At Best – Confused. At Worst – Altogether Lost.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama was asked the question "Are you a Christian?" and his response was very telling.

My thanks go out to a young Christian woman in Albuquerque, NM this past week for having the guts to ask the president a question that I was dying to ask myself if ever given the chance.  At a meeting in an average citizen’s backyard in New Mexico, fashioned to be a more peaceful, controlled version of the town hall meetings that have become so popular in the past couple of years, this young woman asked President Obama to make a confession of faith.

We heard lots about this issue during the last election.  President Obama’s crazy “black liberation theology” pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was exposed for what he was – not really a “Christian” minister at all.  However, during President Obama’s years in office, the economic recession, healthcare reform, and other issues have monopolized the thoughts of the American public too much to worry about any personal statement of faith from him.  The reason this is so important is simple: a statement of faith from a state leader is vital in that our views on our relationship to God drive our decisions, ethics, and life in general perhaps more than any other component of who we are.  What a president believes spiritually WILL affect his policies in the same way that what you and I believe WILL affect our lives.

This Tuesday, President Obama was forced, in front of a backyard full of regular old Americans as well as a national CNN audience, to make his confession.  It was absolutely fascinating.  If there is any doubt how Obama was elected into office, it’s answered here.  In issues of spirituality, President Obama IS the embodiment of the American public.  And he is also, then, the embodiment of everything that is good and bad in the faith of America.

Let’s examine the statements that Obama made during his confession of faith:  Here’s the link if you want to check out the video for yourself – Obama questioned on why he is a Christian

“I am a Christian by choice.”

President Obama comes across as very authentic and genuine when he speaks.  He has a good understanding that the American public is somewhat distrusting of politicians and he advances his cause by projecting convincing sincerity.

Naturally, he also understands that faith, if not sincere, is not true faith.  This is absolutely true.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21). Jesus was suggesting that regardless of what you say you believe, if it is not sincere, then it’s not true faith.

Although President Obama mentions Christianity as a “choice”, I don’t want to get into the whole concept of “decision theology” here.  Scripture is clear that we are made alive by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace (Word & Sacrament) before we can make any choices toward Jesus.  President Obama’s basic statement here, though, is true: being a part of a certain faith group simply because it’s convenient or traditional on  the basis of your family’s history isn’t authentic faith.  He seems to take great pride in the fact that his belief system is one that is not blindly professed out of convenience.

“My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didn’t raise me in the church.”

Americans didn’t invent the concept of being “spiritual” without being connected to a larger body – that is a very Eastern thought.  However, we have popularized the concept of being “Christian” without being connected to a larger body.  And that thought, somewhat ironically, is fundamentally unchristian.  In Hebrews 10:25, the writer to the Hebrews mentions the importance of believers regularly meeting together.  In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul makes numerous references to “the body of Christ” that must meet and function as one.  And in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “In him (i.e. Christ) the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too (i.e. Christians) are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-21).

It’s quite possible that only we Americans are arrogant enough to suggest that we can “do Christianity” not only in a way that hasn’t existed in Christianity’s history, but in a way that is unbiblical.  As a general principle, I’m all for freedom in worship.  However, I’m completely against freedom to worship God without any connection to “the body” of God, the church.  I’m against it because everything in the New Testament suggests otherwise.

Two weekend’s ago, for the first time in half a year, President Obama’s family attended public worship at St. John’s Church Lafayette Square, an Episcopal congregation about a block from the White House and one of the traditional worship sites of US presidents.  I can guarantee you that he does not consider himself any less “spiritual” or “Christian” for the lack of attendance.  That is America today.  That is not, however, Christian Church history.

“I came to the Christian faith later in life, and it was because the precepts of who Jesus was spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would like to lead, e.g. being my brother’s keeper and treating others the way they would treat me.”

Does Jesus guide me in holiness?  Certainly.  Does his life lay down a template for me to pattern?  Absolutely.  The way Jesus thinks, speaks, and acts toward God and his fellow-man are all the perfect ideal that, as a transformed child of God, I would like to emulate.  The likeness of Christ in Christians is a very attractive component of Christianity.  However, Jesus’ perfect example is not why I am a Christian.  It is why Mormons are Mormons.  For them, Jesus becomes primarily a blueprint to follow.

Being a Christian does not first and foremost mean living in a Christ-like manner.  If that was the case – that Christianity was merely all about instruction on living a holy life – would it really have required Jesus’ brutal execution on the cross?  That, the single most important event in the world’s history, teaches us that being a follower of Christ first and foremost means recognizing that I’m a sinner who could only be saved by the shedding of the blood of God’s own Son.

