The Future of America on Election Night

It’s election day in America and it remains to be seen whether or not America’s future is bright or dismal.  Both sides claim that nothing less than this is at stake and that the stakes have never been higher in the history of our nation.  I agree with a blogger I read a couple months ago who observed that probably the voters and non-voters (women and slaves) of 1860 wouldn’t agree with our assessment of this election when the preservation of the Union and the question of whether or not this nation would continue to allow human beings to own other human beings hung in the balance.  I’m not downplaying the importance of this election, just pleading for some perspective.

My random thoughts on this election day:

  1. I am thankful.  I am thankful to God for allowing me to live in a nation where I get to participate in the process of choosing government leaders.  I am thankful to the thousands upon thousands of Americans who have spilled their blood on battlefields to secure and preserve this privilege.  That cost brings a sacredness to this privilege.
  2. I am optimistic.  It is an optimism that is not born in politics but theology.  Whether or not the guy I voted for wins or loses I know that overwhelming victory is mine through Jesus Christ who loved me (Rom. 8:37) and that this victory makes any election pale in comparison.
  3. I am sad.  The political gulf that exists between whites and people of color in America exists in the church.  I am coming to see more clearly why, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and echoed by evangelical pastor Tony Evans, “11:00 o’clock Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour of the week.”  In 2010, Time magazine published a story (you can read it here) on this divide noting that fewer than 8% of American congregations have a racial mix.  It is sobering to realize that a magazine of such national stature has embarrassingly observed that Christian churches seem to do worse at positive racial relations than the world does.  Politics is one of the things that keeps black and white Christians divided into separate churches because, I guess, it’s just plain easier to hang around people who agree with your politics.  I’m sad over that; sometimes I’m just plain mad.
  4. I am undeterred.  No matter who wins the election, my work remains the same.  I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God that saves sinners from hell.  I will shepherd the flock committed to my care, working to anchor us in God’s truth, and leading us to love the vast diversity of people around us enough to reach out to them.
  5. I am prayerful.  As I obey God’s Word and pray for the President, the Congress and courts, I am praying that they would leave Christians alone to live out our faith in Christ (1 Timothy 2:2).  I am going to pray for moral courage and common sense to begin to rule more people in Washington, D.C. when it comes to curbing the treachery of abortion.  I am going to pray for Democrats and Republicans to figure out some way to get some helpful things accomplished for our nation.  I am going to pray for wisdom to speak God’s truth and righteousness in such a way as to not unnecessarily create enemies out of the people I’m here to reach because of being reckless with my words.

My projection on this election night is that the work I’ve been left here to do will get harder, humanly speaking, and will become more unpopular with the general populace.  But I will remember this, nothing ever gets harder for God.

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Bullying the Chikin

The past decade plus has brought too many reprehensible stories of bullying that have resulted in suicides and retaliatory killings.  As I’ve always understood it, a bully is stereotypically a big-mouthed brute who tries to rule the playground or the lunchroom by intimidating others with verbal and physical threats.  He particularly delights in going after littler guys to make himself look big, or after potentially threatening people to make himself look powerful.  If the bully isn’t strong enough himself to back up his threats then he has his henchmen who are ready to step in to give the needed show of force.

For a more thought-out definition with better information, I turned to the Wikipedia article on “bullying.”  Here is some of what I found described there.

  • Bullying is aggressive behavior that expresses itself by the use of force or coercion to affect others.
  • It can include verbal harassment and may be directed repeatedly toward particular victims sometimes on the ground of religion.
  • The victim of bullying is sometimes referred to as a “target.”
  • One of the basic types of bullying is verbal and it typically involves subtle methods of coercion such as intimidation.
  • Bullies may have “lieutenants” who willingly assist the primary bully in his or her bullying activities.
  • Bullying can occur in any context where humans interact with each other including interaction between social groups.

