Friday, December 27, 2013

Don't Lose Heart

Have you ever prayed desperately for days, weeks, or even months for something to happen? Maybe you were going through a trial in your life, or maybe a close friend or relative was really sick, or fighting cancer or something equally threatening. Whatever the issue was for you, I have no doubt that you've been there; you've prayed, perhaps in tears, for God to hear and intervene.

If you're at all like me, you probably prayed passionately for the first week or so, but then, as the initial shock of the trial wore off, so also did your passion and your consistency in praying for it. In the beginning, it was constantly on your mind, and you were almost in a constant state of prayer...but there came a point where you had to remind yourself to pray for it.

Have you been there? Has this ever been true of you? Or am I alone in this?

In Luke 18:1-8, we find the parable of the persistent widow. I love verse one: "Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart." Isn't that the problem I mentioned above? And isn't this something we struggle with? Don't we sometimes "lose heart" that God is going to answer our prayer? Jesus says to keep on keepin' on, to stay with it.

Then He gets into the parable itself. Here, a widow went to a judge day after day...after day, seeking his judgment on the same matter. The judge didn't care about God or this widow, but he eventually concluded, "Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me" (vs. 5).

It's not that God shares the attributes and mindset of this judge. However, Jesus is telling us through this parable that, if at first we don't succeed...pray, pray again! And it's not just about being persistent; it's about not losing heart. Even though God hasn't answered your prayer yet, always know that He still can.

Having said that, it's certainly true that God's answer may be "no." But until we know that that's his answer, we must heed Jesus' words here; we must "always...pray and not lose heart!"

This is a lesson I needed today.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Thought on the Phil Robertson Controversy

The fact that you're reading this blog means that you've been online...which means that you're undoubtedly aware of the controversy surrounding Phil Robertson, one of the leading characters in the popular show, "Duck Dynasty." In an interview with GQ magazine, Mr. Robertson made the point that homosexuality is a sin and quoted 1 Corinthians 6:9 to provide biblical support for his belief. In response to his comments, GLAAD, a support group for gay and lesbian rights, came out with this statement...
"What's clear is that such hateful anti-gay comments are unacceptable to fans, viewers, and networks alike. By taking quick action and removing Robertson from future filming, A&E has sent a strong message that discrimination is neither a Christian nor an American value" (quote from Wilson Cruz, spokesman for GLAAD).
I'm not going to defend all of Mr. Robertson's remarks because the fact is, some of what he said was crude and crass, especially for modern American ears. But for the most part, his comments were spot on - he explained the slippery slope of sin as well as the Bible's condemnation of sins such as homosexuality. And for these remarks in particular, he has been called "hateful" and discriminatory by GLAAD. In a television interview I saw, his comments were called "vile" and equated with "hate speech."

Many things could be said in response to this controversy, but here in this brief article, I'd simply like to make one thing very, very clear...

We can strongly disagree with another person's choice or lifestyle while still loving the person.

In other words, the fact that most Christians condemn the practice of homosexuality doesn't mean that they personally hate homosexuals. On the contrary, we can have sincere love for homosexuals even though we believe that they must repent in order to be saved.

In John 8, the scribes and Pharisees brought an adulterous woman to Jesus. The Law of Moses demanded that such a woman be stoned to death, and these conniving Jews wanted to see if Jesus would affirm the Law in this matter. However, Jesus knew their hearts and intentions. After all, where was the man? And how did they learn of this woman's adulterous act? Clearly, this had been concocted by them for the purpose of trapping Jesus. And this poor woman was caught in the middle.

Jesus, in this famous story, showed such compassion for the adulterous woman. He said to the Jews, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first" (vs. 7). I believe that Jesus was implicating them of sin in this matter, not sin in general, but in any event, the scribes and Pharisees "being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one" (vs. 8). Jesus' ensuing conversation with this adulterous woman can be characterized by tenderness and compassion. We can see that He loved this woman and cared deeply for her soul. Just as He ate "with tax collectors and sinners" (Mt. 9:11), He drew near unto this woman and treated her like a human being.

And yet at the same time, He didn't justify her behavior or tolerate her sin. He said to her, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" (vs. 11). Yes, Jesus loved her and showed her kindness, but He still acknowledged that her choices had been wrong and that she had an obligation to repent of her sin and turn to God. She had to stop committing adultery. Jesus embraced the woman, but He didn't embrace her sin; in fact, He condemned her sin.

