“Those” People

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This past week has been difficult. It has been another week dominated by news of shootings, and riots, violence and strife. All happening right in our backyards. After watching the news for a week I’m not any closer to knowing where the blame should lie for these situations. And it’s tempting to assign blame.

Few people want to wait until the facts come out. What I have seen and heard this week on Facebook and twitter and on the news and in conversations are people who are more than willing to take sides and place blame instantaneously. I’ve seen that stereotypes and prejudice are alive and well. When you first heard of the latest shooting, to whom did you give the benefit of the doubt? Did you give it to the officer? Did you give it to suspect? Wherever you gave the benefit of the doubt, absent any real evidence, reveals where your sympathies lie. As people we like to pick sides and draw lines. It’s us against them. The police vs. the citizens. It’s the white vs. the blacks. One community vs. another.

And we are all guilty of doing this to one degree or another. Our guilt is betrayed in those initial reactions to these news stories. These stereotypes and prejudices run deep within us. And they always have. From the time we can walk and talk, we separate ourselves into groups. It happens in school where kids sort themselves based on their sport, or musical instrument, or love of computers, or hatred of conformity. It happens at work. It also happens on a regional and national level.

All of this is evidence of our sinful natures at work. Satan wants nothing more than to keep us divided. He wants to stir up hatred and distrust and fear of “those people” whoever they are. Because if he can get you to do that, you won’t be so worried about peace or forgiveness. Your concern that “those people” know God’s mercy and grace in Jesus will be a distant memory. This week the devil has been cheering as our communities have torn themselves apart in words and actions.

The question we all have to wrestle with is this. Did Jesus come for just a select few or did he come for everyone? How do you know?

Well, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
– John 3:16-17

Even the greatest men and women of God struggle with stereotypes and prejudice. There is a great quote from 1 Samuel 16. “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God spoke these words to his prophet Samuel. Samuel was sent to anoint the next king of Israel, one of Jesse’s sons. Looking at all of the young men lined up Samuel immediately knew who the next king should be: Jesse’s eldest son Eliab, the tall good looking one.

But God set Samuel straight. “Don’t look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) God hadn’t chosen Eliab, the oldest and tallest. He had chosen David, the youngest and shortest.

thugs-and-criminals

When you look at others what do you see? Are you looking at outward appearances or are you looking deeper? Do you just see “those people?” The lost causes, the hopeless, the criminal, the godless? Or do you see others as God sees them? As people just as much in need of God’s grace and forgiveness as any of us?

It is so easy to draw lines between ourselves and others. It is easy to begin to think and speak and act as if people from another country, or town, or racial heritage, or political affiliation are simply “those people.” But thank God that Jesus taught his disciples that God sees differently. Because by Jesus’ grace and forgiveness we have the privilege of being called the children of God. Not because of what we’ve done, but because of what God has done for us.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

God Isn’t On Your Side

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Dear Christian, God isn’t on your side. Regardless of your gut reaction to that statement, please read on. There is no end to the mischief that has been done in the name of God. For example, we fight wars believing God is on our side. And perhaps that seems like a logical conclusion to make when we are fighting against foreign nations and the followers of other gods.

But what happens when those lined up against us, also happen to be our brothers and sisters in Christ? Take the American Civil War. Two sides, largely (though not exclusively) populated by followers of Jesus, killing each other. Both sides believing firmly that God was on their side.

During that war, Abraham Lincoln met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. Lincoln was not much of a church-goer but was a man of deep, if at times unorthodox, faith. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr President, let us pray that God is on our side.” Lincoln’s response showed far greater insight: “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”

Lincoln reminded those ministers that religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. How shocking would it be to hear a politician speak like that today?

We have a tendency as humans to draw up battle lines. To divide ourselves from others. To separate ourselves from those who look different, or speak different, or hold different beliefs. We identify as democrats, or republicans, or independents, or conservatives, or liberals. Even within Christendom we divide ourselves as Methodists, or Lutherans, or Roman Catholics, or Baptists, or non-denominational.

And it doesn’t matter what side of any issue we find ourselves on. We tend to proudly assert that God is on our side. In doing this, we are doing nothing less than attempting to use God to further our own causes.

