Against all odds

“I’ll take ‘The most persecuted religious group in the world today’ for 800 Alex.” If that were an actual Jeopardy question, do you know what the correct answer would be? The answer in terms of sheer numbers and sheer horror might surprise you. It’s Christians. Specifically Christians living in Muslim-majority countries. I’m not talking about Christians fighting against Christmas or Easter being marginalized to simply a winter and spring holiday; I’m talking about “know your place or we’re going to kill you” persecution. And, what’s really tragic, is the Western mainstream media barely acknowledges that it’s happening.

And, don’t think for a second that the persecution of Christians and Christianity is limited to the Middle East. North Korea, China, Cuba, and Somalia are just of few of the countries that are constantly monitoring Christian activity, and like the game of Whack a Mole, stand ready with the big club, anxious to beat it back into extinction.

But against all odds, the Christian church is thriving. Underground, or above ground, new disciples of Jesus Christ are made every day, as the gospel continues to advance in the world.

Jesus explained to His disciples that this is the way the gospel always advances – side by side with every cause for pessimism is evidence for joy and everlasting hope. Maybe the best illustration of it is His comparing the kingdom of heaven, in Matthew 13:24, to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.

In his summary of the meaning of the parable, Jesus essentially says that as history moves along, evil will mature and become ever more evil, while godliness will also mature and become ever more godly, and ever more distinctive.

But, here’s the good news; though at times it seems like evil is winning the day, when God say’s “Game over!”, there will be a harvest. At that time, “the weeds will be gathered and burned, and the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Evil may win many battles, but the good news is that God’s righteousness through Jesus Christ, will win the war! Thanks be to God.

March 21, 2017 – Muslim converts breathe new life into Europe’s struggling Christian churches

“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Matthew 13:43

Which frog are you?

As is my habit at the end of the year, I was looking through drawers and folders and throwing out things that I no longer need. I came across an old poem that made me smile. I had used it many years ago in a sermon that I gave on Luke eight. That’s where a widow, even though dealing with a Judge who didn’t fear God, and could care less about people, persisted in showing up every day with the same plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” Jesus told the story to teach his disciples to never give up when praying for something that’s important to you.

There are many verses in the Bible about persistence. And rightfully so, because it’s difficult to keep fighting for all that’s right and good while living in a world that is increasingly more evil. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, [be persistent], do not grow weary in doing good. The greatest demonstration of persistence is God, the good shepherd, never giving up until He finds that one lost sheep. Yes, persistence is a very good thing.

Here is the poem;

Two frogs fell into a can of cream,
Or so I’ve heard it told;
The sides of the can were slimy and steep.
The cream was deep and cold.
“O what’s the use” croaked number one.
“Tis fate; no helps around.
Goodbye, my friends! Goodbye, sad world!”
And weeping still he drowned.

But number two, of sterner stuff,
Dog-paddled in surprise.
Then while he wiped his creamy face
And dried his creamy eyes,
“I’ll swim awhile, at least,” he said,
Or so I’ve heard, he said;
“It really wouldn’t help the world
if one more frog were dead.”

An hour or two he kicked and swam,
Not once he stopped to mutter,
But kicked and kicked and swam and kicked,
Then hopped out, via butter.

So as you enter a New Year, think about the things in your life that need an extra dose of persistence. Persistence in prayer, and persistence on your part, to not give up when the sides of the can get slimy and steep. Decide now to be frog number two, made of sterner stuff.

Happy New Year everyone!

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

Have a “Mary” Christmas

Years ago, while reading the brief story at the end of Luke chapter 10, about Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha, an idea jumped off the page concerning, of all things, the Christmas holidays. It was, at least for me, profound.

The idea was this; what happened during Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha, concerning how each of them approached his visit, is very much like what happens during Christmas each year. After all, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of Jesus’ very first visit to earth.

Mary and Martha were wired very differently. In other words, had they been given the Myers Briggs personality types test, they would have been opposites. It’s not that one had a better approach to life than the other, just different. However, when driven by their instincts concerning how they should approach the very special event of Jesus coming personally to visit them for dinner, Mary’s plan was better.

The story begins saying that “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.”

Here are the key takeaways that can be directly applied to Christmas. The first is “Martha opened her home to him”. Score one for Martha. It all starts there. Many people do not even open their home or hearts to Jesus at Christmas.

But here’s where things shift. Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all of the preparations that had to be made. There’s the key word – distracted!

