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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Can I Love My Neighbor While Staying Holy?

“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Hebrews 12:14

Sex. Alcohol. Gay Marriage. These are some of the topics that are hotly debated in church today. On one hand, we see the extreme left, which actively seeks to continue Christ’s mission of caring for the poor and needy in the world but fails to address the issue of sin. On the other hand, we see the extreme right, which teaches strict adherance to biblical rules and practices but does little to reach those outside the church.

Such disparity across denominations can only go to show that Christ’s teachings, while simple in principle, can be extremely difficult to apply to the modern context. The church, in attempting to respond to the issues of the day, can misinterpret the Bible all too easily. The verse above makes it clear that we are expected live in peace with everyone and to remain dedicated to holiness. So what if our holy living offends someone of opposing beliefs?

Suppose I’m a photographer, and a gay couple requests my services for their wedding ceremony. I don’t want to appear hateful or judgmental by refusing to comply, but neither do I want to compromise my beliefs about marriage by explicitly or implicitly supporting their union. In situations like this, there is no black and white. It seems that we must either sacrifice peace with others for the sake of holiness or sacrifice holiness for the sake of peace. However, with the Spirit’s guidance and a few good habits, I believe we can do both.

One habit to form is that of seeking a complete and accurate understanding of what the Bible has to say about the issues of today. Remember Paul’s words to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The Bible is the ultimate moral authority. No matter how persuasive a human authority (even a Christian one) may be, we must always search the Scripture for answers to difficult moral questions. This means we must not only read the Bible but also consider the context in which each passage was written. Commentaries and study guides may help us understand the intent behind the words.

In the areas where the Bible doesn’t give a clear precedent, we must pay careful attention to the leading of the Spirit. In Romans, Paul defines sin as “anything that does not come from faith.” If we feel convicted about something we are doing or are about to do, we must not do it, even if the action is not explicitly forbidden in the Bible. Remember that not everything that is permissible is necessarily good for us (1 Corinthians 6:12 paraphrase) If we desire holiness, we must avoid anything that holds corrupting influence over us.

As we allow the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, we must also allow him to do the same with others, and remember that those in open rebellion to God are not able to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice as we do. Therefore, non-Christians simply cannot understand what holiness is. The best thing we can do for them is to present them with the Gospel. Instead of telling them everything they are doing wrong, tell them that God loves them and is willing to forgive them if they only ask. Once they allow the Holy Spirit into their hearts, he will begin to convict them of the sin in their life, but any attempts we make to convince them that God’s way is the right way are likely to drive them further away from Christ.

Finally, we must develop the habit of removing the plank from our eyes. We are all sinful. And despite what our instincts tell us, no sin is greater than another. If we are quick to point out everyone else’s sin, while ignoring our own, we become just like the Pharisees. And Jesus reprimanded them more harshly than anyone else. If we try to act more like Jesus, we will find that we are able to make peace with others without compromising our holiness.


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The Meaning of the Cross

Image result for crucifixion

“For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing and denying the Lord, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.” Isaiah 59:12-13

I participated in Lent for the first time this year. It is not a tradition of my church, but I’ve known many friends from other denominations who “give up” something for Lent. Although the tradition has never held a special meaning for me, there has always been a part of me that somehow felt left out because my family didn’t participate. Of course, there is another part of me that takes pride in being different from so many other Christians in this respect. So this year I compromised. I decided to give up something for Lent that was different from what anyone else gave up. I gave up Netflix.

Ok . . . maybe it wasn’t the most creative choice I could have come up with, but it was a sacrifice for me. And if Lent is all about putting distractions aside to focus on Jesus’ sacrifice, it just made sense. What I learned surprised me.

Not being able to watch my favorite shows on Netflix turned out to be a easier than I thought. After the first couple of weeks, I found that I hardly missed it, and I was able to spend more time with God and with other people. I actually started to think that this change was making me holier. But then Holy Week arrived, and I realized just how unprepared I was. I hadn’t changed in that 40 days. I was still the same stubborn, rebellious man I had always been.

And it hit me that no matter what I give up, I will be just as unholy and undeserving of God’s love as ever. And that’s ok because Jesus didn’t die for those who deserved him; he died for those who needed him. And that’s why I’m going to celebrate his resurrection tomorrow. Not because I’m a good person but because Jesus loved me and because his death mended the rift I caused by my sin.