In contrast to this, I’m reminded of the surprising encounter Joshua had with God on the hills overlooking Jericho. For context, remember that the battle for Jericho was to be the first of many battles that Israel would fight against the Canaanites as they entered the land that God had promised to them. On the eve of the battle, Joshua had gone off by himself a little way to survey the city.

“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went up to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my Lord say to his servant?’”  -Joshua 5:13-14

It’s hard to get around the oddness of this encounter. When Joshua sees the man standing before him with a drawn sword he asks the obvious question. ‘There is a battle about to be fought, so whose side are you on? Ours or theirs?’

But the man stops Joshua short. “No,” he says. In effect, God says, “Wrong question.” This battle wasn’t about the Israelites versus the Canaanites, with God on the side of the Israelites. This battle was about God furthering His agenda and working through the Israelites to accomplish it.

Azariah, a prophet many years later, expressed something similar to King Asa of Judah. After the Spirit of God came upon Azariah, he said, “The Lord is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.” – 2 Chronicles 15:2

In Jesus, we are freed from the constant need to assert that we’ve got God on our side. We are freed from the need to constantly and continually separate ourselves out, one from another. We should all be less concerned with asserting that God is on our side, and more concerned with seriously reflecting upon whether or not we are on God’s.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
–  Matthew 11:29-30

The Parable of the Legos

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  A father desired to give his four young children a gift. He called them all together and gave each child a small Lego set. To his first child he gave a Lego boat set. To the second he gave a Lego car set. To the third he gave a Lego plane set. And to the fourth he gave a Lego truck set. They all enthusiastically ripped open their boxes and set to work.

The first child dropped the set of directions for his boat and instead picked up the instructions for the car. He looked in vain for the pieces in his pile that would match those in the instructions for the car, but soon gave up in frustration having built nothing.

 The second child, in her pride, tossed aside her car instructions. She knew what cars looked like. She didn’t need the instructions. She set to work immediately, but after putting the wheels together, couldn’t think of how all the scattered pieces could fit together properly. She tried for a number of minutes then left the pieces on the floor in disgust.

The third child happily poured out her Legos and set to work on building her airplane. Since the set was small, and the pieces were few, she felt confident that she could build her airplane using only the picture on the box. She worked for over an hour. At times she felt she was nearly finished, only to discover a critical piece was missing. Finally she stopped. It was close enough. But there were still a scattering of pieces on the floor, whose purpose was a mystery. She began to play with her new toy but soon gave it up and wandered out of the room, leaving the airplane behind. Those mystery pieces left her feeling unsatisfied with her work.

The fourth child was as excited as all the others. He tore open his box, poured the pieces on the floor, carefully unfolded the instructions and diligently set to work. In no time at all, the truck was complete. It looked just like the picture on the box. He then picked up his new toy and in his joy ran off to find his siblings.

“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
    – Ephesians 2:8-10

In Jesus, we have been given a wonderful gift. A gift of grace, and mercy and love. That gift was freely given. Like the children in the parable of the Legos, that gift is given not as a reward for good behavior, or hard work, or even because we thought to ask for it. The Father simply desired to give his beloved children a gift and did so.

The first child is the one who receives this gift but doesn’t understand it. And because it is not understood, the joy of the gift is taken from him. The second child is the one who receives the gift, but in her pride believes that she can decide for herself what this gift will be. In the end she walks away from the gift in disgust, never knowing fully what she had been given. The third child is the one who receives the gift with joy, but having only the image and not the step-by-step instructions for the gift endures for a little while, but then abandons it because it didn’t bring the contentment she had imagined. The fourth child is the one who receives the gift and fully understands what he has received. He completes his Lego truck and in his joy, goes out and searches for his lost siblings that they might join him and return to the gift their Father gave them.

***I am indebted to my wife for the idea behind this story. The parable is based loosely on Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew chapter 13.***

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

 

Pennies in the Hand of God: How Prayer Works

penny in hand

One day my daughter Mackenzie and I were playing in her room and we started to play keep-away. We both saw a penny on the floor and at the same time grabbed for it. I got there first and I closed my finger tight around this most desirable object. Mackenzie proceeded to climb onto my lap as she tried to pry my fingers open. According to the international rules of keep-away, once she got one finger open, it couldn’t be closed again. She worked at it until finally she was able to snatch the penny from my hand. Then she jumped down and ran away giggling, only to return when I had grabbed another toy and closed my fist tightly around it. Just a fun, simple game.

