Monday, February 20, 2017

Don't fall asleep at the wheel

I worked at IBM for a summer when I was in grad school and had to be there at 4:45 a.m.

I left my apartment in Chapel Hill at 4:00, and I can remember a few mornings when I was asleep at the wheel while I drove. It was God’s mercy that kept me alive. I woke up once while passing a car on Highway 54. Had there been a car coming the other way during my little nap, I shudder at the thought of what would have been lost, including the life of the oncoming driver. I would not have met my lovely bride, enjoyed 34 years of marriage, watched 7 children grow up, or held five (so far!) grandchildren in my arms. All would be lost because of one second of inattention. Some of you will remember the Hudson River crash of 2009. Nine people were killed when a single-engine Piper collided in mid-air with a Liberty sightseeing helicopter. The air traffic controller had stepped out of the tower to talk on his cellphone with his girlfriend. The supervisor was not in the tower, as required by law. Both of these men took a break, just for a brief moment, and that’s all it took for families to be destroyed.

Falling asleep unintentionally is one thing. Pursuing a lifestyle that keeps you in perpetual stupor is quite another. Jesus said, ““But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”

There is a real temptation, in other words, to deal with the hardships of life by checking out, intentionally throwing yourself into full party-mode, living for the moment, ignoring the warning signs until you swerve over the center line and into a head-on collision. Some of you scoff at the idea, completely confident in your ability to avoid the collision, to live to satisfy your every craving without a problem. May I remind you that the “Day” is coming? It comes for every man. He says, “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the earth.” Nothing ever caught in a snare meant to be there. No person in his right mind swerves on purpose into oncoming traffic. No one tries to catch a nap while driving 75 on I-85. It just happens. Jesus says it will happen to all of us one day: death will come and then we will face the final Day.

May I say this to all of you who follow Christ? You may have spent a lifetime building a testimony to faith in Him, but it just takes a split second to lose it all. One second you are awake and alert, and the next second you have fallen asleep in the arms of adultery or bitterness or drunkenness or deceit, and all is lost. Watch! Stay awake. By the way, I have never fallen asleep in the car while I am talking with someone else. We need help to stay awake. Do you have someone in your life that is willing to nudge you, or worse, when you start to drift off? I would suggest that’s what the church is for, in part. I am surrounded by a number of men who love me enough to tell me the truth, and I do the same for them. It’s a wonderful means of grace that keeps us on the road.

Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. The price is too high.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leave this spidery habit behind

Here’s a question for you: How is a slanderer like a spider?

In his book, "Ragman and Other Cries of Faith," Walter Wangerin starts one story with a lesson about eight-legged arachnids. He explains that a female spider is often a widow for embarrassing reasons — she eats her spouse. In fact, the female spider regularly eats all who wander her way, making her dining room a morgue. If you see an immobile fly that is caught in a spider’s web, most likely it is only a shell. The fly is still hanging around for decoration, but he’s been consumed. His insides have been drunk by the spider, which has no stomach, making it incapable of digesting anything. Through tiny punctures, the spider injects her digestive juices into its prey, until its insides turn into a warm soup. “This soup she swills, even as most of us swill souls of one another after having cooked them in various enzymes: guilt, humiliation … cruel love. And some among us are so skilled with the hypodermic word that our dear ones continue to sit up and smile, quite as though they were still alive.”

A gruesome picture, wouldn’t you agree? It is an awful thing to suck the life out of others with our snipes, our sneers, our stares, or our stony silence. By definition, to slander someone is to maliciously utter false statements that damage that person’s reputation. If you take the time to look up slander and its twisted sister, gossip, in the Scriptures, you will be amazed. Maybe even changed. Slander is mentioned repeatedly as a sin we must put way. The regular use of gossip and slander is associated with those who have a debased mind, and are “haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful,” and so on. One biblical admonition against slander could be literally translated, “Do not speak down on one another.” That’s a good picture, because for me to speak down on another means I have assumed a lofty position above him. One way we all slander is when we assign a motive to someone’s behavior, speaking as if we know his or her heart. “Well, the only reason she is here is to be seen. She absolutely craves the spotlight, you know.” Or, “I know why he’s late; he is lazy.” We almost always ascribe circumstances to our misdeeds, while ascribing character flaws to others. “I overslept because the alarm wasn’t loud enough. Today. For some reason. But he overslept because he’s soft. Coddled. Immature.”

