Creation and the Butterfly Effect

Adam and Even needed to be trained for the awesome task before them, but they didn’t want to wait. They spurned the opportunity to rule under God and the preparation it required and chose instead to rule beside him. They believed that they would be better off – happier, more fulfilled, more who they were meant to be – if they were autonomous. They decided that they knew more than God, which is the mindset that lies behind all our sorrows. When they ate the fruit, they were not acting like naughty children but like rebellious conspirators and, at least to some degree, they knew it. What happened in the garden was not a slip but an attempted leap that ended in a fall – not just for them but for all of us.

Here’s why. God designed the world in such a way that everything exists in relationship to everything else. Because of this, a solitary action may have enormous consequences. Physicists call a system like ours “dynamical.” A small change in initial conditions has the potential to bring vast changes later on. Some such design was necessary if humans were to fulfill their calling to rule the world under God.

The scientist Edward Lorenz famously illustrated dynamical systems by suggesting the beating of a butterfly’s wings in the southern hemisphere two weeks ago may lead to a major storm in the northern hemisphere today. The butterfly’s wings affect one thing, which affects another, and another, moving like a wave across hemispheres. The butterfly beats its wings in the Amazon rainforest and, after a progression of cause-and-effect incidents involving a number too large for us to grasp, Kansas has a tornado.

What Adam and Eve did in the Garden led to storms of evil in the world. The wave that began with a desire in their hearts spread to a thought in their heads, then to an action in their hands, and then to a break in their relationships with God and each other. The wave swept out of the garden and Genesis 3-11 chronicles the wreck and ruin it caused. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged. There was envy and hostility between their sons. Families were torn apart. Corruption spread through society as a whole and violence ensued. Successive generations were overwhelmed by it, as the wave caused by the original sin swelled into a tsunami.  

The Bible teaches that Adam’s sin has washed over every one of us and has distorted everything that makes us human: our spirits, bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships. But the wave doesn’t stop there. It pervades the structures humans create: economies, governments, companies, businesses, schools, police departments, service clubs – everything. Even the earth itself has been affected.

(See the entire sermon here.)

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Sermons, Theology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

When God Became Immanuel

It was not in a stable that the Creator became Immanuel. It was in a Garden. Do you remember what the Scripture said? “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” Genesis 3:8). The Creator, this being of inconceivable wisdom and power, who brought into existence the visible universe and, along with it, realities that are not visible (at least to creatures like us) was with humans: with them in ways they could readily perceive and in ways that caused them to flourish. He was Immanuel. The gospel rests on, and returns to, this happy truth.

The Creator made the earth to be a place that would beautifully and remarkably sustain biological life. We today talk of sustainable resources. The earth was created a sustainable resource. We talk about renewable energy. The humans had it. Everything was perfect. The Creator placed them in an ecosystem (Eden) that was the ideal environment for the kind of biological life he had given them.

The Creator had a plan. Unlike the angels and like the animals, he gave the humans a biological makeup so that they could reproduce and fill the earth. Unlike the animals and like the angels, he gave them a spiritual makeup, so that they could live forever in relationship to him. And unlike any other creature that we know of, he made them in his image. They were designed so that they and their descendants would be like the Creator himself. They were both animal and spiritual, perfectly suited to represent earth to heaven and heaven to earth.

The Creator then conferred on them the awesome responsibility of ruling the earth as his regents. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over … all the earth…’” (Genesis 1:26-27). His plan was to set up images of himself (that is, humans) all over the planet – and who knows, perhaps someday all over the galaxy – to represent him. They were to wisely care for the planet and its creatures as his representatives. Think of the earth and the universe as a kingdom, the Creator as the king, and the humans as the king’s wise and loving regents.

It was for that sacred calling that the man and woman were being prepared. We don’t know how long their preparation in the garden was intended to last. For all we know it may have been hundreds of years: learning how to govern the earth and its creatures wisely is no small thing. Think about what that might entail: A mastery of biology, physics, engineering, zoology, and much more!

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Theology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Backstory to the Gospel Story

The sermon The Backstory to the Gospel Story gives us a big-picture look that will help us better understand and share our faith. Excerpts will be posted during the week, but you can views the sermon below. (Length: approximately 26 minutes.)

