Come Home: Does God Want You Back?

Young marrieds Jim and Jane Flynn were swimming in Lake George in New York state. When Jim got out of the water, he realized his wedding ring had slipped off and was somewhere  at the bottom of the lake. Jane continued to wear her ring but Jim’s was lost.

Thirty-nine years later, a woman snorkeling in Lake George spotted something shiny on the bottom. She at first thought it must be a bottle cap, but when she retrieved it, she found it was an engraved wedding ring, with the anniversary date inscribed on the inside. After some research, she found Jim and Jane and returned the ring to them. How surprised and delighted they were to find it again! Jim now sleeps with it under his pillow.

To have the cherished thing returned after a long absence is a cause for celebration. That is just what Jesus says in Luke 15, only there we discover that we are the cherished thing! God cherishes us and wants us to be with him, no matter how long ago we hit bottom. Luke 15 shows us it is never too late to come home.

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What Is God Up To Now? (God’s purpose in our world)

I’ve had my share of discussions with people who identify as atheists. I respect them, for the most part. There have been a few whose anger damaged both the rationality of their argument and the mutual respect that would have made our discussion profitable. But anger and flawed reasoning are hardly unique to atheists.

Most people I’ve met who identify as atheists do so not because reason has compelled them but because experience has led them to believe the God presented in the Bible is unlikely to exist. That experience is generally characterized by two realities that are impossible to ignore: first, the overwhelming present-ness of physical things, coupled with the underwhelming present-ness of spiritual things; and, second, the undeniable presence of evil, expressed as suffering.

The first of these two realities raises the question: Why is God, if he exists, not more obvious? I’ve heard the question put like this: If God requires people to believe in him in order to go to heaven, why doesn’t he help them believe by giving them a sign? Why doesn’t he write across the sky, in neon colors, “I am here”? A God who demands people believe in him or be destroyed, yet offers them no help to believe, must be evil and malicious.

The second issue, the presence of evil, raises a closely related question: If God exists and is the all-powerful and all-good being Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he do something about suffering? Why do babies die and children starve? Why do the strong abuse the weak and get away with it? Why do earthquakes demolish churches filled with worshipers? A good God wouldn’t allow people to suffer like this, so there must not be a God or, if there is, he must not be good.

It should be noted that people who reason like this are not starting from a neutral position between belief and unbelief. They haven’t “passed go” but they’re still trying to collect their 200 dollars. They have ignored the principal arguments for the existence of a creator (for example, Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” argument, refined by Aquinas and others) and are arguing against the existence of God on secondary grounds.

It should be admitted, though, that those secondary grounds are very real and troubling. But it is not just atheists who find them so; believers do too. It might surprise some atheists to learn that these troubling questions were asked by believers long before they made their way into the atheist’s playbook. They are, in fact, ensconced in the pages of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

The biblical Job, for example, agonizes over his suffering and is angry that God has not done something to stop it. The biblical psalmists repeatedly and bitterly ask God why he hasn’t shown up on the scene. In a poem of overwhelming pathos –a messianic psalm, at that – the author cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” Jesus quoted these words from the cross.

These questions turn some people into atheists, but the thinkers mentioned above prove it is possible to grapple with them from within a framework of faith. The atheists are right to ask them, but they ought to know that the same questions have been asked for thousands of years and answers other than “God does not exist” have been found.

Approach these questions with the assumption that God does not exist, and there are simply no answers. But approach them from the perspective that God not only exists but that he has good purposes in mind for his creation and intends to develop humanity into a race of glorious, free, wise, and loving beings, then answers become available.

If this summary of God’s purpose is accurate, the next question is: “Given this, what are we to make of the hiddenness of God and the conspicuousness of evil?” And the answer – a biblical one, at that – is: God makes his hiddenness and even human suffering to serve his objective of developing a society of all-embracing love and goodness in which he and humans live together in joyful community.

That is what God has been up to.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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The Emu and the Kangaroo (Matthew 28:18-20) – What Is Baptism All About?

Many countries have a national coat of arms, often featuring magnificent beasts and birds, like the majestic lion and the soaring eagle. They carefully chose such images to convey the idea that their people are courageous and strong.

The Australian coat of arms also features two animals: The emu, a graceless bird that can’t even fly, and a kangaroo. Courage and strength are hardly the first things one thinks of when seeing the comical-looking emu and kangaroo. Why did Australia choose those two animals?