But later that night I started thinking of that game again. I started thinking about the struggle my daughter went through to pry that penny from my hand, and the struggle that many people have with God when it comes to the things they want or need. Sometimes when we come to God in prayer, we come for the pennies in his hand.

“Lord, I really need a passing grade on this test tomorrow.” “Lord, I need a job.” “Heavenly Father, my mom is ill, please make her well.”

We reach for those things and then when God grants the request we push his hand away and run off to the next thing on our busy schedules. In this way we treat God like a servant. We call on Him when we have a need, and then ignore Him the rest of the time. We treat prayer like something that we do if we have time or a pressing need. But Jesus taught his disciples, and by extension us, to pray differently.

Here are three quotes on prayer by Martin Luther (the guy who lived in the 1500’s and led the Reformation, not the civil rights leader)

“As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.”

“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to get it all done.”

How different those quotes are from the way many of us approach prayer. Jesus taught that prayer was of supreme importance. This is where Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow comes in. I believe that in this parable Jesus is trying to strip away some of the baggage that we bring to prayer. And remember Jesus told this parable to drive home the point that the disciples should always pray and never give up.

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”
And then Jesus said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them and speedily.” – Luke 18:1-7

Unfortunately, I think many times we equate God with the unjust judge. We act as if in order for our prayers to be heard we have to pester Him, or figure out the right formula, or get enough other people to pester Him in order for our requests to be granted.

This is not what Jesus meant when he encouraged his disciples to always pray and not give up. Jesus set up this parable in such a way that God is the opposite of the unjust judge. He says in verse 7, “Will not God give justice to His elect, to his chosen, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them?” Yes, Jesus encourages us to always pray, but the way in which He does that is important. Jesus doesn’t appeal to the Law. He doesn’t say, “Pray always, so that God will be moved to grant your request by your faithfulness or persistence.” Jesus appeals to the Gospel. He says in effect, “Pray without ceasing, because God has chosen you and you are precious to Him.”

This is how prayer works. We don’t come before a distracted, distant God whose attention we need to grab, and whose fingers need to be pried open. We come before a close, loving Father, who has called us to be His children and desires to hear and answer our prayers.

 

Do Not Be Overcome By Evil, But Overcome Evil with Good

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I’ll let the Apostle Paul speak for himself…

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in trouble, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
– Romans 12:9-21

The world is broken and hurting. We are reminded of that daily in more ways than we could ever number. And yet, God is not silent. God is not absent. God is not far off. God confronted evil head on in His son Jesus. As His followers here we have the privilege to stand as His witnesses. We witness the love of God for this broken world through Jesus’ death on the cross. We reflect that love as we live and respond to tragedy and brokenness and suffering as Jesus taught us. We love those who hate. We weep with those who weep. We rejoice with those who rejoice. And we pray that one day all of the false walls we build between one another would be torn down so that we can see each other as God sees us; not as lost causes, but as people of inestimable worth. Every person you meet is someone for whom Jesus died, that they might live anew through Him.

The Commandment We All Break

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Which of the Ten Commandments does everyone break most often? When I am teaching confirmation classes and the topic of the Ten Commandments comes up this is usually my first question. Invariably it invites plenty of discussion and some funny (and some seriously sad) responses. In case you need a refresher on the top ten here they are recorded in Exodus 20.

“And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
 “You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
“You shall not kill.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

 Typically for the sake of clarity we condense and number them. Different groups of Christians number them slightly differently. I won’t get the why and how of that now. It’s interesting but not important to the overall question. This is how I learned them.

  1. You shall have no other gods. (no idols)
  2. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  3. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  4. Honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not murder.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

So back to that first question. Which commandment do we all break most often?

I’ve heard many people say it’s numbers 9 and 10; coveting. Living in an affluent North American context this is obviously a problem. Our whole economic system would collapse in about ten seconds if we all gave this one up. After all our economy is built on consumerism; buying things. Companies spend literally billions of dollars to make you want what is not and in some cases should not be yours. But coveting isn’t the most frequently broken commandment.

