Merry Christmas

I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

Indeed there is much darkness in our world still.  It is at this time of year, though, that our focus on hope should be renewed.  Jesus came into a world full of darkness on a dark night. Even on that dark night the darkness was driven back as was seen by what occurred in front of the eyes of simple shepherds minding their own business.  That light, the LIGHT, is needed more than ever in our own time.  The message of hope and peace still resonates.

I am currently sitting in an airport in Des Moines, IA, waiting to catch a flight to join my beautiful bride and 3 of my children in San Antonio.  Family is important and being with those we love and cherish is crucial.  I pray that your Christmas is full of those you love.

May hope and peace reign in your hearts and midst this day and every day.  And may the the hope and peace that is only possible through Jesus Christ reign in our world.

Merry Christmas.

Advertisements

The Need for the Miraculous Today

Tomorrow is Christmas.  That makes today Christmas Eve. (Duh.  The ability to make that last statement shows that I am qualified to be a sports TV color commentators.  But I digress.)  Tonight, we celebrate a miracle – the virgin birth of Jesus.  God started with a miracle and continued showing them, using them to reveal that he is real and his presence, character and power.  His continuing to do so even in our time is more necessary than maybe ever before.

If the only foundation for my faith was Jesus’ virgin birth, then that is a very weak foundation.  As a former student of my wife’s and a friend of ours pointed out recently, there are other stories of miraculous, virgin births.  But the foundation of my faith is based on so much more than just a birth one night so many years ago.  It is based upon many more times of God revealing himself through Jesus and his followers, of which I am one.  The Apostle John wrote near the end of his gospel this: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

There are those for whom it is not necessary to see God’s power and presence demonstrated in order to believe.  There are others, though, for whom it is necessary.  Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, needed to see the hands and feet in order to believe.  Jesus says that those who do not see yet believe will be blessed, but he does not belittle Thomas’ need to see for himself in order to believe.

And God didn’t stop demonstrating his power and presence after Jesus ascended into heaven.  Throughout the Book of the Acts of the Apostles we see instance after instance of God revealing his presence and power through and in his people, ways that are mind-boggling and inexplicable by human means.

Over the last few years, I have become more and more convinced that those within the Christian faith family who declare that God no longer works in the types of ways found in Acts and the early church have really done a disservice to God and the Christian faith.  When someone says that God no longer works in certain ways or spiritual giftings (what is commonly known as the sign gifts – prophecy, word of knowledge, healings, tongues, etc), that person is, for all intents and purposes, reducing the Christian faith to nothing more than a moral philosophy or code which now competes with all other moral philosophies and codes found in the world.  What this person also forgets is that there are many today for whom it is necessary to see some proof before their eyes in order to believe.  It is also common for this type of person to demean in some way this person’s faith as being weaker than one who believes without seeing any proof.  It must be remembered, though, that Jesus didn’t belittle Thomas’ need to see in order to believe.  Believing without seeing proof is asking a lot.

An article I just read this morning from ethicsdaily.com gave rise to this blog post.  It talked about the “Nones” who is one of the fastest growing groups in the United States.  “Nones” are those who list no religious affiliation whatsoever.  There have been Christian leaders who have decried this reality.  For me, though, I actually rejoice because, when combined with another study that shows the interest in things of a spiritual nature remains very high, I see a situation where people want to get away from religion as an institution.  And that is what Christianity has become, in essence, in this country.

I believe that the removal of the church as a primary force in this country has actually freed us from the trap of that position.  That trap is characterized by making Christianity out to be nothing more than a morally-guiding philosophy and a religion.  The Bible was used to keep people, the masses, in line and under control.  This trap is characterized by power and as has been said very well, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Christianity is not a religion.  A religion is where humanity, through keeping a code or standard and performing certain rituals, attempts to reach up and attain God and his standard of perfection.  THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DO!  That is a religion and that is into what many in the church have transformed the Christian faith.

