Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Religion Dies. Halloween Lives.

Way back on October 21, 2011 I posted on Vital Signs Blog this excerpt from Amity Shlaes’ article Halloween’s Pagan Themes Fill West’s Faith Vacuum published by Bloomberg. It remains relevant and enlightening and so I post it again.

(And yes, the whole article is still online right here.)

...But as much as we’d like it to be, Halloween isn’t secular. It is pagan. There’s nothing else to call a set of ceremonies in which people utter magical phrases, flirt with the night and evoke the dead. One of my family’s favorite Halloween props was a hand that moved, as though from the netherworld, when you reached to collect a few pieces of candy corn. Necromancy is a regular part of Halloween games. Zombie masks are one of this year’s top- sellers. As grouchy theologians used to point out, the origin of Halloween was most likely Samhain, an ancient Celtic holiday on which the dead, in some accounts, supposedly returned to visit.

There’s a reason for the pull of the pagan. In the U.S., we’ve been vigorously scrubbing our schools and other public spaces of traces of monotheistic religion for many decades now. Such scrubbing leaves a vacuum. The great self-deception of modern life is that nothing will be pulled into that vacuum. Half a century ago, the psychologist Carl Jung noted the heightened interest in UFOs, and concluded that the paranormal was “modern myth,” a replacement for religion.

Children or adults who today relish every detail of zombie culture or know every bit of wizarding minutiae are seeking something to believe in. That church, mosque and synagogue are so controversial that everyone prefers the paranormal as neutral ground is disconcerting. There’s something unsettling about the education of a child who comfortably enumerates the rules for surviving zombie apocalypse but finds it uncomfortable to enumerate the rules of his grandparents’ faith, if he knows them...

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Wishful Thinking vs Biblical Hope

Hope. What a glorious, liberating, and comforting gift of God for the storms of life are certainly ominous and frightening. Sickness, grief, loneliness, injustice, disability, marginalization, disappointment, the rage of the evil one and his accomplices who persecute believers, and so on.  But those whose trust is in the atoning work of Christ have hope as a sure anchor as they rely on the saving and sustaining power of the sovereign Savior.

Let’s take a more careful look at the matter, though, by comparing the normal use of the word “hope” with its use in the Scriptures. The basic dictionary definitions are these. 1) Hope is the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best. And/or 2) To feel that something desired may happen. In other words, hope is mere desire.  It is a wish, a want, a bet on possibilities.

It is in this sense that we hear a lot of fluffy quotations about hope. It is always nice-sounding stuff but it’s mostly ethereal, often even irrational. It is the kind of hope we see in greeting cards and motivational posters (often accompanied by flowers or balloons or sunrises). But more honest minds dismiss this kind of hope as wishful thinking, something to mock. For instance, Benjamin Franklin said, “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” Mark Twain agreed. Twain wrote, “A hope tree is a tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.” And then there’s the old English proverb, “You can hope for the best, but you had better prepare for the worst.”

These cynics warn us that hope is actually a pretty bad risk, a gamble that’s based more on whims than facts, more on wishes than realistic expectations, patience, and hard work. What kind of power is in hope of this type?  No more than when you cross your fingers or rub a rabbit’s foot.

That is why many people have problems understanding hope when they get to the Bible and see the word all over the place. If hope refers to the same kind of pie-in-the sky thinking, it’s nothing but “fake news” or sappy sentimentality. However, I’m very glad to announce that hope, as it is taught in the Bible, is something radically different – different from the happy hold-a-kind-thought concepts and different too from the cynical conclusions of Franklin, Twain, and company. So, let’s check it out.

One could argue that the central theme of the whole Old Testament is tied to the word “hope.”  But hope in the Old Testament is not just wishing and wanting. Hope is centered upon God Himself.  Throughout the Law and Prophets, the servant of Jehovah is taught that God’s wise and triumphant goal is to provide Israel (and through Israel, the whole world) deliverance from sin and empowerment for righteousness. These blessings culminate, of course, in the advent of the Messiah. And to those ends, the faithful looked with humble but honest expectation. Hope, therefore, is shown to be a confident reliance in the promises of God…confident because of the divine character and power which would see those promises completely realized.

