Thursday, April 10, 2003

Can We Talk...About a Taboo Subject?
[Better Living column for Community Press newspapers]

My brother is a stand-up comic named Marty Daniels. Recently, the owner of a comedy club booked Marty for an evening performance.

"I see from your web site that you're a Christian," the owner commented when she and Marty met.

"Yeah, I am," he confirmed.

"I'm not into it myself," she told him, "and don’t ever mention it to me."

"You mean like you just mentioned it to me?" Marty asked.

Why is it that people are free to talk with others about any subject under the sun--from lyposuction to hemorrhoids, from sex to breast implants--but can't broach the subject of faith in Jesus Christ?

One reason for it is obvious: Some so-called Christians beat others over the head with their beliefs about Jesus.

I used to be an atheist in part because every time I turned around, I met "Christians" who seemed more interested in proving they were right and I was wrong than in sharing Christ's love. Or, they cared less about me as a person than they did about me as a trophy. (I could picture them at the next meeting of their "Christian hunting club," bragging, "Yep, I bagged me another one of them atheists yesterday!") Christians often make any genuine discussion about Jesus Christ both insufferable and impossible.

But I also fail to see why those who are motivated by love for God and others shouldn't be allowed to share Christ with others. Followers of Jesus know all about their human imperfections. But they revel in the love of a God Who accepts them in spite of their imperfections and is committed to helping them become all that God made them to be. We're excited about how Jesus has changed our lives and about how, if people let Him, Jesus can change every human life for the better.

In fact, it's the mission of every follower of Jesus to share the better living He offers to everyone. Before the risen Jesus went to heaven, He told us to, "Go and make disciples [that means, followers or students of Jesus]" in the whole world. (Matthew 28:16-20) My personal mission statement says, "Using the communication gifts God has given to me, my mission is to personally inspire and lead people to follow and live for Jesus Christ." With a few slight revisions, that probably is the mission statement of every follower of Jesus. "Using my gifts as an auto mechanic," someone might say. Or, "Using my gifts as a lawyer, as a philosopher, as a homemaker, a computer programmer, a teacher..." or as a whatever, "I want to share Christ with others."

The New Testament book of First Peter encourages followers of Christ to always be ready to share the reason they have hope for this life and the next. Jesus, Who died as the perfect sacrifice for our sin and has opened eternity up to all who follow Him, is the reason for our hope. Peter says that as we share the hope of Jesus we’re to be, "...agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble." He also says that when we share the hope Jesus gives to us, we're to do it "with the utmost courtesy." (First Peter 2:8-16)

I personally think that we're also to share Christ with humor. A man named Paul was brought in chains before a king named Agrippa. Paul explained what it means to have a relationship with Christ. Agrippa asked Paul if that in a short amount of time Paul thought he could make Agrippa a follower of Christ too. Paul said, "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am--except for these chains." (Acts 26:29)

I'll bet that King Agrippa had to stifle a belly laugh at that. How could you help but love a prisoner who could make jokes about his chains? I'll bet too, that if followers of Jesus displayed Paul's kind of courtesy, love, and good humor, even people like the comedy club owner who wasn't into Jesus and didn't want to hear His Name mentioned would want to find out more about what it means to have Jesus for one's God and best friend!
Why Do the Innocent Suffer?
[Better Living column for Community Press newspapers]

Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

Like almost everyone, I guess, I have seen really good people, believing people, and children subjected to crushing difficulties, afflicted by illness, or taken far too early by death. Maybe you’re one of those good or believing people or children who have been hit by undeserved suffering or grief. You may be inclined to wonder, “Where is God now? Why am I left to fend for myself in the face of this overwhelming pain?”

I’m not sure that I have any answers. But I do have a few responses.

My first response is that you’re not alone.

When God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, He underwent suffering. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as humanity’s “high priest,” the bridge between God and us. Through Jesus, we have access to God’s help, even in tough times. Hebrews assures us that in Jesus, “we don’t have a high priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

When we’re knocked down by suffering, the God we meet in Jesus Christ “gets it.” God understands our pain. And He promises to be with those who see Him as their Lord “to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

The second thing I want to tell you is to ignore those who try to say that every bad thing that happens to you is your fault. It isn’t!

There are times when bad things do happen to us as the result of our bad decisions. There are times when God, as a loving Father, disciplines us. But don’t let anyone tell you that the loving God of the universe is waiting to wallop you with a cosmic sledge hammer for every mistake you make. God is no monster!