Likewise, we can openly condemn homosexuality and other sins on the basis that God's word condemns them. In such cases, God is passing the judgment, not us; we are just His messengers. But, like Jesus, we can condemn the behavior while showing love and compassion for the ones in sin.

Again, I'm not necessarily justifying all of Phil Robertson's remarks. We do have an obligation to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and to correct others with all humility and patience (2 Tim. 2:24-25). Some of his remarks were very well-worded, while others were quite crude. My main point in this article is simply that we can openly disagree with and condemn (from the Scriptures) a lifestyle or choice while still treating those who are guilty of sin with love and compassion...just like Jesus did.

Over the years, I've known many homosexuals. Despite my strong opposition to their lifestyle, I have always treated them with respect. Likewise, many of these same individuals have strongly opposed my viewpoints while also treating me with respect. Sure, there are many on both sides of this debate who are mean-spirited, hateful and reprehensible - there are so-called Christians who bring shame upon Christ and His church by their rude, divisive behavior - but as individuals, we can choose to be more like Jesus...

...and we would be wise to remember that, while we may not struggle with homosexuality, we have "all sinned" and are equally in need of the redemption offered by Jesus.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Impatience & Disloyalty in the Church

I really enjoy sports and listen to ESPN Radio when I'm driving, just to keep up with what's going on. One thing I've noticed is that teams are quick to fire a head coach or to criticize the quarterback or leading player when the season isn't going as well as they had expected. The fan bases of major organizations (e.g. the Cowboys, the Lakers, the Knicks, the Yankees, etc.) are especially quick to call for change when the losses begin to pile up. Most recently, Mack Brown, the head football coach at the University of Texas resigned after being openly criticized by fans...and that was after a winning season!

We're this way in other areas of our lives, too. When the conditions at work aren't up to snuff, we begin looking for a new job. When we go out to eat and find a strand of hair in our food, we vow to never eat in that restaurant again. When the economy begins to tank, we blame whoever is in office and demand change. When we have a bad experience with the customer service representatives of a company, we act as if the company as a whole is terrible and we take our business elsewhere.

Impatient much? I think so. But this is really nothing new, is it?

In 2 Samuel, we read about the trials and troubles that slowly but surely deteriorated the administration of King David. Following a war with his own son, Absalom, there was talk in Israel of bringing King David back to Jerusalem. But the men of Judah stepped in before the rest of Israel could take action and brought the king back themselves. This offended the Israelites to their core. Notice their response...
"Just then all the men of Israel came to the king, and said to the king, 'Why have our brethren, the men of Judah, stolen you away and brought the king, his household, and all of David's men with him across the Jordan? ... We have ten shares in the king; therefore we also have more right to David than you. Why then do you despise us - were we not the first to advice bringing back our king?" (2 Samuel 19:41, 43).
I can understand why Israel was upset. They felt left out. They felt that the king was "playing favorites." And certainly, David and/or the men of Judah could have done more to involve the rest of Israel here, if for no other reason than to avoid hurt feelings and create a stronger sense of family. But they didn't. Perhaps they didn't think about it. Either way, the other ten tribes were pretty upset. On top of all the things that had gone wrong in David's administration, now this had happened. The proverbial "last straw."

In 2 Samuel 20, we learn that the ten tribes chose to rebel against David. Rather than patiently work things out, they followed the leadership of a rebel named Sheba. They abandoned ship. They divorced themselves from their king. They gave up on what they had had for going on 80 years with their brethren in the tribe of Judah.

So, you see, nothing has changed over the millennium. Folks were impatient then just as they are today. We are quick to forsake our obligations, quick to jump ship, and quick to change our loyalties.

And I'm afraid that many in the church are this way, too. Rather than remain loyal and committed to their church family through thick and thin, many are quick to switch churches when controversy and conflict come. Maybe the preacher says some things that are controversial. Maybe the elders make a decision that receives criticism. Maybe someone hurts your feelings. Maybe growth becomes stagnant.

I would suggest to you that we need a little more patience...and a greater sense of loyalty. Isn't that what family is all about anyway? Can we truly grow as a church when members are breaking away left and right as a result of personal offenses, minor disagreements, or because the grass seems to be greener on the other side of the fence? Probably not.

