Category: Christian Living

Leave the cave; stay in the fray

Elijah “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. . .” (1 Kings 19:3a, NRSV).

People who are trying to be faithful to God can empathize with Elijah — there can be a temptation to run away from it all. They confront evil and injustice as best they can, but still they sometimes want to slink away and hide. It is no fun being attacked and criticized even when you are right.

Faithfulness can be especially hard for those who seek to confront phony religion. Take Elijah. Take Jesus. Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day pulled it off.

The story of Elijah’s run is in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

. . . he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

This guy had just been God’s servant in doing some major religious clean-up work. Miraculous stuff. He goes from big-time faith to no faith in days.

I have known some godly people who can confront evil all day long and be ready for another day of the same — the late James Dunn comes to mind. (Though sometimes I thought he was tilting at windmills.)

Elijah and James Dunn stand out as confronters of bad religion, but a lot of people are trying to do their parts. Still, they may feel inadequate for the tasks. We need Elijah’s angel — a patient angel.

Then he [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.

Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Sometimes we want to lie down under a tree — a live oak, possibly. But then it’s like we hear: “Nope. You can’t lie down town. Take nourishment and get ready for another journey.” We hit the snooze button on such angelic encouragement and go back to sleep, but we all know that a snooze button doesn’t turn off an alarm.

Back to Elijah.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

When we are in the pits we can overstate our situation, and that’s because we misunderstand it and ourselves and our God.

He [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

That would get your attention. You would be like a kid in the old days if someone said a parade was coming to town. Gotta see it!

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;

and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;

and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;

and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Wind, earthquake, fire — but not God. Attention riveted. No God around. Then, silence. And Scripture says at odd thing — Elijah “hears” the silence.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Summoned by silence is almost an oxymoron. Silence does not summon — or does it? Has a parent ever suddenly realized his or her children had grown silent and proceeded to investigate.

Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Why is a prophet in a cave in the wilderness? Prophets are needed in the cities, in the middle of culture, out in the open where evil can be challenged.

He [Elijah] answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah is continuing his earlier riff. God speaks.

Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return. . . .”

So many faithful believers feel like Elijah. They have been trying so hard for so long to be faithful, but no one seems to be listening. And this can happen even in the midst of praise and encouragement.

In the silence, however, we can be encouraged. We can gain a renewed sense of God’s presence. We can get new orders. “Go, return” to the fray, because God is up to something.

And we now have distinct advantages over Elijah. We have the example and teachings of Jesus, and the truth of this Man can change an individual and a world of individuals and their communities. And we have the Spirit of the Creator recreating within each of us the life spark that animated Jesus.

Ah, yes! Leave the cave!

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).

(All quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

 

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First song on shuffle this morning — “Believe in You,” by Amanda Marshall. Just what I needed.

I had already read my Bible and driven to Austin in silence. I turn on my computer, crank up iTunes, and it’s like God speaking to me in Amanda’s voice — a continuation of my prayers.

Somewhere there’s a river

Looking for a stream

Somewhere there’s a dreamer

Looking for a dream

Somewhere there’s a drifter

Trying to find his way

All of us can feel lost sometime. We are looking for something. Evangelical Christians like to talk of “lost” as being before someone decides to follow Christ, to put their faith in Christ. And this is true.

But believers, even those like me who have been a Christian for decades, can feel lost. We’re not, God is still there, but it feels that way.

Somewhere someone’s waiting

To hear somebody say

I believe in you

I can’t even count the ways that

I believe in you

And all I want to do is help you to

Believe in you

There are people all around us who need to hear someone say, “I believe in you.” We need this because sometimes we stop believing in ourselves. We see our failures, our shortcomings, our unfulfillable dreams. We start drifting, trying to find our way.

Somewhere someone’s reaching

Trying to grab that ring

Everyone seems to be reaching, trying to grab the ring of success or just attention. Reaching, reaching, always reaching. It seems so many others have grasped the ring, but we cannot reach it. Like a trapeze artist who misses an exchange, we fall and hope there is a net.

