AuthorShane

Life Isn’t Fair – and We’re Glad

Over the last few days, Kristi and I have been reading a wonderful book called A Grace Disguised. A good friend of mine recommended it to me years ago, and I promptly purchased it, only to leave it untouched on the shelf ever since. But Kristi suggested that we read something encouraging and that book popped into my mind. We have been immensely blessed by it so far.

The author, Jerry Sittser, faced sudden and catastrophic loss when a drunk driver hit the van he was driving, killing his wife, his youngest daughter, and his mother. Three generations – wiped out in an instant. Making matters worse, when the case went to trial, the drunk driver’s attorney managed to get him off. Can you imagine experiencing the nightmare of such a tragedy and then a miscarriage of justice?

It isn’t fair!

There isn’t anything fair about a father losing a daughter, or husband losing a wife, or a son losing a mother. There isn’t anything fair about Kristi’s battle with rectal cancer at such a young age and less than a year into our marriage. And you have your stories to share that painfully illustrate the unfairness of life.

But as Sittser described his own frustration with the unfairness of his loss, he made a point that really resonated with us. Just as it is the case that we experience many tragic losses that are unfair, we also enjoy many gifts in life that we do not deserve. Life, love, joy, beauty. Merit has nothing to do with any of these things. They are displays of God’s grace. As Sittser writes:

So, God spare us a life of fairness! To live in a world of grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world may make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We may get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering.

We read that paragraph Tuesday night. The next morning, Kristi had an appointment with a chiropractor. As we started to load up, we noticed that our garage door was broken – one of the rollers was mangled. I had tried to fix it, but in a display of my typical mechanical ability, I failed. In the midst of all our stress, it doesn’t take much of a straw to break the camel’s back, and when I saw that the door was broken, I became unhinged (!).

After Kristi’s adjustment, we decided to pop by a Krispy Kreme donut shop because they were giving out free pumpkin spice donuts. But when we pulled into the drive-thru, we learned that the giveaway was the day before. The person on the other end of the speaker then said, “But I’ll go ahead and give it to you anyway.” And then when we pulled up to the window, she decided to give us several more for no charge (Kristi had a neck brace on from the adjustment, so we joked later that we got the free donuts because she looked so puny!).

I realize a few free donuts isn’t much in the scheme of things, but that day, at that moment, it was a blessing. And it got us to thinking about how many blessings we received that day that were totally undeserved. Earlier in the morning, we obtained a coupon to reduce our copay for a new drug to zero – and the pharmacy took the initiative to make sure we knew about it. Kristi’s adjustment was free because our chiropractor is a dear friend from church who had employed Kristi part-time for the last four years. And last night another great friend from church gave us some delicious mini-bunt cakes (we ate well yesterday!).

Life indeed is not fair. Sometimes we face that which is cruel and heartbreaking. But sometimes we receive generous and uplifting gifts that remind us of the good we do not deserve. This is why it is so important to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), to see that our lives are not totally defined by loss and pain, and that to ask “Why me?” is not only appropriate when we suffer, but also when we are blessed.

 

 

 

“But I O Lord Cry to You”

(Today I was privileged to speak in the chapel service of my alma mater, Florida College. Here are my remarks.)

I’ll be reading from the end of Psalm 88:

13 But I, O Lord, cry to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
    they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
    my companions have become darkness.

Since the time that I was a student here, more and more of our hymnals have incorporated actual psalms from the Old Testament, which I think is wonderful. But there is a category of psalms that – so far as I know – our hymnals never include. Psalms like this one – songs of deep mourning and anguish, called psalms of lament. I’ve never sung a hymn in church that concludes, “Darkness is my only friend – period.”

And yet when God gave his people a book of praises to use in worship, he filled that book with psalms like this one. And remember, these were primarily used in Israel’s collective worship in the temple. Even the psalms that sound personal, like Psalm 88, were designed to be sung with those gathered at the house of God, just like we typically sing songs that are individualistic – like “I am Resolved” – in the assembly with other Christians.

But even as our hymn editors have added more and more selections straight out of the Book of Psalms, they seem to have deliberately avoided using songs of mourning like the ones God gave to Israel.

My guess is that we just aren’t very comfortable with talking to God like these psalmists did, or like Job did. It is easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking that church is for people who are just blissfully traipsing through life, and that worship is only for those who sing a joyful noise to the Lord.

