Farewell My Friend

Jesus on CrossGreater love has no one than this,  that someone lay down his life for his friends.

                                                                                                                            John 15:13 (ESV)

The digital age we live in is truly amazing. It has enabled me to land two jobs with companies I never set foot in before being hired. In both cases, I was recruited online, interviewed by phone and hired sight unseen.

I worked a total of over seven years in these positions, all the while communicating via email telephone and Skype and exchanging data through encrypted virtual private networks. I visited each company only once. When I was born in 1955, such technologies existed only in the minds of science fiction writers. Today they’re quite common.

One of the most amazing digital wonders I’ve enjoyed is having cultivated three good friendships with individuals whom I’ve never met face-to-face. I’m not speaking about Facebook friendships either. These friendships are with people whom I’ve shared things about my life and theirs of the sort that can only be shared with people you trust.

I was recently shocked to learn that one of these friends, Bob, has been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer that will take his life in a few short months.

Bob is a good man who has spent much of his life working to make others’ lives easier.   Sadly, I know that being good isn’t enough. He has not been open to believing the Gospel message and remains to this day an agnostic.

Bob is spending his last days surrounded by family, many of whom practice the Serbian Orthodox form of the Christian faith. Please join me in praying that during this time of transition his heart might be opened to receive Christ, so that in the final hour he might say:

“The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing”                                      

                                                                                                                                2 Tim. 4:6-8 (ESV)

What awaits Christians in a Post-Christian America?

The Stoning of St. Stephen by Bernardo Daddi [1324]

The Stoning of St. Stephen
by Bernardo Daddi (1324)

Over the past several days I’ve heard and read a number of Christians expressing their dismay over the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage the law of the land. The decision should not have come as a shock to anyone. The vote was only the affirmation of a social movement that has been quickly gathering speed for at least a decade.

What the vote did succeed in doing was to remove any remaining doubt that America has entered a post-Christian era of its history. Christians are now a minority with diminishing cultural and political influence. Whether or not we become a hated minority will be determined by our actions.

Gallup conducts a poll on American morals and beliefs each May. Polling data from the last decade indicate a significant shift to the left on a number of controversial social issues, including divorce, abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, gay marriage and human embryonic stem cell research. This shift is, at least in part, a product of the growing wave of moral relativism that has permeated the America media and many American Christian denominations at least since the free love movement of the 1960’s and perhaps earlier.

The term describes a paradigm shift from the completeness of Christian Scripture to so-called progressive revelation. Relativism insists that the Scriptures did not fully provide theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical and other knowledge from the beginning. Rather, God gradually reveals new truths over time whenever humanity is capable of receiving it.

This philosophy is splitting many mainstream Christian denominations today through a continual reinterpretation of the scriptures that increasingly waters down God’s word to the point it becomes socially irrelevant. Moral relativism enables the social justification of anything and everything, from immodest clothing and casual sex to the extremes of abortion, euthanasia and even pagan religions.

I would caution advocates of social change in America, on the left and right, to remember that freedom is not the ability to do whatever you please. That is the definition of anarchy. Freedom is the ability for people to coexist by following a set of rules based upon an accepted moral code. If morals in America are not to be based upon Christian beliefs, then on whose beliefs will they be based? This discussion has barely begun.

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.
                                          Isaiah 59:14-15

The Rev. Franklin Graham has expressed concern that the Supreme Court ruling will lead to Christian persecution. Perhaps he is correct and perhaps not. Christians wishing to know why the table has turned against them so quickly need look no farther than their own houses. It happened, as God says in the first chapter of the book of Haggai, “Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.” Christians should get their own act together before worrying about what the Supreme Court is doing.

We Christians are free to blame anyone we choose for American society’s woes, but we should start by taking a good look in the mirror. We bear a good deal of the blame. Many of today’s social and cultural problems could be reduced and in some cases eliminated if Christians would just start living like Christ taught us.

Once a person accepts God’s gift of salvation by placing faith in Christ as his personal Savior, something important happens. Like it or not, that individual becomes a walking billboard for Christ to all of the unbelievers he knows. What unbelievers see in this Christian’s behavior serves to either honor or dishonor Christ. Does the Christian strive to be more Christ-like, as the Bible teaches, or does he simply fall in and conform to the secular world’s pursuit of wealth, position, power and other forms of self-gratification? A Christian’s behavior should reflect the Gospel to unbelievers—actions speak louder than words.”

