Monday, June 18, 2018

‘I’m With Him’

Being a journalist for most of my life has had its perks. Lucrative compensation wasn’t among them, unfortunately, but I did get to go to some interesting places. I had the privilege of meeting the late, highly respected Dr. Richard Halverson in the U.S. Senate Building when he was chaplain of the Senate. I got to go up to an exclusive restaurant atop one of the World Trade Center towers several years before they were destroyed by terrorists. 

A constable took me inside the police headquarters in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I even toured the inside a new electronic scoreboard at Ohio Stadium while the football mecca was being renovated some years back. Who knew those scoreboards are so huge, you could take up residence in one?

In each case, I couldn’t just stroll in on my own accord. I was with someone authorized to let me enter and guide me through. Although it never happened, if someone had challenged whether I was entitled to be allowed in, I would have just pointed to my host and said, “I’m with him.”

What if it’s like that when our earthly tour has come to an end and we’re standing in front of the proverbial “pearly gates”? What if, as some of us were taught in the door-to-door evangelism script, we encounter God at the entrance and He asks, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?” Maybe, instead of trying to recount the meritorious things we said and did, we’ll simply point to Jesus and say, “I’m with Him.”

Because that’s what the Scriptures teach over and over. For instance, Romans 5:8 asserts, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” As a friend used to paraphrase this verse years ago, “Christ took the rap for me.” 

Another passage in the same book elaborates the “with Him” concept in unequivocal terms: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with”  (Romans 6:4-6).

Yet another “with Him” passage revolutionized my thinking – and my faith – when I read, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

During His time walking the earth, Jesus loved the relationships He built with His followers. Mark 3:14 states, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” Much in the gospels speaks about interactions Jesus had with His closest disciples. But the Scriptures also tell of how He eagerly anticipates our being with Him in the life to come.

In fact, 1 John 3:2 declares we not only will be with Christ, but “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

So one day, if the hypothetical question is asked, “Why should I let you into My Heaven,” we can respond not only, “I’m with Him,” but we’ll also make the amazing discovery that we’re like Him. The eternal family resemblance, apparently, will be unmistakable! 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Another Ho-Hum Father’s Day?

This Sunday we’ll observe Father’s Day, another philanthropic event to bolster the greeting card industry and retail store sales. “What should we get Dad this year? Another tie?” “Dad doesn’t wear ties anymore, remember?” “Oh, yeah. How about a tool – does he need another hammer, or some screwdrivers? How about some more fishing lures?”

Father’s Day seems to lack the fanfare of Mother’s Day. In some respects, rightly so. After all, Mom carried Junior and little Susie around for nine months before Dad got into the act. In fact, I’ve explained the reason I was born in Giessen, Germany was simple: My mom had gone to be with my dad, stationed there in the Army. And I wanted to be close to her at the time.

It’s also true that the majority of single-parent homes are headed by women, all the more reason for moms to receive special honor and recognition. Working, often more than one job, and trying to raise kids alone at the same time, deserves tons of credit. Still, I think the father’s role is greatly underestimated and underappreciated.

Consider: TV ads for Mother’s Day run for weeks; commercials for Father’s Day appear mostly the week before, almost an afterthought. In TV shows, fathers are frequently portrayed as clueless buffoons. If not, they appear in the negative, as overbearing, abusive, or indifferent. If there’s a national Society for the Affirmation of Dads (SAD), I’d suggest they find a better PR firm.

Happy Father's Day!
Perhaps, being a dad and grandfather myself, I’m biased. But maybe it’s time we started giving fathers a benefit of the doubt. The job’s not easy, even for the most dedicated.

Without question, some fathers fit the descriptions above. But most fathers are making an effort, albeit imperfectly, but trying as best they can. Women seem more instinctive when it comes to relationships with their kids, perhaps because of their nine-month head start on the dads. My own father, a good, hard-working and faithful man, wasn’t the most nurturing, outwardly expressive person. But he was always there, ready to lend a hand whenever needed.

Factions of society seem intent on diminishing the role and importance of fatherhood, as if dads aren’t needed at all. A friend who works with young people in middle and high schools tells me that in some schools, up to 75 percent of the kids come from single-parent homes – most headed by women.

It’s politically incorrect to say so these days, but that wasn’t God’s design. From the start, the Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), and He wasn’t just referring to companionship and recreation. Because soon after, Adam and Eve began having children. They started by raising Cain, then had another as soon as they were Abel. (Sorry for the puns. No I’m not!) Anyway, God never said, “Okay, Adam, Eve’s pregnant. Your work here is done.”