The Backstory to the Gospel Story (Genesis 3:1-9)
Posted in Bible, Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope, Presidents, and Inauguration Speeches

I write this on the day that Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. I thought President Biden’s inauguration speech was well-written and, at times, dynamically delivered. The theme, to which he returned again and again, was the need for national unity.

A secondary theme, a prerequisite for presidential inauguration speeches, was hope. The president brought those themes together when he called all Americans to unite to fight hopelessness. Picking up the hope theme later in the speech, he promised, in the words of Psalm 30, that though “weeping may endure for a night … joy comes in the morning.” Near the conclusion of the address, he said: “Together we will write an American story of hope…”

Every U.S. president in my lifetime has spoken of hope at his inauguration. This may be because inauguration day is a day of hope in the U.S. or it may be that Americans are naturally a hopeful people. They extend hope like a line of credit, placing it at the incoming president’s disposal.

What is the substance of this hope to which presidents routinely refer? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as the hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions worldwide. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, indeed “the last, best hope of man on earth,” in terms of an “opportunity society” where all of us “will go forward.”

Peace also figures into inauguration day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world built on international policies rather than on weapons of war. John Kennedy pledged to engage in a “peaceful revolution of hope” to assist “free men and free governments” south of our border.

Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom form the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain them is far from obvious. Certainly, the united efforts of the American people play a necessary role. But presidents have assumed another dynamic is in play and that assumption is questionable.

That dynamic can be described in a word: progress. Politicians take it for granted, as they have for nearly two centuries. A world of peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom is coming, and democracy, science, technology and, in some circles, capitalism, are speeding its arrival.

The belief in progress has saturated modern western thinking and lies behind the promises made and believed by so many politicians. But the idea of inevitable progress is a myth, fairly new to the world (dating from the time of the Industrial Revolution), indemonstrable by argument and unverifiable by experience.

The idea of progress draws on and is a distortion of the Christian vision of hope. In the Christian vision, God sovereignly moves all things toward a glorious end. In its utopian knockoff, it is progress itself that is sovereign. In the Christian vision, Christ is central. In its secular counterpart, good-intentioned humans are at the center.

“The real problem with the myth of progress,” wrote N.T. Wright, “is … that it cannot deal with evil.” The inauguration day speeches, so full of hope, have often run aground on human evil. In 1957, Eisenhower called the authority of the United Nations the “best hope of our age,” an authority he pledged to fortify. Sixty years later, another Republican president called the same international body “pointless.”

Richard Nixon, who promised to “set as our goal the decent order that makes progress possible and our lives secure,” ordered the Watergate break-in.

John Kennedy claimed that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a mail-order rifle in his mortal hands, ended Kennedy’s life.

Eisenhower’s “hope of progress” has proved helpless against actual evil. Greed pushed Kennedy’s hope of ending poverty further away than it was in 1961. Reagan’s “strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world,” has suffered from racial division within and the longest war in its history without.

I’m grateful for hopeful presidents and gladly join them in their hopes. I will not, however, rest my hope on some vague idea of progress. I will instead place my hope in God.

(First published by Gannet.)

Posted in In the News, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Can I Talk with Others About Faith?

Do you have friends and family you’d like to talk to about your faith? A good place to start is with talking to God about your friends and family. Ask him for opportunities to speak with them. If that is how you are praying, you’ll be more likely to recognize opportunities when they come – many of us don’t!

A coworker says: “We’ve got a teatime on Sunday morning but one of our guys can’t come. You interested?” That’s an opportunity. A gracious answer might be, “I’d love to, but I go to church. Maybe I could go to early service this week.” Something as simple as that may lead to another question: “You go to church every week?” And that to another. Pray for opportunities.

Second, lead a life that raises questions. “I was sure you were going to tell him off. Why didn’t you?” “Why are you still taking to her after what she did?” “Are you guys always have people over to your house?” “I’ve noticed you don’t put people down. Are you, like, religious or something?” “You volunteer at the food pantry? What’s that like?”

Third, get prepared. Try taking a practical apologetics course. (Christianity Explored is one option offered in local churches around the world.) Read a book on the subject. Ask questions of people who have been around for a while – the questions you’re afraid someone will ask you. There are answers – good ones.

