Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

fence

Most of us are too busy living to spend time contemplating death and dying, but avoidance is not a long-term strategy for dealing with death.

Death has a way of intruding without warning, commanding immediate attention. We drop everything, travel, make phone calls, send flowers and cards to acknowledge that someone loved has gone. Though life goes on, death has left its calling card.

Death is constant; we notice only when it touches us. As I write, the World Death Clock ticks steadily at the rate of 1.8 deaths every second, an estimated 32 million deaths this year so far.

Three weeks ago, I got an early morning call that a family member had died suddenly. Not yet 40, he left behind a wife and two young children. Days later I sat in a church two states away reviewing the life of a dear man I knew only by proxy.

The grief was palpable. Death was front and center, open casket on the big screen. Fast forward: cemetery, repast, flights home, resume life. No disrespect. It’s what we do. Keep it moving lest death get in our heads, touch our hearts.

Fencing out Death

A church on my daily commute recently decided that death should take a holiday, at least visually.

This one-church-in-several locations congregation, the kind that sends out colorful postcards with hip slogans, merged with a declining mainline church. The merger of people, buildings and grounds included a neat, century old traditional cemetery with flower-topped, granite grave markers in various sizes and shapes.

Apparently, a cemetery with looming gravestones didn’t fit a “life is good” image. Church leaders summarily hid the grim reminders of mortality behind a substantial wooden privacy fence – with gated access for those wishing to pay their respects, of course.

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

The subsequent unflattering publicity revealed that people whose family members are buried in that cemetery didn’t want their graves behind a fence. Driving home this week, I noticed the privacy railings have been removed. The reality of death has come back into public view between open horizontal slats.

It’s a good thing. Death is as much a part of life as sunrises and sunsets. The writer of Hebrews said, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

Fear Not

A cemetery is a reminder that, despite all distractions and protestations to the contrary, “A man’s days are numbered.” (Job 14:5) Nobody lives longer than the time God has set.

Understandably, death gives people the creeps. Nobody wants to die. The church’s mission is to help people face this uncomfortable reality with biblical faith.

Like Jesus Christ standing at Lazarus’ tomb, the church must confront death by teaching people that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son. (1 John 5:11)  Jesus conquered death, dying in our place and rising from the dead. Likewise, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is the hope of the gospel.

Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV)

Resist fear in all its guises and embrace faith instead. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hedge against death and opens the door to a whole new life!

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’ Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

 

 

 

Restoring Twisted Things

forks I’m roaming through the thrift store the other day, in search of nothing in particular, and I spot this long handle fork. Four prongs, the fourth one leaning left and crooked down. But the design is sleek and stylish. And the price is right: 10 cents!

You might be wondering why anyone would buy a bent fork. Well, I carefully examined this banged up, jet black fork with its out-of-line prong. The inscription on the back read: “WM Rogers IS.” Didn’t mean much at the time, but I know enough about silverware to realize that a black fork has some actual silver.

That little fork had potential. With a little attention, I could envision it poking olives or lemon wedges on a well-set table. For a dime, I was taking absolutely no risk!

I bought that bent fork. Silver, a relatively soft metal, can be bent back into shape with a bit of effort. Having realigned it,  I applied some silver polish and some elbow grease…. and Voila! There’s the lovely fork pictured above.

Often a thing of value is marred, discolored, misshapen and devalued. This fork, silver or perhaps silver-plated, sold for a measly dime. And now it has become my treasure!

Twisted things can be straightened. Dark things can recover their shine. I did this with a simple fork. Jesus does this with souls.

We are not very attractive investments, messed up as we are by the world, the flesh and the devil. The good news is Jesus chose us anyway. He sees beyond what we are to what we can become through His transforming love, mercy and grace.

Life may beat us up and toss us aside, like a bent fork. But we are still valuable to God. Jesus shops thrift; am pretty sure He found me in the bargain basement. He is the master of restoring souls.

And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)

 

Hating on “The Shack”?

shack  For the record, I’ve read “The Shack.” And no, I don’t believe it’s heresy… as many of my church-going Facebook friends do and re-post often.

Most of them haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Yet, their advice is to avoid it like the plague. My seminary-trained nephew compared suggesting he actually read Shack to my asking him to drink spoiled milk. To hear him expound on his reasoning, you’d think I was asking him to drink poison.

To be clear, I’m a Christ-follower. I’m also someone who made a living as a writer. As such, I appreciate people taking the time to read my work before forming an opinion. Accepting someone else’s translation of my words doesn’t do it justice.

(I suggest Bible critics do the same thing: read the Bible with an open mind before arguing about it. A lot of what you’ve heard is in there is missing, misquoted or misconstrued.)

The Shack is a novel aka a work of fiction. It’s the story of a man’s grappling with God, or rather God reaching out to him, after an unspeakable tragedy touches his family. I’m not going to be a spoiler and give away the details. If you want an overview, go to: http://www1.cbn.com/books/whats-so-bad-about-the-shack

Evidently, some critics expected a solidly Christian message and/or gospel presentation given the story deals with “biblical” issues. The Shack, however, goes outside the box to depict Father God as an African-American woman, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman and Christ as a way to God, but maybe not the only way.

