Monday, August 28, 2017

Don’t indict Christ because of Christians

The heinous actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago with a friend over lunch. He was born into a different faith tradition than mine. I am a Christian, but not because I was born into it. Actually, you cannot be born a Christian, but that’s another column for another day.

Anyway, this friend of mine challenged me with a question that is popular among skeptics. “Millions of people have been killed in the name of religion,” my friend said. “Even Christians have killed many in the name of Christ. How do you explain that?”

“That’s a great question,” I replied, as an idea came to my mind that I had never thought before, and it came with that sweet assurance that I have had many times in such situations. I have come to trust these little bits of inspiration as being from the Lord.

I said, “OK, let’s look at it this way. Suppose you started getting a following because you are a really cool guy and everybody wants to be just like you. (Not that Jesus should be followed because he’s cool, and actually no one can follow him unless he changes them first!) But back to your story: pretty soon, there are people flocking to you, trying to look like you and act like you. The others in the world start calling them ‘Sherifans’ because they follow you, Boris Sherifa (not his real name). You tell them, “There are three simple things I think you should do in life. Wear red.” (He was wearing a red shirt.) “Eat tuna wraps.” (That’s what he was having for lunch). “And be kind to people.” (This guy is as kind and courteous as they come.)

He was smiling at me, enjoying the story and his fictional fame, but wondering where I was going with this.

“OK, so you have this huge following, and everything is great. Until one day, one of the ‘Sherifans’ sees a guy wearing green, eating a chili burger, and cursing his waiter. He follows him out of the restaurant and kills him, thinking he is doing you a favor by eliminating a ‘nonbeliever.’” I stopped and said, “Do you see the point, Boris? If Christians killed Jews or Muslims during the Crusades, thinking they were doing Christ a favor, does that nullify the Christian faith? Certainly they did what was wrong, but does that mean Jesus is no better than they? Does their wrong action make the truth that Jesus taught about himself any less valid? I don’t think so. Does it change the fact that he alone has risen from the dead? Not one iota.

“You cannot judge a system of beliefs by the actions of those who claim to follow those beliefs, but really violate them at their very core. Those who claim to love Jesus but hate their fellow man because of his race, nationality, or anything else, do not really love Jesus. But, listen! The followers of Jesus Christ are not the standard. Christ himself is the standard, and the Bible says that God ‘has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained.’ Jesus is the man. It is his righteousness, not mine or the Pope’s or Billy Graham’s, that is the standard. It is Christ alone we must follow, for he alone can save us.”

At the end of our lunch, “Boris” said he appreciated the way I explained things to him, and that he would be asking “Whoever is out there” to show him the way to go.

“I really want to know,” he said. “Do you think he will show me the truth?”

I believe God will. He loves to answer the prayers of those who are truly seeking after him.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Whatever fills you controls you

Have you ever seen anybody who was filled with rage? The anger that fills them also controls them. I remember as a teenager going on a double date with my cousin. Halfway through the date, I found out the girl I was with had an insanely jealous boyfriend. He was also big, she said. “And,” she added, “he has a nasty temper.” I figured that to be a deadly combination, so I filed that information away, reminding myself to avoid this boyfriend of hers at all costs. We were driving home later that night when all of a sudden my cousin said, “Uh-oh.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked, thinking maybe we were running out of gas. “Don’t look now,” he said, “but Marty is right on our tail.” I looked anyway and saw a car about two inches from our bumper, and we were doing 60 on the interstate.

“Who’s Marty?” I asked. “Uh…that’s my boyfriend,” my date answered.

Now, up until this point I had only done one thing I regretted, and that was to go out with this girl in the first place. But now I became a willing participant in a series of stupid mistakes. May I say to any teens who happen to be reading this: “Don’t try this at home…or on the interstate.” My cousin floored the car, a 1972 Camaro Z28, and we took off like a rocket. We were going over 90 mph with Marty right on our tail, and it is only by the grace of God, gentle readers, that I am here to tell the story. We finally reached our exit, careened onto the ramp, and headed for my cousin’s house. Marty was only seconds behind us. My cousin realized we weren’t going to outrun him, so he said something like, “Good luck, Mark!” I was shaking with adrenaline and fear, and could hear the words “big…nasty temper…insanely jealous” reverberating in my skull. My legs felt like Jello and my mouth was dry as dust.

About that time my cousin slammed on the brakes in his carport, and I managed to fall out of the car to face my attacker, who was jumping out of his car as it slid to a stop in the driveway.

Now you have to realize that at this time in my life, I had not yet had my growth spurt. In fact, I still haven’t had it, but I was a skinny 16-year-old then, only about 5’ 8” and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. As I recall it, Marty seemed to tower over me by at least a foot. But what I remember most of all was the purple rage that consumed him. He was so filled with wrath that he had no control of his body. He couldn’t swing his fists because the anger controlled them. He couldn’t speak, but sputtered and fumed, because anger had his tongue. As he stumbled toward me I bent over, and he pounded me on my back. The blows were nothing, dissipated by the rage that controlled him.

