Monday, February 19, 2018

Knowing (and being known by) God

If I had to guess, I'd say my cat (Carmen) thinks she knows me. And in a sense, she does. She's figured that if she stands in front of the sink and meows early in the morning, I will most likely turn the tap on so she can jump up and get a drink. If she leads me to a certain rug downstairs, she knows I will stop and admire her as she writhes and scratches her back. (She makes quite a display of it.) And she knows that when I put a soft blanket on my lap and pat it, she is being invited to jump up and make herself comfortable.

She more or less has me all figured out.

Not! Naturally there is so much about me that my cat does not know, and never could know. My likes and dislikes, what makes me happy or sad, my memories of my family growing up, and of my own family when our kids were young, all the places we've lived before this one, how I spend my time when I leave our driveway in our car (or even the purpose of the car and how to drive it).

She has no idea that I can have a philosophy of life, and a faith that is very important to me; or that I studied journalism and literature (and why); or the things that I've gone about writing (what would a cat think of romantic poetry, anyway?), and why. She may be vaguely aware (from past experience) that if she bites me while I'm sleeping, or pees on my pillow, I will get upset and chase her out of the room, or possibly throw something. But the things that really make me angry (man's inhumanity to man, children who are abused, lying and cheating, etc.) she could in no way comprehend.

There is a whole world of stuff my cat does not (or cannot) know about me. And the truth is, I know my cat a lot better than she knows me. True, I haven't figured out everything about my cat, but I'm fairly close.

And if an alleycat appears on our back porch, I know quite a bit more about it (I know it's likely to have flees, for instance; and it's probably hungry; and it's likely afraid of me) than it knows about me (which is virtually nothing, except that I am to be feared, which may or may not actually even be true).

Do I know God?

I think in truth, my relationship with God is a lot like my cat's relationship with me. She knows me well enough to trust me, at least to a certain extent. When I turn on the faucet or dish her kitty food, she doesn't worry that I'm trying to poison her. She knows the sound of my voice and can easily distinguish me from other humans. She knows how to ask for food, or water, or other things she wants.

These are all, fundamentally, things I know about God. His character: He's trustworthy, and I don't have to fear that he's trying to harm me. I have a general idea of what upsets or offends Him, the things that break His heart. I know how to ask for things I need.

And God also knows me — no doubt in a much more intimate and accurate sense than I know my cat!

But there are humans Scripture says God "doesn't know." In Matthew 7:23, 25:12, and Luke 13:27, Jesus reiterates a frightening situation in which God tells humans under judgment, "Depart from Me, for I never knew you."

As Christians, we often think that us knowing God is really what it's all about. But Scripture reiterates that it's a two-way street. God must also know us. And if He doesn't? He'll say, "Depart from me!" That's the truly terrifying part.

The really interesting thing is who He says this to. Not rapists and murderers, not tyrannical despots, and not even people who drive slow in the fast lane. No! The people He's talking about, in these passages, are all people who are doing amazing works "in His name!" And He says to them: "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

So it seems to me it almost goes without saying: Scripture places a HUGE amount of importance on God "knowing us."

So, how does God come to "know us?"

When I was a kid, I was eager to "receive Christ" because my Sunday school teachers told me I had to do this in order to avoid Hell! Of course (as a kid) I believed these authoritative adults and fearfully tried to figure out exactly how I would do what they said I needed to do in order to avoid an eternity of torment in flames. I listened carefully as they taught: "Okay, here's how to receive Christ. Pray this prayer: 'God I know I'm a sinner. Thank you that you sent your son Jesus to die for my sins. I receive Him as my Savior.'" I memorized the words.

While I now know better, it struck me at the time that the exact words were very important. So I tried (multiple times) to "get it right" and pray exactly as they had shared. And in hindsight, I know God saw the intent of my heart and heard this prayer, but each time I prayed it I was left feeling "empty," like somehow I didn't do it right and it didn't "take." And I think God allowed me to feel this way, partly to drive home the point that "getting saved" really isn't about what I do, it's about what He has already done. And it's about a relationship, not about some words that you memorize.

And I think this is key: I was simply trying to invoke some sort of "magic" formula. I wasn't really listening to God. I wasn't really opening my heart up so that He might know me!

Now God of course already knows our hearts, better than we do. But there are some interesting passages of Scripture that refocus this sort of "knowing" on a different kind of knowledge, the kind that comes through relational fellowship. Toward the end of the third chapter of the Revelation, the risen Christ delivers a very important message through the Apostle John to the lukewarm church at Laodicea:
19"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

21To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
It's interesting that Christ chooses the language of fellowship: "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." Some friends at our church recently invited us over for dinner. Bryan has been in our young adults ministry and we have really come to love and appreciate him. His mom, Carolyn, is incredibly gracious. She cooked an amazing ham dinner and served a bottle of nice red wine to go with it. We spent quite a bit of time sitting around the table and just trading stories. We got to know each other so much better as a result of that time around the fellowship table. Now we can truly say that we are good friends, and in a deeper sense, we "know" each other better.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at. He comes to "know" us when we open the door of our hearts to him, hear and respond to His "knock" (His approach in our lives, even if that approach brings with it rebuke and discipline, which is all based in His amazing love for us), and spend time with him around His table, listening to Him share His truth into our lives, and sharing our story with Him as well.