So, there is this family who has built a successful business by having a cow encourage people to “EAT MOR CHIKIN.”  The president of this business is a Christian who believes the Bible, and that has led him to conclude that gay marriage is wrong.  Mind you, he doesn’t deny gay people courteous service in his restaurants, nor does he deny them employment based on their sexual preferences.  He just happens to believe homosexuality is wrong and that marriage, as defined by God, is a relationship that exists between a man and a woman.  For having the audacity to say that, this man and his business have been targeted by the gay community and politically-correct politicians who, with their willing lieutenants in the media, have engaged in a barrage of hateful verbal assaults, seeking to intimidate this business owner into adopting and advancing their agenda.  It isn’t acceptable to them to just be courteously tolerated in their beliefs and behaviors; they demand outright approval, and anything less than that is equated with hate and therefore a legitimate target for their assaults.  These supposed perveyors of tolerance expose themselves as nothing more than a gang of intolerant bullies who prey upon a particular religious segment of our society.

That’s what went through my mind when I read about the nonsensical controversy that erupted over Chick-fil-A’s president Dan Cathy’s affirmation of a biblical definition of marriage.  It is a controversy ignited by gay-rights advocates, grand-standed by politicians who intend to shut these restaurants out of their communities, and advanced by their media lieutenants.  When I heard the story I thought, you’re kidding me, right?  A successful American business owner who makes really good chicken sanwiches, waffle fries, and lemonade is not allowed to voice his beliefs regarding marriage from the Bible without hysterical screeching from those who believe otherwise?  Wow!  There really are those in America who don’t want people to have the right to believe what they want to believe and say it, who are willing to target those people, and use bullying techniques to intimidate them into silence with verbal harassment.  Perhaps the most amazing part of this is that those who engage in these bullying methods are portrayed as the tolerant ones.

The natural anger this story stirs up inside of me is quelled when I remember one simple reality: that’s our world.  As a Christian who believes God’s Word, I get it that America is part of a world system that doesn’t love or respect the God who has revealed himself in the Bible.  I get it that as a Christian I am a foreigner in this world even though I live in America.  I get it that I am not to be surprised that this world doesn’t simply ignore God’s Word, but actually hates it and hates its messengers.  Jesus said that would be the case.  I get it that I am called, by the grace and mercy of the gospel, to be tolerant of intolerant people, even, if necessary, to turn the cheek to bullies.

When I use the word “tolerant” I am referring to the old definition: “respecting people and treating them kindly even when you believe they are wrong.”  I can disagree with someone and believe they are wrong but still treat them kindly and respectfully.  I can even be friends with someone who believes differently from me.  But that’s not the definition of tolerance used today.  The new definition, “never regarding anyone else’s opinion as wrong,” means that even suggesting that someone’s belief or opinion is wrong is intolerant.  I believe any individual has the right to believe what he or she wants to believe.  I would hope for the same in return, which seems reasonable and for most of its history, has been a very American thing to do.

However, I also get it that if what I believe actually happens to be the truth (truth being defined as that which corresponds with reality), then there will be those who don’t want it spoken because when everything is said and done, truth wins.  Since the one operating the levers of this world’s system is a liar, I am not surprised by the bullying techniques used to silence truth.

So, in the meantime, I will be thankful for people like Dan Cathy who will not be intimidated into silence.  I will pray for the courage to do the same.  But at the same time I will love those who believe differently than I believe, and behave differently than I behave.  I will resist the temptation to view myself as superior to them.  I will not be drawn into their intolerant hatred.  I will be sad for them for I know that one day they will stand before the God they ignore and reject, and on that day their bullying won’t work.  They, with all their lieutenants, will be silenced once and for all.  For you see, while I believe in an individual’s right to believe what they want, I also believe that accompanying that right is the fact that every individual will answer to God for what they have chosen to believe and they will reap the consequences.

Honestly, on a human level, there is satisfaction in that for me when I read stories like those cited above.  One day Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and Jim Henson’s muppets will realize they were wrong and Dan Cathy was right.  But on a deeper level, the feeling is sorrow.  I know they spurn that sorrow, but I can’t help but pray,  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they say!”

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Photoblog – Camp Patmos, Kelleys Island, OH

Random photographs that I’ve taken at Camp Patmos, located on Kelleys Island, Ohio.