This is just not true, however, and more importantly, it is insidiously dangerous. Because real life is filled with pain, with loss, guilt, sorrow. And if I imagine that in order to worship I can’t be in this kind of inescapable anguish, then what I have to do is try to tuck away that grief in a corner of my heart where God won’t see it. And once we start to imagine we can hide things from God, we are on the road to catastrophic spiritual failure.

Job’s Despair, by William Blake

God gave his people psalms like this one because he wants us – all of us – all of what we are going through – including our hurts and fears. And he is big enough to allow us to speak to him with complete transparency. In the case of Israel, he wanted them to come and do this in the place where his presence was most immediate and accessible – the very temple itself. And through Christ, he invites us to come boldly to the throne of grace and cry out to him with the honesty of our broken-heartedness.

And God wants us to do this together. He wants us to “weep with those who weep,” as Israel did when it sang these psalms. He wants us to realize that we are not isolated in our despair, but that right alongside us are many others who are traveling the same road.

When you read or pray or sing a psalm like this one, you are being reminded that other children of God have faced what you face, have felt what you feel. And just that realization – that you are not suffering alone – is itself a comfort.

Several years ago when I was still single, one of my best friends invited me to be part of his wedding. I was thrilled for him, but I knew that when I went I would face the inevitable barrage of questions from our friends – “So when are you gonna get married?” On top of that, I had come to know a wonderful young lady, who was beautiful in every way, but who I knew would never see me as anything other than a friend. And sure enough, I got a bunch of the “so when are you gonna get married” questions, and each time it only made me sadder as I thought about the girl who I couldn’t have.

I had a long drive home, and as this frustration ate away at me, a song came to mind that I had to find. So I pulled off the road and went into a music store to find it. I picked up a Michael Buble cd, put it in the car, and heard these words:

You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so…

Oh I am just a friend
That’s all I’ve ever been
Cause you don’t know me

Now, the version I really wanted was by Ray Charles, because – no offense to Michael Buble – that white boy hadn’t suffered enough! I needed the voice of someone whose life-time experience of oppression and injustice gave his voice the sound of a wail!

Why did I need that song? Because it reminded me that I’m not alone, that others have felt the same frustration – and if he could sing about it, then maybe somehow he got through it.

God wants us to know that the darkness is not our only friend, and that we are not alone, because we can be honest with each other, and most of all, with him.

 

 

Power vs Principle

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:47-50)

The Catholic Church is facing yet another major sex abuse scandal, and the response of the church’s leadership has been profoundly disappointing. While many Catholic lay members, priests, and bishops have called for full disclosure, the Pope and his allies have circled the wagons. Indeed, the upper-level leadership of the Catholic Church has displayed far more interest in attacking those within the church calling for transparency than in addressing the issue of gross immorality.

Even though I am not a Catholic, my heart is broken over this crisis, for several reasons. First and foremost, any time children and young adults are exploited by those who should be protecting them, a profound evil has taken place. Second, I have many devout Catholic friends who are deeply grieved over this fresh wave of scandals, and who feel frustrated that the Pope is stonewalling. Third, I know that many people in the secular world essentially equate the Catholic Church with Christianity, and in their minds, anything that undermines the credibility of the church also discredits Christianity – period.

There is an underlying issue behind this particular scandal that has implications far beyond the parochial concerns of the Catholic Church, however. That issue is the perennial temptation to sacrifice principle for the sake of power.  The survival instinct of institutions is so compelling that it seduces even the most sincerely intentioned into betraying the very principles the institution was founded to preserve. That is what is happening in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and it is what is happening all across our cultural landscape.

It is especially easy to see this taking place in the realm of politics. I vividly remember the outrage that many high-profile evangelicals (Robertson, Dobson, Falwell) expressed about Bill Clinton’s lack of character during the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Less than twenty years later, many of those same outspoken critics of Clinton’s “character deficit” were full-throated supporters of Donald Trump. Why such a dramatic about-face? The answer is simple – power. Bill Clinton did not offer evangelicals political power, while Trump has. And so, with a few exceptions, the Robertsons/Dobsons/Falwells of the world have traded their birthright of principle for a pottage of power.

