Tuesday, November 7, 2017

God? There's an app for that!

Are you tired of getting up on Sunday mornings to get to church? Do you wish worship would stop getting in the way of what you really want to do? You've been heard. You are not alone. Your prayers have been answered, but not by the oppressive God you've been following. Download our app and discover a God who understands how busy you are.

What do you think? Is this an app that speaks to you? Just to be clear, none of this is real...yet. This approach is not far off as the Google engineer responsible for their self-driving car, Anthony Levandowski, has established a nonprofit religious organization called Way of the Future. The self described purpose of the organization is to "develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence, and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society." Imagine a future where people worship an artificial intelligence God. A machine would be the moral and spiritual compass for these "disciples". In this future, Man creates God. This organization was the backdrop for our discussion in adult Sunday school at Grace Baptist Church in Blue Bell, PA.

We took a trip all the way back to the book of Genesis where God said to Adam, "you are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die" (Genesis 2: 16-17). The serpent came along and told Eve she would not die if she ate from the tree and, in fact, would be like God, knowing good and evil. The problem is that knowledge wasn't meant for Eve.

Is the Way of the Future organization making the same mistake as Eve? The goal of the organization is "to develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence". This artificial intelligence God has to be created and programmed with knowledge under the assumption the machine can be like God by using this knowledge to provide guidance to better society. One of the major flaws in this approach is you cannot equate something created with the creator. In other words, referring back to the original sin, this artificial intelligence God represents Eve who gains the knowledge of good and evil to be "like" God. Eve cannot be God as she is the "created", not the "creator".

Will this artificial intelligence idol sway Christians who are looking for an easier path? Perhaps it will, but we should look to Psalm 115, verses 4-8 for guidance:


But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them

It is important to note, there is very little known about Way of the Future. They do intend to better society, which is a positive goal, but designating themselves as a religious organization puts them on a path of many well-intentioned movements before them. You might say we don't know what this future looks like, but with so many examples of false idols from our past I believe we have a pretty good idea.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Becoming a Healthy Church

The following are notes taken from Pastor George Hawthorne's sermon on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

Did you know that North America is the only continent where the church isn't growing?

What are some of the indicators of a healthy church?

1.  Love -- A healthy church exemplifies acceptance and unconditional love like Jesus.  For all kinds of people, especially the downtrodden and forgotten

2.  Purpose -- A healthy church has a clear sense of purpose and a vision for the future.  Deep down in each of us is the desire to make our lives count.  Good things do not happen by accident.

3.  Prayer -- A healthy church is a praying church.  Begin your day with prayer.  Prayer makes a difference.

4.  Service -- A healthy church is  not just serving its congregation, its in service to its community, country and world.  God loves all creation, and expects us to live lives of service to others.

5.  Optimism/Enthusiasm -- A healthy church is optimistic about the future, and believes better days lie ahead.  Our church has a glorious past, but constantly looking back is a hindrance to its future health.

6. Personal Growth  -- A healthy church's members have a keen desire for personal growth.  They want to know God in an intimate manner, with an expectant heart.  They hunger to know God's will in their lives.  Church is more than a social outlet, it's a place to learn to walk and grow with God.

7.  Outward Focus -- A healthy church is not just worried about keeping the lights on, and running the latest program.  A healthy church is outwardly focused, seeking to reach and serve those beyond our walls.

8.  Open to Change  -- A healthy church is flexible and willing to look at and do things differently in order to better serve God's will and the community.  A danger to a healthy church is "but we've always done it that way, or we never do that here."


Friday, October 28, 2016

Put God First

Way back in May we met in the boardroom at Grace Baptist Church of Blue Bell. We talked about elephants. We did spend a little time discussing the gigantic mammals we're all familiar with, but the focus was on the metaphorical elephants we are faced with all the time. We talked about those giant elephants in our lives that lead to worry and fear. We all have those obstacles, those elephants, where we have no idea how we'll overcome them.

