From Eden to Mandalay: Reflections on the Las Vegas Massacre

Early this morning while most of us were falling into a deep sleep, sheer panic and absolute terror was occurring in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The count now numbers 59 dead and over 500 injured in what is being called the deadliest mass shooting in US history.  While the debates about gun violence and gun rights will undoubtedly gain steam in the coming days (and this article is not about gun rights or political opinion), this tragedy actually points to something beyond the barrel of the high powered guns.  It more points to the heart of the man who pulled the trigger.  Stephen Paddock was by most reports, not a threat to the American public.  A retired accountant living in a retirement community in Arizona with no connections to any terror organization and only a minor citation on his record. He certainly didn’t fit the profile of one that would murder in cold blood 58 innocent people.  Four days before he checked in to two rooms at the Mandalay Casino and Resort and smuggled as many as 10 guns.  He even made gun stands of which he could fire his altered automatic weapon into a crowd of 22,000 people. All of this took careful, methodical and strategic planning. He knew of the concert, he knew of the best angle of which to inflict the most damage and he had for weeks schemed and organized. We can only surmise how long Paddock had been thinking of this scheme, but one thing is for sure, its foundations began long before Stephen Paddock was born.

Without a doubt this is evil at its worst.  It plunges deep into the deplorable and could only be carried out by a sick and twisted mind.  What goes through a man’s heart and mind as he is preparing to set up a killing field?  How can this even be possible?  Actually, it points to a deep theological and anthropological truth.

 The heart of man is capable of the worst of atrocities and often without a single hint of remorse.

The reality of this truth didn’t begin in Stephen Paddock’s mind, it began by one cataclysmic event thousands of years ago in a place called Eden.  Some are tempted to ask, “How could God have allowed this to happen?” I want to be clear, this was not God’s plan for his creation.  He created man in his own image (Genesis 1:26) and even breathed His Spirit into Adam’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7).  The mark of God was forever implanted within humankind at creation. The image of God (Imago Dei) was so prevalent in human kind that God said of it, “It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31).  Yet something very tragic happened shortly afterwards as the Imago Dei was marred through the sinful and willful choice of mankind. (Genesis 3:1-7). A heart that was created to worship became fallible to the point of total corruption. In Genesis 4, we find the first murder and by Genesis 6 God was “grieved in His heart” over the absolute deplorability of creation.

The events in Eden are directly connected to the room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Casino and Resort.  The potential of evil in the heart of an unredeemed man is unthinkable. Jesus said, “From within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.” Mark 7:21-23.  In Jeremiah 17:9 the Lord spoke of the potential of Man’s heart, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”  A redeemed man must guard his heart from such natural inclinations, but an unredeemed man without the conviction of the Holy Spirit is susceptible to anything.  Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and now Las Vegas are all dark events in our nation’s history each pointing to a deep seeded reality.  Adam and Eve’s fateful decision is still having a deadly and grievous impact on our world. Satan is the prince of this world and his aim has not changed.  He still exist to “steal, kill and destroy.” (John 10:10).  The same serpent that slithered into the garden was, no doubt at work on the 32nd floor of the resort. We can only guess all that the devil whispered to the heart of Stephen Paddock in the last few weeks. There is no doubt that his presence filled that hotel room.

Events like this remind us that we live in a dangerous place.  This world is not our home and these events point to the reality of this truth.

My heart is grieving today. I am heartbroken for those many families who will have an empty chair for the holidays this year.  My heart breaks even more that a very bad choice thousands of years ago has led us to this point. Adam is no father of mine and he is no friend to the world’s morality. I have been adopted by a Heavenly Father who has placed eternity in my heart. We are never fully protected from the evil of this world, but for those who are saved we have an eternal hope that this sin sick world will soon pass away.

We should fervently pray for the church to be at its best in the days ahead so that we can minister to the hurting, weep with the broken hearted and tell of the love of Christ.

Lord, this event reveals to us the potential of evil in the heart of every man and it points to a greater reality. You told us that “in this world we will have tribulations” but we rest in the promise that you have overcome the world. Be with those who are grieving today and bring healing to our nation as we find our hope in you.

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Increasing Diversity in SBC Churches

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of taking part in a Solemn Assembly hosted by a local Baptist Association.  The gathering was special for many reasons, but the diversity of the participants and the audience was encouraging.  On the platform were White, Black, Hispanic and Asian church leaders each sharing scripture and calling the church to confession, repentance and commitment.  Worship was led by a diverse praise team and the gathering was hosted by an African-American congregation.  It was a foretaste of what heaven will be like when every tribe, tongue and nation stands before God in total praise.  The uniqueness of the assembly was not only in the diversity of the participants, but most encouraging was the fact that the majority were members of SBC Churches.