I saw something that day I will never forget. Whatever fills you controls you, whether it is wine, anger, lust or greed. That’s why the Bible says, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man. Lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” Or, I might add, lest he rearrange your face.

I am so thankful the Lord spared my life that day, and gave me a picture of what anger can do to a man’s soul.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Work out, not for, your own salvation

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This command in Paul’s letter to the Philippians has caused many to stumble, to make an argument for works-righteousness, and even to believe that what Jesus did was not enough. That he needs my help to save me. We know that’s nonsense, and the plain meaning of this text makes perfect sense. Paul says work out your salvation. He doesn’t say work in your salvation. Or work up your salvation. Or work for your salvation! No, we are to work it out. In other words, what God has secured in you through His grace given on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, work it out in every way and on every day. It’s what we do in our marriages, right? Were you done when you said, “I do”? No, you were just getting started. And for the rest of your life, you are working out your marriage in fear. And sometimes with trembling!

If you are working out your salvation as a father, it means you are learning to bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. You cannot learn that without starting to do it badly. But you have to start. When my children were very young, they each had trouble learning to ride a bike. They fell. They scraped their knees. They cried. But they kept getting back on the bike until it became second nature to them. Get back on the bike, Dad, and lead your family in the things that are most important. If you are working out your salvation as a student, it means you study. You work hard. If you are working out your salvation as a brother or sister in Christ in your church family, it means that when you are offended, you don’t hold onto that. You let it go quickly, and if you can’t let it go, you go to the one who offended you and you work it out. And yes, it will require work, sacrifice, and discipline. Tim Challies had a good word on this recently:

“I want to have 10 percent body fat. I set that goal a while ago and even managed to get really close to reaching it. But eventually I found out that I want to have 10 percent body fat just a bit less than I want to have 13 percent. There’s a key difference between the two: While 13 percent requires moderate effort to gain and retain, 10 percent requires strict discipline. I soon learned I just didn’t want the goal enough to put in the effort to achieve it. I didn’t meet my desire with discipline.” Then he adds, “I often consider the people I’ve known who set an example of unusual godliness. I think of well-known Christian men who lived godly lives in the public eye and who carried out unblemished ministries. I think of unknown and unnoticed women who lived equally godly lives far outside the public eye. What did they have in common? What was the key to their holiness? I believe it was their discipline. They disciplined themselves for the highest godliness. They were spiritual athletes who ensured their highest desires supplanted their baser desires. They achieved godliness because they aimed at godliness.”

We all have work to do if we are to aim at God’s best for us. Thankfully, we are never alone. Paul adds, “for it is God who works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Moldova, men and ministry

You can find an article online that was published last year in The Telegraph entitled, “25 amazing things you probably didn’t know about Moldova.” It’s a good read, and though I have been to the tiny country in Eastern Europe twice, I learned a lot from the article. That being said, my oldest son and I didn’t go there because it is the least visited country in Europe. Or because they have great wine. Or because the people speak two and sometimes three languages. We went because we were invited by World Team Moldova, a missions organization committed to coming alongside churches and their leaders to encourage and equip them.

Micah and I had a great time in Chisinau, the capital city, as we spent five days on the ground meeting with men who were invited to hear us address two topics with them. Our first mission was to encourage men to take up the mantle of spiritual leadership in their homes. In Moldova, as in many other places in the world, men mostly take a passive role in the home. If they lead at all, it is often tyrannical, and sometimes abusive. Micah and I shared from the Scriptures and from personal experience how they could lead in a different way, through love and through service. We encouraged them to study the Bible and to teach their families what they are learning. We challenged them to pray with and for their wives. We pleaded with them to demonstrate in word and deed how much they love their wives and their children. We prodded them to protect their families from false doctrine.

We exhorted them to provide for their families, not just financially, but by preparing their children to be adults. “You are not raising children,” we said to the men, “you are raising adults. More than that, you are raising parents, who will, like you, invest in the next generation. Prepare them well, for the sake of their children, and for the sake of Moldova.” In each session, we had to work through a translator. I was telling the story of a young man in England who years ago wrote in his diary, “Went fishing with my father. Best day of my life.” The man translating into Russian misunderstood diary, and said that the young man had diarrhea. He was quickly corrected by three others in the room who understood English, but it was a reminder that when you don’t know the language, you are absolutely at the mercy of your interpreter. In this case, it ended well and gave us a lighter moment. By the way, the point of the story was that this young man’s father was a diplomat and historians found his diary to see what he had written on that day. It was this: “Went fishing with my son. A day wasted.”

Our second mission was to encourage church leaders and pastors to look again at what the New Testament says about the importance of a plurality of elders in the church. The model in Moldova for church leadership, as in much of the world, is a solo pastor at the top, and a board of people under him who assist in the ministry. We spent time looking at a different way, which is on display clearly in the book of Acts and in the letters Paul, Peter, and others wrote to the churches.

We have been invited back to Moldova, and I look forward to continuing our relationship with the people in this beautiful country.