Knowing and Doing God’s Will

How does God lead His sons and daughters? Sometimes His will seems mysterious—maybe just beyond reach. In many circumstances of life, however, Scripture provides clear instructions about God’s desires for our lives. The challenge in such moments is not so much knowing God’s will but in actually doing it. For example, every husband is to sacrificially love his wife. He need never wonder about God’s will in that regard!

Here are a few biblical passages that (very clearly) express God’s will for each one of us:

  • It is God’s will to invest our time wisely and to not be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Instead we are to live under the influence of—and be continually filled by—the Holy Spirit. God also wills that we gather to encourage one another and express thanks in every situation. (Ephesians 5:15-21)
  • It is God’s will that we rejoice and pray with thanksgiving in every situation while submitting to the Holy Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22)
  • It is God’s will that we yield to the Holy Spirit who will sanctify or make us holy in our choices and actions. Paul specifically adds that it is God’s will to abstain from sexual immorality in every form because God has called us to live pure lives. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

I don’t ever need to wonder if God wants me to give thanks in every situation—including life’s most difficult moments. He has already said so! I don’t need to waste mental energy asking myself if I should yield to the Holy Spirit’s influence in my life, rather than trying to solve every problem in my own strength. He has already made that abundantly clear.

My problems really boils down to doing more than knowing.

Let’s consider a broader question: “Does God have a specific plan (will) for each area of our lives, or are we free to choose things like where to live or work? I used to believe something like this: “God doesn’t care as much where I serve as why. He cares more about my motivation than the location.” I am still convinced that God deeply cares about the motives governing my decisions. But it’s also true that what I “want” may not be what God wills.

While ministering in Bend, I occasionally received a telephone call from a seminary grad or a pastor in the Midwest stating that God was calling them to plant a church in our city. They were looking for my counsel (or so they said). After a few minutes I would ask, “Why do you feel called specifically to Bend?” When the answers became a little vague and cloudy I would ask, “Do you like to ski or fish?” Often there was a clumsy silence before a mumbled “yes.” The ornery side of me assumed Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort or the Deschutes River was calling them to Bend. Those who eventually came to Bend (attracted by our quality of life) seldom lasted more than a couple of years before God “changed His mind” and sent them back home.

Sometimes, however, God still leads us like He did with the apostle Paul in Acts 16:6-10. Several times Paul’s plans to minister in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) were stifled. Doors slammed shut. I assume Paul’s motives were pure; he wanted to preach the gospel and plant churches. None of these locations offered a unique quality of life to attract Paul’s team. God simply closed the door.

After these Holy Spirit red flags, Paul received a vision of a man from Macedonia (northern Greece) saying, “Come over and help us.” That plea was like saying “fetch” to a Golden Retriever.I love the way Luke describes Paul’s response. “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Immediately they left for Greece. Doors in Asia Minor had been closed to reveal an open door to bring the gospel to Europe.

I can identify with the story because God clearly revealed His plan for my life when He called us to pastor a rural church in Ohio. That’s what I want to share with you today on the Front Porch.

I chose to attend Moody Bible Institute where I met Mary. I could have chosen a dozen other colleges, but looking back I see God’s hand in my choice. Having completed our training at Moody we moved to Mary’s home town in Ohio where I could attend Ohio State University. Mary was pregnant, so I needed a job to provide for our family. I applied at North Electric, a telecommunications company. Bert, the personnel manager read my resume and noticed that I had recently graduated from Moody. From that point on the job opening was off the table. Bert was convinced she had just witnessed a sign from God, because she was part of pastoral search committee for her church. They had written Moody asking if there were any alumni in the area that might consider serving as their pastor.

But that hadn’t been my plan. Not at all!

My plan (my will) was to finish OSU in a year and attend Dallas Theological Seminary. I wasn’t interested in becoming a pastor, but Mary’s pastor challenged me to at least check out Pulaskiville Community Church because, in his words, “Perhaps God was in this.”

Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to meet with the church board, but I really wanted to go to Dallas. Having read the church’s by-laws and Statement of Faith I told the board I disagreed with their doctrinal statement and stated emphatically that I was going to Dallas in a year. At that point, this Jonah set sail for Nineveh.

About six months later the church contacted me once more. They challenged me to pray about pastoring their church for one full week before finally saying no. Being upright and noble I agreed to pray. Following that week, I met the board again and laid out these conditions: “I am still planning on seminary in a year, and I will preach what I believe the Bible teaches, not your doctrinal statement.” Confident they would now reject me, I relaxed.

But they didn’t reject me. Every excuse I had offered was swept off the table. They were a desperate church; I was a begrudging candidate. Finally believing that it really was God’s will, we accepted the call and moved into the old farm-home-parsonage.

My one-year commitment to the church became seven and a half wonderful years. I grew. The church grew. My spiritual gifts were confirmed and sharpened. It was a love affair.

God had known all along what was best for me. I have always said, “Pulaskiville was better than any seminary I could have attended at that time. It was just what I needed and what the church needed.”