Few people ever say it’s numbers 5 or 6. The reasoning goes like this, “Sure some people do murder or commit adultery. But those are the outliers. Most people don’t have serious issues with these two.” That reasoning works unless you happen to consider what Jesus says about numbers 5 and 6 in Matthew 5. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” And, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you everyone who looks at a woman (or man) with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” OK. So, seen in that light numbers 5 and 6 are broken more often than we would think at first. But they still are nowhere near the commandment we break most often.

The commandment we all break is the first. “You shall have no other gods.” Martin Luther once said the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatryIn other words, we never break the other commandments without first breaking the commandment against idolatry. (A Treatise on Good Works parts X, XI) Let that sink in a moment. In his explanation of the first commandment he wrote, “You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” And so anything that you fear, love, or trust more than God has become an idol for you.

When a person steals and breaks the seventh commandment, they have already broken the first. Their desire to have what they stole grew out of a violation of the first commandment. They did not fear, love or trust in God above all else. And so to fill their desire they took what was not theirs. And you can go down the list like that with all the other commandments. Each violation can be traced back to a breaking of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Idols aren’t only or necessarily funny little statues made out of wood or metal that the unenlightened people of the past prayed to, but that we have outgrown. An idol can be anything. Anything you fear above all else. Anything you love above all else. Anything you trust above all else. The gods of today that vie for God’s place in your life are so ordinary and commonplace that many of us don’t even give them a second thought. The false gods of today don’t go by the name of Baal, or Molech, or Ashtoreth. They are our retirement funds and bank accounts, they are our homes and our families, and they are our countries and our smartphones. And we do our bowing and kneeling to them with our schedules, our credit cards, our imaginations and our work.

Yes, we all break the first commandment. And we break it often. The good news in all of this is that the Big Ten were never meant to be a checklist to get into heaven. God doesn’t attach a percentage to them and say, “If you keep them 90 percent of the time, or 60 percent, or 40 percent, then I’ll let you in.” No. They do detail how God wants us to live. But in trying to keep them we learn not only the depth of our sin, but also our utter incapability to keep them.

Once Jesus was asked by a young man seeking to justify himself, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus expertly opened the young man’s eyes to the idol that was standing between him and God. The thing he feared, loved and trusted above all else was his wealth. He walked away sad, unable and unwilling to give it up. The disciples, watching from the sidelines, and realizing their own failings, said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responded, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-30)

Yes we break the first commandment most often. We break it every day. How should we respond? By repenting and trusting in Jesus, the one who from the cross said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Reasons I Love Vacation Bible School

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VBS (Vacation Bible School) week can be a difficult, grueling, cruel, thankless and exhausting experience. So why do people continue to pour themselves into these events year after year? I’m glad you asked. Very simply, it’s because VBS week is also one of the most rewarding things a gathering of believers can do. Below are some of the reasons that I love VBS (even though it is exhausting). Feel free to add your reason in the comments below if you don’t see it on the list!

10. You can never have too many opportunities to practice patience.
Having led “story time” for our church’s VBS for the past 8 years this is one I’ve learned over and over again. You’re in the middle of telling the most riveting story from the Bible and then you ask a question about the story you’ve just told and the sweetest little 6 year old looks up at you and proceeds to tell you the life story of her most precious hamster. Sure in the moment that can try a person’s patience, but you’ve also made a connection with one of the littlest members of God’s kingdom. And she cares enough about you to want to share a bit of her life with you.

9. You can never have enough opportunities to practice any of the “Fruit of the Spirit.”
In Galatians 5:22 Paul says that the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Trust me. Where two or three or a couple hundred children are gathered there will be fun. And trouble. And opportunities to show love in the face of anger, joy in the face of sadness, peace in the face of chaos, patience in the face of trying situations, kindness in the face of rudeness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in more places than you could count. And that’s a good thing!

8. I love the excitement and the expectation of the children as they show up each day for VBS.
Adults could learn a lot about how we are to approach corporate worship, the gathering of the saints for fellowship, and being in the presence of God.

