on, or "Fell on Black Days."  And thus, my journey into grunge and rock and roll music had begun.  (Although, to be honest, I've never considered Soundgarden to be "grunge" music.  It's always had more of an "alternative" or "modern rock" sound to me.  And yes, I am that kind of music snob.)  But it wasn't just the fact that this was the first album I had ever purchased that made "Superunknown" special - it was also a fantastic album.  And the singer was amazing.  There was no one else in the music world like him.  Soundgarden became a regular part of my listening experience.

That tape led to others, which led to even deeper forays into the world of music.  My tastes expanded and deepened over time, as is common for most people.  But that was the start, and that album in particular held a special place for me because of its significance in the development of my musical tastes and expressions.

Soundgarden's next album, "Down on the Upside," came out when I was in high school.  I remember being blown away by their live performances on Saturday Night Live, which happened to be hosted by Jim Carrey, which spawned the "Night at the Roxbury" comedy bits that became so popular.  I remember it in particular for the performance of "Burden in My Hand."  By that time in my life, I don't think I had ever heard a song like that.  "Pretty Noose" was the other song they performed, and was equally mesmerizing to me.  I didn't buy this album, but my sister did, and I copied it onto a tape and listened to it like crazy.  (As an aside, I remember finding the liner notes from her copy of the CD lying around once, and I looked through them at the lyrics of the songs.  Susan had crossed out all the swear words from the liner notes!)  I remember that the drumming on "Burden In My Hand" was a revelation to me.  I had never heard anyone play the drums like that.  And again, that voice was unmatchable.

Not long after "Down on the Upside" was released, Soundgarden broke up.  I was a bit bummed, but certainly not too dismayed, as there was plenty of other music out there to be listened to, and listen I did.  Time went on, and Soundgarden faded from my mind as other music likewise came and went.

Not long after Soundgarden broke up, Chris Cornell started his solo career.  I'll be honest: I wasn't impressed.  I heard a song or two, and that was enough for me.  It seemed like it was too "easy listening" - too much of a departure from the Soundgarden sound.  I knew he was out there, but I wasn't really interested.

But then, in the early 2000's, Chris got together with the band members from Rage Against the Machine to form the band Audioslave.  I was not excited about this at all.  Rage Against the Machine was a band - also from my youth - that was known for its extremely leftist political positions and protest songs against anything with even a veneer of conservativism.  While this didn't surprise me, it bummed me out.  Chris Cornell had always been what I would call an "honest" entertainer.  I once read an interview with him in which he said that during Soundgarden's heyday, MTV had asked him to be a spokesman for their "Rock the Vote" campaign.  Cornell declined, however, and he said it was because MTV seemed to be clearly trying to get young people to vote for Democratic candidates.  He felt that MTV's efforts to get people to vote was actually a front for helping to elect Democrats.  He didn't state his own political leanings in this interview, but I appreciated his honesty and integrity in the matter.  Additionally, Cornell has gone on record that he prefers not to mix political messages in with his music (which makes this song stick out like a sore thumb to me, as though he was forced to record it).  He feels the two are best left separate, and I wholly agree.

And then, here he is teaming up with the guys from Rage Against the Machine - the most militantly leftist band in history (they were banned from Saturday Night Live for attempting to burn an American flag during a live performance on the show).  Hmmm.  I didn't know what to expect.

Then the first single dropped: "Cochise."  I was blown away.  Incredible song.  It has what is probably the second best scream in any song I've ever heard (Cornell owns the top space in this category as well, with the scream in "Drown Me" from "Superunknown.")  You may not think screaming is something to be admired, but believe me, there's an art to it, and Chris Cornell mastered that art.  To my surprise, the first Audiosoave album was a masterpiece.  Every song was great.  Every song was innovative and new.  Every song featured his unmistakable voice.  And none of the songs contained any leftist political commentary, which was an added bonus!

Audioslave produced two more albums, both good, but they didn't match the quality of the first.

Cornell then went on to do more solo stuff, and finally reunited with Soundgarden in 2010, producing the album "King Animal," which was classic Soundgarden.

There are a million other things to describe about Cornell's voice, and I'm certainly no expert, nor his biographer.  Time would fail to talk about Temple of the Dog, his covers of "Billie Jean" or "Nothing Compares 2 U," or his most recent and most brilliant solo work, and the other stuff he has done (like when I accidentally and pleasantly discovered his work on the "Machinegun Preacher" soundtrack). For example, show me another song written in the past 40 years like this one (not only does it sound like it comes from the soundtrack of a 1960's "spaghetti western," but I'd love to know what kind of guitar that opening progression is played on).  Or listen to the soulful, bluesy genius of "Bend in the Road."  Masterpiece.  Find out what I mean about his ability to scream in a way that is musical and adds depth to a song like "Murderer of Blue Skies."

That was another thing about him that was extraordinary: his ability to cross genres.  In the beginning he was mostly the grunge or hard rock guy, but that quickly branched into other genres of music, proving that he was capable of mastering the vocal style of any kind of music he put himself to.

Cornell's voice has always been the signature of Soundgarden, or pretty much anything else he's done.  The guy could sing like no one else you've heard.  His Wikipedia page says that he had a four octave range, and I believe it.  He could sing exceptionally high, and the sound of his voice was so unique.  As time went on and he got older, his voice got better, taking on a more gravely tone and texture.  He lost a bit of his range, but the gravel added a ton of soul.  His voice simply can't be duplicated.  And now we'll never hear his voice again.

As I stated earlier, I was fortunate enough to see him in concert four times - thrice as a solo act, and once with Soundgarden.  I attended each of those concerts with my sister Susan.  See here for her account of the first time we saw him in concert.  We then saw him perform an acoustic set at St. Katherine's University, of all places.  Then we saw Soundgarden perform in support of the release of "King Animal."  The most recent time we saw him was in October of 2015.