That is the meaning of the cross and of the empty tomb. That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And by his death he opened the door for us to enter freely into the presence of God. I can find no better words than the famous verse John 3:16: “For God so loved the worlds, he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

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Why Millennials Need to Grow Up

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” Hebrews 5:12

Millennials get a bad rep. We are known as the “Me Me Me Generation” and the “Peter Pan generation.” Although these labels may be unfair, I think there is also some truth to them. At the stage we are at in life, it is tempting to enjoy all of the freedoms of adulthood with none of its responsibilities. So many of us end up straddling the middle-ground between childhood and adulthood, and it’s not a new problem. In fact, I think C.S. Lewis described our predicament pretty well in The Last Battle, the final installment of his Chronicles of Narnia. Susan, one of the original four visitors from our world to Narnia, becomes too caught up in her social life to have time for Narnia. Another character explains, “She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll  waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

This is the reality for many millennials. We don’t have children or aging parents who rely on us, but we do have disposable income and relatively few debts. It feels as if life is ours for the taking. And that’s why older generations see us as selfish. Here are a few areas in which I think young adults can improve.

Spend Time with People Who Are Not Your Age

In school, we were surrounded by people our own age. Although it’s natural to continue “flocking” with others in our age group, it can be severely limiting. I have made friends with some incredible people who are in their fifties and up. Seek out the wisdom of elders, not just because you need it but because they need our perspective as well. They are our connection to the past, and we are their connection to the future.

The same goes for the younger generations too. If you don’t have kids now but hope to someday, why not practice your parenting skills now? Spend time with kids and teenagers in your family or your church. Babysit. Help out your youth ministry. Volunteer at an after-school program. There are so many ways to invest in kids, and it’s easy because most of them will think you’re awesome simply because you’re a “big person” who is giving them attention. And speaking of volunteering . . .

Volunteer Your Time

As young professionals, we have more free time than most. And what do we do with that time? Binge-watch Netflix? Play weekend-long tournaments on Xbox? That is not living. Living is loving and serving others. And to do that we need to get off the couch. Get out and find a need you can meet. You shouldn’t have to look far. There are needy people everywhere. You don’t have to leave the country to see the effects of hunger, racism, AIDS, or human trafficking. However, you might have to leave your personal boundaries that filter out people of other economic, educational, or cultural backgrounds. Find a cause that fires you up, and even if it takes more than you thought you could give, even if it requires you to do things that freak you out, you just might be changed by it forever. And if you don’t know where to start, try a local church. And that brings me to my last point.

Stay in Church

Our generation is making a mass exodus from the church. And I get it. The church fed us fun and excitement for our teenage years but very little meat. If you’ve ever been to a youth group that was just trying too hard to be relevant, you know what I mean. When we were craving solid food, we only got milk. There was a time when I wouldn’t even consider sharing my personal doubts and struggles with other Christians because I was so afraid of being misunderstood or judged. Thankfully, God led me to people I could trust, and with his help I have been able to leave my church baggage behind. But even if you are still nursing wounds the church has intentionally or unintentionally caused, that does not give you the right to leave. If anything, it gives you the responsibility to stick with the church in order to make a difference for the next generation. To (mis)quote John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church.”

Get involved in a local congregation. That means becoming a member and helping out wherever you are most needed. If you have a knack for teaching, sign up to teach a Sunday School class. If you are a good cook, help with the church picnic or the hospitality ministry. If you would like to see a ministry the church doesn’t have, start one yourself. But whatever you do, don’t be a pew-warmer. Understand that no church is perfect because every church is made up of imperfect people. But be humble enough to work with those people in spite of their mistakes, hypocrisy, and sinfulness.

There are a lot of young adults who are doing these things already. In fact, many of those who are currently making a difference in the church right now are in their twenties and thirties. So ask yourself, where do you fall? Don’t just go with your knee-jerk reaction. Think about it. I am sure you can find at least one area in which you have room to mature. I know I am not doing my best in all of these areas. It is our responsibility to change others’ perception of millennials. So let’s grow up.

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What fruit are you bearing?

“What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” Isaiah 5:4

It has been quite a year. This year I have seen a crisis in Ukraine, another war in the Middle East, and a deadly disease that has affected half the world. I saw all hell break loose in Ferguson, Missouri and a restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. I became an official member of my first church, said goodbye to a good friend, made a new friend unexpectedly, came out about a life-long struggle I had kept hidden, and accepted a call to the ministry. I worked a lot, prayed a lot, read some good books, and watched far too much television.

With all of the ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, it’s hard to find the meaning behind it all. But one thing is certain. I am not the same person I was a year ago. God is working through every moment of my life to make me into the person he wants me to be.

