Monday, February 8, 2016

God is more real than what we can see

It was a typical Sunday morning at Antioch Church, many years ago. We were singing hymns and praise songs to the Lord Jesus. Many people had their eyes closed, but not my son Jesse. He was four years old at the time and taking it all in, watching people sing, looking at the musicians, gazing at the ceiling. Suddenly he tugged on his mom’s dress and whispered in her ear when she leaned down, “Mom, God and his friends and the angels are here!”

“Where are they?” Cindy replied.

“They’re in this room, but you can’t see them,” Jesse assured her, his blue eyes as serious as they have ever been.

You know what? I believe Jesse was right. I was reminded of the story in Scripture about Elisha the prophet, when he was being hunted by a king. You see, the Syrians were at war with Israel, and every time they would make a move against the Israelites, Elisha would tell the king of Israel what the Syrians were going to do before they did it. This ticked off the Syrian king, so he sent an army to go get the prophet Elisha.

The Syrian army surrounded the city of Dothan where Elisha and his servant, Gehazi, were staying, and the next morning there they were, horses, chariots, and lots of Syrian soldiers. Gehazi was scared to death and cried out, “Master! What shall we do?” I imagine that Elisha was still sipping his first cup of coffee and eating a sweet roll as he read the Dothan Daily, and didn’t even bother to glance at the enemy. He said to Gehazi, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

Huh? That’s what Gehazi’s face must have said. He had no idea what the prophet was talking about, so Elisha put his paper down and began to pray. He asked the Lord to open his servant’s eyes so he could see, and I believe it was about then that Gehazi started shouting and pointing and maybe even dabbing, nearly spilling Elisha’s coffee in the process. The servant looked at the hills around Dothan, rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, and then looked again. It was still there, and what an awesome spectacle it was. The mountain was lit up with the glory of God as horses and chariots of fire surrounded the Syrian army. The Syrians did not see the army of angels, of course, and they began to move into the city, confident that this little prophet of God had finally met his match. Let’s just say that the prophet of God got the last laugh.

You will have to go to 2 Kings 6:18-23 to read the rest of the story, but it is amazing. It shows off God’s sense of humor, God’s compassion, and God’s power.

This story also confirms, I believe, what Jesse sensed in his spirit as a little boy. God is real, more real than anything that we can touch and hear and see. We are not alone in the universe, because the one who made us is here. He is not aloof or distant, but very much involved in his creation. He is more real than the life I live, and praise God, he is more real than the death I will pass through one day. Until that day, when I meet him face to face, I want to live with the wonder and the expectant hope that only child-like faith can produce.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Take A Step Toward Biblical Literacy

Several years ago, former “Saturday Night Live” star Julia Sweeney explained in an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle why she became an atheist at 38: “You know, like Jesus was angry a lot. When he turned all those people into pigs and made them run off a mountain, it was so hateful, not just to people, but to pigs. I felt so upset for the pigs!”

A reader responded, tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Reminds me of the time Jesus turned 5,000 people into fish and bread and ate them.”

One of the sad realities that becomes more obvious every day in America is our biblical illiteracy as a nation. Most people in this country have never studied the Bible. Some have read it but have never understood any of it. Others have read it but misunderstood most of it. Still others have read it, misinterpreted parts of it, and taught others to do the same.

A fundamental question we must ask as believers and followers of Jesus Christ is this: does each passage in the Bible have more than one interpretation? In other words, did the author mean more than one thing when he wrote the passage? Certainly there may be many applications to a passage, but can there be more than one meaning?

If each passage has a particular meaning that was intended for that audience, how do we find out what that meaning was? Hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, applies here. It involves looking at the author, his audience, the context, the word meanings, the culture, the reason for the letter or book, the situation that was being addressed, and much more. If we do not attempt to understand any of that, then at best we will misinterpret the Scriptures and be led astray. At worst, we will lead others astray.