7. VBS is an expression of the entire body of Christ using its gifts and abilities for the glory of God.
From those who work behind the scenes to design sets and make copies to those who teach or appear in skits, all are important for the success of the week.  Senior adults labor alongside of teenagers.  I can’t think of an event that models better how the body of Christ should work EVERY day!

6.We have fun!
Yes we have a schedule, yes we have times that are very focused and serious, but we have FUN!  On the New Earth I believe we will run, laugh, giggle, smell, taste, listen, touch and all to the glory of God.  VBS reminds both adults and children that there is a joy in the Lord that is contagious.  The gospel is serious, our sin is serious, and the consequences of rebelling against God are serious.  But joyful hearts are good medicine!

5. VBS gives us the chance to connect with our community!
Yes, some kids spend their entire summer hoping from one VBS to the next. When they drop into our VBS, we should be thankful! Each time we connect with a new family, we develop a better picture of what our community is really like. VBS will help us to better understand how to minister to our neighborhoods.

4. VBS gives us the chance to demonstrate the love of Christ.
In today’s world, orthodox (true) Christianity is increasingly unpopular. If we affirm biblical marriage and label sin as sin, we will be unpopular. And one way to fight against the “angry Christian” stereotype is to love our neighbors. VBS gives us the chance to do just that! As we serve our neighbors’ and co-workers’ kids, we can dispel many of the myths that surround our church. Paul encourages us to do just that: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). VBS provides our church a premium stage for wowing the world with the love of Christ! Remember the words of our savior, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

3. VBS give us the chance to fulfill the great commission.
Missions is not just something missionaries do. Nor is it something we do “out there.” Jesus said all of us are to be making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20)! We need to be sharing the gospel in Asia. But, we also must talk about the good news of Jesus in our towns, homes, and ballparks! VBS gives us an amazing venue for reaching and discipling the kids in our community! By participating in VBS, we get to experience the joy of obeying Jesus’ mission call!

2. Children need Jesus too!
There are children who will hear the gospel, who will repent and trust only in the finished work of Christ, and will be saved!  Children are sinners in need of a Savior. If you don’t believe that we are sinners at birth and by choice, go work with 2-year-olds for a Sunday.  Not many parents have to teach little Johnny how to be selfish with a plastic dinosaur. He knows how to be selfish quite naturally thank you! And yet, when the gospel is shared and children are called to repentance and faith, when they are baptized, God will shine His light, dead hearts will be awakened, faith will be granted, and children will believe and be saved!

1. Jesus
Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who was born into the world with this most important mission and agenda, set aside time with children. Matthew’s gospel records this moment in Jesus’ ministry. In the midst of some very adult teaching on divorce some parents in the crowd began to bring their children to Jesus so that he might lay his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked the parents. Jesus turned to them and said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:13-14) Children are not distractions to be put up with. They are not merely the future of the church. They are the church, and precious to God.

Jesus Christ, Harry Potter and Aslan

harry laughing

All good stories are reflections of God’s greatest Story!

In a conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien once said,

“The story of Christ, is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened…The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”

To be very clear at the outset, Harry Potter is not Jesus. But within Harry Potter’s story are reflections; glimpses if you will, of that true and greater story of Jesus’ life. J.K. Rowling admitted as much in 2007. She said, “To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious. But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story, where we were going.”

In one scene in particular Harry Potter visits his parents’ graves and finds two Biblical passages inscribed on the tombstones in the graveyard. The first appears on the graves of Dumbledore’s mother and sister. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6) The second appears on the grave of Harry’s parents. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Rowling revealed that “…I think those two particular quotations he (Harry) finds on the tombstones …they sum up, they almost epitomize, the whole series.”

C.S. Lewis did something similar in the Chronicles of Narnia. In one of his last ever letters, C.S. Lewis describes his intentions behind his now famous story. He writes:

“What Aslan meant when he said he had died is, in one sense plain enough. Read the earlier book in this series called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and you will find the full story of how he was killed by the White Witch and came to life again. When you have read that, I think you will probably see that there is a deeper meaning behind it. The whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself ‘Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours), what might have happened?’ The stories are my answers. Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts, I thought He would become a Talking Beast there, as He became a man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; (b) Christ is called ‘The Lion of Judah’ in the Bible; (c) I’d been having strange dreams about lions when I began writing the work. The whole series works out like this.

