The Greatest Good

My favorite thing to do at this time of year is to look back. Sometimes the big picture gets lost in all of the day to day hassles and happenings. Taking time to reflect adds valuable perspective. This year I have had difficulty doing so. 2017 has brought so much pain. Not to myself but to those who are so close to me that it feels like my own pain. There have been victories, joys, and new beginnings as well, but pain has been the backdrop to every recent scene of my life.

As I reflect, I ask myself the question that has haunted every man since Adam. Why does pain exist? With love comes loss, with riches comes sacrifice, with joy comes disappointment. What is the meaning of it all?

The more pain I see, the more grateful I am for the Word of God. I have read so much about pain in the Bible. God’s response to pain is so intricate, so multifaceted. It seems that every time I think I’ve grasped the answer to pain, another facet presents itself– something else to ponder.Recently another piece of the puzzle slipped into place for me.

If I had to define pain, I would call it the frustration of desire. We want wellness and get sickness. We want peace and get turmoil. We want love and get loneliness.  Wellness, peace, and love are all good things. It seems that we are meant to have them, and yet we are denied them. And the result is pain.

When I try to imagine a time when nothing good was denied human beings, I see the wealth of Eden at mankind’s fingertips. I see every green tree and every delicious fruit as ours for the taking. But could we live in that world? Where everything was free and we had want for nothing?

The problem I see is that not all goods are equal. Many things are good but some are better than others. How can we recognize the better things? I believe one has to learn to value the better things. What better teacher than pain? When we are denied certain goods, we see which we can let go of and which to fight for. In this world, we must learn the hard lesson of sacrifice. We must work the ground for a harvest, and our work is painful.  But if the harvest is the greater good, is it not worth the pain it costs us?

I say this because I know one good is greater than all the rest. And that is knowing God. We know this because God himself suffered the greatest pain, the death of his son, for us to know him. Is not the joy of knowing God greater than any pain we can endure? Would it not be worth a lifetime of sorrow to stand with Him on that day and say, “I would do it all again for you.”

I will say with Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” The more I suffer, the more I come to know him. The more I know him, the more I love him, and that makes me willing to suffer more just to know him more. Because knowing God is the greatest good.

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From Page to Path

File:Rock path 4891036716.jpg

C GP Grey, Wikimedia Commons

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, and everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Isaiah 55:13

I’m finally doing it. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, put it off, reconsidered it, examined my options, and finally took the plunge. I’m talking about seminary, the first step towards full-time ministry. And it wasn’t the books or the papers that made me hesitate. To me those have the comfort value of apple pie and ice cream. But before my metaphors have me drooling all over my keyboard, I’ll get to the point. What makes seminary seem so strange– so scary is that it takes me closer to “the real thing:” doing ministry with real people in the real world.

Why is that so scary? Well, because life is much messier than it appears in the textbooks, especially when that awful “S-word” comes into play. Yep, I’m talking about sin. And I’m even more acquainted with that than I am with books and papers. When I think about the damage some pastors have caused through hidden sin, I cringe at the thought that I will one day by judged by the same standard as they. Is that why James warns that “not many of you should presume to be teachers”? Why would I put that burden on myself when I know that I am just as capable of sin as anyone else? Why would I risk such failure?

The short answer: Because God told me to. The only difference between me and a Christian hairdresser, or social worker, or accountant is a difference in calling. We can’t say how God chooses who will serve him as shepherds of his flock, but he does seem to have a predisposition for people the world views as less than qualified. Gideon was the lowest man from the weakest clan, David was the youngest of his brothers, and Paul called himself the worst of sinners. They were sinners when God called them, and they continued to sin after he called them. They all experienced sanctification as a process, but none of them were sinless when they died.