We may be overly-demanding of the restaurants in which we dine, overly-critical of the coach of our favorite sports team, and disloyal toward the companies with whom we do business...but please, let's not allow these same attitudes to translate into the church. Unlike the Israelites in 2 Samuel 19-20, let's stand together and grow together, even when times are tough.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"He Knows If You've Been Bad or Good..."

The holidays have arrived! I truly am excited. The time between Thanksgiving and New Years is always so much fun, not only because of the snow and the presents, but because of the time that I get to spend with my family. Personally, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I'm a bit sad that it's behind us, but now we're all focused on Christmas.

Christmas means different things to different people. In this article, I'm not going to delve into the error of observing it as a religious holiday. If that's something you're interested in, read this article I wrote back in 2009 (wow, that seems like such a long time ago).

What I'd like to focus on in this holiday-minded article is the question of whether we should tell our children that Santa Claus is real. My answer, and I believe God's answer, is "NO!" I'd like to share with you two very simple reasons you shouldn't lie to your children about Santa Claus.

First of all, it is a lie! Wikipedia defines a lie as "a false statement to a person or group made by another person or group who knows it is not the whole truth, intentionally." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers these two definitions: (1) to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive; (2) to create a false or misleading impression. In the Bible, the word "lying" is from the Greek word pseudos which simply means "a falsehood."

Is Santa real? If not, then aren't we lying when we tell our children that he is real? Many people hesitate to call it what it is, because in their minds, it just seems so innocent, or a matter of imagination. But it's one thing for our children to engage in pretend-play; it's another thing when we push a falsehood on them and go to extreme lengths to make the falsehood seem even more real. A lie is a lie, folks. The fact that it's your children you're lying to doesn't make it alright. The fact that it SEEMS innocent to you doesn't make it alright. The fact that most parents lie to their children about Santa doesn't make it alright.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:25, "Therefore, putting away lying, 'Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,' for we are members of one another." Revelation 21:8 actually says that "...liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Does God take lying seriously? Absolutely, He does. We need to see this from God's perspective, not man's.

Along these same lines, our word needs to mean something! In Matthew 5:33-36, Jesus condemns swearing. He concludes in verse 37, "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." In Galatians 5:22, one of the fruits of the Spirit is "faithfulness," which really means "fidelity." We need to be trustworthy and reliable. Again, when we're willing to lie to our children about Santa, the Easter Bunny and any number of other things, our children may develop distrust in our word. I didn't necessarily believe my parents every time they spoke. I never knew when they were telling the truth, or just trying to shut me up, redirect my attention or cover up something they were doing.

The second point I'd like you to consider has been well-summed up by my good friend, Bryan Dockens. He said, "I refuse to lie to my children about Santa Claus. The one who sees you when you're sleeping, knows when you're awake, and knows if you've been bad or good is none other than the God of heaven. I won't convince my children of the existence of an omniscient rewarder of good except the Lord Himself." You see, we're not just lying to our children about the existence of a random, fictional character; we're teaching them to believe in a being that shares the very attributes of God. How do you think God feels when we take the attributes that are uniquely His and give them to a fictional being?

Moses told Pharaoh, "Let it be according to your word, that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God" (Exodus 8:10). Hannah prayed, "No one is holy like the Lord, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God" (1 Sam. 2:2). After the Israelites gave their worship and praise to the golden calf, Moses said, "But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exodus 34:13-14). Wow. You know, I get the feeling that God doesn't appreciate the fact AT ALL that parents hand over His uniquely divine attributes to a fictional character.