The Magician’s Nephew, tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tells the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian, tells of restoration of the true religion after corruption.
The Horse and His Boy, tells of the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, tells of the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair, tells of the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle, tells of the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgment.”

Sometimes these parallels are intentional, as is the case for the works by Rowling and Lewis, but other times we stumble upon echoes of the Gospel unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as any great surprise. The God who created this world is still intimately involved in His creation, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, He continues to draw people to His Son, Jesus. Even through great works of fiction.

Below are a couple of other fun parallels between the story of Harry Potter and the history of Jesus… 

  1. Jesus laid his life down for the whole world. He walked willingly to his death, carrying his cross. And his death conquered death. After three days in the tomb Jesus came back to life. Jesus’ willing sacrifice of himself brought about the forgiveness of the whole world. Harry Potter also willingly sacrificed himself. And after his death at the hands of Lord Voldemort he came back as well. And his death accomplished something great as well. It provided magical protection for all of those for whom he had died who were trapped in Hogwarts. Lord Voldemort’s spells couldn’t touch them any longer.

   Jesus said, “This is my commandment. That you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
John 15:12-13

  1. When Harry is walking in the Forbidden Forest, on his way to meet Lord Voldemort, he takes the golden snitch from his pocket and says, “I’m ready to die.” The snitch opens and Harry takes out the Resurrection Stone. His loved ones who were dead surround him once more. He draws comfort and strength from them to face the trial ahead. As followers of Jesus we do the same thing. In this moment there is an echo of Hebrews 11-12.

    “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Hebrews 12:1-3

There are many more parallels in the Harry Potter series than just those two, but the joy is in discovery. So sit down with a good book. And as you read, keep in your mind the grand arch of God’s interactions with His creation from the beginning of the world until now. It’s likely you’ll see echoes and reflections of the Gospel, the Good News in Jesus, waiting to be discovered.

***All of this presupposes a working knowledge of God’s Word. Without a thorough understanding of how God has worked in the world through the lives of people from creation until the coming of Jesus, most if not all of the parallels and symbolism that runs throughout new and older literature will be completely lost on the reader. So while you are reading your fiction don’t neglect the reading of the Scriptures as well!***

 

Keyboard Courage: Practicing Kindness in the Digital Age

children and phone

The phrase, “keyboard courage” is probably best defined as, “the act of saying nasty or hurtful things in an email or online forum that you wouldn’t normally say to someone’s face.”

Social media has done a lot of great things. It has helped us to get and stay connected with one another over vast distances in ways that previous generations could only imagine. When my brother was serving in Afghanistan we had the opportunity to stay connected to him through Facebook, and emails, and even more remarkably over Skype. We could talk to him face to face in real time even though he was half a world away.

But, social media has also had some dramatically negative effects. Yes, we are able to connect instantly with complete strangers over vast distances. But many times we choose to use Twitter, and Facebook, and other platforms not to build each other up or stay connected, but to tear others down. This negative use can have devastating consequences not just for the people targeted, but also for the person making the comment.

Probably the most well-known example is what happened to Justine Sacco in 2013. She was on her way to Africa and as she boarded the plane she posted this to Twitter, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Her comments set off a fire-storm which resulted in her firing before her plane had even landed in its destination. For her story click Here.

We say things through our tablets and smartphones that we would never have the guts to say to a person face to face. We say them without thinking through the consequences of those words. Hence the term, “Keyboard Courage.”

Here are some things to keep in mind that I have found helpful. I did not come up with them, and have forgotten where I first ran across them, but the advice is solid.

