Thursday, May 30, 2019

Utilizing the ‘MMA’ for Spiritual Growth

Are you familiar with MMA? If not, it stands for Mixed Martial Arts, a sport that includes boxing and a mix of other combative techniques. The reason I ask is because every day we are all involved a battle – spiritual in nature – and one way of achieving victory is through another type of MMA: Memorization, Meditation and Application.

Spiritual growth, I’ve discovered, isn’t a continual upward trajectory. Initially it might seem that way, but sooner or later everyone hits a plateau, maybe even slips back a bit. We and Jesus don’t just ride off into the sunset without ever looking back.

This can be disconcerting because we live in an instant, right-now society. We’d like to become spiritual giants immediately; we don’t want to go through the daily grind that maturing in our walk with Christ requires. But we don’t have any choice in the matter.

Many books have been written about the process of growing in our faith, so I won’t try to present a simple how-to here. But if we can get a handle on the importance of “spiritual MMA,” that would be a good start.

Years ago, The Navigators developed what they called the “Word Hand Illustration,” representing five methods for effectively taking in the Word of God. The five fingers represent hearing, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating. This have proved helpful for my own spiritual growth, and I’m going to focus briefly on the importance of Memorization and Meditation. But I think the “hand” might need a sixth finger - Application. Thus, the “MMA.”

Most of us have heard the Word preached and taught through sermons, or at conferences and retreats. Reading the Bible is an excellent habit some of us maintain on a daily basis. And the most industrious of us study the Scriptures, perhaps by reading slowly and thoughtfully or using supplemental tools like commentaries and concordances.

But when it comes to memorizing Scripture, or meditating on it, I suspect fewer of us are actively involved in these practices. And it’s to our detriment.

“I can’t memorize things!” people say. Really? We all know phone numbers, home addresses, names of family members and friends (sometimes even their birthdates), our Social Security number, and the days, times and channels our favorite TV shows come on. There are lots of other things we memorize. So the excuse, “I can’t memorize,” isn’t valid unless we have a true memory disability. It all comes down to this: If it’s important enough to remember, we can memorize it if necessary.

I used to fall into the “I can’t memorize Bible verses” camp myself, until I realized that through repetition I had learned passages like Psalm 1, Psalm 100 and Psalm 23 (“the shepherd’s psalm") even as a boy. That was when the Bible could still be read in public schools; too bad that’s no longer the case.

But as an adult, I still didn’t think Scripture memory was for me. Then my wife and I attended a marriage conference where the speakers said memorizing meaningful Bible verses would be helpful. They got us started by teaching 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” That was it – three words. In short order I had succeeded in memorizing my first verse. 

Then I found an even easier verse that immediately preceded the one I had just learned: “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Wow! Two verses and five words launching my Scripture memory journey.

Soon afterward I got into a small group discipleship program that included learning a total of 65 verses over a period of two years. They weren’t all as simple as the first two I memorized, but this practice proved foundational for my spiritual growth early on. As King David wrote, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).

That “hiding God’s Word in my heart” became real not only through rote memorization but also through meditation. No, I didn’t sit with legs crossed yoga-style, mumbling some mantra. But I did spend a lot of time pondering not just the words but also what they meant. This brought to mind a verse from one of those psalms I had memorized in my boyhood: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

Preacher Charles H. Spurgeon used to explain that in reviewing Bible passages for his sermons, he would ask, “What does it say? What does it mean? What difference does it make?” This led me to the third part of MMA – application. In fact, I realized that sometimes the best way to memorize a verse or Bible passage, particularly one that was long and complicated, was to put it into practice. 

One of the verses I found especially helpful in this regard was 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Pondering this verse I concluded that the Word of God is not only inspired by Him through His Spirit, but it’s also intended for practical use in our everyday life.

There’s much more I could say about this, but I’d like to close by asking: Are you taking advantage of “MMA” for the spiritual battles we face each day? 

In the sixth chapter of Ephesians, we read about the “armor of God,” and the one offensive weapon of this armor is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Without striving for mastery of God’s Word, it’s like going to war with guns but no bullets. Is it time you got your ammunition?

Monday, May 27, 2019

If Saved By Faith, Why Do Good Works?

