Friday, November 17, 2017

America’s Open Season: Spiritual Awakening?

During the past few months, America has been engaged in what appears to be an “open season” of accusations and confessions of past indiscretions.  On a national and historic level, men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson have been criticized for their racism and bigotry.  Angry reactions have led to the toppling of time-honored statues that have honored these and other American leaders.  

"Search ME O God...see if there be any wicked way in ME."
On the Hollywood scene, disclosure of the sexual improprieties associated with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others has exposed a whole culture of immorality with a long history that is strewn with ruined lives.  Then, in recent days, the “open season” has spread to Washington where names Roy Moore, Al Franken, and Bill Clinton are making the news.   It is clear that, not unlike the culture of Hollywood, the “swamp” of Washington has been growing and festering for many years.

On the surface, America’s soul searching appears to be driven by political and ideological motivations, and maneuverings.  However, many Christ-followers are viewing this season as a call to pray that something deeper, more fundamental, and lasting may be possible.  Is it possible that America is beginning to realize the heavy price it has to pay for having rejected God’s moral absolutes?  Will America realize that her foundation has been strong because she has respected the Judeo-Christian moral code that includes loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10: 27)?  These laws were given by a loving God to promote abundant life and blessing, not boredom and pain.  God has been lovingly saying to us through His Word, “thou shall not, because I love you; and if you do, you and others will be hurt!   If you lie, hate, gossip, steal, commit adultery, and covet, it will separate you from my love, and my Life.  I have given you a choice:  life and blessedness, or death and dispair.”

How should Christ-followers respond to the daily news of the “toppling” of statues and the improprieties of personalities representing in many cases people that we held in high esteem?  Many Christ-followers have been praying that God would bring healing of the great political, moral, ethnic, and socioeconomic divisions in America.  Yet this morning, I am struck by the need for the light of God’s truth to be directed into my own heart, first and foremost.  What is being played out in Hollywood, Washington, and in cities across America is not foreign to my own life experience.  I too have sinned.  I sin daily--sometimes in my private thought life, and sometimes outwardly though ill chosen words or actions toward my wife or others.  I am not who I think I am.  I am who God knows me to be.  And, when I open God’s Word, the Bible, I can see as in a mirror the man that I really am.

The Apostle Paul explains in Romans 7: 7, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “Thou shall not covet.”   He goes on to say that, once he realized the Law against coveting, it produced in me coveting of every kind (v. 8).  Paul admits that nothing good dwells in me  because I do the very thing I do not wish to do (Romans 7: 18, 20).”   I can so clearly relate to Paul’s dilemma.  Can’t you? 

We all share the same “flesh” because we are biological and spiritual descendents of fallen Adam (Genesis 3).  But, Romans 8 explains that

Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8: 3-4).

Based on this truth, it follows that when we “die to the flesh” (i.e. give up on our own attempts to be righteous before God) and accept the offering of Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection, that we can be “born again” to walk in newness of life.  Then, as spiritual reborn individuals, we have the power of God’s Spirit within us to direct us along the morally right path in life and to convict us when we tend to go astray in thought or action (2 Timothy 3: 16).

How should I respond to the apparent “open season” on moral transgressors in America?  I must remember that as far as I am concerned, God’s first love and concern is not about Roy Moore or Kevin Spacey, or even about a spiritual reawakening in America.  Rather, God is concerned about my sensitivity to sin and my willingness to confess and turn from my wicked ways. 

Gordon T. Smith, in The Voice of Jesus, Discernment, Prayer, and the Witness of the Spirit, explains that we must “avoid the temptation to look at others rather than yourself.  We cannot know how God is convicting another; we can only know our own hearts.”  We must first examine our own life.  The Spirit of Christ within us calls us to pray with the psalmist David as he prayed (Psalm 139: 23-24),

Search me of God Search me, O God,
and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way

As we search our hearts in light of God’s Word (Hebrews 4: 12), we realize that, as Smith further notes,

Sin is not merely bad deeds. 

Rather we are wise to be attentive to…how the Spirit might be convicting us with respect to our speech, the attitude of our hearts, our mental propensities as well as what we have actually done [or]…what we have neglected to do…  But the bottom line remains:  “Lord, where are you calling me to turn—not the person next to me in the pew on Sunday, not my colleagues at the office or family members, not anyone else but me?”  We seek the grace to know the convicting ministry of the Spirit that calls us from death to life; that empowers us to embrace the life of God.

Yes, we are in an “open season” of disclosure of the sins of celebrities and political leaders, and of toppling of historical statues.  But, sadly many don’t know the next step.  We can see “the spot” of individual or national sin.  And, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, we are beginning to cry, “Out, damn spot!”  But we don’t realize that only by turning to God can the spots be removed through repentance and confession of our sin.  It’s not Bill Clinton or Roy Moore, “It’s me first, Lord!  Open season on my heart!  I must open my heart to your loving search for what is not life and peace, but sin and death.  May I humbly confess and turn from that which dishonors you and separates me from walking with You.  With David (Psalm 51: 12-13) I will pray,

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be converted to You.

Me first!  Then, what next?   Maybe God will bring another “Great Awakening.”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Compelled by Christ’s Love for a Cousin

I know a man in Christ who is mourning the loss of his beloved cousin. He was several years younger than her.  They had grown up together on neighboring farms managed jointly by their fathers.  His father tried to lead his family on a Christ-centered foundation; but her father gave little or no effort toward leading his family to faith in Christ.  As they entered adulthood, their communication ceased except for rare conversations at family gatherings.  These brief encounters revealed that the girl he had once known had become hardened, saddened, and without a God-centered source of hope and joy.

Then, three years ago, the two cousins reestablished more frequent communication when he initiated regular phone conversations and sent cards and letters.  This year, during the month of August, she mourned the death of a man with whom she had lived for over 40 years.  During her mourning, she granted her cousin a visit to her home, and she received his sympathy and comfort.  She listened politely as he humbly spoke of God’s unfailing grace and love that is available to all who open their hearts to Him.  He encouraged her to establish a daily routine of rest, good nutrition, and regular reading about God’s love and comfort found in the Bible he had given her.  He remembered emphasizing the theme, “Hope in God because He cares for you.”

She lived barely two months after the loss of her partner.  Aside from occasional contact with her neighbor, it appears that her only close companion was her dog.

All of us experience the loss of loved ones through death.  But, this man that I know in Christ remained deeply concerned about something that was missing in his cousin’s life--something that would likely determine her eternal destiny.  What was it?  And why was he so deeply concerned?  Finally, how could this man be so sure that his cousin would not have gone to heaven when she died?  What follows is my effort to answer these questions based on what I learned from the man that I know in Christ.

What Must We Do to Be Saved?