The most tragic part of his death is, of course, the lack of any assurance that he knew God.  Most of his lyrics included a lot of deep spiritual finagling, but never anything consistently Christian (although he ironically and accurately and identified the hypocrisy of the so-called "prosperity gospel" in the song "Wooden Jesus").  But as with anyone who dies without any assurance of salvation, there is always hope that somehow, someway, God made himself known to Chris and he put his trust in him before his death.  That's what I hope anyway.

In conclusion, an associate of mine (and fellow Chris Cornell fan), Levi Secord, posted this very well-written and apt reflection on his Facebook page today, which accurately expresses my feelings as well:
I was saddened today when I woke up to the news one of my favorite artists had died, Chris Cornell, apparently from suicide. I enjoyed his hauntingly wonderful voice, but also his honesty in his lyrics. He openly struggled with the world as it was, a fallen and broken world. Much of his lyrics reflected a mourning of the brokenness of this life and the seemingly hopelessness of it all. This resonates with me, for I recognize the world is not as it should be.  
His band mates described his music as "poetic existentialism," and his struggle with finding meaning in the world ultimately lead to nothingness. Though Cornell often struggled with religious themes, especially Christianity in his lyrics, he still could not seem to find truth or hope in it. He was looking for meaning and purpose, but was unable to find it under the sun without God. This is why his lyrics often portrayed a dark outlook with little hope.  
This lack of hope, and his struggle with trying to find ultimate meaning are found in much of his work, especially his later work songs like Show Me How to Live, Like a Stone, Out of Exile, Doesn't Remind Me, Light My Way, No Such Thing as Nothing, Dead Wishes, Higher Truth, Circling, and so many more. Sometimes he even quoted from Scripture (I am the Highway). But in the end, everything remained meaningless and hopeless for him.  
Take these lines from "Before We Disappear" found in his latest album (video below):
"Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast
Taking everything that you ever had
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth" 
There is no hope in these lyrics and they reflect a man who looked at the world honestly through his worldview and thus stared into the abyss. You will get nothing out of life but a grave in the end. I just said the other week that this line sounds familiar to some in the book of Ecclesiastes. Chris was a tortured artist to the core. 
The loss of life in such a tragic way, especially leaving behind a wife and children, is terrible news. But let us reflect on this--there is no hope under the sun if there is no God. If Christianity is a myth, if there is no truth to God becoming man and dying to save man and redeem creation, then we are to be the most pitied people on earth. If Christianity is false, then the grave is all we get. Chris was more honest in his worldview than most are today, and this honesty in the face of hopelessness surely played a role in him taking his own life. So today I mourn his loss, I pray for his family, and I lament that the world is not as it should be. But I do not do so as one without hope, for God is there, he does exist, and he has revealed his love and mercy through Christ Jesus. In the end there is more than just a cold bed in the quiet earth--there is eternity.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Politics and the Pulpit

Last week President Trump signed an executive order on "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty."  This order, among other things, states that the Trump Administration will not enforce the Johnson Amendment that forbids non-profit organizations from endorsing political parties and candidates.  In short, churches and pastors now have the legal freedom to endorse a political candidate in local, state, and national elections (although this Order does not guarantee that they will not be prosecuted for doing so in the future - see here).  Joe Carter has written a very helpful piece that explains in more detail what is accomplished by this Executive Order.

Although this Order gives churches and pastors the freedom to become more visibly and publicly involved in the process of political campaigns, as a pastor, I have no intention of endorsing a political candidate or backing a particular party as part of my ministry, and nor will Riverview Baptist Church do so as a non-profit entity.  There are at least three very clear reasons why:

1. It might be a stumbling block.
We live in a polarized political world where most people are clearly on one side of an issue or the other, and support either this candidate or the other, and never between the two shall meet.  In other words, everyone has their opinion and is sticking to it - no matter what.  It would seem unwise to me, then, when in the position to be a minister of the gospel, that I would cloud that message with an endorsement of a political candidate.  Such an endorsement may hinder someone who disagrees with my candidate of preference from hearing the message that I really want to declare: the gospel.  In other words, if I endorse a republican candidate from the pulpit, it's going to be hard for democrats to hear the gospel, and vice versa.  If there will be a stumbling block in front of a person, it will be the word of God, not the pastor's political persuasions.  I don't want to put any stumbling block of my own creation that does not come from the Bible in front of a person who needs to hear the greatest news ever given.  For this reason, I will gladly sacrifice my right to endorse a candidate from the pulpit.

2. The marriage between the church and politics has largely left the church weak and ineffective.
In my opinion, much of the present weakness in the American church is the result of its close association with political parties.  Far too many Christians have put their hope in the government for their salvation, believing that elected officials have the power to enact biblical change.  This is not true, nor is it the role that God intends for government to perform.  Additionally, far too many Christians have abdicated the work that the Bible clearly calls the church to accomplish, and has left that work up to the government.  The church has given up much of its authority to the government, and has looked to government programs to achieve change instead of the gospel, leaving it weak and ineffective.  The results of this marriage have been tragic.  Since the church has abdicated its work to the government, many of America's 300,000+ protestant churches have become entertainment centers that focus on life-enhancement rather than the gospel.  The endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit would only further this weakness.

3. The church is a divine entity created by God - not a political party. 
The church is distinct from all other institutions in the history of the world.  We are the called-out-ones; the disparate band of sinners redeemed by a great Savior.  We come from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, political persuasions, and every other qualifier imaginable.  We are to partner with God in his mission to bring the gospel to every corner of the earth.  In this process we are to call all people to repentance and faith - from the lowliest peasant to the highest king or president.  We are to call all politicians and political parties to repentance - not to get into bed with the party we prefer and call the other one to repentance.  To endorse a candidate or party would muddy the waters of knowing what the church is and its purpose in the world.