When you hear about someone being called a good person, what comes to mind? Does that mean they have an agreeable personality or demeanor? Is it someone who’s always doing kind things for others? Is it somebody who meticulously avoids breaking any laws?

At funerals I’ve heard the deceased described as “a good Christian man” or :a good Christian woman.” Is that to be compared to a “bad Christian man” or woman? 

The Bible doesn’t mince words announcing, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). To ensure we don’t miss this surprising assessment, we find similar statements elsewhere: “… There is no one who does good…. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1,3). Psalm 53:1-3 offers a nearly identical statement.

In a psalm of repentance, King David prays, “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). And perhaps the strongest words of all are found in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is what separates Christianity from any of the world’s other religions and belief systems. All other religions, in one way or another, tell us, “This is what you’ve got to do.” And then they present rules, regulations, laws, principles and philosophies intended to make us right with God (or whatever they call the divine). Maybe. If you’re lucky.

By contrast, rather than “do this” or “do that,” the essence of the Christian faith is summed up in one word: “Done.” Romans 5:8 puts it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” A chapter later we read, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Other passages expand on this foundational precept, teaching us about God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, “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.”  Another verse, Titus 3:5 reaffirms this: “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, so it seems there’s nothing we can do – or could ever do – to earn our salvation, forgiveness of sins, and being brought into a right, eternal relationship with God. It’s done; but the Lord was the doer. Hmm. Does that mean we’re “home free,” that we don’t have to do anything, that we can live our lives just as we see fit without consequence? 

I like how the apostle Paul answers that question. In Romans 6:2 he argues, “May it never be!” Another translation tells us, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” But this seems to present us with a conundrum. We can’t do anything to earn God’s favor and acceptance, but we’re also told that doesn’t give us license to do whatever we choose. Then why should we “be good”? Why should we bother with doing good works?

The answer to that is simple: It’s God’s purpose for us. After we’re told we've been saved by grace through faith, and not because of anything meritorious we’ve done, Ephesians 2:10 continues, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Contrary to cultural mantras, He didn’t put us here to “grab all the gusto” or to “look out for No. 1.” He’s got lots of good stuff He wants us to do, for His honor and glory.

Other passages elaborate on this truth. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we discover the purpose of the Scriptures is “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Biblical teachings aren’t intended for us to become spiritual eggheads.

This helps us to understand another verse which has puzzled some when pondering grace vs. works. In Philippians 2:12 we’re told to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This isn’t in any sense saying we’re to work in order to receive salvation. Because the very next verse states, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). In other words, we’re to work out the life of Christ that He has already worked in.

There’s another reason our works – our character, behavior and deeds – are important. Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). 

Some of us are more than eager to share our good words, passing along concepts and truths we’ve learned during a sermon, reading a book, in Sunday school or during a Bible study. But as the adage reminds us, if our works don’t speak as loudly as our words, the less said the better. Or as Pastor Joe Aldrich put it years ago, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

My late friend Ted DeMoss used to express it this way: “We’re here to populate heaven and to de-populate hell.” The best way of doing that is through our works, consistent with our words.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Acting Like a Masterpiece

Michelangelo's "Pieta" at St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican.
When you hear the word “masterpiece,” what comes to mind? You might think about a Leonardo da Vinci work, such as the “Mona Lisa” or “The Last Supper.” Or you might consider creations from many other celebrated “old masters” like Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, or even “Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler. There are too many to mention.

If your preference is sculpture, the term masterpiece might conjure images of the “Venus de Milo,” or Michelangelo’s “David.” Last year in Rome, we viewed firsthand Michelangelo’s famed sculpture, “Pieta,” along with glorious paintings and tapestries throughout the Vatican, especially in the Sistine Chapel.
Towering rocks jutting up at
Italy's island of Capri.

For me, some of the greatest masterpieces are what we can observe in nature: a sparkling sunrise; an oceanside view of a fiery sunset; the wondrous expanse of the Grand Canyon; amazing mountain peaks and rock formations; beautiful flowers in full bloom at springtime; towering redwoods and sequoias at our national parks.