****************

People want those answers … but they need the Answerer. In the end, answers don’t satisfy; the Answerer does. The best thing we can do for others is to follow St. Peter’s advice and set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts. It’s our relationship with Jesus that makes our kingdom conversations worth having. It makes all the difference.

Posted in Church, Church Life, relationships, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Right Kind of Answer to Skeptics’ Questions

My friend Amy Snapp started coming to Lockwood years ago. Her sister Cindy had been bringing Amy’s daughter Kathryn to our kids ministry. Because Kathryn liked it, Amy started coming and bringing the younger kids too. But dad Glenn was another matter. He told me he identified as an agnostic but was really more of an atheist. He just wasn’t calling himself that.

The fact that his wife was now following Jesus was driving him crazy. She was different! One day he came to my office and for an hour or more he grilled me with questions – some of the ones I just listed for you. I don’t know that my answers were all that helpful, but they allowed Glenn to see that there were answers. He hadn’t known that. Amy later told me that he didn’t sleep that night. He kept thinking about God. He was rattled. God was closing in and he felt cornered.

The answers I gave Glenn were not the effective cause of his conversion; they just removed some obstacles he was hiding behind. After a few miserable days, Amy said to Glenn: “Don’t you want to be like Jesus?” And that was all it took to bring Glenn across the line and into the kingdom. Today, he is a licensed minister of the gospel.

We might think, “But I don’t know enough! My answers need better content. Maybe I should read a book. Maybe I should go to seminary.”

Maybe. Certainly have good content, but content is not the most important thing. There is something else that God will use even more. St. Paul says our speech “should be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” In Greek, there are no definite articles or conjunctions between “full of grace” and “seasoned with salt.” That probably means that “full of grace” and “seasoned with salt” describe the same thing. Grace is the seasoning.

Remember the instruction from Peter? He told his readers they needed always to be prepared to give an answer “but do this with gentleness and respect.” Remember who is talking here: brash Peter, the loud, assertive apostle. “But do this with gentleness and respect,” he says. Don’t be pushy. Don’t get argumentative. Don’t twist arms.

Paul says, “Make sure your answer is full of grace.” Peter says, “Make sure your answer demonstrates gentleness and respect.” Even if the content of your answer doesn’t satisfy the inquirer, the manner of your answer – the graciousness, gentleness, and respect – will. I suspect more people have been won by gracious, respectful answers than have been won by brilliant ones.

Think about how people talk to each other in our day: The toxic comments on Facebook and Twitter; the malice, condemnation, and vulgarity that pepper remarks from the halls of congress to the elementary schoolyard. But we don’t pepper our remarks with insults. We season them with grace.

Talk about a contrast society! That is not what people expect. It is not what they are used to. It surprises them. I write a column that appears in newspapers nationally and I have received my fair share of unpleasant responses. I have been very intentional about answering them in a Proverbs 15:1 manner: “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I’ve been amazed to see how effective that is. I’ve had people call me names in their first email who are corresponding like an old friend by their third. What made the difference? Not the brilliance but the gentleness of my answer.

Respect is a rare commodity and, because it is rare, it is valued. Good content is important but good conduct is even more so. “Do this with gentleness and respect.”

One other thing from 1 Peter. The gentle and respectful answer is given in the context of a life of good deeds and blessing (that is in verses 9-11). So we have three things here: good content; gracious conduct; and the proper context of good deeds and blessing. There is a parallel to film, where the three things are: a good script; believable acting; and the right soundtrack.

Posted in Church, Church Life, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Direct Evangelism and Responsive Evangelism

This is the Apostle Peter. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now listen to the Apostle Paul: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:2-6, italics added).

Peter and Paul are calling plays from the same playbook. Peter’s, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” sounds a lot like Paul’s, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” These instruction are for ordinary believers, not just evangelists. Every follower of Jesus should be prepared to answer questions about Christ. That includes us.

All of us, not just pastors, evangelists, and church leaders, have a responsibility to give an answer when asked. The apostles are not telling everyone to “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). They are not saying, “be ‘ready to preach the gospel’” (Romans 1:15, KJV). They don’t order us to initiate conversations. They tell us to be prepared to give answers.

