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

black and white

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

breaking commandments

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

be a vbs leader

 

 

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

Fear Not: When the Lions Come

lion licking tent

Did you watch this recent video? A couple of campers in Botswana got a rather unpleasant surprise when they woke up to a lion licking the dew off of their tent. Watching the video it’s hard to imagine what it must have taken to sit quietly inside knowing and being able to see the danger that was only millimeters of thin plastic away. But it raises an interesting question. How are God’s people able to remain faithful and fearless in the face of danger?

The Scriptures are full of examples of God’s people facing great dangers and fears for their faith. The book of Daniel records two of the most widely known and memorable accounts of faithfulness in the face of fear.

The book of Daniel is a record of Israelites who were carried off to Babylon when king Nebuchadnezzar overran Israel. The first half of the book focuses on four friends. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The account of what happened with Sadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is told in Daniel 3 and 4. The long and short of it, is that king Nebuchadnezzar set up a large golden statue that everyone was to bow down and worship, or face death in a fiery furnace. But these three friends refused to compromise their faith and worship anything other than the true God. When they were brought before the King Nebuchadnezzar, he gave them a final chance to worship before the golden idol. He told them,

“If you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

They replied and said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
– Daniel 3:15-18

What happened next, no one could have expected. The three were thrown into the fire but they were unharmed by it, and there was with them in the fire another figure, one “like a son of the gods.” King Nebuchadnezzar called them to come out of the fire and the three friends came out without a burn or even the smell of smoke on their bodies. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained faithful in the face of a terribly frightening situation. Daniel has his own harrowing experience in a lions’ den that is recorded in Daniel 6, for refusing to pray to anyone but God. And on that occasion God rescued him, as well.

In both of these cases, God’s people stood in the face of fear and were rescued. But as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faithfully proclaimed, even if God hadn’t rescued them, they would still have refused to renounce their faith in God. When it comes to persecution there isn’t always a happy ending. Sometimes the faithful suffer death for their faith, and their boldness in the face of death stands as an incredible witness to the truth.

Polycarp is one of those men. He met his death in 160 AD. Polycarp was an old man, at least 86 at this time, and probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle, having been a disciple of St. John. This was one reason he was greatly revered as a teacher and church leader. The account below is from a letter of an eye-witness to his death to the churches in the area.

“As Polycarp was being taken into the arena, a voice came to him from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp and play the man!” No one saw who had spoken, but our brothers who were there heard the voice. When the crowd heard that Polycarp had been captured, there was an uproar. The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatize, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’”

Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Down with the Atheists!”

“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”

“86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

“I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.”

“Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.”

“If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.”

“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
– From The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Translated by J.B. Lightfoot.

Polycarp faithfully met his end in that fire. The question behind each of these stories, and others like them is, “What would possess someone to risk death in those terrible ways?” “How could they stand strong in the face of incredible fear?

Jesus once told his disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 10:28-33

Those men and women who have stood firm in their faith in the face of unimaginable fear did so because they knew this truth that Jesus spoke. They knew that their fate was in the hands of God, the maker of heaven and earth. And there is no better place to be.

There is a story told of a man who had just gotten married and was returning home with his wife. They were crossing a lake in a boat, when suddenly a great storm arose. The man was a warrior, but the woman became very much afraid because it seemed almost hopeless that they would safely reach the other shore.

The boat was small and the storm was really huge, and any moment they were going to be drowned. But the man sat silently, calm and quiet, as if nothing was happening.

The woman was trembling and she said, “Are you not afraid ? This may be our last moment of life! It doesn’t seem that we will be able to reach the other shore. Only some miracle can save us; otherwise death is certain. Are you not afraid? Are you mad or something? Are you a stone or something?”

The man laughed and took his sword out of its sheath. The woman was even more puzzled: What he was doing? Then he brought the naked sword close to the woman’s neck, so close that just a small gap was there, it was almost touching her neck.

He said, “Are you afraid ?” She started to laugh and said,” Why should I be afraid? If the sword is in your hands, why I should be afraid? I know you love me.” He put the sword back and said, This is my answer”. I know God Loves me, and the storm is in His hands.

So, when the lions come, in whatever form they take; fear not! Know that God loves you and they are in His hands.

 

 

The Trinity Is NOT Like…

three leaf clover

“The doctrine of the Trinity is like a three leaf clover: three leaves, one clover.” Ever heard that? Or how about this, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like water: three forms (ice, steam, liquid) one substance.” Or, how about this, “The doctrine of the trinity is like a person who is a father and a son and husband.