The same is true in reverse, of course. The vast majority of those on the Left, including many feminists, defended Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair (one went so far as to say she would happily service the president so long as he kept abortion legal) even though he clearly exploited his position to garner sexual favors from a young female staffer. But when Donald Trump ran for president, many on the left suddenly had a change of heart regarding Bill Clinton’s behavior.

The lack of principled conviction is not exactly a recent development in the realm of politics. But I do fear that we have seen the near-total erosion of truth-tellers in American politics. There are a few people in public life who are willing to critique their own party and those who share their own ideology (during the Clinton scandal the liberal law professor Jonathan Turley was a shining light of conviction, and during the Trump candidacy Baptist seminary president Al Mohler was unwavering in his criticisms). But the ranks of people like the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Howard Baker in politics are thinning rapidly.

We expect the unprincipled pursuit of power in the realm of politics. When it happens in the name of Christianity, the betrayal of truth for power is grotesque. Over the weekend, Pope Francis preached a homily in which he obliquely justified his refusal to answer questions or produce documents related to the sex abuse scandal by referring to Christ’s silence in the face of his accusers. This is a repugnant defense, and it should be an outrage to everyone who loves the name of Jesus. The Lord was not silent in the face of genuine inquiries into the possible abuse of children. To the contrary, he warned:

Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:5-6)

To be sure, using the name of Christ to cloak the scandalous is not unique to Catholicism. It happens in evangelicalism all the time (for Exhibit A, check out Creflo Dollar), even in hundreds of small churches with two-bit dictators who act more like Diotrephes than disciples (see Third John 9-10). Power corrupts nowhere with a more corrosive effect on the soul than in churches.

This was the issue in John 11. The Jewish leadership faced the choice of power vs principle when they heard of Jesus’ miracles – especially the raising of Lazarus. When the Sanhedrin convened at the end of John 11, the Jewish court was in a dilemma. It could accept the truth of Jesus’ kingship, potentially incurring the wrath of Rome and the subsequent loss of power, or it could cover up the truth by eliminating Jesus, thus pacifying the Romans and preserving their own place of power. The Jewish leaders chose power.

Ironically, this power did not last very long. The Romans came and took away their place and nation just a few years later. Power corrupts, and what is corrupt does not survive. Institutions that sacrifice conviction for prosperity ultimately lose both.

When the psalmist asked who would be among those who would enjoy the presence of God, the answer came back: one who “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4). The one who will dwell on God’s holy hill possesses an integrity that remains uncorrupted even when prosperity, status, or life itself may be the price. It’s the person who puts principle ahead of power,  who loves God more than anything else, who will, in the end, be with the One they love forever. And eternity with God is worth any price.

 

Children Need Parents Who Are Parents, Not Friends

As most of my friends know, I am a lifelong fan of the sophisticated and erudite sport known as professional wrestling. I love the combination of athleticism and performance that it offers, especially the style that was popular during my childhood. When I was a kid, wrestling was primarily a regional rather than national business. There were various “territories” around the country, each with its own championship and superstar. In my case, I lived in the part of Kentucky included in the Memphis territory, and the top dog in that promotion was Jerry “the King” Lawler.

The Memphis territory was in the opinion of many old-school fans the most exciting and entertaining of the regional promotions. As of right now, there are four separate podcasts that focus on the golden years in Memphis, a testimony to its popularity. One of those is a podcast called Dinner with the King, featuring “the King” himself! It is always a fun show.

Until this morning.

This morning, the podcast was about the tragic and untimely passing of Lawler’s son, Brian. On July 29, Brian died after apparently taking his own life in a prison cell in west Tennessee. He had been arrested for DUI for the third time, leading to mandatory jail time. The plan was for him to cool off in prison and then enter rehab, but instead, he was found unconscious, and eventually pronounced dead. On the podcast this morning Lawler indicated that there were several irregularities in the case, and a further investigation is being made. But none of this will change the fact that the King had to bury his own son.

There is a part of me that feels very guilty about my obsession with professional wrestling because of the tremendous toll the sport has taken on the superstars I’ve enjoyed so much through the years. Many of the wrestlers that entertained me as a child are crippled, broke, or dead. Between the physical rigors of the work in the ring and the lifestyle on the road outside of the ring, professional wrestlers (especially from my generation) paid a steep price for their line of work.