Christianity is a story about how God, realizing that it was impossible for humanity to reach up and attain him (for according to Isaiah 64:6, even our best righteous acts are like filthy rags when compared to God), he reached down to us through his Son, Jesus.  It is through Jesus that those who believe in and on him have been given all spiritual blessings.  Nothing more can be earned because God has already given it all to us.  Our response of gratitude to this incredible gift is to have his character, power and presence lived out in and through us.

People today, in this postmodern world, are interested in proof behind what is proclaimed.  The “Nones” are part of this group.  One of the reasons we are now living in the postmodern world is that the generations which grew up in the modern age heard promises about how modern advances (technology, education, etc) in different areas would solve all the problems of the world, promises  made by people who expected them to be believed without any proof and which were not fulfilled.

And this is why I rejoice.  People are looking for proof behind what is being proclaimed.  I serve a God who is in the business of demonstrating proof.  That is why my faith is not based only on a claim of a virgin birth over 2000 years ago.  It is not even solely based upon the miracles that Jesus did while on this earth and his resurrection.  It is not solely based upon how God revealed his power and presence in the early years of the church.  Those are certainly part, and the resurrection is the keystone piece, but they do not equal the whole.  God has continued to reveal who he is, his character, power and presence, to me in a variety of ways.  And that is the reason why I proclaim as Graham Cooke does, “I no longer believe Jesus is Lord; I know it!”  I have seen his Lordship demonstrated.  And that is exactly what many today are wanting to see and they haven’t seen much of it.

What God started over 2000 years ago with an incredible display of his power and presence, he did not want to have transformed into nothing more than a philosophy based solely on a proclamation by word, one void of any true and real power being demonstrated.  He still wants it proven by his power and presence today.

How will you seen his power and presence demonstrated this Christmas season and into 2013?  I long to see more and more of my God revealing his character, presence and power in, through, to and around me.  I pray it is the same for you.

Praising God for what he started in a dirty stable, in a rough-hewn manger on a night that for many was just like any other night.

Transforming the Delivering of Desk Calendars into Saving LIves

How can delivering desk calendars be used to save lives?

In the last week, I have spent about 90 minutes delivering approximately 50 2013 desk calendars to members of the Fort Dodge Greater Growth Alliance.  I am one of many from the Fort Dodge Noon Kiwanis Club who have helped deliver these calendars.  In appreciation of this, the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance is donating $500 to our club.  It is that $500 that can be transformed in saving lives.

Here’s how.  Back in the 1990’s, Kiwanis International partnered with UNICEF to, once and for all, eradicate Iodine Deficiency Syndrome from the face of the earth.  Through fundraising and other efforts, this partnership was successful in doing just that.  Last year, Kiwanis International has once again partnered with UNICEF; this time, the enemy is Maternal Neonatal Tetanus (MNT).

According to UNICEF, MNT claims the lives of approximately 58,400 newborn babies, primarily in countries on the African continent, subjecting these newborns to a brief life of only days which are filled with extreme pain and suffering and then death.  58,400 breaks down to 160 babies/day and 1 baby dying every 9 minutes.  To say that this is a travesty is a colossal understatement, especially since tetanus is defeat-able.  In our country, we rarely give tetanus a thought, except when we take our children in to get their immunization shots, a booster, or a nurse or doctor asks about when our last tetanus shot was when we have an appointment.

Kiwanis International has the goal of raising $110 million by the end of 2016.  UNICEF has estimated that it will take that amount of money to eradicate MNT from the face of the earth through immunizing women who might become or are pregnant.  One immunization shot costs $1.80.  That’s about what a cup of coffee costs at a restaurant!

I am not sure exactly how many calendars total will be delivered, but let’s say that the number is 500.  That equals a $1 donation for every calendar delivered.  That money if given to the Eliminate Project (the name of this new partnership between Kiwanis International and UNICEF) will pay for 277 immunizations.  That means 277 babies will live and not suffer an agonizing and preventable death.

In 90 minutes, I delivered 50 calendars.  Those 50 calendars translate to $50 which translates to 27 babies saved.  That means for every 3 minutes and 20 seconds I was out delivering calendars, a baby’s life was saved.