Again: That means they were expecting questions and that is where the church comes in. When the church is the contrast society that God intends, people will ask questions. Being a contrast society means, among other things, that we love and forgive each other, love our spouses and our enemies (and our spouses when they are our enemies), renounce vengeance, operate by a sexual ethic that honors God’s creation and respects others’ rights, are true to our word, refuse to condemn and shame, and put others’ welfare above our success. When a group of us lives like that, people will ask questions.

(Tomorrow: In evangelism, is good content the most important thing?)

Posted in Church, Church Life, relationships, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Do We All Need to Be Evangelists?

Every Christ-follower needs to be able to speak on behalf of Christ but not every Christ-follower is an evangelist. Most local churches have some evangelists among their people – Lockwood certainly does – but not everyone is an evangelist nor does God expect everyone to act like one.

Evangelists are a gift to the church, just like pastors (Ephesians 4:11). They have a special role in articulating the gospel to people outside the church. In Greek, the word for “evangelist” (euangelisteis) is closely related to the word “gospel” (euangelion). English usage would better reflect Greek if we called evangelists “gospelers.”

When Jesus sent out the 12 and later the 72, he sent out gospelers. Paul was a gospeler. Some of the colleagues with whom he traveled around the Mediterranean were gospelers. Philip (in Acts 8) was known as The Evangelist – the gospeler. Peter reminds his readers of the people who evangelized them – the gospelers who reached them before he did.

Evangelists are able to make the gospel clear. They know what the good news is and they know why it is important. Not all evangelists are outgoing extroverts, but many of them are. Yet it is not their personality that makes them evangelists. It is God’s work in them that fits them for the job.

Think of a gospeler/evangelist as the kingdom’s version of a military recruiter. He is constantly telling people why the kingdom is important, why it is good, and why they should join. He thinks about that a lot and he is able to speak about it persuasively.

That is what evangelists do. They think about what God has done and is doing in Christ. They think about how to make that clear to people and they look for opportunities to do so. Speaking about Christ does not embarrass them.

But not everyone is an evangelist and not everyone is expected to act like one. I’ve seen estimates that suggest 1 out of 10 people in the church is an evangelist. My own observation would suggest that the ratio is lower than that. But whatever the ratio, it is clear that most of us are not evangelists. That takes the pressure off. I don’t need to be Billy Graham. I can be Shayne Looper.

What a relief! I don’t need to put myself out there. I don’t need to be an extrovert. I can avoid those awkward conversations. I don’t need to talk about God and his Christ.

I’m not sure about those first three statements, but I am sure about the last one: it’s false. We don’t all need to be evangelists but we do all need to speak on behalf of God and his Christ. Evangelists make openings for the gospel. They can somehow create opportunities where there were none. We may not be able to do that. But when an opportunity does arise – and it will arise if our life with, and as part of, the church is playing the right soundtrack – we need to be ready to give people an answer.

Both the Apostles Peter and Paul gave instructions about this. They knew that if we follow Jesus’s directions, people will ask questions. When we get the chance to answer those questions, they want us to have something worth saying.

This is the Apostle Peter. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now listen to the Apostle Paul: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:2-6, italics added).

Peter and Paul are calling plays from the same playbook. Peter’s, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” sounds a lot like Paul’s, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” These instruction are for ordinary believers, not just evangelists. Every follower of Jesus should be prepared to answer questions about Christ. That includes us.

All of us, not just pastors, evangelists, and church leaders, have a responsibility to give an answer when asked. The apostles are not telling everyone to “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). They are not saying, “be ‘ready to preach the gospel’” (Romans 1:15, KJV). They don’t order us to initiate conversations. They tell us to be prepared to give answers.

Again: That means they were expecting questions and that is where the church comes in. When the church is the contrast society that God intends, people will ask questions. Being a contrast society means, among other things, that we love and forgive each other, love our spouses and our enemies (and our spouses when they are our enemies), renounce vengeance, operate by a sexual ethic that honors God’s creation and respects others’ rights, are true to our word, refuse to condemn and shame, and put others’ welfare above our success. When a group of us lives like that, people will ask questions.