The "evildoers" in Matthew 7 were all about putting up a front to make God think that He was lucky to have them on His team. But when he knocked, they didn't hear and open the door. They neglected to do that most crucial thing that friends do: spend time sitting around the table and getting to know each other.

Knocking on my door

I love the way that God finally "tied the knot" on our friend relationship. I have vivid memories of the very moment He knocked on my door, 52 years ago. As an 8 year old I was playing with my sister Sandy in the back yard of our home in Sylmar, California. For a reason I don't recall, I hauled off and popped her one, hit her good. She burst into tears, and of course did what I should have known she would do, went running into the house to tell mom.

The red pin on this Google map marks the spot
where God first knocked on my door.
But, I had a plan. There was a bush on the northeast side of our house on the corner of Buckeye and Envoy in Sylmar, California. (That bush was approximately in the spot I dropped the pin on the above Google map. It's no longer there, of course, after 52 years, they've paved a little walkway along the side of the house, instead. But it used to be a great place to hide from the wrath of Mom! And, by the way, that pool is also new.)

I hid under that bush, listening carefully to hear if Mom approached. And that is when I heard, instead, God's knock.

It came in the form of a discreet thought God planted in my heart: This sin problem that you have ... it's only going to get worse, you know.

That thought just hung there, terrifyingly. What do I do? I asked in wonder.

Give it to Me, came God's ready answered. I already paid for that. Let Me in to your life. Let me take control.

So, this time I prayed, and in earnest, not something scripted, but a prayer of desperation: God, I don't want to be like this! I want to be someone you can be proud of. I want to be your friend. Thank you for dying for me! Help me to be different.

And at that point came a very distinct sense which I can only describe as "the smile of God." Okay. Now it begins, that inner voice said into my heart.

I didn't really know it at the time, but we were fellowshipping together. Exchanging comments. For the first time, I was being honest with God, and sharing my life and my need. And He was sharing Himself with me.

I ran out from behind that bush, and almost collided with Mom, coming to look for the scoundrel who popped her daughter, justifiably angry. But I was so excited I didn't care. "Mom!" I cried, forgetting for the moment all about the injustice I had done Sandy. "Guess what? I just met Jesus!"

You can imagine the look on my mom's face, I suppose. Sandy was there hiding behind her, sniffling and rolling her eyes like, Oh yeah, of course now he gets religion!

But, I was being honest. And I think my mom knew that. She scooped me up in her arms, and instead of spanking me, gave me a huge hug. That's just one of many things I loved about my mom.

Oh, and Sandy, in case I've never told you this before: I'm sorry I hit you! And I know, it probably happened more than once. But I know you will be glad that God used that particular time to knock on my door!

--------------------------------------

How about you? How did God first knock on your door?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Chaos in America: Have We Prayed for Justice Like our Lives Depend on It?

Note: I've submitted this post to our church leadership blog, The Last Word. But I'd love your feedback on it.

I was watching the news this morning as Melissa Falkowski, an English and journalism teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, was being interviewed about her experience protecting her students in the midst of the horrific school shooting yesterday morning. At one point in the interview, as I recall, she said something that reached down deep inside of me:
“I’ve seen this on TV, we all have, shooting after shooting, and there’s always the same thing that is said, you know: ‘It’s not the time to talk about gun control ... it’s time to pray for the families.’ And I just think that that hasn’t gotten us anywhere. And now here we are. We’re the latest statistic on school violence. And as a society, as Americans, we’re failing our children. We’re not keeping them safe. Congress is failing us. The government is failing us. And something has to be done.”


Obviously, it’s been a depressing 24 hours, and we can (and probably will) debate the role that guns, or the media, or school policies, or whatever have played in these national tragedies. But what struck me, of course, is the comment that “We’ve prayed, and it obviously hasn’t gotten us anywhere.” And she’s right about the fact that school violence is getting worse and worse.

I ask myself, Is she right when she asserts that we’ve prayed? I’m not so sure.

And I’m speaking for myself here. Have I prayed when I’ve heard about school shootings? Did I pray for myself and my students when I was a tutor last year at Emerald Ridge High School and Glacier View Junior High? Do I pray each morning when I send my wife off to her job as a school nurse at elementary schools in downtown Puyallup? Do I pray for my precious granddaughter as she spends her days in her first-grade class in Pennsylvania?

The answer is yes, I’ve prayed. Some. But have I really gotten down on my knees, consistently, persistently, and begged the One I call Lord and King to do something to stop the downward slide of our country into moral oblivion and suicidal hopelessness that I think each of us truly believes (guns or no) is really at the root of all this chaos and violence?

Have I wrestled with Him on this issue, and listened for His voice? If He were to say, “What if I wanted YOU to be a part of the solution?” have I responded like the prophet of old: “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”

I confess that I haven’t done THAT. Have you?

In Luke 18, Jesus shares a profound parable about a widow who seeks justice with an all-powerful but “unjust” judge who could grant it, but isn’t inclined to. After much persistence, he finally relents. And Jesus concludes, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Some parables are a little difficult to figure out. But the meaning of this one is crystal clear, and it is a huge indictment on my heart and may be on yours as well. He assures us that His Father is wholly unlike that unjust judge. Instead, He is EAGER to grant justice, and quickly! But the question is, Are we serious about asking Him for it? Have we persisted “day and night”? Have we prayed like our lives depend on it?

