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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Is it time for an intervention?

There have been many occasions where I’ve thought “please God, help me!” or some derivation of that thought. The thought has applied to so many scenarios from the light-hearted (looking for a rest stop in the middle of nowhere after a large coffee) to the darkest moments (please don’t take my Mom, she’s not ready). In those moments my focus is singular where I just want that one thing to happen. I suppose I have been lucky because I’ve always managed to find a rest stop just in time and my Mom is still with us; but looking back, was it really luck? I did ask God for help after all.


Our discussion this past Sunday focused on the idea of God helping us or looking out for us. We referenced the story from 1 Samuel 7:3-14 where the Israelites defeated the Philistines at Mizpah. The Israelites feared the Philistines and asked Samuel to pray to God on their behalf. The Lord answered Samuel with a loud thunder which threw the Philistines into confusion and panic resulting in a victory for the Israelites. Samuel knew their victory was not a result of their army; it was a result of God’s intervention. 


In those moments of victory, where things work out, it is easy to thank and praise God. But what about those other moments where we feel our prayers go unanswered? I cannot help but think of the victims of the recent Paris attacks or the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California this week. There was even a headline in the New York Daily News of 'God Isn't Fixing This'. That headline may be partially true. Look back at that passage from Samuel. Did God strike down the Philistines? No. God's intervention gave the Israelites the advantage but the victory still required the Israelites to take action. Following the victory, Samuel set up a stone at the site called an Ebenezer to serve as a reminder and testament to God's help. 


Where is God's thunder? Did we miss God's intervention and our cue to take action? Or maybe it hasn't happened yet? The Israelites were under constant threat of attack. They came together at Mizpah and witnessed a miracle. I believe there are many similarities between the Israelites and the world we live in today. We are all children of God and we need to find a way to come together. When our Mizpah moment happens we'll witness God's intervention and hopefully take action when we need to. And like Samuel, we must set up an Ebenezer as a reminder of God's help and our ability to overcome our differences to defeat our enemies. Until that time comes we must continue to pray to God on behalf of those victims, their families and for all of us as we seek guidance and protection.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Would you know my name

Years ago a musician named Eric Clapton wrote the song “Tears in Heaven”. The song was written after he lost his son in a tragic accident. The lyrics ask the question “would you know my name if I saw you in Heaven?” A lot of people connect with the message in this song because we want to believe our loved ones are waiting for us in Heaven. We want to believe they’ll recognize us and welcome us into God’s kingdom. But the song also paints a picture of doubt as to whether that reunion will go the way we imagine.
The Bible does not address this concept directly but does offer a few examples, which suggest a reunion with loved ones. One example is found in 2 Samuel, chapter 12. This chapter relays the story of the Lord taking David’s son as a result of David’s sins. Upon learning of the child’s death, David said he would go to him as the child could not come back to David. David implies he’ll see his child in Heaven someday, which aligns with the sentiment in the song. The next line in the song “Tears in Heaven” goes on to say “will it be the same if I see you in Heaven?” We can again look to David’s words from this chapter for guidance, “who knows?”
In our discussion at Grace Baptist Church we talked about Heaven. We were split on our view of Heaven. Some felt Heaven would be a reunion; not only with the family members we knew, but also all the generations before. Others felt we would recognize our loved ones in Heaven but our connection wouldn’t be any different than with others in Heaven. It didn’t take long to get lost looking at the endless possibilities of what Heaven might be; but we all agreed Heaven will be full of fellowship and love. One member summed it up simply by saying Heaven should be seen as an eternity in God’s presence, while Hell is eternal separation from God. 
The bible does offer perspective on Heaven. In Luke (23:43) Jesus on the cross Jesus said to the thief, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise". The book of Revelations describes heaven in several ways including lots of praise time with worship of God 24/7. Maybe we don’t know exactly what Heaven will be, but the only thing that matters is an eternity with God. What we do know is our faith in Jesus Christ assures our place in Heaven. We don’t know all of the details but knowing we’ll be with Jesus and in the presence of God is all we need. 

Who knows where our discussion will go next time but if you’re interested you can join us in the boardroom every Sunday at 9:30 AM.

Things Aren't Always As They Seem

"Thou shalt not kill" is perhaps the most well known of the ten commandments. This commandment has crossed over into pop culture showing up in movies and television. Characters say this phrase and a lot of us know what it means. Or at least we think we know what it means. I thought it meant you shall not kill under any circumstances, including war and capital punishment. But what if I told you the wording of this commandment was dependent on which translation of the bible you were reading? What if that commandment read "you shall not murder"? Does that change anything?