Because they share a common characteristic with which the Australians identify: Both the emu and the kangaroo can only move forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving backwards by its large tail.

People who are baptized have chosen the emu and the kangaroo for their coat of arms. They are going forward with Christ. They have made their decision, and they will not go back!

This sermon investigates the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God, particularly as it relates to baptism.

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The Forgiver

During the closing song at a special service in an Indiana state prison, Chuck Colson noticed one of the inmates, a man named James Brewer, singing out at the top of his lungs. Colson says the man’s face was radiant. James Brewer had come to know Jesus Christ in prison and his life had been transformed.

As soon as the song was over, the Prison Fellowship Team began shaking hands and saying goodbye. Brewer returned to his cell, walking shoulder to shoulder with a Prison Fellowship volunteer. Colson was meeting the governor in Indianapolis in just two hours, so he followed them and urged the volunteer to hurry.

“We’ve got to go!” he called to the volunteer, but the man answered, “Just a minute, please!”

Colson shook his head.  “I’m sorry, but the plane is waiting.  We have to go right now!”

The volunteer said, “Please, please, this is very important.  You see, I am Judge Clement.  I sentenced this man to die.  But now he is born again. He is my brother and we want a minute to pray together.”

Colson said, “I stood in the entrance to that solitary, dimly lit cell, frozen in place.  Here were two men – one black, one white; one powerful, one powerless; one who had sentenced the other to die.  Yet there they stood, grasping a Bible together, Brewer smiling so genuinely, the judge so filled with love for the prisoner at his side.”

Forgiveness. God is the Forgiver: he can forgive anyone – even me; even you. And because we are the Forgiven, we are called to forgive, just as God does. “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). To forgive like God puts us in a place where remarkable things can happen in our lives.

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Christians and Mental Illness

My son Joel Looper (PhD, University of Aberdeen) just published a moving article that looks at Christians and mental illness in Church Life Journal, a journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Check it out and share your thoughts here.


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The Millennials Migration from the Faith

Another young, prominent Evangelical Christian has left the fold. Joshua Harris was 21 years old when he wrote, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Since being published in 1997, his book has sold over a million copies and has been hailed by conservatives for its guidance in navigating relationships with the opposite sex. Last year, Harris renounced the book. This year, he renounced the faith.

Harris joins other high-profile Evangelical millennials in the flight from faith. Non-Evangelical millennials are also leaving – a recent study suggests more than half are already gone – but they are more likely to drift from the faith quietly, not buzz the deck as they fly away. When people like Harris – people who have made a name for themselves precisely because they were Evangelicals – leave the faith, they make headlines. Depressing headlines.

Why are we seeing this exodus of young Christians, Evangelical and otherwise? Why is it happening now, at this point in history? Can anything be done to turn it around?

The reasons for the flight from faith are manifold and to catalogue them would require a book-length treatment. It is possible, however, to highlight a few key (and sometimes overlooked) issues. For one, segments of the media display an antipathy for the faith and this generation, more than those that came before it, is constantly awash in media.

In the West, the Church was once the principal medium through which information about society and life was transmitted. The daily newspaper challenged the church for this coveted position in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before its influence was contested by the advent of radio.

Movies and newsreels came crashing in next. By the time I came on the scene, television was king of the hill. All of these media sought not only to inform their audience but to transform them. Whether it was to unite the citizenry against the Axis powers, or reorient people to a new view of sexuality, or to direct consumers to an advertiser’s product, media intends to shape its users.

If one thinks of each medium as a stream that supplied the surrounding countryside with ideas, by the time television came along the various media had converged into a mighty Mississippi, transporting America on its current. But in the social media age, millennials have been swept out to sea. One study finds millennials spending 5 to 7 hours a day on their phones. Subtract time spent working, sleeping, and viewing other screens and there is virtually no time left.

It is impossible to overstate the impact immersive media has had on people’s thinking. This is particularly true when it comes to sexuality, which has received enormous attention in news, entertainment, and social media. A changing view of human sexuality – changing in predictable ways, given the nature of media attention – has certainly played a major role in the flight of young Evangelicals from the faith.

There are additional factors that contribute to the millennial migration. The culture-wide postponement of marriage, which is related to changing views of sexuality, has had an impact. So has the decreasing birthrate. Many millennials fled the Evangelical camp over its support for President Trump, which they considered blatantly hypocritical.