Make no mistake, morality and the Golden Rule are very important.  What I’m not convinced President Obama understands though, is that they are not ultimately what life is all about.  This life is finally about spiritual life or death, because this is what affects our eternity.  Recognizing Jesus as our Savior, not our example, is what matters most in the end.

“And I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility that we all have to have as human beings, because humans are sinful and flawed beings that make mistakes and achieve salvation through the grace of God.”

This is easily the best spiritual statement that President Obama made.  This is the thing, above all others, that makes one think there is indeed the fire of Christian faith burning in his heart.  He recognizes mankind’s flawed condition.  He states that Jesus Christ died to take his sins away.  He emphasizes that our salvation can come only through God’s grace.  And he suggests it takes humility to accept this.  I don’t believe I’ve read anything into his words here.  Assuming so, I was thrilled to hear him make this confession of salvation “by grace through faith in Christ”.

“What we can do is see God in other people and do what we can to help them find their own grace.”

This is the phrase that made me more perplexed about than any other.  “Seeing God in others” and “finding grace” are phrases that could be understood in a variety of different ways.  If used correctly, what President Obama was saying is that all people are God’s creation and should be treated and respected as such.  And in Christians, God himself dwells through faith.

As far as the statement about “finding their own grace” is concerned, grace is something that God shows, not something that we can manufacture or discover.  Perhaps what President Obama is suggesting, however, is that Christians seek to lead others to see the grace of God, which would be perfectly true.

“Part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith.  This is a country that is still predominantly Christian, but we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists.  Their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own.  And that’s part of what makes this country what it is.”

Christians respect other humans as the crown of God’s creation – the most valuable of his impressive work.  Therefore, we don’t dismiss the sincere beliefs of others as “stupid” even though they may be inaccurate.  Proclaiming a sermon to unbelievers in Athens, the Apostle Paul comments to the people about how sincerely “religious” the people are. Yet he suggests that what they themselves acknowledge as “unknown”, he is going to make known to them (Acts 17:16-31).  Paul respects, but corrects.  This is usually the best way to eliminate obstacles or animosity to spiritual truth when we witness to the world.

Nonetheless, President Obama takes it too far when he says we must “revere” other religions as much as our own.  This should NOT be the case.  In the mentioned example of Paul in Athens, he did not revere the belief system he found there but was saddened by it, because he knew full well that it was inaccurate.

If you’ve ever done any coaching in sports before, you understand that there are certain right or wrong ways to swing a bat, or hold a golf club, or shoot a basketball.  Kids will do it in whatever way feels most natural.  That doesn’t mean it’s the right way.  Kids hate learning that to do a left-handed lay-up in basketball, you’d better jump off of your right foot.  It feels awkward.  It’s not easy.  It takes practice.  Nonetheless, it’s undoubtedly the right way to do it.

President Obama and the majority of America struggle with religious pluralism – the belief that multiple groups may grant access to divine truth, that there are multiple right paths to God.  That’s simply not Christian.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No onecomes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Either salvation comes solely through Jesus or it doesn’t.  It can’t be both.  Someone’s wrong here.  And it doesn’t make sense to “revere” anyone for being wrong.  In order to find peace, President Obama is willing to sacrifice truth – a dangerous compromise.

“We were founded on freedom of religion.  That’s how this country got started.  That’s why people came here – because there were a bunch of other folks who said, ‘You can’t worship the way you want.’ We have to constantly reaffirm that tradition, even sometimes when it makes us uncomfortable.”

I would wholeheartedly agree with President Obama’s statements here.  Even if I don’t practice or like another religion, a great beauty that this country affords us is the ability to freely practice religion without fear of oppression.  Rarely do we fully appreciate what a gift this is.  And to be fair, assuming it doesn’t bring immediate harm upon another, I would uphold another religion’s right to freely practice what they believe just as I would hope my right would be upheld.  So few people in history have had this luxury – freedom of religion.  Affluent as our nation is, this is the greatest treasure that our country will ever know.

My Assessment

Watching President Obama make his confession, I was reminded what an incredibly intelligent, charismatic, sincere, and likable guy he appears to be.  However, I was also unfortunately reminded of how spiritually confused he also appears to be.  And that means that the American public, that which he embodies from a spiritual ideals standpoint, is really very spiritually confused too.

The real question, then, is…………Is our commander-in-chief truly a Christian?  Current polls say that 1 in 5 Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim.  Fewer than half of Democrats and African-Americans now say that President Obama is a Christian.  Americans apparently can’t tell what religion he is.  By his confession, I can’t say as that I can specifically tell either.