Martha then becomes so upset about the fact that she’s doing all the work while Mary’s doing “nothing” that she actually tries to get Jesus to straighten out Mary and get her to help in the kitchen. But Jesus refuses to comply. Instead, he actually mildly rebukes Martha by saying, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

And, that’s why, to this day, when I say Merry Christmas, what I am really saying is “Mary” Christmas. In doing so, I’m reminding myself not to let all of the craziness of what the Christmas holidays have become, distract me from the one thing that Christmas is really all about – Jesus.

My challenge to you this Christmas is to approach it like Mary and not Martha. Yes, there will always be lots of preparations that have to be attended to. But don’t let those keep you from sitting at Jesus’ feet, intently listening to what He has to say. Remember what Jesus said to Martha, “… only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better.”

Christmas is not about presents, it’s about His presence!

Christmas Card Trivia

I thought I would deviate a bit for this week’s devotional. This is not a devotional, but rather an interesting bit of trivia on how the tradition of sending Christmas cards began. With stamps now costing 49 cents apiece, and the ease at which we can email, the tradition of mailing Christmas cards is rapidly declining.

Before there were postmen, if you had a hand written note, or a little hand-drawn picture, you simply gave it to your loved one on Christmas. Before the Christmas card was invented, much time and care often went into preparing a greeting for a friend or loved one.

In the eighteenth century, children were made to copy out a carefully worded letter called a “Christmas piece” in their very best copperplate handwriting. The ‘piece’ wished their parents the compliments of the season. The neatness and care taken by the children was meant to show how they were progressing.

Beautiful hand-illuminated texts had, for centuries, been prepared by monks to mark important religious festivals.

Well-to-do ladies with time to spare might paint little designs or pictures with a seasonal theme in watercolors to give to their acquaintances.

When the Penny Post was started in 1840, it became much easier for people to send greetings to their friends.

Then in 1843, a well-known man-about-town, too busy for writing letters, asked an artist friend to design a card for him with a printed message which he could just sign. A thousand copies of the card were produced, and the very first Christmas card as we know it came into being.

The man was Henry Cole, director of London’s famous Victoria and Albert Museum. But it was not until the late 1860’s that the practice of sending Christmas cards became really widespread. By 1870 the Christmas card boom had begun; the halfpenny post was introduced for cards in unsealed envelopes, and the cards themselves had become cheaper because of new methods of color printing.

Christmas cards became so successful that even in 1880 the Postmaster General was having to warn everyone to “post early for Christmas”.

So, even though you may not be carrying on the tradition of mailing Christmas cards, make sure to buy or, better yet, make cards to give to those special people that God has blessed you with.

“All the brothers and sisters here send greetings to you. Greet each other with a sacred kiss.” 1 Corinthians 16:20

Peace

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. So many great memories of Christmases past. And now, with Olivia and Jack it’s special all over again. Even if you’re cynical by nature, it’s easy to get caught up in the sentimentality of Christmas. I’m always cautious, however, when it comes to the messages of Christmas. Lest that sentimentality somehow creep into the truth of the Christmas story.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a beautiful song called “My Grown-Up Christmas List”. Though originally composed by David Foster, and sung by Natalie Cole in 1990, it didn’t become a hit until Amy Grant recorded a version for her second holiday album. The song is about a visit with Santa Claus by an adult who does not ask Santa for anything material for Christmas, but rather nothing but good things for all humanity.

Here’s the heart of the message of the song.

No more lives torn apart,
Then wars would never start,
And time would heal all hearts.
And every one would have a friend,
And right would always win,
And love would never end.
This is my grown-up Christmas list.

My frustration with the song is that though it longs for peace – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that – it never acknowledges the only one who can actually produce peace. How can you sing a song that cries out for peace and leave out the Prince of Peace?

In today’s world – torn apart by acts of terrorism around the world – many believe peace is impossible. No such thing. But the Bible tells us that’s not true. In fact, Christmas is a celebration of peace actually entering the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

But there’s a catch. It’s not a blanket peace for everyone. God’s peace is only for those who but their faith and trust in the Prince of Peace. Do a quick word study in the Bible on peace and this fact will jump off the page with every verse. Here are a few examples…

Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace (for who?) [for] those with whom he is pleased!”
Isaiah 26:3, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.”
Psalm 29:11, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.“

God’s peace is possible, but living in God’s peace can only be realized by faith in the promises of God. That’s why Paul prayed, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16

Nostalgic anticipation

As I get older I find myself leaning more toward nostalgia than I do anticipation. In other words, I find myself looking back to fond memories of days gone by, more so than I do looking forward to some imagined future.