All of this being said, the church is still bound by God to address topics and issues that are often political in nature in our culture.  We will still talk about moral issues, and we will do our best to speak clearly where the Bible speaks clearly.  The influence of the gospel permeates all areas of life - including our engagement with politics.  But make no mistake: we don't speak about these issues and take the stances we do because of an allegiance to a political party, but to God.  We are ambassadors of God's kingdom, not ambassadors for the kingdoms of the democrat and republican parties.  We will endorse the King of kings, and no one else.

As Christians who follow King Jesus, we understand that there are times when we may be called to sacrifice our earthly rights for the sake of the gospel.  I, for one, feel that sacrificing the right to endorse a political candidate for the sake of the gospel is a good one to make.

Monday, May 1, 2017


I've been called a lot of things in my life, but I've never been called "hip" or "trendy."  But apparently I am.  And so is Riverview Baptist Church.  According to a recent Gallup survey, preaching that is based on the Bible is the hottest trend in American churches right now.  That is, it has apparently become popular for preachers to base their sermons on the Bible, and people are responding to it by flocking to churches with biblical preaching.

At Riverview we are committed to preaching and teaching the Bible for the simple reason that is the only and best thing worth preaching and teaching.  We believe that the Bible is God's word - it is a direct message from God to us (just let that sink in for a minute), and that it is completely true in all its parts and in everything that it says.  It is inspired by God himself through human authors, and it is sufficient in all areas it addresses (in other words, it is enough to give us all the direction, guidance, and wisdom in life that we will need).  Put simply, we at Riverview hold the Bible in high regard.  And since we do, we find that it is the best and most worthy object of our time and attention.  All other things that we might speak about and study pale in comparison to the Bible.

If the Bible is indeed all of these things - and it is - then it only makes sense that we would devote ourselves to it.  To this extent, the fact that biblical preaching is a current trend is a good thing.  The more people hear the word of God preached faithfully, the better.  But trends aren't necessarily all good.  In fact, following the trends of the day has been, in my opinion, the thorn in the church's side for several decades now.

What does it say about the spiritual health of the American Church that biblical preaching is trending?  Nothing good, as far as I can tell.  After all, trends come and go.  For decades many American churches have put the Bible on the shelf in favor of a flashy stage production, catchy music, a hip coffee bar, or even having people dressed up as Disney characters during services.  Basically, many churches have attempted to draw people to their churches with anything but the Bible - whatever appeals to the masses is what they do to draw people in.  And now that the Bible has become what the people want, it is quite possible that churches will jump on board that trend for as long as it lasts, or until people get bored with the Bible and want to be entertained again.  To this extent, I hope that many preachers who simply follow trends won't follow this one.  We don't need preachers going to the Bible because they want to attract people.  Instead, we need preachers who will go to the Bible because it is the authoritative word of God, and it is the only and best thing that demands our attention.

Many churches have adapted their ecclesiology and ministry philosophy for the purpose of achieving a certain result.  In other words, what do we have to do fill the pews?  What do we have to do to bring up our numbers?  But this is a pragmatic and unbiblical way of determining how we should conduct our churches.  Instead, our question should be: what would God have us do?  Our focus should be obedience, not outcomes or results.  If God says to preach the Bible in season and out of season, that is what we should do, regardless of the results, and regardless of who comes or who does not.  I'm glad that biblical preaching is trending right now, but I hope that people don't jump on the biblical preaching bandwagon just to get more people in the door.  Rather, we should be on this bandwagon - and stay on it - because that's what God says to do.

At Riverview, faithful men of God have been preaching his word verse by verse, line by line, for as long as I can remember, and we intend to carry on that legacy.  I was once approached by a visitor to our church after preaching a sermon and they said to me, "It is so refreshing to hear a sermon that is based on the word of God, telling us what God says."  Although I was honored by their compliment, my first thought was, "What else is there to preach?"  Why would you want to hear from a fallible, imperfect man when you could hear from the God of the universe?  I certainly don't have any of my own thoughts or ideas that are worth talking about.  My wisdom is nothing compared to God's.  Why would I preach anything but the Bible?  Everything else pales in comparison!

It is my hope that we will be a church that is faithful to dedicating ourselves to receiving the word of God and declaring it with boldness, in season and out of season.  We know that God's word never returns void - it accomplishes all its purposes (Isaiah 55.11).  May God give us the grace to speak it boldly until he comes.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

When Religion Leaves a Bad Taste In Your Mouth

"Religion" is a bad word it seems, these days.  Most people have a very negative understanding of what religion is and how it plays out in regular life.  In fact, the largest growing religious group in America are the so-called "Nones" - those people who, when asked with what religious tradition they affiliated, answered "None."  Indeed, according to a 2014 Pew Research study, approximately 23% of American adults claim no religious affiliation.

Why does religion put such a bad taste in the mouths of one quarter of the U.S. population?  Perhaps it is because religious groups are often affiliated with political groups.  Or perhaps it is because the usual picture of religious life is one of puritanical rule-following and empty ceremony and tradition.  Whatever the reason, the word "religion" is becoming increasingly pejorative in our culture.

Even Christians can have very negative understandings of what religion is.  I have a friend who once had a shirt that read "Religion is dead.  God is not."  Many people avoid the term "religion" altogether, and instead opt for the more palatable qualifier, "spiritual."  You've no doubt heard someone say in describing themselves, "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual."

To the extent that the modern understanding of religion is associated with political ideologies, legalistic rule-following, and empty ceremony, I'll throw my hat in with the "Nones."  I have no desire to be affiliated with that kind of religion.  Indeed, it is possible and even very common in our country for religion to be something of very little substance, and often times choked with ceremony and tradition that is void of substance and is only carried out for its own sake.  This kind of religion is empty, false, and completely unprofitable.  And, most unfortunately, you don't have to visit too many churches in America before you run into this kind of religion.