The persecution of Christians in America might come someday. To some degree I suppose it has already begun. I’ve spoken with numerous Christians who say they dare not mention their faith at work for fear of losing their jobs. Christians, if we don’t change, could someday become a hated minority, just as the Jews were hated in Nazi Germany. Some will inevitably shrink away in public; hiding their faith and becoming sort of “closet Christians.” Others might ignore Christ’s example and turn militant.

As I wrote last October, Christianity has historically endured its greatest tests and proven strongest and most effective when operating from a position of weakness within society as a whole.  Jesus was the perfect example of this. The son of God allowed Himself to be crucified, and in so doing took all of the sins of mankind upon himself. In all of history there is no greater example of love than this.

What Christians in America have today is an opportunity—not an opportunity to debate or reverse the court’s decision. It is an opportunity to show love. We can follow the recent example of many of the family members of victims of Charleston Emanuel AME Church shootings; they publicly forgave the shooter. It is not a time for erecting barriers. We should be reaching out in love to those who disagree with us. We can do this without sacrificing our beliefs or principles.

Around 312 A.D, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, Rome recognized Christianity as a legal religion.   This remarkable feat, going from persecuted underground church to a legal religion recognized by the Empire, was accomplished not through violent revolution, but by years of adhering to the tenets of the faith while suffering terrible persecution.

“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
                         ―James Russell Lowell

Easing the Pain of Unemployment

Jobless-not-hopelessYou take my life when you do take the means whereby I live. –William Shakespeare

In Romans chapter 12, St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (ESV) Many churches attempt to follow his advice by hosting various support groups. There are groups for addiction recovery, divorcees, singles and those grieving the death of a loved one to name a few.

Unfortunately, there is another group in great need of support, but often overlooked by church ministries—the unemployed. Most people who become unemployed go through a series of emotional stages resembling this.

Initially, there is the shock of losing a job. This might initially give way to denial or disbelief like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” This sometimes gives way to feelings of anger or outrage towards those deemed responsible for the job loss. As the anger slowly subsides, sadness can follow. If the period of unemployment is prolonged, sadness can lead to the onset of depression. Isolation from others during this period worsens the situation.

To varying degrees, all of us derive some sense of worth from the jobs we do and the relationships we have. Losing a job can be every bit as devastating as a divorce or the loss of a loved one.

Those who have lost their jobs are in tremendous need of contact with and the support of others. This is where churches can weigh in for the unemployed. Options for helping are limited only by the imagination. The ShareFaith website published a very useful article in 2011 titled “Seven Ways to Help the Unemployed in Your Church.” You can find it at this link: http://www.sharefaith.com/blog/2011/12/ways-unemployed-church/.

I particularly like suggestion #4, “Provide free workshops.” Workshops are a fantastic way to help your church’s unemployed. But why stop there? Unemployment in your local area opens the door to a church ministry reaching beyond the pale of your own churchyard. Consider forming a job networking group reaching out to the entire community.

The north Pittsburgh area where I live has two fantastic, faith-centered job networking groups that have helped hundreds cope with unemployment over the years. Both began as ministries inside the church, but grew into nonprofit, community outreach ministries. Check them out and then start thinking about how your church can form its own job networking group. There can never be too many!

 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. —Galatians 6:2 (ESV)

Enduring Truths for Recent Grads

Originally posted on Divine Simplicity:

Graduate [2]

A couple of years ago I wrote an article  for my newspaper column with some advice for recent grads.  It has become one of the most popular pieces I ever wrote. I received dozens of emails thanking me for writing it.    I therefore decided to  re-publish it annually around graduation time.  I hope some of you find it useful.  You can view the original article at this link:  http://goo.gl/LtN72

For those who are graduating high school this year and beginning the long transition into adulthood, I’d like to offer you a gift. Here are five enduring truths I’ve learned. They will help you through life’s journey.

Choices

“If you decide to just go with the flow, you’ll end up where the flow goes, which is usually downhill, often leading to a big pile of sludge and a life of unhappiness. You’ll end up doing what everyone else is doing.” ― Sean Covey, The 7 Habits…

View original 887 more words

Did Jesus laugh?

