Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: May 2015 (Page 1 of 2)

Dear Glenn

P.AllanThe phone rang around 9 this morning.  Lois answered.  “It’s Monica, for you,” she said.  Before I heard her weeping, I knew.  “Glenn died this morning.”  Her words sucked air from my lungs.  “We’re in North Carolina for a short vacation, having a good time,” she managed between sobs.  “Glenn got up this morning at 6:30 and just collapsed.  When Jesse and I got to him he was barely breathing.  We called 911.  But they couldn’t save him.  They’ll do an autopsy Tuesday to try to find the cause.”

I asked how Jesse was.   Thoughts of going with you to the airport to pick up the Korean boy you adopted over two decades ago flashed through my mind.  “About the same as I am,” she said.  Her tears never stopped during our short conversation.  Another image:  Monica rushing to you on the floor and finding you almost gone.  How did she feel ?  What went through her mind driving to the hospital—and after?  Thankfully she has quite a few family members for support when she and Jesse get home to North Port.

I prayed with her before we hung up.  “Father . . . ” And then I didn’t know what to say.  I can’t even remember what it turned out to be.  We hung up.  I cried.  Lois came and held me.

Why cry?  You’re with Jesus and that’s better by far (Philippians 1:23)!  I was grieving, though not as others who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  I cried, because I felt great loss.  You’re my five-year-younger brother.  Even though we’ve not always been close, memories came flooding back.

Week-long summer vacations at the Jersey Shore.  Remember that year cousin Dennis was with us and we found the hull of an old sailboat at the bungalow Dad rented and we used a straw broom and I don’t remember what else to paddle out the lagoon into Barnegat Bay?  Wiffle  Ball and football in our backyard at Lion’s Head Lake?  Most Wiffle Ball games ended in an argument and Mom saying, “Wait ’til your father gets home.”  And football was crazy.  Just you and me against each other, rushing into each other, passing the ball to ourselves.

We graduated to church softball after that.  You played short, me third.  For a while we played racquetball weekly at Yogi Berra’s club.  Those were great times.  I don’t know if you remember, but you’re the one who got me into jogging.  I think it was right after Bible college.  I guess I was a little paunchy and you persuaded me to hit the pavement in Atco, N.J.  I must have run for forty years, ’til my back troubles began.

At one point, you hit a rough spot, drifted away from the Lord.  We never stopped praying.   I still remember you showing up out of nowhere on the front steps of The Living Church in Montclair telling me you were back.  And I remember how happy you were when you told me you and Monica were dating.  She was our pianist in the church then and you were one of several guitarists on our worship team.  It was such a joy to perform your wedding ceremony!

Remember our move from N.J. to Florida?  Two big U-Haul trucks, yours with a trailer hauling a car.  Monica driving your other car and Lois driving ours.  We were like the late ’80’s version of “the Beverly Hillbillies.”  We split at I-4, you and Monica going south to North Port, Lois and I going to Palm Harbor.  Times together were few after that, mostly holidays.

I regret that.  So much we could have done and said.  Nobody’s fault, just life.  About two years ago, we had some conflict.  Today I’m eternally grateful to our Father that by his grace we got it resolved and could end our recent string of e-mails, “Love”.

As always, death—especially death so close—gives a different view of life.  How short time is!  How much of it we waste distanced from those we love because of an argument or some other trivial thing!  How idiotic we are to put God on the back-burner when our relationship with him through Christ determines our eternal destiny!

Apart from “better by far” and “death is gain”, Scripture doesn’t say much about this time between going to be with the Lord and getting our resurrection bodies at Christ’s Second Coming.  I’d love to ask you what it’s like being with Jesus now!  Anyhow, I guess now you know what Paul meant about being caught up into the paradise of “the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2,3).  So, while I have a sad heart with you gone (and only the Lord knows who won more of our competitive Wiffle Ball, football and racquetball games), I have to admit:  you won today.  You got to see Jesus first.

I love you, brother.  I miss you, though if it were an ordinary Sunday I probably wouldn’t even think about you.  But on this Sunday, I wish I could give you one more hug.  Guess that’ll have to wait a little while.




Getting Ready for Worship

O PreacherA few years ago, before retiring from pastoring, I suggested the church have a “Preparing for Worship” time—15 minutes of sitting in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings to “still our minds and hearts” before the Lord.

It went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Here’s how I reasoned.  In worship we are coming before the Holy God, the Creator of the universe, the Eternal God of our Salvation, the One Isaiah saw in a vision and shuddered, “Whoa!  I’m a dead man!”  (Actually I got my “whoa” wrong.  It was, “Woe is me . . . “)  Anyway, it seemed totally inappropriate for us to go  from hollering “hi” to each and chattering about the hot weather or the cold Rays to singing, “Holy,Holy, Holy.”  We needed some sort of transition to shift our mind’s gears.

That swift shift from the noise of people talking and laughing to consciously entering God’s presence reminded me of the drive-thru at MacDonald’s.  One minute you’re yelling at your fighting kids in the backseat, the next you’re speaking like a sane adult to the order-microphone.  But the gathered church isn’t a hamburger joint.  (Well, some churches have a coffee-bar complete with Sunday edition of “The New York Times”, but that’s for another time.)

