In and After the Storm

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Credit: Wikipedia

The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.  When God appears to Moses on Mount Sinai’s summit to give him the Ten Commandments, the mountaintop is covered in “darkness, gloom, and storm” (Hebrews 12:18).  When Job endures great suffering, he complains: “God would crush me with a storm” (Job 9:17).  When God speaks to Job after his trials, it says, “The LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  When God calls Jonah to preach to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but the prophet instead hops a ship heading the opposite direction, the Lord sends “a great wind on the sea, and a violent storm” (Jonah 1:4).  When Jesus is sailing with His disciples across the Sea of Galilee one day, out of nowhere comes “a furious storm” (Matthew 8:24).  The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.

These days, our headlines have been plastered with stories of a storm.  The pictures that have come out of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian are horrible.  Halves of islands are underwater.  Debris fields stretch for miles.  And the death toll has yet to be fully counted.  And, of course, Dorian’s destruction did not end with these islands.  The storm carved a path up our nation’s eastern seaboard, dumping rain, flooding communities, and disrupting and endangering countless lives.

Whenever we face a storm like this, a common question arises: Where is God?  Though there is no complete answer to this question, here are a couple of thoughts Scripture invites us to consider.

First, God is in the storm.  When God speaks to Job after all his trials, he speaks to him “out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  This means that in all of Job’s trials, God was right there, even though Job did not know it.  When Jesus’ disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus does not avoid the storm they sail into, but is there with them in the storm.  And when Jesus dies on a cross, He does so in the midst of storm clouds so dark that they black out the sun: “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  God, then, does not avoid our storms even if He does not still every storm.  He is with us in the storms.

Second, God is after the storm.  When the prophet Elijah, at God’s behest, goes to meet with God on a mountain, instead of finding God, he experiences a storm:

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

Elijah goes to meet with God.  But he finds only hurricane force winds, an earthquake, and fiery lighting.  It seems like God is nowhere to be found in these storms.  But then:

After the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  (1 Kings 19:12-13)

It turns out that God was there for Elijah after the storms.

Dorian’s destructive path has now been cut.  The damage has been done.  People’s lives and livelihoods have been uprooted.  But God did not run from this storm.  He was in the storm with those who suffered from it.  But, perhaps even more importantly, now, He is still standing tall after the storm with those who have come out of the storm.  The question is: as God’s people, will we also be there for those who need us after the storm?  There are multiple ways to help the victims of Dorian.  I pray that you will.  After all, God is there after the storm.  So, we should be, too.

The Psalmist famously writes:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. (Psalm 46:1-4)

The Psalmist reminds us that God is in the storm.  He is “an ever-present help in trouble.”  But he also reminds us that God is after the storm.  For He has prepared for us and now dwells in a celestial city, not with waters that are destructive like a storm surge, but with waters that bubble and babble with gladness.  In other words, God is not only in the storm, nor is He even only after the storm, He is there even after this life, waiting to welcome those who have lost their lives – including those believers who have lost their lives in storms like Dorian – into His eternal city.  A storm may end this life – but it cannot drown out eternal life.

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September 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Deadliness of Loneliness

Loneliness is killing us – literally.  This is what a lengthy article in the National Post argues:

Studies suggest loneliness is more detrimental to health than obesity, physical inactivity or polluted air. Chronic loneliness, and not the transient kind that comes with a significant life disruption, such as moving cities for work, or the death of a partner, has been linked with an increased risk of developing or dying from coronary artery disease, stroke, elevated blood pressure, dementia and depressed immunity.

 A study published in May found lonely people have shorter telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes, like the tip of a shoelace. Telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides, and shorter telomeres are considered a sign of accelerated aging.

This is serious stuff.  So, what is the solution?  Some are arguing that the solution may be pharmacological:

Studies in animals suggest that a single injection of pregnenolone can reduce or “normalize” an exaggerated threat response in socially isolated lab mice, similar to the kind of hyper vigilance lonely people feel that makes them poor at reading other people’s intentions and feelings.

 The researchers have every hope the drug will work in lonely human brains, too…

 Loneliness increases both a desire to connect with others, and a gut instinct for self-preservation (“if I let you get close to me, you’ll only hurt me, too”). People become more wary, cautious and self-centered.  The idea is to help people see things as they are, “rather than being afraid of everyone,” [neuroscientist Stephanie] Cacioppo said.

This is all very interesting.  But I’m not sure that masking a problem medicinally is going to cure an ill socially.  The problem is not just that many of us are lonely – although that certainly is concerning.  The deeper problem, though, is that many of us are, quite literally, alone:

“Nearly 30 million Americans live alone, many not out of preference,” said Christophe Lane, author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. In Canada, the proportion of the population living in one-person households has quadrupled over the past three generations in Canada to 28 percent in 2016, from seven percent in 1951.