However, when the Bible talks about masterpieces, it often refers to you and me. Several translations of Ephesians 2:10 tell us, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” The New International Version translates it, “we are God’s handiwork….” But in the New Living Translation we’re told, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

You and me – God’s masterpiece. Wow! At least one other translation uses that term, while another version states we are “God’s handiwork.” The Greek word used is poiema, from which we get the word, “poem.” In the Lord’s sight, we each are like a epic poem. Meditate on that for a moment.

For many of us, an initial reaction to that thought might be, “No way! Do you have any idea what a mess I am? I’m anything but a masterpiece!” We might all feel that way at times, but that’s what God calls us in the Scriptures. In fact, earlier in the same New Testament book we’re told, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4). Putting these passages together, it says we’re God’s masterpieces, holy and blameless in His sight. Can I say it again? Wow!

If we’re honest, that doesn’t sound true as we consider our many human flaws. But it all comes down to who we’re going to believe – God, or fragile, fickle feelings?

It’s not as if the Lord is ignoring our sins and shortcomings. It’s that He’s expert at taking broken people and not just restoring us, but literally recreating us spiritually. One of my favorite verses is 2 Corinthians 5:17 which declares, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, the new has come!”

Another passage says, “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). If that’s true, if the Spirit of Jesus lives in each of us who has been born again into a new life spiritually, we indeed are masterpieces, works of art that God is still in the process of finishing.

But what if it doesn’t seem that’s true – as is sometimes the case for me? The key is not to trust feelings, which can mislead, even deceive. Our trust must be in God and His view of us. As Romans 12:2 instructs, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” Which includes rejecting our limited perspectives and accepting His promises and assurances. 

God has declared us to be His masterpieces. So we should start acting like masterpieces, recognizing we are not our own, but totally submitted to the will and purposes of the Master. After all, as Psalm 139:14 declares, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” He wants us to faithfully pursue Him and discover what He has created us to be.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Out of the Dark and Into the Light

The TV mystery begins, and it’s dark. Dark city street, dark house, dark alley. You think, “Uh-oh, here comes trouble.” Don’t people know bad stuff happens when it’s dark? Especially if they’re alone? 

Apparently while attending perpetrator school, criminals learn the best way not to get caught doing something wrong is to do it in the dark. When no one can see – at least not very well.

I remember as a kid watching the old horror and thriller movies – when they were still in black-and-white. (Those were days before blood, gore and evil got so explicit, depicted in dying color.) Whenever a scene turned dark, you knew something bad was about to happen. Darkness and danger were Siamese twins.

But we don’t have to be a hardened criminals – or movie monsters – to be enticed by the secrecy of the dark. Particularly when doing things we know we shouldn’t be doing. In the light of day, we know how to act like angels. You can almost see our little halos. But in the dark, when no one can see what we’re up to, the insidious human affliction called sin shifts into high gear.

We harbor secrets, sometimes feeling guilty about them. But because no one else knows, they hold us captive. “You call yourself a Christian? What would people think of you if they found out? You hypocrite!”

The Bible calls this being “slaves to sin.” As Romans 6:16 expresses it, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness.”

I’ll never forget receiving a phone call from an old friend years ago. He and I had met almost weekly for more than a year, working through a Bible study aimed at developing disciples for Christ. Then, because of his work schedule, we stopped meeting.

While we were meeting, it had seemed he was growing spiritually, eagerly discussing the Scriptures and even memorizing some verses. The night he called, however, my friend was wrestling with some deep, dark issues. Answering the phone I instantly could tell he was very upset. “Bob,” he said, with voice trembling, “I need a friend.” That’s all he said, over and over: “I need a friend.” 

I tried to encourage him to explain what was troubling him, but the best I could do was arrange a time and place when we could meet. As we sat down at a restaurant a couple of days later, my friend proceeded to open up about his secrets. He confessed a pattern of sinful behavior I had known nothing about during the months we met. He’d never confided this to anyone. After years of living a double life, the guilt and shame had become more than he could bear.

What I heard surprised me, but didn’t shock me. After years of discipling and mentoring other men, I’d learned you’re likely to hear anything and everything. I also understood the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:12-13, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man….” There’s no sin that any of us is incapable of doing, in thought, word or deed, apart from the saving power of Jesus Christ.

So I didn’t judge him or condemn. What I did was commend him for finally bringing his sins to light. James 5:16 tells us, Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” This is not like confessing to a pastor or priest, seeking absolution. It’s shining the light of God’s grace and mercy into one’s dark, secret world – because once revealed, besetting sins can lose their power.