Does that excuse the sin in my life? Of course not! But it does force me to acknowledge that I am undergoing the same process as the people I will one day shepher. Those books I mentioned earlier– they talk about this too. Zack Eswine says in The Imperfect Pastor, “there is little wonder that the Serpent’s pledge would glitter and shine into preference. ‘You will be like God,’ the Serpent promised (Gen. 3:5). ‘You will not surely die,’ the Serpent hissed (v. 4). As a pastor, I want this kind of promise.” It’s easy to think that as a pastor, I should rise above the masses. That obtaining some fancy degree or title confers a godlike status. Or worse than that, to think that the work itself somehow “saves” me. David Paul Tripp says in Dangerous Calling, “If you are not requiring yourself to get your deepest sense of well-being vertically, you will shop for it horizontally, and you will always come up empty. If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching to yourself over and over again, you will look into another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart.” Of all the sins I struggle with, the one that’s the biggest danger to me is pride. Pride is the party-crasher who turns up when you least expect and least want to see him. And I’m just as susceptible to his tricks as anyone else.

I’m neither a saint nor a super-hero. I’m a sinner, saved by grace, in the process of sanctification, by the Holy Spirit. Along the way, I might help some others in their own process. Much of the time, this seems to happen by accident. But I don’t really believe in accidents. I do believe in grace. Tripp points to the thorn bush in Isaiah 55 as a metaphor for the transforming work of God’s grace.

“If the rain and snow water that brier in your yard, you know the result will be a bigger brier. But not so with the Word of God; when this rain falls on the thornbush it actually becomes something organically different! . . . Lusting people become pure, fearful people become courageous, thieves become givers, demanding people become servants, angry people become peacemakers, complainers become thankful, and idolaters come to joyfully worship the one true God.”

Hallelujah! God is making me into something new, just as he is doing for you! My seminary education can’t do that. My best attempts at righteousness can’t do that. And no, my books can’t do it either. The page meets the path when I understand that it’s not about me at all. It’s about Christ! I can’t lead anyone else to Him if I don’t come to Him daily, saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Apart from Him, I am nothing. He is my saving grace, my living hope, and my greatest joy, and it’s because of Him that I’m here in the first place.

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One nation, under God . . .

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2

I had hoped that following the election, I could get some relief from the vicious political remarks I have been hearing everywhere. Sadly, I now see how naive that hope was. The anti-Trump rhetoric is stronger than ever, and I am particularly distressed by those proclaiming, “He is not my president!” Even Christians are joining in the rants. So I had to get back to my old blog and weigh in on the issue.

Simply put, I can see no justification for the way certain people are reacting to Trump’s victory. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, Donald Trump will be our next president. As the nation’s leader, he demands our respect. We can gripe and complain it about it all we want (believe me, I’m just as tempted to as you are), but it won’t change a thing. I believe, however, that there are two things we can do to make a difference.

First and foremost, this is the time for Christians everywhere to pray. Pray for Donald Trump and his entire administration to make wise decisions. Pray particularly for those who have the ear of the future president, that they would give sound advice to move this nation forward. Have faith that our prayers make a difference, because they do.

Secondly, I urge Americans to seek harmony with one another. We have a wonderful thing in this country called freedom of speech, but too often we use it to tear apart rather than to knit together. Abraham Lincoln once applied the words of Mak 3:25 to our nation. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I think we need to be reminded of that now as much as ever.

Our country has survived wars, economic depression, epidemics, and much more. I don’t believe any of us want to see it crumble. So let’s stand behind our president and do our best to support our country.

 

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Yes, I’m . . . ,but . . .

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. Colossians 1:28

Christians have come under fire lately. Big time. We’re forever being rendered as anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, or something similar. And it’s no surprise that many Christian writers and bloggers have taken a defensive stance against such accusations. Personally, I have taken sort of a “duck and cover” strategy. I figure most of those standing up for the Christian community are doing a fine job, and anything I could add would probably just get misconstrued and cause more confusion and dissension.