“Why,” I asked him, “are you so concerned about the eternal destiny of your cousin?”  He reached for his Bible and asked me if I would agree that the Bible is God’s inspired revelation of Truth to mankind.  I nodded “Yes.” Then, he read the Bible’s own self-declaration of its authority:  …All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.  It corrects us when we are wrong and trains us for a life that has God’s approval  (2 Timothy 3: 16, New Living Translation, and God’s Word Translation).

Knowing that we agreed on the authority of Scripture, he then referred me to 2 Corinthians 5:1 which states, …if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  He explained that each of us has a soul, representing our personality which resides within our physical body, or “house.”  According to this verse, when we die, our soul leaves the “house” which then decays (“is torn down”).  With an expression of sadness, he explained that his cousin’s neighbor had found her dead in her home.  Yet, according to Scripture, her “person” had already departed at her death; only her body was found.  According to Hebrews 9: 27, God’s judgment will decide her eternal destiny-- And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.

I responded to his mention of “judgment” with a shiver that he must have sensed.  He reminded me that God does not send anyone to Hell.  People choose this place.  Indeed, God is not willing that any should perish (be separated from God), but that all should come to repentance (turning from our sin and living in agreement with God’s Word) (2 Peter 3: 9).   Then, we read Romans 6: 23:  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We agreed that each person is responsible to accept God’s gift.  In other words, God desires that we “choose Life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). 

Next, he referred me to Romans 10: 9-10 (emphasis mine) which explains how a person responds through faith to God’s transforming power, resulting in His righteousness (approved standing before God) and salvation from our sin:

 …that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

The man I know in Christ then explained that if his cousin had confessed that she is a sinner in need of a Savior and accepted the free gift of God provided through Christ, God would see her as one who is clothed in the righteousness of the sinless Christ Who died in her place on the cross.  He smiled as he summarized this Gospel (“God’s good news”) of Christ as if there were a ray of hope that she may have accepted God’s gift.  Then, his sadness returned and I wondered again how he could be so deeply concerned about her eternal destiny?

Compelled by Christ’s Love

In a busy world where so many things compete for our attention, this man I know in Christ seemed almost fanatical to express so much concern about “the hereafter.”  Why was he so compelled to share the Gospel of God’s love with his cousin?  My answer wasn’t long in coming as he opened his Bible to Luke 16: 19-31.  There, Jesus recounts the story of two men, one rich the other poor.  Both men died and their souls were transported to very different places.  The rich man ended up in Hades, not because he was rich but because he had rejected God during his life on Earth.  There Jesus described him as being “in torment… [and] in agony in this place of flame” (v. 23, 24).  The poor man, named Lazarus, a man of faith in God, “died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom” (v. 22).  There, Lazarus was “being comforted” (v. 25).

In this unusual account, Jesus Christ, the God of Eternity, reveals to us a partial view of the reality of life after physical death.  First, we learn that our eternal destiny depends upon how we respond to God’s gift of salvation while on Earth.  Second, we learn that we do not sleep or cease to exist after death.  Instead, the souls of those who have died physically are very much alive and able to experience their surroundings, whether in a place of torment or with God and other people of faith.  When they die, the unrighteous--those who have rejected God’s gift of righteousness--will be separated from the righteous by a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us (Luke 16: 26).

The man I know in Christ was now teaching me about life after death, and he now had my rapt attention. There was one more powerful truth that we can glean from Christ’s revelation.  In Luke 16: 27-31, Jesus reveals that the rich man in torment asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his family of the impending judgment and eternal torment awaiting them if they do not respond to the message of the God’s love and salvation.  According to the words of Abraham, God has made every provision through His revelation in creation and in Scripture so that those who reject His Gift of righteousness while living on Earth are without excuse when they die (see also Romans 1: 16-24).  Yet, according to this account many will reject these revelations of truth and will remain unbelieving even if someone were to die and be resurrected from the dead.  In fact, many remained unbelieving even after watching Jesus raise another man named Lazarus from the dead (John 11); and then, Jesus Himself was resurrected from the dead (Luke 24:6).

I now realized exactly why this man had been so compelled to share the good news of Christ with his cousin and others in the family.  As if to further inoculate me with his sense of urgency about those yet living who have been rejecting God’s call to them, he invited me to read more of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5.  This time, in verses 10-11, I read,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.  Therefore, since we know what it means to fear of the Lord, we persuade men…

We continued reading the rest of 2 Corinthians 5, including verse 14-15 which states that …the love of Christ compels us…so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.  Upon hearing this verse, I begin to feel within my own heart the power of Christ’s love lifting me out of my self-centeredness to share this man’s concern for lost souls.  I was especially challenged by the way Paul’s words in verses 20-21 (emphasis mine) placed my sense of urgency into a call to action (emphasis mine):

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

After a period of time to think about these Scriptures, I felt a calm assurance in my conscience that it was my faith in Christ, not my own good works that had made me acceptable in God’s eyes.  But also I experienced reverent fear of God’s power and His perfect justice that decides the fate of every person.  How could I not share in the passion, the compulsion, and the same sense of urgency that this man I know in Christ has shown for others? How could I not help but want my loved ones and friends to know the joy of walking with Christ daily and being assured He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13: 5), even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23: 4).

Not Willing That Anyone Should Perish

I sat with the man I know in Christ for awhile; neither of us spoke.  Then, his face beamed with an expression of hope as he turned and began to share a new insight.  Could it be that his cousin had avoided the place of eternal torment.  Maybe she is now in the presence of Christ.  We both believed that as long as a person responds to God’s invitation for salvation before death comes, they can be saved.  As the Apostle Paul writes, [God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…(Titus 3: 5). 

If we are saved, not by works, but by faith, then a life-long rejecter of God’s love and mercy can be saved if they admit their need of forgiveness even in the final minutes of their life?   While pondering this amazing truth, we each remembered an important conversation among three men who had been crucified by the Romans as common criminals Luke 23: 39-43). 

Jesus Christ and two criminals had been sentenced to death.  According to Luke, each man was nailed to a wooden cross where they suffered horribly.  One of the criminals was rudely mocking Jesus.  But the other criminal rebuked the abuser saying, "Do you not even fear God?”  Then, he reminded him that they both deserved to die for their crimes, but Jesus was innocent.  After saying this, the repentant criminal turned painfully to look at Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!"  And Jesus replied, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

How amazing is the love and grace of God through Christ that would welcome this criminal in the final minutes of his life to be with Him in paradise for eternity.  Neither criminal had performed any works to merit Eternal Life.  But one of the criminals had looked to the cross of Christ, repented of his sin, and asked Jesus to take him with Him to Paradise.  This conversation between Jesus and a criminal from their crucifixion crosses underscores the biblical claim that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3: 9).   Truly, God is not willing.  But, before I can be saved I must be willing—willing to (1) agree with God that “I am a sinner,” (2) be willing to repent (turn from a life of sin), (3) believe that the death and resurrection of Christ occurred in order to take away my sin, and (4) invite Christ to come into my life and control my life through His Holy Spirit.