It’s true that only God can know a man’s heart.  A verbal confession of faith that paints itself in a man’s life is the clearest that we can tell.  Spiritually speaking, then, President Obama (and America at large) is, at best, confused, and at worst, altogether lost.  As a country, we’ve survived presidents with non-Christian or at least dubious faith backgrounds (Jefferson, Adams, Taylor, Taft).  However, that president has arguably never been as spiritually indicative of the country at large as is President Obama.  And I’m not sure what that means for the immediate future of our country or the eternal future of its current inhabitants.

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Fighting Off Criticism

How many years did 2 terms of criticism add to W's appearance?

It’s no secret that presidents age quickly while in office.  President Obama looks at least a good 10 years older now than when he was sworn in.  Experts say that is about normal though.  On average, presidents appear to age 5 years for every actual human year.  This is why George W. Bush went into the White House looking like the wide-eyed “son” of George Bush Sr., but he left office 8 years later looking like the weary-eyed grandfather of the country.

A number of factors obviously affect the aging of presidents in office.  Sleep is minimal.  Stress is high.  I think there is an underlying cause to both of these problems though – constant criticism.

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why anyone would want to be the president of the United States, or for that matter, famous in general.  Name me one famous person who has not received their fair share of criticism or, at the very least, are in a prime position to receive criticism.  Anytime you are in a position of leadership, fame, or status, you are an easy target for criticism.

As Christians, each and every one of us is called to be leaders in life.  In our families, we each have various roles that we are to fill.  In our churches, we each have unique gifts given by the Lord, designed for service in the body in a variety of positions of leadership.  In our society, we are to be the salt of the earth, morally guiding the rest of the world and using that attention-grabbing light to direct others to Christ.

For Christians, leadership is not an option, but an inherent responsibility.  There are many blessings that come with leadership, but an unfortunate byproduct is that we are wide open for criticism.  Christian author Chuck Swindoll once wrote, “Unpleasant though it may sound, you haven’t really led until you have become familiar with the stinging barbs of the critic.”

Having recently had the opportunity to read through several thousand pages of commentary on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah for an upcoming paper, I’m struck by the skill Nehemiah had as a leader in fending of criticisms.

Just a little history: Under Cyrus the Great, Media-Persia came in and defeated the Babylonians in the Ancient Middle East.  Cyrus allowed the Jews, who had been in captivity under the Babylonians since around 600 BC (so approximately 70 years), to return home to Jerusalem.  50,000 of them left, led by a man named Zerubabel.  About 80 years later a new commander-in-chief/priest of the Jews, named Ezra, brought a second crew home.  The new king in Persia at this time was named Artaxerxes.  A Jew by the name of Nehemiah was this king’s cupbearer.  It doesn’t sound like much, but, long story short, a cupbearer was the position of a man trusted perhaps more than any other by the king, and therefore was a position that wielded much political influence.

Nehemiah, a faithful and godly man learned that Jerusalem, despite the temple being rebuilt after captivity, was still largely in ruins 100 years after the original return.  His heart was broken that God’s land was in such a state of disrepair.  Jerusalem had no walls surrounding it – an essential to the protection of any ancient city.  Moved to help, Nehemiah led the efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.  However, many did not like this.  The rebuilding of walls, to neighboring peoples, meant another threat in the region.  For awhile it seemed as though no one but God and Nehemiah wanted these walls rebuilt.  Nehemiah faced tremendous danger and harsh criticism both from outsiders as well those within Jerusalem.  But he pressed on.  In doing so, Nehemiah taught us 3 very important things pertaining to criticism:

1) Criticizing others typically doesn’t motivate anyone

In 2:17 of his book, Nehemiah says these words, “You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire.  Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.” Nehemiah had a great opportunity to really lay into these original returnees from captivity, lambasting them for having so little respect for the land that God had promised to them.  After all, it wasn’t his fault the walls weren’t rebuilt.  He’d been doing his job in Persia, and helping the Jewish people out there by holding such a prominent position in the king’s court.  These people had been the ones who consistently demonstrated little desire to take care of God’s house or God’s city.  Nonetheless, Nehemiah doesn’t criticize.  He simply says, “WE are in a difficult situation.  Let US do this together.” What does Nehemiah’s management style lead to?  Well, he arrived in Jerusalem a solitary man seeking to overcome 100 years worth of apathy towards this project, enemy resistance, and the engineering challenge of building this wall.  And within a short period of time, he had willing workers.

Criticism is absolutely appropriate and necessary at times.  If you do it in a “holier than thou” manner though, it’s likely to return to you also in the form of criticism.  However, when you can identify with those whose behavior needs correcting, that “we’re all together in the same boat this boat of mistakes”, you don’t give the impression that you’re trying to elevate yourself by knocking another down (something many people do).

