Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Gospel Confronts the 'Left Out Losers'

The last chapter addressed 'the lucky ones'.. what about the rest of us?

The difficulty in all of these posts is that we are dealing in stereotypes and archetypes- whereas real life is always a mangled middle. In the real world, life is fragmented and complicated, messy and menial.

That is why I love the Books of Psalms/Proverbs/Ecclesiastes- the books of literature- where real depictions of the human heart are presented in living color. The 'songs' are cries of celebration and pain. The cries of the heart are energetic at times and depressed at others. We find real doubt, anger, hurt, and confusion.

So what does the gospel say to us when we feel rejected or abandoned? Where do we find answers for our loneliness and depression?

A particular Psalm I run to in times of wandering/wondering is Psalm 73.

 1 Surely God is good to Israel,
   to those who are pure in heart.

The writer here is commonly referred to as Asaph- a rather unknown figure except to refer to a priestly choir director of the post-exile Jews. Whenever I read verse 1 of Psalm 73, I feel it is the 'lip service' things we always say in our faith. Those of us who walk with God for any length of time can relate to how we learn all the jargon and phrases. When I feel wounded or betrayed it is easy to say "God is good" on the outside, but on the inside there is deep questioning and digging doubt.

 2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
   I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
   when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
 4 They have no struggles;
   their bodies are healthy and strong.

In a world of 'compare and compete'- life can beat you down in a hurry. It seems like no one else is hurting the way you are. It seems like your struggles are unique and no one else is suffering. This is all an illusion, but our twisted hearts magnify our troubles and deepen our woundedness.

5 They are free from common human burdens;
   they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
   they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
   their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
   with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
   and their tongues take possession of the earth. 

10 Therefore their people turn to them
   and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
   Does the Most High know anything?”
 12 This is what the wicked are like—
   always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

It isn't enough to see others carefree, but it is particularly painful to see the wicked seem to get by scot free. Skeptics sell tickets, liars get promotions, the right way is harder and slower and it seems like we are getting left behind by holding to 'silly' rules. Our desire to live according to the rules is looked at as 'archaic' or 'naive'. I highlighted verse 9 because it is the most painful of all- there are some who use all the jargon of faith- but see no struggle with sin or compromise. As they move up and get applause without consequences, it makes you want to punt it all away (I believe this was the so called 'sin of the Nicolaitans' in the Book of Revelation'- those who played it both ways- words of faith and lifestyle of world and never seeming to get in trouble).

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
   and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
   and every morning brings new punishments.
 15 If I had spoken out like that,
   I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
   it troubled me deeply 

So it gets to this... a little pity party. I have been here enough to know how pathetic a position it is. Thankless, prayerless, overly sensitive and critical.

Let me say that there is proper anger and pain that shouldn't be confused with this attitude of 'permanent victimhood'- but I see more improper reactions than appropriate ones. In fact, our culture has a huge epidemic of victim-itis- we know how to WHINE.

NOW- verse 17 indicates a huge shift... and it can easily be mis-understood. So let's experience this shift- a gospel awakening....

17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
   then I understood their final destiny.

I CAN HEAR THE SKEPTICS NOW..... Oh Sure, nice answer- a mean God who crushes the mean people and you are supposed to feel better? This totally misses the point.

The change begins with WORSHIP- a lost art and experience in our culture today. Arch Bishop of Canterbury, William Temple defines it this way:

“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God.It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose.And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable.” 

It has been said that without worship...we shrink. It is suggested that if we never learn to worship-even God will disappoint us. Sadly, we think of worship as sitting on a hard pew and watching a B grade concert, singing monotonous and repetitious choruses, begrudgingly putting money in a brass plate, eating stale crackers, licking a thimble of warm grape juice, and hoping the thing ends before the lunch crowd hits the restaurants.

We think that we are the audience, the ministers direct, and the preachers/musicians are the participants.A worship service is where WE are the partipants and GOD is the audience.
We come in His sanctuary not to be entertained, what we can get... but it should be what we can give to HIM.

As we meditate on what He has done- as we bless HIm for who He is- as we mutually confess our sin and rejoice in His generous salvation, our eyes are cleared, the dust settles, and we realize we are on a journey to a great wedding feast- aliens in a broken world- and our present sufferings are nothing in comparison to the coming glory (Rom 8:18).

If we never see this... then we are in danger of what is coming for the rebels, the earth dwellers.....

 18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
   you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
   completely swept away by terrors! 

I never rejoice when it happens- but we see it all the time. The one's we thought were living the life are swept away in tragedy.....