Without question, the Southern Baptist Convention is turning a corner in the area of diversity.  We have repented of our past failures, embraced church planting among various ethnic groups and races, passed resolutions in which we took hard stances against racism and even elected our first African-American president in 2012.  According to Frank Page, CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, one in five SBC congregations are non-white.  There are now over 3,000 black churches and 2,000 Hispanic churches in the SBC. There has never been a time in the history of our convention where we have been such a colorful bunch. This was evident at the SBC in Phoenix. Not only did I notice a growing diversity within the elected messengers, but also in the nominated officers of the convention. I celebrate and applaud the efforts of NAMB and our state conventions.  Both have increased the diversity of the denomination through intentional efforts of outreach and ministry.

This past week James Emery White shared the most recent study released by the Public Religion Research Institute.  His conclusion from the study is simply, “The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation.” (Church & Culture Blog, Volume 13 No. 72).  The results of this study reveals the continued need for local SBC churches to ask the tough questions regarding their outreach to minorities, ethnic groups and younger generations in general.

White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public.  Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/aging-white-christian-america/)

According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of SBC congregants are white, 6% black, 3% Latino, with the rest spread out among several groups.  Think about the realities expressed in these two studies, 85% of SBC members are white, while only 30% of Americans identify as white and protestant.  Also the study reveals that 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian.  America is quickly becoming more diverse and less Christian.  Many Southern Baptists will see these numbers as troubling, but I suggest we see them as a great missional opportunity.  The great question for many SBC churches is simply, will the majority of outreach efforts be focused primarily on 30% of the population? Most of the “additions” listed on annual church profiles include people within the 30% demographic.  An even greater question is how will the church adjust outreach efforts to reflect the increasing diversity of America. James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church says, “Not only does it mean that fewer “whites” identify as Christian – which is to be expected with the rise of the “nones” – but also that white Christians as a whole have become a minority group in American culture. The future of the American church lies not only in regaining its evangelistic edge, but in embracing diversity. In fact, apart from embracing diversity, there can be no evangelistic edge.” (churchandculture.org)  It has been my experience that most declining churches have membership demographic that does not accurately reflect community demographic.  While many of these churches recognize the need to reach out to those of other races and ethnicity, the truth is they have no strategy to do it or simply lack the desire.  There are several historically strong SBC churches that find themselves in rapidly changing communities. Membership decline takes place because outreach efforts are not adjusted to reach the new demographic. Some of these church leaders have admitted to me that, “they don’t know how” to reach minorities.  I believe that many of these Pastors see the need and even develop helpful strategies, but receive push back when they share the necessary changes needed to reach the population.  Thus the reality is that several of these churches are facing an uncertain future.  Here are some questions for these churches to consider as they face the realities of a changing demographic:

  • Does your missional view include the Biblical reality that God loves ALL people and wants ALL to come to repentance? (James 2:1-8, Acts 10:34, John 13:34). The Great Commission to the church clearly includes “make disciples of ALL nations” (Matt 28:19), which I am pretty sure includes many within the 70% of population your church isn’t currently reaching.
  • Are you willing to make cathartic changes to be more intentional in outreach to minorities in your community?  Will you do whatever it takes to see souls saved regardless of race or ethnicity? This may include ESL classes, diversifying staff, or after school tutoring for disadvantages minorities in your community.  It is interesting to study to the book of Acts and see the progression of the Gospel from the Jews to the utter most parts of the earth.  Acts reveals the fierce love of God to all tribes, tongues and nations.  In it we see Phillip preaching to the Samaritans in chapter 8, Peter at the home of Cornelius in chapter 10,  the diversity of the church at Antioch in chapter 11, and Paul, Barnabas and Silas among the Gentiles throughout the remainder of the book.  The book of Acts reveals a strong message, souls do not have a color or ethnicity.  When the blood of redemption covers a soul, regardless of the skin color, all become crimson stained and righteous.
  • Will your welcome be more than words?  Simply handing a person a bulletin with a smile may not be enough.  The heart of your churches mission must not be simply words on a bulletin or church sign.  The heart of the mission must be extended through the hands and feet of the congregation to the community. Engaging them where they are, as they are, rather than what we wish them to be.  This will involve many SBC church members coming to grips with deep seeded wrongful views.

If the SBC is going to turn the trends upward with more baptisms, more members and growing ministries, it must come to grips with the new reality.  America is changing quickly and diversity is rapidly coming to communities all over the nation.  Churches can be troubled and threatened by this trend or embrace it as central to our mission. The Southern Baptist Convention will not change shrinking statistical trends unless many congregations embrace the exciting opportunities for outreach that a diverse population provides.  That Solemn Assembly I attended was encouraging and inspiring. May it be said that my denomination embraces a missional approach that secures a bright and exciting future filled with many more of these assemblies.

What Cancer CANNOT Do!