No matter.  Critics thought the silence too somber.  It reminded others of waiting in the grave (no pun intended)-quiet funeral home for the sad service to start .  Then there was the occasional person (if I was brave enough I would say it was usually a woman) who came into the sanctuary, sat down next to a friend and held an even-the-deaf-can-hear conversation.

So I gave up.

Still I wonder:  Shouldn’t we prepare for worshiping the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?   Maybe we could pray individually or as a family at home before leaving for church.  (Right.  Getting kids out of the house with clothes on is almost more than we can handle now!Or maybe we could pray a brief prayer in the parking lot before we all climbed out of our car.  (Besides, that might be a good way to end the family battle that typically breaks out on the way.  Clean up the blood later or you’ll be late.)   Or maybe, after greeting a few people in the sanctuary, those who wish could individually speak silently with our Father to ready their hearts and minds.

I’m not advocating a church program, just tossing out some ideas for us as individuals.  If there’s a way you prepare for Sunday Worship, why not let us all know?  And if this all sounds too “liturgical”, count this as not one of my best blogs and delete me.

Here’s my bottom line:  I know that I need to prepare to enter our Lord’s presence in Sunday Worship. Brushing my teeth and taking my weekly Saturday night bath aren’t enough.

amazed at the depth of understanding these children have of the ...

Got Ears? LISTEN! Got Ears? LISTEN!

O PreacherEvery morning he marched to his front porch and shouted into the neighborhood, “Tigers, get out!”  One morning his wife rebuked him, “Harry, there are no tigers for thousands of miles!”  Smiling with satisfaction, he replied, “See.  It works!”

Parables are like jokes.  Gordon Fee, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, explains, “The two things that capture the hearer of a joke and elicit a response of laughter are the same two things that captured the hearers of Jesus’ parables, namely their knowledge of the points of reference (the characters in the parable with whom they  identify) and the unexpected turn in the story” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 127).  Further, Fee writes, ” . . .  parables function as a means of calling forth a response on the part of the hearer.”

Many parables are about the kingdom of God.  George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, defined the kingdom:  ” . . . the Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men, and  . . . this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from its power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign” (The Presence of the Future).

In this next section of Mark’s Good News (Mark 4:1-34) he reports Jesus telling three parables.  Today we’ll “listen” to just the first—the familiar “Parable of the Sower and Soils” (4:1-9 , NIV).

1 Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” now Jesus has publicly preached and healed throughout Galilee for about two years.  His fame has spread, again bringing a crowd to the shore so large that he taught—in parables—from a boat.  The Greek word—parabolaywas used of riddles and puzzles and stories.  Jesus’ parables were stories of ordinary life that were often puzzling—like an “inside” joke.

For about two years now, Jesus has preached and healed throughout Galilee.  His fame keeps spreading, so again great crowds came to the shore, so that he taught them—in parables—from a boat.  The Greek word parabolay is used of riddles and puzzles and stories.  A parable, then, is a story of ordinary life with a puzzling twist.

This parable seems straightforward.  We get the farmer scattering seed and the different results depending on the condition of the soil.  But, had we been there, would we have understood what Jesus meant and the response for which his story called?

Later Jesus will interpret for his disciples (4:13-20).  For now,  let’s see what we can discover from just the parable itself.  First, the audience is a “very large crowd” (4:1).  Some were disciples (4:10), most not.  Second, Jesus initially wanted each person to really hear, to consider carefully what he said.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9).  From Jesus’ urging, we can be quite sure this is the response Jesus wanted.

The Greek word twice translated “hear” is akoueto.  It can mean simply hear or, more deeply,  hear with understanding.  In 4:12 Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9,10 speaking of those who “hear but [do] not understand.”  So in 4:9 Jesus means something like, “The one who has ears to hear, listen carefully to understand!”  Later Jesus repeats it to his disciples . . .

 21 He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? 22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you– and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

Hidden things are intended to be disclosed (4:22), just as we put a lamp on its stand to shine (4:21).  Jesus is disclosing hidden things about God’s kingdom.  “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:23) repeats 4:9 (“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”).  Then comes 4:24a, an elaboration of 4:23—“Consider carefully what you hear” or “Pay attention to what you hear” (verse 24a, ESV).  Again, Jesus wanted disciples to listen attentively, thoughtfully, seriously  with an aim to comprehending what his story meant.  And since this parable is about the kingdom of God (though Jesus doesn’t use the term), Jesus wanted them to listen carefully to understand what he was telling them about the kingdom of God.

Why does Jesus want them—and us—to consider carefully what he says in parables?

Parables are puzzling.  This one isn’t to us because we have Jesus’ interpretation to his disciples.  But if we were in the crowd that day, the parable would have perplexed us.   Got ears?  Listen!

The kingdom of God is a secret.  “To you,” Jesus will later explain to his disciples, “has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (4:11a).  In other words, the knowledge of God’s kingdom is hidden until revealed by Jesus.  Got ears?  Listen!

The kingdom comes in a counter-intuitive way.  When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he ordered his troops to openly march across the border and meet any resistance with force.  But when God “invaded” the world to inaugurate his eternal reign, he sent his One and Only Son to preach, work miracles and ultimately die, then be raised.  God’s kingdom comes in ways we don’t expect.  Got ears?  Listen!

Satan wants to steal what we hear.  This will become obvious later (4:15).  But even now we can see that hearing Jesus to understand is a spiritual battle.  Got ears?  Listen!

