Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Like A Mighty Army

2Chronicles 20 gives the account of a time in the life of King Jehoshaphat when the nation of Judah was threatened by the forces of Moab and Ammon. This was a vast army, according to the report given to Jehoshaphat, and the threat first struck fear in the heart of the king, then drove him to action.

Whether we like it or not, we’re in a struggle ourselves, not against Moabites or Hittites or any other “ites,” but against spiritual forces of darkness in high places. There is much we can learn from how God’s people responded to this threat.

The first thing we note is PREPARATION. As soon as the king got word of the attack, he prepared by declaring a fast and inquiring of the Lord.

The Bible tells us that we also need to prepare. In Ephesians 6:10-18, Paul exhorts us to put on the whole armor of Christ: the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, and the shoes of the gospel. Then he reminds us that we are to take up the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Thus armed, we are ready to meet the foe. Paul reminds us, in 2Corinthians 10:4, that our weapons are not worldly but mighty. Our only weapons are the Word and prayer, but what else could we possibly need?

After the preparation the king called the people together for PRAYER. And his prayer is an earnest plea to God for guidance, wisdom, and strength. Note the honesty of the king as he pours out his heart. He prays, “we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you." When we come honestly and earnestly before the throne of grace, God hears and answers.

After the prayer came the PROCLAMATION. God spoke to the king and the people through the prophet. His words were, “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's.” He goes on to declare, “You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you."

Emboldened by this promise from God, the people began to PRAISE. Moreover, obeying God’s command, they went out to meet the foe with such confidence of victory that they put the choir in the front of the army, singing and shouting,

"Give thanks to the LORD,
for his love endures forever."

When they arrived at the battlefield, they found that the Moabites and the Ammonites had destroyed one another because of the Lord’s hand. God’s people were victorious because of their prayer and their praise.

At the sign of triumph Satan's host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell's foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided. All one body, we.
One in hope and doctrine, One in charity.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Bar of Righteousness

In 1984 Sergey Bubka set the world record in the pole vault. And almost every year for the next decade he set a new record. The record now stands at 6.14 meters, which is 20 feet and almost 2 inches – over twice the height of a basketball goal. I get a nosebleed just thinking about it.

Other athletes continue to take aim at Bubka's record but it still stands.

A record setting athlete might be tempted to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. I can think of several track stars who have held various records and often demonstrated a smug self-confidence due their feat. Jamaican sprinter and 100 meter world record holder Usain Bolt comes to mind. The lasting image is of him mugging at the camera and seemingly taunting his competition at the 2008 Olympics.

In Jesus’ day there was a self-righteous sect known as the Pharisees who had their own form of smugness. These religious zealots prided themselves on how well they kept the mosaic law, even going so far as to construct nearly 640 laws around the Ten Commandments in order to protect them. The Pharisees were proud of their accomplishments and were ostentatious in their devotion to the law. They liked to be noticed and lauded for their faithfulness.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus seemed to be speaking directly to the Pharisees as he reinterpreted the law.

“You have heard it said that you should not commit adultery. But I say, everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28) He also addresses mosaic laws on murder, divorce, and false witness. Then he says this, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

In my mind, what Jesus was saying is this: No one can enter the kingdom of heaven by keeping the law, because no one can keep the law. In other words, Jesus raised the bar above even Sergey Bubka’s ability to clear it.

I can hear the Pharisees murmuring to themselves, “Who can possibly enter heaven with the bar set that high?”

But then, the Bible tells us, Jesus himself did just that, as he lived a sinless life as God the Son in our midst. And in so doing, he fulfilled the law then offered himself in our place as the perfect sacrifice for our sin.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteousness, that he might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm. (1Peter 3:18)

And then, according to scripture, Jesus offered to us the victor’s laurel wreath. And, by our faith in him and the acceptance of his gift, we are pronounced forgiven and victorious, not based on our merit but based solely on our faith in the victory that Christ himself won.

Friday, September 17, 2010

One's Life Calling

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Frederick Buechner

Paul, the apostle, in his salutation to the churches in Galatia, states emphatically that he was called and sent by God to be an apostle. (The word apostle, by the way, means "sent," particularly on a mission.) There were many detractors who questioned Paul's authority and his calling, but it's evident that his mission and ministry made a huge difference for the kingdom of God.

If you google or do a Bing search for the words vocation and calling, you'll get sites galore, many of them posted by colleges, seminaries, and churches. Catholics seem to lead the way, especially with youtube videos about calling. Do a search and see for yourself. So it's a definite area of interest, especially to persons of faith.