Before I conclude this article, I'd like offer a few quick thoughts and observations:
  • I believed in Santa Claus as a boy. This is not some pet-issue of mine that I've held all my life. It's not like I've never been on the other side of this issue.
  • There's absolutely nothing wrong with playing up the image of Santa Claus as a fictional character during the holiday season. My kids are familiar with the character of jolly old Saint Nicholas, have books that allude to him, and are, I'm sure, entertained by his character just as they are by Dora, Bugs Bunny and Sonic the hedgehog. So we can treat Santa Claus as the fictional character he is without lying to our children. NOTE: Even if we treat him as a fictional character, we still shouldn't attribute to him divine qualities. Honestly, I can no longer sing the lyrics, "He knows when you are sleeping" and so on in good conscience.
  • You may tell yourself that even though "technically" it's a lie, it's a harmless one. Does it really cause children to distrust their parents? Maybe not. But even if it doesn't have that affect, it's still a lie. We can't justify a lie on the basis that it doesn't appear to do any harm. Also, consider this: the lie of Santa Claus may not negatively impact most children simply because most children are actually used to being lied to by their parents anyways; one more lie isn't going to destroy them. Beyond that, a good number of kids aren't raised by parents who actively and aggressively try to instill within them a deep-seeded faith in God. And so I think it's apples and oranges when you compare "most experiences" to what you're doing...assuming you're a Christian who is always honest with your kids, and actively teaches them the Scriptures.
  • Similarly, just because you don't see any serious damage - or damage at all - doesn't mean that your lie hasn't damaged them. Maybe, just maybe, you have planted in your child's mind a hint of suspicion and distrust (when they find out the truth). I can tell you this - having been raised by parents who lied to me about Santa and many other things (which is common) - that I have to deal with nagging distrust in my own ability to have faith in God more than most other Christians I know, especially those who have been raised with faith. When we create an atmosphere where lying and deception are acceptable, I can assure you that in some way, we are damaging our children.
Please set aside your feelings and traditions and focus on this from a spiritual, biblical perspective. I'm not saying that we have to remove Santa Claus from our holiday festivities, but I am asking that we relegate him to the fictional status he deserves, stop lying to our children, and perhaps most of all, that we diligently guard the nature and character of our God.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Returning a Different Way

In 1 Kings 13, God sent "a man of God" from Judah to Bethel to condemn the pagan altar and false religion that had been set up by King Jeroboam of the newly established northern kingdom. He said, "O altar, altar! Thus says the Lord: 'Behold, a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men's bones shall be burned on you'" (vs. 2). After wrangling with Jeroboam, the king finally asked the man of God to come home with him and be refreshed (vs. 7)...but notice what the man of God said...
"But the man of God said to the king, 'If you were to give me half your house, I would not go in with you; nor would I eat bread nor drink water in this place. For so it was commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, 'You shall not eat bread nor drink water, nor return by the same way you came.'' So he went another way and did not return by the same way he came to Bethel" (vs. 10).
There's a lot more to this story, but I'd like to focus on this idea that the man of God wasn't to return to Judah the same way he had come. I've always wondered, in the back of my head, why God demanded this of the prophet. I could come up with a few possibilities, but just recently, I stumbled upon a possible Matthew 2:12.

Approximately 1,000 years later, a virgin named Mary gave birth to Jesus, the man who would be the Savior of the world. At some point following His birth, wise men from the east followed a star to Jerusalem, encountered Herod, and then found Jesus in Bethlehem. When they found Him, they "worshiped Him" and presented Him with gifts (Mt. 2:11).

But here's what grabbed my attention...
"Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way" (vs. 12).
Do you notice the parallel? Now, the reason is given here as to why the wise men returned another way - their lives were in danger because of wicked King Herod - but does this incident help us to better understand the events in 1 Kings 13? I believe so.

I wouldn't hang my hat on this, necessarily, and I wouldn't say that this is exactly why the man of God was told to return to Judah another way, but I do know that the Old Testament is filled with prophecies and foreshadowings of Christ. And so with that in mind, check this out...

Perhaps God sent the man of God home another way in 1 Kings 13 to foreshadow the events surrounding the birth of Christ. The parallels are striking...
  • Both the man of God and the wise men were sent by God.
  • Both encountered a wicked king.
  • In both cases, false religion was rampant in the land of Israel.
  • In both cases, there was the promise and/or hope of a coming reformer - someone who would turn the people back to God. In 1 Kings 13, it was Josiah. Of course, in Matthew, the coming reformer was Jesus Himself.
Am I reading too deeply into this? It's possible. But I find the similarities in these two stories too striking to ignore. I see God's foreknowledge and eternal plan at work here. And while there's no grand lesson to draw from this parallel, it's neat (for me, at least) to notice these parallels, to see God's subtle brilliance on display, and to be rewarded (in my own mind, at least) for studying and digging deeper into the word of God.