Over the past 3 weeks I have performed two funerals both involving people who received cancer diagnosis in the prime of their life.  I have personally seen the devastating effects that this disease has on people and their families.  I have been inspired by the determination of many who have faced treatments, surgeries, MRI’s and uncertain days due to a cancer diagnosis.  I have bought my share of t-shirts, armbands, ribbons and hats to support someone’s cancer fight.  I have prayed for many, sat beside hospital beds, given family counseling and offered spiritual support to likely hundreds of cancer patients in my years of ministry. I have seen what cancer can do, but lately I have given time to study what cancer cannot do.

Cancer is so personal to us because either we have received a diagnosis or know of someone who has.  Most of you reading this article have seen family members or close friends go through the difficulties of chemo and radiation.  The statistics reveal the prevalence of this disease:

  • In 2016, an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 595,690 people will die from the disease.
  • The number of new cases of cancer (cancer incidence) is 454.8 per 100,000 men and women per year (based on 2008-2012 cases).
  • Approximately 39.6% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes (based on 2010-2012 data).

Much time has been given to the affects cancer can have on a person’s body. Few people have written any information regarding what cancer CANNOT do to a person.  I pray that this will be of great encouragement to you and those you love.

Cancer cannot extinguish the Glory of God. Romans 8:18-19, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the GLORY he will give us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.” 

The glory of God speaks of his manifold presence, his radiance, his magnificent beauty.  Paul speaks in these verses of both a present and future glory.  The incredible reality of God’s presence here now and in heaven.  For us who live in the “now” we are susceptible to suffering and also in danger of losing a sense of this incredible glory. The scriptures consistently point to the reality of suffering and sickness while we are here on temporary assignment, and our lives are simply a temporary assignment.  The suffering that we face now has purpose, we may not see that now but one day we will understand.  Our limitations now point toward the unlimited grace and glory of God.  Only in our sufferings, discouragement and difficulties can we truly know the depth of the eternal longings planted deep within our souls.  For those whose bodies are fighting cancer, rest assured that it cannot diminish the manifold glory of God’s presence.  John saw the glory of God in Revelation 4 and described it this way: “I saw a throne is heaven and someone sitting on the throne. The one sitting on the throne was brilliant gemstones, jasper and carnelian.  And the glow of an emerald circled his throne like a rainbow.  Around the throne day and night they sing, “You are worthy, O God our God, to receive glory and honor and power.  For you created everything, and it is for your pleasure that they exist and were created.” Our sufferings point us to a Savior and the incredible reality that this home is not our REAL home.  God reveals his glory to us in our sufferings and reminds us that though the days are tough and the pain is real, it will not and cannot diminish or extinguish his splendor and glory.  It is available for us in the temporary and it will one day be in full display for eternity.

Cancer cannot take away our freedom in Christ. Romans 8: 23-25. “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.”   We wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children…we eagerly look forward to this freedom!   Though cancer can impact the body, it cannot impact the freedom Christ gives to us. That freedom is best understood not by looking at our aging and declining bodies, but by remembering that the work of God is best experienced in the soul and spirit.  Even in the midst of pain the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification is readying us for the day when His future glory will become ours. Cancer causes the flesh to fail, yet the soul will shine like the stars in the night sky as Christs’ redemptive work is taking its full affect.   Cancer can wreck the body, but it cannot touch your redeemed soul and it cannot impact your spirit. Paul says in verse 25, “we wait patiently and confidently.”  Yes, confidence even through the uncertainty of cancer, there can be contentment and confidence as we rest in the freedom which is to come.

Cancer cannot separate us from the love of Christ.  Romans 8: 35-37.  Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below–indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The world would say that if God loves us we wouldn’t ever get sick or have cancer or go through difficulties, however the scriptures tell us a different story.  Paul asks, “Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity?”  Overwhelming victory is ours even in suffering and sickness.  As horrible as cancer can be, it cannot overwhelm the love of Jesus Christ in a person’s life. Cancer ultimately reveals the love of Jesus more clearly for those who make the decision to dwell in it. Though our world may be failing around us if we will trust in the perpetual presence of His love, then His peace will soon follow.  “Life with God is not immunity from difficulties, but peace in difficulties.” -C.S. Lewis.

For that person fighting cancer, don’t give up, don’t give in.  Keep fighting, keep striving. But you should know, that for everything cancer IS doing to you, there is much it CANNOT do to you.  Cancer can only touch the temporary, but it cannot impact the eternal.  I am praying for you today. Praying that you will know His grace in the moments, His love in your doubts, his light in your darkest hours and his ever present hand that is holding yours. Hear his sweet voice as he whispers, “I have prepared you for this.”

 

 

 

 

Does your Church have Authentic Community?