We all like a good object lesson. We use them to help illustrate difficult to grasp concepts. And many times they can be helpful. They can make concrete what would otherwise be hopelessly abstract. But they can also miss the mark. And every object lesson that attempts to illustrate the mystery of the triune nature of God does just that. It misses the mark and leads to a false conception of God. So, if you are thinking of using an object to teach the doctrine of the trinity, use it to teach what the Trinity is not!

Three of the most frequently cited heresies (or false conceptions of God) that these popular analogies lead to are modalism, tritheism and subordinationism.

  1. Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism, Noetianism and Patripassianism): The belief that God is one God who shows himself in three different ways, sometimes as the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Holy Spirit. It describes God in purely functional terms. When he is saving the world on the cross, he is called Jesus. When he is convicting the world of sin, he is called Holy Spirit, and when he is creating the world, he is called Father. The error here is that this is contrary to what we believe: one God who eternally exists in three persons, not modes of functionality. It is not one God with three names, but one God in three persons. Stemming from Modalism, Patripassianism believed that the Father suffered as the Son.
  1. Tritheism: The belief that we have three Gods, all who share a similar nature, but not the exact same nature. In this, the nature of God is either distinguished or divided, which destroys the unity of God. We don’t believe in three persons who share in a species called “God,” but three persons who share in an identical, united nature.
  1. Subordinationalism: This is a subset of tritheism, but deserves its own category. In other words, if you are a subordinationalist, you are also a tritheist by definition, even if you don’t recognize it. The subordinationalist says that there is one God in three persons, but the essence of each person exists in a hierarchy. For example, many believe that God the Father is the greatest and the most powerful. Coming in second is God the Son, followed by the second runner-up, the Holy Spirit. Orthodox trinitarianism confesses an essential equality among all the members of the Godhead. None are greater in essence than the other.

So, here are some very common object lessons to avoid and the error they lead to.

  1. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. This is a form of tritheism. Each leaf of the clover is a separate leaf. It does not share in the same nature as the other leafs, but only has a similar nature. In the Trinity, each member shares in the exact samenature.
  2. The Trinity is like water. This is a modalistic illustration. Ice, steam, and liquid are examples of the same nature whichat onetime or another has a particular mode of existence. Sometimes it is liquid, sometimes it is ice, and sometimes it is steam. God is not sometimes Son, sometimes Father, and sometimes Spirit. He is eternally each, always at the same time.
  3. The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father, son, and husband. This is an often used illustration, but it only serves to present a modalistic understanding of God that is false. Father, son, and husband only describe various functions of one person. Each function cannot exist in a simultaneous relationship with each other, can’t talk to each other, and cannot exist in an eternal relationship with each other.
  4. The Trinity is like an egg. This is most definitely tritheism. While the egg is one, each of the substances that makes up the parts (shell, white stuff, and yoke), are most definitely distinct. The yoke is completely separate in nature from the shell.
  5. The Trinity is like a person who is one, yet has a spirit, soul, and a body.This one, can commit either a tritheistic or modalistic error, but cannot be used to illustrate the orthodox definition of the Trinity. It is modalistic in that the spirit, soul, and body are three functions of one conscience or person. But it can also be tritheistic when one considers that the spirit is not theexact same nature as the body.

Proper Trinitarianism is about a delicate balance between the unity and diversity in the Godhead. Christians believe in one God, i.e., one essence, who eternally exists in three separate persons, all of whom are equal. Ever wonder what a good example of that delicate balance looks like?

Meet the Athanasian Creed below. It is historically attributed to Athanasius (who lived in the 300s AD), but, for reasons I won’t go into now, it was probably not written by him. This creed, beautifully captures the incomprehensibility of God’s triune nature.

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic (Christian) faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.
For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one;the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.
The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.
The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.
So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.
So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian truth; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic (Christian) religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.
The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another.
But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.
So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sits on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic (Christian) faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

Got all that? It is always best to remember that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God, but they are not each other. Confused? Good! You should be. Here is the advice that Saint Augustine gave to some of his students as they studied the doctrine of the trinity. “Lest you become discouraged, know that when you love, you know more about who God is than you could ever know with your intellect.” When you solve the mystery, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that Christians have sought to avoid.

