Monday, February 24, 2020

Normal Is Highly Overrated

We are only seven weeks out from Easter. After an Easter sunrise service several years ago, one of the little boys in the church asked me, “Isn’t it about time for the normal people to come?” I laughed as I considered a host of responses to him. There’s the comedienne’s book title that comes to mind: “Normal is just a setting on your dryer.” I thought about saying in response, “Do I not look normal to you?” But the possibility that I might get an unfiltered response gave me pause. I finally just laughed and said, “Yes, I think the normal ones will be showing up soon.” He smiled and went to look for them.

This encounter made me think about what it means to be “normal.” The simple dictionary definition is “conforming to the standard or the common type.” A normal softball for play in the church leagues must conform to a standard compression. I get that. Those who have jurisdiction over the sport have chosen that standard. They can change it if they wish. The normal speed limit on the interstate between here and Wilmington is 70mph. I get that. Those who have authority over the traffic laws of North Carolina have set that speed limit. They can change those laws as they so desire. A normal temperature for a healthy human being is 98.6. I get that, too. That temperature was chosen by our Creator.

A normal response to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to the dictionary definition of “normal,” is yawning indifference. The normal people did not show up at church last Easter, nor will they on any Sunday, precisely because they are normal. They have conformed to the standard. Even many who will attend church this Easter will do so, by their own admission, because they want to see the fashion parade, or because they know there would be more music, or because they figure the church will be decorated, or because it's tradition, or because it's the least they can do and maintain their "Christian" status, or because they feel guilty. They are part of the holly and lily crowd who goes to church every Christmas and every Easter without fail.

A normal attitude toward the Bible is that it contains some good stories and even some important truths, but at the end of the day mist believe that it is just a book, written by men. “Read it every day?” the normal people ask. “The only thing I read every day is Twitter and email.”

A normal attitude toward Christianity itself is that it is one way among many, and that any who would suggest otherwise are narrow-minded bigots who would impose their “standard of morality” upon the rest of the world. A missionary in Turkey was explaining the truth of the resurrection of Christ. He said, "I am traveling, and have reached a place where the road branches off in two ways; I look for a guide, and find two men: one dead, and the other alive. Which of the two must I ask for direction, the dead or the living?" "Oh, the living," cried the people. "Then," said the missionary, "why send me to Mohammed, who is dead, instead of to Christ, who is alive!”

The other “abnormal” people will show up this Easter, and every Sunday before and after. Together, we will worship the One who calls us to be anything but normal, the one who rose from the dead to conquer sin, death, and the grave.

Normal is highly overrated.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Getting Ready for Church

When I read 1 Timothy, a letter Paul wrote to a young pastor 2000 years ago, I marvel at how timely it is…and how practical. Paul addresses men and women in chapter 2, giving encouragement to both sexes for how they are to prepare themselves for public worship. Men get ready to come to church by checking their hands. If they are clenched in fists of rage, or shoved into their pockets because of apathy, they are not ready. If they are locked behind their backs because they have abdicated leadership and are being led by their wives, or if they are steeped in a sinful lifestyle, they are not ready. It wasn’t hands Paul was concerned with, but he says you can tell a lot about a man’s heart by looking at his hands. If they can be lifted in prayer, without wrath and without doubting, that expression matches his profession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The word for wrath in this text means, “anger as a state of mind.” It doesn’t mean you had an argument in the car with your wife on the way to church, men. That can be quickly confessed. It points to a slow burn, an angry, simmering state of mind that always threatens to erupt. This is the man who is always looking for a fight, quick to defend himself at the slightest provocation. Or the man who lives to punish someone who has hurt him. That’s good old, garden-variety bitterness. Except it’s not good. And the only fruit from that garden is poison. What can we do about this? Preach the gospel to ourselves every day. Remind ourselves of the grace that was poured out on us through the brutal death of our Savior. Can we possibly look to the cross and at the same time hold onto towering rage or seething bitterness?

