Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Top 10

In light of this week's theme of "Thanksgiving," here is my David Letterman-style Top 10 Things I Am Thankful for:

Number 10:

Great food. Mushrooms, cheeses, salmon and fine meats, wine and beer ... I will blog about it all, eventually, I am sure. Did you ever stop to think that God didn't have to give us taste buds?

Number 9:

Cycling and racquet sports. This is how I burn off all those calories after eating all that great food. Hopefully. I'm not the world's best cyclist, but I'm not bad for a 54-year-old guy who took up the sport only about 10 years ago. Mountain biking, road biking, cyclocross ... it's hard to decide which is the most fun.

Number 8:

Music. God also didn't have to give us ears. It's amazing how acoustic worship, in particular, lifts our hearts to soar before God's throne. I'm so glad I took up acoustic guitar when I was young, and added mandolin several years ago. I really enjoy playing on our church worship band and at World Vision and for special events, even simple things like Salvation Army bellringing! And I love to fall asleep to soft acoustic worship by amazing artists like Chris Tomlin, Shane Bernard, David Crowder, and so many others.

Number 7:

Literature and writing ... and the internet. All my life I've felt driven to write. I was blessed to get published, early in my life, and for the opportunity to write for great magazines and book publishers. I'm not Christendom's best writer, for sure (that was a bubble that got burst long ago), but I still really enjoy using and am thankful for the gift God gave me (even through simple means such as this blog) to communicate my heart and ideas to others.

And did you ever stop to think about what a huge blessing it is to be able to read? Without it, how would we access the dramatic, life-changing, hope-bringing impact of the Bible? Or put ourselves in wild and amazing places like Narnia? Benefit from the wisdom of saints and sages? Or even keep up with what's going on in the world around us? It's simply heart-breaking to think about all the people in the world who don't have this fundamentally life-changing ability.

Number 6:

World Vision ... not only are they an amazing, godly ministry saving lives and changing lives of the poor throughout the world, they have been a phenomenal employer these past 18 years, providing me with livelihood, an outlet for my triple passions ... for communication, technology, and being the hands and feet of Jesus to a hurting world! My colleagues there are incredible and God has blessed me so much through you!

Number 5:

I have three great churches in my life. My home church, Elim Evangelical Free Church, is an amazing oasis of God's love and renewal in the midst of a very secular and godless culture here in the Pacific Northwest. They are a very old church (about 130 years) yet it feels very young and fresh. They have a heart for the poor and for those who need to hear about Jesus, and are always doing something to reach out. They have talented and dedicated worship musicians and pastors, very friendly people, sold-out-for-Jesus leadership, and absolutely amazing groups.

Our favorite group at Elim is "Pulse," the young adults ministry which Darlene and I began 10 years ago next February. The young adults who are a part of Pulse constantly blow my mind. We are stimulating each other to love and good deeds and growing together in Christ. The future for these people and this church is so bright!

Two other churches I love: My amazing "home" church in Southern California, CBC. Their ministry in my life has been huge. And the last church plant my wife and I were a part of before we emigrated to the Northwest: The Journey.

Number 4

Friends and family. Especially my four brothers and sisters, and my two wonderful parents (who are both with Jesus now!). I come from a large family, as the oldest of five. My two brothers and two sisters and I are very close and we have been through a lot together. I so appreciate their love, their commitment to us as a family, and their friendship. They each have great families, are good at what they do, and I really enjoy spending time with them.

Friends are indeed an incredible blessing from God, and I have been blessed with some of the best. From longtime (since college days) buds such as John Veale, Dr. Kenneth Daughters, Dwight Warden and Sue Carson-Kimber, to current pals here in the Northwest like Pastor Martin Schlomer, Doug Ide, Gordy McCoy, Lars Passic, Bob Walsh, and many more ... I shouldn't even start naming because there are too many to list! ... I am so blessed to have a cadre of folks who "have my back." I know I can count on them for godly advice and help whenever the chips are down.

Number 3

My two amazing kids (and one amazing grandchild). Nathan and Mandy are the best kids one could hope for. They are kind, smart, talented, hard-working, and honest. I consider them both great friends and really enjoy spending time with them. Nathan and I survived several 206-mile bike rides together, and Mandy and I survived five countries (in two months) in Africa together.

And of course Annabelle (11 months) is the cutest grandchild one could hope for. She is obviously very intelligent and has a great sense of humor already. I love her (and both my kids, and the great spouses they married) endlessly!

Number 2

I will always be thankful for the love, friendship and partnership of my beautiful wife, Darlene. She is my best friend, passionate lover, the mother of my children. We have been friends for 38 years, married for 32, and I feel like I would be lost without her. I am so glad I met her (when I was 15!), recognized instantly what a pearl of great price I had found, and that she was willing to stake her claim with me and has hung with me through thick and thin.