Another passage from the same book gives a vivid illustration of the power of confession and repentance: “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:8-10).

This is what my friend had done, finally becoming honest with himself and submitting to the accountability of God – and a brother in Christ. For the first time, he was able to experience the truth of 1 Peter 2:9, But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

When Asking Isn’t a Risk

Have you ever seen one of those public marriage proposals at an athletic contest, when some guy in the stands arranges to have the camera trained on him and his lady love when he decides to drop to a knee and pop the question? Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if she stepped away in horror and shouted, “No way, Jose!”? As many times as those PDAs (public displays of affection) have been done, I suppose it has happened at least once or twice. I’d hate to be that guy.

Long ago I swore off punishing myself by watching “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” since they’re such a mockery of what love truly is, but I suspect an occasional repelled proposal has taken place in a climactic episode, if for no other reason than to boost ratings.

Several weeks ago I attended Ohio State’s annual spring football game, which was little more than a glorified intra-squad scrimmage. But the halftime break was highlighted by one of those, “Will you marry me?” moments. Drue Chrisman, the Buckeyes’ punter, arranged to have his girlfriend on the field so he could pop the question in front of 62,000 Scarlet and Gray-clad fans. To make sure everyone had a good view of the proceedings, the proposal was even shown on the huge stadium video screen. 

Predictably, she gave him a tear-filled “Yes!” and the crowd erupted with applause. Again I wondered, what if Chrisman’s girlfriend has said no, or even taken some time to think it over? That would have been awkward, wouldn’t it?

But of course, even though he might have felt a butterfly or two, the Buckeye kicker already knew how she would respond. So getting down on one knee must not have been all that hard. He wasn’t taking a risk. Asking questions like that are easy when you already know the answer.

This is why the words of Jesus Christ should give us such confidence and comfort. For instance, knowing the day of His crucifixion was fast approaching, the Lord desired to assure His closest followers that they wouldn’t be abandoned. “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24).

Wanting them to understand that God is not distant and unreachable, Jesus taught them how to pray expectantly. He told of a man who finally agreed to provide assistance because of a friend’s persistent requests, then assured His disciples that their prayerful petitions would be much more readily received. “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).

Often we approach the Lord tentatively, as if we’re afraid to bother Him with our needs and concerns. “God, I know You’re busy and all, having the whole universe to manage and oversee. But if it’s not too much trouble, if you wouldn’t mind….” However, the writer of Hebrews observes that just as a child has easy access to a loving father, day or night, no matter what, we shouldn’t hesitate in bringing our requests to the Lord.
“For we do not have a high priests who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

We talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and that’s what passages like these underscore. Unlike religions that assert that their deity is unknowable, our Christian faith is based on the assurance that God is personal, present and responsive.

So like the prospective groom who on bended knee asks for the hand of the woman he loves, confident he knows what her answer will be, we can approach the Lord with even greater confidence based on the promises we find in the Scriptures, coupled with His faithful, unwavering character. 

As Jesus said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7). There’s no risk involved.

Monday, May 13, 2019

An ‘Outdated’ Virtue We Should Recapture

Although I never served in the military, my father served for more than 22 years, so I’ve always said he served enough time for us both. Growing up as an Army brat, I gained an appreciation for many of the principles that embody effective military service. One of them is discipline.

We’ve all seen on TV or in the movies the images of boot camps where new enlistees are trained to follow orders, whether it’s marching in step, standing at attention, dressing sharply, making their bed every morning according to rigid specifications, and many others. As much as anything, these are designed to teach discipline. In wartime there’s no place for individuality; it’s all for one, one for all.

We see the same on display for championship sports teams. The best teams feature athletes who understand their respective roles and work together. Understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even star players must rely on the support of their teammates, and that calls for discipline.

So it’s sometimes dismaying to see the precipitous decline of discipline in our society today. Parents who refuse to discipline their children, explaining, “I want them to learn to make their own decisions.” When they’re two or three years old? Come on! Seriously? As a result, we see whining kiddos in the grocery store, annoying everyone around them while the parent scans the shelves, apparently oblivious to the commotion “little Billy” is creating.