One truth had become very clear to me and to this man I know in Christ:  If his cousin had at some point before her death been willing to accept by faith God’s gift of Eternal Life, then we could be sure she was now with Jesus in Paradise.  The decision had been hers to make. 

But, on the other hand, had the God done His part to make His Good News clear to this dear cousin?  I watched his face become very somber as he related to me how he had explained God’s love to her in spoken word and through his cards and letters.  In one phone conversation, after his cousin’s partner had been diagnosed with cancer, his cousin’s partner asked him, “Where is your God when I need Him?”  This angry plea became an open door for the man I know in Christ to graciously respond that, “Many people in pain like yours have asked this same question.” Rather than speak at length on the phone to this angry man, he excused himself and later wrote a letter to both his cousin and her suffering partner that included the following words:

My answer to “Where is God when you need Him?” is found in God’s Word, the Bible.  Psalm 145, verses 18 and 19 tells us,

The LORD is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them

God is very near and knows all about us.   God’s will is that we “call upon Him in truth.”  God’s first concern for us is not in keeping rules like going to church.  Instead, we develop a relationship with God by spending time with Him (worshipping and learning more about Him from His Scriptures).

But, God will not badger us.  He has revealed Himself through creation, in the Bible, through Jesus, and through the love and concern of other people.  It is up to us to “let him into our lives.”  You must have heard this before, but in Revelation 3: 20 we read Jesus saying,

'Behold, I stand at the door and knock;
if anyone hears My voice and opens the door,
I will come in to him and will dine with him,
and he with Me

God is very near, and His Son, Jesus is knocking at the door of our lives.  One artist painted the scene as he imagined it.   Notice in the painting, there is no knob on the door!  God waits for us to open the door of our lives.  He expects us to think for ourselves.  When we are hurting we can cry out to Him….”Where were you God when I needed you?”  God will not break when we shout at Him.

The man I know in Christ explained that he had closed his letter with a short invitation to his cousin and her partner to talk more about this with him.  He also included a tiny Personal Bible which provides an excellent sequence of Scripture verses on the nature of man, God’s love for man, and man’s sin and need of a Savior. 

The man that I know in Christ had given his cousin and her partner all of the information needed to understand and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, his zeal and passion to reach the soul of his cousin in a loving way seems to have been driven by nothing less than the power of God, making him an ambassador for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through him as he pleaded to his cousin on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Was his beloved cousin, by an act of believing faith in Christ, set free from the sin and bondage of her troubled life on Earth to find a freedom in Christ she had never known?  Or, did she continue to reject the love and mercy of God all the way to the end of her physical life?  Regardless of the answers to these questions, the man I know in Christ now rest assured on two important truths.  First, he knows that God had used him at least in part to make His loving appeal to this cousin.  And second, he was assured by his faith that God is good and just, and is unwilling that any should perish.

How About You?
You may have read this article and are left with a sense of confusion, uncertainty, and even fear.  If you have never encountered the “Good News” or Gospel, let me help.   The “Good News” is summarized in an outline called “Steps to Peace with God” which explains God’s love, our predicament (sin and separation from God), what Jesus has done to address our predicament, and what you can do by faith to receive God’s righteousness (right standing with a Holy God).  If you have additional questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.  Just post a “Comment” below or e-mail me at

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Time to Appreciate Our Shepherds

Two October developments have made the news.  I think there is an important connection.  First, October is highlighted as “Pastor Appreciation Month” in many churches across America.  Meanwhile, President Trump has just addressed our nation to outline his multi-front initiative against the opioid crisis.  Can you see a possible connection between honoring the pastors of our churches and the scourge of drugs in America?  Thankfully, President Trump’s proposed approach hints that he has already made the connection.

The Swafford family illustrate a key solution to opioid crisis.
President Trump’s proposed multi-million dollar effort involves multiple federal and local agencies.  But there is much more to his plan.  The president has also challenged American families and communities to participate.  To emphasize the important role of family and community, Mr. Trump recognized Jessie and Cyndi Swafford of Dayton, Ohio.  The Swafford’s are one among many couples who have been providing foster and adoptive care to babies born addicted to drugs.  Mr. Trump noted that

[the Swafford’s] Have provided a loving and stable home to children affected by the opioid crisis.  I am calling on every American to join the ranks of guardian angels…Who help lift up the people of our great nation.

Thankfully, the president realizes that multiple federal agencies and millions of dollars alone will not solve the opiate crisis.  Nor will government programs alone solve the larger crisis of moral decline in America (See Are There Lessons for America from the 1950’s?).  And here is where the connection between a national drug program and “pastor appreciation” becomes more sharply defined.

This month’s invitation to honor our pastors provides a fitting context for an emphasis on the importance of family and community in the battle against drugs.  Why?  Because the biblical account of creation, the fall of humankind, and God’s redemptive plan through faith in Christ is linked throughout by the narrative of God as a Shepherd seeking rebellious mankind who has wandered astray and become lost.  Today, God’s Spirit still guides us into Truth and moral living as sheep within His fold, and He calls to other sheep who are still lost.  His plan remains intact—“to seek and to save the lost” through Christ and to establish local churches as “local flocks” which are each led by one or more elders, or overseers (also called pastors).  Pastoral leadership in local churches is central to God’s Great Commission aimed at transforming the world.  It is God’s plan that His sheep gather regularly as local churches for worship, fellowship, instruction from the Bible, and preparation for Christ-like living in our daily life.  All the while, marriages are formed and strengthened; and, families and communities flourish.

Because our culture is so secularized and drenched in multiculturalism, God’s church needs to awaken afresh to a fundamental truth—there is only One God and human beings are His offspring.  We are created in His image and designed to worship and serve God and live a morally ordered existence.  There is no alternative moral code or mandate by which we may be saved and prosper in a civilized manner on this planet.  The Apostle Paul boldly expressed this truth to the first century Greek scholars in the midst of a pagan culture (emphasis mine):

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;  for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.' – Acts 17: 24-28

God created man and woman and presided over the first marriage (Genesis 2).  God also extended grace when humankind rebelled and sought to elevate human reason above godly wisdom (Genesis 3)…professing to be wise, they became fools and… exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Romans 1:  22, 25).

Throughout Scripture, humans are characterized as sheep that wandered astray (Isaiah 53: 6).  As an expression of His redemptive love, God pursues His wayward sheep as a loving Shepherd.  Near the end of his life, Jacob, whom God had named Israel, gives tribute to His God as, The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day… (Genesis 48: 15). 