Gossip is the companion of slander, but it can include truth. It is the deadly art of confessing other people’s sins, where it is supposedly safe: behind their backs. Here’s an idea on stopping the habit: refuse to listen to it yourself. It starts this way, “You know I am only telling you this because it’s true.” Or, “Let me tell you what I heard about her, because, of course, she needs our prayer!” As soon as that trigger is pulled, politely refuse to hear another word. Walk away from your stunned friend knowing that the one who brings you a tale about another will bring tales to others about you. Be the stopper. The goalie. Change the culture one person at a time. Of course, that means you will have to refuse to utter gossip about others, lest you be found a hypocrite.

The female spider will not eat her spouse if he’s bigger than her, providing us a great illustration of how we stop acting like cannibals with our speech. We simply must esteem others as more important than ourselves.

Sounds biblical to me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Clearing the Roadblocks: Is Jesus the Only Way?

Challenge: I believe Jesus was a good teacher and a great person, but when he says he's the only way to God, that's when I hit pause. That just sounds too exclusive, too unloving. If Jesus really is God—and if God really loves uscouldn't he make salvation a little less narrow?

The Truth Hurts
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6, ESV)
I certainly understand the objection to the idea "Jesus is the only way" and I don't think it's a stretch to say that this challenge is just a difficulty for skeptics. If we're all honest, most Christians have felt the uncomfortable nature of Jesus' claim as well. 

But let me point something out here at the onset: just because a truth claim is narrow or exclusive (or presented in an unloving manner), that doesn't automatically make it untrue. In fact, I would suggest  there are all sorts of narrow truth claims that we are presented with every day, yet we don't bat an eye at them because they are plainly obvious to us.
  • Narrow - It is narrow to say that the only way to the moon is via spacecraft. There's literally no other option. But no one fights it or throws a fit because it's perfectly apparent that this is the case. To claim you don't believe it because it is "too narrow" would sound like lunacy.
  • Exclusive - We have just witnessed the spectacle that was Super Bowl 51. It is exclusive to say that only two teams get to play in the Super Bowl—and then only after battling through the gauntlet that is the divisional play-offs. But you know what didn't happen this past Super Bowl Sunday? We didn't see the 30 other teams flying into Houston in their personal jets ready to play the game because "only two teams in the Super Bowl is just too exclusive". 
  • Unloving - Sometimes the truth is just hard. It can hurt and feel unloving. But a hard truth is still a truth. If a doctor with a poor bed-side manner tells you that you have a fatal disease, you may go get a second opinion but you know what you aren't going to do? You aren't going to ask your friendly neighborhood barista for that second opinion. You aren't going to dig into your kid's toy chest and ask the Magic 8-Ball in hopes of a different answer. Dealing with a hard truth is better than happily living an illusion. 
So we can't discount Jesus' claim simply because of narrowness or exclusivity. And we can't write the message off simply because sometimes the messengers are less than compassionate in their delivery. Rather, we have to deal with the veracity of Jesus' claim itself.

Jesus: Full of Truth
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)
I love the opening of the book of John, but I have always been especially captured by the phrase that John used to describe the coming in flesh of the Son of God as "full of grace and truth". Jesus came both proclaiming full truth but with absolute grace. I believe it was Tim Keller who said "Truth without grace isn't really truth. And grace without truth isn't really grace."It is only in Christ that we find the perfect balance of grace and truth. Perhaps "balance" is the wrong word to use because that sounds like 50/50. In Christ we find the perfect union of the two.

So when Jesus says "I am the only way to God", he is saying this as one full of truth. But even more than that:

Every time Jesus makes his "only way" claim, it is always directly tied to his deity. [1]

Or to put it another way, the reason Jesus can say "I am the only way you can come to God" is precisely because he is God coming for us.

Thisas an asideis the precisely the problem with the popular "Blind Men and the Elephant" illustration. In the story, a group of blind men stumble on an elephant and begin proclaiming that it is "like a rope", or "like a tree", or "like a wall" because they each only experience a part of it. Thus, the storyteller says, I believe that everyone is right because we're all only seeing a part of God.

Here's the problem. The story only works because the storyteller is taking an omniscient all-seeing perspective—and because the elephant can't speak for itself and say what it is like. But if Jesus is who he says he is, the he is the omniscient storyteller and he is elephant speaking up for itself. If that's the case, only Jesus gets to say what God is like.

So the one thing most people want to do with Jesus is exactly what you mustn't do. You mustn't say, "I believe Jesus was who he said he was. I believe he was God. But I don't believe he's the only way to God." To do this is to separate two things that Jesus said were inextricably linked.

So if you refuse to agree with Jesus on this one point, at least have enough intellectual integrity to call it what it is: you have an honest disagreement with Jesus.