That is how the delivery of desk calendars is transformed into saving lives.  This is just one example of how little things and little time can be transformed to do big, great and incredible things.  Another example would be that of A21 (21st Century Abolitionists) whose work is done with those caught up in the human trafficking industry.

A21 is doing incredible work.  On their website, http://www.thea21campaign.org/, you can find small ways to help in the work of freeing those who have been trapped in this blight.  http://www.thea21campaign.org/content/21-ways-to-get-involved/gjf4co is the direct link to 21 ways you can get involved today!

With the information and technology age, the world is becoming smaller and smaller because of connection with people with whom we may never come into contact.  Another direct result of this is that we can no longer have a “head in the sand” attitude or approach.  These issues are now at our doorsteps.  The proper view and approach is to look beyond ourselves and use what we have been given for greatest impact.  Tell me, which is a greater impact, drinking that extra fountain drink or cup of coffee for our own pleasure or that money being used to save a baby from a despicable and preventable death or helping free a person who is caught up in the human trafficking industry?

That is how we must view our world.  If desk calendars can be transformed into saving lives, the change that I throw into my change cup at night or that penny that I may not pick up from the ground can be transformed into impacting lives with hope.

What will you transform into impacted lives?

I Cannot Take Anymore; I Must Respond

I must admit that I have been resisting writing about the tragic event of this past Friday in Newtown, CT, but I now find myself at the breaking point where I have had enough and need to address some things.  It isn’t the event itself, for many have addressed that situation better than I ever could, but, rather, some of the responses and comments that have been made by conservative Christian leaders that, in my opinion, reveal an understanding of Scripture and God that never really and truly got out of the Old Testament and how God interacted with people and his creation under that scheme and covenantal relationship.

The first type of comment is that this tragic event is somehow God’s judgment upon this nation for sin, usually sin around the issue of homosexuality.  I have seen public figures like Mike Huckabee and James Dobson make comments that this event was part of God’s judgment upon this nation because of gay marriage and homosexuality and, of course, groups like Westboro Baptist Church making the same type of claim. 

This type of relationship with God where our actions will either bring God’s blessing or cursing/judgment upon us is firmly based upon the old covenant.  It was under the old covenant (read Old Testament) the relationship between people and God was of a conditional nature.  God told the people of Israel that if they obeyed his law and commands, he would bless them and they would experience that blessing in practical ways.  On the other hand, if they disobeyed his commands and law, then he would bring upon them curses/judgment.  This is the type of relationship that comments like those made by Huckabee, Dobson and Westboro have as their basis.

The new covenant which God instituted through and because of Jesus is unconditional.  First, in Ephesians 1:3, Paul tells us that God, through Jesus, has already given us all the spiritual blessings possible.  There isn’t anything I can do in order to earn or experience more blessing from God’s hand such as was the case under the old covenant.  And by association, if the positive part of the old covenant is no longer valid, neither is the negative part. 

According to Colossians 1:19-20, God’s current relationship with his creation is one which he views on his part as reconciled and at peace because of Jesus and his work upon the cross.  When someone is at peace with another, it is only an evil person who attacks the person with whom he is at peace (think Hitler here as an example).  And God is not evil.  Therefore, he does not attack those with whom he is at peace.  That means he does not rain judgment down upon them in the form of evil acts.  Also, 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  That also doesn’t sound like someone who rains judgment upon people.  And for a group like Westboro Baptist to rejoice at the death from what they consider “God’s judgment for sin” demonstrates that they truly do not understand God’s character for God has never rejoiced in judgment, only sadness.  And, when they rejoice, they reveal that they really don’t know who God truly is, much like the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  It was because of these religious leaders’ attitude and behavior in response to what Jesus was doing that caused him to proclaim to them, “You have never heard the Father’s voice nor seen his form nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:37a-40)