Godly pastors have a wonderful role model
and the power of His Spirit to guide them.
Throughout Old Testament Bible history the descendants of Jacob, the Jewish nation, understood God’s nature through the metaphor of the shepherd.  Jewish King David, the father of the kingly line that led eventually to the birth of Christ, was a shepherd boy whom God chose to be His king to shepherd Israel.  It was David who wrote Psalm 23 which begins with the claim, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Israel’s understanding of themselves as the sheep of God’s pasture finds its expression later in the nation’s history in a call to worship:

Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture
and the sheep of His hand.
Today, if you would hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts
… - Psalm 95: 6-8a

The Good Shepherd offered Himself as the Sacrificial Lamb
The New Testament Gospel writers introduce Jesus Christ as both “the Good Shepherd” (John 10) and as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29)!   Jesus, the Messiah, the “Son of David,” declares His rightful claim to deity, saying, I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  The “sheep” for whom Christ, the Good Shepherd laid down His life includes, in His words, other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd (John  10: 16)Within a few days of making this claim, Jesus gave Himself as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the whole world.  Three days after His crucifixion, Jesus arose from the grave and was observed by hundreds of witnesses included Peter and His disciples.  Jesus commissioned Peter to “Shepherd My sheep (John 21: 17).”

Years later, the Apostle Peter, himself an elder (or “overseer”), gave this exhortation to his fellow shepherds or “pastors” (from the Latin, pascere, "to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat," with the notion of tending, guarding, and protecting).  Peter wrote (emphasis mine):

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;  nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5: 1-4

Notice the character qualities of a Christ-following pastor-shepherd.  He is a loving leader, unselfish, and without impure motives.  He serves eagerly while not “lording his authority over us,” but rather proves himself an example of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ whose return he eagerly awaits.  In 1 Timothy 3: 2-5, we read similar qualifications of a pastor:

[He] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.  He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity

During our 48 years of marriage, Abby and I have been blessed to worship and serve under a number of excellent pastor-shepherds who demonstrated these qualities:

Rev. Douglas Miller, Christian Missionary Alliance Church, Morgantown, WV
Rev. Gerald Wheatley, Bowie Bible Church, Bowie, MD
Rev. W. Paul Jackson, Grace Baptist Church, Cedarville, Ohio
Rev. David Graham, Grace Baptist Church, Cedarville, Ohio
Rev. Craig Miller, Grace Baptist Church, Cedarville, Ohio

Pastor Dan Wingate and wife, Karen
Currently, we are blessed to be a part of God’s flock at West Hill Baptist Church, in Wooster, Ohio, led by senior pastor Dan Wingate; and co-pastor, Mark Davenport who has provided valuable counsel to us in our transition into retirement.  Pastor Dan Wingate has humbly and wisely led for nearly 43 years as senior pastor of West Hill Baptist Church, a period that spans nearly the entire duration of time we served under the ministries of all our previous pastors listed above.  Currently, we are praying for Pastor Dan and his wife, Karen, as they will soon transition into a new phase of ministry in which Dan is making his time available to preach and teach as God provides opportunities in local churches and on college campuses.

I hope readers can appreciate my connection between the moral climate of our nation and the important role of local churches throughout America.  The moral fortitude of the American family and community has historically depended upon the ministry of godly pastor-shepherds according to God’s plan.  Therefore, it is only fitting that “Pastor Appreciation” become our habit as we, the sheep who need a shepherd obey the Scripture which calls us to

 …appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Live in peace with one another (1 Thessalonians 5: 12-13).

I hope you are blessed to be a part of a local flock that is led by one or more pastors who according to the concluding verse (1) work hard among you and (2) give you spiritual guidance consistent in an attitude of godliness.  After all, it is not God’s plan that anyone should …neglect meeting together as is the habit of some (Hebrews 10: 25).  Instead, we are called to meet together so that we may encourage one another and all the more as we see the day [of Christ’s return] drawing near.  Finally, as members of the local flock, may we (1) appreciate those who work hard to lead; and (2) may we esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

Pastor Steve Salyers, Mindy, Caleb, Kiara, and Della Rose
In summary, God’s plan for pastor-shepherds in a morally challenged world is to lead wisely after the example of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, Christ-followers must willingly place themselves under the authority of godly pastor-shepherds, and then serve faithfully alongside them in a spirit of appreciation and high esteem.  Abby and I understand the wisdom of this plan as relates to our individual lives and our marriage.  In addition, after observing for 20 years the blessings and challenges of our son-in-law, Pastor Steve Salyers, his wife Mindy, and family, we can appreciate in a more direct way the vital importance of “pastor appreciation” by the local flock.  Our pastors and their wives not only have the responsibility to teach, admonish, and encourage us as individuals and families, but they have their own similar responsibilities to their families.  May we recommit to “pastor appreciation” and work hard to appreciate and highly esteem our pastors and their families.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Hearing the Voice of Jesus –2: When Suffering Comes

My previous article, Hearing the Voice of Jesus, pictured God as the One who continually pursues us, seeking relationship with us.  His voice calls to us out of His great love expressed through Jesus Christ and His inspired Word.  Perhaps surprisingly, we can best discern God’s voice and receive the outpouring of His love through the Holy Spirit when we are in the midst of trials and suffering.  Those who have experienced God’s love and comfort in their suffering are able to comfort others in trials with this same comfort (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4).  Little did I know while writing this previous article in September that God was preparing me to learn the truth of it through my own traumatic experience on October 8.  What follows is my account of this experience.  Remember that my perspective from “here on the ground”  is flawed and limited compared to God’s perspective.  May He alone be glorified as you read.

Thursday, October 5
Today, Abby and I were scheduled to be chaperones for our granddaughter, Della Rose, and her classmates during their visit to nearby
Ramseyer Pumpkin Farm.  However, the rainy weather caused rescheduling of the event; and produced a disappointed granddaughter and grandma.  To brighten our morning, I suggested to Abby that we go out for breakfast at Bob Evans.  As we walked toward the register to pay our bill, I noticed a familiar face in a nearby booth and remember thinking that I had seen this gentleman at our church.  I made a mental note and thought no more of this passing encounter.  In the afternoon, we drove to Akron to attend the cross country meet of our older granddaughter, Kiara.  Afterwards, we celebrated her personal best time with her and her family.  While in Akron, we stopped to visit my friend, Bill, who had just had right hip replacement surgery that afternoon.  He was still in recovery so we left a card for him and drove home to Wooster.

Saturday, October 7
I began this crisp, autumn morning with an encouraging time of fellowship over a warm breakfast with my Christian brother, Brad.  Then, while Abby was running her errands, I returned to Akron to visit my friend, Bill, now in his third day of recovery from hip surgery.  He was in good spirits and was managing his pain very well.  After our brief conversation, I prayed with Bill and his wife, and then left the hospital.  As I was leaving, I sensed that God’s Spirit was pressing me to take account of the thoughts and intentions of my heart for visiting Bill.  This was not the first time that I was humbled about my efforts to encourage a friend in the midst of pain and suffering.  Taking a personal stock in this area usually centers around three basic questions, each probing successively deeper into my faith and its outworking in my life.