Next week, I want to share a few anecdotes from our ministry at Pulaskiville and introduce you to one of the men whom God gloriously saved—and who eventually served as the pastor of that same, white-frame-country-church on Morrow County Road 98

If you have experienced a time when God clearly led you by opening or closing doors, please share it with us.

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.

Two Essentials

One word, incarnation, describes how we can more effectively serve others—from the man on the corner with the cardboard sign to our next-door neighbors.

The opening words of John’s gospel describe the biblical strategy for really making a difference on our culture. It’s interesting where the apostle begins his account of Jesus’ life. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John shares nothing about shepherds, wise men, stars, or baby Jesus in a manger.

John goes way back before any of those events. He begins in eternity.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14, niv)

There it is in black and white: Our mission, model and strategy for penetrating our culture with the Good News of salvation.

Obviously, you and I can’t replicate the first three verses. We weren’t there before the beginning of time, we don’t enjoy a relationship as God’s equal, and we didn’t create the universe out of nothing.

Even so, our great Example shines with unparalleled beauty and power in the words of John 1:14. The Second Person of the Trinity took on a body of flesh to become one with us. Or to say it another way, Jesus moved in next door. This is the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.

Jesus’ disciples could clearly see what had previously been invisible. They could touch, even embrace, what had once been only spiritual. They could even break bread with God-in-flesh, drinking out of the same cup!

Jesus chose to live among people with great needs. He came “to seek and to save the lost.” One day Jesus met a man with advanced leprosy and heard the man’s plea for help. He did an amazing thing by reaching out to touch the man, an individual who hadn’t felt another human touch for years beyond memory. Even before the leprosy evaporated, that touch had begun to heal a deeper wound. The leper knew in that moment that he was loved and valued; he was no longer homeless, because Jesus had taken the time and had dared to break cultural taboos against lepers.

I can do that! So can you! There are no lepers where you or I live, but there are plenty of opportunities to touch another person with love and compassion.

Jesus also befriended another man who was considered just as untouchable as the leper. Zacchaeus was considered socially unclean. The “good” people in Jericho never broke bread with Zach. He might as well have been covered with dreaded leprosy. Yet Jesus invited Himself to spend the evening with this social outcast, eventually welcoming him into the very heart of God’s family.

You and I can do that, too. We can spend time with and eat a meal with someone outside the family of God. Yes, it might take a little looking to locate that Zach, Jeff, or Julie. They probably won’t be up halfway up a tree looking for us, but he or she may feel every bit as empty and filled with longing as Zacchaeus did in that roadside sycamore.

Finally, John adds, “We beheld His glory.” He saw God’s glory when he looked at Jesus. That really stirs me. As majestic as the universe is, God’s glory is incomparably greater. What we could never know about God from observing the Creation Jesus has demonstrated through His actions and words. God’s love, mercy and grace were on full display in the Christ. Those tender attributes of God that we love and cherish and sing about blazed from His life like the rising sun. We can, at least in part, do that today.

We can demonstrate God’s grace and mercy in our relationships. We can, in one sense, be Jesus’ hands to touch someone in need. His voice to encourage them in their discouragement, cynicism, or near despair.

Let’s say, then, that we do have such an opportunity. Where do we take the conversation? Some say we should lean toward grace, and avoid speaking words of truth that might offend. We must “adjust” the truth to make it more palatable. Others may lean more heavily on the truth side. If the truth hurts, so be it. Let them have it! Truth, however, is not a weapon to bruise, but a map pointing the way out of darkness into light.

Jesus always held truth and love in perfect harmony. They were not two clashing musical notes. The Bible says that He was “full of grace and truth.” He never ignored a person’s lostness but always pointed the way home. He never diminished the Father’s holiness or minced words that needed to be spoken, and yet He always extended grace and mercy. Jesus was never rude, but He never failed to expose hypocrisy. Every sermon He preached and every conversation He had was always balanced with grace and truth.

If I am going to make a difference in my community, I must deliberately build relationships with grace and mercy but also speak the truth in love. And no one ever said that would be easy.

May I never be like the physician who fails to warn his patient about a terminal diagnosis, so that they can prepare appropriately. I need to demonstrate radical grace while sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So help me Jesus.

If you are a Christ-follower today because someone cared enough to share both truth and grace with you why not share your story with us?

Who is your Zach or Julie? What is your strategy for encouraging them to become a Christ-follower?

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. Please invite your friends to join us.

Same Kind of Difference as Me

Last week on The Front Porch Swing I shared that the only visible difference between me and the man holding a cardboard sign was I was sitting in my warm vehicle and he was outside sitting on a plastic bucket. This week, I would like to probe a little deeper into the topic of homelessness and assisting the vulnerable among us.

Obviously the man with the sign and I have unique life stories. I have always been gainfully employed and now enjoy a comfortable retirement and live in a nice home. He is homeless and may sleep in a tent or a car. He may have chosen his lifestyle, or he may be there due to alcohol or drug addiction or, perhaps, as the result of the high cost of housing in Bend. Either way, our lives could not be more different.

Our culture places us in two distinct identities. My material worth and his are galaxies apart. I am confident he doesn’t receive the same respectful treatment as me. Oh, yes; compassionate people stop to give him money or other assistance; otherwise he wouldn’t be sitting at the same corner day after day.