We’re not good listeners.  “Couch potato” doesn’t describe a certain kind of furniture or vegetable.  It’s me on a Sunday afternoon watching the Rays on TV.  Soon (with eyes open) I couldn’t tell you what the announcer said, who hit the ball where, or who was playing what.

During 44 years of preaching, I dreaded knowing the answer to one question: “What was my sermon about today?”  Many times I’ve seen that “holy glaze” on many eyes!

“Allan, I told you the answer to that question yesterday!” the teacher exclaimed.  “Weren’t you here?”  Yes, I was there, but my mind was on the girl sitting one row over.

There’s more to this parable than good listening.  But, to paraphrase Jesus, “If we don’t understand this
parable, how will we understand all the parables?” (4:13).  Got ears?  Listen?   Really listen with an aim to understand.  Shut your ears to everything else.  Open them wide to  only what Jesus says. Think.  Consider carefully.  Pay attention to the parables of the kingdom of God.

Harry’s wife is right.  There are no tigers.  But there is good news of a hidden kingdom.




Are We Worse Than We Think?

O PreacherI’m not totally depraved.  I’m not just a sinner saved by grace.  I’m not more morally corrupt in God’s sight than I think I am.

I’ve heard  preachers and read authors who reminded me how fallen I am.  I’m weary of it.  Not because it hurts my ego, but because it contradicts the Gospel.  Consider this passage from Paul (bold-face type mine) . . .

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,
following the course of this world,
following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—

among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,
and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
even when we were dead in our trespasses,
made us alive together with Christ
—by grace you have been saved—
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of grace
in kindness toward us
in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith.
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).

When Paul writes “we” (we were dead . . . we once walked in sins . . .we once lived in the passions of our flesh . . . we were by nature children of wrath . . . we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus), and when he writes “you” (by grace you have been saved), he refers to those who have put their faith in the grace God has given in Christ Jesus.  That includes me.

So I can say that I was dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked.  I was by nature a child of wrath.  But our rich-in-mercy God, because of his great love, made me alive together with Christ, raised me up with Christ, seated me with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.  I have been saved by grace through faith.  I am now part of his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.

I know I need reminders of what I once was.  I do forget my absolute dependence on God’s mercy in Christ.  I do tend at times to think I’m better than I really am.

I also realize that some preach a “gospel” which is no gospel at all—a gospel that minimizes sin and maximizes in-born potential if I’ll just think positive thoughts and declare  positive propositions.  That “gospel” is anti-Christ, delusional and at best brings only a better attitude.  On the Last Day it will be shown for the hollow, deceptive lie it is.

But when a preacher or author tells me that I’m totally depraved, just a sinner saved by grace, or more morally  corrupt in God’s sight than I think, he or she is preaching “another gospel” too.  It’s a “gospel” that offers “only” justification, not the process of sanctification.  It’s a gospel that (properly} magnifies the work of Christ on the cross, but ignores the work of the Spirit in the believer.  It’s a “gospel” that reminds me of what I was, but overlooks what I now am and am becoming in Christ by the Spirit’s empowering presence.  Here again is the apostle . . .

 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
For the law of the Spirit of life has you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.
By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,
he condemned sin in the flesh,
in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us,
who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).

Not only am I now not condemned (which can mean “not guilty” or “no longer condemned to live as a prisoner of sin’s power”) “the Spirit of life” has freed me and by means of Christ’s cross is fulfilling the law’s righteous requirements in me!

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:18).

When I read the Lord’s Word, when I pray, when I meditate on his creation masterpiece, when I hear his Word preached, when I sing in worship to him I am “beholding the glory of the Lord”.  None of that leaves me unchanged.  I am “being transformed” into the image of “the glory of the Lord . . . from one degree of glory to another.”  This, Paul explains comes not from ourselves or our surroundings, but “from the Lord who is the Spirit.”  I am caught up  in the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis process by the Spirit.

 I’m no longer totally depraved; I’m a new creation in Christ Jesus,  The old I once was has passed away.  The life of the new, eternal creation has reached back to where I live and gives me a taste of it now (2 Corinthians 5:17).  I am a sinner saved by grace.  I was rescued from sin and death.  I didn’t escape.  But I’m not just a sinner saved by graceI’m an adopted child of the Father who is faithfully and patiently making me more like his Son.  And I’m not more morally corrupt in God’s sight than I think I am—not any more.   Christ’s righteousness now is mine.  And the Lord who is the Spirit is transforming me into his image from glory to glory.

This is Gospel.  This is the Gospel of grace through faith.  Therefore, I’m not worse than I think I am; I’m already better than I dare hope.  And when the Son of God appears, I will be like him, for I shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Jesus: Misunderstood

P.AllanPeople don’t understand Jesus.  Agree or disagree?

Make an interesting poll question, don’t you think?  Whatever results today’s poll might show, it’s clear people didn’t understand Jesus in this next part of Mark’s Good News report—chapter 3, verses 7-35.   Some were  . . .

Desperate for Jesus’ Healing (3:7-19).
Doesn’t sound like a misunderstanding.  But think it through.