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 
Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Philippians 2: 1-4

In recent years there has been a growing movement in American culture in which people are seeking spiritual experiences while intentionally disconnecting from the church.  Church involvement is declining while American fascination with spiritualism continues to increase.  The idea is that our spiritual life is individualistic and personal and can best be experienced in solitude and personal reflection.  Many Americans feel no compulsion to gather with other people in order to increase their spiritual connection.  This is a very dangerous path and most who go down this road will eventually find emptiness and faith that is void of substance.

For the Christian, we are designed for two main purposes:  To glorify and know God and to live in community with other believers who are seeking to do the same.

In the New Testament there is no such thing as Lone Ranger believer.  The NT writers were all strong proponents that believers should exist in community with other believers.  “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25. Though it can, at times, be messy and complicated, we are called to do life together as Christians. In Philippians 2, Paul clearly communicated this truth to the church.  In verses 1-4 he gives us a perfect description of the goals of Christian community.  In verse 1 he speaks of the “fellowship of the Spirit”, which is the mountain top of Christian community. The Greek word is koinōnia which speaks of sharing common fellowship with other believers based on the work of the Holy Spirit living in you.  This word represents the highest goal for real, authentic joyous Christian community.  Every church should be marked with this unique experience.  Only the Christian church can provide koinōnia. This kind of fellowship cannot be found in sports bars, community clubs, civic organizations or online chat groups.  We were created to live in fellowship with other believers and no place gives this type of opportunity like a local Christian fellowship.

Our culture is becoming less social and less personal.

We don’t take the time to get to know our neighbors or chat on the front porch. Americans are so addicted to their smartphones and technology that we have forgotten how beneficial it is to personally communicate with other people.  Our idea of being “social” these days means getting on Facebook and checking everyone’s status.  In studying congregations and church health I have found that the most effective and dynamic churches are the ones who have successfully cultivated faith into community within the life of the congregation. I believe our culture is starving itself through individualism and the absence of authentic community.  Authentic relationships will continue to become a growing desire for Americans.  Authentic community as seen in churches will become more attractive to non-Christians in the coming years as they see a group of people who genuinely care for one another and simply do life together. Believers and unbelievers alike all have the need for authentic community and no place in the world does it better than the local Christian church.

Yet some churches are struggling with authentic community.  There are churches that suffer from chronic division and God forbid that an unbeliever chooses to visit that church to find authentic relationships.  The threat of individualism among church members needs to be addressed and corrected.  In other words, if believers are simply grabbing their Bibles and sitting in a pew each week without taking part in Christian fellowship they are missing an important part of God’s purpose for them. Some Christians will not seek to be builders of fellowship and relationships due to their own insecurities or fears of feeling vulnerable. Past hurts have eradicated their desire for community and the devil’s strong grip on their life remains.

I remember singing that old hymn on Sunday mornings when I was a child, “There’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place and I know that its the presence of the Lord. There are sweet expressions on each face and I know they feel the presence of the Lord.”  Those words still resonate in my heart as I recall the sweet spirit found in my home church.  People caring for people, believers loving believers.

What should be the marks of Christian community?

  1.  Authentic concern for other’s well being. “Let each of you look out not only for his own interest, but also for the interest of others.” Phil 2:4.  The story is told of an older lady who made frequent trips to the local post office. One day she confronted a long line of people who were waiting for service from the postal clerks. She only needed stamps, so a helpful observer asked, “Why don’t you use the stamp machine? You can get all the stamps you need and you won’t have to stand in line.” the lady said, “I know, but the machine can’t ask me about my arthritis.”  Life is messy, difficult and down right painful at times.  The Christian experience should be marked with care and compassion for those around us, especially those we share church membership.  In writing to a church Paul encouraged the Romans to “Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” Romans 12:15.
  2. Authentic concern for each other’s spiritual growth. “From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” Eph 4:16. A few years ago we bought our children a fish aquarium. When we went to the pet store to buy fish a store employee was helping us choose the right kind.  One particular fish caught my attention and I said, “We will take one of those.”  The employee said, “You can’t just take one, you need to take at least two.  This type of fish needs other of its species to grow and flourish.”  We left that day with two of that type of fish.  What was true of that fish is also true of Christians, we really do need each other in order to become all that God wants us to be.  As Paul says to the Ephesians, when the whole body does its work together it builds itself up and promotes growth among its members!
  3. Authentic accountability for other’s spiritual edification. “Yes, I also ask you, TRUE partner, to help these women who have contended for the gospel at my side, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the book of life.” Philippians 4:3.  Paul consistently called on fellow believers to correct one another throughout his letters. “Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.” Galatians 6:1.  If our fellow believers will not correct us then who will?  In Christian fellowship there should be an expectation that accountability will be an essential part of authentic community. We should submit our spiritual lives to one another knowing that “Iron sharpens iron.” Solomon wisely states, “For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.” Eccl. 4:10.