Isaiah paints a lovely picture of the the hand of God at work. In reference to the nation of Israel, he describes the vineyard of the Lord. “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.”

I can almost see God clearing out the debris in my life and replacing it with seeds of love and of righteousness that he causes to grow. But the story doesn’t end there. Isaiah says that God “looked for [the vineyard] to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” Despite all of the good things the Lord put into his vineyard, its fruit was bad. Why was it bad? Is God a bad gardener?

No, the fruit was bad because the vineyard had a mind of its own. Remember, Isaiah is actually talking about the people of Israel here. Israel rebelled against God. That’s why Isaiah says that the vineyard produced “wild grapes.” The takeaway here is that people become who they are due to a combination of the circumstances God puts in their way and the choices they make.

We can either submit ourselves to God’s will and allow him to finish his work in us, or we can tell God to buzz off and go our own way. But the Bible gives countless warnings against those who reject God. A few verse later, Isaiah tells how God will deal with the vineyard full of wild grapes. “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

But what does the Bible say of the one who honors God? “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” That is why we must reflect on our lives, consider what God is teaching us, keep his word in our hearts, and commit to keeping our lives in line with his plan. If we do this, each year will be better than the year before, as we grow in his grace.

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What is Christmas?

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

I’m sure a lot of bloggers are sharing their thoughts on Christmas and what it means to them today. As with all of the “big” questions, there are many right answers to the question, “What is Christmas?” but there are also some wrong answers. Today I would like you to know what Christmas is not.

Christmas is not a chance to shamelessly demand all the gadgets and clothes we’ve been pining for all year. It is not an excuse to spend all our cash and run up our credit card bills at the mall (or online). And it is not a time to be selfish.

It is not the one perfect day of the year, and it is not a vacation from responsibility or an escape from all of the unpleasantness of life. Christmas is not a denial of war, sickness, or grief.

Jesus did not intend for any of those things when he came to earth. In fact, let me tell you some facts about his birth. The night the Son of God came into our midst was not a silent night, and I can guarantee it was not peaceful. A stable is probably the last place any mother would want to give birth, surrounded by animals and filth, but that was the only space available. The humbleness of Jesus’ birthplace illustrates the significance of his coming. He left the splendor and glory of heaven to inhabit a world that was not worthy of him, knowing that many would not welcome his coming. He came not as a conquering king, as the Jews expected, but as a carpenter turned traveling preacher. He did not bring a message that was easy but brought condemnation on those who were considered righteous. He did not claim to be one of many ways to God but the only way to God. He received a death sentence he did not deserve, but death could not keep him captive. He did not renew the world instantaneously but left his disciples to begin the church, which would carry his gospel to the world.

Christmas has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with Him. It is a time when we should consider what Christ has done. It is a time for us to thank him for coming to be with us. And it is a time for us to look forward to his second coming.

I pray that you may experience Christ this Christmas. Whether it is for the first time or the ninety-first. He is the reason we celebrate. Without him, not only Christmas but our very lives are meaningless. Thank God for Christmas!

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Joining the Conversation

I don’t like watching the news. Or reading it for the matter. It seems to always make me depressed about things I can’t control. But when the protests broke out in Washington and New York this weekend, I couldn’t ignore them. Even I could see that something critical was happening in our nation.

When I first heard about the Michael Brown case, I dismissed it. It was tragic, but it didn’t have much effect on me. I didn’t agree with those who accused the officer who shot Brown of being a racist, but I also figured that was their business. I didn’t realize that the outrage over Michael Brown’s death and the jury’s refusal to indict the officer was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past few days, I have taken some time to look into the events leading up to Saturday’s protests. I was disturbed by what I found. I heard the voices of so many African-Americans who felt marginalized and denied of justice, and they were angry.

Since last weekend, I have begun to question my assumptions about race relations in our country. I had thought they were fairly good and gradually getting better, but these events proved otherwise. The truth is, I’m sure I would have noticed this issue if I had been willing to look. Just because I have not personally been affected by racism does not mean it doesn’t exist. And if I continue to ignore it, someday I will pay for it.

My point is this: as tragic as the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner were, one positive outcome is that they drew my attention to the race issue. I cannot say if those incidents were specifically caused by racism, but they have opened a debate on the subject. And a heated one at that. I am no longer willing to turn aside from that debate. I am willing to listen to what my fellow Americans, both black and white, have to say. I am willing to work toward reconciliation. I am willing to do my part to make peace.

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