Presenting the Trinity in a multi-body, gender-bending form is in stark contrast to Scripture which teaches that God is spirit, that “in Christ is all the fullness of the godhead bodily”  and that Jesus plainly says “I am the way” to the Father.

Why expect fiction to rightly represent non-fiction? Does it matter if the author is Christian (or maybe a universalist, depending your point of view)? Does being Christian mean a writer is bound only to write strictly chapter-and-verse equivalent texts? Does being creative mean being heretical?

I hope not. I’ve written about serial killers; contractors who cheat; corporate deceptions and outright liars who purported to be Christian. Does daring to pen their stories make my relationship with God suspect?

I think the outcry over The Shack misses the point of the novel, which is very clear to me: No matter how tormented and terrorized by life we may be, God loves us and He cares. He is willing to meet us in the middle of our mess, restore our souls and make our lives into something beautiful. All He asks of us is to respond to His call.

Seems biblical to me: Christ came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). We didn’t choose Him, He chose us. (John 15:16)

We modern-day Christians are in danger of becoming irrelevant with our knee-jerk rejection of everything with which we disagree.

Yes, we must know the genuine to spot the counterfeit, which means knowing what the Bible teaches so that we can separate truth from error. But what is the good of knowing the Truth if we are so objectionable that we never get to share Him?

I believe that Christ has left us in the world so that we might engage the culture in a way that brings people to God. Jesus calls this being His witnesses.

So if we think the devil is in the details of The Shack, why not do what Scripture teaches: “Examine all things; hold fast that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21) It’s a good place to start building bridges instead of erecting walls.

Call me a heretic, but I think we serve a big God and limit Him with our little minds. One day we are going to be surprised by the tools He used to draw people closer to Himself, maybe even an unorthodox book like The Shack.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

 

 

 

Are You Using Your Resources?

TeamThe modern workplace is a team environment. Team members might be global, but chances are wherever you are, whatever you do, there is a team structure.

No more private offices. Most workers are seated in cubicles or open work spaces organized by team. Why?

Many reasons; perhaps foremost is the synergism of teams. Everyone has weaknesses, shortcomings, things we simply don’t know, don’t know that we don’t know or things we are required to do that we are not very good at doing.

That’s where working in a cooperative team can be a blessing. At least in theory, the strengths of teammates can compensate for individual weaknesses. The team succeeds because individual members help one another.

Currently, I am watching the antithesis of this play out.

A team member is failing, not meeting metrics and not saying a word. Not knowing more than what I see, I would say this person is failing because they don’t understand the concept of team. Surrounded by people who could help, this person has forged a path alone. And they are getting lost in the weeds.

In a team, help is close at hand. Because the team succeeds or fails as a unit, it is in every member’s self-interest to be helpful. Going it alone in a team environment is a recipe for failure.

We are better together, to borrow a phrase.

Christians can learn from this office lesson. Often, we struggle wordlessly, on our own, with an issue, a sin, a problem, never once reaching out for help. That thing gradually overtakes us. And we end up in rehab, in bed, in jail, in a bar, in trouble.

That doesn’t have to happen. We have help!

  • God has given every believer His indwelling presence, the Holy Spirit, the “Comforter,” the Greek word is actually “parakletos” or paraclete, one who comes alongside to help, counsel (John 14:16)
  • God also has given us one another in “koinoinia.” That is, Christian community in fellowship with other believers, our teammates.

God never intended life to be lived solo. He declared it “not good” that man should be alone then created Eve for Adam. Jesus formed a team of 12 disciples. He sent disciples in pairs to minister in the cities ahead of Him.

Life, Christian life in particular, is meant to be lived out in community. Yes, as God’s children, we can go directly to God our Father for help. We Protestants declare the priesthood of the believer and Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and man.

Even so, there are times when we need each other. The same Bible that teaches if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness also says: “Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.”

If we persist in facing life’s struggles Lone Ranger-style, we set ourselves up for failure.

The first step in success is admitting when we need help then having the humility to ask for it. God has provided everything that we need pertaining to life and godliness.

Are we using the resources He’s made available?

Christians: Find your voice!

voice-clipart-k9085298

Days apart in different parts of the country, two black men were shot dead this week in encounters with the police: Philando Castille in suburban Twin Cities, Minnesota during a routine traffic stop, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge convenience store parking area.

The incidents were captured in videos that have gone viral. Both men died of multiple gunshot wounds. Social media is awash in outrage. My socially conscious Facebook friends, black and otherwise, are posting non-stop about the perceived injustice and outright danger of being a black man in America.

Then there are those who are strangely silent. Usually vocal supporters of law and order and generous with postings on politics, gun rights, pro-life support and Christianity, they say nothing of these horrendous deaths at the hands of law enforcement. It’s as though they live in an alternate universe in which this is not happening.

