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.

Advertisements

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.

 

OPM, Mom, Storm Clouds

OPM

Last month I walked downtown to pay a bill for renovations we had done at the house. I was a bit tense, partly because I didn’t know the amount due. The shopkeeper surprised me by forgiving the entire debt. It was an extraordinarily gracious gift, which I related in a previous post.

A few days ago I walked downtown again to pay another bill. This time I wasn’t the least bit tense, even though I didn’t know the amount. I walked easily into the store, pulled out the checkbook, and wrote a check. I didn’t feel the slightest hesitation or tension. There was zero pain.

What was the difference? No, it wasn’t that I had suddenly grown much more mature since last month. It’s more basic than that. This time I was carrying a different checkbook. I was paying a bill for the local clergy association. It wasn’t my money. I was merely a steward of their account.

There’s no pain when you spend other people’s money. Some financial advisors advise people to use other people’s money (OPM) when investing. I don’t recommend that, but it’s definitely less stressful to spend other people’s money. That’s why it’s important to remember God owns everything. We are merely stewards of his property. I remember Ron Blue teaching me that decades ago. It’s the first principle of biblical money management: “1. God Owns It all.” (Master Your Money, p. 20).

Everything we own really belongs to God. We are merely managers. If I adopt that attitude, there will be no pain in paying bills, or watching the stock market dive, or enduring a drought in the fields.

Every time I pay a bill, I’m using OPM. God owns my checkbook. The tension I feel when I pay bills reveals that I haven’t yet mastered stewardship.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. Matthew 25:14

 

MOM

Last night I was reconnecting online with an old high school friend, a PK (pastor’s kid) from another church. As we reminisced about our childhood, he asked if his memory was correct that my mother had been a church secretary. This was my answer:

Yes, my mother was the church secretary for 25 years. She was the classic “take charge” attack secretary. Actually, I think she ran the church more than the pastor in some cases. I know she clashed with some of the pastors. And she probably nearly got fired a few times for it, I’d wager, though I don’t know any details. She never spoke poorly of anyone. She was very good at what she did in the office. She was proud that her mimeographed bulletins looked like they had been printed. Sometimes we folded them at home on Friday night. She was very fussy that we folded them precisely and didn’t have greasy hands from popcorn. The president of Muskingum College once tried to recruit her for his office, but she wouldn’t change jobs because she still had kids at home. The church let her set her own schedule – and sometimes we would go to the church with her and play. I often played the organ while she worked. I know she counseled some people who had come in to see the pastor. She taught me things that have stuck, such as never misspelling people’s names and proofreading my writing until it’s right. It was much harder to make corrections in the old days, but she did it every time. She thought dictionaries were to be used. I still look things up if I’m unsure. She made me take typing in summer school after eighth grade. She said typing would be useful in high school. She was right, of course. She typed my master’s thesis – all 90 pages of it – in 1984, just before personal computers would have made it much easier. If she made a single mistake on a page, she started over. No white-out. She was the same at home. There were lists everywhere – cleaning lists, shopping lists, vacation plan lists, kids’ jobs lists. But it seemed like the house was always a mess. Go figure.

My friend said it would honor my mother to post this on my blog. Here it is, Mom. I love you!

My son, keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 6:20

 

STORM CLOUDS

The Clarkfield area is enduring a serious drought this summer. Recently there have been some good rains all around us. But most of the moisture has missed us. It the drought continues, the harvest will be seriously reduced, which would impact the entire town. To make it even more difficult, a couple times the sky grew very dark and threatening with the promise of rain, but it didn’t produce. Lord, please send rain!

Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of gifts never given. Proverbs 25:14

 

Undeserved mercy, unexpected grace

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:9-12

Yesterday I experienced one of the greatest kindnesses I have ever seen. It was a gift of mercy multiplied by grace.

Recently Carol and I had some new flooring installed in our home, a hard floor in the little breakfast nook and carpet in the den and stairway. Yesterday I walked down to the furniture store to pay the bill. Privately I was a little anxious because we’d already spent my annual housing allowance on other repairs and renovations. To be flat-out honest, I was suffering a bit of a private pity party. I know, I know. I shouldn’t engage in that kind of self-indulgent sulking. God has been so good to us. He is always faithful and worthy of our continuous trust. I ought not worry about such little things as paying bills. But I worry far too often, even when the Lord has provided the means to pay.

Most of my private pity parties are celebrated when I play the comparison game. When I compare myself to other people in general or other pastors in particular, it invariably drains my spiritual vitality. Pity parties invariably expose myopic vision. Whether I look good or look bad in the comparison, my eyes stray from Christ and turn inward to self. I carry a burden that isn’t mine to bear. Temporal responsibilities outweigh spiritual reality. That was my spiritual condition yesterday as I pulled out my checkbook. It wasn’t a picture of personal piety.

The clerk laid the bill facing her on the counter between us. I took a pen in my hand and waited for an amount to write on the check. Without any drama or fanfare, without raising her voice or changing her business-like tone, she announced that the bill had been paid in full.

“What?… Who?…” I stammered.

She wouldn’t tell me anything. No names. No places. No explanation. Just that the bill had been paid.

I was shocked. It was an undeserved mercy. I ought to have paid the amount due. Instead the debt I owed was removed. Someone else paid the full price.

But the clerk wasn’t finished. There was more. She wanted me to measure our kitchen floor. Whoever paid my debt also was going to provide a new kitchen floor at no charge. There were no conditions, no “ifs.” There was not a single “but.” It was a gift with no strings attached. I came to the clerk thinking she wanted something from me. Instead she had something for me.

