I AM the Resurrection and the Life

I love books and libraries and bookstores – especially used book stores. I like the feel of uncoated paper against my fingertips and the smell of old leather covers that linger in the air.

I have been helped in my life as a disciple of Jesus more than I can say by books. A.W. Tozer was my guide, as was A. B. Simpson. The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, William Law, Brother Lawrence, Julian of Norwich, F. B Meyer, Andrew Murray – how they all helped me. C. S. Lewis rose through the clouds like the sun after a storm. Chesterton, Kreeft, Williams, Willard, Foster, Wright – the names go on and on.

I have learned much from these people – my debt to them is too great ever to repay. But all those who have helped me most have helped by bringing me into an encounter with Jesus, not just an idea. Books and authors, as much as I treasure them, are not and can never be a substitute for Jesus. At their best, they lead to an encounter with the real Jesus is real life.

Real life – our real life, with all its joys and sorrows – is where we meet Jesus. It is where Martha and Mary met him – in the midst of the biggest crisis of their lives – when Jesus introduced himself as the Resurrection and the Life. Read John 11 and get ready for an encounter with Jesus.

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Invited to the Dance of Grace

Photo by Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

In 2018, MarketWatch reported that the average Christmas shopper racked up $1054 of debt. If that average shopper made minimum payments on his or her credit card, it would take approximately six years to retire their Christmas debt.

It seems, according to statistics reported in Investopedia, that experts expect the average American to spend more this Christmas than the average American expects to spend. This means that millions of American who are still trying to pay off debts from previous Christmases will once again be adding to their debt load.

The old adage, “You can’t spend what you don’t have,” turns out to be less than the whole truth. Unless our payments are late, card is maxed, or credit is revoked, we can spend what we don’t have – for a while.

Is credit extended in other areas of life? For example, can a piano student play beyond what she has practiced – can she play on credit? If she has put in 50 hours of practice, can she play with 200 hours of experience? Can she borrow on what she does not yet have?

What about in the spiritual realm? Can I spend compassion that I don’t have? What about wisdom? Discernment? Will I have endurance that I have not bought through the testing of faith in times of trial? Is there any credit extended in the spiritual realm or is it strictly pay as you go?

The Church’s answer, based on the inspired writings of St. Paul and other biblical authors, is yes: credit is extended. However, that credit is not based on what an individual is likely to earn but on God’s mercy and Christ’s costly sacrifice – the full faith and credit of the Son of God. This is more than we could ever hope for based on our very limited personal resources.

The theological term for this is grace. Preachers sometimes describe grace as a heavenly bank account, fully funded by Christ, from which his people can always draw. This is in some ways a helpful illustration but is potentially misleading.

It is misleading if one thinks that grace applies solely to the forgiveness of wrongs, which is like thinking the only reason to have money is to pay off debts. Grace would be needed even if we had no wrongs that required forgiveness. It is needed to do right in an interactive relationship with God.

Grace, as Dallas Willard put it, “is God acting in our life to do what we cannot do on our own.” Certainly we cannot do forgiveness on our own, but our incapacity hardly ends there. We need grace to engage with God in the creative work of becoming who we were made to be and, simultaneously, blessing the world. The person who lives by grace is not content with his own forgiveness but is passionate about serving God in the world.

What this means is that grace, like the biblical manna, cannot be hoarded. It must be used. Credit is extended in the form of grace (God’s action in one’s life) to anyone and everyone who will use it. It is not extended to those who intend only to sit on it.

Sometimes we get the idea that grace is opposed to effort, but this is not so. Grace is not opposed to effort but to merit. Grace fuels effort. It funds it. People living interactively with God are constantly drawing on grace to do the good and beautiful deeds they could not do on their own. Such people are under no illusion of having merited the results, yet they also know the results would not have been achieved apart from real effort.

This interplay of human effort with divine empowerment, the dance of grace, has been God’s intention all along. He invites us into the dance, to receive so we can give, to give so we can receive even more.