The New International Version (NIV) translation uses the term murder, not kill. Murder generally refers to a crime, whereas killing is an act which may or may not be a crime. This distinction complicates my understanding of this commandment, as it does not fully close the door on killing. Does that mean that killing in the context of war, self-defense or capital punishment are acceptable in the eyes of God? When we met in the boardroom at Grace Baptist Church a few Sundays back, we discussed capital punishment from a Christian perspective. We discussed the story of Kelly Gissendaner who admitted to recruiting her lover to murder her husband and was executed in Georgia. Mrs. Gissendaner's story is unique as during her incarceration she not only accepted Jesus as her savior, but also developed her own ministry at the prison. Many who knew Gissendaner claimed her conversion was genuine and over 500 members of the clergy, including Pope Francis, pleaded with the authorities to spare her life. Imagine hearing these appeals and being in the position of deciding her fate.

As with most issues, there is no easy solution. In our discussion, we started with looking at whether a murderer could be forgiven and saved. We discovered this is a broader question of whether a sinner can be forgiven and saved. Man, not God, ranked murder above adultery, stealing and the other commandments. If you look back at the commandments in the book of Exodus, there is no specification of one sin being worse than another. We know, no matter how hard we try, we sin and that Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins. Jesus gave us the path to salvation and all we have to do is accept him in our hearts. Jesus explained this in John, chapter 8 when a woman accused of adultery was presented. Jesus advised for any among them without sin to cast the first stone. No stones were cast and Jesus told the woman to go and leave her life of sin. Christianity is about inclusion and acceptance of everyone, regardless of their sins. Therefore, it stands to reason murderers can absolutely be forgiven and saved.

That is wonderful news, but it does not help with guiding the decision on sparing Mrs. Gissendaner's life. Salvation does not mean the consequences are taken away. We know right and wrong and, perhaps more importantly, we know there are consequences to our actions. In the New Testament, there are some references to consequences including in Romans 13 where Paul tells us to obey the laws or face the consequences. Some have interpreted this language to support capital punishment. Paul doesn't directly endorse specific laws, but does make the point we should be subject to the governing authorities as they are God's servants and can bring punishment on the wrongdoer. In the case of Mrs. Gissendaner, she was subject to the laws of Georgia which resulted in her execution.
We may not all agree on capital punishment. What I hope we can agree on is that all people, regardless of their sins, can be saved if they choose to accept Jesus. No matter how far we feel we have strayed, God never strays from us. We hope to see you next time at 9:30 AM in the boardroom at Grace Baptist Church. God Bless.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Papal Politics

I remember being advised to avoid discussing politics and religion when in mixed company. I didn't really heed that advice as a young adult and would often speak freely about my point of view; even though I wasn't really engaged with the church and had no interest in politics beyond what was portrayed on Saturday Night Live. Today I find myself actively engaged with the church and politics. Religion and politics are interesting and rewarding but, ironically, I now find them more difficult to talk about than I did as a young adult. The more I study and learn, the less I feel I really know!

Maybe for the first time I understand the advice given to me about avoiding these discussions. The advice wasn't implying these topics should be avoided completely; it is saying these topics need to be treated with the proper reverence and respect. I'm not supposed to know everything and I'm not supposed to use these discussions to say I'm right and someone else is wrong. Religion and politics are intended to bring us together, not drive us apart. On his first trip to the US, Pope Francis delivered this message when he addressed Congress and the United Nations.

A group of us gathered in the boardroom of Grace Baptist Church and discussed the Pope's visit. We talked about the lack of the gospel in the media coverage and the criticism the Pope received as some felt he missed an opportunity to evangelize. Evangelism means different things to different people and that's okay! But did he really miss an opportunity?
Pope Francis stood in front a divided congress, which is representing a divided country, and asked we come together for the common good. He asked we avoid the temptation to categorize others as it only serves to divide and polarize us. He asked we relate to one another. Why wouldn't Pope Francis take this opportunity to preach the gospel? It certainly seems like he got the same advice I did and avoided discussing religion and politics. I don't know the reasons why, but I do know over 90% of Congress identifies as Christian. Maybe the Pope realized the message this group needed was not the one they expected. Maybe he wanted to show the power of the gospel is more than Jesus' birth, death and resurrection.

Imagine if every member of Congress returned to their constituents and gave them the message they needed rather than the one they expected. A message that wasn't delivering talking points for the party designed to build up one side while tearing down the other; but rather a message of unity. Imagine the power of an elected official focusing on serving ALL of their constituents and not just those who will assure they get re-elected. Imagine those constituents returning to their homes and discussing the ideas of unity and inclusion with their families rather than showing hostility toward those of a differing view. Imagine if we all treated others as we would want to be treated. I think I read about that in a book by some guy named Matthew.

I ask again did he really miss an opportunity to preach the gospel? Or did we miss an opportunity by not really listening to what he said? I suppose time will tell what message was received. Maybe while we're waiting, you'd like to stop by Grace Baptist Church in Blue Bell at 9:30 AM next Sunday to sit in on our next chat. All are welcome!