I’m starting to believe that my life depends on it. How about you?

Monday, January 08, 2018

My recent Twitter experiences

I began a "specialization" of sorts on Twitter about 2007, when I met early Apple employee and "evangelist" Guy Kawasaki at a "Publishing on the Web" conference at his alma mater, Stanford University. We were between his sessions and I had a few minutes alone with Guy in the hall. He was a big World Vision fan and supporter (still is, as far as I know), and so I introduced myself as part of the World Vision contingent there, and asked him my typical bleeding-edge question:

"Guy, if there was one up-and-coming technology you feel holds great promise that World Vision should explore, what would that be?"

Apple (and Twitter) evangelist and World Vision supporter Guy Kawasaki.
Apple (and Twitter) evangelist and World Vision supporter Guy Kawasaki.

Guy answered, without hesitation, with a single word: "Twitter."

I was too sheepish to ask the question that immediately entered my mind: "Twitter? What the heck is that?" But, I think he saw the hesitation in my eyes, so he immediately began to explain why he was so excited about this very recent technology.

He convinced me. That day I created http://twitter.com/WorldVision (which has 1.24 million followers today) and shortly after that I created http://twitter.com/LarryShort, http://twitter.com/WorldVisionUSA (606,000 followers), http://twitter.com/WorldVisionNews and http://twitter.com/WorldVisionReport (no longer active), and several more Twitter streams related to various projects and ministry efforts. (Be sure to visit http://twitter.com/ShroomObsessed, which has a whopping 81 followers!)

I've never really had professional designs on the @LarryShort Twitter account, but I have used it instead primarily to "evangelize" for other things (and People) I believe in, and to experiment with ways to manage and grow your Twitter stream. About five years in, I stumbled on a method for steadily growing my own Twitter stream, and described it here. But basically, it involves: 1) Finding and following people with like interests, in hopes that they follow you back. 2) Stop following them after a time, if they don't. 3) Follow back most others who follow you. And 4) Acknowledge/greet all new followers (by name) in a tweet. (I try to be creative about these daily tweets.)

Using this method, I've grown my Twitter stream to about 13,500 followers presently, and for most of this time I feel like I've had a relatively high-quality follower base. I've been able to share nearly 10,000 tweets and have had lots of great conversations.

Now bear in mind that the average Twitter user only has about 208 followers (as of research done June 2016 ... probably more now). And also bear in mind that many of those with large volumes of followers are either celebrities (who rarely follow others back, and probably, with the unfortunate and notable exception of our President, don't pay much attention to their Twitter accounts); or are using "junk" methods of increasing their Twitter streams, which may be inhabited by 90% or higher "bot" and basically junk accounts. (And believe me, there are lots of those out there on Twitter, being used to dupe people into spending money to gain more followers.)

By the way: @realDonaldTrump has about 46 million followers. But he's not "the biggest," at least as far as Twitter goes. It must really tick him off that he's in a distant 20th place behind Barack Obama (with about 99 million followers). Who himself is behind both Katy Perry (in first place) and Justin Bieber (in second). At least he's ahead of Hilary Clinton (with "only" 21 million followers).

My Recent Tipping Point

Recently I feel like I've hit some sort of "tipping point" on Twitter. Prior to this point, I was getting maybe a dozen to 20 new followers per day, and perhaps half of these were "dropping" me after a time (I assumed because they were seeking to get me to follow them, then adjusting their follower volumes to look favorable in their regard by quietly dropping followers). I didn't at all mind "unfollowing" these sorts, although I rarely if ever unfollow others who keep following me (unless they get abusive ... more on that later).

The tipping point came maybe a month or two ago, when I hit about 13,000 followers. (Currently I'm at about 13,500). Mind you it took me nine years to get there, and until then my new followers were primarily real people I had followed. After this "tipping point" I started getting large numbers of followers who weren't necessarily like-minded. The focus of their account is not necessarily a human being, but a topic like cute puppies or love and romance, or other popular "fuzzy" topics. Their handle is frequently misspelled or nonsensical, which probably relates to the difficulty in finding creative new account names among the millions already taken (current estimates put that number at 974 million!)

In March, according to CNBC, USC researchers wrote that "'our estimates suggest that between 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots.' Since Twitter currently has 319 million monthly active users, that translates to nearly 48 million bot accounts, using USC's high-end estimate."

I'm wondering if those 48 million are flagged to go after people like me. No doubt when I crested 13k it put me on some sort of list, inhabited by Twitter users who follow back most if not all of their followers and who have succeeded in growing their accounts to a certain threshhold.

Part of the unfortunate dynamic of this recent effect is that I have less time now to find and following like-minded accounts (managed by real human beings, not bots).

So, I'm seriously considering simply not following back any account that follows me that appears to possibly be a bot.

Also, another recent phenomenon is the increase in both socially unacceptable and "phony" Twitter streams (such as those mimicking a certain celebrity). By socially unacceptable, I'm referring to gambling-related streams or streams apparently designed to "hook" people into following porn or engaging in some sort of "escort" (aka prostitution)-related activity.

