Monday, May 2, 2016

Faithful are the wounds of a friend

“Hey, Fox! What are you readin’?”

I knew that voice. It was coming from two seats behind me in history class. It belonged to a kid in our high school that all of us avoided, I am ashamed to admit, because he was geeky and unattractive in looks and in personality. I slowly turned, my mind spinning with anticipation of what I was about to do. My eyes fixed on my opponent. Actually, he wasn’t trying to pick a fight; Rick was just asking an innocent question, but in that annoying way of his that provoked so many in the school to tease him.

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” I said, as I hurled the paperback I was reading. The missile found its desired target: Rick’s pimply face. The same face that was red with acne turned beet red with rage.

Rick stood up beside his desk, his over-large Adam’s apple moving up and down like a yo-yo, in sync with his breathing. I was mesmerized by it for a moment, and forgot about the book that lay on the floor. But Rick was angry and embarrassed by my attack. In all of the wisdom that I could muster as a tender young scholar of 17, I leaped to my feet and began to shadow box in front of him.

“You want a piece of me, Rick?” I taunted. “You want some of this?” I punched at him playfully, my fists pulling up just inches short of his face. I was in no way looking for an actual fight. I got one anyway.

Rick was tall and as skinny as a toothpick, but his reach was at least a foot longer than mine. While I was floating like a butterfly, he decided to sting like a bee. Rick sent one true jab right to the center of my face. It was a direct hit to the mouth, exactly where I deserved it, and the fight was over just that quick. I was stunned as I reached up to my two front teeth and found they were not hanging out in their usual location.

You see, I had just gotten my braces off about a week earlier. Rick had undone in one second what my orthodontist (and my Dad’s wallet, bless his soul) had taken two-and-a-half years to accomplish.

Not only that, but I was immediately sent to the principal’s office, paddled, and sent home for three days’ suspension for fighting in class. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Two root canals, two crowns, and thousands of dollars later, I was talking to my grandmother about the incident. I will never forget her counsel that day.

“Mark, you don’t know anything about that boy. For all you know, his father beats him every day when he gets home from work. For all you know, that boy cries himself to sleep every night because of the suffering he endures in school and other pain that you know nothing about. What that boy needs is a friend, and you just piled on to his misery. You got what you deserved.”

Nana loved me enough to tell me the truth. She was a friend in every sense of that word. The Bible says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Even though Nana’s words hurt just about as much as Rick’s punch to the kisser, her counsel that day turned my anger to repentance, and my thoughts of revenge to remorse.

I need all the friends like that I can find.

Monday, April 25, 2016

We were fashioned for faith

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, will you stay with me all night?” Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “I can’t, dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.” A long silence followed. Then the little boy replied with a shaky voice, “The big sissy!”

I can feel that little boy’s pain. I remember very well lying in my bed at night, peeking out from under the covers at the closet, where I was certain a bogeyman was hiding. He was just waiting until I went to sleep before he would come out and do terrible things, like mess up my room or play with my toys. I remember always having to sleep with some kind of cover on me, even if it was just the sheet. My thinking was that if I were attacked by someone in the middle of the night, like the guy in my closet after he was finished with my toys, the sheet would protect me from harm. Of course, I would never, ever let my hand or foot hang over the edge of the bed as I was lying there. That would have been all the other bogeyman needed, the one who was hiding under my bed. He was lying down there every night just waiting for that hand or that foot to be flashed for just a split second. He would grab it if I gave him the opportunity, pull me off the bed and then it would be on. I went over and over in my mind the moves I would put on him if he grabbed me, how I would use the suplex or something else I had learned on Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, and that guy would be toast. I was scared to death, but I was not helpless. Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Dusty Rhodes had taught me well.

As I grew older, my fears changed. Now it wasn’t the bogeyman that kept me awake at night. I hardly ever thought about him lying in wait under my bed. I knew that if he ever managed to slide out of there he would be so covered in dust that I would have plenty of time to escape his clutches as he sneezed and wheezed and struggled to breathe. No, my fears as a teen were about tests and papers and sports and fitting in at school.

These days my fears are that I will not finish well. Or that one of my children will walk away from the Lord. Or that we will get the president we deserve in November, instead of the one we need. Whoever that is. Most often, though, I am reminded that the Lord has not given His children “a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control.”

Dr. E. Stanley Jones said, “I am inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not my native land; faith is. I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. I live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath—these are not my native air. But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely—these are my native air.”