For some other bad analogies check out this satirical video from “Lutheran Satire”

 

 

 

 

Does Truth Matter Anymore?

truth like a lion

In light of the general insanity surrounding who qualifies as a man or woman this question about truth is important. Is truth absolute, or does it vary according to circumstances and opinions? Is it merely a philosophical argument?

Winston Churchill once stated, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

Can anyone really know “the truth”? Or is truth subject to human interpretation? Many today think truth is relative to the circumstances—that what is true for one situation is not necessarily true for others. This means that truth for one person is not necessarily the same for everyone! If this is correct, how can we know with certainty what to believe and how we should live?

The answer is that we can’t. Did you watch the video above? The interviewer walked onto a college campus and asked young adults about truth. At the conclusion of the video what was apparent was that these young adults were completely blind to even the most obvious truth. The interviewer asked if he could be a 6’5” Chinese woman (for those of you who didn’t watch the video he is in actuality a 5’9” Caucasian male). He summed up his interviews this way, “It shouldn’t be hard to tell a 5’9″ white guy that he isn’t a 6’5″ Chinese woman…what does that say about our society that it is?”

What does it say about our society that we can no longer recognize even the most obvious truths?

Does absolute truth exist?
There are those who do not believe in absolute truth. Dictionary.com defines the word absolute as “free from imperfection; complete; perfect.” The word truth is defined as “the true or actual state of a matter; conformity with fact or reality; a verified or indisputable fact.”

Philosophers and scientists have debated the issue of absolute truth for centuries. Moreover, many others have chosen to accept another philosophy, called situational ethics. Situational ethics is defined as “a theory of ethics according to which moral rules are not absolutely binding but may be modified in the light of specific situations” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary).

Said another way, situational ethics is “a system of ethics that evaluates acts in light of their situational context rather than by the application of moral absolutes” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).

Ironically, if one were to say, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” he or she might be asked, “Are you absolutely sure that no absolute truth exists?” To make such a statement is itself the claim of an absolute truth and, therefore, self-contradictory!

For example, just because one may choose not to believe in the law of gravity does not mean that gravity does not exist. Just because a man identifies as a woman does not make him anymore a woman than identifying himself as a cat would make him a cat. He could have all the surgeries currently available to him to change his outward appearance and he would still in truth be a man. His genetics can’t be changed. He was born a man, he will live as a man and he will die as a man. Even if he spends his life pretending to be a woman. Truth doesn’t change to suit our desires. The same can be said of God’s existence. What one person believes about God’s existence has nothing to do with the fact that He indeed exists!

Almost 2,000 years ago, a Roman governor asked a wrongly accused prisoner who stood before him, “What is truth?” The Roman’s name was Pontius Pilate. The prisoner was Jesus of Nazareth (John 18:37-38). Jesus did not respond to Pilate’s question during this encounter. At least we do not have a record of it if He did. Apparently, Pilate walked away from the question that day and simply washed his hands of the ordeal. At least he thought he did. Christ did answer the question elsewhere. The same writer, John, records it in a prayer of Jesus to His Father.

Jesus said He was the truth
In an interesting twist on the above, Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Paul said to the Ephesians, “If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). Christ, as God, is the personification of truth. He embodies truth.

Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).

Moreover, Christ said that Satan, who as Lucifer had known the truth, did not abide in the truth. Rebuking the Pharisees who did not believe in Him, Jesus told them they were of their father the devil. He went on to say, “He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).

Reflecting the confusion that Satan has created, Otto von Bismarck humorously stated,

“When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.”

As followers of Jesus we believe that truth is not situational. Truth is not relative. Truth is truth. And telling the truth matters. We are called to “speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) And it’s the “in love” part that matters. It’s not enough to speak the truth out of spite, or hate, or fear. We are called to speak the truth in love. A man is a man and always will be. A rabbit, being chased by a dog and fearing for its life, cannot turn around and become a lion simply by wishing it to happen. The rabbit if it stops and turns will be torn apart. If you jump from a high building you will fall, even if you tell yourself on the way down you don’t believe in gravity.

And God does exist. He did break into our world in the person of Jesus over two thousand years ago. He lived. He performed miracles. He was crucified and died on a cross. He was laid in a tomb and three days later he was raised to life again. He was seen by thousands over a period of 40 days before ascending into heaven. And He will come again. We are called to speak the truth so that those caught in the lies of this world may hear the truth in Jesus and be set free by Him.

Winston Churchill once said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”