And it doesn’t get better as they get older. Teachers report about the chaos in their classrooms and inability to manage them because they haven’t learned such things as respect, self-control, attentiveness and being quiet. Judging from video clips I’ve seen of students on college campuses, it only gets worse.

Discipline, we are led to believe, is outdated and restrictive. Certainly not in line with “Me Generation” thinking. However, it’s something the Bible addressed thousands of years ago and I believe it remains crucial for 21stcentury living. Especially with so many distractions vying for our attention, we desperately need discipline just to keep on track.

For instance, Proverbs 3:11-12 tells us, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves as a father the son he delights in.” Could it be that parents refusing to properly discipline a child are lacking in love, that they would rather avoid the hard work and inconvenience of having to say “No” or insisting that rules be followed?

Another passage, Proverbs 22:6, admonishes parents, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This doesn’t necessarily say that if we take our children to church regularly and teach them to pray, this guarantees they will be lifelong followers of Jesus Christ. It does literally mean to teach them to follow their natural bent, to determine how God designed them so they can enjoy fruitful, rewarding lives. (Hopefully following Jesus will be a part of that.)

Consider a grapevine that is regularly pruned for greater fruitfulness, and attached to fencing or stakes so it will grow properly. Jesus referred to this when He said, “I am the vine, and my Father is the gardener (vinedresser). He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:1-2).

To the uninitiated, the idea of cutting back or pruning a vine, a rosebush, hydrangeas or other plants seems counter-productive. But for experienced gardeners it makes absolute sense because they know the process stimulates future growth and health.

Years ago I heard Dr. Bruce Wilkinson, author of Secrets of the Vine,explain the difference between discipline and punishment from God’s perspective. Both can feel the same, he said, causing discomfort or even some pain, but their purpose is very different. Discipline – pruning – is designed to correct us and cause us to grow the right way spiritually, while punishment is executing judgment for wrongs. 

The writer of Hebrews expressed it succinctly: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons…. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11).

So why don’t we recapture this virtue of discipline, whether for training our children, for mastering a vocation or craft, or most important, for growing into the followers of Jesus Christ that God intends for us to be?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Thinking of Those Who Will Never Know Their Mothers

Another Mother’s Day is just a few days away, giving us another opportunity to express and demonstrate our appreciation. Not only to our moms, but also to the mothers of our own children, and all women who offer such devotion and sacrifice in caring for their sons and daughters. Thank you all, so very much!

But as the “pro-choice” vs. pro-life debate continues to ramp up, I can’t help but think of the millions of infants who will never celebrate a Mother’s Day, those unborn persons whose “moms” chose to end their lives in the womb.

Admittedly I have “skin in the game” when it comes to this: We have two grandsons whose birth mothers made courageous, selfless choices by bringing their babies to term and then, unable to take on the responsibility of raising a child, surrendered these little boys for adoption. We also have a son-in-law who, more than 50 years ago, was born to a teen-aged birth mother who also released him to be adopted, refusing to terminate her pregnancy.

How our lives would have been different if any – or all – of these birth moms had chosen to kill their babies before they were born. And because of these brave, noble decisions, two women unable to conceive biologically have had the joy and privilege of becoming “Mommy” or “Mom” to their sons.

I know terms like “kill” and “murder” for some are the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull. Fighting words. Civil discourse and common sense are so lacking in this crucial issue. While it’s difficult to dissuade the opposition, the rights of the unborn must be defended.

Before one of our granddaughters arrived on the scene, we were delighted to see her ultrasound photo. The image of pre-born Brynn was at 23 weeks, still in her second trimester. Clearly she already had all of her parts – her head, body and limbs were formed. She just wasn’t ready for life outside the womb. No doubt, even at that stage of development, she was a baby, fully human, not fetal tissue just floating around in amniotic fluid.

It’s reported that abortion centers are reluctant, and often refuse, to show pregnant women ultrasounds of their unborn babies. When I’ve shown pro-abortion friends the ultrasound image of my granddaughter, they have looked away. Why do you think that is? 

Brynn was born five weeks premature, at 35 weeks, necessitating a stay in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) of Children’s Hospital. Even at that point, according to recent legislation, had she been born in states like New York or Virginia, she would have been eligible for “termination.” Looking at her lying in the incubator, tubes attached, growing slowly and gathering strength for going to her new home, it was hard to imagine how anyone could authorize ending such a tender, promising life.