The Bible describes the interplay of grace and effort as a “fellowship” or “partnership” with God. The word evokes an image of business partners but perhaps dance partners, though unconventional, is still appropriate: caught up in the eternal dance, in which God always leads and we, when we follow, do more than we thought possible.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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I AM the Good Shepherd (Part 2)

In this short sermon, Jesus introduces himself as the Good Shepherd. If you are a sheep, you have only a few possibilities: You have a good shepherd; you have a bad shepherd; or you have no shepherd.

In A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-Three, Philip Keller writes about his time as a shepherd in east Africa. The tract of land next to his was owned by an absentee landlord and run by a manager – a contract employee type – who was supposed to care for the sheep. But they were sickly, skinny (the land was overgrazed) and beset by predators. Keller says that those poor sheep would stand across the fence and just stare into his green pastures and at his healthy sheep. It was as if they hoped some good shepherd would free them from the abusive one with whom they were stuck.

We have a Good Shepherd who frees us, cares for us, and makes us his own. Read about him in John 10:11-18 and then listen to this encouraging message.

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How to Give God a Five-Star Review

The Bible has a great deal to say about gratitude and often links it with God’s glory. This is understandable since our opinion of God is linked to our opinions of the people who believe in him. What we think about God will depend, in part, on whether our acquaintances who believe in him are grateful.

For this reason, a believer who is content and grateful will impact people very differently from one who is always complaining. It is no wonder St. Paul ordered Christians to “Do everything without complaining and arguing … Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people.”

Most of us know someone who has almost ceased being a complainer and is now not much more than a complaint. Every word from their lips, every look on their face, is tinged with resentment: People have let them down; life isn’t fair; the future is bleak. When such a person professes faith in God, people who know him or her can only assume that a life of faith is a bad investment.

The complaining believer is a zero-star review for God. The grateful person, on the other hand, gives God five stars. The person “overflowing with thankfulness,” as St. Paul describes it, is the best publicity there is for God. Thanksgiving advertises God. It overflows, as Paul says, “to the glory of God.”

Sincere believers who understand this might regret the complaining they’ve done and decide to be more grateful. But this is getting the cart before the proverbial horse. The place to start is not with what one must do but with what one must know. Grateful people know two fundamental truths about God: “…that you, O Lord, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” They have not only grasped these truths; they have been grasped by them.

God is strong. An ungrateful person testifies that God is weak. His God is not “the God of Abraham” and “the Fear of Isaac,” whose name is “great and awesome.” His God is not the Lord who “is enthroned as king forever.”

The second truth is that God is loving, which is to say he wants and pursues what is good for people at all times. The God of the ingrate is not loving, not the one “who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” To become a grateful person, these two fundamental truths about God – that he is strong and loving, great and good – must become part of the fabric of one’s thinking.

The Bible rehearses these truths again and again. For example, “that you, O Lord, are strong” is the theme of Psalm 136, repeated in nearly every verse. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, and the worker of wonders. He created the universe. He entered into history and redeemed a people. He swept away Pharaoh’s army and struck down kings. He is strong.

But he is also loving. If the psalm’s theme is that God is strong, its refrain is that God is loving – the two truths that all consistently grateful believers know. Psalm 136 repeats that refrain – as if to drive it home – twenty-six times: “His love endures forever.”

To believe in God’s love means to believe that he intends our good, in every situation, no matter what. Without this belief to anchor the soul, gratitude will come and go with the changing winds of circumstance.

There is no circumstance in which God does not seek our good, but we must be clear about what that means.  If by “good” we mean merely comfort, success, or pleasure, it will appear to us that God is not always seeking our good, just as it appears to a five-year-old that his parents are not seeking his good when they deny him candy before dinner.

Comfort, success, and pleasure are like candy: good alongside a loving and transformative relationship with God; bad as a substitute for it. The loving and strong God is committed to that relationship. When we are also committed to it, we can be confident and grateful, even in difficult circumstances.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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I AM the Good Shepherd

It is wintertime and Jesus is walking in the historic Portico of Solomon on the east side of the temple courts. In an orchestrated effort, some of the Judean leaders and influencers encircle Jesus so he cannot slip away. They order him to tell them whether or not he is the Messiah. Jesus’s answer at first seems baffling. He responds: “I did tell you.”