Number 1

Above all else, I am thankful for my Savior, Jesus ... who took my sin on his shoulders when He hung on the Cross. He died for me so that I could live! He has brought hope, meaning, purpose, and uncounted blessings to my life. And I have the distinct feeling "We've only just begun!"

Monday, November 21, 2011

How Does God Define "Good?"

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I recently wrote about my GMO correspondence with a contact in India whom I called "Raman" (not his real name). I'm pleased to share that Raman has continued his correspondence with me, and has continued to ask very good questions. I think this is a good sign that God is working in his heart.

Here is another "tough question" he recently posed: "If a person is [a self-proclaimed follower] of God, if he serves God day and night but then treats his fellow man like a dog, is he a good man? Don't you think that it's better to help needy people than going to church or temple? Because I think humanity is the best religion. Serving people is the same thing as serving God." My response:

Raman, I think you've asked a wonderful question. I believe Scripture teaches that we as human beings have a somewhat innate yet very limited ability to judge goodness. We look at a person like Mother Teresa and we conclude, "She is good because she spends her life helping the needy" (a good thing, as most everyone knows). We look at another person (and there are a lot of them out there) and we conclude, "He attends church all the time and pretends to be good, but in reality he doesn't care anything for his neighbor ... so in reality he is bad, he is a hypocrite." Everyone intuitively knows this is bad behavior. We make such broad-stroke judgments of goodness and badness, based on the image of good which God has placed in us.

But the problem is that we don't judge perfectly, and we especially can't judge ourselves. We don't know the heart of others, barely even know our own hearts; and moreover, we hope that God grades US on the curve. The Bible reveals very clearly, however, that God's standard of judging goodness is wholly different than ours — it's a lot tougher. It may not seem fair to us, but He measures us against the standard of His perfect goodness and holiness. He doesn't grade on the curve.

Jesus said: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." If we're being honest, we all have to say, "Are you kidding? No way. I may be a pretty good person in my own eyes, but no way am I perfect. Even Mother Teresa wasn't perfect." And this is truth.

I recently took a test online (http://www.fbbc.com/messages/kohl_live_ten_commandments.htm) to see how I measure up against God's standard of perfection, the "Ten Commandments." The test goes through each of the 10 Commandments one at a time. Some are hard ("Do not bear false witness." Have I ever lied? Even once? Well, unfortunately, yes ... actually, many times.) Some seem easy at first ("Do not murder. Do not commit adultery") ... but you see how badly you have failed when you realize that Jesus defined murder and adultery a lot more strictly than we do (in the Sermon on the Mount he taught: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment."). To Christ, if you've ever hated someone in your heart, you have committed murder. If you've ever lusted after a woman in your heart, even if you didn't literally touch her, you have committed adultery.

Have I ever hated? Have I ever lusted? Sadly, yes. To God, goodness and evil are internal as well as external. He alone judges the heart.

I discovered after taking this test that, according to Christ's standard of measure, I've broken each and every one of the 10 commandments!

The Bible declares flat out: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is none righteous, no, not one." The only exception to this was Christ himself, who the Bible declares sinless. God alone is the standard of holiness. Jesus confirmed this when someone called him "Good Teacher": "Why do you call Me good?" He asked. "There is none good but God alone." (He wasn't denying that He is good ... He was confirming that He is God!)

God doesn't grade on the curve. He doesn't look at Mother Teresa and say, "Yes, she is so much better than Adolf Hitler. Therefore she gets in, and Adolf Hitler doesn't." He looks at each of us and says, "There is none righteous, no not one." None of us meets His standard. We all stand condemned in the judgment.

This is a terrifying thought, but it is the truth from the Bible. But that's why the Gospel is called "Good News," because its central message is that, while we all deserve condemnation, Jesus came to pay the price for our sin. He took our imperfection on Himself on the Cross and put His perfection upon us. The Apostle Paul wrote: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

So the question is no longer "How good are you?" or "How bad are you?" The question becomes: "Are you in Christ Jesus? Have you received His forgiveness for your sin and committed yourself to living for Him?"

Indeed, the person who has done this should not be a hypocrite. Scripture teaches that the person who is "in Christ Jesus" is in the process of being changed by the Holy Spirit to be more like Jesus. Their lives should be a reflection of God's glory. They should care for the poor and love their neighbor. They will still not be perfect, but with the help of the Holy Spirit they should be walking the road toward God's standard of holiness.
 