Behind all of these, though, lies the Church’s failure to present a compelling gospel to millennials. The roots of this failure reach back many centuries, at least to the later Scholastic Period, when churchmen became obsessed with how one gets to heaven. The Bible itself does not obsess over the topic. St. Paul’s magisterial letter to the Romans, for example, only mentions heaven twice, and neither time has anything to do with how people get there. Yet that is all some young Evangelicals ever heard about. To their minds, heaven is what the faith is about and they have decided heaven can wait.

The Church must reintroduce people to the gospel of God’s kingdom, as related by Jesus and the apostles. Heaven – yes, wonderfully so, and only through Christ’s cross; but also the revolutionary hope of God’s rightful rule and the Church’s role in preparing for it. Where this hope is truly present, individuals and communities are consistently transformed.

Yet many millennials know almost nothing of it. That must be remedied, now rather than later.

What do you think? Let me know!

Published by Gatehouse Media

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The Giver

The singer Carolyn Arrends was warned by her friend not to make a purchase that seemed to be too good to be true. She ignored him and suffered the consequences. Then she began avoiding him because she didn’t want him to know what she’d done. She started thinking of him as someone who was against her, not for her.

The same thing happens between us and God. Our idea of him gets distorted. We start to see him as against us, not for us; as a taker, not a giver.

But God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31-39). He is not just a giver, he is The Giver.

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The Words We Use Broadcast Who We Are

The “social psychologist James Pennebaker spent years researching the significance of our use of words. With a team of grad students, he developed a sophisticated software program that analyzes what our words say about us. Pennebaker claims that the words we generate over a lifetime are like “fingerprints.” Even small words – what he calls “stealth words,” like pronouns (I, you, we, they) and prepositions (to, for, over) – “broadcast the kind of people we are.”

No wonder Jesus said “that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Words not only reveal who people are, they have the power to change who people become, for good or evil. In a letter to believers scattered in the Diaspora, St. James makes the point that little words can have giant effects. The entire course of a person’s life can be changed by a few words from a parent or even a friend.

Sometimes the effect is good. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, three years prior to the start of the Second World War, the African American star Jesse Owens seemed a sure bet to win the long jump. The previous year, he had set three world records in one day.

As he walked to the long jump pit, he saw a tall, blue-eyed, blond German taking practice jumps in the 26-foot range. Owens was worried: the Nazis were determined to prove Aryan “superiority,” and they intended to do so by beating Jesse Owens.

On his first attempt, Owens was so nervous he went several inches beyond the takeoff line before he jumped. That left him even more rattled and he fouled on the second jump, too. He was one foul away from being eliminated and he was a wreck.

That’s when the tall German approached Owens and introduced himself as Luz Long. Long, the archetype of Aryan superiority, stood there chatting with a black man in view of the entire stadium.

What Long said to Owens was this: since you only need 23 feet 5 1/2 inches to qualify, why don’t you make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there, just to play it safe? Owens took his advice and easily qualified. In the finals, he set an Olympic record and earned the second of four gold medals he would win in Berlin. And the first person to congratulate him – in full view of Adolf Hitler – was Luz Long.

Owens never got the chance to see Long again: he was killed in the war. But he later said, “You could melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long.”

Words have great power to do good but they also have great destructive power. St. James writes: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

According to James, the whole course of a person’s life can be set on fire by a word. In pastoral ministry, I’ve met adults who were burned as children by words like “stupid” and “lazy” who have never fully recovered from their injuries.

After describing the destructive power of words, St. James proceeds to make a surprising and disturbing claim: people are incapable of taming their own tongues. If that is true, where does that leave us? Are we doomed to inflict the damage on others that has been inflicted on us?

That is not what James had in mind at all. He had learned from Jesus that what comes out of our mouths cannot be controlled by “taming the tongue” but only by changing the heart. This, he had also learned from Jesus, is possible. Heart-change happens in an apprentice-like relationship to Jesus, among people who are aware of God’s presence and confident of his willingness to help.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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The Rewarder

I remember where we were when our first child took his first steps. He was a year old, give or take a few days. We were with my parents in a cabin at a fishing camp in northwestern Ontario. Joel had been pulling himself up and standing for a few weeks, but while we were there, he took his first steps. He got one solid step in, followed by a two-step Lindy Hop, and then crashed to the floor. And we all cheered.