And frequently, this cost was passed on to their families. The world of professional wrestling is filled with broken marriages and troubled children. Some of you may have watched the excellent 30 for 30 on another childhood favorite of mine, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, in which he talked about the death of his son, Reid, from a drug overdose. In a poignant scene from the documentary, Flair said this:

“I say it every day: ‘God, I wish you were here. I had so much fun with you. And I regret the fact that I sometimes was your best friend instead of your dad.’ 

A best friend instead of a dad.

Lawler said much the same thing in his autobiography published several years ago. He acknowledged that he permitted life on the road to interfere with his commitment to his family, and admitted that he spent more time with Brian as a colleague than as a parent.

“It’s more like we’re a couple of boys in the business together rather than father and son.” (It’s Good to be the King…Sometimes, p. 96).

And now, both men – at the time in life when the relationship between a father and son should indeed blossom into a special sort of friendship – are instead grieving their sons.

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Parents, your children need you to be parents, not friends, so that someday you will reach that sweet spot in life where you can be best friends. But you cannot short-circuit this process. If you try to be a friend rather than a parent, your child will end up having neither.

In my lifetime I believe I have witnessed a profound shift in the way parents (at least in America) view their role as parents. I am old enough that I remember a time when if a child got in trouble at school, the child got in bigger trouble at home. Now, if a child gets reprimanded by a teacher (or a coach or a Scout leader or preacher), the reflexive impulse of parents is to defend their child and attack the disciplinarian. I recently met a retired high school teacher who told me she knew it was time to leave the English classroom because her administration told her she could no longer grade papers in red ink since it hurt the children’s feelings.

Seriously!

All of this is part of a much broader societal shift toward emotionalism and away from rationalism. How a person feels trumps the rational pursuit of objective truth. Applied to parental discipline, this mindset is toxic. And it is ultimately heartbreaking.

Children need limits. They need encouraging discipline. They need someone to teach them that how they feel is secondary to what is right. They need parents to do this, not friends. But when parents avoid or abandon this responsibility out of some ill-conceived desire to be their child’s best friend, they are causing harm to their child and robbing themselves of the unique blessing of friendship that mature children truly do offer.

Parents, don’t make excuses for your kids because you want to be a “buddy.” Don’t be afraid to discipline them because you fear you may lose them if you do. And don’t avoid the hard work of patient correction just because your child gets upset. Be a parent first, not a friend first. Too many grieving mothers and fathers have learned the truth of this ancient proverb the hard way.

Discipline your son, for there is hope;
    do not set your heart on putting him to death. (Proverbs 19:18)

God Is Our Origin and Destination

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)

Every worldview has to answer these questions:
-Where did we come from?
-Why are we here?
-Where are we going?

Christianity has a very simple answer to all three questions – GOD. Where did we come from? We came from God, “from whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Why are we here? We are here “for him” (Colossians 1:16), since he is the one “for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). And our ultimate destination, the final goal of our existence, is God, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

It is this last point that I think is especially worth serious reflection – at least, I need to think about it more. It is the truth I have most neglected in my own view of the world. The question of origins is so fundamental that I – like many Christians – have placed great emphasis on the role of God as Creator and on the serious weaknesses of a purely naturalistic view of the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness. And early in my preaching I encountered several authors who helped me see the crucial purpose for our lives as revealed in Scripture – to glorify God (as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:16).

But the answer to that third question – “where are we going” – is the one that I have failed to grasp for far too long. And yet, the Bible could not be clearer. Just as surely as God is the origin of our story, he is also the destination of our story. “To him are all things.” The end of the story for a child of God is God.

When the Bible speaks of heaven, it uses language like “many mansions” (John 14:2, KJV) and “streets of gold” (Revelation 21:21). And if our vision of eternity is not properly God-centered, then it is easy for these portraits to distract us, or even to mislead us, away from the true meaning of eternity. Heaven is not a celestial Disneyworld, where we can ride all the rides we want without waiting in line or have an endless supply of Mickey Mouse ice cream bars. For many years, if you had asked me if I would be satisfied to go to such a “heaven” even if God wasn’t there, I would have said, “YES!”

But what those biblical images are designed to convey is the much deeper truth that in heaven we will be reunited with God. The streets are said to be made of gold because heaven is the new and eternal temple of God – the dwelling place of God – and the most holy place of the temple in the Bible is always decorated with gold. This emphasis is found all throughout the glorious picture of heaven in Revelation 21-22. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (21:3). Indeed, in this vision, there is no separate temple because the entire heavenly city is itself one enormous Holy of Holies, and “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). When this reunion is realized, we “will see his face” (22:4).