This kind of hope didn’t focus on a person’s desires or feelings. Rather, it focused on the promises of the all-powerful, all-wise, and all-holy Sovereign. After all, God doesn’t lie. What He says He will perform, He will perform. Hope, in the Old Testament then, wasn’t about lucky possibilities. Hope was a reasonable, joyful trust in the sure promises of almighty God.

That same concept is then taught in the New Testament as well. Hope is not a mere yearning for a thing. It is a studied, careful trust in promises that are very sure for they are centered on God Himself in Whom there is no shadow of turning.  Note that the primary Greek word for “hope” in the New Testament is often translated “trust.” So you see, New Testament hope also centers upon objective truth, upon the guarantees given by God Himself.  Hope can be considered “a done deal already.”

To illustrate (and emphasize) this, let me give you a few New Testament scriptures that point not merely to an objective fact…but to a Person. I Timothy 1:1 explains that the believer’s hope is Jesus Himself. Colossians 1:27 describes how the ancient mystery had been revealed. And that mystery, the apostle Paul says to the Colossian believers, “is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Who needs a shamrock when you have the Rock of Ages?

In Ephesians 2:12, Paul reminds the Christians of how sad was their state before they knew Jesus as Savior. They had, Paul explained, a) no hope, b) they were without God, and c) they were stuck in the world. But now, because they had been born again, they had a hope which was guaranteed by God Himself.  They had a personal, loving relationship with Him through His Son.  And though, for a time, they still lived in the physical world, they had been saved from the slavery of the world’s carnal systems.

How does this change things for you and me right now? I Peter 1:3 tells us that we have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection.  That means your daily life should be impacted by that glorious truth.  Hope doesn’t point only to history nor does it point only to future fulfillments. It is also wonderfully existential. It is a living hope  – immediately relevant, eminently practical. Among its present tense blessings are confidence, power, joy, and as the apostle John emphasizes this in I John 3:3, purity. “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”

Want another couple of terrific effects of hope for your present life?  I Thessalonians 5:8 describes the Christian’s hope of salvation as a helmet. A helmet, of course, protects us from our enemies. It is part of our battle gear for the spiritual warfare we wage every day. We won’t need a helmet in heaven but we sure do now. Don’t leave home without it!

But hope doesn’t just protect our heads; it also stills our soul.  Hebrews 6:18 and 19 instructs Christians to lay hold of the hope set before us, a hope that is the anchor of our souls. Wishing and worrying and wanting won’t calm the storms of life we face.  But genuine hope will for it centers upon the  holy presence and matchless grace of God.

So, go ahead and smile at those greeting card verses. But understand that Hallmark’s idea of hope isn’t usually the biblical reality. We can, therefore, throw away the rabbit’s foot and cancel the appointment at the wishing well and instead, get a confident grip on true hope, a humble but anticipatory faith in the God Who delivers.

Friday, October 19, 2018

A Soft Answer, Yes. But, Heavens Above, Give an Answer.

We had barely finished our last prayers of the morning’s pro-life witness outside one of the nefarious Planned Parenthood abortion businesses when a young man pulled up to the intersection and coarsely yelled at us, “Don’t you *#%6@ people have anything better to do!”

I started walking towards his car and said with a slight smile, “You gotta’ be kidding me, right? I mean, what can you come up with that’s better than saving a baby’s life? Firemen, doctors and nurses, lifeguards – are you tellin’ me that they’re wasting their time too?” I kept walking towards the vehicle where I then scrunched down a bit so I could be on the same eye level with the guy. He hadn’t answered my question but then he hadn’t driven away either. In fact, my question (and perhaps my advance) seemed to calm him down some.

Still miffed, though, he motioned over towards the abortion building. “Okay, maybe so but this is America, right? We have something called free choice, you know.”