For so long I thought the key to overcoming obstacles was to first make an effort to overcome them on my own. If I got stuck along the way, I would then ask for help. This approach seemed perfectly logical and gave me comfort knowing I tried! In our discussion on Sunday, I realized there was a big piece missing from my approach. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9, Paul tells us, "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed ... ".

I would save my prayers until I realized I couldn't overcome my obstacle. I believed if I went to God first, before putting in the effort myself, I would feel guilty. What I failed to recognize is going to God first does not mean I get to be lazy while God fixes things for me. Rather, going to God first is simply asking God to be with me as I face my obstacle.

God is with me either way, but the missing piece was me being with God. If I overcame something, I might believe I did it on my own. But as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, the power belongs to God. I shared a story during our discussion about a co-worker who was desperate to get back home to see her Grandfather. He was ill and did not have long to live. She booked a flight and, upon arriving at the airport, discovered it was canceled. She re-booked on a different airline and again the flight was canceled. She spent most of the night trying to get back to see him, but finally realized she would not be able to make it. She was able to speak with him over the phone. He could not respond but she was able to tell him good-bye. He passed away soon after and she was left feeling she failed him by not being there.

She shared her story with me and I asked her about the last memory she had of her grandfather. She recalled seeing him a few months earlier when he was healthy. She remembered him smiling and laughing. I told her I believed God was with her in the airport that night. I believe God wanted to protect that happy final memory of her Grandfather and she has no reason to feel she failed her Grandfather. He heard every word she said over the phone as God made sure she was able to say good-bye.

So many times in life, it is hard to see God is with us. Maybe the harder part is for us to be with God when faced with enormous elephants. In Romans 8:28, we read, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." We don't know God's purpose. Sometimes things do not work out the way we expect and overcoming our obstacles, may not be the resolution we're hoping for.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Warnings have been issued! Now what?

Warnings are all around us all the time. Some warnings, such as those issued ahead of Hurricane Matthew, require us to take immediate action. The consequences of inaction can be dire; yet some directly in the path of the hurricane did not evacuate. Why?

When I was about 6 years old, a tornado warning was issued in my small NE Ohio town. It was not the first time we had such a warning, but this time my Dad took me down in the basement for safety. We waited out the storm and the tornado never came. I wondered what all the fuss was about until my Mom came home from work that night. She worked about 5 miles from our home and she  saw the tornado from the store she worked in. She saw the destruction of the tornado on her way home. Just because I didn't experience the destruction of the tornado first hand did not mean the danger wasn't real for many others. I learned to always heed warnings and stay vigilant in the face of possible danger.

Looking back, I wonder how my perspective would have changed if the tornado never came at all. I probably wouldn't take that second look when severe thunderstorm watches are issued. I wouldn't pay much attention to the so-called "weather experts". Maybe something similar happened for some of those people who ignored the evacuation orders. Consider how many times people in the SE United States have seen warnings issued where the storm didn't really pack the punch they were expecting. Shortly thereafter the weather experts will explain why the storm changed direction, or never materialized, but for many people it is too little too late. The weather expert's credibility is called into question and future warnings may fall on deaf ears.

The truth is predicting what lies ahead is very difficult to do, but it's even more difficult to share that message with people for fear of their reaction. As Christians we are on the front line of sharing a type of warning, the good news, with everyone. We often focus on the positive, hopeful and loving side of this message, but there is also the reality that accepting Jesus Christ as one's savior comes with responsibilities. It also is not a promise one's life will be free of adversity. Some do not want to hear this message, but we should not keep this message to ourselves just for fear of people's reactions. Consider this passage from Ezekiel 3:17-19:

Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "You shall surely die," and you give them no warning...those wicked persons shall die....but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness...they shall die...but you will have saved your life.

Ezekiel was tasked as the messenger to share the warnings from God with the people. Chances are Ezekiel had to share many unpopular warnings. Ezekiel likely upset people with the warnings he shared, but he was just the messenger. Ezekiel was not demanding they change their ways; rather, he was letting them know what danger lies ahead if they do not heed his warnings. Ezekiel knew there would be more harm than good for everyone, himself included, if he didn't share the message.

