Where was God?

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:1-4)

Last Sunday as New Life Church (newlifecma.com) was gathered for worship here in Clarkfield, Minnesota, an intruder infiltrated a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and gunned down 26 unsuspecting people, more than half the congrega­tion. Many of them were children. In the aftermath of horror, this has been a week of shock and mourning for Christians around the country.

On Tuesday morning someone from our church asked me the inevitable question, “Where was God?” Those three short words unleash a gusher of highly charged queries. How could God allow something like this to happen? Why didn’t he protect his people, especially the innocent children? Is it unjust for a good God to allow such suffering?

Ironically, the very moment the tragedy was unfolding 1,200 miles away in Texas, we were studying a similar horror in Acts 12:1-4 in which early Christians were persecuted and James the Apostle was beheaded by King Herod. The Bible reports this terrible event and several other such evils without commentary. There isn’t even a record about how the survivors mourned their devastating loss.

Both Scripture and experience teach us that we live in a broken world. From the time the curse entered God’s creation in Genesis 3 until the time the curse is lifted in Revelation 22, we live in a society frustrated by futility. Things go wrong—very wrong—and we simply don’t have very satisfying answers. The bereaved pastor in Sutherland Springs put it this way, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”

Moreover, we can’t fix the problem of evil. We can’t bring back the victims. We can’t recall the bullets. The fact that this mass shooting took place in a church rather than a gay nightclub means nothing. Followers of Jesus, even the most obedient of Christians, aren’t exempt from the pain and loss of our fallen planet. Some­times the good die young. Sometimes the wicked live into old age. Life under the sun isn’t fair, at least by our standards.

Actually, people ask “Where was God?” all the time. We asked it after the Twin Towers fell on 9-11. We asked it after an F5 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. Someone even made a documentary movie about that tornado with the title, “Where was God?” We’ve asked this hard question several times in recent weeks – after hurri­canes, wildfires, earthquakes and shootings. Where was God? Why didn’t he intervene? Does he care? Is he even there? For followers of Jesus, a church shooting may seem like the worst evil of all. But it’s really no worse than the other catastrophes. A nightclub shooting might even be the worst catastrophe, especially if we consider that many victims there weren’t prepared for eternity.

The friend who asked me “Where was God?” during the shooting also tested an answer with me. He said God was on his throne – and he is right. God still rules the world. Therein lies our hope. We can see God on his throne in the story about the rescue of Peter from prison, which is recorded immediately after the beheading of James. We can even laugh at the humor in it. (I’ll write about that in another post.) God doesn’t always deliver us from evil, but if we suffer in his sovereign will, he will deliver us through it.

The broken world is not out of control. Evil is not all-powerful or unrestrained, even though it may seem like to us. We are not victims of unbridled evil. If the events of last Sunday have you doubting God’s goodness or power, consider the rescue of Peter (Acts 12:5-19) or glance ahead to the following story in Acts 12:19-25. There we can see how God punished wicked King Herod after he killed James.

God is still on his throne. We can respond with joy and hope.

Advertisements

Reformation

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21)

Most of the time, date night is Friday or Saturday. It’s the day of the week many people anticipate most. (Except for pastors. We look ahead to another day of the week.) But this week, date night will be tomorrow. Put an X through Fri­day and mark your calen­dar instead for Tuesday, October 31, 2017. Then bake a cake and spread 500 candles on it.

Although tomorrow is October 31, date night this week is not about Halloween. It has nothing to do with Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, the original religious holiday which ushered in All Saints Day on November 1.

Five hundred years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther nailed (or mailed) 95 theses challenging the established church’s practices. Luther’s ideas really weren’t original, but earlier protestors had been snuffed out. The difference this time would be the invention of the printing press. Luther’s ideas quickly spread throughout Europe and were embraced eagerly by thousands of people.

Church historians mark October 31, 1517, as the birthday of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a really big deal. The church looks very different today because of Martin Luther. The whole world looks different today because of Martin Luther.

We could argue that the Protestant Reformation was not the first reformation in church history, although it was certainly the biggest. One might even argue that events recorded in the book of Acts actually constitute the first reformation of the church. That may be overstated, but there are some notable parallels in the early church, Martin Luther’s time, and our present world as well.

Here are four parallels to the early church in Acts 11:19-30, the Protestant Reformation, and today.