2) Christians don’t take non-Christian criticism too seriously

When someone who loves and worships the same Lord that I do offers a criticism of something I’m doing, I take it seriously.  Several times in my life I recall different individuals coming to me and asking my about something I’d said or done that they sought clarification on.  My natural human reaction: self-preserving defensiveness.  How dare someone whose mistakes I’d known well have the audacity to criticize me!  Once I had the opportunity to calm down though, at least on several occasions, I knew they were right.  They loved me enough to guide me to repentance, forgiveness, and new life.

However, if someone (and we’ll call this someone “the world”) criticizes what I do, how I do it, or what I believe….I deliberately choose not to care.  Why should I care what society thinks of me?  It has different morals than me, different priorities than me, and a different worldview than me.  I’m in a different camp.  It’s naturally going to be critical at times.  This shouldn’t bother me as a Christian at all.  If anything, the world questioning my decisions regarding morality, time and money and energy put into church, and my rejection of all belief systems as equal gateways to truth, this is a reminder to me that I am indeed in this world, but not of this world.

I’d also like to add here that when I say “the world”, I mean the criticisms of the unbelieving world OR criticisms of the believing world regarding things that clearly don’t directly pertain to faith.  We Christians unfortunately slip into this sort of pettiness as well.  (SIDE NOTE: When Christians are critical of things that don’t directly pertain to faith, it often ends up in drawing lines where God has placed freedom, which both suffocates the church and confuses the rest of the world about the spirit of Christianity.)

Nehemiah didn’t allow the criticisms of the world to affect him.  In Nehemiah 2:19, we read, “But when Sanballat the Horhonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it (that the Israelites were rebuilding the city walls), they mocked us and despised us…” These guys were the enemy neighbors to the Jews.  These same jerks continued to taunt and oppose Nehemiah and company until the entire project was done.  But Nehemiah refused to listen to those who actively opposed God’s will.  Likewise, some of Nehemiah’s criticism came from discouraged or doubtful insiders.  Although they were on his side, Nehemiah didn’t listen to their criticism either, because it opposed God’s will.

Today, the church at large takes a great deal of criticism from the world.  “The church” was one of the victims of the Baby Boomers’ crusade against institutions.  Consequently, the church has been portrayed by Hollywood and the media as an organization full of closed-minded, brain-washing hypocrites that divide the world and hinder peace.  I could spend every minute of every day defending the church to people, but that would prohibit me from time spent on proclaiming the saving message of the church – the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Instead of 24 hour/day apologetics then, sometimes Christians just say, “The world can say what they want.  If I’m right with God, that’s all the approval I need.”

3) Prayer is essential in the fight against criticism

Almost every good leader shares the trait of being strong-willed.  You have to have this in order to fend off natural fears of failure, change, and criticism.  However, sometimes a strong-willed nature moves first to retaliation when attacked.

Nehemiah didn’t fall victim to the thirst of revenge though.  His secret: he allowed the divine justice of the Lord to take it’s course, giving his heart to God in prayer.  In chapter 4, Nehemiah offers a pretty feisty prayer to God concerning his enemies.  He knows God won’t allow wickedness to continue forever.  And sure enough, God wards off Nehemiah’s oppressors.

When a Christian is criticized, he doesn’t exact retribution, but allows God’s scales of justice to tip in favor of God’s children.  Further encouragement towards commending justice to God’s hands is found in the wisdom literature of Proverbs: “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.  The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:28-29).  Why should I try to accomplish something that God informs me is clearly his job – justice.  I don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do as good of a job as God can, so why should I bother?  It’s NOT my job, but a job that I leave to the Lord in prayer.

In many ways, Nehemiah foreshadows the ministry of Jesus himself.  Both gave up high positions to identify with the predicament of their people; both come with a difficult mission yet succeed; both face a great deal of opposition; both engage in prayer to demonstrate dependence on God.  And what a fascinating ministry Jesus had.  Jesus did not swing a fist, but turned a cheek.  He did not cast down lightning bolts upon his critics, but pleaded with God to forgive them.  He humbly dealt with 100% unwarranted criticisms.  Quite a leader!

So…..when someone passes a disparaging glance at the way we parent, offers a discouraging remark over what we’re doing with our lives, questions our motives, or in general simply chooses not to like us for whatever reason……that’s their problem.  In Christ-like (and Nehemiah-like) fashion, Christians will seek to not sink to the critic’s level, will not waste time and energy worrying about what the world thinks, and will seek God in prayer, asking him to correct anything that may need correction and leaving the justice of critics in God’s hands.

The world can call me whatever names it wants.  As long as God calls me “child”, I’m okay.

No Regrets

What changes would you make now so that you have no regrets in the future?