Warnings are all around us from our religious leaders, politicians, news media, friends, family, etc. Not all warnings will require we take action, but regardless we shouldn't ignore messengers who are trying to share a warning. Perhaps the warning does not apply to us this time, but it may apply to our neighbor. We must be like Ezekiel and share the warnings of impending danger with all who need to hear it in the hope we can save as many possible.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Remember when...

Times were simpler? When no one had any problems? When everyone was happy? I found a NY Times opinion piece that stated, "When people discuss recent changes in family life in the United States, they often take the 50's as their point of reference...commentators on the family frequently note that since the 50's, the divorce rate has more than doubled, the birth rate has dropped sharply, and the average age at marriage has risen".

It is common to remember the past as being simpler; to see today as morally corrupt and to fear the even worse calamities awaiting us in the future. In the opinion piece above it points to statistics, such as the increase in the divorce rate, to support the idea times were better in the past. The best place to feed this perception is the 24 hour news cycle. If you turn on the news right now, you'll hear about how our country is going to crumble from within if Trump is elected, or if Hillary is elected, or if Cruz is elected, or if Sanders is elected (depends on which news channel you're watching). Aren't you terrified to know that no matter who is elected, this country is doomed? More importantly, if the news is supposed to be objective why are there so many different opinions?

Our discussion this past week was guided by the perceived death of journalism. So many industries have come and gone over the years, but can it really be possible journalism is on its way out? It seems more likely that journalism is going through changes and trying to adapt to an on-demand society. For a long time the media owned journalism, for better or worse, and delivered content they felt most appropriate. Now there is a new force at play with social media allowing anyone to post a “news” story. The challenge for journalism is to learn to adapt to social media and be able to distinguish itself from opinion. Journalism is faced with the reality the news is no longer limited to the filters put in place by media companies.

Change is never easy, especially when it is forced upon us. For perspective, think back to when you accepted Christ as your savior. For me it all began as a teenager when a friend of mine introduced me to Jesus as we were running trails during Cross Country practice. I wasn't told I had to accept Jesus. I wasn't forced to go to church. I chose to make a change in my life and accept Jesus Christ. I am not claiming to fully understand what that commitment meant as a teenager. I'm still learning everyday what it means to be a Christian, but the key, for me, was making the choice to change. Change is inevitable in life, but remember what Hebrews 13:8 tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”. No matter the change in our lives, trust in Jesus as he does not change.
We can even take a lesson from Jesus' life as described by Luke 2:46, where as a child “...they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions”. We trust in Jesus and Jesus, as a boy, listened to his elders. Doesn't it make sense to also listen to our elders, especially in times of change? In Ecclesiastes 1:9 we read, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. Our elders can impart wisdom to us as what we're experiencing has happened before.

Whether we're anxious about the future president, the state of the economy, potential for wars or any other bleak future we can picture, we should look to our elders and trust in Jesus. In fact one of those elders might point out the NY Times opinion piece I opened with is not recent as it was originally printed 35 years ago! Maybe the world hasn't changed that much in 35 years but 2,000 year old biblical accounts of the people frustrated about their government, taxes and religious extremists would certainly fit right in with our current news cycle.

Times were never simple and people always encountered problems no matter what era you look at. Our elders can help us handle change and share how God got them through it in the past. None of us know what lies ahead, but we do know one thing that will never change; God's love for us.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Truth is Out There

We’re in an election year, which means we’re buried in political advertisements, debates and promises. Every election cycle the pattern repeats itself with enthusiastic candidates pitching ideas to voters about how they will shake up Washington. The more unrealistic the promise, the more excited their supporters become. Why do these improbable, if not impossible, ideas generate so much excitement?

The phenomenon is not new and is not isolated to politics. It is common practice to make promises based on half-truths, or full lies, to endorse a product or idea. Sometimes these empty promises are harmless, but sometimes these promises can lead to real suffering. In Matthew 7:15-16, 21 we read, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”. We also read in 2 Corinthinans 11:3-4, 13-14, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray…For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus…you receive a different spirit…or a different gospel…you submit to readily enough…Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”.