(More on this tomorrow.)

Posted in Church, Church Life, Sermons | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Church Life as Soundtrack to the Gospel

The God who “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) wants people everywhere to come to him and join his side. A loving, loyal, hopeful church makes it easier for people to do that but a shame-inducing, grudge-holding, bored church makes it harder. Either way, for good or bad, the church is highly instrumental in the process of bringing people to God.

I think it works like this. Imagine a touching scene in some movie – let’s take Spock’s death scene in the Star Trek franchise’s Wrath of Khan. Spock has just saved the ship but to do so he has had to enter a chamber filled with lethal radiation. He sinks to the floor. His long-time friend stands on the other side of the glass, watching him die. They exchange words of friendship and then Spock breathes his last. Though we have hardly noticed, music has been playing all the while, with a mournful horn and a high, melancholy violin. We wipe the tears from our eyes.

Now imagine the same scene. Spock sinks to the floor and Captain Kirk cries out, “NO!” in despair. But instead of the violin, we hear Yakety Sax by Boots Randolph.

Other than the background music, everything is the same, but this time there are no tears. The scene doesn’t connect. It is not believable. It’s just a couple of actors on a movie set. We turn to a different channel.

The life of the church provides the soundtrack to the words of the gospel. When we are a loving, loyal, and hopeful church, the lyrics of the gospel connect. They are believable. But when the actions of the church and the message of the gospel are mismatched, the words of the gospel fail to connect. People turn elsewhere.

In recruiting people for the kingdom of God, both actions and words will be necessary. Imagine the same scene, this time with heartrending music but without dialog. It would be confusing. We need words and actions, dialog and soundtrack. I know the idea of talking to people about God is intimidating for most of us. What do I say? What if I get it wrong? What if they have a question and I don’t know the answer? That intimidation factor goes down when the right soundtrack plays through our life and church but, even then, it can be scary. So, we need to be prepared.

(Part 2 will post tomorrow.)

Posted in Church, Church Life, Sermons | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

And We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden: The Church as Proof that Jesus Is the Way

Ever since humans were banished from the garden, they’ve been trying to get back: back to God and back to each other. The church is living proof that Jesus is the way back.

Let me bring this home. Gospel people don’t just talk gospel; they live it. They live the gospel of the kingdom as subjects of the king. They live the gospel of peace in their lives together. They live the gospel of forgiveness, both seeking it and extending it.

For the church to be the draw that God intends, it needs to be so much more than an hour on Sunday morning. If that is all we have, we’ll need to rely on A-List motivational speakers to inspire people, great musicians to send chills down their spines, or on wow factor and gimmicks. Such things may draw people to an hour on Sunday but they probably won’t draw them into the kingdom of love, and peace, and joy. That takes a church, not a service.

So, what should we do? We should make up our minds to be the church and not settle for going to church. That means change. Here are some changes we might want to consider. Join or start a church small group. It might be a Bible study group or a D-group or a task group – maybe one that visits shut-ins or does after-school tutoring.

Invite church people – even people you hardly know – to your home. Host a dinner. Have a party. Go to a restaurant. Take in a movie. One woman in our church hosts regular game nights, playing euchre and other games. She is constantly inviting new people, helping them know each other and like each other. Is that something you could do?

Join our first Tuesday visiting team or our Public School Prayer Team. Start a sports team: I did basketball for years. How about pickleball, softball, bowling, or golf?

Join a missional community or pray about starting one. One is already forming around Jesus and the mission to help Lockwood’s children and their friends trust him and become his life-long disciples. Another missional community might provide food for the hungry. Another might reach out in love to immigrants living in our community.

Whatever you do, however you do it, do it together. I know that is tough in a pandemic, but God can give you great ideas for togetherness at a distance. And when the pandemic is finally over, we’ll all get together. That will be the time for a big party – and lots of small parties: work parties, tea parties, birthday parties, and pizza parties. But whether we are working or playing or praying, our togetherness is a witness to the world that God’s kingdom is here and new citizens are welcome.

Those are some of the way a Good News Church lives the gospel. Next week, we’ll think about some of the ways Good News People can speak the gospel.

Posted in Church, Church Life, relationships | Tagged , , | Leave a comment