Sunrise 1

Sunrise 2

Sunrise 3

Shoreline

Dining Hall and Lakeview

The swimming pool

Sailing

The lighthouse at sunset

The lighthouse at the camp

The lighthouse

Looking across the bay at sunset to the Perry Peace Monument

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Photoblog – Nature 1

I haven’t had time to write lately, so I thought I’d share from one of my few hobbies – photography.  I know, every photographer with a digital camera these days thinks he is a professional photographer and is sure he is going to get his “million-dollar” shot.  I haven’t taken mine yet.  Just the same, the following are pictures of flowers in our backyard that I took as I was experimenting with the macro setting on my camera (I took a class in May that helped me actually figure out where my macro setting was).  My wife made these pictures into some note cards.  I noticed on the back of those cards that she put my blogsite so I thought it would be good to put the pictures up on the site so that anyone who actually checked out the site from the card would find some pictures.  So, here goes for your enjoyment.  The names, by the way, are her inventions – a little too girlie for me, but hey, I just take the pictures and let her do the creativity.

– sunlit peony –

– rose petal perfection –

– rose perfection –

– rosebud solo –

– peony perfection  –

– peony in white –

– peony in pink –

– purple princess –

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Remembering the Fallen

It’s Memorial Day here in the USA.  We enjoyed our annual local parade with the high school marching band, the VFW, mounted police, emergency vehicles with sirens blaring, an active soldier who was the grand marshall, one lonely politician decked out in his politician-style jeans and long sleeved red shirt (on a really hot day), lots of Little League teams with candy flying in every direction, the Amercian flag many times, and our church’s float that replicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  It’s the unofficial beginning of summer so the barbecues are going, the swimming pools are open, the radios are blaring, and the parties are just getting started.

But what we celebrate today is not the launch of summer fun.  Today we remember sacrifice.  Today we remember true heroism.  We enjoy many freedoms in this nation and it’s worth remembering why we have those freedoms.  As much as politicians like to accept the credit, they didn’t secure these freedoms.  Pop stars and athletes didn’t secure these freedoms for us.  It wasn’t academia, that has all kinds of theories about what freedom is and isn’t and who ought to have and who shouldn’t, that did the necessary deed to give themselves those very freedoms.  It wasn’t entrepreneurs with innovative business plans, nor was it preachers across the land lauding the gift of freedom.  No, it wasn’t any of these.  It was men and women like my Uncle Stanley Geraldson who died on October 10, 1944 when his bomber was hit by an aerial burst bomb while on a mission and crashed in Borneo.  If you want to genuinely celebrate your freedom and thank those who actually secured it, go the the cemeteries and look at the markers decorated with American flags.  Go to the VA hospitals and see the wounded soldiers.  Look at those who fought for freedom and lived to talk about it, men like my dad who served in the South Pacific, and Frank Valentine (a member of my church) was fought in Europe and was awarded a Purple Heart.  They’re the ones who made our freedoms possible.  They’re the ones who left home and family, literally risking all for the cause of defending freedom.

The words that Abraham Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address apply not just to the soldiers of the Civil War, but to all who have fallen in battle for the securing and sustaining of our freedoms.  He called them “these honored dead” from whom “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”  He continued with the exhortation that the only appropriate response to their ultimate sacrifice was that we “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

How our nation needs “a new birth of freedom” and an accompanying appreciation for the responsibility attached to it.  May we not waste our freedoms on trite and selfish pursuits.  This freedom cost dearly, and it is a price few of us have had to pay.  We have it at others’ expense.  Honor them and their sacrifice by wisely using what they’ve given.

It bugs me when people take credit for what others have done.  So today, don’t thank the politicians for your freedom.  Don’t thank the rock stars or the ball players.  Don’t thank the professors or the preachers.  Thank the soldiers.  But above all, thank God.

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“Celebrity Pastors”

I just returned from a conference that centered on the Gospel.  It featured some well-known preachers, what some might call “big-name” pastors; others might use the description “celebrity pastors.”  In fact, I’ve heard one of these pastors described as having the status of “rock star” among young evangelicals.”  You can check out that conference here.   In addition to the plenary sessions there were several panel discussions, one of which took up the topic of “Celebrity Pastors: “Indecent Exposure?”  The discussion centered on the celebrity-like status achieved by pastors who typically (1) lead large churches, (2) author books, (3) serve on influential boards and councils, all of which give them considerable name recognition and influence in the evangelical community, resulting in them (4) being sought-after speakers.