Then I saw this video: I’m Christian, but I’m not . . . I was both surprised and impressed to find a defense of Christianity from a website as secular as BuzzFeed. But the video also struck me as being very . . . modern.

I say this because it deals with a modern phenomenon I will call “identity management.” Think about how much you do to craft your identity. The music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the pictures you post on your social media profile, and even the place you worship all factor into how people perceive you. I’m not saying you choose these things just because of how it will make you look, but they can all provide you with a sense of identity.

And it’s not enough to identify with a specific group. Everyone wants to point out how they, individually, are unique. “I’m a Christian, but I’m not a Republican.” “I’m White, but I’m not a racist.” “I’m this, but that.

My point is that all of the posts I’ve seen about what it means to be Christian are essentially a form of identity management. And my question is, why are we wasting our breath? My identity doesn’t come from my association with a group of people called “Christians.” It comes from Jesus Christ himself. And he’s the one I should be talking about. It’s all well and good to stand up for what you believe in, but better to just leave yourself out of it all together.

Paul says, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” His identity was completely wrapped up in his relationship with Jesus Christ and nothing else. In the same spirit, I’d like my life to say, “I’m nothing, but Jesus . . .”

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Since everyone else is talking about it . . .

I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re an American, you know that same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states according to a supreme court ruling handed down this morning. I think it’s also safe to assume that you have an opinion on the ruling. With so many passionate and confusing reactions out there on social media, I decided to give my two cents.

On the ruling

I was struck by the phrasing Justice Kennedy used in the majority opinion. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.” I think Justice Kennedy has a point here. Gays and lesbians in this country clearly have a regard for the idea of marriage (or at least an idea of marriage, if a misguided one). If they seek fulfillment in their partner before anyone or anything else, they do not have too low a regard for marriage, but too high a regard for marriage.

I’m sure married, opposite-sex couples understand better than anyone, that marriage is not a happily ever after. Even a Christ-centered marriage has its share of disappointments and heartache. Perhaps the reason these marriages tend to last is due to more realistic expectations. While Kennedy asserts that “the petitioners, far from seeking to devalue marriage seek it for their respect– and need– for its privileges and responsibilities,” I maintain that gays and lesbians do not need marriage. They need Jesus. I cannot describe to you the relief I experienced when I realized this for myself.

On the Church

My greatest concern following this decision is what will happen to the church. I see two potential dangers. One is almost a certainty, and that is an increasing pressure on the church to accept same-sex marriage as normal. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas, speaking of the religious and governmental institutions of marriage, says, “It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” Christians have already been attacked for refusing to endorse or be involved in same-sex marriage ceremonies. Now that the Supreme Court has spoken, the church will only be perceived as more intolerant, more hateful, and more bigoted. I can only imagine what the consequences will be for those who continue to speak out ten, twenty, or thirty years from now.

But perhaps the greater danger, and one which may yet be avoided, is that there will be no consequences because in a few decades, no one will be speaking out against same-sex marriage anymore. I sincerely hope and pray that the church does not let this happen for the very simple reason that gays and lesbians need help. And if the church doesn’t help them, no one will.

In conclusion, I expect there to be much confusion in the GLBT community when their “golden ticket” proves a fake. When they discover that a legal marriage does not provide the “privileges and responsibilities” they need, perhaps they will turn to the church for answers. But I ask the church: when they do, will we be ready?

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Faith Like Peter

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” Matthew 14:28

I think everyone comes to a point in their lives, at least once, when they must examine their beliefs. When their choices will prove one way or another what they put their faith in. Sometimes it happens after a great success, and sometimes it happens after a great failure.

I was taught that God has a plan for every human being, and that he will guide us along the way if we let him. I often talk as if I believe this, saying things like, “I really think God wants me to do this;” or “I need to pray about this before I make a decision.” But over the past few years, I have often wondered, “Do I really believe I can discern the will of God? Does He even care what I do or what happens to me?”

