Thursday, March 30, 2017

Retooling Our Dreams

Proverbs 19:21
    Many are the plans in a man's heart,
        but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails.

                There is a classic movie that we used to watch every Christmas season called “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The main character in the movie is George Bailey, who lives in a small town called Bedford Falls. George was a man with big dreams. He wanted to be an architect and build bridges and buildings all over the world. He wanted to travel and be free to explore this amazing world. At the beginning of the movie, it seems like George’s dream is on track, then the wheels fell off. Because of a series of unforeseen circumstances, totally out of George’s control, George finds himself stuck in little, confining Bedford Falls. George finally comes to the conclusion that his life had been wasted and that it would be better if he had never lived. God sends an angel to intervene and to show George what the world would have been like, if he had not been there. In the end, George comes to realize that his life had not been wasted, but that it had been rich and productive.

                There have been times when I have felt like George Bailey. Coming out of seminary, I had dreams about the path my life would take. In a nutshell, I expected to move through a series of successful pastorates, each one being a little better than the one before. At the right time, I expected to move into the arena of denominational leadership. Along with this, I expected to be given the opportunity to teach other pastors in a formal setting. I had observed this scenario lived out by others, and so I felt that it was in my grasp as well. But God had different plans for my life.

                None of the pieces of my dream have fallen into place. In fact, most of the pieces have fallen by the wayside. Instead of having a series of exciting pastorates in different places, I have served in the same church for 30 years. Instead of being tapped for a key denominational role, I have watched as others have taken those spots. Instead of stepping boldly into the world of academia, I have been politely informed that I don’t qualify. I have often felt like George Bailey, stuck in Bedford Falls.

                Paul David Tripp, in his book, Locked in the Middle, talks about how we are wired to dream, but that our dreams have been hijacked by sin. God created us with the capacity to dream so that we could experience the intangible glory of God and the wonders of a world unseen. In a perfect world, our dreams would all be God-centered and amazing. But because of sin, our dreams tend to be me-centered and unfulfilling. Even when the things we dream about become reality, we are rarely satisfied. That is because we are looking for satisfaction and fulfillment is something other than our relationship with God. It is not that our dreams are bad or evil, they just fall short of God’s design and plan for us. As Tripp says, it is not that our dreams are too big, it is that they are too small.

                One of the things that I have discovered is that God’s dreams for us are far more amazing and fulfilling than our dreams for ourselves. Coming out of high school, I dreamed of being a missionary in Haiti and working as a Lab. Tech. in a back room, safely hidden away from people. Instead, God placed me in Mankato, Minnesota and made me a part-time missionary to Ukraine and a full-time missionary to International Students. I dreamed of having a series of moderately long pastorates of maybe 10 years apiece. Instead, God has given me a 30 year run that has blessed by family with stability and allowed me to invest deeply into one community and one church.

                In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, God sends a message to the people of Israel living in exile in Babylon. They believed that all of their dreams had been shattered and that God had abandoned them. But in reality, God had so much more in store for them.  For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11) When our dreams begin to crumble, we can feel like we have been sent into exile, but God assures us that he is not done with us. His plans are bigger than our dreams. If we will actively turn toward Him, instead of away from Him, He will give us the amazing experience of hope and a future that is far more fulfilling than our crumbled dreams.

                When I begin to sink into my “George Bailey” routine, I need to be reminded that God is not done with me yet. Although I don’t know what the future holds for me, I can be confident that God has a plan for my life that will bring Him glory and me joy.

Philippians 1:6
    …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Can There Be Social Justice Without God?

(My thoughts on social justice have been prompted by my reading in Tim Keller's book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.)

                Social justice is the hot topic these days. Many prominent people are lining up to raise the banner of social justice. They are quick to vilify anyone who disagrees with their stand. Obviously, anyone who does not approach social justice in the same way that they do is unintelligent, uninformed, and unworthy of consideration.

                Social justice and morality go hand in hand. Yet, in reality they are often at odds with one another in the real world. Most people today have a self-authorizing view of morality. Because our secular world refuses to acknowledge any ultimate authority outside of ourselves, then morality becomes very individualistic and fluid. Yet, many secular people are quick to assert moral outrage over what they deem as injustice. This is a very arrogant and near-sighted view, because it declares that Western values and morals are superior to every other culture, and they have an obligation to fall in line with us.