We’re paralyzed with fear

And everybody’s listening

‘Cause we all need to hear

I believe in you

I can’t even count the ways that

I believe in you

And all I want to do is help you to

Believe in you

We need someone to believe in us and then to help us believe in ourselves. That seems to be what God is up to. Scripture says God believes us, and in our thoughts and prayers we still seem to hear the Spirit whispering that supporting belief. But sometimes it can be hard for us to hear that Spirit because of the clutter of our own thoughts, and that’s when we need another person to audibly say, “I believe in you.”

I will hold you up

I will help you stand

I will comfort you when you need a friend

I will be the voice that’s calling out

I believe in you

Daniel J. Siegel, a professor of psychiatry, says research has shown it is crucial to “feel we are held within another person’s internal world, in their head and in their heart — relationships that help us thrive and give us resilience.”

Such a beautiful idea — to feel we are held within another person’s internal world. And this reminds me of Jesus’ words.

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me (John 15:4, NKJV).

God, in Christ, desires to hold us within His world, within His love. That can be done in purely spiritual fashion, but it also can be done by each of us for one another.

God believes in us. Someone may also need to hear that I believe in him or her.

 

Face-to-face encounters need understanding, grace

Face-to-face encounters possess great potential for good or evil, and both possible outcomes have been illustrated over the past few days.

First, Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann became part of our national “conversation” as a video went viral showing a grinning Sandmann standing before a drumming Phillips.

Sandmann, a Kentucky teenager, wore a “Make America great again” hat, a symbol of President Trump’s political campaign. Phillips, an older Native American, beat his drum in prayer. With other teenagers in the background, the short video portrayed a confrontation of threat and disrespect for the elder Phillips.

We now know there is more to the story. Sandmann, in my eyes, was being disrespectful. He should have stood aside and let Phillips walk back to where he had been earlier. The group in the background makes it more confrontational because loud, unruly crowds anywhere become threatening, whether or not that is the intent.

The hats, however, provided more fuel; they are a political symbol. Some people, including many Native Americans, view the MAGA hats as representative of a racist president, specifically because of insensitive comments he has made about indigenous people.

More information revealed the broader context of the incident. Sandmann and friends had not descended on Phillips as the short video clip seems to indicate. The situation began when the Catholic boys and another identity group exchanged taunts.

Phillips walked into the group of teenagers while beating his prayer drum in order to diffuse the situation that had not involved the Native American group. Sandmann then stood in Phillips’ way and refused to move. The smile and grin, with friends in the background, conveyed disrespect of this elder to a watching world.

But this became political, not just because of the MAGA caps, but because a Twitter account pushed the provocative clip. Twitter later shut down the account, but the damage had been done. Another essentially anonymous social media presence had ignited a national furor. This account sought to provoke left-leaning Americans; other accounts work up right-wing Americans.

Two new names — Guy Jones and Don Wegman — later entered the national conversation. Jones is a Native American, and Wegman is a MAGA-hat-wearing Anglo man. They met Tuesday at a protest outside the Covington Catholic Diocese. Jones was there to protest; Wegman was there to make personal contact. The two men ended up exchanging phone numbers and planning to meet for coffee.

We need more people like these two — people who will have civil conversations about what they think.

The early church had a problem with people stirring up trouble. There were Judaizers, gnostics, and others. Some people simply like to stir the pot of public discourse, and they usually are not seeking greater understanding and fruitful dialogue. They are seeking to divide.

A frustrated Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.

For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still worldly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, CSB).

We are so prone to act like “mere humans.” I belong to Calvin (or Calvinism). I belong to free will Baptists (or Arminianism). I belong to Conservatives. I belong to Progressives. I belong to Trump. I belong to Clinton.

We can understand this in the world, but it should not be this way among Christ’s people. And we can bring the same respect for differences to our broader social and political context.

Paul talking about church factions:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? … According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 10-11, CSB).

