Monday, December 24, 2012

The cost of discipleship

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  No one who does not carry his cross and come with me can be my disciple."  - Jesus (Luke 14:26-27)

"Jesus never lured disciples with false advertising."   - Elisabeth Elliot

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to keep God's Law

One of the thorniest theological issues any conscientious Bible reader faces is how to apply the law of God (His commands which are found both in the Old and New Testaments) as New Covenant believers who no longer live in the Old Covenant context of ancient Israel.  One helpful resource is Ernest Reisinger's book The Law and the Gospel.  In it he gives, among other things, the following advice:
Wrong Uses of the Law
1. We use it wrongly when we misinterpret it like the Scribes and Pharisees.
2. We use it wrongly when we oppose it to Christ, oppose it to grace or oppose it to the gospel.
3. We use it wrongly when we look to it for justification - seeking acceptance by God through keeping it.
4. We use it wrongly when we disconnect it from the gospel and use it to discourage brokenhearted sinners. 
5. We use it wrongly when we fail to use it to glorify God's grace and gospel through Christ.
6. We use it wrongly when we disconnect it from the work of the Holy Spirit, focusing harmfully on our own ability to do good works.
7. We use it wrongly when we use it as ammunition in unlawful and unprofitable disputes about secondary matters.  
Right Uses of the Law
1. We rightly use it when we use it to remember the nature and will of God.
2. We rightly use it to remember our duty to God and others.
3. We rightly use it to realize and remember our natural inability to keep it apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. 
4. We rightly use it to remind ourselves of our sinful natures, hearts and lives, thus driving us to Christ for forgiveness.
5. We rightly use it to help others gain a clearer sight of their need of Christ His perfect fulfillment of it in their place.
6. We rightly use it to develop the principles for establishing a culture and society which maximally glorifies God and blesses us. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rightly remembering tragedy

On my drive to work today I found the news to be different.  All the talk was about the Sandy Hook tragedy.  This is not because of any new information, but simply to remember what took place one week ago today.  Remembering has a helpful, healing effect.  

New York City pastor Tim Keller knows that.  So, in 2006 at the five year anniversary of 9/11, he preached a poignant sermon with some very helpful reflections about the tragedy of sin in our world and how we begin to heal from its wounds as we remember it and see it through the lens of God's truth.  His message is reproduced in full below.
As a minister, of course, I've spent countless hours with people who are struggling and wrestling with the biggest question - the WHY question in the face of relentless tragedies and injustices. And like all ministers or any spiritual guides of any sort, I scramble to try to say something to respond and I always come away feeling inadequate and that's not going to be any different today. But we can't shrink from the task of responding to that question. Because the very best way to honor the memories of the ones we've lost and love is to live confident, productive lives. And the only way to do that is to actually be able to face that question. We have to have the strength to face a world filled with constant devastation and loss. So where do we get that strength? How do we deal with that question? I would like to propose that, though we won't get all of what we need, we may get some of what we need 3 ways: by recognizing the problem for what it is, and then by grasping both an empowering hint from the past and an empowering hope from the future. 
First, we have to recognize that the problem of tragedy, injustice and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are. Now, if you believe in God and for the first time experience or see horrendous evil, you rightly believe that that is a problem for your belief in God, and you're right – and you say, "How could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen?"
But it's a mistake (though a very understandable mistake) to think that if you abandon your belief in God it somehow is going to make the problem easier to handle. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail says that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if a particular human law was unjust or not. So think. If there is no God or higher divine Law and the material universe is all there is, then violence is perfectly natural—the strong eating the weak! And yet somehow, we still feel this isn't the way things ought to be. Why not? Now I'm not going to get philosophical at a time like this. I'm just trying to make the point that the problem of injustice and suffering is a problem for belief in God but it is also a problem for disbelief in God---for any set of beliefs. So abandoning belief in God does not really help in the face of it. OK, then what will? 
Second, I believe we need to grasp an empowering hint from the past. Now at this point, I'd like to freely acknowledge that every faith - and we are an interfaith gathering today – every faith has great resources for dealing with suffering and injustice in the world. But as a Christian minister I know my own faith's resources the best, so let me simply share with you what I've got. When people ask the big question, "Why would God allow this or that to happen?" There are almost always two answers. The one answer is: Don't question God! He has reasons beyond your finite little mind. And therefore, just accept everything. Don't question. The other answer is: I don't know what God's up to – I have no idea at all about why these things are happening. There's no way to make any sense of it at all. Now I'd like to respectfully suggest the first of these answers is too hard and the second is too weak. The second is too weak because, though of course we don't have the full answer, we do have an idea, an incredibly powerful idea. 
One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress to me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God's son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in - suffering and death! He didn't come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn. 
But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote: "I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?" Do you see what this means? Yes, we don't know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn't, what it can't be. It can't be that he doesn't love us! It can't be that he doesn't care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore the Cross is an incredibly empowering hint. Ok, it's only a hint, but if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength. 
And lastly, we have to grasp an empowering hope for the future. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and even more explicitly in the Christian Scriptures we have the promise of resurrection. In Daniel 12:2-3 we read: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake….[They]… will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and…like the stars for ever and ever. And in John 11 we hear Jesus say: I am the resurrection and the life! Now this is what the claim is: That God is not preparing for us merely some ethereal, abstract spiritual existence that is just a kind of compensation for the life we lost. Resurrection means the restoration to us of the life we lost. New heavens and new earth means this body, this world! Our bodies, our homes, our loved ones—restored, returned, perfected and beautified! Given back to us! 
In the year after 9-11 I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was treated successfully. But during that whole time I read about the future resurrection and that was my real medicine. In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost and discovering instead that all his friends were around him, he cries out: "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?"
The answer is YES. And the answer of the Bible is YES. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going TO COME UNTRUE 
Oh, I know many of you are saying, "I wish I could believe that." And guess what? This idea is so potent that you can go forward with that. To even want the resurrection, to love the idea of the resurrection, long for the promise of the resurrection even though you are unsure of it, is strengthening. I John 3:2-3. Beloved, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope purify themselves as he is pure." Even to have a hope in this is purifying.
Listen to how Dostoevsky puts it in Brothers Karamazov: "I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they've shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some thoughts about Sandy Hook