The primary question that pressed upon my mind as I walked from Bill’s room was, How real is your empathy and compassion toward Bill?  I had to acknowledge immediately that my level of empathy was limited by the degree to which I had been “walking in Bill’s shoes.”  After all, how could I actually see life through the eyes and body of a man who had experienced years of pain while walking with an arthritic hip and then endured the pain of a hip replacement?  Because of my limited empathy, my compassion, or the depth of my desire to help my friend was also limited to visiting him and attempting to encourage him.  Having not been involved in farming since my boyhood, I was limited in my ability to assist those people who had volunteered to harvest Bill’s crops and care for his livestock.

How can we empathize with and extend compassion
to loved ones without having "walked in their shoes?"
What concerned me most as I reflected on my efforts in recent years to empathize and encourage friends and family members was the fact that the blessing of good health throughout my life had spared me of physical pain and suffering.  I simply could not identify with friends and family in times of their suffering.  Instead, I tried to encourage them with words like, “God is good and faithful.  He will bring you through this because He loves you and you can trust Him.”  I would also thank them for showing me how to endure pain and suffering as an example for me when I face a similar trial in the future.

My second question also stems from my good health and lack of experience with pain and suffering.  The voice inside asked me, John, how genuine is your faith?  Sure, I had much experience pointing suffering family members and friends to God as a source of hope and healing.  But, how did I know how strong my faith would be when my time came to face pain and suffering?  My answer has to be, “I do not know if my faith in God will remain strong.”

Finally, the third question that has pressed upon my mind over the years is the most challenging of all—How do you know that God will be faithful when you need Him most?  Surely, I have known God’s presence and comfort during times of decision, loss, loneliness, conflict in relationships, and emotional stress.  But, would I know assuredly that God had not forsaken me when I encountered my own suffering and pain?  Little did I know that God was already orchestrating a situation that would eventually provide me with answers to all three of my questions.

Sunday, October 8
Abby and I were blessed to attend our 8:30 am Sunday School class at West Hill Baptist Church, taught by Pastor Eric Fairhurst.  Our lesson was from Luke 21 which records the words of Jesus as He described the signs and future events that would occur in and around Jerusalem and beyond.  We were challenged to be alert “when these things begin to take place.”  Then, in our traditional worship service, Pastor Dan Wingate presented a message from Colossians 3: 12-17 entitled, “Putting on the Best Clothing.”  Verse 12 introduces a list of important Christian virtues and character traits for Christ-followers to “put on” as we yield to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives:  So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion…etc.

That morning, I did not immediately connect a biblical text beginning with the subject of compassion to my own question about the genuineness of my compassion following my hospital visit yesterday.  However, I was soon to be on the receiving end of compassion in an unexpected way.

After the service, we greeted some friends, then walked together into the church parking lot. As I scanned the lot to locate our Tacoma, I spotted the same gentleman that I had recognized in Bob Evans on Thursday.  I raised my hand to wave him to a stop.  We greeted one another and exchanged names while remembering that we had just crossed paths in Bob Evans three days earlier.  Our conversation was then interrupted by a forceful blow on my left side which was the first of several painful impacts I felt, resulting in my body being either thrown to the ground; or, more likely, twisted so that my right hip was thrown against the side of my friends car before I landed on my left side on the ground.

Needless to say, my viewpoint immediately changed.  While lying helpless in a fetal position, unable to move, I could only look up.  Whereas, moments before I had viewed my church family from my usual position of height and strength, I was now forced to look up at them in helpless dependence.  My view was filled with the concerned faces of my church family gathering to help and console me.  The dear lady whose car had struck me was soon at my shoulder with profuse apologies.  Another person cradled my head, while yet another asked if I could move.  I remained conscious but could not move my right leg.  While someone dialed 911, another man began to lead in a prayer for God’s provision.  As I looked up at a sea of loving faces, a friend brought a green blanket to support my head, and others had gathered around Abby to pray.

Within minutes, the ambulance arrived and I was gently wrapped and transported to the ER of Wooster Community Hospital.  Soon Abby arrived, accompanied by two brothers and two sisters in Christ from our church.  Again, I felt God’s comfort and guidance through the presence of Abby and these dear friends.  They were also very helpful in our choice of a surgeon.

That afternoon, my X-rays indicated that my hip was shattered and that I would need a total right hip replacement.  The operation was performed by the skillful hands of a surgeon who was also a man of faith. I was so richly encouraged when he took my hand and prayed with me at the end of our pre-op consultation. 

Looking confident, but supported by prayers
and resting in the unseen arms of God.
During the night and the next couple of days, I was made comfortable by medical staff who each served me with professionalism and compassion.  During this time, I sensed as never before the nearness of God—so comforted and strengthened by the faithful prayers of family, church family, and friends.  I believe God used these days of discomfort and dependence, and days of being weak while learning to become stronger, in order to provide the very experience I so greatly needed and wanted--experience I had missed as the one usually standing above others who experienced pain and dependence.

The doctor, nurses, and aides kept track of my pain level and encouraged me not to shirk on taking Oxycodone so that I would not “get behind” in managing the pain.  Because pain has been such an infrequent visitor in my life, I did not want to insulate myself too much from it.  Thankfully, an occasional Tylenol was enough to moderate my pain.  Though I felt weak and physically dependent, I remembered the words of Gordon T. Smith that had so interested me just a few weeks before.  Smith notes that it is when we accept and even embrace the experience of pain and suffering that we are most receptive to the outpouring of God’s wondrous, boundless love.  Though I am unworthy to compare my light brush with suffering to that of the Apostle Paul, I learned a new appreciation of his writing in Romans 5: 3-5 NASB (emphasis mine):

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope;  and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts [ESV: “poured into our hearts”] through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Reflections during Recovery:
Although I could have gone home on Tuesday, Abby and I agreed that I should spend a few days in the Transitional Care Unit to undergo some physical therapy and increase my readiness for life back home.  During these days of recovery, I revisited the three questions that had challenged me in years past and which had especially pressed upon me only days before my injury.  As I reflect on my own suffering and recovery, am beginning to understand more clearly the nature of sincere compassion, the genuineness of my own faith in God, and the faithfulness of Jesus, my Savior.

While lying on my back in absolute dependence upon medical staff and then during my transitional care, God was making me a more humble, open vessel to receive His loving compassion through the care of these dear servants.  I am now praying that the Father of mercies and God of all comfort Who comforts us in our affliction will make me into a better steward of His comfort and compassion
so that I will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4)In short, it’s ultimately not about my compassion but my openness as a channel of God’s compassion.