I was alerted to an Ezine article this week that I found interesting.  The article is written by a woman named Bronnie Ware, who worked for years in palliative care.  What that means is that, day after day, she cared for people who were essentially beyond the hope of reasonable recovery, ready to die.  Ware’s article details the general observations she made about humans in this severe condition – with 3-12 weeks or so to live.  (Article can be found at http://bit.ly/bFqdpZ)

Through her experience, Ware found that in addition to seeing patients go through an accelerated type of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), she also observed 5 common regrets of the dying.  Fascinatingly, they would seem to strongly support a biblical worldview.  When people live according to the Christian faith, they theoretically would not encounter such regrets.  Here are the five she found:

1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.  – No where in the Bible is there any recommendation to try to live to make the world happy.  There is NOTHING in Scripture that suggests you will ultimately find reward in achieving status in the world’s eyes.  On the contrary, the Apostle Paul encourages the notion of heavenly citizenship rather than earthly status (Philippians 3:20).  And Jesus says in Mark 8:36,What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” In other words, as a Christian, my primary concern in life is whether or not I’m “right” with God – which I am through Christ.  Trying to please others and become whatever I think the world wants me to be is not only impossible, but potentially spiritually dangerous.  You’re at your best when you allow yourself to be yourself and be okay with that.  You’re not going to be very good at trying to be something you’re not anyway.

2) I wish I didn’t work so hard. – We covered this in some detail several weeks ago in “Give Yourself a Break” (see: http://bit.ly/cnPWqo).  I would challenge someone to let me know how they can consistently put in 70-80 hours/week and still be faithful to the numerous other things God has called them to be faithful to, e.g. God himself, family, personal health.  Talking about the time and energy and resources that he had put into the great projects that he’d worked on, near the end of his life, King Solomon said this:Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).  Solomon seems to grasp that the “things” he’d put his hand to, in the end, really didn’t mean much.  Although labor is an important part of life and laziness is offensive to God, valuing projects more than relationships and things more than people is totally backwards from what God created us to be.

3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. – “Teachable moments” is a phrase that I often heard in my education.  It’s when someone senses that the circumstances are right for another person to experience tremendous growth.  How many people do you currently know that don’t “know” Christ.  I’m a pastor, so you’d assume that I mostly know “church people”.  Yet, I can probably conservatively say hundreds of people that I have connections to don’t currently have true faith in Jesus as their Savior.  A self-focused attitude (i.e. personal inconvenience) or fear of rejection are typically the main culprits that deter me from sharing my Savior with others.

I’ve come to HATE missing the opportunities that the Lord gives me to share him.  In 1 Peter 3:15, the Apostle writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Just imagine what it might be like someday to have someone tap you on the shoulder in heaven and thank you personally for loving them enough to introduce them to Jesus, so that they too can enjoy eternity in paradise.  Pretty cool stuff.

4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. – Very similar to the point on working too much (#2 above) is the thought of losing friends.  The connection is that typically, assuming there hasn’t been some sort of fall out, the main things that cause friendships to deteriorate are distance and busyness.  And with our society becoming increasingly mobile, distance isn’t as big of an issue.  The clear primary reason then is “no time” for friends.  Again, humans get confused about this very quickly – the thought that things make me happy rather than people.  Almost every major study on this suggests otherwise.  People and relationships are simply worth more than things.  This is one of the reasons why Jesus encourages us to give away earthly things in order to improve relationships: I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

5) I wish that I had let myself be happier. – In Luke 12:25-26, Jesus says, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” I can’t begin to tell you how important passages like this one have been to my life.  Why do we waste so much time choosing to be miserable?  It’s nuts!  By failing to recognize that we’re humans who don’t do everything perfectly, by attempting to live according to the world’s standards, and by getting caught up in the here and now and failing to focus on the life to come, we, in essence, are choosing not to be happy.   “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).  Relax! 80 years from now we’re simply not going to care about the things we currently tend to care too much about.  Jump to the inevitable – stop caring so much about earthly concerns right now – you’ll be taking a huge stepping in allowing yourself to be more happy immediately.

Finally, the item that Bronnie Ware left off of the list – because it is the most common regret of those not nearing death, but rather those after death – is not recognizing Jesus as my Savior from sin.

In Luke 16, we hear of a rich man who valued his earthly riches more than anything.  He died loving those riches.  And he went to the place where people who love things more than God go, hell.  He begged and pleaded that he might somehow communicate to his brothers the truths of saving faith, but it was denied him.  Imagine the regret.  Eternal torment.  All you had to do was believe in Jesus.  And now, there’s nothing you can do.  And you can’t even save your loved ones.  Your life was a complete and utter waste.