20 They are like a dream when one awakes; 
   when you arise, Lord, 
   you will despise them as fantasies.

Again- the ones who betray and rob and bully and persecute God's people are going to get the wrath of the Father. Those who pierce His son will see Daddy coming in a cloud of wrath.

21 When my heart was grieved

   and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
   I was a brute beast before you.
 23 Yet I am always with you;
   you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterward you will take me into glory. 

Every time I get to this section I can't help but think of Keith Green's song "Your Love Broke Through"
This is gospel beginning- it is evidence of repentance... "God, please forgive me, I was wasting away in a pity party of victimhood- tired of being kicked around by the wicked world- but You love me and the gospel says that You forgive me- Your love has broken through!"

25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart
   and my portion forever.
 27 Those who are far from you will perish;
   you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. 
   I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
   I will tell of all your deeds.

 As I close- it would be helpful to say one more thing- LIFE WOUNDS- there is no way to get around that- THE PAIN IS REAL- and the questions are heartfelt. It may help to meditate not on WHY? instead the Bible gives the answer as a person.. a WHO?

The Cross of Christ, by John R.W. Stott:
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before Gods throne. 
Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly - not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
'Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?' snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. 'We endured terror ... beatings ... torture ... death!'
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. 'What about this?' he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn . 'Lynches ... for no crime but being black!'
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. "Why should I suffer' she murmured, 'It wasn't my fault.'
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in this world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of the groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other.  At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they have endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth - as a man!
'Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
'At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.'
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one was moved. For suddenly all knew God had already served his sentence. (End)

As for me- I'm so thankful there is a gospel for losers- It means there is room at the cross for me.....

The Gospel Confronts 'the Winners of the World '

They got a name for the winners in the worldAnd I want a name when I loseThey call Alabama the Crimson TideCall me Deacon Blues 
(Steely Dan 'Deacon Blues')

There are some people in the world where it just all goes according to plan. They were born into the right family, at the right time, with all the right stuff and life seems to be one grand charm after another.

Sure, there are setbacks for everyone- but these folks just walk on through and seem to have it all go their way.

Stereotypically, there is a body type- personality- intellect- and social status attached to what the mainstream culture yearns for.

And there are segments of the world who don't like them for that as well......

Who comes to mind when I describe that person? If it is a male- you think of someone 6'2- fit- a bright smile and perfect hair- eyes that put on the charm- a magnetic personality- spot on fashion- Mr. Persona with a flair for leadership- charismatic and magnetic.

The female? Goddess like features- the cover of a magazine- the right social circles- and the perfect tastes in colors and clothing. The subject of conversations. Strong and desirable- but always in control.

Do those people really exist? Well- no and YES!

Though the images we are presented in media are photoshopped and iconic caricatures- there are those people who come close enough to these arbitrary standards that they pass for the 'fortunate ones'- they won the races- they are in the right circles- they have spun a positive world of winning momentum- their life is more yes that no.

What does the gospel say to this 'winner'?

Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”   18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” 28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”   29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

There was a sign on a teacher's room that said: "What is popular may not be right- and what is right may not be popular".

The above passage has always intrigued me.... does it teach a salvation by works? What is meant by 'a camel through eye of a needle'? And what does this say to us?

This man (Luke 18 calls him a 'ruler'- Matthew 19 calls him 'young')  initiates the conversation and even 'falls on his knees'- what do we make of this passage?

Here is what the conversation says to those who seem to have it all......

Worldly success and adulation can be enough of a distraction to cause ultimate demise. If you have been blessed with wealth, or looks, or talent-- oh, you are in a tough circumstance spiritually.

Paul wrote to Timothy in I Timothy 6:17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

This young man approached Jesus thinking he had won- "I have done all these things from my youth up- I AM A SUCCESS- (I even guess he saw his riches as proof of God's approval).

So Jesus explores this... 'So you have kept al the law..Hmmm Law 1 says that Love God first above all else- so I am asking you to sell all of your possessions and give them to the poor.'

And the young man walked away...'grieved (Matt 19)- very sad (Luke 18).

Jesus replies to the remaining audience "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven"- "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle"- now I have had Bible teachers explain for years that this is a reference to a gate in the wall of Jerusalem where the camel could still fit- and that may be true- but the idiom is still a reference to a small hole and a big camel.

This shocked the observers "Who can be saved?" and the VERY IMPORTANT response "With men it is IMPOSSSIBLE, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."

The gospel confronts the 'winner' by telling him- you are losing and will lose the most important area- you cannot please God with your record of success. You are as much of a failure in the area of righteousness as the gutter ridden sinner. Compared to God's holy standard of true heart holiness.. you are not a winner.... you are Deacon Blues.