Now Paul turns his attention to the women, except he doesn’t talk about how women are to pray, but how they are to dress. There is nothing in the text, or anywhere in the Scriptures, really, about how a man should dress for worship. Perhaps this is because God has given men and women different desires, for the most part, with regard to clothing. Answer this question: Mostly, men dress for church to A. Be comfortable but not sloppy, or B. To express something about themselves. Right, the answer is A. A man dresses for utilitarian reasons: what can I get by with, or, what will my wife let me get by with? How does a woman dress for church? A woman’s dress is an expression of who she is and what she believes. The question in this text is not whether a woman should dress to look her best. The issue is how she chooses to adorn herself, and Paul has two exhortations on this. He says, women, make sure you dress with modesty and propriety. When a woman or young woman dresses immodestly in the worship service or anywhere in public, she seems to be offering something that only belongs to her husband, or to her future husband. It would be a good exercise for every woman and young woman to ask her husband or father, “What kind of clothing do women wear that tends to make you stumble?” Get an honest answer, ladies, and then avoid dressing that way yourselves, for the gospel’s sake.

Paul has much more to say in this powerful little letter. Study it out for yourself, you who believe the Bible.

Monday, February 3, 2020

God Is There in the Darkest Hours of Your Life

Tony grew up in a legalistic home with a workaholic father who was never pleased with his work. “I was awkward and uncoordinated,” Tony said, “and when I was unable to meet his expectations, my reward was a fist. I was punished for misunderstanding what my father wanted me to do. I was punished when I asked a question. I was punished when I didn’t work fast enough. I was punished when my awkwardness caused me to knock things over or drop things. I was punished when I told the truth, and when I told a lie trying to avoid more punishment. I was punished! I was punished!” In time, Tony came to live in terror of his father--not just the beatings, but also the verbal abuse. Tony’s father would tower over the trembling boy, his face contorted in rage, shouting what a stupid, incompetent idiot he was—as he punched him again and again. By the time he reached high school, Tony had decided to commit suicide. The only thing that stopped him was a fear that God might be real, and might send him to hell. So Tony began to search out the question of God’s existence. “Before I killed myself,” he said, “I had to be sure.”

Tony still went to church, at the insistence of his parents, and one Sunday a gaunt, shabby man with a strong foreign accent appeared on the church doorstep. Tony showed him in, not knowing that this man held the key to the answers he was seeking. The man had a good reason to look so haggard—he had survived 14 years in that hell on earth known as a communist prison camp in Romania. His crime? He was a pastor who preached the Gospel. On the man’s neck and head, Tony could see the deep scars from the torture he had endured. This was Richard Wurmbrand, and as he shared his story, a flicker of hope was kindled in Tony’s heart. Here was a man who had been beaten just like he was, in fact far worse, and understood the searing pain of not wanting to live any more. Yet he had a profound faith in a good God who loves us. “He should have been full of fury at his captors,” Tony said. “That I could understand. But he had responded in love. This wasn’t just a Sunday ritual. This was a life-giving power.” (adapted from “Total Truth,” Nancy Pearcey)

Tony’s life began to change that day as he witnessed the power of God in Richard Wurmbrand. Both of these men had been in prison. One was tortured by communists. The other was tortured by a father who hid behind a religious facade as he unleashed his anger on his son, very nearly destroying him. Oh, but this is the good news, dear reader. Tony did not survive because of his “indomitable human spirit.” No. He was rescued by God as he heard the testimony of another who had been rescued. I know some of you have suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of those who were entrusted by God with your life. The very ones whom God appointed to teach and train and love you used you for their own sick and twisted purposes. Learn from Tony and Richard. Look to God. He has not abandoned you, nor has He forgotten you. 

Another who suffered torture for the sake of the Gospel said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Not the communists. Not an abusive father. “Nor any other created thing.”

God is there.