I’d like to say that the Christian God is as much a God of the here and now as He is of the ever after. He is God with us. He sees and cares that people are dying. He is just. He is righteous. He is impartial, loving us all equally. What would Jesus do? He would not be silent.

I cannot, will not be silent.clipart-megaphone

I am the mother of sons. Young men raised to be honest, respectful, self-supporting, God-fearing. One defends his country in the Armed Forces. The other is headed to college. They are all American guys, athletes, YMCA members, volunteers, workers. Smart, handsome, decent, and honorable.

My sons are black men.

Their blackness is all some people – hateful people – may see when they look at them. Such people view blackness as a dangerous evil that is to be punished, a threat to be extinguished. The reality is that some police officers are among these hateful people. When these officers see blackness, it is all they see to the exclusion of one’s humanity.

It’s telling that black men often die in the presence of police officers while white mass killers live to have their day in court: James Holmes, who killed 12 people in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater and injured 70 more, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dylann Roof, a white guy accused of killing 9 black churchgoers inside their Charleston, SC, church in June 2015 was arrested alive and is trying to avoid the death penalty.

The silence of some Christian people as black men repeatedly die is deafening. It’s time we found our voice. We are the salt of the earth. It is our Christian duty to be our brothers’ “keeper.” (Genesis 4:9) The Hebrew word is shamar, a verb which means to guard, protect, save life. We are connected by our humanity, each of us vulnerable to injustice in a fallen world.

Consider the words of Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

 

Is your preacher, preaching?

4f1dc0aabba86-image

Spent some time in church on this Lord’s Day? Maybe you heard preaching. Maybe not.

Preaching is important.

The Bible teaches that “it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21)

So what exactly is “preaching”?

  • Is it just “God talk” by somebody standing in front of a congregation?
  • Is it “hooping” in the black church tradition?
  • Is it an academic lecture steeped in the Hebrew and Greek?

Biblical preaching is more the message than the method. This is what Jesus had to say about the message:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-48)

A lot of what passes for preaching these days is motivational, inspiring, even entertaining. It makes people feel good, but it’s not preaching. It doesn’t bring people closer to God. It requires nothing. It doesn’t share the Good News: our sins can be forgiven because we have a Savior in Jesus Christ. He died so that we might live. Real, biblical preaching introduces us to that truth.

I seldom hear preaching that mentions sin or the need for repentance. My question: if there’s no sin, what was the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Why do we bother with church? God is not some adornment to our lives so that we can be the “best version of ourselves” (I actually heard some preacher use this phrase!) In Christ, we are a new creation, crucified so that it’s “no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

The Apostle Paul instructed his protégé Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2) What “word”? Paul’s answer: “The word of faith, which we preach.” (Romans 10:8) What did Paul preach?

Now brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15: 1-4)

Paul declared preaching to be both gospel-centered and Holy Spirit-empowered. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” (I Corinthians 2:4)

God uses preaching to save people who believe and to grow them up in the faith. It is a supernatural thing. If that’s not happening where you worship, consider the source and find a place where it is.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

 

Escape Sin’s Paradox

a-universal-paradox

I am ever learning but never coming to know the truth.

I am sampling all the world has to offer but am empty still.

I am ever seeking new experiences but never finding joy.

I am free to do what I please and enslaved by my own choices.

I am the constant critic who is blind to my own shortcomings.

I am the instigator of wrongdoing and the accuser once the deed is done.

What am I?

I am “the paradox of sin.”

I am pleasure and punishment rolled into one.

Sin is pleasurable for a season. When the season passes, sin’s beauty is ravaged; and we are left with its ugly reality.

We’ve all had our conversations with sin, heeded its voice and inevitably encountered its diabolical duality.

Sin promises freedom but everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

Sin twists our desires, compels us to seek fulfillment in self-destructive ways. Sin drives us to run after a nameless something that is always beyond our grasp.

When I survey the landscape of my own soul, I see sin’s stillbirths: dead hopes, dead dreams and dead relationships. Eventually sin turns on us, confronts us with our guilt, reminds us of how we’ve failed, whispers that we deserve to die.

In truth, we’re all sinners. The wages of sin is death. There is none righteous, not even one.

Yet, death was never God’s plan.

Man was created in God’s image, an eternal soul with free will, freedom to choose. God planted a garden and put Adam, this man He created, in it. The garden was filled with pleasant trees, two of which are identified by name: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God gave but one restriction:

Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die. (Gen 2:17)

We know the story: the serpent persuaded Eve to eat of that tree, insisting there was no death in it, that it was the source of godlike wisdom. She gave it to Adam and he ate. Why weren’t they drawn instead to the tree of life?

We human beings are forever tempted to taste a freedom that results in our own bondage. Given a choice, we gravitate toward death not life. Look at your own choices and say it isn’t so.

Fortunately, God has provided a way of escape.

The last Adam, Jesus Christ, has released us from the paradox of sin. His death and resurrection has broken sin’s power over our lives. We don’t have to obey the siren call of our own sin nature. We are free. Sin reigned in death. Grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:19-21)

 “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.