I smiled more broadly.“Of course we do. All we’re doing here this morning is telling people the facts about abortion, facts they’re not going to be told inside this place. That’s not just recognizing the value of a free choice but going even further and trying to insure that people can make fully informed choices. That’s cool with you, isn’t it? I mean, I bet you’re a pro-truth kind of guy.” I was right next to his car now and kneeling down so I could speak to him through the open window. “You’re not against newspapers or TV commercials, are you? Or the FDA giving you the facts about what’s in your hamburger or your milk. Man, I’m just doing the same thing here today except the information I’m offering is completely free and it’s related to the highest stakes possible – life and death. At any rate, do you really think I’m taking away anybody’s freedom of choice?”  I inclined my head towards the building. “See that 8-foot iron rail fence surrounding the place? You know, I haven’t scaled that thing and tackled a girl all morning. Not a single, solitary tackle.”

That comment actually drew a little laugh from him. “Well, okay; I see what you mean.” Then, more calmly and seriously than I was expecting, he said, “But these girls already have their minds made up.”

I replied, “You’d think that, wouldn’t you?  But, you know, I’ve been doing this for years now and there have been hundreds decide not to have the abortion even though they get to this stage of the proceedings. And a lot of them we’ve been able to help through the pregnancy and after. That’s something else, huh?”

By now a couple of cars had pulled up behind the guy and so I figured I’d better motion him on. “Hey, you’re starting to hold up traffic now so you’d better book. But thanks for stopping, man. I enjoyed talking to you.”

The young man smiled and acted, for a brief moment, like he was going to try another tack. Then, putting his car in gear, he said, “Well, okay; you people try and stay warm” and drove off.

I turned back to my colleagues. There were a few grins and an arched eyebrow or two, “Well,” somebody chuckled, “that sure had a different ending than what I would have guessed.” Another pro-lifer nodded agreement and said, “ Yes, but a soft answer turns away wrath.”

Ah, the Proverbs. How valuable is the wise counsel they give us. Now, the Proverbs are not guarantees. They are general principles of life observed by Solomon and others which reflect a godly perspective. Take Proverbs 15:1 for example. A soft answer doesn’t always turn away wrath. We will see in a moment that the Book of Proverbs admits this. Nevertheless, Proverbs do show us 1) what is generally true, and 2) how life should be lived by those who desire to please God.

And even when sin breaks the consistency of these rules for life, the Proverbs are ever faithful to point us to the ideal standards.  And I can assuredly testify from years of experience, even amid the intense pressures of being at abortion clinics, protests, sit-ins, debates, answering questions (and charges) from opponents, and so on that a soft answer is a wise, winsome, and reliable tool for turning aside wrath.

Now, as I mentioned, it doesn’t always do so. Indeed, to those committed to their wicked ways and foolish presuppositions, speaking the truth, no matter how softly and courteously given doesn’t always dampen someone’s stubborn anger. Sometimes, the truth will inflame all the more the wicked who refuse to listen.  This means that he truth teller will often be rejected instead of being welcomed, ridiculed instead of praised, hated and persecuted instead of having his message embraced.

But that doesn’t at all negate or even minimize our obligation to keep on telling the truth, even those truths that the unbelieving world most hates nowadays – truths about abortion, sexual perversions, the biblical teachings on marriage and family, the authority of Scripture, and the exclusivity of Jesus’ truth claims. And this obligation remains even though the pagan left has become increasingly intolerant, bullying, and even violent.

Note how other  passages from the Book of Proverbs underscore both the regularity of truth’s rejection and yet it’s ability to provide liberation and power for the few who will indeed listen and receive it.

“Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, they would not accept my counsel. They spurned all my reproof. So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way and be satiated with their own devices. For the waywardness of the naive will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. But he who listens to me shall live securely and will be at ease from the dread of evil.” (Proverbs 1:29-33)

And…“He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, and he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser. Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning.” (Proverbs 9:7-9)

Clearly, these passage are not intended to dissuade Christians from speaking truth into the culture, including reproof, correction, and warning to individual sinners. No, they merely underscore what responses the truth teller can expect. In other words, be prepared.  But we are also encouraged to appreciate the worthwhile nature of truth-telling for miracles do happen. Scoffers sometimes do repent with all of heaven rejoicing when they do.

You and I have no way of knowing just which foolish, stiff-necked sinner will one day listen to the truth and be converted. For instance, back in the spring of 1970, Chuck Cooke and Dick Hall, two men working with Young Life in Colorado, took a chance to confront a young thug with stinging truths from the Word of God. Had they tried on their own to discern whether or not this smart-alecky drunk was a confirmed scoffer or not, yours truly would still be dead in his sins.