The Christian Dilemma: Balancing Grace and Truth

In 1997 pastor Ken Smith of University Reformed Presbyterian Church sat down and wrote a letter to the most unlikely recipient.  Dr. Rosaria Champaign was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University and widely renowned as a scholar in feminist theory.  Dr. Champaign was a lesbian, a LBGTQ activist and outspoken critic of the “religious right”.  She had written a scathing article on the Promise Keepers movement and Christianity in general regarding their “politics and hatred toward people like me.”  Her article generated a big response both of support and criticism.  As would be expected the critical letters came from Christians which only furthered her anger and skepticism toward the church and Christianity in general.  While most were quickly read and tossed in the trash one letter in particular intrigued Rosaria, it was the letter from Pastor Ken.  The letter was not filled with criticism or “I need to set you straight”, it was written with compassion and, as Rosaria describes, “graciousness.”   The letter asked thought provoking questions that the accomplished scholar had never considered and it ended with the simple invitation, “come and join my family for dinner.”

Some of her colleagues encouraged her to visit with Pastor Ken because it would be “good for her research.”  That evening at dinner pastor Ken and his wife Floy did not try and conform her to their beliefs nor did they share the gospel.  They simply began a relationship with her and maintained it over the coming months.  She began reading the Bible and meeting regularly with Pastor Ken and his wife.  At first she read the Bible for research as she prepared to write a scholarly article on the “religious right” but soon she found herself immersed in the beauty of God’s word.  Through the relationship with genuine believers and the power of God’s Word Dr. Rosaria Champaign asked Christ into her heart.  She would leave her homosexual life and would later marry a pastor and today Rosaria Champaign Butterfield is a shining witness for Christ as she displays the power of conversion.  Her book Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert tells of her journey to Christ and the unlikely road she travelled to find eternal purpose.   If it had not been for Pastor Ken and his wife and their perfect balance of showing grace while infusing truth, she likely would never have been exposed to the love of Christ.

The Christian church has not always been effective at finding the equilibrium of grace and truth.  In our history, the pendulum has often swung to one extreme.  On the one hand too much grace is a license for liberty where choices of morality are left to the whim and flavor of the individual.  For a Christian to show only grace to a sinner is akin to knowing someone has cancer and never telling them or offering them medical treatment. The other extreme offers too much truth which leads to legalism and a rigid pharisaicalism.  Thus, the Christian dilemma.  How can Christians find the perfect balance of grace and truth?  I will admit I have not always been very good at this.  I have often used the phrase, “hate the sin and not the sinner.”  Yet, in reality I will admit that my heart has burned with anger toward certain groups and particularly world views that ridicule the things I most dearly love and cherish regarding my faith. Don’t get me wrong, I SHOULD be bothered by the effects of sin and Satan.  It should bother me that millions are ambivalent to the gospel and refuse to hear the truth of Christ.  But, why are they ambivalent to the truth of Christ?  Could it be that we have not presented it very well to them? After all, what if a homosexual couple walked into your church Sunday?  How would that go in your congregation?  Rosaria Butterfield speaks of how she, for weeks, would sit in her car across from Pastor Ken’s church because she was scared of how the congregants would respond to her.  When she finally got out of her car and walked in she was shocked to find people who were genuinely welcoming and loving toward her.  It is not that we have to love the choices that a person is making, but we MUST make a choice to love the person.  Where does the Christian look for the perfect balance of grace and love and how do we begin to implement it in our life?  The answer is found in John 1: 14-17.  The first 18 verses of the gospel is a prequel to the gospel narrative.  John sums up his own understanding of Christ in these verses.  In verse 14 we read, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed his Glory, the Glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of GRACE and TRUTH.”  And in verses 16 and 17 John speaks of how we have received “grace upon grace” through Christ and how “GRACE and TRUTH came through Jesus Christ.”  Jesus was and is the perfect mix of grace and truth.

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.  This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people, even eating with them!”  Luke 15: 1-2 NLT.  Jesus would combat their complaints with three beautiful parables that perfectly illustrate God’s love for those who are broken.  The parable of the shepherd, the coin and the lost son all reflect something lost, someone seeking and the remarkable and joyous celebration once they are united.   The ministry of Jesus exhibited grace to those whom the church refused to give it.  To the woman at the well he offered “living water”, to the one caught in adultery he would save her from condemnation and offer her a better way.  To Zacchaeus he gave hope and purpose, to Mary Magdalene, he shewed away 7 demons.  To the sinful woman with the alabaster jar, he simply offered himself and the list goes on and on.   Grace was even shown to those who crucified him.  Jesus continually offered grace upon grace to those whom the religious leaders scorned.  “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do.  I have come to call sinners to turn from their sins, not to spend my time with those who think they are already good enough.” Luke 5:31 NLT.