Today, we are thrust into a world in which anything we say or do can be captured and shared globally. Any of us can go viral. We can be both understood and misunderstood when one moment of our lives gets the world’s attention.

But we also are consumers of such messages. It is good to bring grace to our judgments, understanding that we do not know the whole story. We can be thankful we know what is going on and be moved to action while also remembering that one short video or photo can be very misleading.

One more word from Paul:

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:2-5, CSB).

 

God calls Christians to the divine work of pursuing justice.

The “arc of the moral universe … is bending toward justice.”

These are now famous words, but are they true? What do you see when you do a personal memory scan of what you know about history. Some of us may see an arc toward justice; others of us may wonder.

We surely have not arrived at complete justice in the United States.

We live in a nation of laws, which is a huge step toward greater justice, but those laws are not always justly applied across economic and racial divides.

We live in a nation of inclusiveness that promotes justice for all persons without regard to race or ethnicity, but still bigotry and racism flourish in both language and violence.

Justice and injustice — both are real.

Scripture makes it clear that God is just and wants justice. One reason some people miss this is that in Scripture the words translated as justice or righteousness are often the same words in Hebrew or Greek.

To keep this simple, we can just say that justice and righteousness are intimately connected in Scripture. We can say that God is both righteous and just and also that God’s people are to be both righteous and just.

Matthew 13 illustrates the connection between righteousness and justice, and it shows the importance of both. Jesus said at the end of time all of those who cause sin and are lawless will be thrown out of God’s kingdom. “Then the righteous [just] will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Let anyone who has ears listen” (Mt. 13:43, CSB, bracketed word added).

In short, God’s children are righteous and just.

God is bending the moral universe toward justice, and God has called us to join in this work.

Some may doubt the truth of what Martin Luther King, Jr., said about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, but I think this great pastor described exactly what God is doing and wants all of us to participate in doing.

Here is the full quote from King’s book, Stride Toward Freedom:

But amid all of this we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us, and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.

We struggle or should be struggling in pursuit of God’s great purposes, and one of those is justice. We do not, however, struggle alone. When we pursue God’s purposes we have the Divine energy and power with us. Justice is our struggle, but it is not ours alone.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.

Young people have their reasons for leaving church

Symptoms, we call them. When I can’t stop coughing, it’s an indication something is wrong in my lungs. When my truck will not start, there’s something wrong under the hood. When young people drop out of church, there’s something wrong. Dropping out is a symptom.

It’s not really news that many young adults stop attending church regularly after high school. New numbers show the situation is actually a little better now than 10 years ago.

But if we care about the people these numbers represent and the teenagers who are following them, then the reasons why they leave are very important.

Top five reasons for dropping out:

  1. Moved to college

  2. Judgmental or hypocritical church members

  3. Disconnected from people in church

  4. Disagreed with church’s political/social issues stance

  5. Work responsibilities prevented attendance

The LifeWay Research post said this:

Virtually all of those who dropped out (96 percent) listed a change in their life situation as a reason for their dropping out. Fewer say it was related to the church or pastor (73 percent); religious, ethical or political beliefs (70 percent); or the student ministry (63 percent).

Accurate, yes, but something very disturbing is said here. The change in life situation is a huge factor, but it’s not only that these young people moved out of the house. Church life bothered them to a high degree — 73, 70, and 63 percent.

These are young people who had been attending church regularly. They are not people from outside with impressions shaped by word of mouth, stereotypes, or the media. They didn’t like what they experienced INSIDE church.

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay, said:

For the most part, people aren’t leaving the church out of bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith.

True, but:

What the research tells us may be even more concerning for Protestant churches: there was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life. The time they spent with activity in church was simply replaced by something else.

Read that paragraph again. Nothing about the church experience or the faith learned there “caused them to seek out a connection” to a church in a new place.

If this is true, it’s an indictment of our churches. How can a person go to church and not have an experience and a faith that people want to replicate in a new place?

Something is wrong; the symptoms are clear. Whatever the diagnosis, the treatment is clear — a healthy dose of Jesus.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.