So, by all means, let your answers be soft and selfless. That is your biblical duty.  But God forbid that in your desires to be safe, comfortable, and well liked that you fail to give free expression of the answers you know to be true.  That is your biblical duty too.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"By Faith (Insert Your Name Here)"

In last Sunday morning’s sermon at Williams Memorial Chapel on the campus of College of the Ozarks, Dr. Justin Carswell challenged the congregation with applying the text of Hebrews 11 in a specific, liberating exercise.  He drew attention to the large number of times the words “by faith” were used in that chapter – 18 times, by the way! – and he encouraged us to be inspired to follow the example thee people of the chapter set for us.  After all, it’s not as if a person needs to be a superstar of character to please God by acts of faith in His promises (that’s the context of the chapter).  You can see that easily when you remember some of the stumbling, fumbling, bumbling plays the figures in this chapter represent.  Remember Abraham’s cowardice, Sarah’s unbelief, the sexual sins of Samson, the murder committed by David, the brashness of Jepthah, the anger of Moses which kept him out of the Promised Land, the idol raised by Gideon after his great victory for God, and so on?  You get the idea.  

The Holy Spirit’s words, coming through the writer of Hebrews, is underscoring the fact that even the imperfect, even the failures, even those who have deliberately rebelled against God can have moments of victorious faith in God’s promises.  And those moments can have world-shaking significance.  And, of crucial encouragement to the believers in Jesus in this age who have the power of the Holy Spirit resident in them, those moments can be hallmarks of a consistently spiritual life.

To this end, Dr. Carswell outlined a simple exercise using Hebrews 11 as both a model and source of inspiration.  “Grab a pen and right now write down somewhere just three words: BY FAITH and then, for that third word, write in YOUR OWN NAME.”  He explained that this could be a way to think seriously about the needs in our lives, the easily besetting sins, the ministry or relationship challenges we face and to then find victory "by faith."  He called us to think and pray carefully and come up with 3 specific actions that “by faith” we would consecrate as avenues of worship and obedience to the Lord.

It was a really neat exercise and it has already been of important value to Claire and me.  It led me to a new study and meditation of Hebrews 11, to a fruitful discussion with Claire of both the chapter and Dr. Carswell’s challenge, and my making it a significant addendum to the quarterly evaluation of my Christmas Resolutions I had conducted early in the week.

And so, with gratitude for Dr. Carswell, I pass along this excellent action step from his sermon last Sunday.  I hope you find it of value too.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

What Most Astonishes You About Jesus?

In recent years, I have more frequently shared the fruits of my personal Bible study in LifeSharer letters, in posts on Vital Signs Blog and Facebook, even in my correspondence with individual friends. However, after reflecting on comments made by colleagues in the last few weeks, I’ve decided to do that even more often. The following is an example...

What Most Astonishes You About Jesus?

The people’s response to Jesus healing a man from Sidon (a man who was deaf and unable to speak easily or plainly) is recorded in Mark 7:37.  The verse reads, “They were utterly astonished saying, ‘He has done all things well.  He makes even the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

The word translated “astonished” in that verse is the Greek word ekplessomai which literally means “to be greatly struck” — plessomai being the struck part and the preposition ek adding extra emphasis to the word.  We suggest the same idea when we speak of something being “striking” or something “hitting” us hard.  And, of course, it makes obvious sense that witnessing such a miracle as the one Jesus performed here would “strike” anyone with awe and wonder, maybe even a bit of fear.

But what I found of immense interest in a recent study I was conducting was where else that particular word shows up in the New Testament.  For being astonished at a miraculous healing conducted before your very eyes is natural enough. It is what anyone would experience. And yet all of the other uses of the word ekplessomai — and there are 9 of them — describe the reaction of bystanders not to physical miracles but to the exposition of theological doctrine!  That’s right; the Scriptural record indicates that it is the teaching of Jesus that astounded His hearers more than anything.