Jesus’ followers—disciples—once pointed a blind man out to Jesus and asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said neither the guy’s parents or he were guilty of a sin that caused his blindness. Instead, Jesus said that God allowed the man to be blind so that God’s glory could be seen in the man. Jesus proceeded to give the man sight. (John 9)

Sometimes, God allows us to keep suffering even after we’ve prayed. But God’s motive is the same as Jesus’ motive for healing the blind man: to let us see Him at work in our lives. One of Jesus’ followers in Bible times was a man named Paul. We don’t know exactly what it was, but Paul suffered from what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” In the New Testament, he says that he asked God to remove it three times. God refused. As Paul explains it, “...[God] told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’” (Second Corinthians 12:1-10)

God makes our suffering count for something when we go through it with Jesus Christ: He teaches how we can rely on Him and He shows His goodness and power to others through us. On this latter point, it’s been my observation that it’s in those who suffer with Jesus that we most clearly see the presence and power of God.

Only heaven can be described as “paradise” (Luke 23:43). That’s the ultimate destination of all who follow Jesus Christ. This temporary home we call earth and the life we live here will never be totally free of suffering. But it is a place where we can know God intimately, experience fulfillment, love and encourage each other, and go through every high and low with God beside us. Suffering may never make sense. But God’s love is always there.

Learning About Washington Through Hamilton

Last night, I finished reading Richard Brookhiser's Alexander Hamilton, American. It's not so much a biography as it is a biographical essay about America's first Secretary of the Treasury and the primary author of The Federalist Papers, the series of essays that appeared in American newspapers in the late 1780s to argue that the Constitution should be adopted. Brookhiser has given a good account of Hamilton's life and I highly recommend it.

Interestingly, one of the most affecting passages in the book comes not in discussing Hamilton, but Hamilton's mentor, George Washington. Brookhiser quotes a letter by Congressman Fisher Ames regarding Washington's demeanor as the first president delivered his first Inaugural Address:

"...his aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention."

Like all good leaders--and I agree with historian Garry Wills' assessment that Washington was the greatest political leader in human history--Washington was a good actor. But I don't believe that the performance that Ames described was an act. Washington had tasted enough of applause to know how meaningless it ultimately is and how in the end, we are called to do our best no matter what the crowds may think of us. Washington was genuinely humbled by the unprecedented task he was taking on, the presidency of a republic that, if he did his job right and built a strong foundation for the American future, would require him to voluntarily give up absolute political power for the second time in his life.

It isn't easy to walk away from being in control! The despot Saddam Hussein ultimately had power wrested from him. Now, like Washington before them, American leaders must demonstrate that they can walk away from power as our national government prepares to turn Iraq over to a duly-constituted Iraqi government. Negotiating the landmines of foolish self-will and deep resentments of America that exist in the Middle East and throughout the world will require great wisdom (not to mention great selflessness) on the part of American leadership.

Fortunately, there is a place where our leaders--and all of us--can go for wisdom and anything else we may need to do and be our best. "If you don't know what you're doing," the New Testament book of James says, "pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get His help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought." (James 1, as translated in The Message by Eugene Peterson.)
Pray without ceasing. That's what the Bible tells us to do. With world events where they are right now, this seems like a particularly good time to follow that directive. Here's some of what I'm praying about these days...

...that the war in Iraq will soon come to a complete end and that the people of that country will quickly have a government that cares about its people.

...that soon there will be a just peace in the Middle East, just for all people there.

...that God will comfort the families of those who have recently succumbed to SARS.

...that God will help medical personnel find a cure for SARS.

...that God will give wisdom to President Bush and to all world leaders and that all of them will be open to God's wisdom.

Jesus says that He came into the world to give life "and...abundantly" (John 10:10). I don't believe that Jesus means that when we follow Him, we're all going to become rich. An abundant life is one that's crackling with the power of God that comes to us through Jesus. For God's power to crackle within us requires us to be in constant contact with Jesus, the life-giver. "I am the vine and you are the branches," Jesus says. It would be downright suicidal for a branch to say to the vine, "I think I'll go it alone." Yet that's what we do when we fail to pray. (I know because I have failed to pray more than I care to remember!)

I'm not a really smart guy. But here are a few things I do know for sure:

First: Jesus says that without Him we can do nothing. I believe Him. Trying to "crackle with life" on our own is like trying to drive cross country without filling up. You can't take much of a trip that way!