The 40-minute discussion revolved around whether or not this celebrity phenomenon was a good thing or a bad thing.  It was impossible to delve deeply into the subject with the time constraints.  There was open and honest dialogue among the five panelists, several of whom would be placed into this celebrity category.  One panelist raised the question as to whether the conference itself contributed to this celebrity-pastor phenomenon by scheduling the “big names” to address the 8,000 registered attendees, knowing they would draw in the crowds.  He expressed the opinion that predictably turning to the big names to address the big crowds feeds this celebrity craze.  He tossed out a challenge that, to make a visible statement against celebrity pastors, the conference organizers invite a “no-name,” common, ordinary pastor to preach to the thousands at a future conference.  His remark was applauded by some.  But not by me.

It is true that we live in a celebrity-crazed culture and I detest it.  But does celebrity equal sinful or does being popular equal being prideful?  Is it wrong to become famous?  Of course it depends on what one is famous for, but this discussion isn’t about wannabe celebrities who thrust themselves into the limelight every chance they get, who plaster their faces on the covers of their books, and who insist on Perrier in the pulpit.  No, the men at this conference were men who have risen to notoriety through powerful preaching that is faithful to the God’s Word, and effective, yet humble, leadership.  Is it wrong to have thousands who want to hear and learn from and even follow a person like that?

I sometimes get the impression from the non-famous that fame is wrong; that somehow the only way one achieves fame is by compromising important things and being driven by ego.  Our world (if television is any indication of our world) is over-populated with under-talented and over-confident narcissists.  But that doesn’t mean every famous person has walked that pathway to get to where they are.  Becoming famous, in and of itself, is neither righteous nor evil.  It’s worth noting that a celebrity doesn’t achieve that  status alone.  Their accomplishments may make them a candidate, but it’s a clamoring public that casts the deciding votes.

I am okay with the fact that there are pastors who rise to higher levels of recognition than other pastors, whose ministries reach farther than other’s.  I am fine with the fact that I pastor a church of 200 plus while other pastors in the area lead churches of 2,000 plus. I am okay with not being a best-selling author (though writing a book is on my bucket list).  I’m not jealous of them.  I’m not suspicious that they’ve compromised something important to get there.  I am thankful for the reach of their ministries into so many lives.  I don’t envy their speaking schedules or their fame.  I don’t think that is due to my being an unmotivated or under-achieving person.

So why am I really okay with, even thankful for, “celebrity pastors” and why do I think it’s unfair to be perjorative with the label “celebrity” when referring to them?