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed,
from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea
and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon.
When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him.
And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd,
lest they crush him, for he had healed many,
so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him . . . (3:7-12)

Word spreads, even without social media.  A miracle-worker called Jesus is healing sickness!  So they come.  First, like a trickle of sea water on the beach.  Then like a wave.  Finally a flood.   Limping.  Dragging.  Carried.  Hundreds, like a thirsty mob frenzied for water pressed around him, straining just to touch him, frantic for their miracle.

Who can blame them?  When you’re terminally or chronically ill, you long to be well.  All you think of is health and healing is everything you want.  Mark doesn’t say, but certainly Jesus healed as he had before.

However Jesus is much more than a divine doctor dispensing miraculous cures.  He’s the Son of God.  He didn’t come primarily to make these dust-bodies better.  He came to inaugurate the eternal kingdom of God.  That’s what he had proclaimed when he first entered Galilee  . . .

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;
repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:14,15).

In a science fiction movie, Earth faces alien attack.  Government and citizens prepare.  Countdown to THE TIME starts,  When Jesus announced, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand”,  he was telling us THE TIME of the countdown’s zero hour had struck.  The arrival of God’s most incomparable act since Creation—the inauguration of the New Creation—had dawned!

Jesus’ healing miracles were signs of that kingdom’s  in-breaking, but many that day were more than happy “just” to be healed.  When we fixate “merely” on physical healing to the exclusion of kingdom glory,  we’re “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum, because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).

Jesus:  misunderstood.

Deranged Jesus (3:20,21,31-35).  This misapprehension came from, of all people, Jesus’ family.

Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that he could not even eat.
And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,
for they were saying, “He is out of his mind” (3:20,21).

The ESV Study Bible identifies Jesus’ family as his mother and sisters and half-brothers.  But on this day they all seem like Jewish mothers!  “Oy gavalt!  He’s out of his mind.  We have to go save our boy!”  Jesus had given them cause for concern:  so besieged by crowds “he could not even eat”.  What he said when they found him probably didn’t calm their fears:   ” . . . whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (3:31-35)?  Anybody have the number for the psychologist?

Believe it or not, a few people today believe Jesus was a loon.  At least a victim of his own success, who believed his own messianic press clippings.   Certainly there are more, though, who think we are the loons for believing in him.  Either way, in their mind, Jesus and his followers aren’t the brightest bulbs in the bunch.

Jesus:   misunderstood.

Demon Jesus (3:22-30).

And the scribes (law teachers) who came down from Jerusalem were saying,
“He is possessed by Beelzebul”
and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons”.

 This is misunderstanding gone ballistic.  Jesus’ fame draws scribes from Jerusalem.  They can’t deny his exorcisms, so they brand him possessed!  Jesus called them together and, like a patient teacher reasoning with 2nd grade children asks, “How can Satan cast out Satan? . . . if Satan has risen up against himself . . . he cannot stand . . . ” (3:23,25).  

We smile at the scribe’s sorry charge, but Jesus took it quite seriously.  “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin . . . ” (3:28,29).  Now “ballistic” misunderstanding has gone to hell.

I don’t know anybody today who says, “[Jesus] has an unclean spirit” (3:30).  But rejecting Jesus as the Son of God who came to inaugurate the kingdom of God amounts to pretty much the same thing,  How you be saved from God’s wrath against sin if you reject the Savior he’s sent?  So learning to understand Jesus is the most important education we can have.  And that brings us to part of this section we’ve skipped . . .

Disciples of Jesus (3:13-19). 

And he went up on the mountain
and called to him those whom he desired,
and they came to him.
And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles)
so that they might be with him
and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons (3:13-15).

Since you’re reading this, you’re hearing the Gospel.  Jesus is present in it.  And he’s calling you.  Not to be an apostle, but to be with him and to be sent out to make his Gospel understandably known.

None of us on this earth will completely understand Jesus.  His thoughts and ways are higher than ours.  But this is where we want to be—with him, learning from him through his written Word.  Otherwise, at best we’re settling for “mud pies” and at worst eternally unforgiven

Learning to understand Jesus and believe in Jesus and follow Jesus and make Jesus known is the highest understanding we can have this side of the new creation.





Churches Failing the Poor?

O PreacherTalk lately claims yes.

Two “talkers”.   Robert Putman, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University:  ” . . . most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those.  I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for . . . It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.”

I wonder just how many church budgets Professor Putman has checked!  Methinks not many.  Me also thinks the good professor probably wants the church to give to the government to help the poor.  Maybe not.  Just saying . . .

Putman wasn’t the only church critic.  Our own President Obama said this:  “’Despite great caring and concern,’ the president remarked, when churches pick “the defining issue” that’s “really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians,” fighting poverty is often seen as merely “nice to have” compared to “an issue like abortion.’”

Really?  With due respect Mr. President, how many church elders meetings have you attended in the last year?  How many church doctrinal and vision statements have you read?  How many pastors have you visited to find out what their churches may be doing to help the poor?

Three reasons.  I’m writing on this topic for three reasons.  One, you may hear this kind of church criticism and assume it’s true—or have no information to contradict it—thus leaving you with a sour taste in your mouth about the church.

Two, recently I’ve heard one top-rated media personality criticize the church for its lack of “leadership” regarding world problems.  Here we have the president and the professor (sounds like a 60’s Disney movie) criticizing the church for not agreeing with them about the poor.  Frankly, when you gentlemen show you’ve gotten your house in order, then maybe you can evaluate us.  Jesus said something about that, didn’t he?  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).  (It doesn’t look like the Federal Government is running real well these days and Harvard just ain’t what she used to be!)

