Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On peacemaking and self-defense

Thank you to everyone for the kind words and gracious support of Jason Comerford and I as we co-taught on Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers," last Sunday.

I always feel, after preaching, like way more needed to be said about a specific passage than I actually had time and space to say. And I think I felt this more acutely last Sunday morning than I ever have before.

21 Ethiopian Christians laid down
their lives for Christ and were beheaded
by ISIS in Libya in early 2015.
After the sermon a friend challenged my assertion that "peacemaking sometimes involves the use of force." Now, I believe this is fundamentally true. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an incredibly violent act, but it brought a forceful end to a war that most historians believe would have dragged on for several more years, costing hundreds of thousands more Allied and possibly millions of Japanese lives in the process.

Jesus, the Ultimate Peacemaker, paid the Ultimate Price for peace between us and God. And that price was a violent death on the Cross. The cost of true peace is sometimes very high.

At the very end of our time together, Sebastian asked what Jesus meant by His statement, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). Is this a justification for violence? Are Christians to wage Crusades in order to propagate an enforced peace throughout the world? If the answer to this question is "Yes," then how are we any different than fundamentalist Muslims who believe that Sharia and the Caliphate must be ushered in by acts of terrorist violence?

I think the answer to these difficult questions lies in the Cross, and the example of Christ as He approached it. We must understand that the Cross was an incredibly violent and ultimately unjust act: sinful man crucifying an innocent and sinless God.

After He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeing that Peter had pulled out a sword and was seeking violently to defend His Lord, Jesus said: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)

Jesus said He had the power to call down at least "twelve legions" of angels ... and in terms of the Roman Army, a legion was at least 6,000 soldiers, and often more. So 12 legions of angels would be at least 72,000 angels.

The question is, how powerful is one angel? One clue can be found in Isaiah 37:36 ...
Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!
You heard that right ... one angels singlehandedly defeated 185,000 soldiers in one night. Doing a little math therefore shows you that 72,000 angels should be able to successfully take on an army of at least 13 and a third billion soldiers!

No doubt this gave Christ a comfortable margin of error if He did indeed choose to fight that small handful of Roman soldiers rather than submit to the Cross.

And I think that's the whole point. Even though He had the power to defend Himself, Jesus willingly accepted the violence of the Cross, "for the joy set before Him" and because it was the will of His Father. True peacemaking is willing to pay the price!

Peacemakers don't go out and take up a sword in order to forcefully institute some sort of Kingdom of God on earth. Instead of taking up a sword, they take up a cross. They lay down their lives.

Armed with knives and guns, a group of ISIS terrorists marched a group of 21 Ethiopian Christian men out onto a beach in Libya in early 2015. They forced them to their knees, then beheaded them.

Who were the peacemakers in this scenario? Jesus told Peter, "Those who draw the sword will die by the sword." Those 21 Christian martyrs entrusted their lives to Jesus.

I have a close friend, the husband of a coworker at World Vision, who was kidnapped by Communist rebels in Ethiopia when he was a young man in a Christian high school there. He and 90 other Christian students were lined up along a ditch, their hands tied behind their backs. Terrorists pointed machine guns at them and ordered to recant their faith in Jesus. "Deny the name of Christ, and live," they were told.

Eighty-one of the students recanted. My friend was one of nine who refused to do so.

Thank God it was a false threat. These young people were beaten and tortured, but not killed. Later, the government of Ethiopia, at the urging of the leadership of that Christian school, found and rescued alive those 90 students. Today my friend is an evangelist who preaches Christ to crowds in the tens of thousands in his homeland of Ethiopia. In obedience to the Gospel, he was willing to lay down his life for the name of Christ, and Jesus chose to give it back to him to use as He saw fit.

Blessed are the peacemakers. My friend is one of the most blessed people I know.

How about us? Jesus may give us the power, the capacity, to defend ourselves against evil. Will we use it? Or will we choose to "take up our cross" and trust Him instead? That's what true peacemakers do.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Blessed

"Father blessing son at The Wall." Available at
www.blueandwhiteart.com/shop/html/783.html
We Christians use the word "blessed" (or a form of it) frequently. "Have a blest day!" we shout across the fence to our neighbor. If a co-worker in cubicle-land sneezes, we automatically intone "Bless you!" often before we even know who has sneezed.

It's one of those Christian-ese sort of words that we may use a little too easily without really even thinking about, or perhaps understanding, it's meaning.