Never underestimate the power of anticipated regret to turn your life around.  This was the theory behind Scared Straight, the Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary Feature in 1978.  The documentary showed hardened criminals serving life sentences telling juvenile delinquents the harsh realities of a life of crime.  The concept was so popular that it was implemented in many state juvenile correction programs.

The point is, anticipate your life continuing the way it is for the next 20 years.  Would there be any regret?  Most important, spiritually speaking, would there be any regrets?  In heaven, no one has ever uttered a word of regret regarding study of God’s Word, sharing Christ, or carrying out God’s will while on earth.  However, in hell, many regrets undoubtedly have been cried for a failure to do such things.

We can learn a TON from the dying.  Let’s learn from their regrets.  Let’s also learn from the regrets of the dead.  Christians have plenty of promises from God to allow us to live free from regret.  So don’t regret tomorrow the failure to embrace God’s blessings today.


This is one of the reasons why Jesus encourages us to give away earthly things in order to improve relationships: I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

Defending the Faith

Terry Jones is the pastor of the Dover World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL. His church has scheduled a Quran burning ceremony for this Saturday, 9/11.

This week, many across our country are going to be using Saturday (9/11) as an occasion of remembrance of the tragedy that has simply come to be known as “9/11”.  The group that’s perhaps causing the biggest stir in their remembrance is a Christian church down in Gainesville, FL.  The Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville plans to mark the anniversary of al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by burning copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

On Monday, U.S. General David Petraeus, stationed in Afghanistan, issued a statement criticizing the Florida church and suggesting that such a public demonstration “could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan.”

Apparently the outrage has already started to surface.  Thousands of Muslim Indonesians have begun to protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.  Unrest is naturally growing in the Middle East regarding the situation as well.  And American Muslims are obviously not happy either.

As far as Christians in the U.S., there are mixed opinions.  The National Association of Evangelicals is urging the church to cancel the event, warning it could cause worldwide tension between the two religions.  Likewise, an armed Christian organization that had pledged to protect the Dove World Outreach Center withdrew its support from the Quran-burning last week when the media backlash started to hit.

I’ll be honest, I have mixed opinions myself.  At first glance, almost everything about Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center smacks of crazy deep south extremist.  However, upon further examination, it does appear as though he’s done his homework.  If you check out his website (http://www.doveworld.org/) and note, in particular, the confessions made by Islam scholars about what the religion truly teaches, I’m sure you’ll find this to be true as well.  As “extreme” as Jones (author of Islam is of the Devil) may appear, he’s at least informed.

Jones was attacked by Rick Sanchez, host of the program Rick’s List, on his CNN show recently and Sanchez demonstrated the very misinformed understanding of Islam that much of America also demonstrates.  Jones suggested that Islam is “leading people to hell” (which the Bible would support), is “a deceptive religion” (which converts from Islam would support), and is “a violent religion” (which history would support).  After each of these comments, Sanchez contended, “You believe this.” A clip of this is  @ http://bit.ly/a4bcSd

Sorry, Sanchez.  Although it’s true that I cannot quantitatively prove that followers of the Muslim faith are in hell, I can easily prove, at the very least, that Islam is both deceptive and violent.

For starters, despite the presence of the Muslim faith in American culture, studies repeatedly show that the majority of Americans are unaware of what the Muslim faith really teaches.  Common unknowns?

  1. Islam teaches that Jesus was not only NOT the Son of God but that he also did NOT die on the cross – teachings that categorically remove Muslims from any biblical possibility of salvation.
  2. Although touted as a religion of “peace”, Islam is peaceful only to Muslims.  Others, infidels, are the enemy.  If people deny Mohammad or his teachings as from God, their blood is to be shed, their property seized, and their women captured.
  3. Viewing women as second-rate citizens is not restricted to extensive coverings.  Wives are considered slaves to their husbands and are to be whipped if obedience needs to be taught.

If any of this is indeed unknown to the American masses, then perhaps Islam is more deceptive than one might first think.

As far as Islamic violence, without chronicling the entire history, let me put it this way – there is currently not a single “Christian” country in the world where you can be persecuted if you practice another religion.  However, there are many “non-Christian” countries where if you practice Christianity, your life could be in danger.  Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran all fall into this category.  And their religion?  Islam.

Burning the literature of a group that (on the books) advocates bloodshed to those of different beliefs and violence to women doesn’t sound as insane as our increasingly tolerant (i.e. “stand-for-nothing”) country might initially believe.

Perhaps most bothersome of all to me in this, however, is that an American general is attempting to guilt a church out of practicing what it believes because it could mean danger for the army.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that part of the reason that we have armed forces – protection of our 1st Amendment rights to practice freedom of religion?