Just consider context for a moment. It has everything to do with how we interpret something we read. If I read about a massacre on the front page of the newspaper, the context itself will tell me how to interpret that word. If I read about a massacre on the sports page, the context there will suggest something entirely different. If I read the sports headline, “Cowboys slaughter Redskins!” for example, I don’t need to fear that our relations with Native Americans has taken a turn for the worse.

One of the verses most often taken out of context is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” How do we interpret this verse and apply it to our lives? If we just blindly apply it, then we may decide to go helplessly into debt buying Powerball tickets, or we may believe it’s time to leave our spouse, or quit our job, or drop out of college, all the while claiming that God helps us do ALL things. Doing most of those things would be foolish and unbiblical, and none of them could be supported by this verse in question. Philippians 4:13 lives in a contentment context. In other words, Paul writes that he has learned to live in God’s strength when the cupboards are overflowing, and when they are bare.

And just for the record, Jesus did not turn people into pigs. Nor did he turn people into fish and bread. What he did was deliver the possessed and feed the hungry and teach us that only in Him can we find life everlasting. The true stories can be found in Luke 8 and John 6.

Check it out for yourself. Take a step today towards biblical literacy.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Give others the freedom to fail

I was fifteen years old, wishing I were sixteen, and wanting to drive so badly I could taste it. Looking for any excuse to get behind the wheel, I asked my grandmother if I could move her car into the backyard and wash it. Nana recognized the desperate act of a teenager who was willing to do actual work in order to drive. She laughed as she watered her flowers and told me it was all mine.

My grandmother drove a 1969 Mercury Comet convertible, and it was sweet. I often sat behind the wheel, my left arm hanging out over the door, and imagined that I was tooling down the highway on my way to Myrtle Beach. I imagined my hair blowing in the breeze, the guys admiring and the girls staring. At the car, of course. But this was the real thing. I was going to drive! I eased the car out of the garage and turned the wheels slightly left, heading into the pine-tree studded backyard of my grandparents’ house. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I was driving. “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought. And that’s when it happened. I pulled a “fifteen” and hit the wrong pedal. There was a pine tree in my immediate future and instead of slowly squeezing the brake pedal, I slammed on the accelerator. The car responded immediately, all cylinders firing at once, and the car seemed to come off the ground and leap into a fine upstanding specimen of the North Carolina state tree. It remained upstanding as the front end of that Mercury Comet convertible folded into it. Everything in the front and back seats of the car slid into the floorboards. I went into shock.

That’s when I heard laughter. I looked to my left, and there stood Nana, garden hose in hand, laughing her head off. She laughed so hard, she started to cry. The water from the hose was going everywhere as she jerked around and doubled over and finally, I started to laugh, too. “The look on your face!” Nana exclaimed. “And the sight of all that junk sliding off the seats!” she cried, and Nana started to laugh again. Finally, when she was able to breathe again, she said, “Thank you, Mark, for helping me clean out my car.”

I learned some valuable lessons that day, not the least of which was the difference between the brake and the gas pedal, and the difference a mistake of only six inches can make. I also learned that we have to give one another the freedom to fail. My grandparents both told me that day that mistakes are a part of life, and that the person who is a failure is not the one who tries and fails, but the one who never tries. They also imprinted my soul with an indelible picture of what forgiveness looks like. I have heard as an adult that forgiveness is “agreeing to live with the consequences of someone else’s mistakes,” and that’s exactly what my grandparents modeled for me that day in 1973. I begged them to let me pay for the damage to their car, but they wouldn’t have any of it. Nana said that she had asked me to clean her car and that I had gone above and beyond the call of duty. Then she started laughing again.

Nana wasn’t rich, at least not by the world’s standards, but she was about the wealthiest woman I knew when it came to things that really matter.