As divergent as our social status, we share one identity. We were both created in God’s image. We are both fallen creatures in need of God’s grace and mercy.

Back in 2006 I recommended a book, Same Kind of Different as Me, to our congregation. The book is the true story of two men in Texas whose lifestyles were dramatically different. The book was also made into a feature length movie.

Ron Hall, a wealthy, respected art trader in Dallas met Denver Moore, a black homeless ex-con from Louisiana, while Hall was volunteering at a shelter in Fort Worth. These two men, from dramatically unique backgrounds, became best friends. The take away from the story is that the relationship between these men, not free meals or a place to sleep at night, eventually enabled Denver break out of a life-time of violence and homelessness. Truth is the relationship also had a positive impact on Ron Hall.

If it is true that the deepest need of the poor among us is not more resources but relationships, how can we respond? I can’t be become a friend of every homeless person in my community. Neither can you. But, I can choose to get involved with one or two men at the Shepherd’s House. The relationship usually begins with caring for his immediate needs such as clothing or perhaps a ride to medical appointments or with a parole officer.

But, having cared for those needs is just the tip of the iceberg. The men I have helped the most were the ones I asked to help with a job around my home. Often they agreed to help me thinking they were simply volunteering. Surprising them, by giving them a generous “salary”, helped move the relationship forward. Sitting in my truck at a local drive-through coffee shop listening to their stories was part of helping them, and it also impacted me.

Last week I promised to share about another friend I have met at The Shepherd’s House. Bill, not his real name, calls me Pops. He has spent much of his five decades in prison. He knows that he is welcome in my home anytime, and we text frequently, always saying “I love you.” The transformation in Bill’s life has been phenomenal but not without struggles. Progress has had its ups and downs. Sometimes the struggle has been so severe he has considered running away- his old default pattern. But, our relationship has been one of the anchors encouraging him to stay and fight through the struggle.

I was humbled one day as I overheard Bill sharing his story with a group of our friends. He shared that the turning point in his life began when I invited him out for pie and coffee. His past life on the streets conditioned Bill to question my motivation for inviting him to meet with me. But, through sharing life together, his life has changed. His deepest need when he came to the Shepherd’s House was not a warm place to sleep or even the recovery program or occasional financial assistance I provided. His greatest need was relationships with other followers of Jesus. I was just one of them, but my life has also been influenced in so many positive ways.

The challenge of helping the poor and the broken image-bearers among us is great. But, how can we help them? I offer a few suggestions:

First, open the curtain. Pull up the shades. Ask God to help you see the needs around you through new eyes.

Secondly, pray for wisdom to know how God may want you to respond. Will it be volunteering at a local shelter? Or, providing transportation to court hearings or medical appointments?

Third, ask God to show you who might be your Bill or your Sam or Susie.

Finally, accept the risk of getting involved in their life. Perhaps it will begin with letting them choose clothing. Spend time getting to know the woman behind the sign or in the man in the mission.

Perhaps your part in the ministry will be providing financial support through your local church or the shelter ministries in your town.

But, get involved. Because God has a heart for the poor, the immigrant and the vulnerable; so should we.

It begins by realizing we are all created in God’s image. We are all needy. Some of us have resources to share.
Denver Moore, an ex-convict comparing himself with the wealthy and respectable Ron Hall, said it quite well: “Same kind of difference as me.”

I have discovered the same truth through my friendships with the men I have befriended at The Shepgerd’s House.

I would love to hear your stories of being touched and enouraged by someone else. Or, share how God has used you to encourage another broken person.

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.

Happy Dependence Day

Recently our local newspaper included a magazine insert featuring the u pcoming “Holiday” season. I deliberately sandwiched holiday in quotation marks, because political correctness now frowns on the term “Christmas” in public discourse.

Will Thanksgiving follow suit, becoming yet another purely secular holiday?

The magazine insert included several stories of Thanksgiving Day traditions of families here in Central Oregon. Only one of the stories mentioned God. It was more about recipes, football, shopping, and various Black Friday misadventures.

A local contributing editor to the same newspaper shared several reasons why she was thankful. I commend her, because her list was thorough and carefully considered.

But I couldn’t help but notice something missing. Whom was she thanking? Giving thanks requires a minimum of two persons: a grateful party, and the person receiving thanks. That is why we always say, “Thank you.”

It struck me that the secularist and atheist ultimately have no one to thank! If everything in our lives is the product of sheer chance, an arbitrary evolutionary process, then whom do we thank? Who gets the benefit of our overflowing gratitude?

Ultimately, no one at all.Every blessing we enjoy is a gift from somebody. The Christmas presents under the tree with my name on them say who they are from: my wife, my kids, my grandkids. When I receive each gift, I look into the face of a loved one and say, “Why, thank you!” And I mean it. But what about gifts like freedom of worship, a safe home, good health, good friends, laughter, the warmth of a snapping fire on a cold morning or the undeserved prosperity and plenty that so often come my way? Who gets my thanks for these?