 Life expectancy is growing, fertility rates are falling and the population is aging. We’re marrying later and having fewer children, if any at all. Technology means we can do almost all we need to do from home without physically interacting with a single human soul.

Solutions to problems like these cannot be solved by a pill. They can only be solved by other people.

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God once said of the first man He had created (Genesis 2:18). So, God made for him a companion in Eve. And He’s been making companions ever since. We are called both to find companions and to be a companion. We simply cannot live – at least not well – any other way.

Community is critical for so many things. It is critical to hold us accountable in sin. It is critical to encourage us in dark times. It is critical to celebrate with us good times. It is critical to help us in tough times. There are too many things in life that we simply cannot face alone.

A feeling of loneliness may be able to be helped along by picking up a prescription. A state of aloneness, however, can only be solved by reaching out to another person. So, reach out and help wipe out aloneness. Together, we’re better.

August 26, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Social Media Sins

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Credit: Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

A new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that teenagers who spend as little as one hour on social media over what they normally would in a given year show increased markers for depression. According to the report:

Repeated exposure to idealized images [on social media] lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time. Furthermore, heavier users of social media with depression appear to be more negatively affected by their time spent on social media.

In an article for Christianity Today, Jeff Christopherson decries the dangers lurking in social media not only for teenagers, but also for society-at-large. He explains:

If the social media experiment was intended to connect and enlighten the world, it appears to have failed, and failed spectacularly. Our social connectivity has actually produced a more disconnected, isolated and polarized society. We have become more entrenched, angrier, and observably much, much dumber. Political, cultural, and – yes – theological echo chambers have only served to exhaust any semblance of critical thinking and extinguish any light for truth.

Mr. Christopherson’s sentiments are echoed by National Review writer Kevin Williamson, who, in an excerpt from his new book, describes how the memes we post on social media are often nothing but agents of attack on others rather than windows into an understanding of others. He writes:

We think in language. We signal in memes. Language is the instrument of discourse. Memes are the instrument of antidiscourse, i.e., communication designed and deployed to prevent the exchange of information and perspectives rather than to enable it, a weapon of mass intellectual destruction – the moron bomb. The function of discourse is to know other minds and to make yours known to them; the function of antidiscourse is to lower the status of rivals and enemies. 

All this is to say that there are plenty of dangers prowling around social media.

Sadly, Christians are not immune to these dangers. Mr. Christopherson, in his article, takes Christians to task for their sometimes reckless ways on social media. But even if we are not immune to social media’s sirens, we can fight against them. In a social media environment that feigns perfection in picture postings, we can point toward true perfection in Christ. In a social media environment that stupefies with anti-proverbs, we can teach with true wisdom from Christ. In a social media environment that inflames hatred, we can live out the love of Christ.

At the heart of many of our social media woes is a problem with comparisons. We either compare our lives to the idealized Instagram-filtered lives of our peers and find ourselves lacking and thus sink into despair, or we compare our opinions to those of others on Twitter and find others lacking and thus ascend into arrogance. But there is an antidote to the sins of despair and arrogance: humility. A humble person, instead of craving to compare, is comfortable in their own skin. They feel no need to measure up to others or to look down on others because their identity, worth, and world is not found in others, but in an Other – Jesus Christ. A humble person measures their self-worth not according to their own shortcomings or successes, but according to Christ’s death on a cross, which levels the playing field between all people as it reveals every person as a sinner in need of God’s grace.

In a social media ecosystem filled with comparison, perhaps we should post more about and point more to Christ. After all, whether a person is posting polished pictures on Instagram or vicious vitriol on Twitter, that person needs Christ, too.

August 19, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Jeffrey Epstein and the Diminishment of Human Life

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Credit: Kat Wilcox from Pexels

As the evidence against Jeffrey Epstein continued to pile up, the circle of powerful men who counted him as acquaintances – or, depending on how one interprets the evidence, as close, personal friends – continued to expand. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times published an exposé on Mr. Epstein’s nebulous business partnership with Leslie Wexner, of Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch fame. Questions abound. Who among Mr. Epstein’s social and business associates knew about his alleged sex trafficking crimes? Was there anyone among these associates who participated in his purported despicable sexual acts with underage girls?

Regardless of who was involved with Mr. Epstein, this much seems certain: Mr. Epstein himself used his power and wealth to exploit and abuse the vulnerable. He viewed women as sex objects to which he was entitled.