  1. A broken church – God had intended that the Gospel be made available to all people everywhere. But the first believers fell short of God’s design for the church and evangelized only other Jews when they traveled to other nations. Likewise, the Roman Catholic church was broken by corruption and compromise 500 years ago. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, many of those weaknesses were exposed for the world to see. Today the established church is broken again and often failing in the Great Commission.
  2. An obscure fix – Unnamed believers from Cyprus and Cyrene weren’t sidetracked by the same blindness of the believers from Jerusalem and shared the Gospel with non-Jews. Likewise, Martin Luther was an obscure monk when he rediscovered God’s imputed justification by faith alone.  Today God is raising up obscure people in obscure places to carry on his work.
  3. A wake-up call – Barnabas came to Antioch from the established church in Jerusalem and saw the evidence that God was at work. He applauded and encouraged the new Gentile believers. Likewise, Martin Luther’s ideas gained a foothold around Europe and eventually spread to the entire western world. Today God is waking up the established church with the success of new churches around the world.
  4. A new thing – The believers in Antioch were the first to be called “Christians.” Undoubtedly, their non-Jewish worship looked different from the Jewish church in Jerusalem. God raised up the church in Antioch as a new kind of church. Likewise, the Protestant Reformation created a new kind of church. As for today, I’m encouraged by the new thing God is doing through ministry entrepreneurs.

Reformation is not just a motto. It’s God at work in his church, 2,000 years ago, 500 years ago, and today. Reformation is still going on in the church. I want to be a part of it.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1-13)

Ministry entrepreneurs are my heroes. They take the torch of the gospel which has been given to them and run toward the darkness. They are Spirit-led, bold, and innovative. They are marked by a unique holy discontentment toward the status quo. They break new ground. They play offense rather than defense. They can see over the horizon and visualize the future. They are gifted with insight and wisdom. They are undeterred by small-minded critics and nay­sayers. Their ministry is often very difficult, but they never quit.

Almost to a man, they would admit in private (but perhaps not in public) that their biggest obstacles have come from the established church. They have been attacked, misunderstood, slandered, hated and rejected by those who are supposed to be the people of God. In my lifetime this has been true of entrepreneurs such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Colson and Andy Stanley. The religious establishment often tried to made their lives miserable, with little effect. God is bigger than the established church and God’s servants are bigger than their critics.

Five hundred years ago next Tuesday, a ministry entrepreneur by the name of Martin Luther was opposed by the established church, condemned and even sentenced to death. It’s an amazing story which hit a tipping point in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago next Tuesday. Luther published 95 theses challenging the church’s sale of indulgences, exposing scandal in the established church. But he himself became the scandal. Whistle-blowers, beware! You just might start a Reformation.

If we travel back another fifteen centuries to about A.D. 37, an early church leader named Peter experienced a breakthrough moment which separated him from the rest of the church. As a ministry entrepreneur, he had taken the gospel to a Roman centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea and had wel­comed him as a brother into the fellowship. But the established church didn’t like it at all. With bigotry and bias in their hearts, they accused Peter of error (Acts 11:1-13). Peter was following God’s Spirit, breaking new ground in church history in the process. But the established church couldn’t handle it. They were seething at Peter. They were firing at him before they could even aim their weapons with the facts of the case.

What happened next (Acts 11:4-18) is worth noting. When friendly fire isn’t so friendly, Peter’s example can be a guide to ministry entrepreneurs under attack from the church. It’s a case study for what to do when you’ve done the right thing and are criticized for it. Here are four bullet points to help you face the bullets.

  • Tell your story. Start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out.
  • Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Don’t spin anything to make you look good or make anyone else look bad. Reliable witnesses help.
  • Focus on what God has said (the Scriptures) and what God has done (the work of the Holy Spirit in those you’ve helped).
  • Make your defense about God, not your critics, or even your own success.

I love Peter’s closing argument: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)

In essence Peter was saying, “Hey guys, you’ll all angry at me, but this is really all about God, not me. All I did was get out of God’s way and ride the wave God created.” It’s the same argument Rick Warren made on the first page of The Purpose Driven Church. It’s the same argument Martin Luther made in 1521 when he was placed on trial before the established church and refused to recant.

May God send us another Martin Luther!

 

Hope after Las Vegas

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18-21

Last Sunday night a single gunman murdered almost 60 people, including himself, at a concert in Las Vegas. He wounded over 500 more victims. It was the largest mass killing in modern U.S. his­tory. Presi­dent Trump described the attack as “pure evil.” All eyes are on Las Vegas as authorities tend to the wounded and sociologists attempt to sort out what went wrong–yet again.

About 40 million people visit Las Vegas each year. Many travelers arrive hoping for big winnings in a casino. Others hope for sen­sual gratification in uninhibited indulgence. The hope for a jackpot is usually in vain. A hope for uninhibited gratification is almost always frustrated in the hidden recesses of the soul.