Yet grace alone would not have been sufficient enough.  If salvation is seen as a house, grace would be the welcome mat and truth would be the door in which one enters the house of God.  While offering grace to the Samaritan woman in John 4 he confronts her sin, after chasing away the adulterous woman’s accusers he tells her to “go and sin no more.”  Salvation came to Zacchaeus but only after he was willing to give his wealth away.  Speaking of truth Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” John 14:6. 

Christians must come to a place of perfect equilibrium between grace and truth, light instead of heat.  Our anger must be directed at the one who has caused the mess and not the one dealing with messy things.  The angriest response we see of Christ was in confronting the money changers in the temple.  He didn’t get angry with the sinners, he was angry with the church leaders.  His response to the broken and lost was always predictable, he showed grace, love and compassion.  “He felt great pity for the crowds that came, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36.  What if Rosario Champaign were to walk into your church this Sunday?  How would you respond?  What if she is sitting in the office next to you every day at work?  Have your ever established a relationship with her?  The world should recognize us by our love, compassion and grace. It seems the world only knows what Christians are against and not what we can offer.  And when they recognize our grace, we will then and only then have opportunity to infuse the truth of the Gospel.  Our churches must be hospitals for the sick while dispensing the truth that can make them well.  The answer to our dilemma is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Show grace to someone today, it very well may give you opportunity to share truth tomorrow.

 

Lessons of a Failed Governor

During the 2010 Gubernatorial race I was intrigued by the dermatologist from Tuscaloosa on the Republican ticket, Dr. Robert Bentley.  He seemed so un-political, so genuine and well, nice.  He captured the hearts of many Alabamians with his clever slogan, “Alabama is sick and it needs a doctor” and his promise to not take a salary until things turned around.  Through my ministerial network I learned good things about him, mainly how he had taught a Sunday school class at FBC Tuscaloosa for years, how he often shared the Gospel with his patients and of his reputation as a fine Christian gentlemen.  Therefore, both in the primary and general election I proudly cast my vote for Dr. Bentley. He was the underdog in the primary beating out GOP favorite Bradley Byrne and then defeating a challenge from Democrat Ron Sparks.  As a Christian, particularly an Alabama Baptist, I felt proud as I watched him deliver his victory speech.  I remember thinking, “this guy is one of us”.  His first four years were promising as he brought jobs to Alabama and got the economy moving again.  I watched him minister to the people of my hometown with Christian compassion after the tragic day of April 27, 2011.  In January of 2013,  I attended a pastor’s prayer breakfast in Montgomery and heard him speak passionately of his strong faith in the Lord and even had the pleasure of a five minute chat afterwards along with a photo opportunity.

As word began to leak early in 2014 about possible ethic and moral failures, I first brushed them off and labeled them as “political opposition”. But as time went on the accusations became louder and more distinct.  I remember the day I heard of the ALEA helicopter flying his wallet to the beach,  his wife filing for divorce, and more rumors of corruption and ethic law violations, wow.  Unfolding before me was the very public downfall of a man for which I voted in four different elections, my heart broke.  It isn’t surprising that an Alabama government official failed the public, that is becoming all too common.  My heart broke not for a failed governor, but for the failure of a fifty year Christian marriage and the undoing of a fellow brother in Christ.  As a matter of fact, all fellow believers should be brokenhearted.  This is so much bigger than politics and the state of Alabama, this is about a fellow believer, a redeemed man who made really bad decisions.  I know that some will say, “no Christian acts that way” or “I am not even sure he is a Christian.”  Yet, I am reminded of James 4:12,God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?” I can certainly judge him on his actions as a Christian brother, but I should never question a man’s eternal standing, that job belongs to the “one who has the power to save or destroy.”

The New York times recently published an article entitled, “For Alabama Christians, Gov. Bentley’s Downfall is a Bitter Blow”. In that article, Bentley is described as a man that Christians in Alabama put much hope to which now has become a “bitter blow”.  While I agree that it does hurt,  Bentley’s fall is so much bigger than heartache for a segment of our state’s population.  The fall of a godly man is much more serious than a “bitter blow”, it breaks the heart of God.  Truthfully, it should break every believers heart.  Not because Robert Bentley is a high profile person, but because he is a man for which God sent his Son to die.  The “bitter blow” may be felt by some in Alabama, but it is most importantly felt in heaven.  Yet, the biblical truth is that God still loves Robert Bentley and offers forgiveness and total cleansing.  The Lord doesn’t see him as Governor Bentley, he simply sees him as a son. I picture the Lord as the father in Luke 15 waiting on Robert Bentley to return home. If Dr. Bentley will humble himself, confess and repent of his sins, the promise of Scripture is “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.  It is my honest prayer that my brother in Christ will run to the cross and find healing and restoration.  Being the governor of Alabama is of little importance when compared to being in good standing with the creator of the Universe. Every believer should join together and pray for our brother. “…but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘today’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13.  