This may partly be because "blessing" falls halfway into that category of "old-fashioned" words, like caterwauling, gobbledegook, willy-nilly or supercilious.

But it's also a word you'll find frequently in Scripture, at least in most versions, and it appears repeatedly in the first nine verses of Christ's famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 5.

(By the way, the "Sermon on the Mount" wasn't really a sermon, or something preached, so much as it was something taught. Rabbis typically stood up to preach, and sat down to teach, and Matthew 5:1 says that after Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain and sat down, and His disciples came to him. We don't know how large the crowds were, and whether they all followed him up the mountain or not; but we do know he had at least 72 and perhaps as many as 500 or more disciples.)

In the Greek, the word translated as "blessed" in Matthew 5 is makarios, which literally means to be happy or blissful. Some versions even use "Happy are you" rather than "Blessed are you." However, one still walks away with a general sense that "Blessed" is far more than simply experiencing happiness. The Amplified Bible defines "blessed" as "spiritually calm with life-joy in God's favor." I like the addition of "life-joy in God's favor" to the "blessed" equation. I also like the way "spiritually calm" conveys a sense of inner peace and tranquility.

I've never been to the island of Cyprus. World Vision has an office there and I'd love to visit sometime. The Greeks associated the island of Cyprus with makarios, because of its geographical location, perfect climate, and fertile soil. It was thought that anyone living on Cyprus had it "made in the shade."

To the contrary, says Harvest Fellowship's Greg Laurie, the biblical sense of makarios is independent of one's circumstances and surroundings. This is self-evident even within the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:10 says "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. The circumstance of persecution is a highly negative one. Surely one could not associate the word "happy" with those Christians who were used as human torches in Nero's gardens.

For Christ, peacemaking entailed a horrific cost (death on the cross). And yet, as the ultimate Peacemaker, he was blessed! Hebrews 12:2 tells us that, "For the joy set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross, despising its shame." The Cross itself wasn't a happy thing, it was instead a thing to be endured and despised. But the joy that was set before him was obedience to the Father and the knowledge of what would happen as a result of Christ's sacrifice — that his blood would be the price paid to reconcile you and I to God! He purchased for Himself a people. The joy set before him was the long view, the result of his peacemaking sacrifice, the knowledge of what the cost he was willing to pay would purchase.

The point is that true blessing isn't always "happy happy, joy joy." It sometimes comes with pain. But that pain can be endured if we take the long view and behold with solemn faces the reward that is promised as a result of the beatitude.

Peacemaking isn't by nature fun. It can be very difficult and very painful and very costly. But it is worth it, and the result is blessing: self-contained "life-joy in God's favor" as we trust Him to bring it to fruition in His good timing.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Who Is "The Gate?"

In a sculpture titled "The Shield,"
a mysterious figure known as "The
Guardian" stands watch over the Gate
of the Garden of Eden. This artifact is
integral to the story told in my novel,

Fountains of the Deep.
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22–24)

* * *

In Pulse (Elim’s young adults group), different leaders moderate a verse-by-verse chapter study each Friday night. Participants have developed a rather silly tradition whereby when nearly any question is asked, they might playfully shout out, “The answer is Jesus!” ... and everyone laughs.

I suppose we’ve encouraged this unruly behavior. When we studied the book of Genesis last year, we did so through the lens, “Where do we see Jesus in this chapter?” That question would be asked after each and every chapter, and always spawned a great discussion. As it turns out, “Jesus” usually is the right answer!

Jesus shows up in some surprising places in the Old Testament, if you look carefully for Him. While in my 20s, I wrote a novel speculating about some of the circumstances leading up to the great Flood of Genesis 6-7. In it I wonder aloud about whether it was Christ Himself, a mysterious figure known to earth’s early inhabitants as “The Guardian,” who wielded the flaming sword at the gate of Eden. My novel, Fountains of the Deep (available this weekend only as a free download on Amazon—visit my website for details), is a work of fiction, but one cannot help but question exactly Who the guardian of the gate of Eden might have been when one reads passages such as John’s account of seeing the transfigured Christ in Revelation 1:12–13:
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man … coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Many Bible scholars believe Christophanies (a physical manifestation of the Son of God) abound in the Old Testament. Whether Jesus was present among those guarding the gate of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 may be a matter of fanciful speculation. There is one gate, however, we know Jesus guards closely, and it’s the gate to God’s sheep pen. In John 10:9 Jesus says:
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.
Eden was designed to be a place of eternal fellowship with God. Man broke that fellowship when he disobeyed God, so God appointed a flaming sword (representing throughout Scripture His Word, which is also the very name for Christ bestowed in John 1) to bar a mankind that had repudiated God from dwelling in a holy place of perfect fellowship with God.