The same God-centeredness is true with the “many mansions” of John 14. Jesus was not promising that everyone in heaven gets their own personal Biltmore House! The word translated “mansions” in the King James Version is better rendered “many rooms,” which is how modern translations express the point. And the point of the many rooms is that there will be plenty of room for all of Christ’s disciples to abide with him. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

In the Christian tradition, the final goal of dwelling with God and seeing his face is called the “beatific vision.” But I am sad to say my own grasp of such a vision has been seriously impaired through the years. And there really is no excuse, since Scripture and reason so clearly point to this truth.

Why do I say that even reason pushes us to this conclusion? Because it speaks to universal human realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Human beings have an innate desire for truth, fueled by the unique human capacity for reason. And we also have a yearning for goodness, and for its derivatives like justice and compassion. And we have a longing for beauty, that which is intrinsically deserving of adoration. And where can we find truth, goodness, and beauty? In the final and complete sense, only in the One who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

This to me explains the restless longing of those who do not seek God and therefore face frustration and disillusionment. In the words of Isaiah, they “labor for that which does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:2). Even worse, those who accept the atheistic dogma of materialism undermine the very concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty by reducing human consciousness and rationality to purely physical processes.

But I am primarily writing this for fellow Christians who, like myself, need reminding that the goal is God, that the one ambition that counts is “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). This longing will indeed be completely and eternally fulfilled by the one who made us.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

Or as a more recent psalmist put it –

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

(“Be Thou My Vision,” Eleonore Hull 1912)

“Search Me, O God…”

Just a little bit ago I posted this video to Facebook. It is a “public service announcement” for your physical health and your spiritual health.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The Great Physician

One of the things I enjoy about summertime is the opportunity to speak in churches that do special series during the summer. It gives me the chance to step outside of the regular schedule of classes and sermons I’m working on for my own church and study something a little different. Earlier this summer I spoke for the Temple Terrace congregation, which asked me to do a lesson on Jesus as the Great Physician. Here are my sermon notes (which don’t read quite as smoothly as a typical blog post).

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:14-17)

Jesus is the Great Physician because he can heal all physical sickness.

14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever.

Greek term (βάλλω) means to move from one location to another through a forceful motion, to throw, thrown on bed. “Knocked me out” “Wiped me out.”

“He saw” – Jesus noticed her. He took the initiative this time (unlike leper in 8:2, centurion in 8:5). Continue reading

Gospel Preaching Must Include Hope of Heaven

This quarter at my congregation we are studying the Book of Colossians. As many commentators point out, the opening section of the book (1:3-23) is framed by the use of the word gospel.

“since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:4-5).

“if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:23).

But as you look at these bookends more closely, there is a specific nuance of the gospel Paul has in mind. In 1:4-5, he says that the Colossians heard about “the hope laid up” in heaven when they heard the preaching of the gospel. And in 1:23, Paul says that what the Colossians heard was “the hope of the gospel.”

In other words, according to Paul, a fundamental aspect of gospel preaching is hope.

Yes, the preaching of the gospel looks to the past work of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). And yes, the gospel applies that work to the present circumstances of every sinner, who is to unite himself with Christ’s death and resurrection through faith and in baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-12). But gospel preaching as done by the apostles and their associates also included a future dimension, the hope of glory with God forever.

I must confess that this apostolic emphasis has been absent from much of my preaching. As I reflect on my sermons through the years, I’ve focused a lot on the work of Christ, and on the need for personal faith and the importance of baptism. But I have not preached very much about the hope for the resurrection from the dead, the new heavens and earth, and the divine glory that is ours to share as we are reunited with God.

Yet, when I look at the New Testament, I see this forward-looking, hope-filled message everywhere. For instance, according to Peter, it is part and parcel to being “born again.”

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

Here’s another example. When Paul commends the Thessalonians for the great reputation they have in Macedonia and Achaia, he says:

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

There is a “turning from”, but there is also a “waiting for,” that is supposed to happen when the gospel is received.