Monday, January 18, 2016

God’s grace covers what calamine lotion can’t

I was probably 6 years old, and it was the day before my family was going to the beach for summer vacation. We went to Surfside Beach for a week every year, and my grandparents were almost always there, and sometimes cousins and friends as well. It was the highlight of my year and I looked forward to every minute that we could run on the sand, play in the surf, watch the ships come in at Murrell’s Inlet, and eat fresh seafood in one of the many restaurants there.

I remember this particular trip because it was the most miserable. All of the pictures that I appeared in feature a little boy covered in pink lotion from head to foot. Looking miserable. Making everybody else around him miserable.

You see, the day before we were to leave for the beach, I went outside to play. There was a pasture behind our house, surrounded by barbed wire. I would often crawl under or over the fence and run in the pasture, which was fine with Mom. This particular day, however, she didn’t want me in the pasture.

“Mark, stay out of there!” she called from the carport.

I made a face and scampered under the fence.

“Mark, you had better stay away from the poison ivy!” Mom yelled, not having the energy to even deal with my first disobedient act.

Now, you need to understand that when I was a boy, I could walk into a yard that was adjoined by a garden that was adjacent to a pond that was beside a patch of woods that had poison ivy in it — and the next day I would swell up like a puffer fish. That’s how badly I was allergic to the nasty little plant.

“You mean this poison ivy?” I responded with glee, having pulled up handfuls of it as soon as she mentioned the weed. She looked on, aghast, as I proceeded to rub the noxious leaves over my face, neck, arms, and legs, as though I were bathing in the most luxurious spa in Paris. I crowed with delight when I saw the look on my mother’s face. I beamed with pride at my little act of defiance. I showed her who’s boss, I thought.

This happened in the early 60s, and back then the only “cure” for poison ivy that we knew about was calamine lotion. And that was no cure at all. It eased the misery a smidgen, but the sticky pink mess that was my body was the butt of every joke my two brothers could come up with. I couldn’t enjoy being outside on the beach because the sun inflamed the fiery red ridges. I had to sit and watch as my brothers fished the surf with Dad. Even fried shrimp and french fries didn’t taste the same. As we sat down to eat at Lee’s Inlet Kitchen, people stared at this kid who was swollen and pink, marveling at how much damage poison ivy could do to one little body. My bumps had bumps and my blisters oozed and ran, and my mind kept replaying that scene: “You mean this poison ivy?”

I am amazed that God would choose to love and redeem such a rebellious boy as I. But the miracle of God’s plan is not about how bad we are but it is about how great and forgiving he is, because “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

Sadly, sometimes I still act like that selfish little boy. God keeps giving me grace and teaching me to obey.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The man who saved C.S. Lewis’ works

Walter Hooper was born and raised in Reidsville, and graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1954. He was introduced to the works of CS Lewis by the captain of the UNC football team, and was able to find a copy of his book, “Miracles,” just before entering the Army. No books were allowed in boot camp, but Hooper hid it in his fatigues, so that it bounced around while he did jumping jacks. “The drill sergeant never discovered it,” Hooper said. His love for Lewis’ work prompted him to write a letter to the man he admired so much, and he was shocked to receive a hand-written note in reply. He corresponded with Lewis until the summer of 1963, when Hooper went to visit him in Oxford, England. They became good friends quickly, and Lewis asked Hooper to leave his job at the University of Kentucky and become his secretary. Lewis lived alone, as his wife Joy had died three years earlier, and he asked Walter Hooper to live with him. Hooper knew that Lewis was not well, but had no idea that his friendship with the man whose work he loved so much would only last a few months. CS Lewis died at the same hour that John F. Kennedy died, on November 22, 1963.

There was much packed into the months that these men worked and lived together. Hooper tells the story of Lewis giving money to a beggar on the street. Hooper asked him if he was not concerned that the beggar would use the money for drink. Lewis replied, “I don’t know, but if I kept the money, that’s what I would use it for.” CS Lewis was a literary giant, but was not at all impressed with his notoriety. He laughed at the idea that writers were quoting him, and said to Hooper one day, “CS Lewis says he wants a pot of coffee. And CS Lewis says you are going to make it for me. And CS Lewis says, I am going to drink it.”