Raman, does this all make sense to you? This is the message of the Bible, even though in some respects it seems to us counter-intuitive. It requires a great deal of humility, because it requires of us a confession that each of us has sinned and can never meet God's standard of holiness. But it is also incredibly freeing. Once you realize that you don't have to "prove yourself" to God, that He absolutely loves you for who you are, it is incredibly freeing. Personally speaking, my life has been so blessed since I discovered this truth at a very young age.

But we're never too old or too far gone to receive God's forgiveness. To the thief on the cross, who humbled himself before God scant hours before his death, Jesus declared: "Today you will be with Me in paradise." God is merciful and full of compassion! He wants to accept YOU.


Have you ever taken that step to acknowledge before God your sin, to receive the forgiveness in Christ's blood? I challenge you to do that today. Put God to the test. Tell Him: "I will do what you ask and humble myself before you. I receive Christ's forgiveness for my sin. Now prove Yourself faithful to me."

Please let me know what you think of all this. (And, for what it's worth, I think you are right on target ... the best way to serve God is by serving people! That doesn't mean there is anything wrong with going to church or temple, but it doesn't make you "good." God is looking for a heart of compassion. People who serve the poor are indeed close to His heart.)

Many blessings to you in Christ,

Larry

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hell? Yes

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Well, everyone is all a-twitter about Rob Bell's new book on heaven and hell, "Love Wins." I haven't read it (yet*) ... but of course neither has anyone else that I know personally who has complained about it. So I guess I won't let that stop me from commenting.

Supposedly Pastor Bell gives people the impression that he is a "Trinitarian universalist," which basically is the belief (operating within an evangelical framework) that no one will actually (ultimately) go to hell. Not having read it, I'm not sure whether that's an accurate assessment or not of his views. But I do have a hard time with universalism (Trinitarian or otherwise) itself — reasoning as follows:

1) As I get older, I've noticed a tendency to "calcify" in my beliefs. I think we all do. That's why it's so much easier to stake a claim of faith as a younger person. And it's why older folks rarely get saved. (They do sometimes, but less frequently.) It's not because we old farts are smarter, or anything like that; I think it's just because our lives have settled into patterns. (I write as a 54-year-old, mind you. I have a whole half-century of calcification under my belt.)

Observing this general tendency leads me to believe it is less and less likely, as time passes, for people who have not yet seen the need to repent, to do so. Repentance means turning, changing. In John Bunyan's classic, Pilgrim's Progress, he describes how hard it becomes, the further you travel down a wrong road (after having branched off the straight and narrow at some unfortunate point), to turn back and find where you went wrong, and start over again. Repentance is always easier (and more likely) the closer you are to the point from which you went astray. The older you get, the further you travel, the harder it becomes.

For those of us heading toward the Kingdom of God, rather than away from it, I think this fact brings encouragement. But I fear for those yet unrepentant.

2) I know that it's possible to repent and turn to Christ even on one's deathbed. It happened with my grandpa, and it happened with the thief on the cross. But is it possible to repent at some point after death? The Bible gives us only hints ... no direct teaching ... that while it might be possible, it's highly unlikely.

1 Peter 3:19-20 provides one very intriguing such hint. It says that after "being put to death in the body and made alive in the spirit," which I take to mean after He was crucified but probably before He was resurrected, Christ "went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." I've read several and varied interpretations of this passage, but I think the best is what seems to be the plainest, that Christ had some sort of communication with deceased people who were in some after-death state referred to as "prison." Probably that same place referred to as "Hades" (not hell exactly, but a precursor of sorts) which Christ spoke about in the parable of the "rich man" and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16.

As we know from the scriptural account of the flood, "those who were disobedient" during the days of Noah were "eating, drinking and marrying," carrying on as if God didn't exist, as if He didn't matter, and as if He would never bring judgment for sin. (Just as so many around us today are doing!) They mocked Noah and the Ark, and ended up being taken completely by surprise by the Great Deluge.

The real question, I think, is: What was the nature of Christ's communication to them? What was the proclamation? What was the point of Him preaching to these disobedient spirits?

The whole episode reminds me of C. S. Lewis' brilliant little novel, "The Great Divorce." In a dream Lewis takes the reader from a limbo-like hell, on a bus ride to heaven, along with a bus full of other passengers. Each is given the opportunity to stay, if they wish. I don't want to be a spoiler, but the bottom line is pretty much that none do, at least that we are aware of, with the possible exception of the dreamer. Heaven is far too uncomfortable a place for those who have grown accustomed to the self-centeredness of hell.