You’d think he’d just won the Nobel Prize. Instead he took three wobbly steps. Three wobbly steps, but full of promise. We knew this was just the beginning.

Now imagine the same scenario with a different outcome. We’re all in the cabin. One-year-old Joel is standing up with his hands on the sofa, and I’m beckoning him to come to me. I say, “Come on, son. You can do it. Come on.” He turns toward me. He lifts and extends his foot. We all hold our breath. He shifts his weight – he’s taken his first step! He then quickly takes another. Then a third, then goes crashing down in a heap.

And that’s when I say: “That’s all you got? What’s the matter with you? I was walking by the time I was 8 months old. I give you a year, and three steps is all you can give me! You are such a disappointment to me.”

Some people think that God is like the critical, impossible-to-please me in the second scenario. No matter what we do, he thinks, “That’s all you got? You’re such a disappointment to me.” These people imagine, to misquote Hanani the seer, that the eyes of the Lord go to and fro throughout the whole earth, seeking to criticize those who don’t do everything perfectly. But the truth lies in the opposite direction. What Hanani really told King Asa was: the eyes of the Lord go to and fro throughout the whole earth, seeking to show himself strong to those who hearts are fully his. Not those who do everything perfectly. God is not looking for opportunities to criticize but to reward.

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Is Christianity a List of Dos and Don’ts?

YAY Images

It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Christianity is not about a list of dos and don’ts; it is about a relationship.” That sounds good and, indeed, there is truth to it; but it is not the whole truth.

For one thing, talking about some generic form of “Christianity” is misleading. The term is so broad as to be practically useless and so battered as to be (in some cases) unrecognizable. Besides, it is not a term that Jesus, his apostles, or the early church used. When they referred to their common beliefs and shared traditions, they spoke of “the faith,” which inherently conveys the idea of relationship, and “The Way,” which suggests a particular approach to life.

For another thing, it’s all well and good to say that the faith is not about a list of dos and don’ts but the fact is Jesus instructed his followers to do many things and not to do other things. For example, in the famous Sermon on the Mount alone, I counted 49 imperative (command) mood verbs in the Greek text. The New Testament itself has more than 1,500.

Jesus obviously instructed his students in how to go about life – and not a typical life either. Most people don’t bless those who curse them, for example, or give to the person who asks. The Jesus way of doing life is not just an enhanced edition of some universal religious practice, like Windows 10 Pro is an upscale version of Windows 10 Home. The Jesus Way is distinctive.

Nevertheless, it remains true that the faith of Jesus is not a mere list of dos and don’ts. Doing the “dos” and avoiding the “don’ts” may, in some measure, be done without recourse to faith. For example, I might keep a list of dos and don’ts with a view to receiving a promotion or qualifying for some kind of reward, say, an all-expense-paid vacation. There may be some element of faith in this setting but it is nothing like the robust faith Jesus and his early followers considered essential.

A few of Jesus’s many commands can be kept, even without faith. For example, no one has ever sued me for my tunic, so Jesus’s command to give such a person my cloak as well has never been a problem for me. However, the command to stop worrying has been a problem. So has the command to love my neighbor as myself, to guard against hypocrisy, to get rid of all bitterness, and to do everything without complaining or arguing.

As it stands, it is simply impossible to check off these and the other New Testament commands in the way one checks off items from a to-do list. To consistently do these things and, more to the point, to be shaped in heart and mind in such a way that doing these things becomes natural, a person must have faith. This kind of faith is not mental assent to a doctrine, even a doctrine about God, nor is it a belief that God exists and that everything will work out in the end. It is not that these things are wrong; it is that they are not what Jesus and his early followers meant when they spoke of faith.

When they spoke of faith, they weren’t talking about a belief in God’s existence; everyone they knew believed God existed. When they spoke of faith in God, they were talking about trusting him: trusting his knowledge and so doing what he says; trusting his commitment and so being confident of his help; trusting his love and so feeling secure.

Trust is not something one can simply cross off a to-do list. There is never a point where one can say, “Did that.” Trust inherently requires relationship. And trust, if it is not misplaced, requires the other person be trustworthy. Faith is a response to faithfulness.

One can only do the things Jesus tells people to do – forgive and pray for enemies, give generously, live sacrificially – by trusting Jesus is right and trusting God to keep his word. And that kind of trust is only found when people respond to God’s invitation to enter into relationship with him through Christ.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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