God gets my thanks.Every gift He gives me has a label with His name attached in familiar handwriting. James writes: “Don’t be deceived, dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:16-17).

Several years ago I was the speaker at a communitywide Thanksgiving service sponsored by the evangelical churches in Bend. I chose as my topic, “The Declaration of Dependence.” No, that is not a typo. Now mind you, it was a Thanksgiving service, not a Fourth of July celebration.

We Americans, most of us at least, celebrate The Declaration of Independence from the English Crown on the Fourth of July. Thanksgiving Day ought to be our Declaration of Dependence upon God.

Giving thanks is a way of declaring my dependence on Him, confessing and acknowledging Him as the Giver of every good and perfect gift that I enjoy but too often take for granted.

Thanksgiving Day calls me back to the realization that I have been richly and uncommonly blessed by the God of heaven. And the more I realize my utter dependence on Him, the happier I am.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

So what is your response to the concept of declaring our dependence on God this Thanksgiving? Are we as a nation and culture moving away from acknowledging God on Thanksgiving Day?

What tradition does your family observe to keep thanks back in Thanksgiving?

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.

Bootstraps or Biblical Dignity?(Part 1)

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

—Micah 6:8, esv

Today we have accepted homelessness as the new norm.

I see more and more camp sites in the National Forest near my home town of Bend. An editorial in our local newspaper reported an almost 20 percent increase in homelessness in our county since 2015. Recent statistics reveal a 21 percent increase in youth homelessness in Central Oregon in 2017. Men and women, holding cardboard signs, can be found at most major intersections. I often debate with myself whether I should help them—but then the traffic light changes, and I have things to do.

The question is, “Are we helping by responding to the panhandling, or simply enabling them?” Yes, that may sound a bit harsh, but it’s a question worth considering. More importantly, how should we be involved?

My local church, Foundry Church, is deeply involved. We prepare and serve meals to almost 200 people once a month, and lunches twice a month. We provide a shower truck so homeless people can bathe and receive clean underwear, socks, and other necessities. Foundry supports The Shepherd’s House in Bend and the local Teen Challenge with both finances and hours of volunteer work.

Is it enough? Are we doing the right thing? I can hand the guy on the corner a dollar bill and feel a little better. But what if his need is deeper?

When Helping Hurts, a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, claims that many efforts to alleviate poverty may actually hurt in the long run. The greatest need people have, according to Corbett and Fikkert, is not more resources but relationships—someone to walk with them and care about them. And I would add that their greatest need of all is a personal relationship with the God who loves them.

The lack of relationships helps explain the weakness of our public welfare system.

The woman holding the sign has a name besides “homeless person.” She also has a story. She’s somebody’s daughter—and perhaps has daughters and sons of her own. Beneath those placid eyes that won’t maintain eye contact is a person created in the image of God. I can’t help but wonder how long has it been since she enjoyed a real conversation? Received a compliment? How long since she was embraced without carnal motives?

Sometimes, of course, I assume the homeless person is sitting there by choice. After all, it’s easier to ask for a handout than apply for one of the abundant job opportunities in Bend. Perhaps they just want another bottle of cheap wine or another syringe dripping with heroin. They have made their choices and now they’re reaping the consequences. So why not leave them alone to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?

I admit those statements sound harsh, but they illustrate how difficult it is to know how to help or whom to help. It is much easier to become the proverbial Levite or priest and just walk on by the wounded soul by the side of the road. After all, it’s not my problem; let the State take care of it.

One thing is certain: everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect. So the challenge, then, at least as I see it, is how can we help people without doing even more damage? How can I offer dignity to the woman behind the sign?

I can’t forget how often the Bible commands us to care for the poor, widows, orphans and immigrants. God deeply cares about the vulnerable among us. These are the bruised reeds I wrote about on August 20th.

In Michael Barram’s book, Missional Economics, the author writes: “God is deeply concerned for the hungry, and God’s people should be as well.” (p. 96) God’s concern for the poor was demonstrated by the laws concerning gleaning. The Israelites had suffered under Egyptian bondage; now they were to show compassion for the poor among them. (Check out Deuteronomy 24:19-22, Leviticus 19:9-10, and 23:22.) Barram writes that God required farmers to intentionally leave part of the grain and fruit un-harvested so that the poor could “earn their food with dignity.” The words “earn with dignity” leaped off the page at me. Even the simple act of going into a field to gather grain or pick fruit provided some dignity for the poor. “Gleanings were not handouts,” writes Barram. The fact that gleaners would come in behind the harvesters suggests the farmer was aware of the poor living in his community—and even implies a relationship between farmer and gleaner. In the book of Ruth, that lovely older testament gem, Boaz’s invitation for Ruth to glean in his field eventually blossomed into a marriage relationship—leading to the eventual birth of King David.

I have resources the poor lack. My challenge is determining how should I invest them. How can I offer my hand to another image-bearer? How can I help meet their greatest needs—a relationship and dignity? This is a dignity that God Himself demonstrated by sending His Son to rescue them, just as He has rescued me.