(Note: In 8 of the other places where ekplessomai is used, it refers specifically to the teaching of Jesus. The 9th occasion is found in Acts 13:12 of a sermon preached by the apostle Paul. Yet even there, the Bible underscores that it is the teaching of the Lord Jesus through the apostle Paul that resulted in the astonishment of Serguis Paulus, the Roman proconsul that Luke makes a point of describing as “intelligent.”)

So, consider this very “striking” description. It was the teaching of Jesus – its wisdom, authority, freshness, liberating grace, and authenticity – that most astonished the crowds.  More even than the physical miracles Jesus performed: various healings, exorcising demons, calming the storm, feeding thousands from a few loaves and fish, and even raising people from the dead. Oh yes; through these many and various miracles, Jesus provided more than enough to dazzle people and let them know that He was much more than a new prophet on the scene.  Nevertheless, the Bible texts indicate that it was Jesus’ teaching that most astounded the crowds, including the disciples themselves. Wow.

This response, by the way, is shown elsewhere by the use of other Greek words as well.  For instance, existemi literally means “to be put out of one’s self.” It is usually translated as “amazed” as in Mark 5:42 of the people’s reaction to Jesus raising a young girl from the grave and in Luke 24:22 regarding the disciples’ reaction to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  But that Greek word is also used in Luke 2:47 of the reaction of “the teachers of Israel” to the understanding and wisdom shown by Jesus – when he was only 12 years old!

Also, there’s the Greek words thambo and ekthambo which are also translated as “amazed” or “astonished.” That’s the case in Luke 5:9 of the response of Peter and company to the miracle catch of fish they landed thanks to the Lord’s instruction and the profound surprise registered by the disciples beholding an angel in the empty tomb where Jesus’ body had earlier been lain. But that word thambo is also used in Mark 10:24 of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching about the difficulty of entering the kingdom of God.

Once again, the Bible’s use of these words underscores how truly impressive and important was the teaching of Christ. And it is the teaching of Jesus that should most amaze us today too. Indeed, it is the revelation of Christ Himself and His purposes, His illustrations and applications of divine truth, His profound exposition of the Old Testament, His depth of wisdom regarding not only God’s ways but man’s ways too,  and His explanation of the gospel of salvation He so graciously offered that should win our greatest respect, appreciation, and wondrous awe.

Lord Jesus, more than physical miracles, more than subjective experience, may I always be most astounded by Your authoritative, wise beyond description, and soul liberating teaching. May it inspire in me ever increasing gratitude and obedience.  Thank You.

From the Latest Letter-Writing Party

During last night’s letter-writing party, 8 of us managed to knock out 50 letters and cards. They included (depending, of course, on the person, agency, or business thus addressed) letters of advocacy, gratitude, encouragement, and principled protest. For instance, notes were sent out to pro-life colleagues like the terrific team who minister to moms and babies through Assure Women’s Center; Lincoln sidewalk counselor heroine, Pam McCabe; and others. Several letters went to political leaders dealing with pro-life and pro-family issues. Others were sent to the President, Cabinet members, the State Department, military officials, and foreign ambassadors regarding recent examples of egregious religious persecution.

Here’s a quick sampling of the notes that I sent out.

Dear Ambassador Haley,

My, my, my!  What a breath of fresh air you are at the United Nations!  And what an example of rationality, character, and class you have brought to the job. Thank you for your wisdom and courage and grace.  You are in our frequent and fervent prayers.

Dear Senator Sasse,

Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “Resolution One: I will live for God.  Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.” We are praying that these resolutions will be hallmarks of your tenure in the U. S. Senate.  And thank you for the evidence to date that this is the case.

You are in our frequent prayers — especially for your leadership in promoting the sanctity of life, religious freedom, and free speech.

Dear Netflix,

Our recent consideration of signing on with Netflix was abruptly ended when we learned of the latest teen suicide related to your horrendously violent (and vile) series “13 Reasons Why.”

Please cancel this wildly irresponsible television series immediately.

Dear Judge Kavanaugh,

Just a quick note from a few of the Nebraskans who are praying for you and your brave family during these difficult days – days in which you have had to endure such injustice, vile character assassination, and undeserved anxiety and pain.  God help our nation when the primary principles of justice and civility and truth are so deplorably trashed.  Thank you – and your family – for handling this intense trial with such grace and calm.  Your example is a beacon in a dark culture!