Many respected people are weighing in with various perspectives in the wake of last Friday's elementary school massacre.  One of the most helpful commentaries may be the following from Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.

The tragedy that shook Newtown, Connecticut, and indeed the entire nation, defies analysis. What must have gone on in the mind of this young man for him to walk into a school of little children and wreak such devastating carnage numbs the soul. At the same time this was happening, I was under the surgeon’s blade for minor surgery. When I left the recovery room and returned home, among the first pieces of news on my phone was the news of this mass killing. Something within me hoped that I was still not clear-headed, but I knew deep inside that I was reading an unfolding story of horror and tragedy. What does one say? What is even appropriate without violating somebody’s sacred space and their right to scream in protest?

I am a father and a grandfather. I simply cannot fathom the unbearable weight within a parent’s or grandparent’s heart at such a personal loss. It has often been said that the loss of a child is the heaviest loss to bear. I have no doubt that those parents and grandparents must wonder if this is real or simply a terrifying nightmare. My heart and my prayers are for them and, indeed, for the family of the assassin. How his father will navigate through this will be a lifelong journey.

When a mass-killer like this ends by taking his own life, there is an even deeper sense of loss. Everyone wants to know, “Why?” Not that the answer would soften the blow but it would at least give some clue, some release to speak, to hear, to try to work through. But all we are left with is twenty-eight funerals and lifelong grief. To all of those who have suffered such loss, may the Lord carry you in His strength and bear you in your grief. You will be in our thoughts and prayers.

My own attempt at saying something here is feeble but carries a hope that somebody listening will make this world a better place. My heart goes back to Angola Prison in Baton Rouge where I met such people whose savagery took them to that destination. It was interesting to see a Bible in every cell and to hear many talk of how it had become their only means of life and hope. Someone with me said, “If we had more Bibles in our schools maybe we would need less of them here.” To the skeptic and the despiser of belief in God, I know what they will respond. I am quite convinced that the one who argues against this ends up playing God and is ultimately unable to defend any absolutes. Hate is the opposite of love and while one breathes death, the other breathes life. That is what we need to be addressing here. The seeds of hate sooner or later bear fruit in murder and destruction. Killers are not born in a moment. Deep beneath brews thinking and the animus that in a moment is uncorked. We are living in a society that nurtures hate on many sides with the result that lawlessness triumphs.