When did he tell them? Did they miss it? Did we? Is it possible that Jesus tells us things today and we miss what he is saying?

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Obstacles to Faith and the Service They Perform

A doubting friend once said to me, “If God exists, why doesn’t he tell us plainly? Why doesn’t he write it across the sky for everyone to see?”

That question is based on an assumption that is patently false and, upon reflection, even silly: the assumption that God’s aspiration for humans – his end goal in creating them – is their assent to the fact that he exists. This is to woefully underestimate both God and humanity.

God’s objective is the creation of a race of great and good beings who can interact with him as they add to the love and blessedness of the universe. The biblical pictures of this – of humans reigning with Christ, crowned with glory, and filled with joy – is nothing short of spectacular. Once we have seen this, the idea that God’s big plan is merely to get people to believe he exists is laughable.

Still, the problem remains: why is belief in God so difficult? Why are there so many obstacles to faith in the awe-inspiring God and Father of Jesus? That there are obstacles is undeniable. The church has never said otherwise, and the biblical data confirm it. Included among the obstacles are: the presence of evil which, on the surface, seems to contradict the existence of a loving and good God; the lack of incontrovertible evidence; and the discrepancy between what those who claim to believe in God say and how they act.

On the one hand, it is difficult for us to understand why God would allow such obstacles. On the other hand, if the biblical God does exist, it must be assumed that the presence of such obstacles does not hinder his efforts in forming a glorious, joyful, and powerful humanity but rather advances it.

There is a curious scene in the Gospel account of Jesus’s life. After a brief respite, Jesus returns to his home base and carries on his work of healing and teaching. People flock to him by the thousands, and many bring relatives and friends to be healed. These people suffer from a variety of physical ailments and the text says that Jesus healed them.

So far, so good. That’s sounds like something we would expect a benevolent and powerful being to do. Now here is the curious part. To get to Jesus, people had to ascend a mountain. Some were blind. Others had physical disabilities. Many had limited mobility. So why would Jesus meet these people on a mountain rather than, on level ground? Why set things up so that it would be so difficult?

This is an all too familiar picture for some people who would believe in God, if they could find sufficient evidence for his existence. Does it make sense that God would require the spiritually disabled to come to him by means of an uphill climb beset with both internal and external obstacles?

People who believe in God might well be the biggest obstacle. This too finds a parallel in the Gospel accounts: Four friends try desperately to get their paralyzed buddy to Jesus but Jesus’s own followers block their way. Sometimes it is Christians – the things they say and claim to believe – that prevent other people from believing in God.

Whether the obstacle is unexplained evil or inexplicable Christians, one is still left with the question: why does God allow obstacles to belief? It is almost as if he intends belief to be difficult. Could there be a reason for that? Might the effort somehow advance God’s goal of creating a race of good and great beings who can interact with him in bringing about the blessedness of the universe?

It seems to be so. The very effort of seeking God changes us. It is the struggle of belief that lays the groundwork for a life of faith.

God has arranged things so that one doesn’t find him without seeking. This protects free will by allowing one the option of ignoring God, at least for a time. More importantly, the act of seeking is itself transformative. God has woven it into the process by which humans become the great and good beings he intends, who are capable of interacting with him for the blessing of the universe.

Published by Gatehouse Media

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The Best Defense…

Imagine growing up in a home that idolized the New York Yankees. You were born in 1950, and your earliest memories involve the Yankees: going to games, watching them on TV, trading baseball cards for great Yankees players: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra. Your Yogi card is even signed. Now your hoping to get your Mickey Mantle Card signed.