When I first volunteered to serve at The Shepherd’s House, a local faith-based recovery ministry, I met Sam (not his real name). Sam had just arrived from Portland where he had hit the bottom after losing everything he valued in this world, including his wife who had been killed in an auto accident. Buried in depression, Sam felt little hope. I begin to take him out for coffee or a meal. We went to Wal-Mart where he could pick out clothes, because everything he owned was on his back.

Over weeks and months of sharing meals in our home and spending time together, the darkness began to lift. Sam today is gainfully employed and enjoying life again. It wasn’t the coffee or the clothes that I gave Sam; it was my time. Myself.

Sam’s greatest need was the relationships he discovered at The Shepherd’s House and in the time we spent together.

In the gospels, two rich men met Jesus. The rich ruler was as a respected insider, but he left sadly after rejecting the conditions Jesus set to have a relationship with Him. Zacchaeus, a social outcast, enjoyed the party of a lifetime in Jesus’ honor. The only difference between the rich ruler and the rich tax collector was that one was already on the inside; the other on the outside looking in.

It seems to me that things haven’t changed a whole lot. The difference between me and the man on the corner with a cardboard sign is that I am sitting in my warm vehicle looking down while he is sitting on a plastic bucket looking up.

Next week I want you to meet another man whose life is being transformed through relationships.

Have you ever considered the greatest need of the poor among us is not more resources but relationships?

Today the economy is good and jobs are available yet millions remain on the welfare system. Could the lack of relationships within the beauracracy be one of the reasons it has failed? What do you think?

Do you have a story about the power of relationships to help restore a wounded person?

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.

Tossing Ballast Overboard

I write today from the perspective of a mariner—but not a seasoned one.
My sailing experience is limited to one particularly lovely summer afternoon on a very small craft on Lake Erie, years ago. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed my share of fishing boats and even ski boats. My time on cruise ships has been largely focused on eating as much seafood as I can every chance I can in the dining hall.

Not once did I think about asking the ship captain about ballast tanks.

Probably because I didn’t know they existed.

Ballast, I have learned, helps stabilize the boat, keeping it on an even keel or trim. Ancient ships used solid ballast such as sand bags or large rocks that could be moved from one part of the vessel to the other at need. Live ballast is comprised of crew members on a sailboat leaning on the windwardside of the boat. Modern ships use water stored in tanks at strategic places.

Bottom line, ballast is necessary for safety and for economy on the ship.

So why, you ask, am I talking about ballast in today’s Front Porch Swing?

Throughout church history and right up until today there have been attempts to toss the Old Testament out of the ship. After all, the God of the older testament was angry and controlling. It was either His way or death or some severe punishment. God’s people, the Israelites, often made stupid choices—some so sordid we blush to read them in a church service.

But the God of the newer testament, Jesus Christ, is so loving, kind and gentle that everyone loves Him. Today several conservative Bible teachers, pastors and authors express concern that the older testament will prevent seekers from coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Strange miracles don’t float well in the skeptic’s sea. Thousands dying from a God-ordained plagues offends the sensibilities of post-moderns. And honestly, who reads poetry that doesn’t rhyme? The Creation account in Genesis is like comic book material compared to the profound “truth” of evolution. Or at least…these seem to be the prevailing opinions.

Even Christian writers are producing books trying to make the Bible fit evolutionary theory. Or worse, tossing out the Genesis account completely.

All right, then. Why not? Why not just “unhitch” the old, antiquated wagon with squeaky wheels and a doubtful cargo? Why not remove all those offensive and ridiculous stories and just read the new edition.

I deliberately chose to use the word “unhitch” because Andy Stanley, a well known, respected (at one time at least) pastor and author has written a book entitled, Irresistible. Stanley uses the word unhitch to encourage his readers to essentially discard the older testament. Just share Jesus. His warning is that we will lose an entire generation of post-moderns.

I first read about Stanley’s book in a Christianity Today article. The last edition of World magazine contains a stinging review of Stanley’s book. Having read Marvin Olasky’s review of Irresistible caused me to wish Olasky would evaluate God In His Own Image when it is released next June. The contrast between my book and Stanley’s is dramatic. My book begins with a clear statement that we cannot pick and choose between the Old or the New Testaments. We don’t have two different Gods in two distinct books.

I have chosen throughout my book to use the terms “older” and “newer” testaments. Old suggests it is very old and probably outdated. But the fact is, we have but one book, the Bible, consisting of an older and newer section. How can we unhitch what God has “yoked” together? We have 66 books written by 40 authors over a period of 1500 years in two major languages but bound together by one story, one theme.

How can I say I love Jesus and reject His Bible, the one He used in the synagogue? How can I accept Jesus or even understand and appreciate what He taught without the older testament? Jesus quotes from the older testament. He treats the characters in the first half of the Bible as real people with true stories about their feats and failures. Can I accept Jesus as the greatest teacher and reject Jonah or Noah, the first mariner? (I wonder what Noah used for ballast?)

No, I believe what post-moderns and every other seeker is looking for is authenticity and truth. When the church service becomes the theater or a rock concert, why should they come? Better venues and better bands perform in the other culture outside the church. The Church is God’s family, where broken people like you and me should remove our masks to authentically love one another—including the postmodern whose life is empty after pursuing all this world offers.