Second, having never experienced serious pain and suffering, I used to wonder how my own faith in God would fare in the day it finally came.  My wondering ended on October 8.  Thanks to God’s grace as manifested in the many ways I have recounted above, my faith did not waver.  I do not make this claim because I felt the strong “flexing of the muscles” of my faith in my time of need.  Instead, my faltering faith was lifted up by the strong arms of God—loving arms that protected me bodily when I was struck on my left side, wrestled about, and dropped on my left side without a bruise—loving arms that worked though all the actions of my church family, and then the compassionate, medical care-givers.  Again, it’s ultimately not about “my faith” but God’s imparting of the gift of faith to me (Ephesians 2:  8).

Finally, I had no reason to question the faithfulness of my Savior, Jesus Christ.  Like the comforting, compassionate care that I remember receiving one morning from an aide who covered me with a freshly warmed blanket, so the loving arms and gentle voice of the Savior left me no doubt about His faithfulness and abiding presence.  Much more than feeling warm fuzziness, God’s manifest presence was made real as His Spirit spoke to me in words from Scripture—words that He brought freely into my consciousness from memory, such as Isaiah 41: 10: 

Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.

Or, the words of Psalm 23  that I had read many times in the past, and heard in utterances from the quivering lips of family and friends as I stood at their bedside:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Has my compassion become more sincere?  Is my faith stronger as a result of this trial?  Is my Savior faithful?  I thank God for helping me answer the first two questions by His resounding answer “Yes” to the third. 

In conclusion, I thank God for granting my injury and for demonstrating His faithfulness through it in the days that followed.  Through God’s gift of my injury, pain, and suffering, I am learning anew the blessing of His comfort and compassion—gifts from His vast sea of love and grace. Now,  I am recommitting myself to being a good steward of God’s gifts of love, compassion, and faith.  I pray that the aroma of Christ will be evident in my relationships with others—so that ultimately Christ is lifted up.  To God be the glory!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hearing the Voice of Jesus: Role of Faith, Facts, and Feelings

I wrote most of this article in September but its completion was interrupted by a traumatic event in my life on October 8.  I did not expect that God would bring about this situation, but I am both thankful for and amazed at how God prepared me for this time of pain and dependence by allowing me to study the subject of spiritual discernment and write about it beforehand in this article.  Maybe at least some of what I have written will be of help to you.  I hope to give an account of my actual experience in a future article.

It is not uncommon to hear Christians share how God has intervened in the challenges and decisions of life.  Here are some expressions that I have heard and even uttered myself:

“God spoke to me and I have decided to...”
“I’m still waiting on God’s leading before I...”
“After I prayed, God gave me a real peace.”

Perhaps you too have heard these expressions or sensed a time when God was speaking to you.  Like me, you may have asked,

Discerning God's voice for the decisions of life.
“What is God saying to me at this particular time and in this particular situation?” or,
“How can I know whether the “voice” I am hearing is really from God?” (or Jesus…or the Holy Spirit?)

The Bible teaches that God’s Spirit guides obedient Christians (disciples, or Christ-followers) in times of decision-making (e.g. Proverbs 3; 5-6; James 1: 2-8).  However, we must be aware that other voices may compete with the voice of God—voices that may simply reflect our current emotional state; or voices that echo from our own self-delusion. 

A person who is living in open rebellion against God’s principles or who is in self-delusion is unwilling and perhaps incapable of discerning the voice of God (James 1: 5-8).  We are all prone to wander and be influenced by sin, selfishness, and Satan.  So, how can we be sure when God is speaking; and, what He saying to us?

In September, I began reading The Voice of JesusDiscernment, Prayer, and the Witness of the Spirit (InterVarsity, 2003).  The author, Gordon T. Smith, defines life in Christ as “an intentional response to the voice of Jesus, a voice that comes through the presence of the Spirit.” It follows, according to Smith, that discernment is “the discipline of attending to this presence [of God’s Spirit] and responding to this leading.”  The author adds that “discernment is possible only if we are alert to several dynamic tensions [including] the tension between heart and mind.”

Obviously, we must be cognitively engaged if we are to be discerning.  But Professor Smith also emphasizes that Christ-followers must be in touch with their emotions if they are to discern the voice of Jesus. Really?  Emotions?  I must admit, I cringed when I read Smith’s claim that we do not mature in our Christian experience unless we mature emotionally.  Smith adds, more bluntly, that …people who are out of touch with their emotions are out of touch with God, for God speaks to us through the ebb and flow of our emotional lives.

Perhaps you too are cringing upon reading Smith’s claims.  You may have even concluded that The Voice of Jesus is not worth reading.  After all, doesn’t the Bible teach that we are to be controlled by the Holy Spirit and not by our emotions (Ephesians 5:15–18; 1 Peter 5:6–11)?  Doesn’t Scripture emphasize that maturing Christ-followers are those who are being transformed by the renewal of their minds (Romans 12:2)?  Shouldn’t our faith rest on facts and not feeling?

I remember the “Faith-Fact-Feeling Train” illustration which was popular in the early 1970’s through Bill Bright’s “The Four Spiritual Laws” booklet.  The founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) wanted Christ-followers to avoid hitching their faith to feelings.  After all, our feelings can change faster than the weather.  According to the train illustration, facts are the engine, and without an engine the train will not operate.  Feelings, on the other hand, are represented by the caboose which is unnecessary for the train to move.  But are our emotions really of no more importance than an optional caboose?  Because the train illustration gives this impression, Gordon T. Smith rejects it.

Today, I wonder how many Christians are spiritually stunted or even deprived of a fruitful life of faith because they have found no way to integrate their personality and emotional makeup into a healthy relationship with God through His Spirit.  Perhaps they have learned to store their emotions in a useless caboose rusting away on a side spur.  Study the accounts of when Jesus encountered men and women in great spiritual need and tell me He didn’t address their emotions (e.g. Luke 19: 2-6; John 4; John 8: 3-11).

Thankfully, Professor Smith emphasizes that an obedient and fulfilling spiritual walk with Christ involves more than simply mental, or rational, capacity.  Much more than simply being primates with a large brain, humans have personhood and personality which is an important expression of what it means to be image-bearers of a personal God, and Creator.  God’s gift of personality includes an emotional dimension that is a major part of who we are as individuals.  Our emotions enrich and empower our expressions of love, joy, and hope; or, fear, anger, and loneliness?

Our emotional dimension occupies what is called the affective domain and is included in what Scripture refers to as the “heart.”  Therefore, as we read and study God’s Word, our minds become engaged (cognitive domain) and we are moved by the joys and sorrows of Bible personalities with whom we can easily relate, both cognitively and affectively.  God’s Truth in turn influences our will (volitional capacity).  As we submit our wills in obedience to God’s Spirit, He empowers us to “walk in obedience” (action). 