And, three, I came across this column written by Ross Douthat in last Sunday’s “New York Times” which I thought addressed the issue well . . .

It would be too kind to call these comments wrong; they were ridiculous. Not only because (as Putnam acknowledged) believers personally give abundantly to charity, but because institutionally the churches of America use “all their resources” in ways that completely belie the idea that they’re obsessed with the culture war.

As Mark Hemingway of “The Weekly Standard” pointed out, “Even the most generous estimates of the resources devoted to pro-life causes and organizations defending traditional marriage are just a few hundred million dollars.”  Whereas the budgets of American religious charities and schools and hospitals and other nonprofits are tabulated in the tens of billions.  (Indeed, as Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle noted, some of that money—from Catholic sources—paid Obama’s first community-organizer salary.)

This reality is reflected in the atmosphere of most churches and the public statements of their leaders. Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude; you can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result. The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.

Is there a version of the Obama-Putnam critique that makes any sense? Maybe they just meant to criticize religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts. But even this critique essentially erases black and Latino churches (who reliably support social programs), ignores decades worth of pro-welfare-state talk from Catholic bishops, and treats the liberal Protestant mainline as dead already.

It also conveniently absolves liberalism of any responsibility for pushing churchgoing Americans toward the small-government G.O.P. That’s an absolution that the Obama White House, with its pro-choice maximalism and attempts to strong-arm religious nonprofits, particularly needs.

No, to actually save the critique, you have to transform it completely. There is a case that churches are failing poorer Americans. But the problem isn’t how they spend money or play politics. It’s a more basic failure to reach out, integrate, and keep them in the pews.

This is the striking story of the last 30 years: Despite the stereotype of religion as something that people “cling to” (to quote a different moment of condescension from this president) in desperate circumstances, actual religious practice has collapsed more quickly among Americans with weaker economic prospects than it has among the college-educated upper class.

Mere religious affiliation has weakened for the poor and working class as well. The much-discussed rise of the “nones” — Americans with no religious affiliation — has been happening in blue -collar America as well as among the hyper-educated.

From a religious perspective, this a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O.

But even from a secular perspective it’s a problem, because (as Putnam’s work stresses) the social benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community, practice, and belonging. So churches that spend or lobby effectively for the poor but are stratified come Sunday morning offer less to the common good than if they won a more diverse array of souls.

This critique actually lays a heavier burden on believers than the one Obama and Putnam offered. Their unjust accusation is easily answered by citing what religious Americans do already. The just one, though, requires doing something new.

End of Tax Write-Off for Tithes?

O Preacher“Christian colleges and churches need to get prepared. We must decide which is more important to us — our tax exemption or our religious convictions”  (Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association and chancellor of Patrick Henry College).

“The loss of tax-exempt status would put countless churches and religious institutions out of business, simply because the burden of property taxes and loss of charitable support would cripple their ability to sustain their mission” (Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

What’s this scary scenario all about?   On Tuesday, April 28th, the U.S. Supreme Court began two days of historical oral arguments to decide (in June) the answer to this question:  Can members of the same sex get married?

An ominous moment of truth struck when Justice Alito asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verilli, appearing on behalf of the government, “In the Bob Jones case (more below), the court held that a college was not entitled to tax exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So, would the same apply to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?”  Verilli explained that he would need to know more specifics, but “It’s certainly going to be an issue.  I don’t deny that.”

What about churches?  Colleges, religious high schools, grade schools and any other religious institution will confront the same issue.  All these institutions are tax-exempt under the same IRS code section.  Therefore, the IRS could revoke even local churches’ tax-exempt status.  It might take years to reach that level, but if it starts with Christian colleges, it will almost certainly “trickle down” to the local church.

What’s the connection between same-sex marriage and tax-exemption?  The same connection that existed between Bob Jones University and tax-exemption.  In 1983 the IRS revoked Bob Jones University’s tax exempt status because of its policies on interracial dating and marriage.  BJU’s defense?  The free exercise of religion. The Court rejected the defense, holding that the government’s goal of eradicating racial discrimination in marriage was more important than BJU’s religious rights.  So if the Supreme Court makes same-sex marriage legal nationwide, and a Christian college or grade school refuses to admit same-sex married couples (or children of such a union), the IRS might very well respond as it did to BJU.  That would mean if a local church refuses membership to same-sex couples (or preaches against same-sex marriage), the IRS might very well revoke that church’s tax-exemption.

What’s the big deal if a local church is no longer tax-exempt?  Two “big deals.”  First, while the local church typically doesn’t make a profit (which would be taxable), it does have property.  That means property taxes.  And the more property and building, the more tax.  Most struggle to stay afloat now.

Second, money-givers to the church could no longer deduct what they give.  I doubt any of us thinks as we drop our check in the offering plate, “Here’s another deduction”.  But it sure would jolt us on that good old 1040!   Might be tougher to tithe (or give) faithfully and freely when Uncle Sam offers no credit!