Las Vegas has long been known for stealing hope (along with many other things) from its guests. Unfortunately and unfairly, the city now also will be known as the unfortunate site of our nation’s most deadly massacre. Funerals of the victims are just beginning, but already fingers are pointing in blame. Cries from prominent voices about gun control and mental illness permeate the media.

In the aftermath of the shooting, show lights in Las Vegas remain undimmed. The slot machines continue to steal hope and the carnal spectacles steal virtue. But in the shadows, victims of the shooting and their families around the nation suffer the unspeakable agony of mass murder and carnage. It’s not fair, but their pain is unrelenting nonetheless. Both the world and its inhabitants are broken. In the ancient contest of nature versus nurture, neither can restrain evil. Nature destroys life with seeming randomness. Human killers are just as random and just as deadly.

A couple weeks ago, we concluded a month of natural disaster for coastal Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean islands. It was the worst of nature on display. How ironic that we give the hurricanes names like Harvey and Irma as if to humanize the destruction from nature. October already has become a month of human disaster in Nevada. What happened in Las Vegas was the worst of humanity on display. How ironic that we seek answers in nature for the brokenness of human behavior.

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote that “the creation was subjected to frustration.” In short, the world is frustrated. Both nature and people are fractured. Life goes off track without reason or explanation. We may apply political and scientific Band-Aids in desperate measures, but ultimately our fixes are futile. Hurricanes, earthquakes and torna­does continue to devastate our cities. Cancer and crippling diseases continue to lay waste to our bodies. Terrorists and criminals continue to infiltrate our societies. Accidents still claim unwil­ling and unprepared victims. When things go wrong, we have few satisfying fixes. We’re unable to restrain evil. Death still reigns.

Gun control may or may not be a prudent political discussion in this context. Mental illness may or may not be a helpful discussion in this situation. But evil will not be eradicated by politicians or social scientists.

Why? Why does all this evil occur? Many people who pose the “why” question answer it with talking points about gun control or mental illness. The Apostle Paul offers us a much deeper answer, although it can be summarized in one little word – sin.

The world is broken because sin entered back in the Garden of Eden and spread through the whole world, including my heart and yours. Sin destroys everything it touches. Since sin has saturated our entire world, our entire world is broken. If the story ended there, we would have no hope.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Apostle Paul also wrote that “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” That gives us hope.

In the end, there is hope for Las Vegas–and Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico. Our hope is not in gun control, but in redemption. Our hope is not in in better police security, but in better human freedom, the liberty Christ will bring when he returns to reign in glory. Then, and only then, pure evil will be defeated in both nature and nurture.

If Las Vegas has you reeling, pick up a Bible and read through Romans chapter 8. There you can find hope while living in a sin-sick world.

When will it all end?

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. 1 Peter 4:17-19

The east coast is breathing a collective sigh of relief as Hurricane Maria has followed the projected course out to sea. It’s just grazing the North Carolina coast today. This is a moment for emergency planners and weather watchers to pause and reflect on the national trauma of the past month.

First there was Hurricane Harvey which devastated the Texas coast. Then Irma marched through the Caribbean islands and Florida. Now it’s Maria, which destroyed Dominica and Puerto Rico last week. Lost in the news, Mexico was hit by two major earthquakes with hund­reds dead. In the past month we have witnessed genuine suffering by real people. It’s not a video game. The suffering is real. When will it all end?

The pictures tell an unbelievable story. Those on the scene in the Caribbean have described the hurricanes’ impact as comparable to a nuclear bomb. Puerto Rico is still in major distress as airports have been slow to reopen and necessities are barely trickling in. People are dying.

Some religious commentators have attributed the hurricanes to God’s judgment for national sins. When they say that, they often name two or three behaviors which they believe have provoked God’s wrath. It’s interesting that those who say such things never name sins in which they are personally indulging. For some reason we seem to believe God’s wrath is drawn to other people’s sin, but not our own. Others get God’s judgment, but we receive God’s grace. How is that good news?

In contrast, the Apostle Peter wrote that God’s judgment will begin with the church rather than the world. I don’t think God is hurling hurricanes at us in judgment of national sins. But he does want everyone to recognize the gravity of our situation. We are broken people with broken hearts who live in a broken world. We need a Savior who will deliver us, not only from hurricanes and earthquakes, but also from ourselves and our sin.

God wants us to cast ourselves upon his mercy and grace. We won’t do that until we face our brokenness. Somehow hurricanes and earthquakes help us see our true spiritual condition. I believe God wants to redeem our nation, not judge us. When will it all begin?