I can remember the experience of being called to vocational ministry as a teenager. I can also remember trying to run away from the commitment I made, only to be led back gently by God upon my return from Vietnam. There was nothing dramatic about it, but God seemed to orchestrate circumstances to point me in that direction and to even provide funds via the GI Bill for me to complete college and seminary.

Now, before I go any further, let me state emphatically that there are many callings and many vocations in which God can use us. We aren't all called to be missionaries or ministers, but we are all called to make a difference for Christ's sake, even in vocations such as airline pilot, home builder, teacher, banker, or butcher.

The questions to ask are the ones that Buechner's quote above raises: Is this vocation personally satisfying and am I touching lives with the love of Jesus?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dancing with Grands.

Somewhere, in the course of aging and grandparenting, a regression toward childhood takes place in otherwise mature, relatively responsible adults. At least that's my experience.

This behavior manifest itself today while spending time with a couple of the grands. It started innocently enough with Mary Beth and me taking Emma to soccer practice, accompanied by Gabe, her two-year-old brother. Their other sister, Julia, was at a meet-the-teacher open house at her school, so Nana and Papa were called on to take care of the other two. Which was just fine with us.

We took our daughter's car since it already had Gabe's carseat and Emma's booster seat. As we buckled them in and took off, I noticed that a cd that I had made for them was playing. The cd, that I had titled "Ahab and Friends," is a collection of novelty songs by Ray Stevens, Roger Miller, Weird Al, the Coasters, Jim Stafford, and others. We listened to Ahab the Arab on the way to the park and I did my best Ray Stevens impression. Then, on the way home, Gabe asked for Eat It. I obliged. Then we sang along to the Great Mississippi Squirrel Revival.

When we arrived home I felt an urge to continue the party while we waited for the parents. I hooked up my laptop to the receiver and speakers and found some of my favorite dance-ables on iTunes. Gabe didn't get the steps to the Cupid Shuffle, but he didn't need to be taught to "shake it." Moving to music is natural for a preschooler. It's only as we age that we become stiff and self-conscious.

We next tried the Cha Cha Slide, which Emma knows. We took it back now, y'all.

At my age I'm still stiff (it's called arthritis), but I'm getting over my self-consciousness, thanks in large measure to the grands.

Their mom arrived all too soon to retrieve them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Being A 100% Christian

I grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist home, with parents who were very active at church. My dad led music and my mom taught and sang in the choir. I can’t remember ever not being in church as a child. As a friend of mine likes to say, the only drug problem I had was that I was always being “drug” to church.

Back in the 1950’s, the golden era of Christianity in the 20th century, we Baptists came up with a record keeping system that gave us extrinsic motivation for being “good Christians.” Each week we would dutifully bring an offering envelope to church, which also doubled as a record-keeping system. There were a number of items that we were encouraged to check off. The list included the following achievements:

1. Present
2. On time
3. Staying for church
4. Studied the lesson
5. Brought an offering
6. Invited someone else to church
7. Brought our Bible

If we were able to check off each item we were considered to be 100%; good little boys and girls with whom the Lord must really be pleased.

We became very pharisaical about our achievement, and those of us who were consistently 100% tended to look down our noses at those who weren’t. There’s no telling how many boys and girls became discouraged with church simply because they couldn’t check all the boxes.

I became very adept at working the system. Many is the Sunday that I would skim over the lesson on the way to church, bum a nickel from my mom to stick in my envelope, and roll down the window on the way to church to yell an invitation to church to anyone in earshot. Whatever it took to be 100%. Later this motivation to please God showed up in other areas, such as “Sword Drill” and the Sunday night youth program. I was an eager beaver, anxious to prove myself to God.

And in church this mindset of pleasing God was reinforced with songs like “Satisfied With Jesus” (But the question comes to me as I think of Calvary: Is my Master satisfied with me?). As I grew older and began to understand sin and my own nature, I was consumed with concern that God must be really displeased and dissatisfied with me.

Then, I read Galatians, and came to realize that through faith in Christ I was dead to all the rules that I thought Christianity was all about. I read verses that told me that Christ had set me free (Galatians 5:1), and that I was dead to the law and alive through faith in Christ, and only through faith in Christ. (Galatians 3:26-29)

Many people today, as in Paul’s day, believe that salvation is something to be earned and that in order to be accepted by God they need to be 100%, or at least get a passing grade. And others fall prey to cults and certain religious groups that teach some kind of legal regimen necessary for pleasing God. What bondage, and how unnecessary.

The truth is this: When a person comes to Christ he is immediately justified (made right with God) and receives freedom, liberty, sonship, the spirit of promise, and becomes a new creation. My right standing with God has absolutely nothing to do with my merit. I couldn't earn it if I tried.