Aren’t we far off from no more tithing-tax-deduction?  Probably.  And it may never come.  Butif our giving were no longer tax-deductible, would we give less?  (Some Christians look a little Scrooge-like at offering time now!  That was back in New Jersey long ago.) And that brings us full-circle to  Michael Farris’ provoking declaration:

“We must decide which is more important to us — our tax exemption or our religious convictions.”

Now is the time!  Since I’m not the pastor now, nobody can accuse me of being money-hungry.  (So what if they do?  Their argument would be with Jesus, not me.)  I want to see SonRise grow stronger and healthier, but I don’t have a horse in this race, as they say.  And I firmly believe that one sign of a church’s spiritual health is the giving of its members.  If the Lord doesn’t have my money, he probably doesn’t have my heart.  Before the tax storm hits (if it will, only the Lord knows) we would be wise to examine our giving.

Some Scriptures to study as we consider all this . . .

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,
but lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:16-18).

“The silver is mine and the gold is mine,” declares the LORD Almighty (Haggai 2:8).

Remember the LORD your God,
for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18).

No one can serve two masters,
for either he will hate the one and love the other,
or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).

Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;
a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15).

See that you also excel in this grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7).

Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food
will also supply and increase your store of seed
and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.
You will be enriched in every way
so that you can be generous on every occasion (2 Corinthians

The final quote below isn’t Scripture, but maybe should be.  (I wonder if God regrets not having Paul write this?  Just kidding.)  It’s from martyred missionary Jim Eliott–words we shouldn’t skim but soak in . . .

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
to gain what he cannot lose.

















How Can We Kill Him?

P.AllanThat’s what it’s come to.  Already.  After just a year.  How can we kill Jesus? Actually, the Greek word is strongerApollumi means something like “destroy once and for all”.  “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him once and for all” (Mark 3:6).

Who are these would-be killers?  Pharisees.  An influential sect within Judaism.  The name means “separatists.”  Beginning 4 B.C., when Greek idolatry threatened the Jews, God used the Pharisees’ devotion to his Law to save Judaism.  But now they’ve morphed into legalism—righteousness by avoiding “unclean” people and following “the traditions of the fathers”.

Herodians.  A Jewish political party aligned with the family of the Herods, who ruled part of Israel under the Roman Caesar’s thumb.  Typically the Pharisees avoided the Herodians, but popular Jesus became their common foe.

Scribes.  Interpreters and teachers of biblical Law.  Theologically, many were Pharisees.  Though not mentioned in this text, they too opposed Jesus (see Mark 7:1-13).

Interesting that today in the U.S. nobody wants to kill Jesus.  People take him or leave him, but few, if any, want to crucify him.  Maybe because the popular Jesus today is a nice guy, loving, good.  Not a provocative bone in his body.  Different elsewhere though.  Who do you think ISIS is trying to kill when they behead Christians?

This section of Mark’s Gospel divides into four parts which I’ll mark off with the words of Jesus’ enemies.  The text is too long to quote in its entirety, best to read with Bible in hand . . .

Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17)?  Jesus called tax collector Levi (Matthew) to follow him.  Many tax collectors (Jews who assessed taxes for the Roman empire) and “sinners” (Jews Pharisees avoided because they didn’t keep “the religious rules”) joined Jesus and his disciples at Levi’s dinner party.  “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Table-togetherness signifies social acceptance.

Jesus doesn’t avoid these sinners or eat with them in a hidden cave.  In Levi’s open courtyard Jesus unashamedly shares a meal.  Nor does he try to rationalize it.  (“We didn’t know these people would show up!”) Rather, he provokes the Pharisees: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).  In other words, “I’m eating with them  intentionally. These are the people I’ve come to call.  Not you.

Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s and the Pharisees (Mark 2:18-22)?   ” . . . John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.”  Though Jewish Law required fasting only once a year on the Day of Atonement, different groups fasted more often (like the Pharisees who were fastidious fasters).

Jesus answers provocatively.  “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast”—provocative because Isaiah 62:5 told of the day when God would rejoice over his restored people “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride.”  Jesus implies that he is the heavenly bridegroom.

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.  If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins.  If he does the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed and so are the skins.  But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”  A not-so-subtle hint that these guys are the old, dried-up wineskins, and the new kingdom Jesus is bringing requires a new order.

Why are your disciples doing what isn’t lawful on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28)?  As Jesus’ disciples walk through grainfields, they pick grain and pop it in their mouths . “And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'”  The LORD had commanded no work on the holy Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10a) and warned that those who profaned that day should be put to death (Exodus 31:14).

Jesus doesn’t answer, “I’m sorry; I forgot what day it is.”  He knew the legalistic Pharisees had made Sabbath-keeping a burden, so he reminded them of the LORD’s original intention: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  By restoring the the LORD’s intent, he identifies himself as “the Son of man [who is] lord even of the Sabbath.”  A not-so-subtle jab at the Pharisees’ Bible-interpretation skills—and an audacious claim about himself!