That’s the state you and I were in … until that same Word became the Gate once again! Now, as a result of His blood shed for us, He becomes (according to John 10) a Gate designed to admit His sheep into perfect fellowship in God’s presence, rather than keeping them out! The future is bright indeed for those who reenter this particular gate. And the ticket is simply an obedient, listening ear of faith.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice.” Are you listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd, the Guardian of the Gate? Would you know it, if you heard it? If you’ve never yet done this, commit yourself today to following Him with all your heart back into a place of perfect communion with the eternal God. It’s a simple step of faith, and you can take it today, regardless of your life circumstances. Please don’t put it off; shoot me an email. I would love to help you take that life-changing step!

Monday, January 04, 2016

Noah's Revenge

In 2014, I grew very excited when I learned there was a movie coming out, focused on one of my favorite stories. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Noah also featured some of my favorite actors: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins.

Noah, the Bible's "last man standing" story about the limits to which mankind can push God, and how God in His mercy manages to save a remnant from judgment, fires the imagination with a tale of impending apocalypse, a giant wooden boat full of animals, and a fresh start on a world wiped clean of the mess we have made of it.

So it's hard to overstate how deeply my anticipation turned to chagrin and disappointment when I saw the utter mess Aronofsky made of the film. None of the power was in it. The role of Noah himself was utterly twisted from that of the faithful, obedient and courageous saint the Bible portrays him to be. The Nephilim (which the Bible says were a race of brutal giants) were somehow turned into ridiculous rock people, glorified demons who were being punished by God for their noble ambition to help mankind. Everything was turned on its head.

The movie left me with a sort of PTSD, recurring fears that the real story of the heroes who survived the global judgment because of their faithful obedience and courage would be forever lost in the minds of a generation who looks to the silver screen for its reality.

It also left me determined not to give up and give in, but to fight back. I believe it's possible to faithfully fictionalize the account of the Deluge without compromising the truth, warping the protagonists, and glorifying the villains. How best to get revenge for Darren's debacle?

Fountains of the Deep is a novel I wrote 30 years ago. For most of that time it has sat in a desk drawer, dust falling like rain. But watching Noah helped me realize it was a story that needed to be heard, so during the past year or so I have invested a lot of time and energy preparing it for publication on the Amazon Kindle platform.

And it is a novel: an intentionally fictionalized and dramatized account. Ninety-eight percent of what transpires in Fountains is a work of this author's imagination. But the 2 percent that intersects with the biblical account of the Flood is accurate to that account, and draws from the power of the story which many people consider to be fantasy, but which Christ himself treated as historical truth (see Matthew 24:37 and Luke 17:26).

Amazon published Fountains yesterday morning, and I'm gratified that people have already purchased and begun reading it. Yesterday afternoon one reader wrote on my Facebook timeline:
"So far, honestly, I love it! I couldn't put it down ... until my Kindle died! LOL! I should have had it charged in anticipation!"

I'm at that point in my life where I don't really care about making money. (I will die neither rich nor poor.) I really just want the story to get out. That's the reason I have partnered with Amazon, this coming weekend (Friday through Sunday), to offer the 310-page Fountains of the Deep absolutely free to anyone who wishes to download it via the Kindle platform.

After this, I will work on a printed version of the novel (which I will need to charge something for, just by virtue of the cost of printing it), for those who still need to hold paper in their hands to feel like they are reading something worthwhile. (I am also working on a "read by the author" audiobook version.)

The only thing I would ask of those who download a free copy this weekend is to read it as quickly as possible, then return to the book's page on Amazon and write a review. I honestly want to know what you think of it, and whether you would recommend it to other readers. Also please help me share the news about Fountains of the Deep on social media. "Like" my author page and share the posts there about the novel on your own Facebook page. If you are a Twitter-er, please tweet about the novel using the hashtag #FountainsOfTheDeep.

This grassroots promotion will help the book gain traction and widen its potential audience. (Since I have self-published rather than going with a publishing company, with all its resources, getting your help in this way is my only real chance for getting the word out about the novel!)

Doing this, helping share a story of the events surrounding the Great Flood, will be the best revenge I can think of on those who would water down and distort such a marvelous story through a ridiculous movie like Noah! Thank you!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Paying for Peace


Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they shall be called children of God.