I appreciate and pray for our armed forces.  And I certainly don’t want any unnecessary harm to come upon them.  However, if this follows through, the setting of a precedent for the U.S. armed forces or government telling churches what they should/should not be advocating is more than a little scary.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus once said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Realistically, how many steps away are we from Jesus’ words here becoming a divisive statement that is considered intolerant.  You cannot deny that it’s exclusive.  You either see Jesus as God’s Son and your Lord and Savior or you don’t.  You can’t have both.  Islam and Christianity are completely and fundamentally divided on this.  We do NOT worship the same God under different names.  If you take away my right to teach what is and is not God’s Word (albeit extreme, but not dangerous or violent, measures like Quran burning), then we’ve taken a large step to eliminate one of the most important elements of our country’s history – freedom of religion.

Obviously, there’s a part of me that feels strongly about defending Jones and his church.  The other part feels very different about the situation though.  The other part of me feels that what Jones and his church are doing projects a confrontational nature that is not consistent with gospel proclamation.  It’s perhaps a subtle difference, but the Christian church has really not historically, successfully sought to aggressively spread itself as much as faithfully defend itself.  When it has sought to spread by aggression and force (Constantine’s conversion of Rome, the Crusades, European Imperialism, etc.) bad things have happened to the church.  What typically has occurred is 1) there were nominal converts, but they brought their pagan ideas into the church with lasting damages, and 2) eventually this force was seen by Christians and non-Christians alike as incompatible with the message of Christianity, resulting in regrettable scars for the church.

Another thought troubling me is that while it’s true that the Quran is the book that the Muslim terrorists in al Qaeda base their justification of 9/11 on, it’s not entirely fair to base your opinion of a group’s dangerous potential on extremists.  Hitler at times used both Scripture and Luther to validate some of his horrendous opinions.  I wouldn’t like someone judging Christianity or Lutheranism as dangerous on the basis of extremists who profess adherence to it.  And while Islam (on the books) certainly allows for violence to “infidels” like myself, I have never once had a Muslim threaten me here in America.  While I think that Jones is seeking to provide a much-needed thump on the head of America to wake our country up to the dangers of false teaching like Islam, I have trouble viewing the burning of an Islamic holy book as a gateway to winning over their hearts to Christ.

Tacky as it is to reference yourself, this is to me another illustration of the point I was attempting to drive home a month ago in The Love/Truth Dynamic (http://bit.ly/b2R8bL).  Here, Terry Jones, wild mustache and all, appears to be the embodiment of “truth without love”.  Rick Sanchez and much of the American public are the embodiment of “love without truth” (note: “love” as defined by 2010 America as “tolerance”).  Where shall the rest of us stand?

In issues like this, I find myself feeling like most of the world (except me of course :)) is insane – typically one of the telltale signs of someone actually suffering from insanity himself.  So, I’m curious about your thoughts.  Please, tell me what you think about this Quran burning issue in Gainesville and what you think it’ll mean for our country if Jones does or does not go through with it.

The Heart of Christian Marriage

September 2, 2007

When I originally starting writing weekly posts last January, I decided that the only way any of my writing would stay fresh is if the topic matter was consistently something that I was passionate about.  So I resolved that the weekly topic always be whatever the Lord had allowed to be on my heart and mind that week.

Earlier today I started writing this week’s post about now-famous James J. Lee, the gunman who walked into the Discovery Channel’s headquarters this morning and threatened harm if they didn’t change their programming.  His reasoning was that which only the insane mind can conjure up, which I won’t bother getting into.  Halfway into the article, I decided I couldn’t do it.  For me this was going through the motions.  Lee simply wasn’t worth my energy, and frankly, the media seemed a little confused and underwhelmed by his story as well.  Praying about it more, today, for me, my passion is Christian marriage.

Christian marriage is possessing my thoughts for several reasons right now in my life.  However, today, the greatest reason is that tomorrow my wife and I will be celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary.  How someone has put up with my annoying quirks and obsessive nature for three years is beyond me.

Well, actually I do have one thought.

A Christian spouse, by definition, understands Christian virtues.  And at the core of Christianity are the concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and sacrifice.  If these things don’t exist in Christianity, Christianity itself doesn’t exist.  Without launching into full sermonizing mode, a reminder of what these concepts are is always helpful:

Repentance – the original New Testament Greek word for this means to experience sorrow over something and proceed to turn away from it with complete intention of never again making the same mistake.

Forgiveness – the original New Testament Greek word for this means to release, or let go, or send away.

Sacrifice – this word is not exclusive to merely a heroic moment of diving in front of a bullet, but a willingness to live every day to the glory of someone else.