Uncle Bob

My Uncle Bob died yesterday in Ohio at the age of 88. I had four uncles but he was the only one I knew well. He was the last uncle standing, so I’m now uncle-less. It’s a genuine loss.

Everyone should have an Uncle Bob. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man of clear and genuine faith in Jesus. I never heard him say a cross or unkind word about anyone, even with easy targets like celebrities, politicians, and TV preachers. I never saw him get angry, even when I put a baseball through a front-door window at his house.

I was shagging fly balls that day in Uncle Bob’s (small) front yard. I had guessed I could aim closer to the house without reaching it. I’m not a power hitter, so it seemed safe. Not quite. After the crash, my mother was the first person out the door. She saw all us kids, but I was the one with the red face holding the bat. It was probably the only home run I ever hit in my life. I think she was swinging before she got to me. Spank first. Ask questions later. I never saw what happened to the rest of the kids.

No matter. I deserved the spanking. It probably helped me that my grandfather installed windows for a living. He ended up with an extra service call that day. But Uncle Bob never said a word to me about it. He just didn’t get angry. I was around him enough to know what he was really like. People often say nice things about the deceased at funerals. But in this case, it’s really true.

Uncle Bob encouraged me in my preaching, even when I was a youth, and was always interested in my ministry. Last month Carol and I stopped in to see my aunt and uncle at the end of our Ohio trip. Uncle Bob slipped $100 in my pocket. He had cancer and knew it didn’t look good, although a month ago they were still treating it aggressively and hoping for recovery.

We agreed it could be the last time we might see one another on this earth and rejoiced in the promise of eternal life in Jesus. I reminded Uncle Bob that we already knew how this would end. We just didn’t know when. He would eventually die even if God extended his life now. He agreed and said he had only one wish. He hoped when his time came, he would go quickly.

God answered that prayer. Uncle Bob declined quickly and was in hospice only five days before passing away yesterday morning at home with his wife and son beside him. He left behind a widow of strong faith who will follow him to heaven some day, three children of faith who will follow him some day, and six grandchildren–all of strong faith–who also will follow him some day.

Don’t you wish you had an Uncle Bob like that?

Mom’s Rebuttal

A few weeks ago I posted an entry about my mother’s career as a church secretary. Recently I visited her and my father in New Concord, Ohio, where they still live in the family home they built in 1964. Mom mentioned that she had read my post and brought to my attention a few inaccuracies. For instance, she served as the church secretary for only 24 years, not 25 years.

Did I mention that mom was a stickler for details?

More substantive was a clarification that mom ran the church office, not the church. That’s quite a significant difference. It’s what I really meant, but the wording in my post is misleading. I stand corrected. Mom never ran the church, never tried to run the church, and never got in the way of those who ran the church. She did indeed run the church office with a strong, methodical and predictable hand, always aware that she served under the authority of the pastor. She worked hard to please each one. She viewed her work as service to God.

I had speculated – inaccurately to her knowledge – that mom may have nearly gotten herself fired because of her competence. On the contrary, mom reports that she got along very well with every pastor she served, which was a long string of them.

The final pastor desired more control of the office than the previous men. Mom sensed that she didn’t please him and decided it was time for her to retire, believing the pastor desired a younger assistant in the office. I don’t know if changes in technology played a role in any of that, but it was the era in which office computers were beginning to replace typewriters as primary office equipment. Is there a mimeograph machine still in use anywhere? Mom could cut stencils which produced printer-quality results. But those days are gone now.

Mom might rebut my speculation by saying she has done very well with changes in technology, thank you very much! She uses a computer every day, even in her mid-eighties. After she tells you that, she might mention she learned to type on a manual Royal typewriter (as did I). I remember she was both fast and accurate with a keyboard. She could spit out a page rapidly with few or no mistakes. If she did make a mistake, she was as likely to start over as to try to clean it up. But she did have liquid paper on hand or correction fluid for stencils, something I haven’t used in decades.

After mom recited her list of corrections to my post, I told her she had just proved my point. She didn’t let mistakes slide as a secretary. She was alert for errors and fixed them wherever possible.

This morning Thom Rainer posted an blog entitled “Seven Traits of an Excellent Ministry Assistant.” He began by saying, “The days of the church secretary are waning.” That’s probably true even in rural areas. Then he listed seven qualities which I think are found in my mother. Both then and now. Here’s a link for the seven traits:

http://thomrainer.com/2017/08/seven-traits-excellent-ministry-assistant/

Mom has been retired now longer than she served as the church secretary. But her mark is still on that congregation. She set a standard of office excellence they still remember today. As an office secretary, mom did things right, which is commendable. It’s even better to do the right things. I think mom did that, too. She always put people first when she was a secretary. She still does.