The name of the book I think illustrates the very thing we are talking about. Like the diverging roads in Pilgrim's Progress, the reality is that the story of history is the story of the "great divorce" between good and evil. Some would have us believe that "all roads lead to Rome," that there are many ways to God. But Scripture teaches in stark contradiction to this belief that there is a straight and narrow path, trust in Jesus Christ, which alone leads to salvation and an eternity with God. All other paths spiral away into darkness.

So, if Christ was preaching to these spirits in prison, was He giving them an opportunity to repent? I have to think that must have been it. Else, why bother? What would be the point, to simply wag a finger at them and say, "See? Noah was right and you were wrong." They already know that, apparently.

And if Christ indeed preached repentance to these spirits, did any repent? Did any find freedom? We don't know. I hope so. Peter doesn't say.

3) I think the final stake in the heart of the universalist monster is the reality that we see in Scripture: The Apocalypse (which means "The Unveiling") reveals that in the final days of our history there will be a separation, sheep from goats. Those on God's right hand will enter the kingdom. Those on his left will accompany the devil and his angels into the everlasting lake of fire. Which sounds pretty darned (excuse the expression) final to me.

This is such an unpleasant truth but so starkly stated by Scripture that it cannot be else but true. People, says the writer in Hebrews 9:27, are "destined to die once — and after that to face judgment." God gives us grace and mercy for a time, space to repent, but the very process of living (and then dying) is itself a process of calcification, of confirmation of whatever choice or series of choices we make — choices toward God, as we are living; or away from Him, as we are dying. Knowing Him, and entering in to His Kingdom; or being commanded: "Depart from Me — I never knew you."

In conclusion, I agree with Rob that, ultimately, "Love wins." God has created all this for a reason, and were it not for the Cross, none of us would be saved. Scripture says that, ultimately, "Every knee will bow" to Christ ... and I hope the universalist is right, that every knee will bow willingly, in repentance and humility. The power of God's love is indeed incomprehensible.

But, as anyone who studies the attributes of God knows, while God is indeed love, love is surely not God. In other words, love is not all He is. Yes, He is wholly loving; but he is also wholly just, wholly sovereign, and wholly holy! He created us in His own image, as free moral agents. We can choose to live with Him, or we can choose to live without Him. I hope with all my heart everyone ultimately chooses to live with Him. But I also know that God's justified wrath against all evil will win out in the end. "Love winning" ultimately means that justice will be done, that the demands of holiness will be fulfilled, and that no sin will be tolerated before His throne.

*Post Script: Since writing the above, I've actually sat down and read Pastor Bell's book ... or at least as much of it as can be reach through Amazon.com's free preview. (Which is quite a bit.) And, I really enjoyed what I read, and it made me want to read more, so I'm sure I'll buy the book soon.

What I read didn't really answer the question I raised above (is he propounding universalism?) and I think in truth he probably didn't intend to. Like a good author, he raises more questions than he answers. He is obviously trying to get us to think, not just about deep philosophical questions and unchallenged opinions, but about the nature of God, and how there really is just so much we don't (and can't yet) know.

Have you read it? I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Treehouse Update

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On October 4 I posted a blog about a treehouse I am building in an effort to help overcome a disquiet (I hesitate to call it "a fear") of heights. And for other reasons.

A number of readers have asked for an update on how it's going. I'm happy to report that, from the standpoint of overcoming my discomfort of heights, it seems to be working. I find myself not sweating so profusely as I used to, while clinging to the rafters, some 22 feet off the forest floor. (Of course, the weather has been getting cooler each day!)

From the standpoint of the building project, things are also going well. I thought I would post a few more photos, below. You will see that the frame for the ground floor itself is nearly finished. (I have a little more support work to do among the joists.) After that comes the flooring and handrails around the edge. Then I will think about adding a zipline or two, and possibly a roof.

But now that winter is descending upon us, limiting my ability to work on such things, it may not be finished until spring or summer. But I will keep you posted on progress!

The view from the ground.

Another angle
Looking down from atop the access ladder.
The frame is slightly larger than 100 square feet (10'x10'). Nine large maple trees, all growing in a cluster, provide support. The frame is about 22 feet off ground level, on average. The forest floor below is covered with ferns and wild mushrooms (and now, maple leaves). It's a beautiful spot, and like Thoreau's "Walden Pond" I believe the structure (officially dubbed "Maplefort") will provide a nice retreat from civilization once finished!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Arguments for the Existence of God

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Occasionally I present on this blog interactions with seekers who engage me in my role as a GMO volunteer "media missionary." Today's exchange comes from a thoughtful individual in India whom I will call "Raman" (not his real name). He said:

"I have not yet prayed to receive Christ. I would like to investigate more. Does God exist? If yes, can you prove it?"