Now, why is this good news?

Well- as an American, I am rich. You can look at my net worth and wonder what I am talking about- but I live better that all of the Kings of the ancient world and enjoy comforts that most of the world can't even imagine. My material status does create spiritual dullness - Proverbs tells us that to the man who is full even honey seems bitter. If I am depending on my spiritual zeal to usher me into usher me into the heavenly hall of fame.. I am in trouble. I don't feel guilty for my lot in life- I am so grateful fro God's grace.

But here is a 2nd point- and this is the most important one. There is a trap that the 'winners' fall into. Compared to others in our society, I am not rich, or handsome, or famous, or talented- but to those who are- you have to beware of a terrible trap.

The trap is that you use the social status as an apparatus. You don't have IT..IT has you. You are in a grip of acceptance and luxury that has no end of the appetite and no compassion for the rejects. You never feel secure- all of the mounds of gain offer not even an ounce of security or love.

Some of the wealthiest people in the world are also some of the saddest- the stuff doesn't love you back and it doesn't really satisfy. The famous French writer Guy De Maupassant's sad quote- "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing."

The the good news of Christ can save this person. I believe it begins with a true repentance which produces a fruit of gratitude. Grace causes a fruit of giving. The fragrance of both causes a warmth for people of all kinds.. even the destitute.

It is a freeing message. The rich young ruler was sad to think of losing his possessions- and the sad irony is that they were going to go away eventually. Rust or theft or old age will take it all away.

The born again person will remain joyous even if everything is taken away.

As I close- click on the link here to meditate on the Johnny Cash version of "Hurt'- it is a long view of wealth and what is important in life.

If you a person with persona, don't get to enthralled with your power or status. The smallest package in the world is a man all wrapped up in himself.

The next chapter will outline how the gospel confronts the 'loser'.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Gospel Confronts the Conservative

The last chapter delved into the gospel message for the liberal. Today, we look at whether there is a gospel application to the conservative.

I had a friend who used to say all the time, "Never underestimate the power of the status quo".

And I don't know if it is fair to label conservatives as the institutions of tradition and establishment, but the general definition of a conservative is one who is slow to change. There may be a number of reasons for this: a desire to protect good traditions, a healthy suspicion of change, a prudent and measured response to issues, or just plain fear.

A Bible verse that instantly adresses the progressive/conservative tug of war is found in Ecclesiastes 3:

1 There is a time for everything,    and a season for every activity under the heavens: 2 a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
   a time to tear down and a time to build,
 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
   a time to mourn and a time to dance,
 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
   a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
 6 a time to search and a time to give up,
   a time to keep and a time to throw away,
 7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
   a time to be silent and a time to speak,
 8 a time to love and a time to hate,
   a time for war and a time for peace.

In America, the conservatives are often described as the 'right' and humans can be found in all kinds of degrees.

Should we concern ourselves with and lovingly confront those who run to the extreme elements of ideology?

My personal experience with conservative ideology was in reading many of the popular conservative writers:(Limbaugh, Medved, Hannity, Beck, Coulter, Ingharam)

Again, most of these writers tend to appeal more to my Judeo-Christian values, though some do not articulate gospel understanding.

The problem in trying to contain Christianity within the conservative voice is that some conservatives unknowingly articulate a 'compare and compete' mentality that teaches a righteousness of works. "I am a conservative, God is happy because I am pro-life, stand firm on a traditional view of marriage, and believe that there should be prayer in schools."

This is not the gospel.

The gospel message is that even our good deeds are like filthy rags unto the Lord (Is 64:6) and that 'no one is good, not even one and that all  have sinned and are fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3).

The Christian conservative, in full view of the gospel, would not lead in the harsh tones and rhetoric that dominates the landscape today. It isn't that these values aren't important- it is just the law has to be presented in full view of the door of grace and mercy in Christ. 

Let me mention a couple of observations of this and move on to my main point.

I just finished Ann Coulter's book, Demonic, it was the first book I ever read cover to cover on an ipad- which was very cool!

Ann is popular because she fights fire with fire. She zings and slices with a sarcastic flair and dark humor. Her latest book backs all quotes with a huge bibliography in the appendix at the end.

Her main point? The current landscape of American liberalism is a building, dangerous 'mob' with direct comparisons to horrible and violent ideology of atrocities of anarchy throughout history. She camps out in the French Revolution (in direct opposition to the American Revolution) and the criminal activities of social activists in the 60's.

Coulter highlights the premise with quotes and activities of liberal voices within mainstream/cable media outlets today.