  1. The Church’s History.  There have been celebrity pastors from the beginning.  The apostles were the most famous Christians of the first century, and it didn’t take long for other teachers to begin to rise to prominence and popularity.  Can it really be said that Paul, even in his own day, was not famous among the existing churches?  What about Martin Luther and John Calvin?  What about George Whitefield who was the most celebrated preacher in Britain and America in the 18th century, one time preaching to a crowd of more than 30,000?  By every standard of today’s “celebrity pastors,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one.  By the age of 21 he was one of the most popular preachers in 19th-century London.  Thousands filled the auditorium where he preached every Sunday and it’s estimated he preached to more than 10 million people in his lifetime.  His sermons were transcribed, published and sent around the world on a weekly basis.  And there was D. L. Moody, so popular that the President of the United States came to hear him preach.  Every generation in the church’s history has had men extra-ordinarily gifted by God to affect the lives of numbers beyond the ordinary.  The current generation is no different.  Today’s celebrity pastors walk in honorable footsteps.
  2. Jesus’ Parable of the Talents.  In this parable, a master gave five talents to one servants and only one to another.  Seriously, 5 to 1.  You tell me who was given some advantages.  The bottom line was the master gave the talents however he chose and the recipients were responsible to use what came from the master for the master.  One pastor may be given great communication ability, excellent writing skills, natural leadership gifts, a magnetic personality, and (I need a fifth…) a double-portion of the spirit of Elijah, while another pastor is just given the ability to preach.  Is that fair?  That’s not even a valid question.  Each is to use what he is given, and accept the fact that quantities of giftedness, passion, aptitudes, personality, and experiences given to any singular guy won’t be the same as those given to another.
  3. The Holy Spirit’s Gifting.  The Holy Spirit distributes gifts for ministry “as He wills.”  Every pastor is gifted however the Holy Spirit decides he will be gifted.  This has nothing to do with personal or pastoral worth.  It has everything to do with divine assignments.  Some pastors are gifted by God for ministry beyond, sometimes way beyond their own congregations.  That call belongs to the Head of the Church and the Spirit’s work.  What He gives to one He has no obligation to give to all.
  4. The Faithful Pastor’s Responsibility.  A pastor is to provide an example worthy of being emulated.  Can a pastor have too many people watching him, too many wanting to hear him preach, too many reading what he writes, or too many following him?  Of course not.  And besides, he’s not really in control of that.  At some point the number of people watching, learning, and following a pastor moves him into the celebrity category.
  5. God’s Sovereignty.  I trust in the sovereignty of God (illustrated in the parable of the talents and the Holy Spirit’s gifting).  How that applies to this discussion is this: I wouldn’t want to go to a conference and hear me preach.  I actually prefer to go to a conference and hear somebody better than me preach.  Going to a conference and hearing someone like me wouldn’t encourage me in my ordinariness.  I am not saying God could not use that person in my life because He could.  I’m just saying that I don’t go to conferences every week, nor every year for that matter.  I’m not going to go to a conference featuring the “ordinary.”  I live with that every day of my life.  Now here’s the sovereignty of God part.  If I really had something to say that 8,000 people needed to hear me say and that God wanted me to say to them, I believe God would put me on the platform before those 8,000 to say it.  If that platform isn’t given to me I am just fine with accepting the fact that it’s not a platform God wants to give to me, though it will be a platform He gives to another.  There’s no place for jealousy in the presence of God’s sovereignty.

So for me personally, I don’t see anything gained by by having a fellow “ordinary,” unknown pastor invited to preach in a big-venue conference.  I don’t seek it.  I don’t need that kind of validation for the legitimacy of ordinary ministry and ministers.  If that’s under-achieving then God will have to convict me of that.  Perhaps the only regret I have with not being one of these really gifted pastors is this: I feel for my congregation.  If these “celebrity pastors” so stir my soul, so feed me, so challenge me, and so inspire me, what might my congregation be like if they had that kind of pastor speaking into their lives every week?  I’m not saying that to rag on myself.  I say it because I love my congregation and I want the best for them.  I believe I’m where God wants me and that means I’m the pastor for this flock, not someone more famous or more gifted than me, for now anyway.  I don’t feel I’m missing out.  I just hope my congregation isn’t.

I thank God for the kind of celebrity pastors who don’t see themselves as celebrities and whose ministries bless way beyond what any of them ever dreamed.  They truly are God’s special gifts to His Church.

P.S. If you’d like to read a response of the panel member most skeptical of “celebrity pastors” to what he heard and experienced at the conference, you can read it here.  He rightly concluded that this particular conference was not about featuring celebrity pastors but serving ordinary pastors.

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Strength

Held in its unyielding clutch he released himself from death, and a horrible death at that.  To make sure eyewitnesses would see that the his formerly occupied burial niche was empty, he tossed aside the two-ton stone sealing off the opening allowing them to enter.  It all happened in a flash that left veteran guards paralyzed with fear and shaking in their boots.  It was one of those displays of raw power and uncontestable strength as a dead man came back to life.

The last enemy standing is often the last standing because it is the nastiest, or the strongest, or the most clever, or the one with the greatest survival instincts, able to dodge the blows and outmaneuver the adversary.  Death is that kind of enemy.  It is the “last enemy to be destroyed,” according to 1 Corinthians 15:26, the last enemy standing.  And what an enemy it is.  Death has bested every human being that ever lived and it still is at an astonishing rate of more than 150,000 per day.  Sometimes it comes with great violence and forewarning, and other times it simply sneaks in quietly and does its dirty work.  There is no place on Earth able to hold death at bay.  None can resist it.  The longest survivor was a character named Methuselah.  It took death 969 years to beat him, but it did.  Death conquered Samson, one of the strongest men to ever live.  Death felled a giant named Goliath.  Decades later it defeated the mighty warrior-king David.  The wisest man who ever lived was Solomon, but he didn’t outsmart death.  Death has taken down the godly and the ungodly.  It even did its deed to Jesus, more viciously than it had ever been toward anyone else.