Here is my response to Raman:

Raman, I'm here to help answer your questions about Jesus. Knowing Him is the most important decision you could ever make. Please visit gospel.godlife.com to find out more.

In response to your question: There are two fundamental bases for belief in the existence of God: reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation).

As regards reason, there are a number of solid arguments for the existence of God, which is why some of the world's sharpest minds (Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Johannes Kepler, and Thomas Aquinas are four examples who come to mind) have expressed a belief in a creator God. To name a few:

  • Cosmological - All that we see must be the result of an original cause. This cause is sufficiently explained by none other than God.
  • Teleological - The observed order, direction and complexity of the universe is best explained by a creator God.
  • Ontological - God must exist because our conception of Him exists. He is a being greater than which cannot be conceived.
  • Epiphenomenonological - The existence of spiritual attributes such as morality, beauty, and self-sacrificial love argue for the existence of a God who established these standards.
  • The anthropic principle - Suggests that basic facts, such as the existence of humankind which values the existence of God, in itself argues for that existence.

For further information on each of these arguments, I would refer you to this page on Wikipedia.

As regards faith, the Bible is a series of books, written by numerous authors over a period of thousands of years, claiming to be the inspired Word of God, which contains consistent testimony by eyewitnesses considered historically reliable, in regard to the existence and acts of a supreme God. This testimony is internally harmonious (in fundamental internal agreement), which in itself argues for its claim of divine inspiration.

There are also additional faith arguments, such as "the majority argument" (the majority of humankind believes in the existence of God, which must therefore be taken seriously); argument from experience (many millions of individuals claim to have personally experienced evidence of God's existence, such as answered prayer); and Christological arguments (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an historically attested-test fact begs the existence of God).

The answer to the second part of your question ("Can you prove it?") wholly depends on your definition of "proof." For instance, if you demanded that I "prove" the existence of Julius Caesar, I would have to confess that I cannot. I firmly believe he existed, based on the historic testimony of reliable eyewitnesses. But I cannot "prove" it. Likewise, I firmly believe God exists (based on the testimony of even more reliable witnesses), but likewise cannot "prove" this.

Of course, the truly important question is: "If God does indeed exist ... then what are the implications of His existence on my life? What does He expect of me?"

For the answer to that question, I think we need an entirely fresh e-mail.

Is that helpful? Does it raise any additional questions which you would like to discuss? Please let me know, I would love to talk more.

How can I pray for you? Please write back. - Larry

Monday, November 07, 2011

World Pneumonia Day

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This Saturday (Nov. 12) is World Pneumonia Day. I thought I would share the story of my own brush with this global killer of children, and also share this great, short educational video made by the people who sponsor World Pneumonia Day:



I would encourage you to share it with your friends. And if you would like to get more involved in fighting this killer disease, you can do the following:
I distinctly remember being in the 7th grade. We were living in Norco, California, a wonderful little "artificially rural" town where there are more horses than people. We had nearly an acre of property, and a number of animals including a horse, a pony, a cow, goats, and many chickens. It was my job to feed the animals in the morning.

I remember one cool morning, standing in the tack barn, and thinking, "I just don't feel right? What is wrong with me?" I felt weak, and feverish, and had a nagging cough.

I went in and went to bed. My mom took my temp and called the school to tell them I wouldn't make it.

Over the next few days the hacking cough turned much worse, and the fever wouldn't break. I could barely drag myself out of bed. Soon my lungs were so full of fluid I was struggling to catch a breath.

My mom bundled me into the Ford Fairlane 500 and we were off to see the family doctor. He took one listen and immediately sent me to get my lungs x-rayed. Afterward there was a hurried, hushed consultation with my mom. When she spoke with me, I recall how frightened she looked. "They are saying you have pneumonia," she told me, "and they want you in the hospital -- now." She didn't even take me home; indeed we went straight from there to Circle City Hospital in Corona.

The next two weeks in the hospital were a blur. I remember lots of antibiotics, needles, an oxygen tent (which spewed cold, medicated mist) and a very unpleasant roommate whose normal home was the juvenile detention center. (He would sneak out of his bed when the nurses weren't looking and come over and slug me. When I complained, the head nurse came in and lectured us both sternly on how we were making life hard for the nurses by arguing.)

But at least that provided a great motivation for getting better and getting out of there as quickly as I possibly could.

I survived my pneumonia (as did several other members of my family, including my mom, who came down with it after I did). My wife Darlene (whom I didn't know at the time, of course) has also survived a bout with pneumonia. So we are grateful for all the options we have, as middle-class Americans, for getting care when we are very sick.