God’s love and truth, both in the older and newer testaments—even when it is difficult to absorb and receive—is the ballast to keep the ship trimmed and on even keel on increasingly stormy seas. As Jesus firmly stated, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Beware of tossing the ballast overboard.

You may not like where your ship ends up.

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today.

Perhaps some of the stories in the older testament trouble you; would you prefer to “unhitch” the older testament to avoid embarrasment or offending a seeker?

How do you feel about using the terms “older” and “newer” instead of Old and New Testaments?

The Rage against God (Part 2)

Last week,I suggested that both atheists and theists have motives for their belief systems.

When King David declared, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” he identified skepticism and atheism as a heart problem, not an intellectual one. In other words, being free from God is part of the skeptic’s wish list.

I suspect most atheists, when they’re being honest, admit they prefer there to be no God, and therefore no judgment. Last week I quoted Peter Hitchens, formerly an avowed atheist, who confessed that after burning his Bible he felt “free”—free from rules and free from fear of judgment. He also shared the confession of Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and author of The Last Word: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (pp. 149, 50, emphasis mine)

Now as for me, I admit that I prefer an orderly universe with rewards and consequences at the end of life. Either position—God or no God—requires faith.

One of the men at The Shepherd’s House where I volunteer likes to declare his belief that there is no God and the Bible is a human book filled with fairy tales. I admit he has added pizzazz to our class discussions. I confess I am also coming to love him as a potential brother. I commend him for his honesty, and we hug after almost evey class session.

So what difference does it make if we believe in or deny God’s existence? Can’t we just agree to disagree? Of course. But we must also bear in mind that there are critical issues at stake—issues that affect both the individual person and our culture.

Consider the second part of Psalm 53:1: “They (the fools) are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.”

Is that overstatement? Perhaps. We all know skeptics and unbelievers who are good citizens who do admirable charitable acts. But, we can’t do anything that will appease God or earn brownie points with Him.

David warns that choosing to exclude God leads to other choices resulting in destructive behavior. Paul affirms this truth in Romans when he says that people who once knew about God suppressed that truth—a willful choice driven by their motives. The result has been the perversion of the entire human race. Consider the litany of bad behavior, in Romans 1:29-32, that has resulted from the decision to ignore God.

There is a price to pay whenever a nation chooses to toss the Rulebook under the bus or to deny God’s existence or relevance. The inevitable results include chaos and eventually anarchy—the law of the jungle where the strong rule over the weak.

So how do we decide what is good and what is evil…what is right and what is wrong? Postmodern thinking and the emphasis upon individual freedom have created a culture of moral relativity. It’s a replay of the book of The Judges, where “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Nobody will be safe, and no one held accountable for their actions. It is essentially war in the streets. In literal military warfare both sides (the good men in white hats or the evil men in black) are often guilty of committing atrocities. That is why modern nations have adopted rules of warfare. Unfortunately, too often the rules are ignored. This is especially true in atheistic states that attempt to erase every vestige of religion and God.

In his book, The Rage against God, Peter Hitchens writes, “Atheist States have a consistent tendency to commit mass murder.” We need not look any further than Soviet Communism under Stalin with an estimated 6-9 million non-combatant deaths. Or consider Chinese Communism under Mao zedong with up to 70 million civilian deaths. Today there is a renewed attempt in China to resist the expansion of Christianity. Consder the atrocities under the totalitarian dictatorship in North Korea or Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

I admit horrible atrocities have occurred in the name of religion—even Christianity. But, that was religion gone awry. It was wrong and flew against the teaching of Jesus who instructed His followers to turn the cheek and forgive their enemies.

Without God it is impossible to determine right and wrong. Your “truth” may not be my “truth.” Who then decides what is good or bad? Consider the following quote taken from Tim Keller’s recent book, Making Sense of God:

Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov sarcastically summarized the ethical reasoning of secular humanism like this: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.” The second clause does not follow from the first. If it was natural for the strong to eat the weak in the past, why aren’t people allowed to do it now?” (42–43)

Keller concludes, “While there can be moral feelings without God, it doesn’t appear that there can be moral obligation.” (178)

Without an absolute set of rules we are free to create our own. Is marriage a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman or a temporary agreement to “hang out together?” Without the Rulebook who determines if the fetus in the womb is a real human being? Unfortunately, the choice is too often based upon motives. Even avid pro-lifers have capitulated to convenience to avoid embarrassment.

I propose that there is only one reliable force to restrain evil: biblical Christianity.

When any culture seeks to remove the influence of religion and belief in God they create a vacuum—a vacuum that quickly fills with subjectivism and “the right to do as I please.” That is a culture without a compass to point the way or a lighthouse to warn of dangerous rocks beneath the surface.

Removing God in the Public Place has resulted in the rapid loss of civility. We are becoming just plain rude. Whether entrenched on the Right or the Left we seldom listen but shout over one another and insult one another.

Yes, there is a price to pay when nations rage against God, pronouncing Him irrelevant. I suspect part of their motivation is to resist any One who challenges their freedom to do as they please without accountability.