But the Bible does not consider "religion" to be a bad word.  On the contrary, religion can be a very good, profitable, and God-honoring thing.  First, in order for religion to be of any value, it must connect the mind, heart, and body of the individual.  That is, right beliefs must translate into right actions.  "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless." (James 1.26)  If you claim a set of beliefs, your actions need to match your beliefs.  If your religion has no impact on your life then it's worthless, because your beliefs ring hollow to the extent that they have no power to change how you live.  If you espouse belief in a set of truth claims (such as the Bible, for example), your belief must be displayed in your life.  And not just in ceremonies and traditions, but in real, tangible ways such as your speech.  Do your beliefs change the way you think, act, and speak?  If not, your religious practice is worthless.  You're a "None" and you don't even know it.

Second, religion that is true and right and pure is religion that is practiced in accordance with the word of God, and is in itself a reflection of the heart, mind, and will of God.  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1.27)  God has revealed in his word what is important to him: the things he loves, hates, how he acts, what is right, what is wrong, etc.  God-honoring religion is living a life that responds rightly to what God has revealed in his word - it's knowing God's heart, mind, and will, and then living in accordance with that knowledge.

The example in James 1.27 is that of orphans and widows.  God has a special place in his heart for orphans and widows and those on the margins of society.  He has a special love, care, and concern for them.  Religion that honors God, then, is to have a heart that mirrors God's love and care for orphans and widows.  But it's not just limited to orphans and widows.  Genuine religion mirrors God's care and concern for all things that he has revealed in his word.  Genuine religion is concerned with care for the poor; genuine religion is concerned with holiness and righteousness according to God's commands (or, as James says, "to keep oneself unstained from the world"); genuine religion is concerned with conducting my relationships according to biblical principles; genuine religion is concerned with conducting myself in business and at my job in accordance with God's word.  The list goes on and on.  The practice of obedience to what God says to do is the purest and best practice of religion.

If the word "religion" puts a bad taste in your mouth or bad thoughts in your head, chances are that you have either participated in a religion that is more concerned with ritual and ceremony than actual obedience to God's word, or perhaps you've had a bad experience with people who claim allegiance to this religion or that, and so you've decided to be one of the "Nones."  If that's the case, you need to know that your experience with religion has only been with false religions and worthless religions - not the religion of the Bible.  The religion of the Bible is one that has power to change lives and make people more like God.  True, pure, and good religion is always done in accordance with God's revelation of himself found in the Bible.

Far from being a bad word, "religion" can express the deepest and most precious truths of the Christian faith, if we will practice it according to God's word.

Monday, April 3, 2017

God's Purpose In Your Pain

The idea that the pain we experience in life has a purpose behind it is a foreign one to most of us.  Most of the time pain and hard things just seem to come out of nowhere for no apparent reason.  But this is not what the Bible says about the hard things we experience.  Instead, when we suffer and go through trials it is always for a purpose.  It’s not just a result of bad luck or unfortunate happenstance, but rather the divine plan of God for your good.  God has a purpose in your pain.  James 1.1-4 tells us four purposes that God is working out when we go through something difficult. 

1. To test your faith (James 1.3)
When God sends divinely appointed trials your way, one of the reasons he does so is to test your faith.  But let’s be clear: this is not for the purpose of testing you for the sake of testing you, or to see how you do and then give you a grade and ridicule you if you fail.  Instead, the kind of testing of our faith that God does is intended to grow us in our faith.

Do you recall when Abraham took his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah? (Genesis 22)  There God instructed him to sacrifice his only son – the son that God had promised him decades before.  But then, of course, as Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, God says, “Stop” and he provides a ram to be sacrificed in the place of Isaac.  This was a test of faith – and this test gave Abraham a completely new appreciation for God as provider, and a new understanding of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  But it took Abraham coming to the brink of sacrificing his son on Mount Moriah for him to come to that understanding.   Do you think that was hard?  Do you think that was a trial?  Absolutely.  But that trial – that test of faith – was divinely designed by God to increase Abraham’s faith.

Or, think of Job.  Satan says to God, “I bet I can get Job to curse you,” and God says, “OK, how about a test?”  And so he gives Satan the authority to take away Job’s livestock – his wealth – his children, and even his physical health.  And Job goes through immense physical and emotional and spiritual torment.   By the time Job gets through this test he says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42.5)  In other words, through this trial I have come to know you in a whole new way that I would not have known you had I not experienced this difficulty.

God tests our faith not to put us through the wringer unnecessarily, but to grow us.  Growth mostly comes through times of testing – it mostly comes when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Because when you are at your lowest you will find that God is at his strongest.  So God’s purpose in your pain by testing your faith is not to test you for the sake of testing you, but to help you to grow.

2. To produce steadfastness in you (James 1.3)
In the trials that we face, one of his main purposes is to produce in us steadfastness.  The Greek word translated “steadfastness” can also be understood as perseverance or endurance – being made strong to stand against the coming onslaught, and to outlast it.  One of God’s purposes in our pain is to build up in us this kind of steadfastness, this perseverance in the midst of life’s trials.

Now why is that important?  Why does God want to produce steadfastness in us?  The answer is because we don’t live the Christian life in a vacuum.  We live it in a world where horrible tragedies happen, and where people contract illnesses and diseases that disfigure or scar their physical bodies.  We live in a world where accidents happen.  In other words, we live in a world of never-ending trials.  It’s not as though, when you experience one trial or difficulty, that you’ve met your quota for your lifetime, and you get some time off from another trial.  No, there’s another trial waiting for you, just around the corner.  The question is, now that you have made it through this trial, what are you going to do to get through that trial?

And so, God gives us tests of faith to build us up so we can endure the next test, because it is coming, because we live in a sinful world where bad things happen.  By giving us trials and tests of faith, God is preparing us for what lies ahead.  He is producing in us steadfastness.