What does Coulter prove? She proves there is a difference between being right and being 'dead right'. She proves that you can take truth and use it like a weapon, bludgeoning people and leaving a bloody pool of hurt in the process.

Now,  I know that this is how some folks get traction in a society of dysfunctional cynicism and discordant cacophony of voices. But does any of the ramped up rhetoric help?

Do we realize that our young people are watching? Do we understand that their young hearts tend to be more sympathetic to the hurting or maligned?

Let me add a second example. I taught Bible for 7 years in Nashville, from time to time we hit hard areas: Biblical warrants for divorce was really hard, for example, because the pain is so real. I had to learn a gentle approach that honored the truth but did not unnecessarily hurt the wounded.

When we talked about homosexuality- I could tell that high school students were upset that there 'appeared' to be harsher treatment of that activity compared to heterosexual adultery which was of greater pain to their personal experience.

This is all a precursor to how the gospel confronts the conservative.

1) Judeo-Christian tradition does not guarantee Gospel impact. In fact, if we are not careful- the traditional values can masquerade itself as gospel understanding. I believe it is better soil- but it is not the seed.

2) Harsh condemnation of sin toward the world is not gospel focused. Paul made the distinction of 'in-house' expectations and worldly realizations (I Corinthians 5:10). We preach Christ crucified as proof of God's love. We teach Christ's resurrection as proof of God's justification to those who believe and repent. We expect rejection and worldly sin. We patiently persevere in promoting the message and trust God to move as He decides.

3) Things are always in a state of decay- gospel impacted believers should not be apathetic- we should be active servers and sharers. The Lord does not want us to sit back and watch it burn- he wants us to engage, love, work, heal, procreate, and emancipate.

I have always thought of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 to be an indictment of spiritual passivity:

24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’”

4) A final confrontation- Christian conservatives should be careful of buying into political activity as the best hope of social change.

I loved Jerry Falwell and Jim Kennedy when they expounded on the Scriptures. I was fine that they supported Biblical values as good and wholesome. I would wince when it seemed forced or political.

I was having coffee yesterday morning with a United Methodist minister when he brought up the same point. He remembered a Dr. Kennedy sermon during Christmas using the birth of Christ to preach an entire sermon about abortion. I don't know if that was the full topic of the sermon or not- but we need to be shrewd and innocent in our discourse.

The bottom line? There is forgiveness in Jesus Christ!  When we lose our way and by fighting for the faith and lose our lotion of love (meditate on Revelation 2:1-7) there is grace at the cross! There are more ways to miss the truth than we can ever imagine.... isn't it good that it is dependent on our Father and not on us. Isn't is awesome to know that you are saved by Christ's righteousness and not your own?

It frees you up to humbly say 'I'm sorry'- it frees you up to pray for others- it puts the refreshing water of God's mercy on your lips- the conversation should begin anew.... today!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Gospel Confronts the Liberal

"We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."   C. S. Lewis

Just to use the term 'liberal' in a post conjures up the probability of 'fightin' words' due to the current climate of our social rhetoric. A quick check of my profile, a short perusal of my past blog posts, an educated guess concerning my background and faith will likely put me in a category of "HARD DOUBT" as to my fair treatment of anyone who labels themselves as progressive or democratic or liberal.

Growing up through the late 60's and becoming more socially conscious in the late 70's and early 80's- my political leanings were formulated during the dawn of the Reagan presidency and the emergence of talk radio and the EIB rants of Rush Limbaugh.

This era had a huge impact on my parents as well. As far as I can tell, we were blue dog democrats in the early years. My dad was a Birmingham firefighter and I remember him expressing that the democrats took care of the working man. When you are 8 or 9 years old, you could care less. You hear, it registers, but I was quickly back to my Evel Knievel stunt cycle and Nerf Football.

My mom was the first one to even breathe that she was now more of a 'republican' and she was really into Rush. But it was more than that, President Reagan not only inspired a new nationalism and pride, he painted the term 'liberal' like it was almost a disease.

In 1988, George Bush made Michael Dukakis wince as he painted him an extreme liberal and a 'card carrying member of the ACLU'.

But there was something else going on as well. It was much deeper than politics. The term liberal seemed to align more and more with a set of social values that were very different than what was represented in my church, around my coaches, even among my peers. It was especially frustrating to see the unhidden social agenda pushed in mainstream media outlets. As much as I enjoyed television and movies- it was apparent in almost every new broadcast or premier, there was a group pushing the envelope of a different value system.