Today that same little girl, now 2, is attending preschool, singing along with her favorite songs, learning colors, and brightening the room with her mischievous smile. 

Some would argue that since I’m a man, what right do I have to tell women what they should do with their bodies? To an extent, I understand such thinking. A pregnant woman is, after all, “inconvenienced” for nine months during gestation. And if she doesn’t want a baby, or lacks the resources to care for one, isn’t it more “humane” to end the pregnancy in the womb? 

Nothing, I believe, would have been humane about not allowing a little one like Brynn – or any child – to be born and be able to experience the opportunities of this wonderful world. Or begin to fulfill the potential of God’s unique design for them. 

As Psalm 139:13-16 beautifully expresses it, “For you [Lord] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb; I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well…. All the days ordained for me were written in your book, before one of them came to be.”

This isn’t the only place where the Bible talks about the life of the unborn. In the gospel of Luke, we see the response to Jesus by prenatal John, who would become known as John the Baptist: “…Mary got ready and hurried to the town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth [her also-expectant relative]. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby [John] leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:39-41).

How can we read such passages and assert the Bible says nothing about the personhood of the unborn or aborting them?

Even more tragic, in many cases there’s more than one victim of an abortion. In 2017, the Journal of American Surgeons and Physicians published a study of 1,000 women showing that for the vast majority of them, abortions had not made their lives better; many needed post-abortion counseling. 

Studies also have shown abortion can cause future infertility and miscarriage, and other medical studies have found post-abortive women run a higher risk of mental health disorders and substance abuse. These facts, of course, are typically ignored or excluded from the abortion debate.

So on this eve of Mother’s Day, I’d like to again congratulate all moms and wish them a wonderful day. We owe you much gratitude for giving us life. For those birth moms who have unselfishly offered their babies to be adopted by loving parents, thank you! You’ve made someone else’s Mother’s Day. And for women who have undergone abortions and suffered pain in the aftermath, may God grant you peace, comfort, and the restoring power of His grace and mercy.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Worship in the Workplace

What does worship mean to you? I’m not referring to “worshiping” a favorite entertainer or musician, sports team, or the most important person in your life. My question pertains to true worship – giving adoration and praise to our Creator.

For many of us, worship occurs in a sanctuary or another place where prescribed activities take place. We hear or recite some prayers, participate in a liturgy or engage in a less formalized plan for the service, sing or listen to hymns and/or songs, and hear a sermon or message delivered that typically is based on the Scriptures. Then we leave, worship over.

Worship can also take place at a conference or during a retreat. For some, attending a Christian concert is a worshipful experience. Some believe they can worship God in nature; to some extent that’s true. God created everything, whether it’s majestic mountains, dense forests filled with furry creatures, or beaches resounding with the steady crashing of waves.

But have you ever thought of worshiping – at work?

This isn’t about worshiping your job or career, as a workaholic might. No, it involves showing up at your workplace – whether it’s an office, a conference room, a construction project, classroom, restaurant or retail store – with the attitude you’re there to serve God and others in His name.

Work has always been God’s idea, entrusting the stewardship and maintenance of His creation to us. In Genesis 1:28 we read, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground…. I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.'”

Some theologians refer to this as “the cultural mandate” – the Lord delegating the oversight of His created world to humankind. In myriad ways, we’re to work and care for everything He has made as a caretaker would oversee a wealthy person’s property. In some respects we haven’t done a very good job, but it's still part of our calling as children of God.

The Lord promises to provide for our needs, but often that provision comes through our work. The apostle Paul pointed out work should not be regarded as optional. Writing to believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica, he said, For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat'" (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Throughout history, great artists and composers have viewed their work as a divine calling, their endeavors for God’s glory. I observed this in frescos, murals and sculptures displayed in Vatican City, and we can hear it in compositions by the likes of George Frideric Handel (“The Messiah”), Johann Sebastian Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) and many others.

Writing to Christ followers in ancient Colossae, Paul wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:17,23-24).

Our workplaces can serve as some of the best settings for sharing our faith in Jesus Christ as well. When Jesus gave His Great Commission to “go into all the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), He didn’t instruct us to merely invite them to attend church with us. Literally He meant “as you are going,” which includes our reporting for work each day.