But it’s not just steadfastness, but a steadfastness of hope.  The kind of strength God gives to us not only gets us through this current difficulty and gets us ready for the next one, but it changes our thinking.  As we look back on our lives and the trials we’ve experienced, our worldview changes because we know that God has been with us in the past, and he will be with us in the future.  I have hope for this trial, and the next one, and the next one, because God is a God who goes into the valley of the shadow of death with his people.

3. To make you more like Jesus (James 1.4)
James says that as we go through difficulties and grow in steadfastness, we will become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  What he means by that is we will become more like God.  God is perfect and complete in himself – he lacks nothing.  James says that when you go through a trial, that’s the goal – that’s what God is working toward: to make you more perfect and more complete so that you will lack in nothing.  Or in other words, to make you more like Jesus.  

Sometimes this is the only encouragement I can give as a pastor to people who are suffering: if nothing else, realize that if you trust God through this incredibly hard thing, you will come out on the other side of it looking more and more like Jesus.  I’ve sat with people, and they’ve told me what’s going on in their lives, and many times it’s tragic and unfair and there’s nothing to be done.  At those times, the only counsel I can offer is this: “Trust God through this trial, and you’ll come out looking more like Jesus.”

And really, that should be enough for us.  If that’s all you get out of your trial and your test of faith, that’s enough.  If you aren’t vindicated, but you look more like Jesus, that’s a good trade off.  If you are falsely accused of something and your reputation suffers, but it makes you more like Jesus, that’s a good tradeoff.  It’s better for you to look like Jesus than it is for you to have an untarnished name and reputation.  If you go through a prolonged period of suffering, and you come out of it sick and frail, but you look more like Jesus, that’s a good tradeoff.  It’s better to look like Jesus than to have a strong and healthy body.  God is working in your difficulties to make you more perfect and complete – more like Jesus.

4. To bring you joy (James 1.2)
James says that through all this, our trials will actually lead to our joy.  It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily happy while you go through something hard, but the reality that suffering makes you more and more like Jesus should certainly give you a confidence and a hope when things are difficult.  This hard thing is making you more like Jesus, and that’s something to get excited about.
For this reason, we should not despise trials and suffering in our lives – God is working in them.  Does that mean you have to like it when you go through something hard?  No, but it should give you a hopeful perspective on whatever you’re going through.  So bring it on, Lord; bring on the suffering; bring on the trials.  And with the trials, bring on your strength.  And as I lean into you, make me more and more like Jesus.  That is what I want.  That will lead to my joy. 

When we go through trials and difficulties, our natural inclination is to get out of it as fast as possible.  We want to end the pain, take a drug, self-medicate, avoid the problem, or whatever in order to make the hardship go away – end the pain as fast as possible.  But if God truly is working in our trials, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to get out of them.  Perhaps it would be better to just sit with the pain a while and feel it vividly, and ask God what he might be trying to teach you.  Think about how this pain can lead you to steadfastness.  Think about how it can make you more like Jesus.

God has a purpose in your pain, and he is constantly at work to bring it about for your good.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Shack

Several years ago, the book “The Shack” was published and was all the talk in Christian circles.  It’s description of the Trinity, and also how it deals with the problem of evil in the world, inspired many.  At the same time, however, many others condemned the book, saying that it promoted universalism and unbiblical ideas about God and the Trinity.  Out of curiosity, I picked up the book and started reading, only to put it down out of boredom a short time later, never to return.  Cut to today, and the film adaptation of “The Shack” is playing in theaters, and many Christians are wondering what to make of it: is it a Christian movie?  Should I see it?  I’ll attempt to answer these two questions here. 

Is “The Shack” a Christian movie?
In response to those who have criticized “The Shack,” many have said that people need to lighten up; the book is fiction, after all, and its intended purpose is not to lay down precise doctrinal statements.  While this may be true, it is also true that every work of literature espouses and promotes a particular worldview and theology.  From “Huckleberry Finn” to “Little Women” to the latest Stephen King horror novel – every book espouses truths about God (even if they aren’t overtly stated – the characters’ views of morality and truth are statements about God), and about the proper way of interpreting our world and reality.  “The Shack” is no less an espousal of theology and worldview, even if it does not do so conspicuously.

That being said, we can confidently say that “The Shack” is decidedly not a Christian book or movie.  There are multiple problematic elements that come out in the book and movie, including the representation of God the Father as a physical woman named Papa, the espousal of universal salvation, and more.  To read a thorough list of the theological problems with “The Shack” read Tim Challies’ review here.  

But aside from problems that come directly from the book/movie, Paul Young has made it apparent that he, himself, is not a Christian, and therefore cannot espouse a sound Christian theology or worldview in his literary work.  That is a bold statement, but it is one that is based on Young’s own confession of faith.  Earlier this month, Young released a non-fiction book entitled “Lies We Believe About God” in which he exposes what he believes to be lies associated with traditional Christian belief.  Unfortunately, the “lies” that Young identifies are the pillars of the historic, Christian faith.  For instance, Young denies that humans are inherently sinful; Young further denies that God is sovereign; he denies that human beings are in need of salvation (Young favors the idea of universal salvation – that all are saved regardless of belief); he denies a literal hell or punishment for sin; he denies that Jesus had to die on the cross for our salvation; and on and on the list goes. (For a more in-depth understanding of Young’s beliefs, see Tim Challies’ review of “Lies We Believe About God” here.)

While Young’s fictional story of “The Shack” may have been ambiguous when it came to specific Christian doctrines, his book “Lies We Believe About God” unambiguously sets him clearly outside of the historic, orthodox Christian Faith.  This is important to realize, because it means that the theological foundation upon which “The Shack” is built is not Christian.  And if the foundation is not Christian, then the theology espoused by the book is likewise not Christian.  It does not propagate a sound Christian theology, nor does it espouse or promote a Christian or biblical worldview.  In fact, if a person does base his or her theology on this book and/or film, he or she will come away with a heretical and powerless theology, and a worldview built upon unbiblical falsehoods.