One of my favorite Scripture verses is Ecclesiastes 4:9, which says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” This principle certainly applies to the work world, team sports, and even in tackling a household project. But nowhere is it more relevant than in the realm of parenting. Most moms do a great job when they have to go it alone, but in collaboration with a caring, devoted dad, chances are really good they’ll produce some outstanding kids.

Ultimately, we have our Heavenly Father, the One who has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). And think of the incredible love, mercy and grace of this Father who, as John 3:16 tells us, “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

If this is the first time you’ve encountered this verse, you might think, “What kind of father is this?!” But it makes great sense when we realize that in Jesus Christ, God took on human form, not only to serve as our model and teacher, but also to become the necessary atoning sacrifice – theologians term it the “propitiation” – for the sins of mankind. It’s available to all who will believe in Him, placing their total trust and faith in Him and what He has done for us.

As for us earthly dads, we’re without excuse. If we need a good example of what a real father should look like, all we need to do is consult the Scriptures. This is the reason Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

Monday, June 11, 2018

Plain Truth and Main Things

Have you ever followed a literal rabbit trail? I haven’t, but having watched the course a typical rabbit takes, I imagine one would meander in multiple directions, depending on what happens while the rabbit’s hopping. However, I have taken many a figurative rabbit trail.

Sometimes in talking with someone, the conversation takes a sudden shift and I’m focusing on a different topic altogether. Later, I might even wonder how we got there from where we had been talking.

Christian theology is beset by rabbit trails of that sort. Although the Scriptures are printed in black and white (if you have a “red letter” edition highlighting Jesus’ words, also in red), there’s a lot of gray. For instance, where do the dinosaurs fit into the creation scenario? Or, what did Jesus really look like? 

These “gray areas” might lead Christians to debate – even argue over – matters such as what form baptism should take, what version of the Bible to read, who qualifies for leadership roles, what type of music is most suitable for worship, or exactly when the end times will arrive and how they will affect those still living and breathing.

It’s not that such concerns are unimportant, but as the late Ted DeMoss used to say, we’ve got to keep “the main thing the main thing.” Listening to Alistair Begg on the radio recently, he said something similar: “In the Bible, the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.”

Exactly what does that mean? I think DeMoss and Begg both were saying that although some elements of the Christian faith are disputable, and things in the Bible that are hard for even the most astute theologian to understand, there are plenty of truths and principles plainly expressed. Crystal clear. And those are the “main things” upon which God wants us to focus.

For instance, are there many ways to God? Is it “multiple choice,” depending on one’s preference or inclination? Jesus emphatically said no. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He also stated, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Such statements leave us with only three options: Either Jesus was lying; He was a lunatic, with a mentality comparable to a poached egg (as C.S. Lewis put it); or was telling the truth – He was God in the flesh.

What about earning eternal life on the basis of the good we do, weighed against the bad? That’s certainly one of the Bible’s main things, but it’s also very plain. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). And Titus 3:5 affirms this reality, declaring, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

Okay, what about striving to live for God after we become saved by faith through His grace? Are we saved by grace but sanctified by sweat? What Jesus told His followers 2,000 years ago remains true today: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Plenty of other “main things” are plain in the Scriptures, but one of the most important is the final thing Jesus commanded before His ascension to Heaven: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). 

More than anything, Jesus wants others to know Him, follow Him, and be fruitful in living out all that He and the Scriptures teach. As the apostle Paul wrote, asserting another main thing, We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

What we commonly call “the Christian life” isn’t easy, but it’s simple. All we need to do is study and apply the plain things. After all, they are the main things.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Impact of One Person

“I want to make a difference!” How often have you heard these words – or expressed them yourself? Have you ever wondered what difference you’re actually making in this world, if any? 

Many aging Baby Boomers wonder about this. Having devoted their lives to the pursuit of success and fulfillment, they’re hoping to have accomplished something of lasting significance. People who work in “behind the scenes” professions, where their work is unlikely to merit much public notice, often wonder what difference they’re making in society. From experience, I know that writers, largely a solitary, introverted lot, pour our hearts onto a page or computer screen not knowing who’s reading what we write. Or how they’re responding.

Some people dismiss the what difference am I making question altogether, replacing it with the more skeptical, “What difference can one person make anyway?” How can a single individual have an noteworthy effect on more than a handful of folks in their immediate sphere of influence?