What lessons can Christians learn from Governor Bentley’s Failure?

  1. Surround yourself with Christians who will hold you accountable.Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6: 1-2.  It is critical that we create a circle of accountability around us and watch out for one another’s spiritual well being. One has to wonder if the governor had such a circle around him and if he did, why didn’t a brother have a heart-to-heart with him?  Did someone try and he wasn’t willing to listen?  Had he isolated himself so much that it become difficult for a fellow Christian to reach him? A strong accountability circle will simply not allow a fellow soldier to fall without a fight.  Every Christian needs fellow soldiers who will stand with them in life’s spiritual battles.  Do you have someone in your life who will give you “honest talk”?  Do you surround yourself with those who walk in integrity and have strong Christian character?
  2. Pride is perhaps the greatest sin and it comes into our lives gradually.Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.” James 4:10.  For a believer, down is up and up is down.  As we lower ourselves in humility before the Lord, he then lifts us up and gives our lives the greatest of meaning and joy.  It was the temptation of pride to which  Satan used to trip all of mankind (Genesis 3:1-5).  If enough people pat you on the back the risk is that you will begin to believe them. “For pride is a spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love or contentment, or even common sense.” -C.S. Lewis.  Lewis is correct, when pride creeps in we lose our ability of common sense and more important, spiritual sensitivity. When we exalt ourselves, we de-throne Christ from our hearts and our lives become a tail spin of mismanagement, mistakes and corruption.  Don’t let power or pride creep into your life, the results could be disastrous. 
  3. Invest more time in your marriage than any other relationship.  If you are spending more time with someone else of the opposite sex that doesn’t share your last name, the moral failure is surely around the corner.  Paul reminds us men to “love your wives as Christ loves the church.” Eph 5:25.  For both husband and wife there must be on display perpetual Christian devotion to one another that is rooted in the love of Christ.  The failings of the governor has reminded me of the primacy of my relationship with my spouse.  No other woman in the world should know my deepest secrets, biggest fears and grandest dreams.  I should share no intimacy with another except the one to which the Lord has given me. 
  4. The truth, regardless of how embarrassing and painful, will always be your best friend.  Solomon reminds us bluntly that “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth.” Prov. 12:22.  There were many times in the past four years when simply telling the truth would have been a better choice for our governor, but it was not to be.  Every falsehood will eventually be revealed and all lies will, in time, come back to haunt you.  If you have failed, admit it.  Don’t cover up sin through lying and falsehoods.  Sin covered up by sin is a double portion of poison to the soul.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

A Cyrenian, a Criminal and a Centurion: The Power of the Cross

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. Isaiah 53: 4-5 NLT

As we celebrate Holy Week together we are reminded today that the greatest hope and healing was provided by Jesus Christ on the cross.  The healing provided for us by Jesus was not a temporary fix or simply an event to help you get through hard times.  On a Friday afternoon 2,000 years ago on a hill called Calvary all of the griefs, sorrows, corruption and failures of mankind collided with the grace, mercy and unconditional love of God.  Isaiah wrote these verses 600 years before the birth of Christ and yet his description of the cross event in chapter 53 could have been recorded by an eye witness.  Isaiah says that Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.  He was “wounded” and “bruised” and “Chastised” and “Striped” all because of OUR iniquities, OUR transgressions.   Isaiah would later say in verse 10 that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him and put him through grief” and in verse 11, “When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus we find 3 unlikely people who were profoundly touched by the power of the cross.

Luke 23: 26-47

The Cyrenian- A Person on a Religious Journey.  V. 26. As Jesus begins the “Via Dolorosa”, he was already in a place of great physical weakness. He had spent a night contemplating divine wrath to which Mark records, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”.  In front of Caiaphas, he would be struck time again, blindfolded and mocked, scourged with the flagellum whip to which his skin would have been flayed open.  As he began the walk from Pilate’s court to Golgatha upon his shoulders was thrust a patibulum, the 100 pound cross beam, his strength left him and he fell.  The beam landed beside the feet of a very surprised North African man named Simon from Cyrene.  The scripture informs us that “they laid hold of a certain man named Simon who was on his way from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.”  Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention Simon’s roll in this drama for a distinct purpose.  Simon, in many ways, reveals to us the expectation for every person who calls themselves a disciple of Christ.  We too are called to “take up our cross and follow him”.

If today you don’t feel the weight of the cross on your soul, if there is no sacrifice then you aren’t properly following him.  Charles Spurgeon said, “There are no crown wearers in heaven who were not first cross bearers on earth.”