                We need to be very clear that social justice is at the heart of our Christian faith. Throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, we are commanded to stand up for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the outcast, etc. It was Christianity that introduced the idea that every individual has value and worth, regardless of their social status or ethnic heritage.

                As God instructed the people of Israel how they were to live, He included instructions about the alien, the orphan, and the widow.  "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. Exodus 22:21-23

                Jesus stressed the importance of social justice in Matthew 25. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Matthew 25:35-36

                This raises two issues that separate the social justice that the Bible talks about and the social justice our secular world talks about. The first issue is our motivation for seeking social justice. The secular world has many very moral people. But as Luc Ferry, a French philosopher and proponent of secular humanism, points out, secular humanists are motivated by “a feeling of satisfaction and superiority when we contemplate… illiberal societies.” Social justice makes people feel good. It gives them a feeling of power, as they seek to change the world for the better. Nietzsche has contended that social justice activism in modern society is largely powered by hatred and contempt for others.

                Christians are motivated by agape love. Agape love is founded in humility not arrogance. It seeks to serve others, because of the love and grace we have received from God. Christians are motivated by the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. This view does not say that we are superior to others, but that we are just like them. We value others because God values them.

                The other stumbling block in the social justice debate is obligation. As I already stated, a person does not have to believe in God to be moral. Yet, the question remains, why should a person be moral. If there are no absolute standards that are outside of ourselves, why should I care? Again Nietzsche points out that if all our moral beliefs are really just the product of evolutionary biology, then while some things may feel wrong, they aren’t actually wrong.

                Christians embrace social justice because there are absolute moral standards, established by God, that govern our world. Just like natural laws, moral laws exist outside of us as humans. We do not get to decide right and wrong for ourselves. In fact, without an absolute standard, there is not right and wrong. Therefore social justice becomes a personal choice that can be accepted are rejected without consequence.

                On the surface, there can be a fa├žade of morality and social justice in our world. But without God, there is no solid foundation upon which to build. Other, non-western cultures, that do not hold the same standards of social justice as we do in the West, have just as much right to their view as we do. In reality, the very foundation for what people think of as social justice came from God a long time ago, and has been passed down, in one form or another, from generation to generation.

Exodus 20:2-17
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
"You shall have no other gods before me.
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
"You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
"You shall not murder.
"You shall not commit adultery.
 "You shall not steal.
"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."


Friday, March 24, 2017

Unmasking Our Idols

                When I think about idols, my mind goes to several random places. The first place it goes is back to the Old Testament. The pagan people of those times were idol collectors. They had community idols and private idols. Idols were like good luck charms that people accumulated to give them a better chance at having a happy, productive life. I read in my devotions this morning about Jacob and his sons. Even though Jacob had several very real, very personal encounters with God, his household still had idols. So in Genesis 35:2, Jacob had to instruct his household to get rid of their foreign gods (idols) that they had accumulated so that they could go before God in worship.

                The second place my mind goes, when I think of idols, is to modern, non-Western cultures. There are a number of cultures today that still worship idols. They do not all do this in the same way, but they do it. Some build ornate temples into which they place gold covered statues. Others carve the images of multiple gods on the walls of their temples. Still others are more primitive and set up small, carved wooden idols. These may be masterfully made or crude, but they serve the same purpose. There are many places that you can go to buy idols, and many tourists buy them as souvenirs of an exotic culture. They bring them home and place them in a prominent place in their office or living room.

                The third place that my mind goes, when I think of idols, is to the idols themselves. Most idols take on some kind of human form, although they may have unusual features. Some idols take on animal form or supernatural, bazaar forms. Physical idols can be small or large, simple or extravagant, wood or stone, plain or covered with gold. Most idols are portable, although some are enormous and permanently enshrined. The thing about idols is that they are very tangible in a physical sense.

                These images of idols all serve to do one thing for me, they blind me to the idols that intrude on my life. As long as I see idols as from ancient cultures that no longer exist, or as from far away cultures that are not my normal experience, or as portable, tangible objects that are easily identifiable, then I am blind to the idols that inhabit my personal world.