Amen! I am breathing more freely all the time.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Sometimes common sense prevails

When I read this week about a dog cafĂ© opening in California, it made me reflect on Americans’ love affair with animals. I thought about a couple of stories from the not-too-distant past that reminded me that sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction. Case in point, a story several years ago out of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The Associated Press reported that a homeowner there, Luciano Mares, caught a mouse inside his house and wanted to get rid of it. “I had some leaves burning outside, so I threw it in the fire, and the mouse was on fire and ran back in the house,” Mares said.

Village Fire Chief Juan Chavez said the burning mouse ran into the house and under a window. The flames spread up from there and throughout the house.

No one was hurt inside, but the home and everything in it was destroyed. The mouse didn’t make it, either.

 “I’ve seen numerous house fires,” village Fire Department Capt. Jim Lyssy said, “but nothing as unique as this one.”

Lucky for Mr. Luciano that he doesn’t live in New Jersey. He could be facing a jail sentence to go along with his sudden loss of house and home. Ask Frank Balun. He was arrested in Hillside, N.J., for killing a rat. The rat had been eating Balun’s tomatoes, so he set a squirrel trap to catch the varmint. When he found the rat in the trap, he did the responsible thing. He called the Humane Society to come and pick it up. But when they arrived, the rat was dead.

“He was escaping,” explained Balun. “His head was sticking out. I called my friend and he said the rat would wiggle out the rest of the way if his head was poking out.”

“Danielle, my six-year-old granddaughter, was playing in the backyard,” Balun explains, “so I had to act fast. I got my broom, wrapped newspaper around the handle, looked the other way, and I hit him on the head.”

The limp hand of justice dangled a possible $1,000 fine and a six-month prison sentence over Balun’s head. Lee Bernstein, executive director of the Associated Humane Society, said, “You can kill a rat with a snap trap, or poison it, but you don’t kill a rat after you trap it humanely.”

Is it just me, or have the wheels come off the chariot? Are the inmates running the asylum? Has the country gone stark raving mad? One meme sums it up. A woman says into the phone, “No, I don’t want to come to your dog’s birthday party … freak.” Then she adds, “My cat is getting married next week.”

The Bible says that God gave mankind “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” That pretty much covers rats. If there is anything that qualifies as a “creeping thing,” it’s a rat.

Even if you don’t buy the biblical argument for man’s dominion over every other created thing, would you be willing to agree that arresting a man for killing a rat in his own tomato patch is beyond the pale?

Apparently the judge did, too. When Balun vs. the State of New Jersey came to trial, justice prevailed. The judge said, as he dismissed the case, “In law, we must hold common sense high, above all,” his arm raised like the Statue of Liberty’s. Applause rang throughout the courthouse.

I love it when common sense makes an appearance.

Monday, April 11, 2016

It All Starts With Repentance

“Hey, preacher! Come and preach to us!”

The request came from a young Kenyan who was sitting with 3 of his friends at the “guard station” outside the Kibera slum in Nairobi. I was with my friend, Pastor Japheth, waiting to catch a ride back to the guest house where I would shower and eat supper before going to the airport. It was my last day in Kenya, and it had been a full one. I had already preached and taught and answered questions for over 4 hours in Japheth’s church in the slum, and felt like I had been “rode hard and put up wet,” as the cowboys used to say.

But when I looked over at the young man who had called out to me, I saw there was some genuine interest there that he was trying to cover with a smirk and a laugh. So I walked over to where he and his friends were sitting. One of them was the guard on duty at this station, complete with khaki uniform, badge, and an AK-47. “Does that work?” I asked him playfully, pointing at the rifle. “Yes,” came the reply. “Show me!” I said, and he laughed. I was thankful he got the joke.

I turned to the young man who had asked for a sermon and said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Smiling, I added, “That’s all I have time to preach to you right now, but it is the most important sermon you will ever hear.” He shot me a quizzical look so I continued, “It was the first sermon Jesus preached, and John before him.” It was also the only sermon preached by most of the Old Testament prophets.

Jonah walked into the city of Ninevah, his skin bleached white by the stomach acids of the big fish that had swallowed him. I imagine that he had a piece of seaweed dangling off his right ear and his clothes were disheveled and slimy. Wide-eyed and determined not to disobey God again, lest a worse thing than being the cause of an upset stomach and being hurled onto a beach happen to him, Jonah preached his simple message. “In forty days the city of Ninevah will be overthrown!” The people of the city believed the message, repented of their sins, and the entire city, all 120,000 people, turned to God.

I looked at the Kenyan man who had asked for a sermon, and said, “Nothing else I could preach to you right now is more important than this message, that you need to repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The basic problem in Kenya is the same as the basic problem in the U.S. We may have more affluence, better access to education and jobs, a much more developed infrastructure. But the heart of a Kenyan and the heart of an American are exactly the same. Without a heart change, nothing else matters. African-American evangelist Tom Skinner used to say of racism, “It’s not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.” The only way to deal with any sin, not just racism, is through repentance.