Laughing Baby

I recently listened to a program on Christian talk radio debating whether or not Jesus ever laughed. After all, doesn’t the book of Isaiah tell us that Jesus was a “Man of Sorrows?” Does that imply that He was serious all the time he walked on the Earth?

Many non-believers view Christians as a solemn, dull bunch of people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I grew up a Southern Baptist. A big part of Baptist culture, especially in the south where I lived, centers on shared meals—not just eating but reveling in the joy of sharing a big meal with a group of fellow believers. These gatherings tend to be loud, happy events full of smiles and laughter.

When I was growing up, Sunday afternoons after church frequently consisted of friends and family gathering at my grandparent’s house. Most of the ladies teamed up to prepare a grand southern feast while the rest of the folk conversed, shared family news and stories, discussed the weather and politics, told jokes and simply enjoyed being together. Of course there were many smiling faces and much laughter. It was a noisy, joyful place to be as a young child.

If we accept the Biblical accounts of Jesus life as a fully human child, we must at a minimum concede that He smiled, even though the Bible never mentions it. Following His conception Jesus grew in Mary’s womb, as any baby grows and He was born in a normal fashion. Anyone who has cared for a baby knows that babies smile. High resolution sonograms have shown that some even smile while in the womb.

We also know that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The shortest passage in the Bible is an account of Jesus becoming overwhelmed by emotion while standing before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had recently died.

Jesus also displayed anger. John 2:13-17, describes Him becoming outraged at the moneychangers and those selling animals in the courtyard of the temple. John describes how Jesus improvised a whip and went on a rampage, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and chasing away those selling the animals.

How could anyone with such normal human traits not laugh? Just look at some of those who Jesus chose as his first disciples. They included a bunch of roughneck fishermen, a conniving tax collector, a hot-headed Zealot and a manipulative liar—a motley crew if ever there was one! It must have made Jesus chuckle when he considered what the Jewish leaders must have thought think about this unlikely team.

How He must have laughed when hearing some of his disciples debating which one would hold the most honored position in heaven. I can just see our Lord turning to them and saying, “Are you kidding me? I can’t believe how dense you guys are. Please start paying better attention.”

To put things in a modern perspective, imagine that Jesus had come today instead of two thousand years ago. If he had appeared in the area where I live near Pittsburgh, Pa., I imagine he would have chosen a few mill workers to be on his team of disciples. I can almost see Him walking into a neighborhood taproom, going up to the bar, and speaking to a couple of local fellows sitting there enjoying a few bottles of Iron City beer.  Follow me!

Unlikely disciples perhaps, but not so different from some of those he chose two millennia ago. It makes me smile just thinking about it. I pray that Jesus can find a little humor in the way I live today. I hope I can make him laugh now and then.

Click the link to listen to Thomas Rhett’s “Beer with Jesus.”

Radical Christianity

Jesus Calms the Storm

And Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea,

“Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

                                                                           —Mark 4:39*

Today it is nearly impossible to read a newspaper or watch a TV newscast without hearing something about “radical Islam.” The images of beheadings, torture, human rights abuses of women and the ethnic cleansing of Christians and other religious minorities send chills down one’s spine.

Our political leaders can’t agree on a proper response to radical Islam, but they all seem to agree that doing nothing is not a viable option. Many push for military action—even all out war. Others see diplomacy as the answer.  I believe the only effective response to radical Islam is radical Christianity.

History has shown that nothing can be more effective than Christianity in its purest form. It was radical Christianity that survived by hiding in the catacombs beneath Rome and slowly emerged to peacefully convert it from a pagan empire to a nation united under the banner of Jesus Christ. It was radical Christianity that led a small group of religiously oppressed pilgrims to establish a colony near Plymouth Rock.

Today it is radical Christianity that leads missionaries to leave the comforts of life in America to spread the Gospel in places where they face persecution and even death. It drives some men and women to refuse to renounce their faith in Christ, even if it means being tortured or killed.

Radical Christianity can counter radical Islam. What could be more radical than a religion that professes God became incarnate in human flesh, born of a virgin for the sole purpose of suffering a hideous death to set mankind free from sin?