According to Smith, true spiritual discernment employs mind, emotion, and will.  He concludes that discernment requires “listening with both mind and heart.”  Then, when we act upon what we discern we are exercising what Rev. Bob Tuck (1) referred to as a “quartet” made up of mind, emotion, will, and action.

As a result of my reading, I have become more aware of the importance of emotions in the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, discernment of God’s purposes, and sharing the Gospel.  I can now relate to the message of God’s Word in a more complete way by being more alert to the biblical account of the emotional dimension of biblical personalities like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, Abigail, Daniel, Mary and Joseph (parents of Jesus), Peter, John, and Jesus.  In biblical characters we find expressions of both negative emotional traits like fear, anger, and despair; and positive emotions associated with the fruit of God’s Spirit such as love, joy, and peace. 

It seems clear that, central to our spiritual awareness and discernment, is a healthy understanding of our emotions and how God’s Spirit ministers in and through us by our emotional response to daily life.  The challenges and the blessings of our lives produce an “ebb and flow” of our emotions.  If we do not have the habit of entrusting our hearts, representing our cognitive, affective, and volitional facilities, to God’s guidance and comfort, we can become spiritually sluggish or “double-minded and unstable in all our ways (James 1:  5-8).”

Instead of being double-minded, God commands us to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5: 18-21) by which we become attentive to the ministry of God’s Spirit with a “whole heart” (Psalm 119: 10). —i.e. fully engaged in mind, emotion, and will. The Apostle Paul teaches that when we are alive to the Holy Spirit, He becomes a channel through which God’s love is poured into our hearts…(Romans 5: 5 ESV).  This blessed pouring of God’s love occurs in the context of trials and suffering.  Paul writes that it is precisely when we encounter trials and suffering that we are best prepared spiritually to receive this outpouring of God’s love through His Spirit.  Because of this love, Paul explains, we can …rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… (Romans 5: 3-4).

According to Gordon T. Smith: The suffering that is spoken of here represents all difficulty—the pain we experience physically, emotionally, and spiritually—explicitly because of our identification with Christ, but then also implicitly in all suffering that comes as a consequence of evil in our world.  The apostle indicated that we should actually boast in our suffering…--accept it, walk into it and choose that through suffering we will grow in grace and hope.  Later, while cautioning against doubting God’s love, Smith encourages those who remain faithful: This surely is what it means to live by faith—believing that God loves us, despite the contrary evidence.

In conclusion, how can we be sure when God is speaking and what He saying to us?  We have seen the importance of developing a proper understanding of the role of both our minds and our emotions in discerning and following the will of God.  Yet, many days we experience what can be an unsettling ebb and flow of our emotions similar to those recorded about heroes of the faith in Scripture.  Therefore, if our walk IN CHRIST is to be robust, steady, and alive, we need to learn more of how to discern the inner voice of Jesus. 

I have been motivated through my recent reading of both the Scriptures and The Voice of Jesus to learn more of what it means to discern the voice of Jesus through disciplines noted by Gordon T. Smith.  Discernment is learned through the practices of private worship and prayer, reading and study of Scripture, reading what our church fathers wrote about discernment (Smith recommends Ignatius Loyola, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley), and ministry to those in spiritual and physical need.  

[1] Rev. Robert S. Tuck served as pastor of Central Christian Church, Wooster, Ohio from 1923 until 1967.  I “met” this man of God through a collection of his sermons he published in 1939 entitled “A Sermon Bouquet (Picked Along the Way)” which I purchased from Walnut Street Antiques.

Monday, October 2, 2017

“Pure Evil” Requires Moral Absolutes

This morning, we awakened to the news of a horrific massacre in Las Vegas. A presumed lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, had rained deadly bullets from a room high in the Mandalay Bay hotel.  At this time, we know that 59 attendees at a country music concert have died and hundreds have been wounded.

Las Vegas massacre brought compassion in the face of "evil."
We watched as President Trump spoke to the nation, calling the massacre “an act of pure evil.” He followed with an assurance based on Psalm 34:18, saying “Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve.”

To these obvious references to moral teachings of the Bible, the president added that, “In times such as these I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness.”  Then, President Trump tried to assure a stunned America by saying, “The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.”

President Trump’s message was an effective encouragement this morning.  We were also encouraged to watch the reports of heroic efforts on the part of first responders and even average Americans who sprang into action to provide assistance to the wounded and dying.  Yet, horrific events like this one in Las Vegas are becoming all too common.  And each time, we see our leaders and law enforcement officials rise to the occasion to pronounce the acts as “evil” and “morally reprehensible.”  Yet, most do not attempt to answer the deeper question, “WHY do these things occur?”

Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY called today for a more reasoned explanation for the existence of “pure evil.” I will refer you to his well written blog article, “An Act of Pure Evil”--Searching for Meaning in Las Vegas, and conclude my article with excerpts from his article.  Mohler asks, “Why do we ask why?” and continues as follows:

We cannot help but ask why because, made in God’s image, we are moral creatures who cannot grasp or understand the world around us without moral categories. We are moral creatures inhabiting a moral universe and our moral sense of meaning is the faculty most perplexed when overwhelmed by horror and grief.

Dr. Mohler commended President Trump for classifying the massacre as “evil” and for directing us to consider the moral basis for the hope of finding solace in God’s sovereign purposes.  Mohler then went deeper to address the necessity of defining the moral absolutes necessary to define and explain the existence of “evil:”

Evil is a fact, too. And evil is a theological category. The secular worldview cannot use the word with coherence or sense. The acknowledgement of evil requires the affirmation of a moral judgment and a moral reality above human judgment. If we are just accidental beings in an accidental universe, nothing can really be evil. Evil points to a necessary moral judgment made by a moral authority greater than we are — a transcendent and supernatural moral authority: God.

College professors tell us that moral relativism has produced a generation of Americans who resist calling anything evil, and even deny the existence or moral facts. Justin P. McBrayer, who teaches at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, wrote in The New York Times that “many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts.”

That’s truly frightening, but McBrayer argues that by the time students arrive at college, they have already been told over and over again that there are no moral facts — that nothing is objectively right or wrong.

Only the Christian worldview, based in the Bible, can explain why moral facts exist, and how we can know them. Only the biblical worldview explains why sinful humanity commits such horrible moral wrongs. The Christian worldview also promises that God will bring about a final act of moral judgment that will be the final word on right and wrong — as facts, not merely speculation. The Gospel of Christ points us to the only way of rescue from the fact of our own evil and guilt.

Our hearts break for the families and communities now grieving, and we pray for them and for those even now fighting for life.

It is both telling and reassuring that secular people, faced with moral horror as we see now in Las Vegas, can still speak of evil as a moral fact — even if they continue to deny moral facts in the classrooms and courtrooms. No one can deny that the horror in Las Vegas came about by an act that was evil, pure evil, and evil as a fact.