I left my new friends in Kenya with some gospel tracts. As I got in the car to leave the slums, I looked over at the four, who were all intent on reading the information. I hope to see them again someday. More than that, I hope they find the one who has the power to give them new hearts. It all starts with repentance.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

My Edwards?

A couple of weeks ago I was perusing twitter as I normally do at various times throughout the day. Most of the time I find myself clicking on a Crying Jordan meme or retweeing Burk Parsons (man that guy convicts me). But this time I found a tweet from a friend of mine, Kyle Strobel. While Kyle isn't the most active twitter user, when he does post it's usually worth reading.

I call this the Edwards death stare, likely
captured immediately following his delivery of Sinners
in the Hands of an Angry God.
In this case it was simply a speech he gave at Westminster Seminary on Jonathan Edwards. For those who don't know, Kyle is a deeply devoted scholar focusing much of his studies, and has written several books on the intrigue and insights of Edwards. Being a big proponent of Edwards, I rendered it dutiful to spend 45 minutes listening to Strobel on the topic.

About 5 minutes in I found a very [positively] peculiar subject matter where Strobel speaks to the adoption of Edwards by sundry Christian groups to forge a particular agenda. For example, he speaks of individuals using Edwards to "epitomize a denomination or school of thought" and often when reading up on the contemporary corpus of Edwards writings he finds it "full of individuals seeking to use Edwards to their own ends." Much like the way pastors and scholars like use other titans of the faith, Strobel notes that using "Edwards to defend a position gives it in a sense an air of legitimacy." And to this I'd agree. But what he makes special note of is that many times those same individuals aren't reading Edwards in light of the majority of his writings. Rather, selectivity is placed on areas that assist in making ones agenda seem more, shall we say, authoritative. Interesting, to say the least.

Strobel goes on to speak to how this is handled and he seeks to broaden the viewpoint of who Edwards was and what his conviction truly were. Additional insights into who Edwards was and how he constructed his doctrine of justification and how it relates to the Reformed tradition are also highlighted. I commend the lecture to you and have linked it below for your convenience.

Also, if you're deeply interested in Edwards thought, do check out this site by Matthew Everhard called Edwards Studies. Fascinating stuff.

Monday, April 4, 2016

We do not have to live in fear

Hey, what are you afraid of? Forty-one percent say that their greatest fear is public speaking, which puts it at the top of the list. Number two is death, with eighteen percent choosing it as their greatest fear. Does that mean that most people would rather die than give a speech?

I read an article in the Times-News a number of years ago about phobias. The writer said that it is common to have fears, but it is not healthy to have phobias, which are unnatural, unhealthy fears. For a fear to be a phobia, “it must interfere with daily routine, occupation or social life.” Cynophobia is fear of dogs. Aviophobia is the fear of flying. Mysophobia is the fear of germs, and definitely widespread these days. It’s considered part of a larger malady, obsessive compulsive disorder. I had a student once who began a speech with a smile and this comment: “I bet most of you in here don’t know that there are 165 ceiling tiles in this room.” We all looked at the ceiling, right on cue. “I know there are,” she said, “because I count them every single day. I have obsessive compulsive disorder.” One of the newest fears is simply referred to as FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” It forces you to check your phone every 32 seconds for texts, emails, and social media updates.

I am not a psychologist, and there is plenty I do not understand about the fears that can cripple a person. But I am a follower of the One who commanded his disciples many times to “fear not.” I believe with all of my heart that if I fear God (meaning, reverence him), there is literally nothing else in the universe to be afraid of. Why should I fear the future if Jesus has promised that nothing will ever snatch me from his hand? Why should I fear a shortfall if God has promised to provide, whether it is through plenty or through want? Why should I fear rejection if God has promised me that in fact I will be rejected by men if I follow him? If suffering is part of his plan, and the Bible clearly teaches that it is, then why fear it? Why should I fear death if I know that death is not an end but a beginning, a portal to eternity?

One famous circus acrobat said, “There is a very special relationship between the flyer and the catcher. The flyer must ‘let go,’ and the catcher must ‘catch.’ The flyer’s job is to let go and remain as still as possible as he is flying through the air to the catcher. He must wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air. The flyer must never try to catch the catcher. He must wait in absolute trust.”

I like that picture and believe we can apply it to our fears. It takes trust to let go of fear. Fear makes me hold on to the trapeze, but faith in the one who will catch me gives me the courage to let go.

When Jesus met his disciples on the day he was resurrected from the dead, his word to them was, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

If Jesus can conquer death and the grave, he can certainly handle all of my fears. He can take yours as well.