Mr. Epstein’s crimes were grizzly and his actions were egregious. His attitude, however, is all too common. When sex becomes something to which a person feels entitled, he will use – and yes, even sickeningly abuse – others to get what he desires.

A Christian theology of relationships reminds us that from Adam and Eve on, relationships are gifts of grace. Adam did not receive Eve as his companion because he was entitled to her or deserving of her, but because God desired to bless him. Eve did not receive Adam as her companion because she was entitled to him or deserving of him, but because God desired to bless her. This reality should shape the way we relate to each other – not as commodities to be used, but as gifts to be cherished.

Sadly, how we relate to others does not always reflect God’s created order. Some men speak of woman as “notches in their belt.” Some women speak of men as “sugar daddies.” But our relational disfunction goes far deeper than a smattering of vulgar slurs. Resentment takes root in marriages when one spouse feels as though their partner is not “meeting their needs.” Fights break out when one person feels another is not “pulling their weight.” All of these things are indications that we often use each other selfishly instead of cherishing each other lovingly.

Clearly, what Mr. Epstein has allegedly done reaches far beyond the more mundane everyday disagreements and disputes people have in their relationships. But there are still lessons here for us to heed. First, diminishing the value of a person’s life may end with crimes like Mr. Epstein’s, but it can begin with something as simple and socially acceptable as a demanding spirit. So, be careful with your seemingly small selfish acts. Second, diminishing the value of another’s life ultimately degrades how you see your own life. This was certainly true of Mr. Epstein. He was found dead of an apparent suicide in his jail cell on Saturday. When justice came for him because of his lack of regard for the lives of others, he despaired of his own.

Now would be a good time, then, to say “thank you” and “I love you” to your spouse, your children, your relatives, and your friends. Now would be a good time to cherish them in their humanity rather than treating them like a convenient commodity. After all, this is what Jesus did for you. He did not use you. Instead, He gave Himself for you. You are precious to Him.

Who’s precious to you? Make sure they know they are.

August 12, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kissing Dating Goodbye

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Credit: Colin Maynard on Unsplash

I remember reading the book in college. Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye defined what romantic relational purity looked like for Christian kids like me in the late 90s. And yet, even back then, I looked at the book with some skepticism. “Is this really what the Bible teaches about dating?” I wondered.

The man who once gave countless Christian college kids plenty to ponder has now given countless Christian believers plenty to mourn. Recently, Mr. Harris announced that he and his wife were separating. But that wasn’t all. Shortly after announcing the dissolution of his marriage, he offered an even sadder revelation about his faith in an Instagram post:

I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.

Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years – repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few.

A man who was once a prominent Christian author – and later also became a pastor – has now publicly declared he is no longer a believer.

The apostle Paul once admonished a pastor named Timothy to continue “holding on to faith and a good conscience” so that he might not, as some in his day did, reject Christ and suffer “shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19).  There seems to be no other way to describe what has happened to Mr. Harris than as a “shipwreck.”

In an article for National Review, David French described the dangers inherent in Mr. Harris’s former view of sex and relationships when he explained that what Mr. Harris argued for:

…wasn’t wanton repression or cruelty. Many parents had entered adulthood wounded by past broken relationships. They regretted the mistakes of their youth and desperately wanted their kids to avoid similar heartbreak. Also – and this is crucial for understanding purity culture – they fervently believed in a specific earthly reward for their child’s youthful obedience. Courtship represented the best method of ensuring a healthy, sexually vibrant marriage to a faithful spouse. 

This is what writer Katelyn Beaty called the “sexual prosperity gospel,” an “if/then” transactional relationship with God that manufactures a series of promises from scripture and then creates a form of Christian entitlement and expectation. “I did what You asked, Lord, now may I see my reward?”

Mr. French’s analysis of the problems in Mr. Harris’s older teaching strikes me as precisely correct. Living legalistically before marriage does not ensure anyone a “happily ever after” sexually or otherwise in marriage.

And yet…

Perhaps, in our haste to highlight the problems with the evangelical purity culture of yesteryear, we have also managed to overlook a bit of its value. Joshua Harris once argued that a Christian should not date – or even kiss a girl – before marriage. Commanding such a thing is rank legalism. Holding up restrained and modest relationships as viable and valuable options, however, might just be okay – and even wise. We do, after all, live in a sexually obsessed society that, in many ways, despises just about anything that even remotely smacks of sexual self-control. In what other culture could a movie like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” be so self-evidentially funny? We love to spurn just about any sexual standard.