They may claim they are being rational or high minded in this. In reality, it’s just a shortcut to the gutter.

Do you agree or disagree? I welcome your feedback. Do you believe a culture can remain moral and survive without God?

The Rage against God

Why do the nations rage

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds apart

and cast away their cords from us.”

Psalm 2:1-3, esv

This blog may be the most relevant that I have shared. The title, The Rage against God, reflects Psalm 2. It is also the title of a book by British author, Peter Hitchens, once an avowed atheist, but now one of the most effective apologists for Christianity. The subtitle, how atheism led me to faith, describes his voyage from skepticism to faith.

I love good books, and especially the ones with backbone and meat. I always have a book or two that I’m reading. I recommend The Rage against God to every person, believer or skeptic. Hitchens’ rebellion against God began when he literally burned the Bible his parents had given him. Hitchens is an easy read because he places profound truths on the lower shelf. All following quotations from his book will be followed by page numbers.

Centuries ago, David wrote: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good” (Psalm 53:1).

As I see it, there are two powerful truths imbedded in this verse. First, David claims that atheism is rooted in the heart, not the head. Second, the consequence of excluding God in any culture will always be destructive.

Think about this: Is it really true the fool (in this case the atheist) says in his heart that God doesn’t exist? Don’t most atheists claim their objections to God are rational rather? They claim that they find no rational evidence of God. But is it actually true?

In his youth, having burned his Bible as a declaration of freedom from God, Hitchens wrote, “We were all free now, and the Bible was one of the things we had to be free of.”

He went on, “At that moment I knew—absolutely knew—that it was the enemy’s book, the keystone of the arch I wished to bring down. I knew that there was no God, that the Old Testament was a gruesome series of atrocity stories and fairy tales, while the gospels were a laughable invention used to defraud the simple. And I joyfully and clearly understood the implications of all that.” (18, emphasis mine)

Did you catch Hitchens’ confession that he had a motive for denying God’s existence? He wanted to be free of God and Christianity. It was a heart problem. Without God, he would be free to do whatever he desired with no fear of eternal consequences.

Consider Hitchens’ confession:

This blatant truth, that we hold opinions because we wish to, and reject them because we wish to, is so obvious that it is too seldom mentioned. I had reasons for wanting that proof. (24, emphasis mine)

Later in the book he asks, “Might it be because they (atheists) fear that, by admitting their delight at the non-existence of good and evil, they are revealing something of their motives for their belief? Could it be the last thing they wish to acknowledge is that they have motives for their belief, since by doing so they would open up their flanks to attack?” (149)

Hitchens also quotes from another skeptic, Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and author of The Last Word.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. (149, 50, emphasis mine)

So the psalmist was correct. Everybody has motives. Even me. I want good to be rewarded, and I want there to be a God who cares about me – a God who will ultimately punish those who think they have escaped punishment. The skeptic or atheist is motivated by hope there is no judgment after death—no hell.

Isn’t that the issue in Psalm 2?

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

Let us burst their bonds apart

and cast away their cords from us.

(emphasis mine)

We have barely scratched the surface of our topic, but it’s time to leave the porch. Next week let’s consider the negative impact excluding God has upon a culture.

On reflection, I believe we will find ourselves right in the middle of that impact.

(Peter Hitchens, The Rage against God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)

The Game Changer

Thoughts for this blog had been ping-ponging in my brain for several weeks before I discovered and read a book, Living Life Backwards, by David Gibson. The book may be the most practical study of Ecclesiastes I have ever encountered. Living Life Backwards is a reminder to live every day with the realization that every birth ultimately ends in death.

Today, I offer the challenge of believing backwards—starting with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and working backwards through our belief system.

Let me put it this way, have you ever struggled with the concept of a universal flood that blanketed the entire earth while Noah’s family and lots of animals enjoyed a ride in the first sea-going vessel ever built? Or, how about Jesus feeding thousands of people with a small boy’s lunch? Is that an easy sell to a skeptic?

Then there’s Peter, defying the Law of Gravity by strolling across the Sea of Galilee. That doesn’t fly in the physics lab at the university. And for that matter, neither does the Red Sea parting while an entire nation passed through on dry land.

Perhaps you or someone you know have struggled to accept these suspensions of natural laws—otherwise known as miracles. You want to believe, but the stories seem so untenable in our modern, scientific world. If so, I suggest a different starting point for constructing your personal belief system? Consider the nature of Christ and His resurrection. If I accept Christ’s resurrection, I can also accept other miracles in Scripture. I can build my belief system in reverse by starting from the resurrection and working backwards.

Two profound miracles serve as bookends to Jesus’ earthly life. They are like stakes driven deeply into the soil of conviction—or anchors securing the ship of faith in the face of severe storms of doubt. I am writing to professing believers—followers of Jesus—and sincere seekers who may struggle when critics challenge them about accepting seemingly absurd miracles.

However…if I truly accept the historical evidence supporting Jesus’ resurrection, I can also accept Him multiplying a boy’s lunch. After all, everybody knows dead men don’t rise again. Death is the terminal event of every life. There are no exceptions, barring a supernatural miracle.