Should I see it?
Although “The Shack” is clearly not a “Christian movie,” that fact alone does not disqualify it from being viewed by Bible-believing Christians.  After all, you have probably seen dozens and maybe even hundreds of movies that are not explicitly Christian – I know I have.  Christians are called to engage the culture with biblical discernment, and to let God’s word be our guide when we evaluate the images, messages, and ideas that go into our minds and hearts.  Just because a movie isn’t “Christian” isn’t a good enough reason to not engage it – at least in my way of thinking.  Instead, I would advise believers not to see “The Shack” for two very different, very important reasons. 

First, although “The Shack” is demonstrably not a Christian film, it is portrayed as one.  This means that there are potentially millions of people who have either read the book or seen the movie and believe themselves to be engaging Christian truths and ideas.  This is not the case, and is in fact much more deceptive and dangerous than ideas and truth claims that are clearly unchristian.  Christians have been and will be duped by this book/movie into believing that the theology and worldview espoused by it is biblical and accords with traditional Christian faith.  However, as I’ve stated several times, it does not.  The fact that this movie does not espouse sound Christian theology and yet masquerades as being faithful to the Bible makes it dangerous and, in my opinion, makes it unwatchable by a Christian audience.  For this reason, I would advise you not to see it.

A second – and related – reason I would advise you not to see “The Shack” is that it can easily lead you astray.  The movie deals with very emotional subject matter, and it can be easy for our emotions to influence our engagement with truth claims.  Put simply, this movie will tempt you to believe errant theology and wrong ideas about God, salvation, sin, and human beings.  It would be unwise to purposely expose yourself to such temptations.  The easiest and most obvious way to remove the temptation to believe false doctrine is to not see the movie.

While many have said that “The Shack” is a Christian movie, it clearly is not.  While this fact alone may not be enough to dissuade us from seeing it, the reality that it is being promoted as a Christian movie makes it a dangerous film, and I would advise Christians to avoid it.  Instead, check out the Lego Batman movie.  My son recommends it. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Do the Gospels Contradict Each Other?

One of the primary criticisms leveled against the Bible is that it contradicts itself.  These alleged contradictions are especially apparent in the gospels, as four different authors relay events based on eyewitness testimony, and sometimes their accounting of events do not align.  One of those seemingly contradictory passages is Luke 7.1-10 and Matthew 8.5-13.  Both passages give an account of the healing of a centurion's friend or servant, yet there are several differences between the two.

Most of these differences are incidental, and don't influence at all the way the text is understood or interpreted.  For instance, Luke reports that the servant is "sick and at the point of death," while Matthew says that the servant is "paralyzed" and "suffering terribly."  Who's right?  They both are.  It's possible for someone "at the point of death" to be paralyzed and suffering terribly.  Two people giving a report about the same event will often use unique ways of describing this event.  In this instance, Matthew and Luke described the man's illness from their unique point of view.

Most of the other differences in the passage are likewise incidental and easily explainable.  There is one difference, however, that is more significant, and more worthy of a deeper investigation: in this account, Luke reports that some friends of the centurion, along with his servants, are the ones who interface with Jesus on the centurion's behalf, whereas Matthew's account says that the centurion himself is the one who comes and talks personally with Jesus.  This is an instance where both authors can't be right - either the centurion came and talked with Jesus, or he didn't.  And if they can't both be right, then one of them must be wrong.  But if one of them must be wrong, then what does that say about the testimony of scripture?  If Matthew and Luke botched this story, then what else did they get wrong?  Thankfully, an investigation into first-century Jewish culture resolves this issue for us and alleviates the notion that the two gospel-writers contradict one another.

In Jewish culture, servants - when sent on errands for their masters - were to be regarded by those with whom they interacted on their masters' behalf as having the same authority as their master.  Even to the extent that a person's servants were a physical representation of themselves.  They were to be treated and spoken to in the same way that someone would treat and speak to their master.

Thus, when Matthew reports that the centurion himself came and spoke with Jesus, it is likely that in reality it was actually the centurion's servants.  However, in Matthew's Jewish brain, those servants bear the identity and authority of their master, so Matthew records that the centurion himself was present, which is technically correct according to Jewish custom.  Luke, on the other hand, is not Jewish (Luke was the only Gentile author of the New Testament), and so he is not familiar with the Jewish custom of servants representing the identity of their masters.  Therefore, when he reports on this instance, he takes a literal stance: the servants came on behalf of their master.

This understanding resolves the apparent contradiction.  Matthew and Luke both report on the same details, and their accounts agree when we take their cultural customs into perspective.

There are no contradictions in the Bible that I know of that cannot be explained by a careful study and understanding of the context, history, and culture of a passage.  The more we study the Bible, the more we can clearly see that it has been perfectly written and preserved for our benefit.  Perceived contradictions in the text are just that: perceptions not based in an understanding of the text.

You can trust your Bible, and the story of the healing of the centurion's servant just proves it all the more.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Scariest Verse in the Bible

There are plenty of verses in the Bible that can cause fear in our hearts: verses about war, judgment, future calamity, and so on.  But to me, those verses pale in comparison to Luke 6.46: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and not do what I tell you?"  I admit that this verse doesn't seem very scary on its face, but it terrifies me, and I'm not just being hyperbolic.

In Hebrew language and culture, repeating someone's name or title was an expression of intimacy and closeness.  For instance, when Abraham was about to slay Isaac on Mount Moriah, God said to him, "Abraham, Abraham..."  And when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, he said, "Moses, Moses..."  When Jesus wept over the sinfulness of the city of Jerusalem, he said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem..."  And as Jesus hung on the cross, he said, "My God, my God..."  One way of expressing a deep, emotional intimacy or closeness with a person was to repeat his or her name.  Jesus clearly says in Luke 6.46 that there are people who call him "Lord, Lord."  In other words, there are many people who feel a deep closeness or intimacy with Jesus.  They are so close to him, in fact, that they feel free to call him "Lord, Lord."