So, perhaps it’s not so bad to cut against the grain of our sexually licentious zeitgeist – not so that we can somehow present ourselves as especially holy or manufacture later sexual marital bliss, but because we know that inside of all of us lies a fair amount of sexual weakness. Recognizing that – and drawing humble boundaries in light of that – is not a bad thing.

Before Joshua Harris’s fall from faith, he had previously apologized for much of what he wrote in I Kissed Dating Goodbye:

To those who read my book and were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by it, I am sincerely sorry. I never intended to hurt you. I know this apology doesn’t change anything for you and it’s coming too late, but I want you to hear that I regret any way that my ideas restricted you, hurt you, or gave you a less-than-biblical view of yourself, your sexuality, your relationships, and God.

This was a much-needed apology. But what he wrote next is striking to me:

To those of you who benefitted from my book, I am so grateful that something I wrote helped you.

There were some blessings and benefits in what Joshua Harris once wrote in his now infamous book. In a world that idolizes sex and dating, his book offered a reminder – even if it was a broken and incomplete one – that the romantic relationship you have doesn’t define who you are.

Jesus does.

Sadly, Joshua Harris, in his recantation of his faith, not only rejected his Lord, but defined himself by his mistakes – by his wrongheaded guidance, by his failed marriage, and by the self-righteousness of his past. May I humbly remind him that none of that defines him?

Jesus does.

As Mr. Harris once wrote in his own book:

The world takes us to a silver screen on which flickering images of passion and romance play, and as we watch, the world says, “This is love.” God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.”

God always defines love by pointing to His Son. This was the only way our sins could be forgiven. The innocent One took the place of the guilty. 

Which means the innocent One took the place of Josh, too.

I hope and pray Joshua Harris rediscovers this precious truth. And I hope and pray you, dear reader, hold fast to this precious truth.

August 5, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Cathedral of Crystal

Credit: Wikipedia

Yesterday marked a new day for one of the most famous architectural landmarks in the United States and, really, in the world.  Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated its first Mass in what was once dubbed the “Crystal Cathedral.”

The Crystal Cathedral was the brainchild of famed televangelist Robert Schuller.  He moved to Orange County, California in 1955 to plant a church.  And oh, did he ever.  He launched his congregation at the Orange Drive-In Movie Theatre, where he preached from the roof of the snack bar to people as they sat in their cars.  “Come as you are; pray in the family car,” was his slogan.  From there, he went on to launch and build Garden Grove Community Church.  Though his new church building featured a more traditional sanctuary, it still allowed worshipers to remain in their cars in the parking lot and listen to worship if they did not wish to go inside.

By the 1970s, the church had outgrown its current facility.  Thus, in 1977, Robert Schuller joined with famous architect Philip Johnson to construct the Crystal Cathedral at a cost of $18 million.  What began as a drive-in movie theatre mission plant was now a world-famous megachurch.  During the 1980s, the TV program that Robert Schuller hosted from his Crystal Cathedral, The Hour of Power, was the most watched religious program in America.

But trouble and turmoil bubbled up when it was time for the church’s founding pastor to hand over the reins.  At first, his son was to become the new senior pastor.  Then his daughter led the congregation for a short time.  Then his grandson took over.  The tumultuous transition took a severe toll on the congregation, which had to file for bankruptcy.  What was once, arguably, the most famous worship space in America soon fell silent on Sunday mornings.  Yesterday, however, the Crystal Cathedral sprung back into action as a space for worship, although it has been remodeled and renamed by the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Orange as Christ Cathedral.

The story of the Crystal Cathedral is a cautionary tale of the kind of damage rocky leadership transitions can do to tender congregational ties.  It is also a cautionary tale, however, of the danger of having a larger-than-life pastoral personality displace the person of Christ in a congregation.  It doesn’t really matter whether the displacement takes place intentionally or unintentionally.  The effect is the same.  When the people in the pews become more enamored by a church’s leader than by the Lamb of God, when the leader leaves, the people will, too.

As a pastor, I know how difficult it can be to lead strongly while also pointing humbly to Jesus.  It can be difficult because people naturally tend to gravitate toward someone they can physically see, like a pastor, instead of someone they cannot, like the One who is now enthroned in the heavenly realms.  It can also be difficult, however, because there is a part of me that wants people to look at me and to me – to love me.  It is at these times that I must remind myself that the goal of ministry is not to get love for me, but to encourage love for Jesus.

John the Baptist once said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  This is a statement of how to do ministry, yes, but it is also a reality of ministry.  If you’re a pastor, like it or not, you will eventually decrease.  No one’s ministry lasts forever – except for Jesus’.  So, point people to the Minister and the ministry that will long outlast yours.  His ministry will stand, long after our world’s cathedrals of crystal close.

July 29, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

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