On that note, I had an idea this year that came from a great memory I have of Christmas as a child. We always had an Advent calendar. It was usually a simple cardboard piece that hung on the wall where consecutive doors are opened every day leading up to Christmas, beginning on December 1. Ours simply had cardboard doors that when opened exposed a picture behind it. It’s amazing how something so simple produced such anticipation and delight.

My idea was to get an Advent calendar – only a really cool one that is made of wood and has actual little drawers that open – that we keep at grandpa and grandma’s house. In each drawer we will put a little tiny gift for Olivia and Jack. This way I can keep the tradition going, and enjoy the anticipation and delight all over again.

Growing up as protestants in a small church that was not Presbyterian, we never celebrated Advent as such. Though reformed in our doctrine, there was a tendency to rebuff certain traditions that emanated from the Catholic church.

Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”. But here’s what’s interesting about Advent. It’s not just about looking back to when Christ first came to earth, it’s also about looking forward to when He will come to earth again.

Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. Advent offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming. My term for Advent then is nostalgic anticipation. I like that!

When we celebrate Advent, we celebrate both Christ’s birth at Christmas – bringing salvation to all who believe – and, His triumphant Second Coming at the end of time, when all that is wrong will be made right. It is indeed nostalgic anticipation.

“But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” Luke 1: 30-31

Thanksgetting

When I was a child, had you asked me what my favorite holiday was, I would have said Christmas. However, as I got older and the whole gift giving thing diminished, I changed my mind – my favorite holiday had shifted to Thanksgiving. Now, when I say “favorite”, I’m not saying “most important. In that category Christmas and Easter definitely take the top two spots. I’m simply talking about most enjoyable, on that day.

What I began to really enjoy and appreciate about Thanksgiving was that it was unencumbered from all of the hype and hyperbole that began to eclipse the true meaning of Christmas. With Christmas it became difficult to focus on and celebrate its true meaning – the magnificence of the miracle of God coming to live among us. There was simply too much noise from the “please give me this, and don’t forget to give me that” crowd.

For a period of time, the Thanksgiving holiday was spared from the marketing and commercialization that had infected Christmas. And, that’s the time when Thanksgiving took over as my most enjoyable holiday. After all, what was there to commercialize with Thanksgiving? “Dial 1-800-top-bird, for the biggest and best turkey you’ve ever eaten!” No, Thanksgiving’s lack of hype-ability, left it isolated and unique among the major American holidays. There was nothing to sell. Nothing to distract participants from its simple and central focus – giving thanks!

But then it happened. Not all at once of course. It was a gradual creep. Insidious, stealthy, and subtle, but not unintentional. Oh no, this takeover was well planned by the merchandizing mercenaries. They just couldn’t stand the fact that there was a major holiday that didn’t involve people running out and buying something. Their solution? Simple. Create Black Friday. Talk about an evil plan! Let’s buttress a national day of Thanksgiving with a title that includes the word black, and make the sole emphasis of the day that of doing whatever it takes to beat your fellow consumers to the punch (pun intended), by getting to the deepest discounted items first.

And it worked. They pulled it off. Now, we have people literally giving thanks one day, only to be cursing and coming to blows the next because they missed out on getting the flat screen TV for 50% off. How far we’ve fallen. And, every year it gets worse. This year, some big retail stores are not waiting to open the next day. No, why wait, let’s have people pushing and shoving with one hand, while chewing on a turkey leg with the other.

Why am I so worked up about this? Last night while watching the football game, a commercial ended with this line, “Have a happy ThanksGETTING.”

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” 1 Chronicles 16:34

Time

There are certain things in life that drive me nuts. High on the list is anything that needlessly wastes my time. Here’s an example: Recently I bought a few sections of pipe to make a couple of hanging lamps. They turned out really cool by the way. The first purchase was from Home Depot. What I didn’t pay close enough attention to was that the pricing barcode labels were stickers on the pipe. You guessed it. It literally took me longer to get the stickers off each pipe section than it did to make the light. I then discovered that at Lowes, all of their pipe sections come in a plastic bag which contains the barcode, leaving the pipe clean. Hey, what an idea!