I strongly believe that this is why Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio took off- It is why Fox News grew out of relative obscurity into the power player it is today- the values being represented did not represent what was most prevalent in our neighborhoods. The heart strings of most people growing up in the State of Alabama come alive to God, Country, and Football.

I'm going to get to the heart of how the gospel confronts the liberal- and I will also balance it with how the gospel confronts the conservative. But I did want to take a quick side trail and talk about the impact of progressive media entertainment and having a largely liberal press on our country.

My belief is that the spirit/heart of the country has been dominated by conservative social values from the founding fathers until the dawning of the 21st century. Remember that it was shocking for Rhett Butler to say "Damn"in 1939. Elvis was controversial in 1956.

I am not saying that society was as innocent as 'Leave it to Beaver' or 'Father Knows Best'- but the larger community assented to a high standard of propriety in terms of what was presented or what was assented to. Our household wasn't free from profanity or vulgar language, but we all would confirm that it was NOT RIGHT, even if we did it from time to time.

But a lot has changed. I was 14 years old when we got cable TV. I was so happy that we were going to have more than the 2 1/2 channels that I watched when I couldn't go outside. I say 1/2 because one of the stations was very blurry and only synced up in good weather. The stations would play the national anthem around midnight and then a high pitched beep would play continuously to colored bars all night long until Country Boy Eddy came on the air around 4:30 AM.

So I sat in a chair in our dining room, looking at a 14 inch black and white TV, and was ecstatic! 14 channels! Some all night! We had TBS out of Atlanta, WGN out of Chicago, one channel made the TV into a fireplace, and the big one...HBO.

We watched the old version of "Bad News Bears" with Walter Mathau and Jodie Foster and then it happened. Over the TV, I heard a curse word in front of my mom. I had seen the movie in the theater, but for some reason, having my mom there.. OH Boy. She got quiet and said "Oh MY" and the tension was pretty thick. Have times changed?

But I want to point out one other change.

60 minutes and CNN introduced another big culture changer. These shows began to take on controversial social topics: abortion, homosexuality, 'family values'... and the format was to present the opposing views EQUALLY. Pro choice advocates were given 30 seconds of soundbites and Pro life debaters were given 30 seconds of soundbites.

Even if the culture represented a 90% agreement with pro life issues, the minority view was given a weightiness. And it all became LOGOS- and the liberal social agenda had fancy slogans and hard hitting soundbites.

Over time- this has caused major shifts in social atitudes and mores. I believe the country is still largely conservative (look at the red vs blue states) but it is a softer conservatism as far as values are concerned. In fact, we always placed so-called 'family values' within a Judeo-Christian world view. It seems like today, the values are argued according to pragmatic social contexts and not whether there is a universal standard of right.

This is all a prelude to say that if the goal of liberalism is cultural change- then I would say that American progressives have had great success. If you start in the late 60's- we have moved the standards a LONG way. The ACLU mindset has created a secular marketplace... more so than Europe. British schools pray and even teach Bible (it hasn't helped them hold on to a God awareness or national faith, but that is another topic).

Progressives have even moved conservatives. The ultimate American value is now 'freedom'- it is what we say we want to export to the world. But a careful reading of the founding documents of our country do not put freedom as the highest American value. The founding of our country was a freedom from tyranny based on the standards of the Creator. American freedom was never ultimate freedom, it was a mutual accountability to restrain human evil. The American dream was to make men free, but realize that  humans are more prone to extremes and brutality- especially when they gain ultimate power. The greatest distrust was a government that was not accountable to the governed.

So what does the gospel say to the progressive? It encourages and confronts at the same time.

The positive aspect of the Christian gospel to liberals is to commend their heart for the downtrodden. It is to the liberals credit that there is an unwillingness to rest until there is found justice and provision for the hurting. Some who found a home in progressive circles were those who walked out of churches after being turned off by a status quo and cold response to issues like racism and poverty.

However, the gospel confronts the liberal in two major sins.

The first, and most deadly, is the jettison of absolute truth and embrace of relativism.  If there is no agreed upon standard..there is no standard. You can go all the way back to Europe and the 19th century Romantics like William Blake and William Wordsworth who threw out the baby with the bathwater. In rejecting the cold religion of the Cathedrals, they abandoned God as He had revealed Himself- especially the revelation in Jesus Christ.

The second major sin is to view the state as the savior and provider for social justice. God set up the church as His minister and the government as His sword. Because we are using men (jars of clay), these structures will suffer decay and impotence until the master comes back- but the message of the gospel is good news ... even in the failures.

As soon as liberals turn to the state as the provider and preach tolerance as the standard of morals- the stage is set for take away and turnover.