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. —Romans 5: 7-8

What could be more radical than a religion that professes that there are no “good” people; that all men have sinned and fall short in the eyes of God; that it is impossible to earn one’s way into heaven?

…as it is written, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” —Roman: 7-8

What could be more radical than a religion that professes that salvation and eternal life are given freely by God to those who accept Jesus as their personal savior, profess that He is the son of God, believe that he died for the forgiveness of their sins and rose from the dead, and ask him into their lives?

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. —Ephesians 2: 8-9  

A U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf recently came under intense criticism when she suggested one way to counter Islamic terrorism was through helping terrorists find jobs. She went on to suggest that “We can’t kill our way out of a way.” Now perhaps this is a bit simplistic, but Jesus’ radicalism turns logic on its head when he says:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.   —Matthew 5:43-45

While our elected officials seek various solutions for curbing radical Islam, radical Christians can follow Christ’s example and pray for our enemies. Adopt a Terrorist for Prayer is a radical Christian approach to countering radical Islam (www.atfp.org) through prayer. The organization’s website explains the approach as follows:

The Christian Response: Where is the Christian response to terrorism? If the struggle against violence done in the name of Islam is primarily spiritual, then defeating it requires a spiritual response.

Overcoming Fear: Terrorism inspires fear. According to Jesus, the antidote to fear is love. When we hate, we are reactive victims. When we love we have the initiative.  Love for country helps soldiers to risk their lives. Love for children enables parents to discipline them without being intimidated. Love for us took Jesus to the cross. Love for enemies will give courage to face, overcome, and transform them and the environment that breeds them.

Historical Precedent: Historically, Stephen was the first fatality in terrorism directed against Jesus’ followers. As Stephen died from stoning, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Later, Paul, who had supervised Stephen’s stoning, met Jesus in a vision and repented. Can we pray today like Stephen prayed then? Would Paul have repented if Stephen hadn’t prayed?

Are you willing to get radical for Christ? Visit the ATFP website and adopt a terrorist for prayer.

*All Bible quotes are taken from the English Standard Version   

Don’t Worry be Happy

Madonna and Child“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

A few years ago singer-songwriter Bobby McFerrin composed a great little song titled “Don’t worry be happy.” His lyrics advise us:

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy!

Sounds like some sound advice doesn’t it? However, McFerrin might have better named his tune “Don’t worry be joyful.” Joy and happiness are often used interchangeably, but there is quite a difference in their meanings—especially for Christians.

Happiness is an emotion that arises from external factors, either objects, circumstances or other people. Many people chase after happiness, often taking incredible risks to capture this elusive prey.  From the beginning of time man has sought happiness through a variety of means—romance, travel, adventure, possessions, work, wealth, fame, power, good looks, drugs, sex and countless others—but all fall short.  As King Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes, all these are “vanity.”

Chasing after happiness is like chasing a wave at the beach. You might get your hands around it for a moment, but it eventually slips through your fingers because happiness is fleeting.  Attaining lasting happiness is impossible in a fallen world, where decay, sickness and death visit everyone. Even Jesus is, as Isaiah tells us, a “man of sorrows.” Upon his shoulders God placed the burden of the sins of all mankind.

Joy, on the other hand, comes from within. One characteristic of Christian joy is a growing feeling of confidence in God’s promise that He will never forsake us. For mature Christians, finding joy is possible even during the unhappiest times because as our faith grows we come to understand that God will carry us through every time of tribulation. This is illustrated clearly by Paul and Silas, who we see praying and singing hymns to God in Acts 16, only a short time after they have been beaten and unjustly thrown in prison.

Along with Christian joy comes a sense of contentment. St. Paul describes this in Philippians 4:11-13:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (ESV)

As Christians mature and learn to be content in the various situations they find themselves, their worries will begin to dissipate when they place them in God’s hands. The American poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell said, “Let us be of good cheer, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which will never happen.”

Worry is a waste of time that would be more wisely spent devoted to prayer. The next time you find yourself worrying about something, get on your knees and lift those worries up in prayer. Don’t worry, be joyful!

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. —Romans 15-13 (ESV)

Click-to-Listen: “Don’t Worry be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

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