The interesting thing about time is that we all have an equal measure of it every day. It is the one resource that is allocated in absolute equal terms. Every living person has the same number of hours to use in every day. Busy people are not given a special bonus added on to the hours of the day. The clock plays no favorites. With that said, it always seems like I don’t have enough time to do the things that I really want to do.

The late Vince Lombardi used to say, “I never lost a game; I just ran out of time.” That’s interesting to think about. He’s actually probably right! Of course, the time element in sporting events – the fact that it’s always a race against time – is what makes it so dramatic. It is usually the team that makes the best use of that time that wins the game.

Of course the big difference between sports and life, related to time, is that in a sports contest time can be temporarily stopped. Unfortunately, there are no timeouts in life, it just marches on.

If you’re anything like me, you find yourself occasionally wasting time. Time you would love to get back, but you cannot. To waste time is to spend it on that which has little or no value. My challenge to you for this week is to think about how you use your time and ask these questions;

  • Am I making the most of the precious time God has given me?
  • Is God proud of how I spend my time?
  • What could I change to make better use of my time?
  • Remembering that only two things last forever, God and people, am I wasting my time?

The Apostle Paul said, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

Retreat or Engage

Retreat or Engage

We’re living at a time when with increasing measure, as Christians, we are going to have to decide to do one of the following; retreat or engage. I know plenty of sincere and committed Christians who don’t want to pick a culture war with anyone. They’re not looking to rumble over religion. But they also don’t want to potentially face losing their job over refusing to attend the office party thrown for their coworker, to celebrate his recent marriage to his same-sex partner.

As Denny Burk said, in his article titled What the Future Holds, Christians are beginning to realize that their place in American life is now being adjudicated in the court of public opinion. And it is not at all clear whether this will end well for the Christian church.

Some Christians believe that we should retreat and disengagement from the culture. Others say that we need to engage the culture war and fight for what’s right, based on what the Bible teaches.

So which is it, fight or flight, retreat or engage?

Let’s look the words of Jesus’ prayer just before He was handed over to be crucified. His prayer focused not only on his disciples, but also on all those who would come to saving faith through His death and resurrection. So the beauty of this prayer is that Jesus was praying for us.

Jesus prayed, I don’t ask that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. Score one for engage.

Jesus is quick to clarify that we are not OF the world. World in this case is not referring to planet earth, but a term describing humanity in its fallen state and rebellion against God. Jesus then gives the secret to making our engagement with the world successful, and it is this; God’s sanctifying truth. He says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

And there you have it. Our personal sanctification, that is, the power of God’s Holy Spirit reshaping our will to His, and conforming us to the image of Christ, even as we live in an amoral and increasingly Godless culture, will ultimately win the day. People will not be able to escape the fact that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But we must be friends with unsaved people in order for them experience the difference in our lives. Otherwise, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

Still Protesting

Still protesting

Having just celebrated the Reformation, please indulge me as I belabor the central issue yet again. I’ll do so by asking this question. Do you believe that, today, there is really very little difference between a Protestant and a Catholic, as it pertains to Christianity?

I guess that depends on what has changed since the sixteenth century? The good news is that Catholicism has remained solidly steadfast on certain key issues of Christian orthodoxy, such as the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and the inspiration of the Bible. And, with that said, we unfortunately have seen many Protestant liberals completely abandoned those doctrines. We also see that Catholicism has remained steadfast on critical moral issues such as abortion. But the bad news is that as it relates to the key doctrine of justification by faith alone, nothing has changed, not even a little bit.

This is key because it is at the very heart of gospel truth. It’s of utmost importance because it has to do with the answer to the question, “what must I do to be saved?” It’s important for you to know that as it relates to that issue – the central issue of what the Reformation was all about – there has been no change. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed at the counsel of Trent and continues to affirm now that the basis by which God will declare a person just or unjust is found in one’s “inherent righteousness.” And, that my friend, is a deal killer. The Catholic church continues to deny that justification is based on Christ alone, received by faith alone, and given by grace alone.

The word protestant is derived from the word protest. The definition of protest is “a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something”. If there is no longer a reason to protest, then we can drop our signs, as it were, and all get along. But if the central issue that brought about the protest in the first place has not changed, then the protest should continue.

Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563 – a Protestant confessional document – says, “all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race”

I agree, so I’m still protesting!

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed–a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Romans 1:17