Hooper discovered Lewis’ love for tea at their first meeting, as they drank pot after pot together, until Hooper’s bladder was about to burst. He asked his host if he could use the bathroom, and Lewis took him to a room that had a bathtub in it, and nothing else. He handed him four towels and several bars of soap, and then walked out. Hooper didn’t know what to do, but finally he went to Lewis and said, “It wasn’t actually a bath I wanted.” Lewis laughed and said, “I know! Maybe this will cure you of those American euphemisms. Now, let’s start over. Where do you want to go?”

Walter Hooper has been a literary trustee for Lewis’ works for more than 50 years, editing more than 20 of them, publishing collections of Lewis’ letters, and recovering books that had gone out of print.

When asked about his favorite book by Lewis, Hooper doesn’t hesitate. He has read “That Hideous Strength” more than 20 times. When asked which book Americans should read by Lewis if they could only read one, he says it is “The Abolition of Man,” because “The west is in the grip of relativism … If I said, ‘It’s wrong for these people to commit adultery,’ you might say, ‘That’s up to them.’ I don’t think it is up to them. I think the way we behave even in our own homes affects the whole world.”

Want to hear more about Walter Hooper and CS Lewis? Go to There are 6 parts.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Five lessons from 2015

I like to read through my journal at the end of each year to see what God taught me. I offer a few lessons from 2015, for your consideration.

Lesson No. 1: The times, they are a-changing, but the root problem remains the same. Cindy and I had the opportunity to hear Al Mohler speak at a conference in January. Among other things, I learned that Peter Berger, a sociologist, said that the most religious country in the world is India. And the least religious country is Sweden. When he was asked, “What about America?” Berger replied, “It’s a country of Indians ruled over by Swedes.”

Dr. Mohler also quoted Theo Hobson, a British theologian who wrote several years ago that a cultural revolution takes place when three things happen, and we are seeing that unfold before our eyes. First, something that was condemned is normalized. Second, that which is normalized is now celebrated. Third, those who don’t celebrate it are condemned. As I read in Isaiah after the conference, this verse seemed to speak to our condition as a nation: “You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, ‘No one sees me’; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’ The problem is sin, which tends to try and hide in the shadows, or parade itself as enlightenment.

Lesson No. 2: God loves orphans ... and those who love them.

Ben Duckett spoke at our men’s breakfast in March, and challenged us to seek God about adoption with this charge: “Is God calling you to do something? Stop asking Him ‘Why?’ Ask yourself, ‘Why not?’” That’s a great word, not just about adoption, but about obedience to anything the Lord is asking of us.

Lesson No. 3: We need to hold things, and people, loosely.

We know that if we are holding on too tightly to money or influence or possessions, we are in trouble, because that really means they are holding onto us. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The principle is true of things, but it is also true of people. I was reminded again this year with people coming and going at the church, that I need to continue to make Christ my treasure, and He is enough.

Lesson No. 4: God will press you beyond your limits, but not His.

I love the story of Moses having a fit with God in Numbers 11. He was very transparent with the Almighty, to the point that I almost cringe as I read the account. But this is a great place to be: he was pressed beyond his limits, and did not know what to do, so he cried out to God. The condition is common, but the reaction is rare. So often when we get pressed beyond our limits we scream at other people. Or we crawl into a shell and just want to give up. Or we stomp off, leaving a church or a job or even a spouse. Moses basically told God to either kill him or help him, and God chose the latter.

Lesson No. 5: Marriage is a good thing.

I learned that again on Sept. 19, as I walked down the aisle with my daughter, and 30 minutes later she walked back up the aisle on the arm of a Kansas firefighter. I learned that it is a good thing to see your daughter get married to a godly man. I knew that theologically before; I know it experientially now.

What did God teach you this year?