Recently, I had an experience that seemed like a clear sign of God’s intervention. My family volunteered to host an international student at the university near our home, and we were blessed with a young man from Japan. After spending some time with this man, I began to feel “called” to go to Japan. As crazy as that idea seemed, I simply couldn’t get it out of my head. I made a bold move (for me) and applied for an English teaching program in Japan. Months later, I received my answer. I had not been selected.

Immediately, I questioned everything that led me to this decision. Was I wrong to want to go to Japan? It certainly seemed like a worthy goal. I knew that most Japanese had no religion and had never heard the gospel. This could have been an opportunity for me to carry the message of Christ to them. But was that really why I was doing it? As I searched my heart, there were many things I was not happy with. A dissatisfaction with my role in life. A desire to be respected and even praised. Perhaps this was why God had closed this door. To humble me.

To my surprise, however, another door opened. While I was waiting for a decision on my application, someone had approached me about another program in Japan. While at that point I thought I knew how I was getting to Japan, I thought this other program sounded like a good back-up. When I received notice of my acceptance to this program, naturally I wanted to believe that this was God’s plan all along. But I still had doubts.

Even now, as the details fall into place, I wonder if I am really seeing God at work. How can I have such little faith? But I am reminded of another follower of Christ, who at times seemed to have very weak faith. You would think that someone who literally walked with Jesus for as long as Peter did would know his Lord at once. But when Peter saw Jesus walking on water, he thought he was a ghost. Even after Jesus identified himself, Peter said “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Peter wanted to be sure before he stepped out of the boat.

Like Peter, I want to be with Jesus. But, also like Peter, I sometimes have trouble recognizing him. My choices are to wait in the boat, or to step out where I think Jesus is calling me. I might sink, but even that sounds better than staying in the boat.

I know that God can do whatever he chooses. Whether he has specifically ordained this task for me, I can’t say. But I will jump at any chance to know him better, and that is why I will be traveling to Japan this fall.

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What Does it Mean to Believe?

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope fore and certain of what we do not see.” -Hebrews 11:1

I love the movie Interstellar. Aside from the brilliant special effects, the gripping suspense, and the spectacular acting, the movie illustrates themes that are extremely relevant to Christian life.

In the movie, the Earth is plagued by blight and famine. Coop (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) sets out on a mission to save the human race from extinction by searching for another habitable planet. Before he leaves, Coop promises his young daughter, Murph, that he will come back, even though he doesn’t know when. Throughout the course of the movie, Murph (portrayed by Jessica Chastain) struggles to maintain faith in her father’s promise. Years pass, and no word comes from her father. She attempts to send messages to him, pleading with him to come back, asking if he just left her to die. The world begins to lose hope in his mission, and Murph almost does too. But when he finally returns, she says, “Nobody believed me, but I knew you’d come back . . . because my dad promised me.”

The Reality

My uncle died yesterday. He was the fourth member of my family I have seen succumb to cancer in the last seven years. Sometimes I wonder how so much grief could come to one family. But if it were only one family, you could almost pass it off as bad luck. When I look around, I see people hurting everywhere. An earthquake kills thousands of people. A city tears itself apart. Events like these make me want to cry out, like Jessica Chastain in the movie, “Now would be a really good time for you to come back.”

I must admit sometimes it seems that if there is a God in the universe, he must have abandoned us. That we are alone in a dying world. But I must not let tribulation or doubt prevent me from crying out to God. Even if my prayers seem like a message in a bottle, they’re better than no prayers at all. Sometimes my prayer will be, “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise!” Sometimes it will be, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me!” And sometimes it will be, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” It takes faith to continue speaking to God, even when there is no proof that he is listening.

The book of Hebrews says that “without faith it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I believe that God exists even if I can’t see him. I believe that he is good even if bad things happen. And I believe that Jesus is coming back, even if I don’t understand his timing. To stop believing would be to give up, and I am not ready to do that.

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