In your home, the Yankees are the subject of conversation every evening at dinner—and those conversations are full of anxiety. “In the good old days, we were the winners. Oh, when the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, was at the plate. Those were the golden years. Now, everyone is out to get us. The bullpen looks weak – don’t know about that Whitey Ford guy. Mickey is playing injured. And Roger Marris – he used to be a Cleveland Indian, and those Cleveland guys never amount to anything. This year will be bad. Things are going in the wrong direction for us.”

Of course, the Yankees won the World Series twelve times in the 23 years following Lou Gehrig’s retirement, including a five-year stint in which they won every series.

Sometime people talk about the church in the same way: “This year will be bad. Church people aren’t what they used to be. Things are going in the wrong direction for us.” But this is a distorted view, if ever there was one. Jesus’s church will not fail. The kingdom of God will win.

This message looks at Matthew 16:18: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 NKJV). God’s kingdom and Jesus’s church will prevail. Listen and be encouraged.

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I AM: The Door for the Sheep (Series: Allow Me to Introduce Myself)

I was speaking at a conference years ago. During the break a woman came up and introduced herself. She was a Christian who had married a reformed con man after he found Jesus and had been released on parole. It turned out, however, that he had not reformed, only revised his approach. He became a minister and started his own religious radio program in Northeastern Ohio. She told me that money was pouring in from listeners who were inspired by his spiritual cant. All the while, he was living a godless life, sleeping with his secretary, and laughing all the way to the bank.

In this text, we’ll look at how Jesus differentiates himself from religious leaders who use people rather than help them. The passage (John 10:1-10) contains one of the two great “I Am” statements that Jesus felt compelled to repeat: “I AM the door.” In the infinite wall that divides us from the richly satisfying life God intends for us, there is a door – a way in. That door is Jesus.

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The Power of Idolatry and the Idolatry of Power

Photo by Wisnu Widjojo on Unsplash

The last sentence in St. John’s first letter is: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” It’s placement as the apostle’s final word gives it substantial weight. He clearly regarded it as important.

We do not. The sentence hardly seems to fit our postmodern era. Idols were a part of their culture, not ours. Humanity has advanced beyond our ancestors’ crude worship, lavished as it was on lifeless, heartless symbols and images.

Think again. Consider the images that we have endowed with power: the apple with a bite taken out of it (Apple Corporation); the golden arches (McDonald’s); five yellow bars, radiating out like sunrays (Walmart); the smirky gold smile (Amazon). These images connote power, even world dominance.

One year out from the U.S. general election, I can think of two other symbols that connote power. The Donkey and the Elephant. They promise to their respective worshipers the same kind of things that idol worship has always offered: control, comfort, and a better life.

In idolatry, a non-divine power subverts human worship for itself and usurps humanity’s God-given authority to exercise dominion over the world. Such dominion – loving, wise, and just – remains a human responsibility, but idolatry robs humanity of the authority to fulfill it. The responsibility to rule is outsourced to someone or something else – corporations, media influencers, governments, and more.

When our practice of politics becomes idolatrous, we give away our authority to make the world a better place while at the same time excusing ourselves from the responsibility of doing so. The cost of idolatry is always high: the loss of human freedom. When we sacrifice to any idol, including the images of the Elephant and the Donkey, the sacrificial victim inevitably turns out to be us. Worshiping God empowers us. Worshiping anything else dehumanizes us and robs us of our power.

That we have made politics an idol is evidenced by our abdication of responsibility to do something about our own problems. For example, a person who has made politics an idol will say he is concerned about saving traditional marriage but do little to save his own marriage. A person who casts her vote in the hope of improving race relations but does nothing to welcome people of other races and ethnicities into her life may be an idolater.  

Of course there are things we can do together that we cannot do alone, and for those things the collective power we can exercise through government is necessary. But if we are not doing what we could do as individuals; if we are surrendering our authority and responsibility to government, we are flirting with idolatry.

When we trust some power other than God to make our lives or the world better and offer our devotion to it, it quickly begins to take over God’s rightful place in our lives. We become dependent on it. We (to use the language of biblical discipleship) “follow it,” probably on Facebook and Twitter, the cable news networks and in print. If we see that our idol is under siege, we become fearful.