Maybe that was the motivation behind the mournful Three Dog Night song of late ‘60s, “One Is the Loneliest Number.” Yes, usually we can accomplish much more working with others than we can alone. But let’s not underestimate the impact of one person.

Anne Sullivan (right) works with deaf and blind
Helen Keller in this public domain photo from
the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Think of Desmond Doss, the conscientious objector in World War II portrayed in the film, “Hacksaw Ridge.” Doss refused to carry a weapon because of his religious convictions, but serving in the unarmed role of medic was personally responsible for saving the lives of dozens of wounded soldiers. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his acts of bravery and selflessness.

Or consider author, activist and lecturer Helen Keller, who became the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. It was her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who was able to break through young Helen’s sensory isolation, helping her to communicate, learn, and develop into a highly accomplished woman despite her disabilities.

As we read the Scriptures, we find numerous examples of God using individuals to carry out His purposes. Noah and his ark, as well as Jonah the reluctant prophet, come to mind. There was Joseph, responsible for bringing the people of Israel to Egypt during a devastating famine, and even Rahab, a prostitute who protected the Israelite spies as they sized up Jericho.

But there’s someone else who was called to my attention recently: Philip the apostle, who had an unexpected encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In the story, recounted in Acts 8, an angel directed Philip to meet the official, a key aide to the queen of Ethiopia.

The unnamed man was in his chariot, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that refers to the coming Messiah. Recognizing the Ethiopian was struggling to understand what it meant, “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Placing his trust in Christ, the official spotted some water along the roadside and asked Philip to baptize him to confirm his new faith.

Almost immediately afterward, God’s Spirit whisked Philip away from there, and the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). But the story doesn’t end there. Christian historians say this individual not only held to his faith, but was used by God to establish the Church not only in Ethiopia but also throughout Africa.

Philip’s obedient encounter with this man might have been brief, but the impact was profound – and it continues to this day. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

So, the next time you’re asking yourself, “What difference can I make?”, remember the answer: Only God knows.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Curse of Not Living in the Moment

Maybe it’s the nature of a writer, requiring intense concentration to properly tackle the task at hand – whether it be an article, a book, or even an email. But when I’m “in the zone,” anything that interrupts my train of thought can be as disconcerting as having your car bumped from behind while sitting at a traffic light.

If my wife walks into my office to ask a question, or the grandkids stop by unexpectedly, I’m torn. I want to spend time with them, but there’s this “train” chugging along in my mind and I dare not let it get derailed.

I used to think I was alone in this, that it was just inherent selfishness and preoccupation with literary mission that caused me to often regard disruptions as inconveniences, rather than pleasant surprises. Then I read an entry in Philip Yancey’s excellent devotional book, Grace Notes, that confirmed this inclination isn’t unique to me.

Yancey wrote, “I tend to approach life as a sequence rather than as a series of moments. I schedule my time, set goals, and march onward toward their achievement. Phone calls, or any unscheduled event, I view as a jarring interruption. How different from the style of Jesus, who often let other people – interruptions – determine his daily schedule.”

Of course, you don’t have to be a writer to feel this way. All kinds of people feel annoyed when someone breaks their concentration. Heck, lots of folks hate being disturbed while watching TV, reading a book, or playing a video game on their smartphone.

Contrast that, as did Yancey, to “the style of Jesus,” whom we often see having His plans disrupted by individuals and by crowds. And without complaining at all. 

We see this early in each of the gospel accounts of His life. Matthew 4:24 tells us, “News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyze, and he healed them. Large crowd…followed him.”

Mark 1:40-41 recounts when “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean. Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.”

In neither case, or in the many other similar “unscheduled” encounters Jesus had during His earthly ministry, did He said, “Oh, man! What’s up with these people? Don’t they know I’m busy, that I’ve got more pressing things to do?” No, because as Yancey wrote, that wasn’t Jesus’ “style.” He perfectly mastered the distinction between the important and the merely urgent.

Sometimes I wonder how many opportunities I’ve ignored or missed out on, simply because I wasn’t willing to let others impose on or even reset my agenda for the moment. The Scriptures talk about “redeeming the time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). In other words, unlike money or other material possessions, we can’t acquire more of it. Once time is gone, it’s gone, never to be redeemed.

The refrain from the old hit song, recorded by Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and many others, comes to mind: “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.” 

Speaking of which, a couple of our grandkids just arrived for a visit. Guess this would be a good time to take a break. See ya later!