                Paul David Tripp, in his book, Lost in the Middle, masterfully points out that the idols most of us have to deal with are more subtle and less recognizable to us. Our eyes have become blind to the tangible, temporal things we have allowed to take the place of God. Anything we trust in to give us ultimate happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose will become an idol for us. For example, in America, we have made youth, physical fitness, and pleasure into idols, just to mention a few.

                God has given to us many good things, which He wants us to enjoy and find pleasure in. But when we allow these good things to divert our attention from the Giver, then they have become an idol. I am a runner. I enjoy running. Running gives me a certain sense of “aliveness.” I have been unable to run for over a year, due to an injury. I have felt a profound sense of loss and have experienced a longing to get back to running. As I read Paul Tripp’s book, I began to wonder if I have made running an idol.

                Jesus addressed the subtle way that the tangible things of this world can blind us to God and become idols in our life. He addressed this in the context of worry. Worry, anxiety, and frustration are often signs that we have made something into an idol. We sense that our idols are failing to deliver what we had hoped that they would. Look at how Jesus unmasked these often hidden idols in our lives.

    "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
    "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:25-34

                There are a couple of observations to be made from what Jesus tells us. First, the things that we often strive after, and which can become idols for us, are not bad in themselves. They are a part of God’s loving provision for us. The problem comes when we give too much importance to these things.

                Second, God knows exactly what we need and is more than capable of supplying it. God is not stingy, miserly, or reluctant. God created us and the world into which He placed us. He designed a fine tuned system that would both sustain us and would delight us. He is the source of all that we desire and need. He has provided these things for our pleasure.

                Third, in order to avoid making these things into idols, we need to keep our focus on God. All the good things of this world are intended to be sign posts that point us to the Author, the Artist, the Creator. If we will intentionally, consciously keep God on the throne of our lives, then we will not be tempted to make other things into idols.

                One of Satan’s tactics for tripping us up is to blind us to our own idols. As long as we trivialize idols, or see them as distant from us, we will never recognize them in our own lives. We all need to take a personal inventory and get rid of the idols we discover hidden in our spiritual closets.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Engaging Absolute Negative Freedom

1 Corinthians 10:23-24
"Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

                I was seated in a tour bus listening to our guide expound on the wonders of the city of Kiev. As we passed a government building, which represented the Communist regime, our guide broke from her script and began to verbalize her own feelings. “I was so tired of hearing about the masses. Everything was for the masses, but there was nothing for me. The individual did not count. The individual was expendable.”

                One of the hallmarks of Western society is individual freedom. Our Constitution declares that it is every person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This concept of individual freedom (and responsibility) comes right out of Christianity. It is Christianity that declared the value of each person; that each person has value and dignity, and has both the right and the responsibility to determine the course of their life.

                Christianity established the idea of personal freedom and choice as opposed to culturally or tribally defined commitments. This is based on the Protestant theology of the priesthood of all believers. This concept of freedom to pursue a meaningful life has morphed into a free for all. In late-modern thinking, the concept of freedom means that we are free from all limits. We are free from any absolute standard and from all boundaries. Today, anything goes, and no one has the right to say otherwise. It is obvious in how the concept of freedom of religion has been twisted into freedom from religion.

                Tim Keller, in his book Preaching, highlights some basic flaws in what he calls Absolute Negative Freedom.  First, it erodes community and fragments society. We see this happening in America today. Instead of being a unified nation, we are becoming a collection of subgroups that often are at odds with one another. In order for there it be genuine community some choices must be restricted and individual responsibility must be assumed.

                Another flaw in the Absolute Negative Freedom concept is what is called the harm principle. I am free to do whatever I choose as long as I am not harming another person. The problem with this is that there is not absolute standard for what is harm and what is not. Without an absolute standard that sets clear boundaries, we are each left to define what harm is for ourselves.

                A third flaw in this theory is that it makes meaning and purpose in life superficial and hollow. If there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, then there is no real value to anything that we do. It doesn’t matter if we treat others well (whatever that means) or cruelly (who is to say what is cruel?). Without God in the picture, our lives become meaningless.

                The Bible tells us that faith in Christ brings us genuine freedom. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.( John 8:36) This freedom that we have in Christ has two important dimensions. We have been set free from our bondage to sin. Sin is no longer our master, telling us how we should live. But we are also set free to pursue righteousness. With our new freedom comes responsibility. We are free to choose how we will live, but we are also responsible for how we live. We were created to live in harmony with God. Through Christ, that relationship can be restored and lived out. But it means placing ourselves under God’s authority and living according to His absolute standards.