Our discussion this week focused on several African governments who are proposing some regulations on churches to prevent thieves from using religion to manipulate people out of their assets or cause them other harm. Ideas ranged from government regulation to regulation within the church. Government involvement in church is not an ideal solution as religious freedoms could be violated. Regulation from within the church is also complicated as there are multiple legitimate sects of Christianity, some of which have practices that appear on the fringe as compared to larger denominations. Is there really a fair and balanced way to regulate religion?  
As Christians we must come to know God’s word as this is our only defense against false prophets. Any glimmer of hope is welcome when we’re at our lowest points. It is at those moments when we’re most vulnerable to succumbing to false prophets who “promise” to fix our problems. As appealing as those promises appear, always keep God’s word in mind. God does not promise to fix our problems, but rather provides us the tools to get through our problems. We are not always given the answer we want, or expect, but that does not mean our prayers are not answered.

Politicians are an easy mark when it comes to empty promises, but I do believe most politicians take office with the best of intentions. Once they take up their new office and realize they are no longer speaking to cheering crowds of supporters, the reality of being an elected official sets in. The difference with well-intentioned politicians and false prophets is what they do once they understand their decisions will directly impact people’s lives. False prophets carry on with their message, regardless the cost to their followers, to continue building themselves up. Well-intentioned politicians make decisions based on what they believe is best for their constituents, even when it is unpopular.

The truth is false prophets are obvious when you know God’s word. Every week we meet at Grace Baptist Church to learn more about God’s word together and we hope you’ll join us!

I Am Not a Comedian

If you’ve ever watched a comedian perform, you’ll notice they always have a perfect anecdotal story which complements their comedy routine. The story is intended to feel just authentic enough to connect the audience with the comedian and allow the audience to enter the comedian’s world. If the audience relates to the story, they’re drawn in. This tactic is not limited to comedians but their approach is the most direct as they often set the stage by saying something like, “You won’t believe what happened to me the other day…”.

A few weeks ago we met again in the boardroom at Grace Baptist Church on Sunday morning and this time we discussed miracles. We started our discussion with learning about the story of a 4 year old little girl who nearly died from the flu. Initially she seemed to recover using medication and getting rest. But shortly thereafter she succumbed again to the illness. Her parents planned to take her to the pediatrician but decided it best to go to the ER. She went into cardiac arrest. After 45 minutes of CPR, the pediatric heart surgeon put her on life support equipment to sustain her. Her parents asked for prayers at Catholic masses in their home countries, Hungary and Brazil, as well as from friends and family in Argentina, Italy, Miami and Boston. That night her heart began beating on its own. The doctors cannot explain why her heart resumed functioning. God has a plan for this little girl.

This story is miraculous as it demonstrates God at work. There is no question the medical care she received played a large part in her survival, but we have to look at a broader view. One of the discussion points focused on the words of Jesus from Matthew 17:18-20 where he tells the disciples if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains as nothing would be impossible. This little girl’s parents “mountain” was getting her heart beating again. God answered their prayers with guidance, whether the parents realized it or not. She may not be alive today had they taken her to the pediatrician rather than the ER. 

Which reminds me, you won’t believe what happened to me the other day. During our meeting we shared what “mountains” we needed to have moved. I shared about the house my wife and I have been unable to sell for several years. We decided to begin renting the house a few years ago and our current tenants were scheduled to move out last month. Our “mountain” was finding a new tenant in January in the Northeast US! Three hours after church I found out about potential new tenants and a few days later a lease was signed. Within hours of sharing our “mountain”, it started to move. Is this miraculous?

Our lives are full of things which at the time might seem inconsequential. We might not even notice some everyday miracles. When we look back retrospectively miracles become more evident. Many people have much larger “mountains” to move and it is important to note the answer to our prayers is not always the one we’re expecting. I was told to treat prayer like a conversation. There is no right way or wrong way; the important thing is that you spend time doing it. The more you converse, the more likely you are to notice God at work.

We hope to see you next time in the boardroom at Grace Baptist Church.