So, I love my wife for a variety of reasons.  Most of all, however, I love her because she understands these concepts.  When I say something thoughtless (I know! I just can’t see me doing that either! :)), and I look her in the eyes and say I’m sorry, she trusts that I have no desire to ever be such a fool again.  When she forgives me, I don’t expect that this mistake will be scrubbed from her brain, but I know that she’s not going to grudgingly hold it against me any longer.  And when she has decided that the evening plans are to go down to the Famous Footwear on the south side of town because we can’t miss the “buy one get one half off sale” that they only run 18 times a year, I go.  Sometimes I complain, granted, but I still go.  It makes her happy.  It’s a small sacrifice to make.  After all, her sacrifice of love was that she packed her bags, said goodbye to friends, and put other plans on hold so that she could go with me wherever the Lord called me to in my work.  These are the things that Christian love does – it repents, it forgives, and it sacrifices.

I know this is what Christian love is, because the Bible defines it that way.  1 John 3:16 says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Jesus sacrificed his whole self so that God would forgive us.  Whoever then repents and believes this good news (Mark 1:15)  is saved.

I love my wife because she desires to love me like Christ does.  Today over 50% of marriages end in divorce and the latest numbers say that the average marriage in our country ends before 8 years (and that’s factoring in those which go the distance of 50+years).  Divorce is perhaps as sad as any cultural trend in our country.  How does God feel about it?  He hates it.  He bluntly says, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16).  Do you know how rare it is in Scripture that God just flat out says that he “hates” something?  I’d imagine he hates divorce so much because it’s the ultimate reminder that mankind is rebellious and cares more about themselves than him, his will, and his blessing.

The very first human relationship that God created was not brother/brother or mother/daughter or anything like that.  It was husband and wife.  It was the relationship that most closely resembled the intimacy that God wanted with mankind.  Carelessly breaking this gift from God is like opening a Christmas present that someone put a lot of thought into and scoffing at it while they’re watching.

Divorce is not the unforgivable sin though.  At the center of Christianity, again, is sacrifice, repentance, and forgiveness.  Through Christ’s blood we can be sure that the mistakes we’ve made, which we’ve repented of, are completely forgiven.  We’ve been cleansed.  But just because we now don’t have to go to hell because of divorce does not mean that we view marriage in the same cavalier manner that the world does.  If so, we’ve completely missed the point of what is arguably God’s 2nd greatest blessing to mankind.

My wife and I have tried to get into the habit of regularly enumerating our blessings together.  This was a practice that was recommended to us by a very faithful woman with a very successful marriage who also happened to be the wife of the pastor who was leaving when I came to Resurrection.  Now, particularly during tough moments when perhaps not feeling our most thankful, we alternate turns in saying the many things that we’re thankful for.  Numbers 1 and 2 are always the same – 1) Salvation through Jesus and 2) each other as Christian spouses.

Not surprisingly, studies seem to indicate that Christian marriages in general last longer, are more satisfying, and are more peaceful than others.  I’ll be honest.  I’m not exactly sure how any non-Christian couples ever survive for years in marriage.  Packing two human sinners under one roof who don’t have the Christian concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and sacrifice in mind seems to be a recipe for a relationship with a short shelf life.  And the statistics support this unfortunate truth.  It’s just another reminder of what a tremendous blessing a Christian spouse is.

By God’s grace, three years ago a woman chose to love and commit herself to a flawed creature like me.  And she’s stayed true to that commitment primarily because she knows her Savior, a being who chose to love and commit himself to a flawed creature like her.  It’s a beautiful thing.

My encouragement for you today would be this: tell your spouse today 1) how sorry you are for any times you’ve ever caused them grief, 2) how much you appreciate the fact that they love you despite your flaws, and 3) how you would do absolutely anything to make them happy, because you love them that much, and then do it.  (NOTE: also be sure to tell them not to read this week’s post or they might see it as somewhat rehearsed :))

And if you are single (either never married or divorced), understand this: earthly marriage in a sinful world, wonderful of a blessing as it is, in part, functions as a symbol of the unity and fellowship that God wants us to have with him eternally.  It’s no coincidence that one of the most common pictures of heaven in the Bible is a wedding banquet.  It’s no coincidence that one of God’s favorite descriptions in the Bible of his relationship with his people is that they are his bride.  Marriage fosters an opportunity to understand the beauty of intimate relationship.  In heaven, you will experience the bliss of the most intimate relationship possible without sin holding it back.  YOU will be “married” to God himself.  Takes one’s breath away.

I certainly have an excellent opportunity this week to thank God for the gift of Christian marriage.  You do too.  Married or single, as part of the bride of Christ (the Church) you have eternal, passionate, intimate relationship in store for you.  This is the true romance of knowing God.