In the systematic study of theology, scholars work with distinct categories like Christology (the person and work of Christ), soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and eschatology (the doctrine of last things). But in the apostolic preaching, the work of Christ in his death and resurrection is seamlessly connected to the message of salvation and the future hope of glory. You can see this interplay at work in passages like Romans 6:5-11-

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

And in Philippians 3:8-11-

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

In light of all of these passages, it is a serious mistake to truncate the message of the gospel by diminishing (or completely ignoring) the future component of Christ’s saving work.

One last point. When Paul opens the letter to Colossae, he commends the Christians there for their faith in Christ and love for all the saints, which he says they possess “because of the hope laid up for” them (look at 1:4-5 again). Their faith and love were prompted by their hope. And if such faith and love are lacking in your life, may I suggest that the underlying cause is a lack of vibrant hope. And the way to get back on track is to “set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2).

Breaking Bread and Breaking Down Barriers

Last week, while traveling for a speaking engagement in Brentwood, Tennessee, I had a remarkable experience that I would like to share. My flight from Tampa was very early, so when I arrived in Nashville I was ready for breakfast. A short distance from the Nashville airport there is a fantastic place to eat called Monnell’s  at the Manor. It is one of several Monnell’s locations in town. Monnell’s offers classic southern cooking served family-style. That means that when you walk in, there are large tables that seat 12-16 people, and you may share your meal with several complete strangers. The food is brought out by the bowl and platter, and you just start passing everything around  (to the left!) until everyone is served. The staff keeps bringing the food out as long as you want to keep eating. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite places to eat!

By the time I got there, it was right at 9 am. Most of the morning breakfast customers had already finished and left, so I was taken to a table and seated by myself. But after a few minutes, a large group of black customers walked in and were seated at the table with me. Over the course of the meal, I learned that my breakfast companions were a father, wife, daughter, sister-in-law, and older family friend. They had come down from Clarksville to Nashville and knew where the food was good!

On paper, we did not have a lot in common at first glance. But when they began to eat, one of the ladies gave thanks. So at that point, I knew that we shared certain beliefs, and we could “speak the same language.” As we passed around the biscuits, peach preserves, fried chicken (a breakfast delicacy!), eggs, grits, country ham, and – well, I could keep going! – we began to learn more about each other.

Food is a great leveler. Although our backgrounds were very different in many ways, it was clear that we all grew up eating the same kind of cooking. What one culture may call “soul food,” I call “Granny’s cooking.” That’s why we were all at the same place, enjoying the same meal.

Fellowship around a table is significant in our culture, but in Jesus’ day, it was taken even more seriously. That’s why his deliberate choice to share meals with the outcasts of his society triggered such strong condemnation from the Pharisees:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

And when Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and his family, what really upset the traditionalists was that Peter “went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3).

As we talked, one of my breakfast companions asked if I was from Nashville. I explained that I used to live in Nashville, but that I currently lived in the Tampa area and was in town for work. They asked me what I did, and I explained that I was a preacher. This immediately led to a series of questions about the Bible, usually prefaced by, “Hey, Preacher…” We had a blast!

At one point, the older gentleman asked me why race relations seemed to be getting worse rather than better. It is a testimony to the comfort level we all felt at that table that he would ask me for my thoughts about that topic. I prefaced my response by acknowledging to him that he had experienced things in his life that I would never really fully understand. After all, a few years before I was born, he would not have been permitted to eat in a public restaurant in Nashville.

But he asked, and I answered. I explained my views (that had recently been part of a sermon I preached here at home) that Christianity brought together people from many racial, ethnic, and social strata,  and that as Christianity declines in our culture, people will default back to those superficial but powerful bonds of identity. I also suggested that some politicians in both parties have decided that it is to their advantage to keep people from these different demographics at odds with each other. and that many people have more in common than they think. I described what life was like for my grandparents, hillbillies from eastern Kentucky (and in case you don’t know, I use the term “hillbilly” with pride, not derision!) who lived at the edge of where the “white part” of town ended and the “black part” of town started. We joked that the color that matters most is green – money – and lots of people from my background and theirs didn’t have very much a generation ago.

As we were taking, it occurred to me that another ironic aspect of this conversation was that for many generations, black and white Christians did not worship together in the south. There were “black churches” and “white churches.” In some places, this is still the case. And while it is easy for me to criticize people who lived in a different time than my own, it is very difficult for me to understand how this kind of racial segregation is consistent with the gospel.