How can we kill him (Mark 3:1-6)?    Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand.  And they watched Jesus to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.  And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”  And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”  But they were silent.  And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.  The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Jesus knows they’re watching him there in the synagogue.  He knows what holy day it is.  A suspicious spectator might think this was a sting operation by the Pharisees.  Who knows?  Maybe it was.  And Jesus, it seems, played right into their hand.  He openly called the withered-hand man up front.  He asked a compelling question about the Sabbath law.  You could hear a pin drop.  You could feel the wrath rising in Jesus as he surveyed the congregation.  You could see the rage slowly shift to sorrow over how hardhearted the people were to this hurting man and to Yahweh himself.  Openly to the man:  “Stretch out your hand.”  And there before them all, like a computer-engineered movie scene, his withered hand turned whole.  That’s when the Pharisees had more provocation than they could take.  They stormed from the synagogue and plotted with the Herodians how to destroy Jesus.

Jesus the Provocateur.  Jesus wasn’t out to pick a fight.  But when the real bullies assaulted him, he didn’t shut his mouth and slink away.  By his responses in every instance, he provoked the Pharisees.  His replies fueled their anger until their blood boiled for death.  If Jesus wasn’t trying to pick a fight, what then was he doing?  Rebuking sinful leaders who twisted his Father’s words to suit their own ends.  Correcting their heresy by speaking Truth.

We all see God through our own eyes.  We  all read his words from our own point of view.  We are all marred by our own sin and by the world’s.  So through his written word, Jesus comes and provokes us.  Like:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).  “Repent”.  None of us has all the right answers to all the questions, yet sometimes we act as if we do.  Everybody’s theological system has its flaw, but we refuse to admit that.  Who of us loves God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength?  Who of us loves her neighbor as herself?  Which one of us really loves his enemy and does him good?

Jesus comes not to pick a fight, but to provoke us to repent, to change our way of thinking and seeing and doing.  To better learn the truth and walk in it.  A lot we learn easily.  But some things we need poking and prodding to get.  If we’ve read Jesus’ words and found none provoking us, better read them again more carefully and humbly.  Because Jesus will keep at it ’til we get what he says, don’t like it, but finally submit to it.   That’s what a  loving, good and gracious provocateur does.





Happy Mother’s Day, D.O. & D.Y.

D.O. is code for Daughter Older, D.Y. for Daughter Younger.  Since this blog is read around the world, I thought it wise not to identify you two.  Who knows?  You could have some terrorist group selling you on signing up, or worse, Bill and Hillary Clinton pestering you to invite Bill for a $750,000 speech.

I know the code is pretty simple.  But if I used two from my old CIA days, it might be too complex for ordinary civilians.

I was going to use D.1. and D.2. However, fearing you might assume that meant order of preference, I decided to risk the age-thing, since one of you is actually as a matter of historical and medical fact older than the other.  I assume you know which one.  I keep it straight because I have a system.  I have 3×5 photos of each of you and I write D.O. on one and D.Y. on the other.  I don’t put your names there either, for fear they might fall into the wrong hands.  So I think we’re all pretty safe.  My only worry is some 8-year-old computer nerd reads this, figures out the code in an instant, and blackmails us to get college tuition.

To change gears a bit, did you notice the flower photo?   Two flowers, like two of you.  And bright yellow, outstanding in a world of browns and grays.  That’s how I see both of you—always standing out, making others around you pale by comparison (except for your mother, of course.  Honey, if you read this please don’t skip that last line!)

Often when I write to you both I mention I wish you were children again.  Not just because that would make me younger, but because that time of my life as your father was the best.  I know my old mind conveniently ignores some of the not-so-best-times, like . . . well, never mind.  So, as I’ve also said before, enjoy your children now while they’re under your roof, because these days will pass quickly and you’ll soon be blogging coded-letters to your kids.

I praise the Lord with joy that you both know him, have trusted your lives to him, and are following him day by day.  You are flesh-and-blood models to your children of what a Christian really is.  I’m sure you don’t feel as if your example is as good as it might be.  And it probably isn’t, because we all still fall short of our Savior.  But he hears our prayers (even when he seems disinterested or uninvolved) and he multiplies our meager witness (like the bread and fish), in order to make himself known to your children.  So be encouraged, keep praying and continue to “talk the talk” to them and “walk the walk” before them!

D.O., you’ve certainly chosen a challenging route for motherhood!  A young adult son living at home.  A teenage daughter.  And three stepchildren.  To quote an old proverb from N.J. (that’s code, too):  “Whaddaya crazy?”  And, because of divorce and remarriage, that “mothering” is pretty complicated and hectic.  I’ve always said that you are a strong lady and you’re still proving me right.  That’s our Father’s grace at work in you.  And you are a wise lady—not just because you’re the older one and wisdom comes with age, but because our Father gives wisdom to those who ask.  I’m sure this is both a loving time for you (and I’m so thankful for that!) with your husband (I’d use his name, but, well, you know) and a topsy-turvy time with the “kids.”  The future for your own two must seem like a big question mark.  But our Father is sovereign and in his time (please soon) he’ll sort it all out and open the right doors and make the way clear.  He will use the wonderful mother that you are for ultimate good in their lives.

D.Y., your children (whose names I remember but can’t identify for security purposes) are still precious “little” ones, but rising up quickly.  What treasures they are from our Father!  How ear-splitting they can be when they all talk at once (as they often do)!  You have been blessed your whole married life to have a husband who, like you, comes from generations of believers in Jesus.  Now you are lovingly, patiently, and with all your heart raising the next generation.  Not to mention being  endlessly involved with soccer, baseball, school productions, Sunday school and church!  Soon the youngest one will join the circus (not literally).  As I said to D.O., “Whaddaya crazy?”  No, like D.O., you’re a wonderful mother who wants to give her children every possible good. Whenever I see them, like whenever they stop by to mooch some candy, I see your influence on them.  (I don’t mean the mooching.)  I mean their politeness, respect, intelligence and knowledge of Jesus.  They’re going to make a difference in this world for Jesus.