If I believe that Jesus was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin, then I can accept He wasn’t just another average man. He was unique. One of a kind. He was both God and man, deity and humanity existing in one person. Therefore, as the Creator God, Jesus could most certainly suspend natural laws, walking on the very water He had created. He could reverse the effects of diseases. As the giver and sustainer of all life He could even defy death.

Maybe it all boils down to this: Do I really believe Jesus was the Son of God living in a human body? To deny Jesus came in real flesh, according to John, is to be a follower of the antichrist (1 John 4:1-3). The choice is pretty stark: Either I believe or I am not a Christian. And yes, it really is that simple.

But since I do believe that the eternal God “became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” I can also accept other miracles recorded in the four Gospels, including the resurrection.

In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the game-breaker. Either Jesus literally, physically walked away from the sealed tomb or we have been following a myth, and Christianity that has no credibility. But if Jesus rose from the dead and walked among friends and skeptics, then everything else in the gospel story falls into place.

Some scholars claim the resurrection may be the most easily supported of all miracles in the Bible. Consider this: there were numerous eyewitnesses—over 500 saw the resurrected Christ at the same time. Several witnesses claimed they had seen, touched and even eaten with the resurrected Christ. Even more affirming, many were willing to die rather than deny what they had witnessed. People seldom, if ever, are willing to die for a lie. We just don’t. We love life and despise pain too much.

There is another problem for skeptics: the empty tomb and the missing body. To claim that the women, overwhelmed by grief, went to the wrong tomb is more difficult to sell than the truth. Did Peter and John make the same mistake? Why didn’t the soldiers guarding the tomb deliver the body? All Jesus’ critics needed in order to stop a rumor was to produce the corpse.

But they couldn’t.Because there wasn’t one.

That’s because the living Jesus Christ was out walking, teaching, and eating with His followers.

The stone was too large for the women to move even if they could sneak past the soldiers. The burial cloth was lying undisturbed but empty, like a butterfly’s cocoon. The linen cloth that once shrouded Jesus’ head was folded neatly in the corner—evidence that this was not a grave robbery. The Roman seal and the soldiers could not prevent the inevitable.

Millions of people all over the world and down through the millennia have heard the story, considered the evidence, and chosen to believe. One such witness stands out. Saul, one of the greatest skeptics who had dedicated his life to stamping out the myth of Jesus’ resurrection had a traumatic encounter on the road to Damascus. Struck blind and hurled from his mount in an explosion of radiance, Saul heard a Voice. When he asked who was speaking, the Voice said, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”

In that instant, Saul became a believer in Jesus. He did a 180, and began passionately preaching the very Good News he had once opposed with all his might. No amount of persecution and hardship, no matter how severe, could dissuade him. He was left for dead after being stoned. Flogged and chained in prison, he continued to proclaim Christ. Facing execution in Rome, he couldn’t be silenced.

Having witnessed the resurrected Christ, Paul now lived his faith system backwards. He jettisoned everything he had once believed and valued. Since encountering the living Christ, none of it mattered in the least. Everything and anything his enemies threw at him rolled off like water on a duck’s back.

The same can be true for you and me. Once we accept the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ all the pieces fall into place. We can embrace any and every miracle we encounter in the pages of the Bible.

The resurrection changes everything.

Man Food

Several of the recent conversations on The Front Porch Swing have been heavy. Caution: more to come later.

But, this afternoon let’s just enjoy a few minutes together without deep theological issues or a sermonette.

My wife recently saw a quaint wooden sign at our local Hobby Lobby with rules for a front porch. It even had a swing on the sign so she snapped a picture with her I-Phone camera. I have been saving it for a day like today- beautiful, warm autumn afternoon in Central Oregon.

I trust you can read most of the guidelines for using a front porch swing effectively. Feeling the breeze. Enjoying friends and family. No flowers left to smell here but a few autumn colored leaves cling to the tree out front.

So, guys, what do you prepare for lunch when your wife is out shopping or sipping tea with her friends?

What’s the “go to item” in your “man cupboard?”

For me, when I am on my own to prepare a meal for myself, you can wager it will probably be something from the sea. I love seafood. On a cruise, I am a site to behold. Seafood for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Is that a taste of heaven?

But, left home alone today, I went to the pantry to retrieve my “go to menu.” A can of sardines, yep! I don’t dare fetch them when the grandkids are here lest I hear groans and threats to vomit from the aroma. Out of respect for Mary, I only eat the little fish when she is gone.

I know you all want the recipe so here it is: one tin of sardines, two slices of bread with butter, a dollop of yellow mustard and a slice of sweet onion topped with lettuce.

That’s it. I savor each bite- grateful for a little fish that sacrificed itself just for me. I eat to the glory of God and sense, I think, His pleasure. After all Jesus fed a multitude with a boy’s biscuits and sardines. Doesn’t get a whole lot better than that, at least not when I am home alone.

So, guys, what’s in your man cave pantry? What’s your go to item? Hey, if it is a sardine sandwich, ring me up.

Perhaps we can sit on our front porch and listen to the birds and the breeze while we imbibe on the bounty from the deep.