However, when death took on Jesus, it wasn’t ready for the counter-stroke.  Death struck Jesus on the cross and laid Him in a tomb, like it had done thousands and millions of times before.  But this time it was different.  This time someone struck back.  That had never happened before.  This time the firm, cold, unrelenting grasp of death was peeled back and its victim was freed.  He defeated death.  Finally, someone stood up to death and beat it at its own game — death beat death.  Finally someone proved himself stronger, and when he did, he didn’t just defeat death.  He didn’t just capture death.  He destroyed it! (1 Cor. 15:26).  Death, the greatest, the strongest, the most unrelenting enemy of mankind was defeated.  What amazing strength it took.  It took God-strength and in the end, the last man standing was not death, but Jesus.

In Philippians 3:10 Paul expresses his desire to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.  It’s not a desire to know about it, but for this resurrection power to be the power operating in his own life.  Leonard Ravenhill writes that “Calvary expresses the love of God.  The resurrection explains the power of God.”  This is the standard power that is active in the life of the believer.  The strength that destroyed death is coursing through my life.

When I think of God’s strength operating in my life it’s easy to think of it as my empowerment for religious service like preaching a sermon, witnessing, or leading some church or missions endeavor.  But it is more than that.  It is the source of strength to do some amazingly difficult things:

  • like giving strength to conquer a whole host of fears and insecurities rather than be paralyzed by them
  • like giving strength to speak up when something should be said rather than keeping a cowardly silence
  • like giving strength to shut up when good judgment demands it
  • like giving strength to step out and step forward instead of staying put where it’s comfortable or being intimidated into retreat
  • like giving strength to forgive the person who said or did that unforgiveable thing
  • like giving strength to overcome racism no matter how deeply embedded it may be
  • like giving strength to care enough about hurting, needy people to actually do something
  • like giving strength to break a bad habit

Sound impossible?  Defeating death was impossible, too, but Jesus did it, and in doing it he made possible our own victories.  If this strength can destroy death, it can handle any of the matters just cited.

The sooner I exercise the strength given to me through the power of Christ’s resurrection, which is an exercise of obedient faith, the stronger I’ll be in ways that actually matter.

Today I’ve been letting the empty tomb remind me of of just how awesomely strong Jesus is.  It makes my “But I can’t” sound like what it really is — unacceptable pathetic whining.

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Weakness

I don’t like to be weak…

  • the one who loses at arm wrestling
  • the one who couldn’t survive two minutes in a boxing match without being knocked out cold
  • the one who can only haul half of a package of shingles up the ladder to the roof while the others are slinging a full one over their shoulders
  • the one who needs help picking up and moving the big, stuffed chair to the other room instead of just hoisting it and moving it myself
  • the one who can’t figure things out without someone giving some input, advice, or answers
  • the last one picked for the kickball team

It’s embarrassing to be weak in a society that values strength.  It can be demeaning.  I don’t like the vulnerability of it.  I don’t like the riskiness of it.  It makes life more dangerous and definitely harder to be weak.  I don’t like the insecurity of it, especially living in a world where victory goes to the strong, in a culture increasingly shaped by a “survival of the fittest” mentality.  To be weak is a distinct disadvantage whatever the expression of weakness may be – physical, intellectual, emotional, atheletic, creative, or leadership.

Weakness stinks.  I don’t like it and I don’t want to be it.

But then I’m brought to this day, Good Friday.  I am taken to a place named “Golgotha,” meaning place of the skull.  It was a place of death which made it a place of filth and uncleanness.  And there planted vertically on that desecrated ground is a vertical piece of wood intersected by a horizontal one on which a beaten, bloodied person has been fastened with nails through his hands and through his feet, guarded by soldiers, and jeered by onlookers taunting him to free himself and come down from the cross and show them just how strong he is.  As cruel as this scene was, it was not an unusual scene in the Roman Empire of the first century.  It was one way in which they terrorized the non-Roman citizens into submission to their authority.  An execution like this was for the scum of the earth.