In other words, lately I've been followed by lots of provocatively-dressed women (sometimes with names like "MistressBrandy," "CamQueen," "DomGirl" etc. (though not always that obvious). If I follow them back they invariably (and almost immediately) direct message me in a provocative, lonely manner. Sometimes it's outright flattery "Ooooh, you are such a handsome man! I love your profile pic. We should get to know each other." Other times it's less obvious, but trying to start a conversation: "Hello there, how's your day going?" It pretty much feels like bait either way, and probably is.

At first I wasn't sure, and I'd respond in a polite manner. When things escalated, I'd then cut it off quickly. I told my wife about these, and she was concerned. "Hey, that doesn't happen to me! Why is it happening to you?" I'm guessing it's because I'm a 60-year-old professional, an American male with a lot of followers, but I'm not sure. I'm hoping I didn't do anything to trigger or deserve this!

I also mentioned fake celebrity accounts. One guy followed me purporting to be a daytime soap star. He seemed very interested in a conversation so I chatted amiably. I also checked him out, he seemed to be a legitimate star on a daytime soap.

But I grew suspicious when he began pitching me. At first it was "Hey, have you heard about this great government grant?" Yes, I've heard that one before. Not interested. "Why not?" Because I'm perfectly satisfied with what God has provided. I don't need to pursue scams and schemes. Then he graduated to, "Well, if you are so well off, how about investing in my foundation for the poor?"

At this point, I decided to take a second look. and I discovered that his account was a very, very close look-alike to the "real" account of the celebrity. I contacted the real celebrity and gave him a heads-up about the poser, and also reported him to Facebook. They banned him, and the real celebrity thanked me. Jeesh. Who woulda thunkit?


My Dilemma Now

I've always had lots of qualms about Twitter. Is it really worth investing time and energy into? Is it really a good way to get to know new people, and to influence others? Or is it just a bunch of people broadcasting, never listening, never learning anything new? Or worse, is it merely a bunch of bots talking to each other? If the humans completely left the room, would it be immediately evident?

Obviously my recent experiences have magnified those qualms. I appreciate having a steady stream of new followers (which I've always felt helps increase my own "cred" as a social media professional and evangelist), but this means more work (if I am to keep up my regimen), and weeding out the "junk" followers is becoming increasingly more difficult, if not impossible.

My desire (on Twitter) flows from the same dynamics that influenced me to become a writer way back in the 1970s: to have an honest and authentic dialog with real human beings, who can be influenced (and who can influence me) as a result of this dialogue. In light of recent events, that seems more and more difficult.

Your thoughts? (This will be an interesting test to see if anyone is listening! I blog mainly because I have to write, but I've also had the same qualms about blogging. Is anyone really listening, and willing to dialogue?)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

One Dark Day in Texas

You may not recognize this wonderful couple …
but they are one of your brothers and sisters in Christ,
Bryan and Karla Holcombe. They and seven other members
of their immediate family lost their lives Sunday in the mass
shooting at the Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
Joe and Claryce Holcombe are retired teachers, now in their 80s, and living in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Sunday they hosted a prayer meeting of nearby pastors and churchgoers at their home as they awaited details about the tragic shooting at the First Baptist Church nearby.

The news wasn’t good. The Holcomb’s only son, Bryan, was Associate Pastor there and was filling in for the church’s pastor that fateful day. As he walked up onto the stage to lead worship, a deranged gunman named Devin Kelley burst into the church sanctuary and began spraying automatic weapons fire.

Bryan was killed, along with 26 other members of the small congregation. One of them was Bryan’s wife, the Holcombe’s daughter-in-law, Karla. The couple had been married nearly 40 years.

And the bad news didn’t end there. Bryan and Karla had two children (the Holcombe’s grandchildren), Marc Daniel and John. Marc Daniel was also killed. John, who was recording the service from the back, took shrapnel to the leg but survived.

But John’s wife, Crystal — who was pregnant with their sixth child — also died in the hail of bullets, along with her unborn child.

John and Crystal’s other five children were also in the service. Three of them — Emily, Megan, and Greg — were killed in the spree.

Marc Daniel and his wife had one child, a sixth great-grandchild of Joe and Claryce’s, 1-year-old Noah. She too was killed in the gunfire, alongside her dad.

Joe and Claryce, a couple who love and trust the Lord, lost nine members of their immediate family in Sunday’s massacre: their only child and his wife; a grandson and the wife of another grandson; and five great-grandchildren, including one yet to be born.

The “family tree” below dramatically illustrates what I have just shared.


The enormity of Joe and Claryce’s loss is truly difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. I was therefore very interested to read what this couple – living a nightmare reminiscent of the heartbreaking tragedy that befell Job’s family thousands of years ago – had to share about their personal loss and tragedy.

"It's of course going to be difficult," Joe Holcombe said about the days ahead, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune.

But, he said, "we are Christians, we have read the book. We know the ending, and it's good.

"They're in heaven," he added. "And they're a lot better off than we are."