You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9-11)

Where would race relations in the country be – especially in the south – if people who had so much in common had chosen to defy the prejudices of the world and share time together around the Lord’s table, where “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17)?

As we were finishing up our meal together, we came to two conclusions. First, the gospel is the only real solution to the problem of race relations. Second, America would be a nicer place if everyone had to eat at Monnell’s!

On the way out, one of the ladies at the table grabbed my ticket and paid for my meal. She just said for me to pass it on to someone else. And then, as we walked out together, she grabbed the older gentleman and insisted that we get a picture together. Here it is:

Thank you, Moody family from Clarksville, Tennessee, for one of the best meals of my life.

 

A Modest Win for Freedom

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker in Colorado who declined to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The couple had filed charges with the Colorado state Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in the couple’s favor, leading to various appeals that brought the case to the United States Supreme Court. By a decisive 7-2 majority the Court ruled that the Colorado state Civil Rights Commission displayed “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs” of the proprietor of the bakery.

What was never at issue in this case (or the many others like it) was whether the baker should serve homosexual customers. He had done so many times before. What this businessman objected to was using his creative skill to decorate a cake for an event that defied his religious convictions, namely, a same-sex wedding. Yet despite this clear distinction, the press has generally framed this as a case of anti-gay bigotry, as in this New York Times headline-

I prefer this headline (equally as factual) from The Babylon Bee

This is satire.

Nevertheless,  I bet that right now many of you still can’t see the difference between anti-gay bigotry and freedom of conscience. So let me offer three illustrations.

Imagine that you are a Jewish baker. You have many customers who come to your shop to grab pastries and desserts, which you gladly sell them to make a living. Imagine that one of your regular customers comes in and asks you to decorate a large cake for an event. You ask for details, and she explains that there is a gathering of  Holocaust skeptics that she’s responsible for catering, and wants you to decorate a cake for it. You may or may not have known she was sympathetic to this outlook, and for that matter, she may not have known that you were Jewish.

Should the state be able to compel you to use your talents to provide a cake for this event?

Now, imagine that you are a Muslim baker, living and working in Las Vegas. Every morning a woman comes by the bakery to grab breakfast, which you gladly sell to make a living. Over the course of time, you learn she is a prostitute who works for one of the legal brothels in Vegas. But she’s a paying customer, and while you disagree with her lifestyle, you are not in any way complicit with her immoral behavior by selling her a cupcake. Imagine, though, that one morning she comes in and says that her brothel wants you to decorate a cake celebrating the tenth anniversary of the brothel, an event that is obviously at odds with your religious beliefs.

Should the state be able to compel you to use your talents to provide a cake for this event?

Finally, imagine you are a Christian baker, and among your regular customers are a couple of gentlemen who always come in together. You gladly serve them as paying customers and even develop a casual friendship with them. But then one day they come in to ask you to decorate a cake for their wedding. Because you hold to the orthodox Christian position on these matters, you must explain to them that while you appreciate their business and friendship, you cannot in good conscience use your artistic skill in connection with an event that is profoundly at odds with your religious beliefs.

Should the state be able to compel you to use your talents to provide a cake for this event?

Some of you absolutely believe so. I hope that the Court’s decision will make you rethink just how radical your position actually is. Because if the state can compel the bakers in the three examples I just laid out to do business or close shop, then the rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech are in grave peril.

I get that some of you don’t care about freedom of religion. You are thoroughly secular, and you believe Orthodox Judaism, mainstream Islam, and traditional Christianity are just artifacts left over from a primitive and ignorant past. So as far as you’re concerned, religious scruples are always silly and often bigoted, and the state should not countenance such convictions for a moment. America’s robust legacy of freedom of religion is nonsense to you.

But there is an underlying issue here that you should care about – freedom of speech. If you believe the government has the right to force the bakers in the three examples I gave to decorate the cakes for the events I proposed (or close shop), then what you are saying is that the government can compel its citizens to say things that are contrary to their beliefs. Compelled speech is not free speech.

And if the state has the power to coerce other people to say things they don’t believe, it has the power to compel you to say things you don’t believe. So the issue here is ultimately not just about religious liberty. It is about liberty – period.

And thankfully, yesterday the Court ruled in favor of freedom.