An intelligent, informed worship of God brings the worshiper peace and self-control, but the worship of an idol always brings fear and agitation. If this is true, and if politics has become an idol for many people, we would expect to find anxiety, distress and anger surrounding the practice of politics in our nation. We would expect to see people lose control and act like the world will fall apart should their party fail to gain ascendancy. In other words, we would see exactly what we are seeing.

America is not being torn apart by politics but by the idolatry of politics. Politics is good and right in its place and America has as good a system for doing politics, because of our constitution, as any nation in the world. But while politics is right in its place, it is wrong in God’s place; in fact, it is a devil. This is where many Americans now stand (or kneel): in front of the idol that is politics. We, who say, “In God we trust,” must repent of this and reserve that sacred spot for God alone.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Is Time-Change a Real Thing?

Photon by Luis Cortes on Unsplash

Historians attribute the idea of Daylight Savings Time (DST) to a New Zealand entomologist named George Vernon Hudson. Near the end of the 19th century, Hudson presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society, recommending a two-hour time-shift in October, which would be reversed in March. Apparently, the entomologist wanted more daylight hours to search for insects.

The idea evoked interest but failed to get traction. Ten years later, an Englishman named William Willet lobbied to make twenty-minute time changes on four consecutive Sundays in April, then invert the process on four Sundays in September.

It was the Canadians who first tried the idea in 1908 and the Germans who went wholesale for the idea in 1916. The German rationale for the change was that longer daylight hours would mean less artificial lighting, thereby saving fuel that could be used by the military in the First World War. The idea soon caught on in England and France.

The U.S. was late to the game. Though the nation tried it briefly in 1918, they jumped off the bandwagon in 1919, and did not get back on until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Time Act in 1966. But in 1967, the people of Arizona and Michigan rebelled, and returned to standard time and Indiana didn’t get on board as a state until 2006.

Does DST really help us? The initial rationale for the change – that the country would save energy – turned out to be misleading. While DST slightly decreases the use of energy for lighting, it also increases the use of energy for heating and cooling.

Personal energy is also negatively affected by DST, which makes it easier for people to stay up later but does nothing to delay start times at work the next day. That means many of us get less sleep – and this in a nation where the CDC says almost one out of four people don’t sleep enough.

It’s nice to have an extra daylight hour in the evening to enjoy the outdoors, but is the trade-off worth it? Perhaps we should stop messing with time. We really aren’t very good at it. In fact, we’re not good at it at all. We can’t save daylight hours. We can only change our clocks to create the illusion that daylight begins later and ends later. Only God can actually save time.

The philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that God is not bound by time. “He can act forward, backward, and sideways” in time. This is because God is eternal and all time is constantly present to him. “From eternity,” Kreeft writes, “time is manipulable: expandable, compressible, reversible, divisible.”

This seems to fit the outlook of great saints and biblical authors. St. Peter writes, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Kreeft comments: God “plays time like an accordion, expanding and contracting it at will…As an author can move backward or forward in a story, God can move in time.”

If St. Peter is right, God’s relationship to time has significant implications for us. As Kreeft points out, God can answer prayers before (from our limited time-perspective) we ask and, strangely, after we are dead.

Because of God’s relationship to time, our uncertainties about the future, even our fears and worst-case scenarios, are of less consequence than we realize. The God who is committed to us is already there, in our future, even at the occasion of our death. He knows we will be alright and knows what he will (again, from our perspective, not his) do. Our fears do not faze him.

This also means, as Professor Kreeft points out, that our present is well in hand – God’s hand. Apart from God, time is to us a “wild beast or a slave driver.” But when we give our time to God, it is transformed and tamed. Where time touches eternity, that is, where God touches time, it becomes malleable or, as Kreeft vividly describes it, it becomes “silly putty” in his hands.

This is why the biblical poet breathed a sigh of relief when he realized, in his words: “My times are in your hands.” That was right where he wanted them to be.

First Published by Gatehouse Media

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