It Could Happen Here

As I reflected on this tragedy, I was confronted with the stark reality that something like this could easily happen in our own church. Sutherland Springs Baptist was really no different than we are, and only slightly smaller. But they are a church where people learned about Jesus together, worshipped the Lord together, and simply lived life together, much as we do. None of them could have ever foreseen or anticipated the seemingly random violence that would tear through their congregation on this particular Sunday in November.

So, what should our response to all this be? Should we stay home, cower in fear?

Absolutely not! Like the Holcombes, we are Christian. We have read the book. We know how the story ends!

And we also know the Author of the Book. He is the one who has told us: “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another; and all the more as you see The Day drawing near.” And, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”

We are called to be the light of the world, a city on a hill, shining God’s glory for all the world to see. And the world is seeing that glory, today, shining through the lives of people like Joe and Claryce Holcombe and their surviving family members, who have suffered such unspeakable loss … but still choose to trust God regardless.

They are truly our brothers and sisters, and we must pray for them … and for one another … during these dark days. For, as the author of Hebrews says, another Day is drawing near!

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

When Materialism Provides No Answers

"It just makes no sense. It's like an asteroid."


Stephen Paddock's brother, Eric, stood in front of the media and groped for words as they asked him to explain why his brother had just unloaded a hail of thousands of bullets into a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 and injuring more than 500, in the U.S.' worst mass shooting.

But asteroids are (more or less) random. People who kill dozens of people with guns, and injure hundreds more, are not. Reasons exist. Everyone knows this, so law enforcement and media are currently in something of a frenzy seeking to explain why a quiet, unassuming person like Paddock would go off the deep end and do the unthinkably horrible thing that he did, before taking his own life.

He was suicidal, that part's clear. But it still doesn't explain why a suicidal person would seek to take so many innocent people with him.

Like all of us, I think my first emotions upon hearing the news reports were a sickening sense of grief. How could such a thing happen? And my own emotions are compounded by knowing one of the victims, an L.A. County Sheriff deputy who worked with me at World Vision a number of years ago. (A bullet lodged very near his spine and they are currently evaluating whether or not they can remove it safely. Please pray for Andrew and his family!)

The last time I remember feeling this way was in March 2015, when Germanwings flight 9525 copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed his jetliner full of 149 innocent people, and himself, into a remote mountainside in France.

A Time for Reflection

I've learned to try and put the emotions associated with such events in a certain compartment, in order to examine the facts as best I am able, interpreted by the media of course and from my rather inconvenient spot in my comfy chair here in front of my computer. But the importance of careful reflection on such events cannot be underestimated. I'm not talking about figuring out how to prevent such tragedies, which is not necessarily up to people like me; but rather, deeper questions. Questions like: Why do seemingly "normal" people commit such horrific, seemingly senseless atrocities? If you eliminate the obvious possible motivations (like terrorism, greed, anger, revenge, etc.), what are you left with?

At press time, it appears that revenge may be a possible motivation. Paddock had spent large sums of money in recent days, gambling. It is theorized that perhaps he was angry at the gambling establishment for ruining his life.

Now, as you may already be aware, I am no fan of gambling ... but, first of all, it's not clear by any stretch that Paddock's life was ruined. He actually was reported to have made quite a bit of money gambling. And I would think that even if he were considered a "professional" gambler, the occasional losing streak would just be part of the territory for someone like that. Anyone with any brains knows that ultimately, the house is the winner when it comes to gambling. (And, while I am in general wired as a risk-taking person, I do question whether and why people who are blessed in the brains department would do much gambling, in the first place!)

Second, and perhaps more significantly, even if you were angry about gambling losses or the perception of being cheated, would this anger be sufficient to motivate a rational person (and for all practical purposes, Paddock did appear to be rational, as witnessed by the manner in which he planned and executed his attack) to injure and kill hundreds of innocent people? Wouldn't it make more sense to take your vengeance out directly on those casino professionals more directly responsible for your losses?

Another popular materialistic explanation is mental illness. He must have been insane. But once again, there doesn't seem to be any apparent history of mental illness. His friends and relatives all thought of Paddock as a "normal, regular guy. Just a guy." And the methodical way he planned and executed his attack also is causing most experts to question the mental illness hypothesis.

What, then? ISIL has of course claimed responsibility, but law enforcement currently sees no connection. All THAT proves is that those clowns have the ability to watch the news and the hutzpah to try and take advantage of horrible moments for their own devious ends.

What then? The materialistic explanations are running out.

More Things in Heaven and Earth

And this is what should bother thinking people about the materialistic society in which we live. As Shakespeare famously penned, "There are are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

We don't like to consider the possibility that there are dark spiritual forces at work among us. For most of us, watching movies like "The Exorcist" falls into the category of "entertainment." I was fascinated by this introduction on the site "Ranker," on their page listing "the best demonic possession movies" ...
There’s nothing more horrifying than watching a movie about a person who’s possessed by a demon. What is it about the thought of demons, supernatural visitations, darkness, and evil that fascinates to human beings so much? We must love it, as there are tons of wildly successful films where characters are possessed by demons.
I would suggest another explanation behind our fascination. It rings true. In college I had a professor of missions who had spent many years in South American countries. He had a reputation there (which surprisingly followed him to Southern California) as a (somewhat reluctant) exorcist. He was even called to one of the girls' dorms at our college, late one night, where he cast a demon or demons out of a student who was very troubled, changing the course of her life dramatically for the better. My fiance was a witness to this event, as as the campus newspaper editor I did an extensive interview with Dr. Murphy where shared the details of many of his fascinating experiences with demonic forces both in South America and in the United States.