Jesus: Full of Grace

But while some may have an intellectual objection to Jesus' claim, I've found that the tension most people feel here is more of an emotional one. And this is not a criticism, I feel that same tension! (But remember: how we feel about a truth claim doesn't change the fact of it.)

But it is at this very point that Jesus—full of grace and truth—meets us. Because we are not the only ones that feel the uncomfortable exclusivity of this claim. Jesus felt it too. Let me say that again.

Jesus felt the narrowness of his own claim more starkly than anyone else ever will.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus knelt in the garden of
Gethsemane and pleaded in prayer, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will...if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." (Matt. 26)

What was happening here? Jesusknowing the immense price he was about to pay to open up a way for us back to God—was asking for another way. Jesus was feeling the the exclusivity of his own claim and it ultimately crushed him. To death. 

And yet Jesus was willingly crushed to death under the narrowness of his own claim out of love for us. Because Jesus didn't just come proclaiming "I am the only way to the Father" as one full of truth. Truth without grace here would have been cold indifference. But Jesus comes full of grace and truth declaring "I am the only way"—and then gives his own life to secure it.

[1.] Matthew 11:27, John 1:1-13, John 8:18-19, John 10:24-30, John 14:6-10

Other posts in the Clearing the Roadblocks series:
Can We Trust the Bible? (Part 1)
Can We Trust the Bible? (Part 2) 
The Resurrection
Does God Care About Our Government?

Monday, February 6, 2017

This is how you resist the devil

You should not use James’ encouragement to “Submit yourselves to God and resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” as if it were a formula for exorcism. Some have tried, and missed the first part of the verse completely. Check out the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19. Their idea of “submitting to God” was to just get familiar with Jesus-speak. They found a good prospect, one who really was possessed, and went to work with their words, throwing their Jesus-speak at the demon and expecting it to flee. One of the seven sons, maybe the oldest and most cocky, said, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” You know what happened next? You can’t make this stuff up. The demon said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” Then the demon-possessed man whooped those boys seven ways to Sunday, until the seven would-be exorcists ran out of the house naked and wounded. I’d say their little formula didn’t work. The demon was unimpressed.

This text is not a formula for exorcism, but it is a powerful encouragement to live in such a way that the enemy will continually flee from you. Walking in submission to God includes ongoing and deliberate resistance to the devil. We know how he operates, as we have a picture of it in Genesis. He told Eve that if she ate the fruit she would not die. You will be like God, he said. You will finally have access to all that God is keeping from you, he intimated. These were lies, but Eve fell into his trap because she disregarded what God had said. She submitted to the devil, and resisted God, which is always a recipe for disaster. How can we reverse that in our own lives?

It starts with bowing our will to His. This is the defining characteristic of humility. The word for submission finds its roots in the military, and it means to “be placed under the authority of another.” This is counter to the culture, right? Everything in society is telling us to go big or go home. Be your own boss. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. In fact you can sign up for hundreds of seminars that will teach you to look out for number one, learn to assert yourself, make a name for yourself, and build your personal brand. People sign up for these seminars in droves. I wonder how many would sign up for a seminar on “Submitting to God.” The brochure would say something like, “Learn to be the least, the last and the lowest. Learn to be a servant of all.” What do you think? Good seminar idea? Not by the world’s standards. Submitting to God is counter to the culture. But even worse, submitting to God is counter to our own nature. Our souls crave attention and yearn for the spotlight. That’s why the Bible is filled with admonitions like, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.” Or, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Or, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Count others more important than me? That hurts, but mainly because it forces me out of my narcissistic tendencies. And don’t confuse humility with self-hatred. Someone said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Submit yourself to God, and let him handle the demons.

Monday, January 30, 2017

God gives more grace

It is so hard for us to disentangle our affections from this world system and transfer them to the One who created us and redeemed us. James writes in his “in your face” letter that too many followers of Jesus are adulterous — choosing daily to pursue intimacy with the world instead of him. And he reminds us that our holy God has a holy jealousy for us. What then is the answer? How can we pursue Christ above all things?

James answers that question in his letter: more grace. God gives more grace from his unlimited supply. The story is told of an artist who submitted a painting of Niagara Falls to an art gallery, but didn’t give it a title. The gallery needed one, so they titled the work, “More to come.” I like that. Billions of gallons of water rush over the falls every year but there’s more to come. Saying, “I don't know if God can teach me how to love Him more than I love anything else” is like standing under Niagara Falls and saying, “I don’t know if there’s enough water here to satisfy my thirst.” He gives more grace, a bounteous supply, to help us love and follow Him. Augustine prayed, “Give me the grace to do as You command, and command me to do what You will.” Where do we need more of God’s grace? Here are a few suggestions.