Even though everyone gives lip service to our commitment to being a nation of laws - the current movement of our nation is toward lawlessness (doing only what you want to when you want to) and tyranny (the powerful group of elitists who will emerge to get everyone in line).

The message to the liberal? Please turn the the Christ of the Bible, find forgiveness in Him, and lead us back to standards of love, and humble service to the Creator. You have more power to do that than the conservative does.

The next chapter will show us how the conservative has sins to repent of as well..... but to all of us- the gospel is not too good to be true.. it is the only good truth. And it is founded upon the GOOD TRUTH.... the shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep. It is a good and secure hope!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Gospel Confronts the Skeptic

“The riddles of God are more comforting than the answers of man.” G.K. Chesterton

I have been reading, writing, and teaching in the field known as Apologetics (defending the faith) for close to 20 years now. My research has led me to investigate the charges and arguments made throughout history against the existence of God.

There are some good natured skeptics with honorable concerns and doubts- they don't get the following or the press of the hard core, sarcastic, bomb throwing elites who pack auditoriums and sell millions of books. The popular atheists have become bolder and colder in their attack of all religion and the Christian faith in particular.

I feel like when someone discounts God on the basis of reason, they are doing the most foolish thing of all. When the Bible speaks of the ‘unforgivable sin’ and ‘blasphemy of the spirit’- it has to be this. When someone says, “There is no God, no angels or devils, no heaven or hell” they are lifting their life experience and powers of reasoning to a god-like status. ‘I must become God to kill God’- Nietzsche understood this.

I’m thankful that I am under-educated enough to keep a healthy self-suspicion of my intellect. Is reason trustworthy enough to gamble on eternity?

What does the Bible say about our ability to reason?

Romans 1:28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

I Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

So a legitimate question is: Does the gospel confront the skeptic? And my answer is that it keeps coming on every breath, in every heartbeat, indeed in every argument those who fight the knowledge of God with every fiber in their being.

My guess is that- the truly hardened skeptic will best be able to respond to the issues of faith as their own body begins to wither and as the doorway of death begins to appear. There are so many urban legends surrounding the deathbeds of famous skeptics and it is impossible to sift through the spin- but my hunch is that after years of intellectual protection and high minded arguments- the closer that mysterious realm grows, the more intense the gamble is waged.

There will be harsh punishment for men who have used intellectual arguments to lead others to jettison any belief in God.

Matthew 18: 6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.7“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 
And maybe this realization works against them- they feel like they have to keep their loyalty to the many years of fighting faith. Maybe they think that they have already sealed their destiny and willing to leap into the great unknown with a determination of mind. They have a defense in their hand- "You didn't give me enough evidence!"- but I'm afraid they will fall to their knees in regret before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Satan whispers to them: 'God has let you down' and at the same time 'It is too late to pray'.
But the gospel is still good enough to forgive the waywardness and damage done by the skeptic. As has been mentioned and will continue to be emphasized: anyone who comes to their senses and sees their sin before the Holy God, and turns to Him in repentance, and trusts in the sacrificial death of Christ to atone for that sin WILL BE SAVED- but that process is a miracle...impossible by the persuasion of man.
No one comes to Christ because they lost a debate. The skeptic will only turn after a healthy self suspicion of his intellectual limitations and his heart disposition to resist. And that act will only happen as God moves- but we must keep praying and serving and loving even the boldest skeptic. As long as the skeptic is breathing- the door of mercy is open.
Yes- the gospel is that good!

The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” Blaise Pascal

The Gospel Confronts the Cynic

(this is a chapter in a book called The Gospel Confrontation) 

In the last chapter, we saw the gospel confront the addict. The addict needs to feel that he is forgiven. He has to be Holy Spirit invaded with the promise of God's unconditional love. The addict approaches the throne of grace already broken by his powerlessness over addiction.

The cynic is a different story. He has varying degrees of pride covering the access to his heart. His heart is protected within a fortress of complex self protective mechanisms.
The cynic has to be broken by God's wrath before he can be healed with God's love.

An addict that is healed is a true miracle. The cynic is even more miraculous- it's just that we never see it. Why? I think it is because we do a wonderful job selling God's love- but we never feel the pressure of His holiness and wrath. The 'good Lord' is an easy sell- the angry God is intolerable.

Go throughout the body of Christ today and your heart will be warmed with teary-eyed former addicts who are washed in the blood. But be careful, there are a number of unrepentant cynics walking the halls of a lot of churches who might rip you to shreds if you get out of line.

Who is the cynic? Where do we find him? And how does the gospel confront this pervasive heart type in our culture today?