The challenge in the U.S., he acknowledged, was that in our materialistic society we oftentimes don't believe that Satan or his demonic forces are real. Even in our churches we frequently shy away from things like this which transgress the boundaries of the "ordinary" into areas we can't materialistically explain.

However, the Bible we say we believe observes no such boundaries. Christ's interactions with demonic forces were numerous and dramatic, as were those of the apostles who followed Him. The Bible certainly agrees with Shakespeare: "There are more things in heaven and earth ..."


But Light Overcomes Darkness

And while we might find this truth frightening, if we reflect further and more deeply it should also be of great encouragement to us. For, if there are Evil Forces at work, there must also be forces at work for Good! And what do we apprehend (in faith) about those Forces for Good?
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4)
There are a couple of important things to note about the truths revealed in these verses. First, even though we have been speaking (as if we were Luke Skywalker) about "Evil Forces" and "Good Forces," the truth is that there is a person (or persons) behind all such forces. Force is wielded by personality. And these persons (in this case the "spirits" of whom John speaks) have goals.

The first goal John speaks of is to convince us to believe their narrative of truth. With some friends at our church I am currently studying C. S. Lewis' brilliant work of fiction, The Screwtape Letters, which postulates what it be like to be privy to a conversation between a senior tempter and his demonic trainee. There is a fascinating exchange which highlights the demonic strategy:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
So, the demons themselves wish for us to either not believe in them at all (the materialistic viewpoint); or, to believe in them wholeheartedly and fear them and structure our lives around that fear.

And, if you take the words of these verses ("for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world") out of the equation, it makes sense that so many non-materialistic societies have feared and worshiped demonic forces. For the primary goal of those forces is stated by Christ Himself, and it is bad news indeed: in a word, it's "death."
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
In Christ's parable, "the thief," of course, is the prince of demons himself, Satan. Satan exults in taking what is not his, in robbing God of His glory and creation; in killing, in destruction. Fearful power.

But juxtaposed against this fearful power is an even more awesome power wielded by Christ, the "greater is He that is in you," the One who came that we might have life, and abundantly. While we mustn't make the mistake of not believing in the existence of demonic forces, we must simultaneously hold a realistic view of their relative impotence. They can only go "thus far, and no further," as God permitted Satan to afflict Job. They can only act in accordance with God's permissive purposes, which are greater than we can possibly understand.

The Cross: The Ultimate Test of Power on Both Sides

And the foremost example of this is the Cross of Christ, the greatest tragedy of human history, sinful human beings unjustly condemning the sinless Son of God to an untimely, gruesome death. But then the pinnacle achievement of Satan, killing the very Son of God, was turned on its head by the power of God (manifested in the resurrection of Christ) into the pinnacle achievement of He who is greater than!This is the power of God, my friends. And it is a power we can be confident will overcome the very worst attacks of the evil one and his minions, be they Islamic terrorism or mass murder of innocents or the opiod epidemic or even the brutal slaughter of millions of innocent unborn.

None of us know, ultimately, how the actions of a person like Stephen Paddock will be explained. But what we CAN know is this: while Satan is real, and powerful, and we are not unaware of his schemes; we have a God who is also real, and far more powerful, and has purposes that we will someday comprehend and will cause us to drop down and worship Him!

So ... I know it sounds trite to say, "Keep the faith!" at times like this ... but I believe it is exactly what God would want us to do. In the face of immense tragedy and suffering, we must reflect on His greater purposes and keep the faith. Amen?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Congruence of Christian Friendship

Spending time with some amazing friends, the Passics.
Our Pastor, Martin Schlomer, recently posted an article from Relevant Magazine titled, “What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?” The article is a conversation with Eugene Peterson, the renowned author of The Message.

At the article’s core, Peterson addresses the issue of incongruence in the Christian life. “Incongruence” is the gap between what we say we believe and what we act like we believe. A pastor for a number of years before he became a theologian and author, Peterson was shaken by the incongruence he saw in himself (as a preacher) and those who sat under his sermons each Sunday, so much so that he considered himself a failure as a preacher.

I would encourage you to read the article for yourself, and I won’t lengthen this blog by summarizing it. But I did want to present a couple of ideas that really jumped out at me, that resonated with my heart.

One is that the solutions to most of our problems really are quite simple. They aren’t necessarily easy, but they are simple. Peterson talks a lot about the importance of faithfulness, about which he coined the phrase “a long obedience in the same direction” in a book by the same name he wrote over 20 years ago. We have problems that may seem intractable, but the solutions are usually quite simple: disciplined financial management, thinking and praying before we speak or act, seeking to focus on the needs of others before our own, etc. Simple . . . but not easy.