We need God’s grace for our battles with the flesh. Do you continue to struggle with the same sin? God gives more grace. Are you drowning in selfishness to the point that you might say, “If I didn’t think about myself, I’d think nothing at all”? He gives more grace. Are you as stubborn as a mule and your reflex position is that everyone else is wrong, but you’re always right? He gives more grace. Are you consumed with resentment and tormented by a lack of forgiveness, longing to know that the other person who hurt you suffers as much as you do? God gives more grace.

We need God’s grace for our burdens. Are you going through a physical trial? God gives more grace. Are you struggling in a bad marriage? He gives more grace. Have you suffered an inconsolable loss and your heart continues to break over it? God gives more grace.

God gives us grace for our blessings, or our beginnings. Is He calling you to do something new for his sake, an outreach in your neighborhood, a ministry in the church? He gives more grace. Is he urging you to start having family devotions, or start praying with and for your wife, or start memorizing Scripture, or start giving to the church, or even to start coming to service on time? God gives more grace. Is he whispering in your heart that you can mentor a younger believer? He gives more grace. Or is he asking you to read more and watch less, to exercise more and eat less, to show hospitality more, to pray more, to witness more? He gives more grace.

This is great news for me and you, dear reader. But be careful of this truth: God gives grace to the humble.

He stiff-arms the proud, because they don’t acknowledge that they need him. “I got this!” is the proud man’s motto, and “I can do this on my own!” is tattooed on his soul. A proud man or woman is a stranger to grace. But to those who know they need him, God’s grace is life and breath and freedom.

Why wait? Admit today your need for more of God’s grace.

Monday, January 23, 2017

As believers, we are called to this fight

Scene one: A boy walking home from school is cornered by a bully who forces him to his knees, throws his books in a mud puddle, and runs off as the boy whimpers with shame.

Scene two: The boy takes a different path home, fearing another encounter with his tormenter. It doesn’t work. The bully follows him, and scene one is repeated.

Scene three: The young boy asks a friend to walk home with him, but when the bully shows up, the friend runs away. Scene one is repeated, with the bully taking it one step further: He makes the young boy kneel in front of him and say, “You rule, and I drool.” Laughing hysterically, the bully slaps his "servant" in the face and runs off.

Scene four: The boy stays home from school, feigning sickness. He is consumed with fear. His grades suffer, he cannot sleep, and he even wets his bed, something he hasn’t done since he was 4. The camera rolls through scene after scene of the bully’s torments and the agony of a child who begins to wish that he had never been born. Then one day, everything changes.

Scene five: The bully is putting the boy through the normal routine when suddenly a new kid walks down the road and witnesses the scene. Joshua has just moved to the neighborhood and doesn’t know anybody yet. He is a big boy, much bigger than the bully, and he runs over and throws the bully off the young boy. He helps the boy get his books together, brushes the dirt out of his hair and off his face, and then walks the rest of the way home with him. From that day on, the two become fast friends, and the word on the schoolyard is, “Wherever Joshua is, his little buddy is not far behind.” The camera rolls through scene after scene of the two developing a friendship, playing ball together, watching TV, going to church, and eating lunch at school.

Scene six: Joshua is sick at home, and the bully has been watching and waiting for this opportunity. He knows it will be fun catching up with his "servant," making up for many lost days. What he doesn’t know is that the young boy is not afraid anymore. Joshua has been more than just a friend and protector; he has taught his young friend how to fight back. When the bully starts to run at the young boy, he is met with a surprising blow to the gut, followed by an elbow drop that sends him crashing to the pavement. The victim has become the victor.

The story I wrote was born out of this quote from Stephen Schwarz’s book, "The Moral Question of Abortion": “Suppose, in the encounter between doctor and child [in an abortion], the child won half of the time, and killed the doctor in self-defense — something he would have every right to do. Very few doctors would perform abortions. They perform them now only because of their absolute power over a small, fragile, helpless victim.”

God is raising up more like Joshua who are willing to fight for the unborn, and to take a stand against those in abortion clinics who “stealthily watch for the helpless” and “murder the innocent.” (Psalm 10)

Our weapons are prayer and counsel and laws, not fists or guns. But make no mistake — we are called to the fight. As Dr. Mildred Jefferson said, “The fight for the right to life is not the cause of a special few, but the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man.”