Late in January I'm sharing the pulpit at our church with Jason, one of the young men in our young adults group, called "Pulse." Jason and I have been leading weekly Bible studies together, along with several other young adults in the group, for the past few years, and I've really grown to appreciate and enjoy his leadership. He's passionate about the Word and about Truth and I'm praying that preaching a sermon alongside me at our church will be used by God in unique ways in his future to minister to the Body of Christ.

As you can see from the verse above, the sermon is on Matthew 5:9, the "Blessed are the peacemakers" verse in the Sermon on the Mount. In preparation, we've been studying the concept of "peace" in the Scriptures. I'd like to take a few blog posts to share what I'm hearing and learning, and to see what your thoughts might be on this subject.

What is the meaning of peace?

Most people know that the most common Hebrew word for peace is Shalom. What they probably don't realize is the root meaning of the word Shalom: "It has been paid for."

This word therefore reflects a key biblical and life truth that true peace must always come at a cost. Since time immemorial, the human race has been in conflict — brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, nation against nation, and ultimately, human beings against their Creator. Peacemaking (which is a process and cannot happen instantaneously ... note the word "making") always involves a price that is paid (by the peacemaker) to bring two parties previously in conflict into unity.

It's one of life's severe ironies that peacemaking can be a very violent process. "Officers of the peace," or police officers, as we know them, carry weapons and are authorized to use them to make or enforce peace. It is well known that the two atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately created peace and probably saved tens of thousands of lives (even as they killed thousands and wounded many more) by bringing a dramatic end to the Second World War in the Pacific Theater.

Every enlisted soldier knows that he or she may be called upon to pay the ultimate price for his country, for the sake of peace. And most fathers are also willing to do the same thing to protect their families.

In the Bible, our quintessential model for peacemaking is Jesus Christ. Even before His birth, He was dubbed "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." In fact, He is not simply a peacemaker; He personifies peace, according to Ephesians 2, where Paul details wonderfully the price Christ paid to earn the title:

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility ...

We know from the accounts of Christ's crucifixion in the four Gospels that His life wasn't taken from Him against His will. In John 10:18 Jesus assures us: "No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Jesus laid His life down, shed His blood and allowed His body to be broken, to create peace between us and God. Because of the price that He paid (and not on the basis of anything we have done), we are no longer enemies of God: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

So Jesus truly is our Shalom; He paid the price so that we can be reconciled to God.

This then gives rise to a number of questions, which I'll take a look at in subsequent blog posts, but you can be thinking about a few of them now:
  • If peace is a result of a debt that has been paid, what does peace look like after this act of redemption?
  • If Jesus is our Peace, then what did He mean by passages such as Matthew 10:34 ("Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.")?
  • And how was Christ's role as peacemaker reflected in events such as overturning the tables of the Temple moneychangers?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Not by might, nor by power ..."

“So he [the angel] said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)

‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)Zechariah 4:6 is my life verse not because I’m good at doing what it says, but because I’m a very “Type A” person who has a tendency to push hard to try and get things done in my own power, rather than to rely on God’s Spirit. God has convicted me of these tendencies over the years, so a number of years ago I adopted Zech. 4:6 as my life’s verse to remind myself that the only truly good things that happen in my life come about not because of any skill, strength, or brilliance I might think I have; but rather, because of “Christ in me, the hope of glory.” Every day I want to ask Him to fill me with His Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13) and to be in control of what happens.

We live this Christian life together, so I would ask you to help me rely more consistently on Jesus, in addition to praying this prayer yourself every morning: God, please grant us the gift of your Holy Spirit today, and work in each of us to accomplish Your purposes. Amen! (Read more ...)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Passionate about sharing bad news?

As a social media community manager, lately I've noticed a trend in the assault on faith by what I would call "extremist atheists."

I differentiate "extremist atheists" from other kind of atheists because this particular flavor seems very passionate about convincing others that there is no God, or at least sticking it to those who believe there is. It's always seemed to me that your normal, run-of-the-mill atheist wouldn't be so motivated. Life is short, after all; why go to all the trouble if there is no God, there is no hope for our future; and there are no absolute foundational moral values (which follows on the heel of "there is no God," in my opinion). What's the point? The logical thing would be to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

But the extremist atheist is "evangelistic." Actually, that's not exactly the right word, since "evangelism" means "to share good news." It's also come to mean simply "the passionate support of a cause," but the root of the word is the Greek euaggelion, which is literally "good news." Since atheism's news really is bad news (there is no God, no hope for a bright future; when we die, that's the end of the story), I would propose the use of the Greek word diaph√©miz√≥, which instead means "to share bad news," instead.