Trying to find the Jesus side of Christmas

There are always two sides to Christmas. There is the 2,000-year-old side of it with the Emmanuel Moment — God with us — in the birth of Jesus. Then there is the today side of our experience with the living Christ.

On the today side, if the subject of religion comes up, I often say to people that I’m a Jesus guy, at least I’m trying to be — the highest standard can never be fully met. The odd thing that happens is the look I get. People don’t seem to know what to do with that response — with a Jesus guy or gal.

I guess it’s easier to respond Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Calvinist, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. Then we can put people into neat little contemporary boxes.

To say one is a Jesus person is to be a bit odd, I guess. I think it’s because most people only think of Christmas and Easter when they hear of Jesus — a miraculous birth, a brutal death, and an astounding resurrection.

New birth and death to ordinary life are part of what it means to be a Jesus person, but Jesus’ life conveyed so much more. He healed hurting people. He taught confused people. He challenged and confounded religious people. Most importantly he loved God and people.

When I say I’m trying to be a Jesus person this is what I mean. I’m trying to die to self and live to Christ — trying. I’m trying to bring healing to hurting people out of my own hurts. I’m trying to teach confused people out of my own confusion. I’m trying to challenge and confound religious people out of my own need to be challenged and confounded. I’m trying to love God and people.

A special star announced the first Christmas. Today, each Christ follower is a new star shining into darkness — pointing toward new life.

May we live with the awakening brought about by that first birth and all of the new births it has led to since that day.

Learning from George H.W. Bush

It’s easy to say we need more presidents or more politicians like George H.W. Bush. That lets the rest of us off the hook.

Joseph de Maistre famously said, “Every country has the government it deserves,” and, “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.”

We are not the same nation today as the one which nurtured Bush into maturity. This nation is always shifting and changing. It’s interesting that the U.S., in its 1992 incarnation, dumped this good and great man as president who had overseen the fall of the Soviet Union and led the nation to victory in a war to stop aggression — The Gulf War.

But here we are at now. We need a nation that nurtures and lifts up truly great leaders as it did with George H.W. Bush.

Whenever we learn of a person’s values, we should ask ourselves how they align with Jesus and the broader scriptural wisdom. So let’s try that with a few ideas attributed to Bush. His biographer, Jon Meacham, said Bush’s life code was “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.”

Tell the truth. This is about as solid as it gets. It’s in the 10 Commandments — don’t bear false witness. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, you should be so trustworthy that a simple “yes” or “no” will do; you don’t need to swear on your mother’s grave or anything else when you are trustworthy.

Don’t blame people. The first thing that comes to mind is Genesis 3 when Adam blames Eve for his sin, and she blames the serpent for her’s. It didn’t work; God punished all three. Proverbs 28:13 says we are not to conceal our transgressions, and blaming others is a way people often seek to do that. One other thought occurs to me. Blaming others is really childish behavior; it’s immature. The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” 1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV).

Be strong. Paul’s words come quickly to mind. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10, NIV). To live a life of character, to live a life for God requires courage and strength. It’s throughout the Bible.

Do your best. Try hard. Colossians 3:23: “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (NKJV).

Forgive. This is at the core of Christianity. The model prayer asks God to forgive me as I forgive those who wrong me. In other words, we need and want God’s forgiveness. We should be like God and be forgiving of those who wrong us.

Stay the course. This one is a little tricky. Staying the course is a good thing if you are following a good path; it’s the opposite of what we need to do when we are on a bad path. Hebrews 12:1-2 talks about the importance of following Jesus with perseverance. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NIV).

Those are a few of the values that characterized the way George H.W. Bush lived. They are consistent with Scripture. Bush, however, was not perfect. Like the rest of us, he can be open for criticism.

As we think of the late president, we can see shortcomings in ourselves and seek to be better Americans. Better yet, we can look to Jesus and seek to be better followers of Him. As we follow Christ, chances are we will choose leaders who can someday be eulogized as was George H.W. Bush.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.