Is Christianity Different?

Is Christianity different from other religions? Does it really matter what you believe? Do all roads lead to heaven? Are the claims of the Bible true? These questions are more relevant today than perhaps ever. Students and others are being challenged to understand what Islam really teaches and how the teachings of the Qur'an compare to what the Bible teaches.

According to theologian Dr. Timothy George, in the post-September 11 world there's been an outpouring of good will that is expressed toward the unity of all people and away from the kind of divisiveness that so often rears its ugly head. The problem, George points out, is that we're seeing an over-reaction -- a kind of easy-going ecumenism that would amalgamate different faith traditions into a single homogenized whole. (breakpoint.org) One evidence of this is the bumper sticker that reads “coexist,” the letters of which are made from symbols of many of the world’s religions.

We see this tendency to boil every belief down to some sort of common denominator throughout our culture. Popular television programs, especially shows like “Oprah,” would have us believe that all roads lead to the same place. Her guest list reads like a “Who’s Who” of New Age religion, with the likes of Deepak Chopra, whose teachings come out of Hinduism, and Gary Zukav, who espouses reincarnation.

So should we who follow Christ be theologically inclusive and open our arms to embrace every religious view? Should we consider every religion on earth as equally valid? Are we being narrow minded to claim that Jesus is the only way to God? Is it possible to be so open minded that our brains fall out? Are the claims of Christianity exclusive?

Let me borrow some thoughts from Paul Little, whose book, "Know Why You Believe" should be a must read for every Christian.

For the Christian it is impossible to be theologically inclusive. The cornerstone of the Christian message is Jesus Christ – God come to earth. Without this basis, every other part of the Christian faith lacks meaning. In fact, a multitude of verses in the New Testament assert this basic belief. (Know Why You Believe, pp 132-133)

So, what does the Bible teach about Jesus?

First of all, the Bible states that Jesus is God. Jesus Himself said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” (John 14:9) “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) We cannot settle for what many people want to consider Jesus today – simply a great teacher, a good man, or a prophet. No one who claims to be God and isn’t could be considered a good teacher. He would either be a liar or a lunatic. (hat tip to C.S. Lewis) Our only choice, since Jesus Himself claimed to be God, is to take Him at His word or disregard Him as crazy.

Secondly, the Bible teaches that Jesus is the means of salvation for the entire world. In John 3:16 Jesus states, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

In Acts Peter says emphatically that, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Again, Jesus declared, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

The Bible teaches that Jesus is God and became a man; that He lived a sinless life; that He died in our place, taking our sin on Himself; that He was buried; and that, three days later, He arose from death and even now lives as King of kings and Lord of lords. (see 1Corinthians 15:3-4)

This is a truth that cannot be watered down nor compromised, because it is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Ties That Bind

This past weekend, Labor Day, a friendship that began 40 years ago was rekindled. Eleven of us, who lived and served together in Germany during our stint as infantry officers and wives, gathered in Chicago for a reunion. We've been meeting fairly regularly since the early 70s. And we've hardly changed since then. Well, not the essence of who we are. Sure, we're all a little gray and I've developed something of a paunch, but none seem to mind.

This reunion was an occasion for me to give some thought to the factors that make for such an enduring friendship. Here are just a few thoughts.

First, for the 18 months we lived together we were a family. All of us were young, most were married, some had children. But all of us were thousands of miles away from our extended family back in the states. We naturally gravitated toward one another. From the time each of us arrived, we had a connection. For one thing, we each had a couple who "sponsored" us, showing us around, making us feel at home, helping us settle in. We very quickly began to hang out together: at the officer's club, at one another's apartment playing spades and bridge, in the back yard of our complex playing volleyball (jungle rules).

Not only did we hang out together as families, but every couple of months we officers spent 30 days in the field training with our entire battalion. We bonded as we served together at Grafenwoehr or Hohenfels. And while in the field we met regularly in the officers' mess hall in the evening to play cards and talk about the day's activity. In addition to the junior officers who served as mechanized infantry platoon leaders, and those of us in headquarters company who commanded recon and mortar platoons, there were other officers who joined in - company commanders and executive officers, and battalion officers such as our battalion commander and his executive. I credit much of this to our battalion commander, LTC Eugene Cocke. He was a leader in every sense of the word, and he worked at making sure that we lieutenants not only knew our stuff, but that we melded into a unit, which was essential for effectiveness in such an environment.

While we were in the field, our wives were getting together for various social activities. They became fast friends as well.

If there is such a thing as an idyllic military experience, I think ours came close. So, is it any wonder that we continue to get together in what we hope will increasingly become a regular, annual gathering.