  1. Listen carefully, and read and reread.
     In conversation I want to ask lots of questions to make sure I understand what the other person is saying.
  1. Listen in particular for the motive.
    What has prompted the person’s questions and concerns? Even if you’re sure that the motive is obvious it’s always a good idea to ask the person before responding. The way I reply to mocking skepticism, though still respectful, is different from the way I reply to sincere questions.
  1. Disagree with ideas, not with a person.
     I try to refrain from impugning motives. I try to give credit where credit is due, noting every place of common belief.
  1. Be teachable.
     It is a conversation we are in, so we can only assume that we have things to learn that can deepen our faith.
  1. If you are going to quote the Bible, then use it as a guide to discern the truth of the person’s argument – and of your own, not as a club to win an argument.
    As a follower of Jesus, I believe, the Bible is the means by which God has revealed himself to us in Christ, and the means by which the Holy Spirit continues to guide us into all truth. I believe that it remains the authoritative, infallible guide in all matters of faith and practice. But I also know that many do not share that view and so I make it my goal that if I share a Bible passage I am doing it respectfully.

Here are two great proverbs to keep in mind when it comes to practicing kindness in this digital age.

“Careless words stab like a sword, but the words of wise people bring healing.”
– Proverbs 12:18

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
– Proverbs 27:17

 

Finding God When You Feel Alone

stairway to heaven

At times every one wonders, “God where are you?” We wonder, “Where is God in the midst of this (you can fill in the blank) – tornado, layoff, tsunami, divorce, terrorist attack, depression…?”

Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) But it’s not always easy to believe that. We tend to have a view of God that says, “If things are going well for me, then God must be on my side. He must really be helping me out. He must be present with me.” And then we start to believe that when things go badly that God must be absent from us, or punishing us for something. We often have a very narrow and imperfect view of what it means that God is with us. What we know is that Jesus has promised to be with us. But he hasn’t promised that God’s presence will make our lives easy. Actually he says the opposite. “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

No one knew this better than Jacob. His full story is recorded in the book of Genesis in chapters 25-50. He has gone down in the history of Judaism and Christianity as one of the three great patriarchs of the faith. God is often known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Immediately after Jacob’s great deception of his father Isaac, he took his mother’s advice and fled to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, who he feared would murder him. Rachel, his mother, told Jacob that when it was safe to return home she would send word and bring him back. Jacob didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time he saw his mother alive. Jacob set out on his self-inflicted exile to find his long lost uncle in a place called Haran. He set out alone. And when the sun went down on his first day of traveling, he laid down with a rock for a pillow.

It’s easy to overlook Jacob’s plight. But this wasn’t an easy jaunt for him. Jacob was the modern day equivalent of an urbanite. A city-dweller. Growing up, he was his mother’s favorite, and unlike his older twin Esau, he spent his days at home; in the comfort of the tents. Roughing it in the wilderness wasn’t his thing. He preferred to be with people. But there he was, alone, without the hope of returning home anytime soon. And it was there, in the wilderness, when he felt the most alone, that God made himself known to him.

Jacob somehow managed to fall asleep that first night, and God came to him in a dream. In the dream Jacob saw a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down on it. At the top of the ladder stood God.

And God said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever go. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it.” (Genesis 28:10-17)

Even when you can’t feel God’s presence in your life, He is there. Far too often, people judge God’s presence by what they feel. If it feels like God is present then He must be. If it feels like God has abandoned me then He must have for some reason. Our feelings in this matter are often unreliable. The question is then, “If you can’t determine God’s presence by your feelings, then how can you know He is there?” The simple answer is that you know God is with you because He has promised to be with you. Faith is holding on to that promise even when you feel alone. Eventually those feelings of isolation will pass, and you’ll wake up one morning, look back on your past and say like Jacob, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it.”

At times every one wonders, “God where are you?” We wonder, “Where is God in the midst of this (you can fill in the blank) – tornado, layoff, tsunami, divorce, terrorist attack, depression…?”

God revealed himself to Jacob in a dream standing at the top of a ladder. In that dream God said, “I am with you, and I will continue to be with you.” Jacob woke up from that dream saying, “Surely God is in this place and I wasn’t even aware.”

God reveals himself to you and I, not in dreams filled with ladders, but in the one who said that He was the ladder. God reveals himself in His Son Jesus. Jesus said to Nathanael (soon to be one of his disciples) that he would see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)

What Jacob saw in a dream became a reality in Jesus. As God was with Jacob, even when he was not aware of it, so too is God with you in Jesus.

About the artwork: The photograph is called “Limitless,” and was done by Erik Johansson who is a photographer and retoucher from Sweden. For more of his work click HERE