The irony of this scene is that by all appearances it is another case of the strong defeating the weak.  Trained and physically strong Roman soldiers carried out this deed upon a man who could barely walk to the place of his own execution.  Highly trained and religiously strong leaders provoked this deed and insulted a man who endured it with silence.  What’s most shocking is that this man was God.  Yes, the same God who said, “Let there be light!” and there was light.  The same God who said, “Let us make man in our own image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion.”  Yes, that same God “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory.”  It was that God, the Son of God, who became man, that these men brutalized and mocked.  The created conspired against and then crucified the Creator.  The One who holds the universe in His hands and in whom all things consist hung in helpless, humiliated weakness as a prize trophy in front of his tormentors while His life’s blood drained from His body.  And then, He died.

Death is the ultimate demonstration of our our weakness.  We die because we’re mortal and because we’re sinners.  We can’t change our mortality any more than an ant can change itself into a man.  We can’t erase our sinfulness any more than a leopard can erase its spots.  We’re weak.  We die.

On the cross Jesus exalted human weakness over human strength.  On the cross a torn and taunted man died at the hands of strong and arrogant men.  But in that moment of weakness, that Man crushed His arch-enemy Satan; He released a multitude of people from their enslavement to Sin; and He defeated that last and most sinister enemy called Death for all eternity.  That is what He did in His weakness.  Just think what He will do in His strength!  That’s why these words ring so true, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).  On the cross Jesus demonstrated what God can do through weakness.  He shames the the wise and the strong and brings them all to nothing because the ultimate aim of God in all that He does is that His glory be displayed and enjoyed.  The pathway to that enjoyment is weakness filled with God’s grace, not strength filled with myself.  Understanding and embracing that is what leads to this confession:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong. (1 Cor. 12:9b-10)

The sooner I embrace weakness as a blessing, even with its embarrassment, vulnerability, danger, and risk, the sooner I’ll know just how complete and satisfying God’s grace is.  Today, I’ll let the cross remind me of that.

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Facing Fifty

Ok, so it’s arrived.  I turned 50 yesterday.  Benchmark birthdays strike each individual differently.  For me fifty has proven to be a big one; well, a challenging one, to be honest.

Maybe it’s because a “half-century” genuinely sounds old (though I’m still too young to qualify for senior specials off the restaurant menu).

Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest son and brother in my family but being fifty doesn’t sound so young anymore.

Maybe it’s because I’m realizing how much of my life is now in the past tense and there is still so much more I want to accomplish.

Maybe it’s because youth is so highly prized on our culture and being fifty takes me out of that ideal category

Yup, I’ve been reflecting on these things a bunch trying to decide how I would process this milestone birthday.  In all honesty I haven’t been all that thrilled with its approach.  When asked why by a friend recently I replied that I once dreamed that I would have accomplished more by the time this day arrived.  I guess that is a veiled way of saying that the approach of my fiftieth birthday was stirring up feelings of disappointment with myself.  My friend immediately pointed that out to me and sent me down the pathway of rehearsing a list of accomplishments in which I should find great satisfaction.

So as I face fifty, here’s a list of accomplishments that reminds me just how great my first half-century had been.

1.  Saved by God’s grace – technically not my achievement by any stretch of the imagination,  but all of God’s.  He did it; I received it. Praise his name!

2.  Married happily to my best friend for 25 years now.  We are still in love and faithfully devoted to one another.  Neither of us would choose differently if given the opportunity.

3.  Three fantastic children who call me “Dad.”  I didn’t say “perfect” children for those keeping track.  That would never work – perfect children with an imperfect dad. My sons and daughter are a joy to me.  All three have professed faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.  My boys are about to graduate from an outstanding Christian university, one heading into local church ministry and the other open to what the Lord has for him.

4.  I still have my parents and have the privilege of ministering to them in their later years.

5.  I have great relationships with all my siblings.  We’re relationally close and we’re not at odds with each other.  By fifty many families have fallen to pieces.  By God’s grace mine hasn’t.

6.  I have had two wonderful local church ministries, one in New York for three years, and the church I’ve now been part of for 21 years.  I get to pastor a great congregation.