A second thing that he said that really jumped out at me was that authentic Christian friendships are our best weapon against incongruence. I know many of us struggle with a sense that we don’t have many, or possibly even any, authentic, honest Christian friendships. In our culture, in particular, this feeling of loneliness, a lack of true friends, seems epidemic. We don’t stay planted in one place for very long. (I’ve read that the average American moves every three years.) And when we do have a place to call home, we usually hunker down inside it and hardly spend any time out-of- doors, getting to know our neighbors. (Darlene and I walk around our neighborhood daily, and we always marvel how rarely we actually see any of our neighbors out-of- doors.)

When Evangelical Free Church missions director Nubako Selenga was visiting the United States for the first time, I asked him (while driving him to our church) what struck him as the strangest thing about America. “It’s so empty,” he replied without hesitation. “There are all these beautiful homes, but I don’t see people around them. When you drive down a road in Africa, everyone is outside their home, visiting with their neighbors.”

That was convicting. How well do I know my neighbors? How many do I consider friends?

And it seems, to me, to be getting worse in the younger generations. I’m always astonished when I see at a restaurant a table full of young people, and everyone is engaged deeply . . . in their smartphones or personal devices. A whole table full of silent people who are doing God-alone- knows-what on social media, but are barely even talking to one other.

Does it surprise us to learn that friendship is an extremely high value to our Lord? “No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus said, “. . . but I have called you friends.” Exodus 33 tells us that the Lord would speak with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Job said he was “in [his] prime, when the friendship of God was upon [his] tent.” Jonathan and David had “sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord,” and the power and poignancy of that particular relationship rings down to us through the ages.

Solomon told us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” but “profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Herein, perhaps, lies the secret to the power of Christian friendship to create spiritual congruence (people who live like who they really are, adopted sons and daughters of the Most High God): people willing to tell each other hard truth, even if it hurts, because their love and friendship makes such truth both necessary and beneficial.

Sounds great, right? But how? What if you are reading this and frustrated and tired of feeling alone? You wish you had intimate and authentic Christian friendships, but they just don’t seem to be happening?

I can’t think of how to say this without sounding trite, but this, once again, is something that I think is both simple and hard. It’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

First of all, Scripture advises us to choose our friends carefully. “Be not unequally yoked,” we are admonished. I can’t tell you, however, how many times I see young people willing to enter into dating relationships and even become engaged and married to someone who does not share their faith. I understand that loneliness can drive us to make poor choices. But that’s one poor choice that has little chance of doing anything other than later enhancing and ensuring continuing loneliness.

One of God’s richest blessings on my life I am celebrating today, on the 38th anniversary of my marriage to my best friend. Actually, Darlene and I probably became the best of friends some six years before we were married, so that makes it 44 years and counting. She models to me what it truly means to be a Christian friend: she is unafraid to tell me hard truth, when I need to hear it, and I know that she is 100% committed to me and my best, no matter what lies ahead. A friend like that is worth more than all the money in the world.

Young people: please, please, please, hold out for God’s best for you! Don’t give in to the temptation to date people who do not share your faith. Could they become a believer? Sure, we pray so. But don’t take the chance that their interest in you lies in places that will eclipse their interest in Jesus.

Dating and marriage aside, my other “simple but hard” point is that any friendship requires risky nvestment: time, effort, love, whatever. Time is probably the big one we struggle with. But you can’t really expect to develop meaningful friendships if you aren’t willing to invest the time.

And I say “risky” because I know it doesn’t always work out. I’ve had people I invested in that I hoped I would be lifelong friends with, who for whatever reason didn’t reciprocate, and we drifted apart.

But true friendship is worth the risk! So get started today. Enroll in a community group at a good church and get to know others who love Jesus. If you make the investment but don’t find any solid friends there, move on to another group. Sooner or later, you’ll hit pay dirt!

And then, allow those friends to speak truth into your life! Each of us has a congruence problem—and part of the answer is finding good Christian friends.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

How does God really feel about slavery?

... in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
Atheists and others who denigrate the #Bible have assured us repeatedly that God supports the horrific institution of slavery; if not actively, to the extent that He permitted it; or at the very least by His supposed silence on the subject.

This is partly the fault of Christians who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, used certain passages of Scripture and certain manufactured concepts to support their own justification of owning slaves. They pulled passages like Leviticus 25:44-46 (KJV) out of context to make their case:
Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.
American slaveholders said Africans were "heathen" so that supposedly justified owning them as slaves. (Also, by this logic, as soon as a slave became a Christian, as many did, he or she was no longer a "heathen," right? And should therefore have been freed. Hmmm.) But isolating a passage like this does not give a clear view of God's opinion on the matter, particularly when terms like "bondmen" (or "slave"), and "buying children" are not clearly defined in accordance with the intent of Scripture.

So, let's start there: When the Bible calls someone a "slave," how is it defining the term (as opposed to when we here in the 21st Century call someone a "slave")?

The answer is complicated, because the word can refer either to voluntarily or involuntary servitude. And there's a huge difference (obviously!) between the two.

There is a lot of argument about this, depending on your perspective on who God is and the integrity of His Word; as well as your understanding of cultural norms at the time the Bible was penned. I believe that when the Bible uses the phrase "bondsman" or "slave," the base concept is of (primarily voluntary) indentured servitude.