                Paul addressed the concept of Absolute Negative Freedom in his letter to the Galatians. Some in that church was saying that because of the grace of God, which covers all of our sins, it doesn’t matter how we live our lives. We are free to indulge every passion, because grace abounds. Paul made it clear that this is a gross misunderstanding of grace and of the freedom we have in Christ. He openly challenges that idea that we are free from any limits. You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. Galatians 5:13

                Peter picked up on the same theme. He called people to embrace the freedom that they had been given in Christ, but to use it for God’s glory and not their own passions. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:16

                Life without limits may seem like ultimate freedom, but it is really chaos. For example, what if everyone decided that they were free from all the rules of driving? They were free to drive on whichever side of the road they chose, at whatever speed they chose, without regard for others. There would be mass carnage. Freedom without boundaries is not only dangerous, it is deadly.

                As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. In Christ we have been set free from our bondage to sin, but we have also been set free to follow Christ and to live our lives in service for him. It is only as we live under His authority that we can experience true freedom.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


Proverbs 16:25
    There is a way that seems right to a man,
        but in the end it leads to death.

                There is a common misconception in our society today that it really doesn’t matter what a person believes. This assertion is couched in the rhetoric of tolerance. We are constantly being told that all philosophies, life-styles, and theologies are equal. We are expected to openly embrace other people’s views without asserting our own. This may make for a good sound bite, but it doesn’t work in the real world.

                We are experiencing the Achilles heal of the tolerance movement today. It seems that tolerance works only in one way. It is only applied when we are talking about “liberal and progressive” ideas. If a person’s beliefs are traditional and conservative, then they are intolerant. Whether we agree with our new President or not, he has mobilized an up-to-this-point silent segment of our society who have been afraid to speak up. Yet when they express their views in public, they are labeled as bigoted and intolerant.

                I speak of this only to raise the question, does it really matter what we believe? When it comes to the area of faith, the answer we are given is no. All faith traditions lead in the same direction, so it doesn’t really matter what you believe. When it comes to the area of morality, we receive the same answer, with a twist. We are told that our morality is a private affair; that we have to accept all expressions of sexuality as valid and equal, and that we have no right to label anything as right or wrong. Ultimately the message that is being loudly trumpeted in our society today is that is really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you don’t impose it on others.

                The Bible gives us a very different answer to the question, does what we believe really matter? The Bible is clear that what we believe, truly believe in the depth of our being, shapes who we are and where we are headed. All of us have superficial beliefs that don’t translate into real life expression. But our core beliefs really do make a difference.

                Many people believe that they can live their lives without God in the picture. They have chosen to be their own god and make up their own rules. They believe that they are truly masters of their own souls. But Solomon sheds a very different light on that idea.  There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 16:25

                Many people believe that all spiritual paths lead to God; that all religions are the same, so it doesn’t matter which one you follow. But a close examination of the major religions of the world reveal quickly that all religions are not headed in the same direction. They do not agree upon what the end goal is. They do not agree on how a person gets to the end goal. All religions, except Christianity, are dependent upon what the individual can do to earn their spot in the desired end.

                Christianity stands apart from all the rest. Attaining the ultimate end, eternal life with God in heaven, is not attained by human effort, but by what Jesus did for us on the cross. We cannot earn our salvation, we can only receive it by faith in Christ. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9

                Jesus made it crystal clear that there is only one way to heaven and that is through faith in Him.    Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6) How could Jesus make that claim? Because He is God incarnate. He is the one who created this world in the first place and established the rules for living. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3) He is the only one who has the right to set the agenda for all of humanity.

                Does it really matter what we believe? Yes! Our very lives depend upon it. We have the freedom to choose whatever path we want to take, but our choice really does matter. Jesus warns us to choose wisely. "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

                A day is coming when every individual will have to give an account of their life. It will not matter how sincere we were in our beliefs, if we have chosen to place the ladder of our faith against the wrong wall, we will discover a dark end. As followers of Christ, we cannot afford to be careless about what we believe. As Paul told Timothy, our very souls are at stake. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:16

2 Corinthians 5:10
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.