What those individuals and groups who proclaim this tragic event as God’s judgment upon this nation for a certain sin must remember is that, since this is part of the old covenant, those who follow a part of the old covenant must follow all of it.  Paul’s words of Galatians 5:2-3 tells us that anyone who allows himself to be obligated to a part of the Law is obligated to all of it.  If God’s relationship is still characterized by the old covenant, then it all is in play.  Therefore, I would expect them to be consistent in this regard, though I know they will not be.  For every sin they commit, they should experience God’s judgment in their lives.  For every instance where they proclaim, “God has said,” and he hasn’t, they should experience incredible and practical judgment in their lives.  For every instance of not loving mercy and not walking humbly with God, they should experience that same judgment.  If they want to live under that type of relationship, they are free to do so.  As for me, I will take the relationship under a true relationship based upon grace and mercy through Jesus and God’s viewing himself as reconciled to his creation and being at peace with it.

There are others who have stated that if prayer had not been removed from the school house back in the 1960’s, this tragic event would not have happened.  What that view presupposes is that this type of event did not occur before that Supreme Court decision.  Obviously, that is not the case as some have so well documented.  Their statement, then, about this being the cause is a logical fallacy because a necessary presupposition is false. And I will not use this occasion to once again reiterate my opposition to formal prayer in schools.

How then does God figure into all of this?  Unfortunately, acts like this are a natural outcome of sin and evil in this world.  Because of his relationship with creation as it now stands, God does allow us to experience consequences of evil in this world.  It saddens him that this is the course humanity has chosen.  But it also does make him rejoice when he sees people expressing grace, mercy, love, forgiveness and the rest of his character in our dark, dark world.  It is through that expression that hope comes in very real ways.  It is through this expression that people experience the true reality of who God is. 

I am saddened by people who either rejoice in tragic events like the one of this past Friday as well as when people demonstrate an improper understanding of God’s relationship with his creation because of the new covenant through Jesus.

It is my prayer that those around me and who know me will always experience, see and encounter who God really and truly is.

 

Shaking my head at the “War on Christmas”

During this time of year, the phrase, “War on Christmas,” is often used.  Those who use this phrase cite instances in which local governments do not allow nativity scenes to be erected on public property.  One such example this year was in Santa Monica, CA.  (Here is the link to the story: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-1204-santa-monica-nativity-20121204,0,2538664.story)

This decision was made to head off clashes between “atheists and Christian organizations, as well as legal disputes that could become costly to taxpayers.”  The decision that was made did not bar religious displays specifically; it barred “private, unattended displays in the park.”  Those behind the Nativity display took this as an attack on their rights and part of the “war on Christmas.”  

It is neither.  Because of the impending clashes between these groups, the city government took steps to maintain the peace.  The only way to properly do this was to bar unattended displays of any type.  Religious displays were not specifically targeted, but ALL unattended displays whether depicting the Nativity or Charlie Brown with Santa and a Christmas tree.  This is an uniform and unilateral decision and does not single out one group.  For the group behind the Nativity scene to deplore this as some type of trampling on their rights or an aspect of the “war on Christmas” is asinine, in my view.

One of the things about the town of Fort Dodge that I appreciate is this: while I have not observed any displays on public property, I have observed religious displays on the lawns outside of church buildings.  Not having any type of display erected on public property does not infringe on my right to erect that display on private property.  Therefore, my “right” has not been trampled upon.

Not only do I not have a problem with any type of private display not being allowed on public property, I actually think it is the proper way to do it.  As what I call a “historical principled Baptist,” I am all for public spaces being absolutely neutral and absence of this type of activity (displays being erected).  As a “historical principled Baptist,” I am all about the separation of church and state.  The actual phrase may not be in the United States Constitution, but believe me when I say that the principle is there underlying it.  All you need to do is read of Baptist preachers of that time, such as Isaac Backus  and John Leland, who were ardent and influential proponents of this separation to realize this is the case.  As this type of Baptist, if I advocate for a nativity display to be allowed, I must then also advocate for any type of display, even one I find reprehensible and with which I disagree vehemently.  To not do so would constitute a position that advocates for preferential treatment of one group over another.  