Dr. Mohler concludes his article with a quote from Isaiah 5: 20, ESV, the same passage of Scripture that I referenced in my September 21 article in which I discussed Lessons for America from the 1950’s?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” [Isaiah 5:20, ESV]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Are There Lessons for America from the 1950’s?

Reminders of the era of the 1950's.
I am a member of the “baby boomers,” representing children born from roughly the end of World War II to the period of the early 1960’s.  While American culture in this era was not without need of moral and spiritual revival, many would consider the 1940’s and 1950’s as one of the most favorable times in which to grow up as a child in America.   For the sake of brevity, I will refer to this era, which encompassed my elementary school years, as “the 1950’s.”

So, I was interested to learn that two university professors have published an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer entitled, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture.”  Amy Wax is the Robert Mundheim professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; and, Larry Alexander is the Warren distinguished professor at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Wax and Alexander open their article with what many of us would agree is a pretty accurate summary of the current state of socio-economic affairs in America today:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries. 

"I don't shrink from the word 'superior'." -- Dr. Amy Wax 
The authors admit that the ”causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”  Although the term “bourgeois” generally means “middle class,” it can also suggest values of materialism, pro-capitalism, and anti-communism.  Wax and Alexander may be using the term “bourgeois” in their title to grab attention, but their intent is to call readers to consider the merits of “1950’s middle-class values” which they outline as follows:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
Evidence of moral decline in America.

According to the two law professors, these cultural values “reigned” in the era of the 1950’s for two reasons.  They “could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities,” and they were “backed up by almost universal endorsement.”  The principle assertion of the authors is that adherence to these values and disciplines “was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.”

As if to anticipate the skepticism and pessimism of our divided culture, Wax and Alexander quickly admit that not everyone of the 1950’s era adhered to these values: 

There are always rebels--and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But…even the deviants rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations.  Was everything perfect during the period of bourgeois cultural hegemony?  Of course not.  There was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism.  However, steady improvements for women and minorities were underway even when bourgeois norms reigned.  Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture.  Quite the opposite: The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups.  That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents.  A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.

Whether or not you agree with Wax and Alexander, most readers will not be surprised at the harsh manner in which their article was received.  And if it were not enough for the authors to laud the values the values of the 1950’s, they also claim that “All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” 

Note that the authors are not saying one culture is better than another--only better at preparing human beings to have productive lives in the cultural context within which they will live.  Nevertheless, in several articles, including articles in the U. Penn student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, the authors are accused of using “hate speech” and preaching “white supremacy.”  One of these articles, entitled “Notions of 'bourgeois' cultural superiority are based on bad history,” was written by five of Amy Wax’s own law faculty colleagues at U. Penn.  Imagine that occurring to you as a professor at the beginning of a new academic year. 

Professor Dorothy E. Roberts and colleagues consider Wax and Alexander’s “nostalgia for the 1950’s ‘bourgeois’ culture” to be “bad history” and compare it to a defense of Confederate statues that promote white supremacy.   They add that, “nostalgia for 1950’s ‘bourgeois’ culture erases its historical context and serves as a thinly veiled argument for… Anglo-Protestant superiority….”

In defense of Amy Wax and “1950’s values,” Heather Mac Donald, asks readers of National Review:

Were you planning to instruct your child about the value of hard work and civility?  Not so fast!  According to a current uproar at the University of Pennsylvania, advocacy of such bourgeois virtues is “hate speech.”  

Mac Donald then points out the flawed and biased approach of Roberts et al and other liberal progressives who view “1950’s values” with disdain and who accuse Wax and Alexander of promoting cultural bias and racial supremacy.  Mac Donald summarizes by putting her finger on what she calls the “primary sin” of Wax and Alexander—the need to change human behavior with emphasis on individual responsibility:

The op-ed’s primary sin was to talk about behavior. The founding idea of contemporary progressivism is that structural and individual racism lies behind socioeconomic inequalities. Discussing bad behavioral choices and maladaptive culture is out of bounds and will be punished mercilessly by slinging at the offender the usual fusillade of “isms” (to be supplemented, post-Charlottesville, with frequent mentions of “white supremacy”).  The fact that underclass behaviors are increasingly common among lower-class whites, and not at all limited to poor blacks and Hispanics, might have made it possible to address personal responsibility.  That does not appear to be the case.

Some of my readers will question the notion that America ought to consider returning to the values of the 1950’s.  Questioning is a good thing--if accompanied by an objective analysis.  I hope my article does not discourage readers from doing just that. 

Some of you who may be skeptical of the Wax-Alexander assertions are not “baby boomers.” Others, like me were not yet adults during the 1950’s.  I was an elementary schoolboy who had seen little of the wider world outside my rural, farm community.  I have great memories of those years, but I was not immune from learning of moral and ethical transgressions within our family and our community.  Thankfully, God was already showing me His provision through Christ to forgive my sin, make me His child, and teach me to understand the world and His plan for me.

So, let no reader think that I look back on the 1950’s with a fog of nostalgia or with colored glasses.  Rather, I believe the articles I have cited and others are affording our nation with the opportunity to have a polite discussion and debate about what is good and redeemable about American culture of past and present, and where changes are needed.  I hope you will read the assertions of the Wax-Alexander article and of opposing articles such as Roberts et al; and, critiques such as that of Mac Donald.  I am not optimistic that a “polite discussion” will or even can happen without a moral and spiritual revival.  As long as we choose to view our history with an arrogant disdain that refuses to acknowledge the importance of individual responsibility for moral and ethical choices, there is little hope.

The Book of Proverbs teaches the connection between wise discernment by the individual and the corporate benefit of individual righteousness to the nation as a whole:

Wisdom rests in the heart of the discerning;
 it is known even in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a disgrace to any people
                               Prov. 14: 33-34 (NET Bible)

We must realize that “individual righteousness” is not “self-righteousness.”  The Bible says that all of our self-righteousness is but filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).  Therefore, God instructs us in Titus 2:  12-14 to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us [give us right standing before a Holy God] from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”

Heather Mac Donald does not offer much optimism for American culture.  She concludes her article asking,

What if the progressive analysis of inequality is wrong, however, and a cultural analysis is closest to the truth?  If confronting the need to change behavior is punishable “hate speech,” then it is hard to see how the country can resolve its social problems.

When I read the progressive liberal critique that considers  the mention of timeless, multicultural values like hard work, moral uprightness, and civility as “hate speech,” I am reminded of the Prophet Isaiah’s warning of coming judgment:

Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge;
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
                                                        -- Isaiah 5: 13a, 20

What About You?   Do you have good memories of the 1950’s or of reading about that era?  Do you agree with authors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander that America would benefit if we were to return to some of the values the 1950’s?   What is your answer to the hope for America as a nation, and more broadly for human civilization?