But there are millions of children throughout the world who aren't so lucky. Millions are malnourished, which means they don't have the strength in themselves to fight off killers like pneumonia. And their families (if they have families) can't afford, or don't have access to, the medicines and the technologies they need when they are in a crisis like the one I was in, when I was in the 7th grade.

So I'm grateful for World Pneumonia Day, and hopeful that we can all pull together to give that many more kids a fighting chance against this deadly disease.

Bullies - Part I

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In a recent post I told about lying in the hospital with pneumonia, when I was in the seventh grade, and subjected to torment by a bullying roommate who was on leave from the local juvenile detention center.

I don't know how many kids my age struggled (or struggle) with bullies like I did, but they were a ubiquitous (and terrifying) part of my youth. From the time I was about 7, to the time I was about 14, I was plagued by them. (It probably didn't help that I was scrawny and bookish, with thick-lensed glasses.)

Even though I am not the type of person who enjoys (or would ever start) a fistfight, I actually have gotten pulled into two fistfights in my life. Both seemed completely necessary in order to deal with a serious bullying problem. In both cases, I considered the boys I fought to be friends at one time, but for one reason or another we ended up at odds.

One, a young man named Paul, was severely abused by his father. After we entered junior high together, a friend of his (and earlier friend of mine) turned him against me. At this other boy's urging he began challenging me to fight, a challenge which soon became a very public everyday occurrence at school. For months I steadfastly refused, but the challenges grew as others egged him on. Eventually he began to accompany his challenge by knocking my lunch from my hands and smashing it on the ground.

Finally the realization dawned, as things continued to grow worse, that things would only grow worse if I didn't take some sort of action. So one day I acquiesced. We took our quarrel behind the boys' locker room.

Surrounded by a loud and unruly crowd, we squared off. He threw the punches and I focused on blocking them, which actually seemed easier than I expected, until he surprised me by kicking me in the groin. Fortunately it missed the intended effect, but the metal buckle on his shoe did leave a nasty gash across my thigh.

I put myself on guard against further surprises and eventually started landing a few fisticuffs of my own. I was holding my own against Paul, when we were suddenly interrupted by one of the boys' PE teachers, a humorless fellow who dragged us both (by an ear) into the principal's office.

Back in those days, corporal punishment was legal, and the principle wielded a large oak paddle. After lecturing us he asked for a volunteer to go first. Paul was terrified, near tears, and silent. Knowing that his father frequently beat him I actually felt sorry for him. So I volunteered. I bent over, took the three whacks, and discovered that (like the fight itself) they really weren't so bad as I had thought. (I'm sure the principal was going a bit easy on my behind.) I knew better than to smile too broadly, but I felt a great deal of relief as I stood aside and waited for Paul to take his turn. He burst into tears before the first whack landed, and was reduced to sobs at the second, and wails by the third.

On our way out, as he was wiping his face with his shirt and trying to recover, in a pitiful voice he asked me never to tell any of his friends what I had witnessed. I looked him square in the eye: "Never challenge me or touch my lunch again ... and I won't say a word."

Paul's friend, Casey, however, continued to grow in his antagonism toward me, and soon after this he demanded his own match-up. Like before, I didn't want to fight; I didn't believe it accomplished much of anything (other than getting us both in trouble), and I told him so. But he just called me various names reserved for cowards, and continued to push and antagonize.

So one day I decided to share my dilemma with my dad. (I was closer to my mom, and trusted her implicitly, but in this matter I thought I should seek male guidance.)

"What do you think I should do?" I asked my dad, after explaining the situation.

"He wants a fight," my dad said, "and like Paul won't leave you alone until you show him what you're made of. Sometimes you just have to defend yourself against aggression."

Okay then. (I don't think my mom was very happy with my dad for giving me encouragement to use my fists ... but she grudgingly let it be.)

So the next time Casey hassled me, I agreed to a fight. This time we scheduled the match for my front yard, after school. A crowd once again gathered to watch, cheering us on. I was slightly taller and heavier than Casey, but he was fast and wiry. We sparred for awhile, but it didn't seem to me like we were getting much of anywhere, so I decided to use my size to my advantage. Without warning I lunged at Casey and toppled him to the ground, wrestler-style, and had soon pinned his flailing arms beneath my knees. That left me with my hands free, and his face, which was now staring up at me, in horror, realizing his dilemma, was within easy and indefensible reach.

"Finish him! Punch him in the face!" the monsters in my front yard shouted with glee. I raised one fist high and he cringed, preparing for the blow.

And then I lowered it. I leaned near his face and said in a low hiss: "Like I told you, I have no reason to want to hurt you. Now why don't you just go home?" I then stood up and drew back, letting Casey go free without bloodying his face.