The same would be true for formal prayer in schools.  If the government were to require formal prayer in school, then the source of that prayer should rotate between the different religions in the world.  One day it would be a Christian prayer.  The next day it would be a Muslim prayer.  Wednesday would be a Hindu prayer.  Thursday would be a Wiccan prayer.  Friday would be something else.  What many who advocate for formal prayer in school have as a preconceived idea is that this formal prayer would be Christian in nature and nothing else.  To not rotate the prayers would be showing preferential treatment of one faith tradition over another and that is not constitutional.  

The above two examples are why I have no problem with public spaces and public schools being neutral or cleansed of these types of displays and requirements.  Not allowing them does not infringe upon my freedom of religion or speech.  I still possess the right to discuss religious matters in these spaces and places at the appropriate times and in appropriate ways.  

I must admit, I shake my head when I hear or read stories about people who are adamant about these types of things occurring.  My faith and my relationship with God and my ability to worship him freely are not dependent upon these types of things and activities.  

True Grace

I found out this morning via a post on Facebook that a good friend has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.  While this diagnosis by itself is not necessarily a shocking thing, the fact that my friend is 42 years old is.  His heart is operating at 15% capacity currently and, most likely, somewhere in the future a heart transplant will be necessary.  News of this type invariably takes me back to one who was a very important person in my life in the shaping of me as a pastor – Rev. Dr. Fred Moore.  And, invariably as well, my thoughts go to God’s grace and the nature of it.  And this moment is no different.

I have mentioned Pastor Fred in previous writings, but I am going to do so again because he knew, understood and lived God’s grace.  It is far too common, in my opinion anyway, that grace is just seen as something ethereal or theoretical.  Or if it is seen as something tangible, it is seen as something which is dainty and frail.  But in reality, grace is very rugged and physical because of the power it provides because it is from the almighty God.  Pastor Fred lived out this rugged, physical and powerful grace.  Because of having a rare genetic disorder called Von Hippen Lindau disease, Pastor Fred didn’t live one day without pain.  Because of this disease, which I severely detest even saying the name by the way, he never slept more than 4 hours at a time because he just couldn’t.  I remember some very intense discussions with him about what he experienced on a daily basis; conversations that gave me a glimpse into what he lived every day

But there was one thing that I never experienced with Pastor Fred; I never recall him lashing out at me even though his days were filled with pain and certainly stress at some level because of it.  I only saw grace flowing, even if he was frustrated with me for some reason or by some situation.  I find, in my own life, that if I am stressed by some situation or circumstance, it is easy for me to allow the stress to cause me to treat a loved one in an improper way.  This was not Pastor Fred.  Even though every day was filled with pain, he never allowed that pain to affect how he related and responded to people, at least not that I remember.  He lived out the powerful and physicality aspects of grace which allowed him to be sustained every day of his 45 years on this earth.

There may be a surface characteristic of grace which is refined and may appear as frail, but under that surface, the character of true grace is powerful, physical and very rugged.  Because of the 3 ½ years during which I was blessed to serve and minister alongside and learn at his feet, I know what true grace is, its character and how it truly impacts a person’s life because I saw it lived out. 

This is at the very core of my prayer to my Father in heaven for my friend.  Will it be an easy road?  Unfortunately, the answer is no, but can it be a road that is saturated with real and true grace with grace’s power, ruggedness and physicality being truly present and impacting those who experience and observe it? Absolutely yes, and that is my prayer.

It has now been over 16 years since my mentor in ministry finished the race our heavenly Father put before him, a race that he finished well, better than anyone I have personally ever known in my life and, even still, I have tears coming to my eyes just thinking about him and how much I miss him.  Much like I am sure Timothy owed much to the Apostle Paul for the pastor and leader in the church he became, I owe more than I can ever repay to Pastor Fred.  The only way I can even repay in some small way is to continue to carry on what he planted in me through his teaching and life.

I have a list of people that I want to see when I have finished the race that my heavenly Father has given me.  Topping that list is the Reverend Dr. Fred Moore.  Oh my, how I look forward to that day.