So "evangelistic" would become "diaphemistic" in the case of the extremist atheist. They are passionate about sharing bad news. And bad news, unlike good news, really does have to be sold. You have to work at it. Who wants it?

The diaphemistic atheist would object they are simply crusading for the purpose of supporting and disseminating the truth. (Assuming their claim to know that there is no God can be supported logically and demonstrated to be the truth.)

What's interesting to me, then, is how the recent strategy I have seen being used by diaphemistic atheists flies so heartily in the face of logic. What strategy is that?

Here's an example on the wall of the Facebook site managed by the Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan's Purse:


The lone commenter, our thoughtful diaphemistically atheist friend Marcus, would have us believe that if there really was a "Lord" He would not have "stood idly by" to let such a horrific thing as the Paris attacks happen. Rather than "standing idly by" He would somehow intervene when such terrible tragedies occur.

In Marcus' view, there are three possibilities. 1) The Lord, if He exists, is good and doesn't wish evil to happen, but is apparently incapable of stopping it. He is therefore not Omnipotent. Or, worse, 2) The Lord is not good. He simply doesn't care. Those terrorists can destroy lives all day long, it's none of His concern. Or 3) There is no such Lord. (And I'm guessing this third option would be the one the diaphemistic atheists support.)

Marcus obviously feels this is a thread hanging out of the garment of faith, which threatens to unravel the whole thing. So, in the name of logic, let's tug on that thread a bit and see what happens.

If the Lord was willing to intervene to stop the Paris attacks, it follows He must also be willing to intervene to stop other horrific evils: Let's start with the "big ones" — all wars, all terrorism. Maybe if you're of one political inclination you would add climate change, corporate greed, animal cruelty to the list. If you're another, you might add governments which oppose human freedom, abortion, hunger, disease, etc.

Now you're getting down into the weeds a bit. If a good God was willing to intervene to stop terrorism, wouldn't He also be willing to intervene to stop child abuse? Neglect? Traffic accidents? The coyote killing my child's favorite cat? Etc.

The world is full of evil and pain. Anyone with a brain knows that much of that evil and pain is caused — intentionally or not — by careless people who do wrong things. A husband cheats on his wife. A teenager commits suicide. A lonely and addicted man drives drunk and plows head on into a van on a family vacation, seriously injuring or killing its occupants. God must necessarily intervene to stop all these things, if we require Him (if He exists) to intervene to stop the Paris attacks. And if you don't support this statement, you're going to have a really hard time knowing where to draw the line. (If you can draw that line, that must make you God, right?)

So how would God "intervene" and stop our frequent tendency to do evil to our fellow human being and cause them pain? The only possibility would be through some divine intervention that violated our free will, right? He would necessarily have to turn us into automata that just did whatever He told us to do, mindlessly. Frankly, we wouldn't be having this discussion, if that were true.

I think the Christian narrative gives a much more logical answer to this dilemma. God created human beings "in His own image" — and a key aspect of that image is that we have inviolable free choice. When we are confronted with matters of right and wrong, big or small ... to steal a pencil, or to unload an AK-47 into a crowd of unsuspecting shoppers ... He allows us to choose, and doesn't forcefully override our choice. (In the Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis called this the "Deep Magic," those inviolable principles of the universe, of justice and right and wrong, which God follows because they are His nature.)

But God is good. He is working to redeem a broken world suffering from the wrong choices of those He created with free will. That redemption is partial and not yet fully complete. But the price has been paid, God has taken the results of all our wrong choices and experienced the ultimate consequences on our behalf. And through that act He is working to gather to Himself a people in whom free will is working the right choices, from the center outward.

The redemption isn't fully realized yet, and things may get worse before they get better. There will be more Paris attacks, more child abuse, more hunger and starvation, more disease, more pain and injustice. But the injustice is temporary. Ultimately true justice will be served and the world made right — the right way, without violating the inviolable principles of the universe.

I would warn diaphemistic atheists that they too someday will be served justice. The Bible says, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" God is not mocked. All things are working out for the good in accordance with His purposes, to those who believe.

On Thanksgiving, be thankful that you were created with free will. You can choose to mock. You can choose to be part of the problem, and not part of the solution. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!