He pulled himself to his feet and I could see he was shaking. I half expecting he might start in again. But instead, this time he whirled about on one heel and ran off, alone, his friends now standing silent in my yard. I brushed the grass off my pants and turned and walked into the house. Only then did I discover my mom had been watching from behind the curtains. But she just smiled at me and said, "Why don't you throw those dirty clothes in the hamper?" then walked away humming.

These weren't my first or last experiences with bullies (I'll share more later), but these early encounters served to reinforce in me a few key principles. One is if you put your mind to winning a battle, even against a more aggressive opponent, it can be done. I realized that bullies are, most of the time, 90% bluster, and frequently themselves are tired of being the one who gets beaten up on. I suspect they feel the only way to overcome their fear is to prove to themselves and the world that they are indeed someone to be afraid of.

I believe we are called to be a people of peace, never aggressors, and ones who would turn the other cheek. But there are also times when we must pluck up our courage and defend -- our families, our neighbors, our country, ourselves -- against bullies.

I've had four other experiences with bullies, all very different than these two. In the next blog or two I'll share more.

How have you dealt with the bullies in your life?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Key to George Is ...

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This may be my final post (at least for now) in my series on miraculous answers to prayer in my life. Perhaps I'll remember something else later that might be instructive and uplifting. But this particular post deals with how God has miraculously answered my prayers ... through other people.

As lay pastors, young adults often ask my wife and I, "How can I know for sure what God's will is for my life?" Often they are struggling with an important life decision ... What should my major be? Where should I work? Who should I marry? Etc.

But when we sit down and talk together about knowing God's will, I try to emphasize that the most important things are not simply seeking God in the big decisions. Knowing God's will is a matter of understanding at any given moment what His best is for you (and those around you). I think it's as important (or more important) for us to hear His voice in the "plain and simple" ways, as it is in the big decisions.

Like simply sitting down and reading our Bible each day, or lifting our frustrations up in prayer and coming to understand through the resulting conviction how He wants us to be focused less on our own needs and more on the needs of others.

God's Word and prayer are two key ways He speaks to us. But I also believe God speaks to us through the people around us, assuming the Body of Christ is working more or less the way it is supposed to work, and those people consider themselves our brothers or sisters for the sake of stimulating us to love and good deeds (per Heb. 10:24).

Darlene and I have grown a great deal through participation in small groups at the three churches we have attended since we were married. One of the great things about small groups is that they are a laboratory for practicing the "one anothers" of Scripture, for speaking truth into each others' lives.

One of the young couples in a group we led at a church in Southern California had just come out of the Mormon church. We loved them dearly, but they presented a number of challenges, particularly the husband, who had received a seminary education from the LDS and had achieved a position of priest in that church's hierarchy. He was an extremely intelligent young man and had left the Mormon church upon receiving Christ as a result of a journey that began we he started questioning the various inconsistencies in Mormon theology he had learned during his education.

But despite turning to Christ, this couple experienced a number of struggles. The young man (whom I'll call George to protect his true identity) was having difficulty committing to his newfound faith. He had a tendency to keep one foot in the LDS world, and one in ours. In addition, he and his wife were struggling relationally.

We spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand how we could help them, as group leaders. One evening in particular, due to some things I had learned were going on in his life, I felt very burdened for George. I happened to be at a twice-monthly Monday evening gathering of small group leaders which our church called "Ministry Community." This meeting always started out with worship and prayer, and we were just getting settled down and ready to sing. I was sitting in the front row, with my head in my hands, and praying silently, "Lord, please help me understand what's going on with George. What does he need? What are the keys to George?"

Sitting behind me was an older brother in Christ named Bob. I admired Bob and often looked to him for wisdom and guidance. He had a casual way of speaking truth that always seemed to hit the mark.

At the beginning of the evening I had spoken with Bob briefly, exchanging pleasantries, but now both of us were preparing to worship. But no sooner had I asked the Lord, "What are the keys to George?" ... that Bob leaned over behind me and whispered in my ear: "The keys to George are ...."

At that very moment the music began and drowned out what he said next. He then leaned back and began to sing with gusto. I turned around and stared at him, dumbfounded. I knew that I had prayed silently and there was no way Bob could have heard what I asked God.

After the song ended I leaned back and whispered to Bob: "What did you say? You said something about George?"

"Yes," he said. "I was just thinking about George, the young man in your group. And I felt the Lord wanted me to share something with you.

"The keys to George are two-fold," he said. "He needs to take an irrevocable step of faith, to tell the world that he has staked his claim with Christ. He also needs to ask someone very close to him for forgiveness, and start anew."