Luke 15:17 “When he (The lost/prodigal son) finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
 20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
 22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’
 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’
 31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!

For years and years I have pondered this parable and the one immediately after it (The dishonest manager) and find some immediate observations. The beginning of the parable (There was a man who had 2 sons)- the all important middle (But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him), and the abrupt ending (unhappy elder brother).

I also noticed what is written after the stories are done- "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed Him."

Do you see an ebb and flow of God's heart..? Compassion for the humble.. the downtrodden (Psalm 34:18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.) and harshness for the arrogant (I Peter 5:5 God resists the proud).

When I speak of the cynic- it is a rather large category that I will deal with in later chapters. It is a person who spolis and hardens by degrees. Anger to bitterness to hatred to callous skepticism. The cynic can be a moralist, a religious zealot, a proud Pharisee, a jaded venomous sarcastic critic, a bitter old fool, or a mocking young bully.

Remember Psalm 1? Blessed is the man who:
Walks not... in the council of the wicked
nor stands... in the way of sinners
nor sits.. in the seat of scoffers.

Walking-standing-sitting indicates a pattern that gets well worn over time until a person is thoroughly tracked for destruction.

Even our sinful human hearts show compassion for the humble addict and contempt for the arrogant oppressor. Do our hearts hint at God's heart as well?

Everything I have written in this chapter seems so harsh. But I can tell you from personal experience- a cold heart is only made alive by grieving. My story leans more to the cynic and less to the addict. Early in life I did all I could to avoid shame. It drove me to be the best. I had to be the strongest, the toughest, the best. I craved adult adulation and attention and I achieved acceptance by 'winning'. An unintended consequence of this quest was to shut my heart down. I avoided any pain of loss by vowing to never feel hurt or loneliness. I would hurt others on the way to 'victory' but felt no pity. On the outside I was the high achieving all-american boy.. on the inside I was a cold, calculating, manipulative machine.

The gospel was important to me and I did find a conversion experience going into my junior year of high school. But it was a head decision, a logical choice made to win the ultimate end game. It wasn't until I got married that I realized how cold my love was for others. All my effort to be excellent doesn't work to keep a relationship healthy. Any problems in my marriage was that my wife was broken and needed fixing so she could operate according to my plan.

Thanks be to God that I began to see her hurt and it helped me find a brokenness in spirit- she wasn't the problem. In fact, I was lucky that she was persevering in spite of my cold demeanor and quiet insecurity. I was helped when she let me have it from time to time- to this day, I am so thankful that I did not marry a mouse- God knew I needed someone to look me in the eye and say, ' This isn't easy to say- but you are selfish- and worst of all- you never seem to care."

Going through trials, enduring in prayer, and finding healing in the pain has helped me come a long way. I still have a tendency to withdraw into a shell- but my faithful friend of 23 years knows how to creatively draw me out. And that understanding of gospel forgiveness keeps us renewed inside!

But there are some tragic stories out there. Sadly, the addict sometimes evolves into a cynic. After years of addictive behavior- the years take their toll. The young party boy is now hurting. The dancing is now straight shots at a lonely bar. No more wine, women, and song. But there is no humility, there is only a bitterness. There is an anger at God while seeds of disappointment turn the addict's heart to stone. He sees himself as a victim and is mad at the world. This is Satan's most fiendish trap of all. 

But to that man all alone, it is OK to grieve. Romans 6 asks "What benefit therefore are the things which you are now ashamed? The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ." It is never too late- when you feel that God has finally broken you- reach out to Him and watch Him rescue you in deeper love and acceptance than you ever imagined!

Remember that we prayed for the addict to 'come to his senses'. The prayer for the cynic is almost sadistic..."Lord, you are going to have to break him." Now, we have to be SO CAREFUL here. It is up to God to sovereignly introduce the pain. A cynical heart has almost no feeling at all. So God orchestrates pain to produce mourning. (Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn.)

Pain is a tool in the hand of The Surgeon.

When you talk of good news to a cynic- the seeds are bouncing off of a hard rock. It is a hard cold winter and the heart has no use for that seed of God's Word.

So what does God do? He crushes it. It is the same tough love He portrays in Christ. Isaiah 53- "It pleased the Lord to CRUSH him." 

Now here is where we do the cynics such a dis-service. It would be better for us to deliver the warning and pray that sinners would repent from such terrible news. We need to read the passages of warning and judgement- especially the wrath that is coming on the oppressive ones in the world.

Instead, we bounce little cotton balls of "The good Lord" off of the cold, dead hearted cynics- we sit back and wring our hands, we hide behind a shrug and say "Oh Well God's will"- we watch the skeptics eat our children for dinner because a word about 'Hell" might offend them.