The scary part is what Jesus says next: "...and not do what I tell you?"  To me, that is terrifying because it means that there are people who believe themselves to have an intimate and close relationship with Jesus, but in reality they have nothing of the sort, and this is demonstrated by the fact that they do not do what he says.  They are thoroughly convinced that they are genuine believers following after Jesus, but in reality they are no such thing.  In other words, they are self-deceived.  They are able to trick everyone around them that they are Christians - even themselves - but they do not do what God tells them to do.  They are not genuine believers.

That, to me, is terrifying.

Think of Judas Iscariot.  At the last supper, Jesus said to his disciples, "One of you will betray me tonight."  Naturally, all of the disciples said, "Well, yeah, we know that was coming.  It's obviously Judas.  That guy's corrupt.  He's faking it.  He's obviously the one who's going to betray you, Jesus."

No.  None of them said that.  Instead, they all said, "Is it I?"  None of the disciples suspected that Judas would betray Jesus because Judas had them all fooled.  He called Jesus "Lord, Lord," but he did not believe and respond to the truth that Jesus proclaimed.  So if one of the men who walked with Jesus could deceive others into thinking that he was a real Christian, how much easier would it be for us to be so deceptive?

The reason I say that this idea is terrifying is that if there were people in Jesus' day who were faking it and didn't even realize it, then that means that there are people today - potentially even in our church - who are calling Jesus "Lord, Lord," who believe themselves to be Christians, but aren't in reality.  They have deceived themselves into thinking that they are Christians when they are not.  To make things even more disturbing, ask yourself this question: "How do I know that I am not self-deceived?  Do I call Jesus 'Lord, Lord' but not have saving faith?  That is a scary thought.

Thankfully, Jesus gives us two ways of determining whether or not we are actually in the faith.

1. Examine the treasure of your heart (Luke 6.45)
We are all born with sinful hearts.  We are born into sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us.  We all have hearts that do not naturally seek God, seek understanding, or seek after honoring God.  Instead, the thoughts of our hearts are only evil, continually.  We couldn't be good if we tried.  There are no naturally good people or hearts that overflow with goodness.

But at conversion, when the Holy Spirit gives us the grace to turn from our sin and place our trust in Jesus, God gives us a new heart.  He removes the heart of stone that we once had and gives us a heart of flesh - a heart that is sensitive to God's leading and comes under conviction through his word.  It's a heart filled with new loves and desires.  Instead of desiring and treasuring sin and our own way, we begin to treasure righteousness and obedience to the will of God.

Does your heart treasure obedience to God?  Do you have a desire to do the good works that God has prepared for you (Eph. 2.10)?  If so, it's a sign that God has given you a new heart with new desires, and that you are actually a Christian.  Some people call Jesus "Lord, Lord" and have a sincere desire to do what God says to do.  And some people call Jesus "Lord, Lord" but have no intention of doing what God says to do, even though they think they're a Christian.  One way that you can know which group you're in is to examine the treasure of your heart: what do you treasure - obedience, or sin?

2. Examine the fruit of your life (Luke 6.43-44)
Another way to tell if you actually belong to Jesus is to see if what you profess to believe is being manifested in your life through actions.  You may not realize it, but everything you do in life is based on your faith.  Even atheists live their lives according to their belief that there is not God.  Everything in your life is a manifestation of what you believe.  Or, as Jesus says, "...out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."

Our beliefs translate into words and actions.  If you have a heart of flesh that has been given to you by God, that will be made manifest by how you live.  And if you have a heart of stone that is corrupted by your sinful nature, that will likewise be made manifest by how you live.  All of your obedience comes from faith, and all of your disobedience comes from faith - just not faith in God.  The way that you can tell whether or not you are calling Jesus "Lord, Lord" in truth is by examining the fruit of what you believe.  The "good fruit" of our lives is the product of putting Jesus' words into practice.  Those who have heard the word of God, who have believed it, and who are living produce good fruit.  Those who have not, however, produce bad fruit - even while calling Jesus "Lord, Lord."

So another way that we can know that we are not self-deceived and that we truly do trust in Jesus is to examine the fruit of our lives.  When God gives us a new heart, that new heart translates into new attitudes, actions, and behaviors.  Do you see those attitudes, actions, and behaviors in your own life?  If you are calling Jesus "Lord, Lord," does your life exhibit the reality that he really is your Lord?   One way that you can tell is by examining the fruit in your life.

If you go through this process and discover that you are simply calling Jesus "Lord, Lord" but have never acted on his words in faith, I have good news: you can remedy that situation.  Jesus came for people who are faking it; Jesus came for hypocrites and for those whose fruit is rotten and worm-infested.  He is able to save you.  He has told you to turn from your sin and to trust in the work of his perfect life and perfect death on your behalf.  If you will do this, you will be saved.  Jesus will give you a new heart that treasures obedience to God's will, and new desires and attitudes and actions and behaviors that will allow you to produce good fruit.  If you are genuinely trusting in Jesus there is no need to be afraid - no need to worry about faking it.  He's done it all, and we can rest securely in him.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Fool Takes No Pleasure In Understanding

This past weekend has been a wild one, as social and news media blew up over President Trump’s recent executive orders regarding restrictions for immigrants and refugees seeking to enter the United States.  The advent of the internet and social media have allowed us to have instant access to breaking news, and even more instant access to platforms that allow us to share our opinions on said news.  This is a double-edged sword, and unfortunately we seem to have lost an appreciation for expressing ourselves in slow, wise ways that are well thought out, rational, and reasonable.  Instead, we broadcast the first thoughts that come into our heads that are more fueled by emotion than rational (let alone biblical) thought.  This has not been beneficial for societal discourse as a whole, and I believe this past weekend has been more evidence of that: entire people groups and religions have been maligned and raked over the social media coals. 