I thanked Bob, convinced that he had truly spoken a word from God to me. But it wasn't the whole picture that I needed to see, before I could challenge George. I knew somehow I needed more.

That night I couldn't sleep at all. I stayed up, praying and studying Scripture and asking God to reveal more detail to me so I could deliver a clearer message to George.

It wasn't until early the next morning, nearly 4 a.m., that I suddenly felt I had the keys I needed. I was reading the book of Acts and realized the powerful an impact water baptism had on the early Christians. New believers were baptized to make a statement to the world that they were irrevocably identified with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. And I also came to realize that George needed to humble himself and ask forgiveness of his wife, to "start fresh" in his relationship with her.

I was so excited, once I felt I had the answer, that I simply couldn't wait to call George and meet with him. He had given me his number at the office, but I didn't have his home number. He had an ordinary 9 to 5 job and I knew there was little chance he would be there at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, but I thought perhaps I could at least reach voicemail and unload my burden. So I dialed his office. To my surprise, George answered immediately: "Hello?"

"George, it's Larry. What are you doing there so early?"

"Well, I've never actually done this before," he confessed. "But I couldn't sleep at all, and all I could think of was this problem at work. I thought I'd better come in and get an early start, so I did.

"But why on earth are you calling here so early?" he asked me.

"Can I come down and talk with you, face to face?" I asked. "I will tell you then."

"Sure," he said, and gave me directions.

After arriving, I got right to the point and shared my burden. I told George I was concerned about him and felt certain God wanted to use me as his brother in Christ to challenge him in a certain way. I shared how I had struggled all evening to figure out what that was, before I finally felt God had spoken, both through Bob and through my prayers and search of the Scriptures earlier that morning.

So I laid out my two challenges to him, but I could tell by his face that I was asking him to do something very difficult. "It's not a small thing for someone from the Mormon tradition to get baptized out of the religion," he told me. "My Mormon friends won't be happy about that at all. It might even put me in some danger." He didn't elaborate on that.

"So I'll really have to think about it," he concluded.

I agreed, having gotten what I felt I needed to get off my chest. "But please don't take too long to think about it," I warned him. "I really am convinced this is something God wants you to do, and soon. I'm afraid for what might happen if you put it off too long, or neglect to do it at all."

George agreed to pray about it and get back to me before too long. But I noticed, as we parted, that he hadn't said much about the second part of my challenge.

A week later, I had my answer. Or partially, anyway. George agreed to be baptized! (I baptized him soon after, in a joyous celebration in the back yard of one of our group members who had a swimming pool.) However, he said he wasn't quite ready yet to do the second part of my request -- to humble himself, to ask forgiveness of his wife for how he had misled the family and treated her, and to commit himself to being a godly leader in his family.

The church was very excited about George's baptism, and he continued to participate in our group, but some time later I could tell he was still struggling. One evening, as the two of us were meeting together, he confessed in tears that he had violated the sanctity of his marriage relationship with another woman. He was in pain and sorrowful, but it didn't take long to realize that despite his sorrow he was not truly repentant. He remained full of pride and excused his behavior by talking about the way his wife had treated him. It was really her fault, he insisted; she had driven him to do what he had done.

"George, it's not yet too late for you," I warned him once more, "but it will get harder and harder to do the right thing, the longer you wait. Remember that the kindness of God leads us to repentance, but the longer you wait the harder it will become to turn around, and the consequences for your sin will be severe. You can see already how much more difficult it will be to confess and make it right now, than it would have been a few months ago when we first discussed this."

George agreed with me -- but still couldn't bring himself to repent. He continued his downward slide, and eventually he and his wife were divorced, and the family torn apart. The effect on their beautiful children was devastating, as divorce always is. How I wish he had heeded the second part of God's message to him, and repented!

Today is the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Door, an act of faith and truth-telling which gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. One of those key principles he taught is called "Sola Scriptura," or "Scripture alone." Unlike our Mormon friends, authentic Christians believe that Scripture alone is the basis for God speaking His truth into our lives. Had the message that Bob delivered to me, or that I in turn delivered to George, contradicted Scripture in any way, we would have been guilty of more than simply speaking out of turn. But as Christians we do believe that God uses other members of the Body to challenge and speak truth to us in ways that, if consistent with Scripture, can provide guidance and direction that helps us to fulfill His purposes and function more effectively together as the Body of Christ.

I appreciate being surrounded by brothers and sisters who seek to speak God's truth into my life, and are open as I seek to do the same for them. We have the grave responsibility of representing Christ to each other, and we need each other desperately as we seek together to become more like Jesus.

How have you heard God speak into your life through brothers and sisters in Christ?