Second: Paul says in the New Testament that with Jesus we can do all things. I have learned this truth repeatedly in my life. When I try to accomplish good things on my own steam, I always come up short. But when I "go with God," following Jesus, God takes my mediocre talents and makes something more of my efforts than they inherently merit. (I have also learned that this applies to every aspect of my life, by the way.)

Better living in this life and the next begins when we respond to God's outstretched hand and we connect with God. That connection happens through prayer in Jesus' Name.

Ephesians 6:18 says:"...prayer is essential...Pray hard and long." (The Message translation) Now more than ever, I believe that's true.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

The death of NBC reporter David Bloom came as a sad shock today. Bloom's enthusiasm for his craft and his love of people came through in all of his work. For my family and me, fans of NBC News, Bloom was like a fixture in our home, a familiar face and a sane voice in the maelstrom of world events. His reports from Iraq during the war have been especially outstanding.

His sudden death from an embolism is a cautionary note for us all. Life on this planet is fleeting. It's a brief, but important prelude to eternity. That's one reason why it's so important to have our relationship with God squared away. Eternity lasts a lot longer than life does here and eternity with God is not automatic.

The Bible's most well-known passage is John 3:16. There, Jesus tells a man named Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." God wants to spend eternity with us. But He doesn't force that upon us. When we choose to follow Jesus Christ, we choose to travel through this life and the next one with God.

My prayers are with David Bloom's wife and three girls at this terrible time. I'm thankful for the great work he did as a reporter. His tragic death makes me more committed to sharing the Good News of God's love offered to all people through Jesus Christ. All people who face the uncertainties of this fragile existence--and that's every one of us--need Jesus Christ!
Disciplines That Free: Dying to Live
John 12:20-33

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 6, 2003]

When I was growing up, the school day ended at 3:30. It took about a half-hour for me to walk home and dinner usually happened at our house at about 5:00. My parents had a rule: No after-school snacking. They had a simple reason for this edict. “It’ll spoil your dinner,” they told me. Whether this was true or not, it seems that both my body and mind have bought into the idea. To this day, I crack my wife and kids up because, even though my mom and dad aren’t around to tell me “No,” I try to avoid any snacking before we sit down for dinner. But you know what? This little bit of self-denial seems to work for me. Even though I have a little bit of a spare tire around my middle, I think I’d be a lot bigger and a lot less healthy if I snacked before dinner time.

It’s true that there are times when we may have to give up short-term pleasure in order to realize long-term gains. The student who puts in an extra half-hour to make certain that he understands the geometry law is likely to do well on the test. The athlete who runs another mile or spends a little more time in the weight room will perform better on the field, the court, or the track. The person of faith who takes a few more minutes each day to read the Scripture or pray gains greater peace, more guidance from God, and is sure to bring God’s power to bear on more concerns they pray about.

Self discipline of any kind is rare because it’s so hard and it’s so hard because we’re confused about the meaning of freedom. Ask the average person what freedom is and they’ll tell you something like, “Freedom is being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want.” But let’s think about that for a moment. Let’s imagine a teenage boy whose hormones are popping. He might think that freedom consists of being able to have sex with any girl he wants, any time he wants. But if he exercises that kind of “freedom,” it won’t be long before he becomes a kind of monster, a sexist creep who thinks that members of the opposite sex exist only for his own pleasure. Should he cause a young woman to become pregnant, he’s unlikely to want to take any responsibility for it; after all, he may reason, he was just having fun. Then, of course, there’s the danger he poses to himself. There are the obvious things like STDs (sexually transmitted diseases): AIDS, venereal disease, and so on. There are even psychological dangers that result from two people who treat an intimate sharing of self, which is what God intends for sex to be, as if it were just a momentary joyride; broken hearts often result. Freedom isn’t being able to do what one wants any time one wants to do it.