7.  I have made some very close friends in my first fifty years.  By this point in my life I’ve had a lot of friends walk into my life and then, due to a variety of circumstances, they’ve left (I’ve reconnected with some of them on Facebook). But I’ve also had a few who have entered my life and stayed, some for a long time (one in particular for more than 30 years).  At fifty I’ve come to realize how truly great an accomplishment it is to have real friends.

8.  I’ve been to Europe, Africa, and South America where I’ve had the opportunity to preach, teach, and meet brothers and sisters who follow the same Jesus that I follow and worship the same God I worship. Life-changing!

9. I’ve learned to preach.  I’ve learned to lead (it doesn’t come natural to me).  I’ve learned to love a congregation.  I’ve learned to cook.  I’ve learned to install a light fixture (did my first one successfully last week).  I’ve learned to be a husband and a dad.  I’ve learned to listen.

I’m sure this list could go on, but it’s long enough to remind me that I am a man whose first fifty years have been momentous.

I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.  I’m not oblivious to the inevitability of difficulties.  I just can see looking back that what lies ahead is a future of more learning and more growing and new accomplishments.  I’m pretty certain the years ahead will be lived with family and friends who love me.  God’s not done yet.

Maybe fifty’s not so bad after all.

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A Father Who Loves to Give

Christmas day has come and gone.  The tree and decorations are still up and family will be arriving soon for a few more days of celebration.  I have some moments for reflection.

I was the recipient of a number of great gifts this Christmas for which I am sincerely grateful.  Having said that, I can honestly admit that I could go through Christmas and receive no gifts and be a very happy person.  I don’t say that because I am an unusually contented man.  I say it because for me, to be with family on Christmas day and watch them open their gifts with eagerness and gratitude brings me tremendous satisfaction.  My regret at the conclusion of the gift-opening time is that I don’t have more gifts for them to open.  I love to sit in my chair by the fireplace and watch them, being happy with them as they open each gift and then excitedly finding the next gift for each of them under the tree or in a Christmas stocking.

You may think I sound like an irresponsibly indulgent father at risk of spoiling my children by giving them everything they want and thereby contributing to the wanton materialism of American middle class families.  You would be incorrect.  Maybe you noticed that we don’t actually continue opening gifts because they do come to an end and soon there are no unopened gifts waiting to be opened.  None of them gets everything on their Christmas wish list — I can’t afford it.  In all honesty, the one being indulged is me.  I love giving special gifts to my wife and to my children.  I see nothing wrong with that provided I’m not spending resources I do not have or am using unwisely.

I am reminded of something Jesus said in Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”  I am not comparing myself to God.  I’m just saying God loves to give to his children more than I love to give to my children.  I am not a proponent of prosperity theology and think it must be insulting and grievous to the Father to see people twist these words into prayers for BMWs, gold teeth, and financial success.  However, as much as I love to give to my children, I am a flawed, sinful, selfish giver.  God is not.  He is a greater giver than I could ever hope to be.  He doesn’t waste his time with the world’s toys and trinkets.  He gives the necessities until our days are done, but more than that, he gives from his own treasure house in heaven and he does so through His Son.  He gives the freedom of redemption, the cleansing of forgiveness, the standing of righteousness, reconciliation to the Father, inward peace, unending joy, everlasting life, and above all, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is the downpayment on an inheritance awaiting his children in heaven.  And that’s not all, as if we’ve received everything he has to give.  God never runs out of precious gifts to give.  His mercies are new every  morning.  His grace is reloaded into our lives every day to meet the situations we face with spiritual vitality.

My sadness on Christmas day comes when I have no more presents to give because they’ve all been opened.  God never runs out.  He delights in watching us excitedly open the indescribable gifts he gives.  God’s sadness is not in running out of gifts to give but in our under-valuing what he has purchased for us through his Son Jesus Christ.

I won’t feel guilty for wanting to indulge my family or for feeling sad when I run out of gifts to give on Christmas day.  I will enjoy every minute of their smiles, laughter, and looks of appreciation during the gift-opening remembering, with the deepest gratitude, that I have a Father in heaven who does the same only infinitely better.

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