The young woman understood this when asked what kind of work she did. She replied, “I’m a disciple of Christ, cleverly disguised as an administrative assistant.”

When ambassadors are appointed, they venture into foreign lands to serve as their nation’s representatives. Similarly, we’re to be God’s representatives to communicate His Good News of forgiveness and redemption to people who need to hear it. As Paul wrote, 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).

How are we to do this? One way is in how we approach our work. The Scriptures teach, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

As we perform our job responsibilities, we’re hopefully doing so in a manner that raises questions through our commitment to integrity, excellence, initiative and faithfulness. When people become curious, we’re to be ready to respond: “But in your hearts set apart 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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15).

What better way to worship God than to be an outstanding worker for our company or organization, earning such respect that we gain opportunities to tell others about Him?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

God and the Cathedral

A view of the ceiling and top of an altar at St. Peter's in the Vatican.
Through my travels, I’ve had opportunities to visit many beautiful centers of worship. Most recently my wife and I were in Rome, where we toured the Vatican, including St. Peter's cathedral and the Sistine Chapel. While in Venice we saw St. Mark’s, another architectural marvel, and in Assisi, the grand church where St. Francis is reported to have been buried.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan.
During a trip to New York City a few years ago, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in the United States. While in Savannah, Ga., we toured Christ Church, a comparatively modest chapel built through the efforts of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. But even in its wood-hewn simplicity, the stain-glassed interior spoke volumes about devotion to Jesus.

And when I toured parts of Hungary, Czech Republic and Germany more than 20 years ago, numerous churches caught my eyes, including one in Dresden that endured much damage during World War II, being rebuilt only after a half-century of Communist rule in East Germany. The centuries-old artwork and craftsmanship in each of these churches serve as testaments to the artisans’ faith in the God of the Bible.

Reports of the fire that destroyed parts of the iconic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France turned my thoughts to the wondrous edifices I’ve seen. Having never been to “the city of lights,” I’ve not viewed the famed cathedral firsthand, but can imagine the creative expressions of faith it has contained through its history. For countless thousands who have toured it, as well as Parisians who have walked in its shadow, the inferno that claimed the cathedral’s roof, spire and some of its contents was tragic. 

Christ Church chapel outside
near Savannah, Ga.
Then I began to wonder what God thought about it. Not to diminish the artistry that was destroyed, but I suspect the Lord wasn’t nearly as upset as were many connoisseurs of history and art.

We find clues in the Old Testament. After King David of Israel stated his desire to build a temple for God, the Lord responded through the prophet Nathan: 
“… Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day…. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”(2 Samuel 7:1-7).

Preparing to commence with construction of the temple, using gold and silver, bronze and iron, cedar and other materials collected by his father, King Solomon announced,“The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other gods. But who is able to build a temple for him, since the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who then am I to build a temple for him, except as a place to burn sacrifices before him?” (2 Chronicles 2:5-6).

Then, upon completion of the temple Solomon conceded, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!... May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there’…” (1 Kings 8:27-29).

Despite its grandeur, this lavish focal point for the Israelites’ worship was eventually destroyed by enemy armies. All that remains are the detailed biblical descriptions of how it was constructed and what it looked like. God, being all-powerful, could have preserved the temple. However, in the New Testament we discover He had a very different plan.

The historic church
at Assisi, Italy.
Rather than bricks and mortar, or even the finest metals and most exquisite pieces of art, the Lord prefers a human habitation. As the apostle Paul wrote to believers in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Paul also wrote, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The apostle Peter reinforced this when he stated, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

So reflecting on the fire that recently claimed portions of the historic cathedral in Paris, it’s no doubt a loss in terms of the blood, sweat and tears of the artists and workers who gave so much of their lives to its creation. But based on the passages above, God is much more concerned about the cathedrals – the temples – He is building and refining within each of us. 

It's a reminder that when we “go to church,” we as “temples of God” are congregating for collective worship and praise. And when we depart, we “temples” return to our homes, to work, to school, and wherever we go. By combining our unique talents, gifts and expertise, we can form a Church that pales the Notre Dame cathedral, or any religious edifice, by comparison.