Unfortunately Christians have played a large role in speaking quickly and definitively on this issue (at least in my feeds), regardless of which side of the issue they support.  Internet memes are used to stand in judgment over those who disagree, and trite, divisive social commentary questions the authenticity of the faith of this group or that.  People who are supposed to be characterized by godly wisdom, and who are supposed to be quick to listen and slow to speak are clogging social media with unfounded accusations and judgments that have more to do with a desire to affiliate with a political position than to accord with biblical wisdom and justice.

This has to stop. 

Believe it or not, the Bible guides us in how we are to engage social and political issues in the public square, such as social media.  Here are four correctives that God gives us when we consider entering the digital marketplace of ideas.  We would be wise to heed them.

Seek the truth, speak the truth
God is a God of truth.  Jesus described himself as “the truth” (John 14.6).  God’s desire is to lead us into all truth through his Spirit (John 16.13).  Jesus prayed that his followers would be sanctified by the truth (John 17.17).  Everything God says is true (Numbers 23.19), and he commands his people to pursue, love, and know the truth.  Conversely, God detests lies, falsehood, and slander (see Proverbs 6.16-17, 12.22, etc.).  Much, if not most, political engagement on social media is not based in truth.  Rather, it is based on one-liners and zingers in the form of memes that support a person’s preconceived notions.  At worst (and all too commonly), social media commentary propagates false narratives on the issues of our day, which lead to misdirected thinking and believing.  In other words: slander and lies.  If we share ideas and information on social media that is not true or is misleading, we are participating in slander, gossip, and downright lies.  As people who pursue the truth, it is our obligation to not participate in such things, and we similarly have an obligation to finding the truth, and only speaking the truth, regardless of the situation or ideas that we engage.  We are to hold ourselves to a high standard of finding the truth on any and every issue, and only dialoguing according to the truth.  To spread slander, lies, and gossip – even on social media – is to participate in something that God hates.  Even in light of perceived injustices, we would be wise to not run to social media and pronounce judgment until we have the facts of the matter. 

Be quick to listen and slow to speak
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1.19-20)

James says that we are to do two things slowly, and one thing quickly.  In our social media discourse, we are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  In an age dominated by social media and breaking news, however, this is very difficult to do.  Because of our pride, when news breaks we want to be the first ones to offer our opinions for all the world to see.  Social media platforms are built on quick and definitive words and speech.  Just check the news feed on your preferred social media platform right now: how much of what is in there has been thought out over time and can be characterized as an opinion that is based off of careful thinking and listening?  We should fight the temptation to make ourselves be heard on every issue.  And even when we have something to say, it should come from a long period of thinking and listening.  Instead of speaking because we are angry, we should listen – and then maybe speak.  After all, as James says, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  If you’re angry, and you’re going to post about your anger online, you better make sure it’s righteous anger.  Otherwise, be quiet. 

Seek to understand, not to express your opinion
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18.2)

There are multiple sides to that issue that you’re angry about, and about which you’ve just spouted off on social media.  Have you taken the time to understand each of those sides before speaking?  If not, you have no business talking about it.  The Bible says that if you are simply talking (or posting) in order to express your opinion, you’re a fool.  Fools have no desire to see the other side of an issue; fools have no desire to listen to and understand a dissenting opinion.  Fools only want to be heard.  Take a look again at your social media feed.  Does it look like people take pleasure in understanding, or in expressing their opinions?  What about the content you post?

The more you say, the more likely you are to sin
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10.19)

It’s very easy for social media debates to quickly escalate into name-calling, and for people to attach motives to others.  Usually, the more that is said, the more likely the conversation will degenerate into something ugly and sinful.  The Bible warns us against using a multitude of words.  Put simply, the more we talk, the more likely we are to fall into sin.  The reality of Proverbs 10.19 is easily observable with just a few clicks on any social media platform.  So before you engage in that debate on Facebook, consider the possibility that it could easily lead you into sin.  Don’t allow yourself to go there.  It’s probably better and wiser just to remain silent. 

How then shall we post?
Like it or not, our society has become one in which social media plays a dominant role.  As Christians who want to engage the culture and speak the word of God into it, it behooves us to be a part of that platform.  A few years ago, however, I got off social media altogether because it was becoming apparent to me that the things I said and shared on those platforms did not honor God.  It was easy for me to get angry and to propagate unfounded information that was not based in fact.  I was off social media for almost two years before coming back when I became the pastor of Riverview.  And nowadays, I stay mostly silent, for the very reasons I’ve listed above.  I’m not saying that Christians have to be silent about social and political issues on Facebook, but that there needs to be a lot more thought that goes into what we say on social media platforms.  If you can’t invest the time and energy into thinking deeply and truthfully about the issues that arise in our society, I would advise you not to comment.   

Also, consider the possibility that your polemical view might serve to alienate a friend or brother or sister in Christ who holds a different view from your own.  A strong statement on one side or another might serve to cause a division between yourself and others in the church.  Far be it from any of us to put a stumbling block in front of a brother or sister on social media. 

Christians are not to be people who communicate in knee-jerk reactions and platitudes represented by social media memes.  Rather, we are to be slow to speak, quick to understand, and to earnestly seek out the truth.  Christians are people who are characterized by their desire for the truth, whatever it might be, and no matter how inconvenient it might be.  In light of this reality, here’s a suggestion for you: rather than post a meme on social media, and rather than engaging in the next endless Facebook political debate that will probably cause you to fall into sin, take some time to think through whatever issue concerns you, and invite someone with whom you disagree out to coffee and go over the issue slowly, using the Bible to guide your thinking.