Real freedom resides in being so free of the shallow values of this dying world that we’re able to reach toward our God-given potential as human beings! Real freedom allows us to live as God designed us to live and to choose that freedom each day. Real freedom means understanding that life in this world is a fleeting thing that can be taken from us without a moment’s notice. Freedom belongs to those who understand that this life is a short prelude to the life for which we were really designed, eternal life. And each of us is presented with a choice. We can live as though this life is all there is, grabbing for every reward this dying planet can offer. Or, we can choose to use this life to prepare for eternity with the God we know through Jesus Christ. The Bible says some interesting things about this choice:

[In Joshua, we find:] choose this day whom you will serve, whether the [false] gods [of] your ancestors...but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. [Joshua 24:15]

[In the New Testament book of First Corinthians, we’re reminded] If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.[First Corinthians 15:19]

[And speaking of the many times he suffered—from stoning to shipwreck, from beatings to imprisonments—that he had endured because of his faith in Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, who would give his life for Christ, writes in the New Testament book of Romans] I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18]

Living with the God we know through Jesus, gaining the freedom to be the people God created us to be, is such an incredible and undeserved blessing that God calls us to be absolutely willing to turn away from this world’s dead-end ways in order to hold onto the life that Jesus offers to us. Jesus knew all about this. On the night before His death on a cross, He prayed in a place called the garden of Gethsemane and He told God the Father:

Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me [in other words, if You will it, make My suffering, cross, and death go away]; [and then Jesus said] yet not My will but Yours be done! [Luke 22:42]

Jesus was willing to die to Himself in order to fulfill His purpose in life: dying for our sins on the cross. Dying to self is what Jesus is talking about in our Bible lesson this morning. You heard and read two other translations of this passage already. Let me read to you the translation of it found in The Message by Eugene Peterson:

[Jesus says] “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal...”

Jesus, the Savior Who left behind the perfect pleasures of paradise in order to be the perfect sacrifice for our sin on the cross, is calling us to die to selfishness and self-will so that we can take the offer of free, full, and everlasting life that He gives to all with faith in Him! As one preacher, Michael Foss says, "Living right means dying right." We need to be willing to give up the world’s ideas of success in order to become successes on God’s terms.

From the time I was a little boy until my middle twenties, I ate, slept, drank, thought, and dreamed about politics. The first book I remember reading was about the Presidents. The first trading cards I owned came from the back of a Post Toasties box; they were pictures of the Presidents, every one of them through Dwight Eisenhower. My grandfather used to take me to meet local politicos like the Mayor of Columbus, who lived just down the street from us. In high school, I edited the school newspaper’s editorial page. In college, I was involved with campaigns. My first real job was managing a congressional campaign. In my mid-twenties, I was working for the Ohio House of Representatives in Columbus when something unexpected happened to me: in response to His love, I gave my life to Jesus Christ. I thought that with God in my corner, my political aspirations would now know no limits. But then I sensed God calling me to become a pastor. Let me tell you something: I resisted that notion big time! But the more I resisted, the more convinced I became that I had to let my self-directed life die and take God up on the life that He had designed for me. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not perfect. But anyone who knows me, I think also knows that God made me to be a preacher. This is the life God designed for me!

God has a design for every life. It’s never too early and it’s never too late in life to let the old self die so that we can be all that God made us to be. We need to divest ourselves of self-driven lives, embracing God's purpose and God's design. That’s what Jesus means in our Bible lesson for this morning when He says:

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

People who live with God in the lead get a lot more of everlasting significance accomplished than even the most driven, self-made billionaire.

Now, if the discipline of dying to ourselves and letting God call the shots in our lives seems grim and uninviting, consider some information that comes from a think tank called the Alban Institute:

"Weekly church attendance is associated with a reduction in the incidence of hypertension, increased longevity (on the average up to three years longer) and increased...resistance to infection. [In one study] a consistent pattern of lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures was identified among frequent church-attenders, independent of effects of age, obesity, smoking or social class...The National Institutes of Health have now developed five protective factors against coronary artery disease, the leading one being weekly church attendance...A Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Survey of the Values of the American People in the 1980s reflected that the single most important variable in health-promoting life-styles was religious affiliation."

When we die to ourselves, we live better here and we live forever with God!

A young man approached a friend of his who had been telling him all about Jesus Christ. “If I follow Jesus,” he wondered, “will I have to give up the things I love?” “No,” the friend replied, “but if you follow Jesus Christ, God will change the things you love.”

The writer and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis once said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right then, have it your way.’”

You and I have been given an awesome freedom by God. We can live for ourselves in this moment and die forever. Or we can die to this world’s claims on us, live for Jesus Christ alone, and so, live with God forever. You know the choice that God wants us to make. I hope and pray it’s the choice we always make!

[The C.S. Lewis quote is cited in chapter 4 of Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life. The story of the young man in the last paragraph comes from material provided by The Changing Church forum. The material from the Alban Institute comes from a sermon by Pastor Michael Foss.]