BACK TO YOU BOTH.  First, I want to mention that I wrote ten lines for each of you.  I got that from my mother who bought my brother and me the same kind and number of underwear every Christmas.  No favoritism!   Be glad I’m not exactly like her!

Second, I want you to know that Mom and I pray every day for both you and your “tribes”—and many days many more than once.  You are both hedged-around by prayer.

Third, I want you to remember that Mom and I are always here for you until the Lord takes us home.  I know, I know, in my condition these days the help-direction often seems reversed.  But I love you both so much, if I had to crawl to help you, I would.  (Just hope it’s not something like your house is on fire!).

Finally, Mom  and I are proud of you.  Probably history won’t remember you.  But our Father remembers every test you’ve passed, every challenge you’ve overcome and everyday you’ve lived before your children for his sake.  Sure, it’s been his grace, but you’ve chosen to live it out.  Your names won’t be in history books.  But they are in “the Lamb’s Book of Life.”  And if God somewhere has a book entitled, “Mothers Who Loved Their Children for My Sake”, your names are there too.  And that book has eternal significance far beyond any book on the history of this fallen and passing-away world.

Oh, one more thing.  If you reply to this, please use code.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, D.O. & D.Y.!  I love you. 

(I sure hope you both have a computer!)

Mother’s Day “Do-Over” to My Wife

O PreacherI wanted to write a new Mother’s Day message.  Then I re-read the one I wrote last year.  Pretty good.  I figured maybe by now you forgot what it said.  You do forget where you put your keys, right?  My gut, though, told me “no.”  One sentence and it would all come rushing back.  But I decided to live dangerously, because I still mean now with all my heart what I wrote then.  (Don’t even bother adding a year to the ages mentioned here.  You’ll feel better.)  Don’t read this as a rerun from a lazy husband.  Read it as a renewal from a loving one.  (And if you think I’m taking the easy way out, you won’t have to buy me that convertible for Christmas.)

Before I “copy and paste” . . . Some things have changed since last Mother’s Day—primarily my health.  It’s worsened and you’ve had an old guy who sometimes must make you feel you’ve got another child.  (I’ve noticed when babies drool people laugh at the cutey-pie.  But when old people drool it’s a silent, “Yuk.”  Thankfully, I’m not drooling yet—just spotting my shirt with some supper or saving a bit of  salad cheese in my beard for later.)  Anyway, you’ve loved me “for . . . worse” without complaint.  I love you so much for loving me, especially  when you’re getting less love in return. (Remember those younger years when I was like Don Ju-an?  Now I’m more like Don Knotts.)    At least, please know it’s there, deep in my heart.  Thank you for serving me in love.  Daily I see Jesus in you.

Okay.  Now the “renewal” of last year’s “Happy Mother’s Day” . . .

* * *

  Spathoglottis Plicata OrchidAs fatherhood changes with time, so, of course, does motherhood.

During those young years, anyone watching silently from the sidelines  would have assumed you’d  trained for years.  A Masters in Motherhood?  Know-how picked up from your mother?  I always felt I was learning fatherhood in the doing–or maybe after the doing.  You, on the other hand, seemed to intuitively know what a mother should do and say in every situation.  It was as if God put a “mother gene” in you from the start.

But you were never–what should I say–an old-fashioned mother baking pies and sewing diapers and saying things like, “Land sakes alive!”  You did bake great pies and cook delicious meals, but, Land Sakes Alive what stress in the doing and what mess in the clean-up!  What you produced was always wonderful, but Kitchen was never your God-gifted room.

You were always beautiful, attractive, classy.  Never the kind of mother to be mistaken for Aunt Henrietta from Kansas or Elizabeth Taylor with a face-lift.

You were always godly, Christ-devoted.  Our children surely knew where you stood with Jesus–behind him, following him.  You talked about that.  You taught them that.  And you lived that before them.  You have been a fine instrument in the hand of the Master shaping the lives of your children.  Did you blunder sometimes?  Of course.  But the Master even used those blunders for his good.  (By the way, in the process you’ve been a fine instrument in the Master’s hand shaping me, too.)

Now we’re both 70.  (It’s okay, nobody reads this.)  Our three children are adults with their own children, making you “Grammy” to eight ranging from 20 years old to five.  So motherhood has changed.  Yet your “mother gene” keeps working.  You know how to be a mother to adult children.  A tricky tightrope to walk!  Mother and friend and intercessor before the Father.  You know how to be a grandmother–loving, sacrificing, giving, wise, faithful and above all godly.  Blunders?  Sure, still some.  But God still turns them into good.  And you still are so beautiful to me–and, I think if they thought about it, to our children and grandchildren too.  Beautiful outside, even more on the inside.

I know.  I’m your husband.  I’ve stood silently (and sometimes not so silently) on the sidelines and seen.  So today I’m so thankful that my children and grandchildren have had you.  And that I have you.  A gift from our Father in whom his Son is gracefully reflected.  Happy Mother’s Day, honey.  I love you.

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