Even in ideal settings, killing can take place. Murder began in the first family when a brother could not stand the success of his sibling. The entire history of the Middle East–five millennia–is a tale of two brothers. Centuries of killing has not settled the score. Maybe in Adam Lanza’s case we will find a deep psychological reason behind what he did. But that does not diminish the reality that there lurks many a killer whose moment will come and the nation will be brought to tears again. We can almost be certain of that. Yes, we can discuss all the symptomatic issues—security, gun control, early detection signs, and so on. These are all worthy of discussion. But it’s always easier to deal with the symptoms rather than with the cause.

I wish to share what I think we must address or we head down the slope to a precipitous edge of brutality. The fiscal cliff is tame by comparison to the moral devastation ahead if we do not recognize the malady for what it is. Hate is the precursor to murder. Jesus made that very clear. Playing God is the dangerous second step where we feel we are the ultimate judge of all things and that we have the right to level the score.

Here, I would like to address our political leaders and media elite: You may personally have the moral strength to restrict your ideas to mere words but many who listen to you do not. To take the most sacred privilege of democracy and transform it into the language of aggression plays right into the hands of hate-mongers. This is not the language of a civil society or of wise leadership. It is not the ethos of a culture of co-existence. It is not the verbal coinage with which we can spend our way into the future. Our political rhetoric is fraught with division, hate, blame, and verbal murder. Our young are listening. Remember that what you win them with is what you win them to.

As for the entertainment world, what does one even say at a time like this? Calling for gun control and then entertaining the masses with bloodshed is only shifting the locus from law to entertainment. Do our entertainers ever pause to ask what debased values emerge from their stories? The death of decency is audible and visible in what passes as movie entertainment and political speech. This is the same culture that wishes to take away Nativity scenes and Christmas carols from our children. God is evicted from our culture and then He is blamed for our carnages. America is lost on the high seas of time, without chart or compass. The storms that await us will sink this nation beyond recognition if we do not awaken to the rapid repudiation of the values that shaped this nation. The handwriting is on the wall. Freedom is not just destroyed by its retraction. It is destroyed even more painfully by its abuse.

There is one more thing. It is so obvious but is seldom ever addressed. All these recent mass murders have been done by men. Many of them young men, yes, even mere boys. Jonesboro, Columbine, Virginia Tech, now Newtown. Is there something within our culture that doesn’t know how to raise strength with dignity and respect? Is this how boys are meant to be? From bloodletting in hockey games while thousands cheer to savagery in school shootings while thousands weep, we must ask ourselves what has gone wrong with us men? Where are the role models in the home? Is knocking somebody down the only test left for strength? Is there no demonstration now of kindness, gentleness, courtesy, and respect for our fellow human beings? One young man on death row in Angola Prison told me that he started his carnage as a teenager. Now in his thirties with the end of the road in sight, he reached his hand out to me and asked me to pray with him. Life was lost at the altar of power and strength.

The Bible only speaks of one remedy for this: the transformation of the heart by making Christ the center. Those who mock the simplicity of the remedy have made evil more complex and unexplainable. Every heart has the potential for murder. Every heart needs a redeemer. That is the message of Christmas. The world took that child and crucified Him. But by his triumph over death He brings life to our dead souls and begins the transformation within. Unto us a child is born and He shall save us from our sins.

Before the first murder was committed, the Lord said to Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” To gain mastery over sin there is only one way. Just as Victoria Soto put herself in the way so that the children in her class might live, Jesus Christ put himself in the way that we all might live. That is the beginning of the cure for us as individuals and as a nation. All the laws in the world will never change the heart. Only God is big enough for that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Loving and leading an unsaved spouse

In less than a week I will have the joy of marrying two young Christians who share a deep love for Jesus.  In a perfect world, Christ's grace would form the glue holding every married couple together.  Sadly, due to sin in various forms, that is often not the case. If unbelieving couples bring God grief, 'unequally yoked' couples (in which one spouse is a Christian and the other is not) invariably bring double pain: to God and the believing spouse.  One question which Christian spouses often ask is, "How can I best love my unbelieving spouse and point them to Jesus?"  Stuart Scott, in his excellent book The Complete Husband, gives men in this area some helpful guidance.  As you will see, the principles he outlines prove equally helpful for believing wives with unsaved husbands:

  • Do not leave her or send her away, but be willing to live with her and love her.
  • Be a godly witness more by your life than your words.  Be careful not to "preach" to your unsaved spouse, but model what a gracious life touched by Jesus looks like.  Do not expect regenerate behavior from an unregenerate spouse.
  • Genuinely love and care for her with humility.  Consider her preferences above you own (barring sinful choices from which you must abstain).  Many unsaved wives have bailed out of their marriages because their believing husbands were selfish, demanding and difficult to live with.
  • When you sin against her, acknowledge it, confess it, ask for her forgiveness and then change your behavior.  Preaching the Cross without demonstrating your need for it will come across as hypocrisy.
  • When she sins against you and shows remorse, be quick to forgive her and lavish her with grace.  Even when she does not show remorse or repent, demonstrate an open, forgiving attitude toward her.  Why should she believe the gospel if you refuse to model it's grace?
  • Do not expect your unsaved wife to understand her need to honor God with her life or to accept her biblical role to submit to your leadership.  When she does make God-honoring choices, praise her and thank God.
  • Remember that it is God Who saves.  Therefore, pray for her earnestly, be patient and stay hopeful.  
- Stuart Scott, The Complete Husband, pp. 138-139

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advice for 'fluid' communication

In his excellent book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman writes,
Quality conversation requires not only sympathetic listening but also self-revelation.  When a wife says, "I wish my husband would talk.  I never know what he's thinking or feeling," she is pleading for intimacy.  In order for her to feel loved, he must learn to reveal himself.  If her primary love language is quality time and her dialect is quality conversation, her emotional love tank will never be filled until he tells her his thoughts and feelings.
Then Chapman offers an analogy which I find particularly helpful:
Not all of us are out of touch with our emotions, but when it comes to talking, all of us are affected by our personalities.  I have observed two basic personality types.  The first I call the "Dead Sea."  In Israel, the Dead Sea catches the water flowing into it from the Jordan River.  The Dead Sea, though, goes nowhere.  It receives but it does not give.  This personality type receives many experiences, emotions and thoughts throughout the day.  They have a large reservoir where they store that information, and they are perfectly happy not to talk.
On the other extreme is the "Babbling Brook."  For this personality, whatever enters into the eye-gate or the ear-gate comes out the mouth-gate and there are seldom sixty seconds between the two.  Whatever they see and hear they tell.  Many times, a Dead Sea marries a Babbling Brook.  
 That happens because when they are dating, it seems like a very attractive match. But five years after marriage, the Babbling Brook wakes up one morning and says, "We've been married five years, and I don't know him."  Meanwhile, the Dead Sea is saying, "I feel like I know her too well.  I wish she would reduce the flow and give me a break."  The good news is that  Dead Seas can learn to talk and Babbling Brooks can learn to listen and give needed space.  The good news is that we are influenced by our personalities, but we don't have to be controlled by them.  We can channel them into becoming conversational blessings to those around us.
Whether you're a Dead Sea or a babbling brook, that's good news.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prayer for Africa

With the EFC of Sudan as our sister church, we at Trinity often have our eyes turned to Africa.  Many of you will remember Kevin Kompelien, the ReachGlobal Africa director who was with us in 2005 and helped us launch our partnership with Sudan.  This week he is in Africa and writes about a traumatic situation in eastern Congo and Rwanda for which we can pray.  After our study of Acts 2:1-13 on Sunday which focused on thinking globally, calling us to pray for the Christians in these countries is especially timely.  He writes,
Over the past several weeks, fighting has broken out in Eastern Congo forcing many of the 700,000 refugees to flee into neighboring Rwanda.  One pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Rwanda states, 'Refugees are now at the homes of anyone who will take them in.  Twenty people spent last night in my father's home.  This is the same in many places.  Bombs were detonating, forcing people to head for safety in nearby Rwanda.'  Just two weeks ago TouchGlobal spearheaded an effort to supply the Congolese refugees with Bibles, but now their needs are both spiritual and physical, as they are fleeing for their lives by the thousands into Rwanda. 
Yesterday as Terri and I sat in our home, we commented on how peaceful it was.  Life is far different for tens of thousands in central Africa.  Among the refugees are many Christians.  Please pray for God to supply His suffering people with His supernatural grace and give the church a unique opportunity to share the hope of eternal life with those whose lives are in jeopardy.