So what is an "indentured servant?" There are several definitions of "indenture," but here is the one closest to the meaning of the phrase in Scripture: "A contract binding one person to work for another for a given period of time." Contracts are (obviously, again!) an agreement struck between two or more parties. In most cases, in biblical times, those two parties were the buyer (the "master" purchasing the servitude), and the one selling the servitude -- most often the "slave" him (or her) self, or else another who had the legal right to sell the servitude of that person (for a set of very narrowly defined reasons in Scripture ... keep reading!).

One can argue that even a person selling themselves into voluntary servitude was the result of economic injustice and poverty, and so often that was true. While the Bible certainly addresses these issues (economic justice and how the poor should be treated) in many other places, the fact of poverty was (and remains) a reality, and a very persistent part of the cultural fabric not only of biblical times, but also of ours.

Jesus famously said, "The poor you always have with you ..." and those among us inclined to cast dispersion upon Him often cite this as an example of His "unwillingness to speak out" against the injustice of poverty. But you and I know that's not what it was. This was not a case of the indifference or antagonism of the wealthy against the poor. Jesus Himself was poor. ("The Son of Man has no where to lay His head.") He commingled and identified with the poor on so many levels (as he also commingled and accepted as human beings those from within the system that oppressed them).

Those who take in and grasp the context of His quote understand that He was addressing the excuses of those (like Judas) who would say "The social mission is the top priority!" His words were a retort: "No, your top priority should be your heart, and loving and honoring God with 100% of it."

So, what does this matter of heart have to do with the question of whether or not the Bible condones and even supports slavery?

First let's read about the various parameters that the Bible wraps around the relationship of master to indentured servant:
  • Except under very limited circumstances, which follow, no human being was ever to be "kidnapped" and forced (against his or her will) to become a slave. To do this, in the Old Testament, was a crime punishable by death! Read Exodus 21:16 ... "“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” Selling the victim? Possessing the victim? What this verse is talking about seems pretty clear.
  • The narrow circumstances under which a slave could be forced involuntarily into servitude included:
  • If a nation went to war with Israel and its people were captured, they could be turned into slaves. (Think about the terrorists who have attacked the United States. Do we have the right to make them do forced labor at Guantanamo? You bet.)
  • If a person was convicted of committing a crime against you (theft or violence) but had no resources to pay restitution, you then had the right to force them into servitude in order to pay their debt. But even these rights were limited by the points that follow.
  • Slaves were to be afforded compassion. Slaves (owned by others, who escaped and fled and needed help) had dignity and were to be shielded from a return to slavery. Read Deuteronomy 23:15-16 -- “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him."
  • Indentured servants were to be treated with dignity and respect, as humans, and their needs provided for. Many passages support this, some found in Exodus 21, where it is revealed that if a master strikes a slave and kills him, he is guilty of murder. It also says that if a master knocks out his slave's tooth, that slave must be freed! And that if a master marries a slave woman, she is entitled to all of the rights as his wife. If he becomes displeased with her and decides to set her aside, he must free her and allow her to choose her own way.
  • When it comes to slavery, Deuteronomy 15 is one of the most revealing chapters of Scripture. It makes the case that because Israel suffered horrific slavery under the Egyptians for 400 years, they were to be much more sensitive and just to the slaves within their midst. For instance, slavery was never to be life-long; when someone gained a slave for any reason, they were required to free them after the sixth year of servitude (the Jubilee principle). Not only were they to free them, but they were to let them go with generous provision from the master's house!
  • The goal of the master was also to be to treat the slave so well that the slave wouldn't want to go free. Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 both make provision for slaves who want to voluntarily commit themselves to life-long servitude of their masters. (The first "ear-piercing" came from these chapters! Read them.)
Frankly, the way slavery was conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries by so-called "Christians" from Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere, is so clearly and horrifically anti-biblical in nature that one should make the case that slave traders and slave owners should have been executed for their practices. Did these slavetraders and slave-owners use their religion to justify their treatment of other humans? In some cases, yes. But abusing and justifying the Bible to support something that the Bible condemns is not a condemnation of the Bible, it is a condemnation of human nature which so often seeks to justify its own sin.

The truth is, the Bible holds a redemptive view of slavery. Right now our young adults group is studying the Apostle Paul's letter to Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy slave-owner whose slave, Onesimus, wronged him (probably stole something) and ran away. Paul became friends with Onesimus at some point and led him to Christ. Paul then appealed both to Onesimus to return to Philemon voluntarily; and for Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, to forgive him and to treat him as an equal.

Paul even said that if Onesimus "owed anything" to Philemon, he would himself pay it! In other words, he himself would pay whatever debt Onesimus owed for however he had wronged Philemon before he became a believer. Talk about redemptive!

We don't know what happened after Paul's letter to Philemon (the shortest recorded in the New Testament), but there are hints that it worked. The early Christians attitudes toward slavery and indentured servitude were to be as the Israelites: grace-filled, merciful, and redemptive.

So: After reading what the Bible really has to say about slavery, please tell me again how it proves that God is evil?

Did God tolerate slavery under very limited circumstances (just as He mercifully tolerated other evils, such as divorce)? Yes, indeed. Does that mean He condoned it, approved of it, ignored it, whatever else modern anti-biblicists accused Him of doing? Absolutely not. To argue this demonstrates a reprehensible misunderstanding of what Scripture says about who God is and what He is like.