I was speechless. Paying the bill I owed was an undeserved mercy, but adding a kitchen floor was an outrageous and unexpected grace. The prophet Isaiah would label this person a “Repairer of Broken Walls” and a “Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).

Mercy is withholding punishment due. That’s the first mile. Exhibit #1 is Jesus’ atonement on the cross. He paid the debt we owe. He took the punishment for our sin so it didn’t fall on us. Grace is unmerited favor. It goes further than mercy. That’s the second mile. There are not conditions. There are no “ifs.” Not a single “but.” Exhibit #1 is God’s manifold blessings to us in Christ – election, justification, adoption, sealing, calling – to name a few. All provided with no strings attached. We approach God thinking he wants something from us. Instead he has something for us.

In Jesus I’ve experienced both mercy and grace. Exhibit #1 is a hallmark of my life.

This week I was privileged to experience Exhibit #2 of mercy and grace. Mercy paid the bill I incurred. Grace piled on blessings I neither sought nor expected. We were replacing a floor in my house, but God made someone a Restorer of Broken Walls in my heart. We were updating a little house on a highway, but God made an anonymous benefactor a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Don’t feel left out. You can approach a heavenly Father and find undeserved mercy and unexpected grace. That’s what Jesus has for us. No strings attached. Some­times Jesus’ people do it, too. It can make a big difference. I know because it happened to me this week. Now that I have received the blessing of undeserved mercy and unexpected grace, I get to pass it on to others. So can you.

Swatting mosquitoes

One of the highlights of my week is a Saturday morning men’s discipleship group. In the previous post, I wrote about how we sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. Sometimes that process exposes hidden weaknesses to which we’ve been blind. There was such a moment about three weeks ago. Some people might call it an epiphany. For me it was an “aha” moment. It was unexpected.

Early in our conversation, one of the men raised a question about God’s covenant to Israel and how it relates to the church. I opened my Bible and waited to respond. Without pausing, the guy raised another question about end time events. I stuck a finger in my Bible to hold the place and turned to another passage. Then we were off on another question. I put a another finger in the Bible. I was looking for a unifying thread to tie the discussion together.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. These questions weren’t going anywhere. There was no direction. We were just swatting mosquitoes.

Do you have mosquitoes where you live? We have tons of the little buggers in Clarkfield. (Whoops! Sorry about that if you’re thinking of moving here.) When mosquitoes bite, we itch like crazy. We’ll all felt those ugly red welts on our skin. They’re almost always inconsequential. Bu they grab our full attention. When mosquitoes bite, we stop whatever we’re doing a scratch ourselves.

Because we know what’s coming, we often start swatting mosquitoes before they bite. Do you remember when bug lights were popular? I recall the “crack” and “zap” as bugs strayed too close to the purple light. Bugs were everywhere. But no matter how many mosquitoes we zap or swat, one thing is certain: we’ll never get them all. One dead bug is immediately replaced by ten lives ones. Sometimes the mosquitoes we swat have blood in them. Our blood. We can feel the itch. So we swat harder. But it’s no use. They keep coming back. I think hell will be full of mosquitoes.

One of my friends in Clarkfield has told me about his ancestors pioneering into this territory in the late 1800s. The wagon train arrived in Yellow Medicine County on their way west to the Dakotas. According to the story, mosquitoes were so thick here that the travelers couldn’t continue. So they stayed. And built homes. And planted crops. And dug fence posts. And raised cattle. Somewhere along the way, they figured out how to drain the local swamps to create more farmland and reduce the mosquito population.

How did the early pioneers do all that work with the swarms of mosquitoes? Maybe their work was most productive in January. Never mind that snow covered the ground and temperatures dipped to 30 degrees below zero! Productive people don’t waste much time swatting mosquitoes. If they did, the necessary work would never get done.

That morning in the men’s discipleship group, I realized we had been scratching our itches and weren’t really getting anything done. The tasks we had laid out for ourselves were forgotten while we chased pesky mosquitoes. For example, the board had appointed the Saturday morning group to audit the church’s financial records. We agreed to do it. Every Saturday for two months I brought in a stack of paperwork and set it on the table. Every Saturday for two months the papers sat neglected while we swatted mosquitoes.

Four months ago we decided to watch a video addressed to evangelizing young adults who have left the faith of their youth and no longer believe in God. A few minutes into the presentation, we ran out of time for that day and never got back to it. Six months ago we agreed to preview a discipleship curriculum on emotionally spiritual health. Not only is it unfinished, we haven’t even begun.

See the pattern? Get the picture? Instead of moving from Point A to Point B, we’ve basically gone around in circles. We have swatted mosquitoes and left the heavy tasks undone.Life change is hard work. Just talking about it won’t cut it. We have to do it, despite the mosquitoes.

I’m not saying the group has been a waste of time. Not at all! The men have done an incredible amount of work around the building. Many times the guys have stayed til noon cleaning, mowing, trimming, shoveling and repairing. On occasions we’ve moved off campus and carried out service projects in the community. Bravo! It’s been great service and great fun.

But if we’re going to knock off the status quo and impact the trajectory of the church, it’s going to take intentional, focused leadership. So we changed our format on Saturday morning. Instead of swatting mosquitoes, we agreed to begin working on the tasks we said we were going to do. As a result, the financial audit is now complete. This week we’re doing a church health study. Next week we’ll get back to the evangelism training video. Soon we will begin to preview the emotionally healthy spirituality curriculum. If you’re in the area, we’d love for you to join us. You don’t have to be part of our church or any church. We meet 7:00 a.m. Saturdays at New Life Church in Clarkfield, Minnesota.

Look out, mosquitoes! We’re draining the swamp.