Then God crushes them to dust and they have a right to say, "Why didn't you tell me?".

For every sermon about God's love... for every kind word about free grace- there ought to be an equal treatment about God's wrath on sin. In Romans, the greek word is "Orge' and it literally means God has revealed His ANGER toward unrighteousness. His judgement stands firm and unassuaged by EVERYTHING except the blood of His Son.

Does God hate sin? Look at the cross! Does God love sinners? Look at the cross! But to only share one side of the story actually waters down the significance of the story.

Why is the gospel so uncompelling to our young people today? We have taught that God is a big Santa Claus, this life is fun on the beach, they are born sick, but a Jesus shot will cure their ills. "Just be a good boy and the good Lord will make your dreams come true!"

The Biblical view is that God is the Holy Creator of the Universe. He is Holy and will destroy all that is aligned against Him. Life is a war against deadly enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. And man is born dead meat- aligned as an enemy- but the crushing death of Jesus Christ stands as a covering for sin and rebellion. Nothing insignificant about that story!

Peter Ditzel uses this story as illustration:

Suppose all of the citizens of a certain city in a certain kingdom wickedly rebel against their king. The king then brings his forces to reestablish his kingdom in the city, lays siege to the city, and conquers it. The conquering king sends his herald to announce his terms of peace to the citizens of the city. The herald tells them that, without exception, every one of the citizens of the city deserve death for rebelling against the king. But he also has good news. Any citizen who repents of his rebellion, submits to the king, and pledges his allegiance to him will receive the king's free and undeserved pardon.
Be clear on this point. Any citizen who repents, submits to the king, and pledges his allegiance to him still deserves death for rebellion. The law does not take repentance into account. Only a free and undeserved pardon from the king will save. Several citizens grasp the grace that the king has offered, and they repent, submit to the king, and pledge their allegiance to him. Their repentance, submission, and pledge of allegiance do not buy them the king's pardon as it cannot be bought. The punishment for rebellion is death, and the law does not take into account repentance, submission, and a pledge of allegiance. Turning from wrong and doing what is right, and submitting and showing allegiance to the king are merely what is expected of all citizens. It is what they should have been doing all along. By doing these things, they do not obligate the king. By doing these things, they have not paid for their pardon. By doing these things, they have not fulfilled a condition that legally results in their pardon. They could very well do these things and still be executed. The king would legally be in the right if he still executed them. The king's pardon is completely free and undeserved.
This is very similar to the situation between God and humanity. Humanity is in wicked rebellion against God. Everyone deserves eternal death. Through His Son, Jesus Christ, God has conquered the world (the Greek word translated "overcome" in John 16:33 means "subdued" or "conquered"). God has sent His heralds into the world to announce His terms of peace. These terms are: Everyone deserves eternal death for rebellion. But those who turn from their wickedness, believe on Jesus as their Savior, and submit to Him as their Lord, He will freely pardon. Nothing they do can make them deserve this pardon. They should have been doing these things all along. The law makes no provision for repentance, belief, and submission to reverse a sentence of death. These things are not conditions of the law that, if met, will earn pardon. Nevertheless, those who repent, believe, and submit will receive the free and unmerited pardon of God.
But, you may ask, if God will only pardon those who repent, believe, and submit, isn't that really a works salvation? No, it is not because the law makes no provision for these works to merit anything. They count for nothing. Besides, God gives repentance, belief, and submission as a gift to us. I say "a gift" because repentance, belief, and submission are really just aspects of the same thing. When we believe or trust in Jesus as our Savior, we are turning from our rebellious ways and submitting to Him. The Bible usually calls it faith, belief, or trust (all the same Greek word), but sometimes breaks it down finer into repentance, belief, and submission to Jesus as Lord. So, God gives us this gift which merits nothing with Him but through which we receive His pardon or salvation and which, by the way, also identifies to us who we are—His elect.
I hope this makes clearer that there is really no contradiction between being saved totally by grace through faith and needing to repent and submit to Jesus as our Lord.

I appeal to anyone out there who is weary of this glorious gospel. Don't be too cool to care or too casual to respond. Cry out to God to help you humble yourself under His mighty hand. At that point drink in His good grace. If you continue to oppose Him, it may not be pretty. Stop judging others in your self righteous indignation... ask God to help you find a heart to receive all things and people with thanksgiving! Don't be a pessimist- find an attitude of gratitude! This is the fruit of the gospel.

I will elaborate on this type later as we deal with skeptics and Pharisees... but the time for repentance is now.