Simon was a man on a religious journey.  He came to Jerusalem from North Africa to celebrate the Jewish Passover.  He had likely brought his family to the Holy city, like most sojourners he would have purchased a Passover lamb at the market and was in preparation for finding a place for his family to lodge and celebrate. The Bible says he was “Coming in from the country” directly to the spot where Jesus fell that day.  Simon trudged the way of sorrows with the blood of Jesus likely dripping from the cross beam onto his body.  He arrived at Golgatha and dropped the beam.  On that beam they placed Jesus and I can imagine Simon watching the events that followed. His heart was moved by what he saw and his religious journey found its destination. In the Gospel of Mark, Simon of Cyrene is listed as “the father of Rufus and Alexander” (15:21).  Mark named Simon’s sons likely because Simon and his family were known to the Christian community to which his gospel was written.  Most scholars agree that Simon left that day forever changed.  Simon, a man on a religious journey found more than a religious experience, he encountered the ultimate lover of his soul and committed his life to him.

There are many who are on a religious journey looking for hope. Their religious journeys have only yielded experiences, rituals and promises of hope.  Yet when you meet Jesus and encounter the cross your religious journey gives way to a life changing relationship with the living God.  People on religious journeys are seeking ways to get to God, yet the Bible reveals that God sent his son so that he could seek us.

The Criminal – A Person who needed Hope. V.39-43.  There were two criminals crucified with Jesus, one on either side.  Ironically, it was customary that the center cross was reserved for the criminal with the worst of crimes and on this day a perfect man was placed upon it.  It is possible that the two criminals were a part of the band of robbers and insurrectionist that ran with Barabbas.  Mark informs us that BOTH criminals joined the soldiers and throngs of people and hurled insults toward the center cross (Mark 15:32).  On top of the immense pain of the cross, Jesus was being insulted by the Romans soldiers at his feet, the hundreds amassed below in the crowd and to add to his grief, now even the men on either side of him joined the tongue lashing.  In Luke’s account we learn that after a while one of the criminals fell silent while the other continued to mock him.  “One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you are the Messiah, are you?  Prove it by saving yourself and us, too, while you are at it!”  A man at the point of death hung beside the one who would eventually overthrow death.  The criminal shared no words of regrets, no remorse, no repentance or guilt, no concern for Jesus.  And Jesus in turn, offered him no words, only silence.

The other criminal stopped speaking and now only listened to the words of Jesus from the cross.  He spoke up and in a stunning turn of events, “Don’t you fear God when you are dying?  We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And then turning to Jesus with a humble heart asked, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”  And in reply the words of Christ, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

A man with a death sentence found life.  A guilty man would soon stand in the presence of God with no guilt.  Though his body was bound by the nails of the cross, his soul found freedom.  Though his lungs struggled for air, his soul was nourished with the life giving power of Jesus Christ.

With Christ there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.   For those who feel their mistakes are too big and beyond forgiveness the criminal on the cross forever stands as a lasting image that “anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. Romans 10:13.  Even though our sins are great, even though our sins and failures are glaring and perpetual, when faced with the glory and grace of Calvary our sins become white as snow.

The Centurion- An unlikely Worshiper. V. 47. A Centurion is a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers, thus the title Centurion.  Crucifixions were carried out by the Romans, and the local regiment stationed in Jerusalem were obviously in charge of such executions. While there is no way of knowing for sure we can assume that this centurion had seen and led many such crucifixions, and likely had become hardened to the whole experience.  It would likely had been him who stood by supervising the flogging of Christ and allowed his soldiers to place a robe and crown of thorns on Jesus before presenting him to the crowd. As a hardened war man he was probably not religious and had heard stories about Jesus, he was certainly no fan of the Jews and no follower of Christ.  He stood by as his soldiers gambled for the clothes of Jesus, he was silent as the criminals hurled insults at the center cross and he would eventually be the one to thrust his sword into the side of Jesus to confirm his death.

He was, in the greatest sense, the least likely person to be spiritually moved on that day. His persona was cold, his heart hardened, his hands had killed many men in his lifetime.  Yet, on this day, at this time this unlikely worshiper glorified God.  All of the synoptic gospels record his response at the climax of the event.  Both Matthew and Mark record his words as “Surely this man was the Son of God.” While Luke adds that he Glorified God or worshiped God and proclaimed that this man was “righteous or innocent.”  When you combine the three narratives you get one powerful picture of a war hardened executioner broken at the foot of the cross.

He had stood by as his soldiers beat, mocked, shamed, spat upon, flayed the skin off of Jesus and nailed him to a cross.  And yet he heard Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  He felt the earthquake and heard the rending of the Temple. He saw the sky darkened and heard Jesus say, “It is finished.”  His response was proclamation and glorification.

Three men, all from different backgrounds, different stories.  One was on a Religious journey, one was dying desperately in need of hope and one was working, yet all were immeasurably changed by Jesus Christ.  All three participated, all three were impacted by the cross.  That brings me to this question, how has the cross of Jesus Christ impacted YOU?

“But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.”